The Birthday

(by, 06 February 1998)

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Subject:      The Birthday 
Date:         1996/12/08
Message-Id:   <>
Newsgroups:   alt.smokers.glamour

   Belinda and Elisa ran into Rigoran's, shaking snow out of their hair  and
laughing. It had been crazy to even come out on a night like this one, but
they'd been planning for this dinner for over a week now and a little snow
wasn't going to stop them. Judging by the cars in the parking lot and the
noise in the restaurant, no one else had, either.
   The hostess smiled as they walked up to her. "Lousy night, huh ?" she asked.
   Belinda nodded. "Table for two, please."
   "Smoking or non ?"
   "Non-" Belinda said automatically, and just as quickly Elisa said "Smoking."
   The hostess laughed, as though this happened all the time. "There's one
table open in the non-smoking area. If you want smoking, it will be about a
twenty minute wait."
   Before Belinda make another mistake, Elisa said "We'll wait in the bar."
   Elisa couldn't imagine what her younger sister had been thinking. On this of
all nights- They took a pair of stools and Elisa immediately lit a cigarette.
Belinda watched with scant amusement as a look of peace came over her older
sister's face. She inhaled deeply and blew a long cloud of smoke into the air
above her head as the bartender strolled over to them. 
   "What can I get you ?" he asked, giving them his best tip smile.
   "I'll have a Sam Adams," Elisa said.
   "ID ?" he asked, making the request sound almost pleasant.
   Elisa extracted their oldest sister's license from her wallet without
putting down the cigarette and took another long drag as he eyed the plastic.
"It's a good picture, Deanna."
   "And you ?" he asked Belinda. 
   "Just a Diet Coke, please."
   He poured the drinks slowly, taking his time, trying to make eye contact
with Elisa, who wasn't really interested.
   As soon as he went away, Elisa laughed. "Don't look so nervous, Belinda."
She lowered her voice. "I am twenty, after all, and we all look alike." It
was true. The only way to tell the three of them apart from a distance was to
know that Belinda was the one who without a cigarette in her hand.
   "I'm not nervous," Belinda snapped, feeling edgy.
   Elisa paused to take another drag on her cigarette, inhaling deeply. She
held it for a long pause while seeming to admire the long white brand burning
at the tip between her fingers and then exhaled more smoke, looking so
thoroughly pleased that Belinda began to feel a twinge of excitement and
wondered what she'd been doing back there with the hostest.
   It was on both of their minds.
   "Not nervous ? I don't believe that tonight, of all nights, you were going
to stick us in the paranoid section."
   That was Elisa's word for people- well, people like Belinda. Her older
sister was convinced that inside every non-smoker was a smoker just looking
to break through the fear and the self-consciousness. That was part of the
reason why they were here tonight.
   "I mean, it's your sixteenth birthday, Belinda. You know what that means-"
   Belinda knew, and she'd been putting it off in her mind until now because
she just wasn't sure.
   "-I can smoke now. But I'm just not sure that I want to, Elisa. That's why
I- I don't know, panicked."
   When Elisa laughed, Belinda usually worried, and this was no exception.
   "What's so funny, Elisa ?"
   Elisa put down her glass and took another long drag on her shrinking
cigarette. She did it slowly and deliberately and there was no hunger in the
gesture, just satisfaction. She took the cigarette from between her lips and
paused before drawing her breath in sharply through her nose, hesitated
again, and then let go a long, thin trail of smoke from between her tightly
pursed lips.
   There was no question that the bartender was watching her smoke and enjoying
the show. Elisa completed three double inhales without answering her sister's
question and Belinda understood that she was probably teasing the man- more
than a little bit- intentionally. 
   "I'm laughing," she finally said, "because the day Deanna and Mom brought me
here for this, I thought the same thing. You were away at summer camp. I was
so nervous-"
   Belinda drained her Diet Coke and it was almost comical how quickly the
bartender was there to pour the refill.
   "Why ? You'd been smoking for almost a year, hadn't you ?"
   "Well, sort of. I'd been bumming the occasional cigarette from Jill or
Gretchen or even Deanna, but you'll find out that holding one or two
cigarettes a day and taking three or four puffs on them isn't really smoking.
I thought I was but-"
   "I haven't even been doing that." 
   "You must have had a few. I know your friend Helen smokes. She seems like
she's always got one in her hand these days."
   "Helen only has so many to offer.... and I usually say no."
   Elisa put her empty beer glass down. It sat on the hardwood of the bar for
almost two whole seconds before being snatched up.
   "Why ?"
   "I don't know. I'm just not sure that I want to start smoking- not just
because I can, as if turning 16 is some magical point in my life."
   "The few times that you tried it, didn't you enjoy it ?"
   Of course, Belinda watched Elisa smoke all the time and she knew that it
would never occur to her that anyone wouldn't enjoy smoking. 
   The truth was she'd neither enjoyed it or disliked it. What it came down to
was not knowing what she was really doing- and being afraid to ask. Helen had
been smoking for almost two years now, and she reminded Belinda of Elisa when
she smoked. So calm, so smooth. There was an almost eternal smile on her face
while she was smoking.
   Simple embarrassment had stopped Belinda for asking her for help.
   Well, embarrassment and indifference. She just wasn't sure she wanted to
take it up.
   Elisa's cigarette was gone now. She picked up the smooth white box and
extracted another Marlboro Lights 100. But before she lit this one she
reached into her purse. As she did, Belinda felt her pulse jump. Elisa had
crammed two packs of cigarettes into her tiny purse. She took the second one
out now and even before she'd handed it over Belinda knew it was her. Her
very first pack of cigarettes.
   Automatic reflex made her reach out and accept the gift. The cellophane was
cool to the touch. If she took that cellophane off, the pack would really be
   "Mom's sorry she couldn't be here tonight, Bell-" Elisa said, reverting to
her nickname. "That isn't what's creeping you out, is it ?"
   As Belinda shook her head no she realised that Elisa hadn't lit her
cigarette  yet. She was waiting for her little sister.
   Subtle, that extra bit of pressure. Elisa sat there, obviously ready to
smoke, waiting, getting more anxious with anticipation by the second as she
watched her sister fiddle with the tear strip on the cellophane, unsure of
herself. The pause became so long that it seemed as though she simply was
never going to do it, and then with one smooth motion it was over.
   Belinda felt the lines of the box under her fingers. It was very taunt,
still full, the cardboard edges sharp. She cracked open the flip-top on the
box and opened the foil, carefully folding it back until the cigarettes were
exposed. Then she paused, looking over both shoulders, with vague
embarrassment on her face. She could feel Elisa staring at her, almost hear
her mentally urging her on.
   Finally, she had the cigarette out, put the very end of the tip between her
lips. Elisa was there with a light immediately.
   Belinda's occasional smoking had gotten her used to the taste, so the
mouthful of smoke she inhaled was not surprising.
   For the first half-second or so.
   As she held the smoke in her mouth, she realised that this tasted different
somehow. It was sweeter, more satisfying. Fresher. Less harsh. She blew the
smoke out without inhaling and watched her sister light her own cigarette.
Her heart was pounding like a trip hammer, but it was no longer with
nervousness. It was with anticipation.
   "I'll bet you've never had the first cigarette from a pack before, have you
   Belinda shook her head. A pack usually lasted Helen three or four days and
she seemed more willing to share her cigarettes as they got older. Her mom
would only give her two or three packs a week, and she was pretty stubborn
about it. She was quite sure she'd never had the first one out of a pack.
   "They do get a little stale. After about two days, well, you might as well
be smoking a red."
   It took Belinda a second to process what her sister meant by red, and then
it clicked.
   She had promised herself when they'd left the house that even if she did
take the cigarettes from Elisa, even if she did start smoking tonight, she
wasn't going to ask for help from her older sister. Instead she watched as
she took a long drag on the cigarette, and she saw something important in the
way she was doing it.
   She wasn't sucking on the cigarette, but she wasn't just breathing in
either. It was something in between.
   Elisa continued inhaling, getting a good lungful of smoke. She held it, held
for so long that her eyes slowly closed briefly, and then she let it all go,
pursing her lips so that the smoke followed a long, narrow trail towards the
mirror at the back of the bar. Although the bartender was mixing something in
a silver blender, Belinda noticed that he was once again watching Elisa out
of the corner of his eye.
   Belinda's nervousness had reached a climax. She'd come into the restaurant
tonight knowing that there was just one reason they were here- because this
was the day she was allowed to start smoking. Officially. With Mom's tacit
blessing, even if Mom was out of town on business. Not knowing if she was
going to decide to start. Not knowing how sweet that first mouthful of smoke
was going to taste.
   She had puffed on a few of Helen's Parliaments, breathed in the smoke
curling up off the white cigarettes, but she'd never really inhaled before.
This was the moment. If she did it wrong, the smoke just might go into her
stomach and make her sick- something she'd actually seen happen.
    It was at the fall semi-formal. There were seven or eight other girls who
snuck out of the gym along with Helen and Belinda to light up. There was one
girl- Tayna- who Belinda had never seen smoke before. She was a year younger
than the rest of them and Helen had been kind of hesitant about giving her
one, but she'd been so insistent.
   What happened was almost  funny. Tanya bummed a light from a girl named
Amber and immediately took what looked like the biggest inhale in the history
of smoking. It was hard to tell under the arc-sodium light of the parking
lot, but it certainly looked as though she went green. She tried to open her
mouth to let the smoke back out, but it was trapped in her stomach. Tanya
stopped short of actually offering her dinner up for review, but they all
knew how close it had been.
   Belinda was determined not to do that. The only question was whether or not
she was determined to start smoking. She knew that real smokers inhaled,
which was exactly why she didn't consider herself one.
   It was a voice which said yet, a voice inside her own head. Metaphorical,
Belinda knew, but no less real. Was it Mom, or one of her sisters ? No. Was
it Helen ? Helen had been gently pushing her down that road for a while now,
but no, that wasn't it either. No, it was something inside of her. It was
partly wanting to know the feeling which put that smile on her sister's face.
It was partly the way the unnamed bartender watched her sister smoke. It was
all that and something else that she couldn't describe.
   She put the white filter of her cigarette to her lips and pursed them around
it, still holding it between her first and second finger.
   Time itself seemed to crawl to an halt. She saw herself in the mirror. She'd
always been pretty- a pouty but attractive face, startling green eyes and
long, naturally wavy strawberry-blonde hair. Like her sisters, with just
enough variance in the face to make it unique. There was the long white
cigarette in her right hand, smoke curling from it slowly. She slid her eyes
over slightly and now she could see both herself and Elisa, two smokers
sitting together and being watched by the appreciative bartender.
   Belinda brought her attention back to herself. Watched herself bring the
cigarette to her lips, watched them accept the tip. She inhaled exactly the
way she thought Elisa did it and felt the smoke travel. Judging from the
wonderful sensation which gripped her, she knew she must have done it
right. That same smile she was so used to seeing on Elisa's face crept over
hers and she didn't realise it until she turned her attention back to the
   She exhaled, watching the smoke pass from between her parted lips and
decided that she very much liked that look.
   Elisa looked at her and just nodded. She knew.....

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