A Fine Way to Start

(by an4@anon.lelnet.com, 17 May 1997)


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an4@anon.lelnet.com

A Fine Way to Start

    The first thing Ann did when they got in the car was to roll down the window
and light a Virginia Slims. As they pulled out of the parking lot Jane looked
at her old friend and frowned.
    "What ?"
    "How can you do that to yourself, Ann ?"
    "Do what ? Sit in a meeting for two hours and listen to Veronica badmouth
foreign acquisitions when our departments' profits have kept the firm afloat
the last six months ?"
    "No. How can you still smoke after all these years when you know-"
    "My last husband took more years off my life than smoking ever will, and he
never gave me a leather jacket."
    Ann ran her fingers along the lapel of the jacket she'd recently gotten from
the Virginia Slims catalog and smiled. It was, Jane had to admit, a better
deal than her husband had been. Than any of them.
    "Chez Leonard or Westburg ?"
    "Westburg. They have a poached salmon I'd kill for. Tell me, are still
regretting your decision to allow Maura to smoke ?"
    "No-yes- I don't know. I thought if I let her smoke, she'd lose interest."
    Jane pulled to a stop at the red light and turned to look at her friend, who
was inhaling deeply on the long, thin white cigarette. The tip flared orange
and Ann closed her eyes as the smoke slid down her windpipe. There was
something there which Jane knew she might well never understand.
    Opening her eyes, Ann saw the look on Jane's face. "You have no idea why it
is that she really smokes, do you ?"
    The light turned green and Ann gave the car too much gas and too little
clutch. "I told you. I was hoping it was a phase. That she'd get enough of it
and decide to quit."
    "I suppose you're holding out the same hopes about sex ?"
    "I don't even want to think about that-"
    Ann laughed and exhaled through her nose. Jane wondered how she managed both
at the same time.
    "For such a permissive parent, you can really be a prude. I can't believe
that you're thirty-nine-"
    "Thirty-eight for another six days, thank you."
    "-thirty eight, and you've never once tried it ?"
    Jane looked at Ann sourly. "How do think I ended up with Maura ?"
    "Not sex. I've seen the pictures of Maura's father. It's a wonder he ever
got away from you. But I was talking about smoking-"
    "I just never was interested, you know."
    Ann took one last long drag on the cigarette and crushed it out in the
ashtray. She turned her head politely and blew the smoke out the open window,
exhaling slowly in a single, even stream.
    "You live with a smoker. And you're not the least bit curious about the
positive side of that thing that stinks up your house, as you put it ?"
    "No," Jane answered, wondering if she really sounded sincere.

    Maura was still out when Jane got home, which wasn't unusual. She had
softball practice until five and then she usually went across the street to
the new coffee shop for an hour or two. It had become the new teen hangout as
soon as it had opened- largely because it was the one place in town where
underage smokers could safely hang out and indulge themselves.
    Jane really hadn't thought much about it when the first selectman, Beatrice
Walker, had announced that she was going to endorse a new law stipulating
fines for underage smoking. Maura had complained bitterly about what seemed
to her to be a stupid waste of taxpayer time and money. She'd even gone so
far as to attend the monthly town meeting- the first political activism she'd
ever experience. In a way, Jane had been proud of her.
    Maura had organised most of Oakwood's teenage smokers, seventy-five of whom
had gone to the open meeting. But it hadn't made any difference. Except to
get Oakwood the lead spot on all the local TV news, which was extremely
unusual. The whole reason people lived in Oakwood, according to popular
legend, was because the place was so quiet.
    At first, the law hadn't been enforced. Sheriff Tangle had vowed that it
wouldn't be- which lasted all of about two weeks, until she was suspended
without pay by the town council. That same day her sixteen year old daughter
Laura had been the first one fined.
    The fines were no laughing matter. Fifty dollars for a first offence, one
hundred for a second, one fifty for a third, with a night in jail if the fine
wasn't paid within twenty-four hours.
    Which was where the Bitter Dregs came in. Tangle's oldest daughter Jill ran
the coffee shop and it was understood that while the law would be enforced on
the streets, the coffee shop was exempt. Selectman Walker, who was taking a
lot of heat from distressed- and suddenly impoverished- parents, knew when to
bend.
    So that was where Maura surely was, indulging her inexplicable habit with
her friends- as far as Jane could tell, every last girl on the team was a
smoker, several thanks to her daughter's gentle brand of irresistible
encouragement. At least she hadn't been ticketed  a third time yet- Jane had
made it clear she would draw the line at shelling out half a day's take home.
    Jane walked into the living room and sat down wearily in the papizan. Work
was such a bitch lately. Or rather, Veronica was such a bitch. Her managerial
style left something to be desired. With foreign acquisitions outpacing the
domestic market by a two-to-one earnings margin, she spent all her wrath on
the very analysts who were, as Ann had pointed out in the car today, keeping
the firm afloat.
    A glass of wine would probably help, but not before dinner. Instead, she
picked up the remote and turned on the cd player. The X-Files theme song
began its slow, mournful path and she felt some of the tension draining away.
    Looking at the coffee table she saw her daughter's other pack of cigarettes.
Maura always had two open, one which she carried in her purse and the other
which she kept at home. She'd just opened the pack before breakfast so it was
still almost full.
    She'd probably never miss one, Jane thought, and then wondered where in the
hell such an idea would come from.
    Ann, of course.
    Jane studied the box. Marlboro Lights 100s. That had been the deal. It
seemed absurd now, but when Maura had asked for permission to start smoking
Jane had consented on one condition- Maura had to agree to smoke some form of
lights. Not that Jane really knew anything about cigarettes, but she knew
lights weren't as bad for you.
    For her, she corrected.
    Of course, it turned out that Maura hadn't given up much. She'd been smoking
mediums, whatever they were, and had simply switched to 100s, for which-
    Jane was glad she'd switched. She couldn't really explain it. She just
thought those yellow tips were ugly, the sort of cigarette men smoked, not
young women. And somehow-
    There was no way that Jane would ever tell her daughter this, but she
looked, well, more attractive was the easiest way to explain it, smoking the
longer cigarettes. It was as though they gave the suggestion she was doing
something she enjoyed. It was more-	
    Elegant.
    "What am I thinking ?" Jane asked herself aloud. Crazy thoughts. Like what
it would be like to smoke one of her daughter's cigarettes.
    Stopping to analyse this bizarre turn in her thinking, Jane found her heart
was racing. Why not ? Her head was already spinning. There'd been several
points during today's meeting when Ann's half-serious idea to start their own
financial brokerage had started to seem like the best answer. When she
understood exactly what it meant to 'go postal.'
    But excitement, fueled by adrenaline, was making her pump pound.
    Yes, Ann had finally gotten to her today. She was almost thirty-nine and
single, her own daughter smoked with her tacit approval. What the hell was
she waiting for ?
    Maura was certainly enjoying it. And she was an attractive smoker. Jane
certainly understood that. She'd seen enough men- adult men- watch her to
know they were seeing something they liked.
    It was with only mild surprise that she found herself picking the pack of
cigarettes, just barely in arm's reach, from the table. In the background
REM's 'F*** me, kitten'- no escaping the parental advisory warning with that
selection, asterix or no asterix- was well along.
    It was her daughter's music, but she'd grown used to it- even liked it.
These were her daughter's cigarettes, and she was used to them as well.
    She extracted one from the box and studied it. Like the Virginia Slims Ann
smoked, the cigarette was long and white. It had a pleasant look to it,
although it was thicker. Obviously. That was why they called them Slims. She
though she liked the look of this cigarette better. It was more solid, more
substantial.
    More-
    "More me ?"
    Just then, just as she was about to put the unlit cigarette to her nose to
smell it, there was the unmistakable sound of Maura running up the warped
steps of the old front porch.
    How she managed to avoid snapping the cigarette in half as she shoved it
back into the pack was beyond her, but she managed it and just as her
daughter opened the front door the pack of cigarettes was replaced to its
exact previous position.
    "How was practice, Mo ?"
    Maura fairly bounded into the living room, breathless.
    "Okay. Mom, I need a big favour-I would have asked Laura to drive me but she
was already late-"
    "You broke another bat ?" Jane asked, knowing immediately what was wrong.
The bat budget was getting a little out of control. Maura had broken three
since the season started, and she still refused to switch to aluminum. Of
course, she couldn't use just any bat. At 5'3", finding the right bat was no
easy matter. She was the shortest girl on the team- and their best clutch
hitter, according to Coache Drummond. Which meant that a broken bat was a
major calamity.
    "Uh-yeah. How'd you know ?"
    "Hainsworth's closes at 7:00. You barge in her at twenty of seven sounding
like your hair is on fire, I can usually guess what's wrong. I don't suppose
I could pick one up tomorrow at lunch time ?"
    "We have an away game at Berlin."
    The last thing Jane really wanted to do right now was go back out, but then
again-
    Her eyes wandered back to the pack of cigarettes and thought maybe the short
drive would take her mind off-
    Other things.

    The bats were in the trunk. This time, Jane had insisted they buy all three
of the ones in stock.
    "If you were still on JV, we wouldn't have this problem," Jane said
teasingly.
    "Mom, I was only on JV for two games. And even most of the JV's are bigger
than I am."
    Maura sat back in her seat and finally looked relaxed. They'd gotten to the
store at five to and it had been a toss up whether or not the door would be
locked. She opened her purse, pulled out her cigarettes, and lit one, her
head sinking back as she inhaled deeply.
    "Open the window, honey."
    Maura rolled down the window and Jane popped the moonroof. She'd found that
most of the smoke made its way out of the car that way, rather than coating
the expensive leather seats.
    She turned the ignition and her hand was on the clutch when the sound of a
police siren made her glance into the rear view.
    Jane had expected to see one of the sheriff cruisers racing up the street,
but instead-
    Instead, it looked like she was being pulled over- except of course that she
hadn't gone anywhere yet. Jane had parked on the street because they'd been
in such a rush, but she'd been sure to park carefully in one of the on-street
spots and couldn't imagine what she'd done wrong.
    It was even more perplexing when the officer- it turned out to be the
Sheriff herself, walked over to the passenger side of the car.
    Jane understood when Maura let lose a panicked, rush exhale, and began
looking for a way to make her cigarette disappear. The ashtray was closed and
there was nowhere to stash the long, white cigarette.
    "I'm sorry about this, Maura, but-" Vicki said, "but I'm going to have to
give you a ticket."
    One hundred and fifty dollars ? Jane's heart sank. It wasn't as though she
couldn't afford it- but she didn't want to have to.
    "Excuse me, Vicki, but first of all, we are inside a car here-"
    Vicki leaned her head into the open window. "Hi, Jane. How's things at the
brokerage ?"
    "Not too bad. Still making money."
    "Look, the law is clear on this. When the car is parked,  you're on what's
considered to be an extension of public property. Besides, the way that- the
way Mrs. Walker drafted the original bill, even what goes on inside your own
home is subject to the law. I just know better than to open that kettle of
fish, you know. I'd have to arrest my own daughter ten times a day. You said
first. Is there a second ?"
    Jane's heart was racing again. This time because she had an idea which might
just save her some money.
    "Yes. Second, that's not Maura's cigarette. It's mine."
    As Maura handed the cigarette to her mother and exchanged knowing glances,
Jane had to admit her daughter was pretty sharp.
    Without hesitation, she took the cigarette, bringing it to her lips the same
easy way that Ann did. Her reflection was caught in the rear view and she
watched herself very carefully. The long cigarette looked right at home
between her first two fingers. She felt and saw her lips wrap around the
filter gently. Her cheeks hollowed slightly as she inhaled much more deeply
than she would have chosen to.
    It was over in a second, maybe less.
    The cigarette was moved away from the lips, but only fractionally, and she
exhaled. The smoke billowed from her mouth in a small, undisciplined puff and
crashed against the windshield.
    "Well, I had no idea that you smoked, Jane. But why was your daughter
holding 'your' cigarette ?"
    "I was adjusting the steering wheel, Vicki. Can we go now ?"
    "I-" Vicki smiled. "I suppose you can, Jane. Just keep a better hold on your
cigarettes, okay ?"
    Jane put the car into first and pulled out of the parking lot, still holding
the cigarette, which she had switched to her left hand. She thumbed the
automatic window switch and it rolled down.
    As they made it through the first stoplight, both women relaxed.
    "I can't believe you did that, Mom," Maura said with a wry smile.
    "Why not ?" Jane asked, feeling almost as though there was some sort of roll
reversal going on here.
    "Well, you've always bragged that you'd never smoked a cigarette."
    "I guess you found my price."
    "One hundred and fifty dollars. You can give it back now."
    Jane looked at the half gone cigarette in her hand and then back at her
daughter.
    "Don't you have  any more ?"
    "Mom-"
    "Was this your last one ?" Jane pressed.
    "No, but don't waste it."
    "I don't intend to-" she said, and before her daughter could recover from
the shock of seeing her smoking the cigarette the first time, she did it
again. This time the inhale was deeper, more complete. The smoke slid down
past her throat and into her lungs. Years of spending time with Ann and a
year of living with a smoker had prepared her body for the less appealing
effects of the act.
    They had not, however, prepared her for the positive ones.
    The gentle tug of euphoria that she felt was unexpected.
    You have no idea why she smokes,  Ann had said, and Jane understood that her
friend was absolutely right.
    As she held the smoke and enjoyed the moment, her thoughts turned to the
convenience store down the road from her house. She could stop there and buy
more-
    She realised what she was thinking as she exhaled and watched the smoke
trail out the open window. Just like that- two puffs on one cigarette, and
she was- a smoker.
    Maura had taken out another cigarette and lit it with the car lighter. She
was staring at her mother with open and well-deserved amasement. How could
this have happened ? Her own inhale was deeper and longer than her mother's
and her exhale was more full-bodied. But not much.
    "Get that look off your face, Maura. I'm-"
    She hung up on the final descriptive. Speaking it was much harder than
thinking it.
    "Just like that, mom, you're a smoker ? I mean, I know these things are
addictive, but-"
    "I've been thinking about it for a long time," she said, lying only
slightly. "When you came home this afternoon you almost caught me lighting up
for the first time. I was actually holding the cigarette when you came up the
porch and I panicked."
    "Has Ann been working on you again ?" Maura asked with a knowing smile on
her face.
    "Sort of. But it's been living with you, watching you smoke, that made me
realise I was missing something. Vicki just gave me an opportunity."
    She pulled into the parking lot of the Quick Apple, paused to take a deeper
inhale on the shrinking cigarette, and then pulled her wallet from her purse.
Finding a twenty, she held it out to Maura. "You'd better get a whole carton
for the two of us."
    Maura smiled again, revealing her perfect white teeth. She exhaled through
her nose, held the pose, and then laughed.
    "What ?"
    "First of all, mom, you can't get a carton of cigarettes for twenty dollars
unless you drive about 300 miles south to Virginia. Second, if you think I'm
going to pass up a chance to make you buy your own cigarettes, you're crazy."
    Jane saw that her daughter wasn't going to budge on this. She opened the
ashtray and stubbed out her first cigarette, thinking half about how
embarrassing it would be to walk into the store and ask for a carton of
cigarettes and half about how she had no choice.
    She walked into the store, thought about roaming around, then-
    Just as she was thinking they could probably use some soda she saw Veronica
in the back of the store at the milk cooler, probably trying to decide
between two-percent and skim. Looking at Veronica, it was easy to believe
that she drank no-milk milk. Thoughts of padding the purchase disappeared.
Thankfully, there was no one at the checkout. If she was quick-
    This would make it easier, she decided.
    Walking up to the counter, she saw that one of Maura's friends, a senior
name Kelli, was standing there chewing hard on a spectacularly thick piece of
pink bubble gum. Naturally. She couldn't smoke here in the store, not
anymore, when Veronica or one of her deputies could walk in at any moment.
    "A carton of Marlboro Lights 100's, please."
    "Box or soft ?" Kelli asked, with a smile.
    "Box," Jane said, and Kelli reached over her head and took down a single
pack.
    "A carton ?" Jane asked, worried that Veronica was going to walk to the
front of the store and-
    And what ?  Jane asked herself.
    "Sorry. Let me see if we have one-" Kelli disappeared under the counter.
    Just then a voice came in from behind and to her left. It was hard to
imagine the dulcet tone belonged to Veronica- except of course for the
sarcasm dripping from it.
    "Still supporting your daughter's filthy habit ?" she asked as though she
was inquiring about the weather.
    Kelli, still half-down behind the counter, froze in mid-smile, the carton in
her hand.
    Her face had changed. She was not smiling pleasantly as before. In fact, she
looked a bit confused, and Jane had an idea why. This was no longer a
wink-wink transaction. If Veronica went to Vicki-
    Well, Vicki would tell her Jane was a smoker, but Kelli didn't know that.
    "They're my cigarettes, Veronica."
    "You don't smoke."
    Instead of answering, Jane handed the twenty and a five to Kelli, who rung
her out. "Would you like a pack of matches ?" she asked Jane, who nodded.
    As soon as she had the matches, she stepped aside for Veronica and prepared
to walk out of the store. But then she changed her mind. She quickly tore the
flap off the carton, pulled out one of the packs, unwrapped it, and lit a
cigarette. She was afraid it would take seven or eight matches to catch a
light with the way her hands were trembling, but she got it on the first try,
thanking beginner's luck as she took a deep inhale on the cigarette.
    Veronica glared at her and she left without saying a word.
    When she got into the car Maura took the opened carton and then stared at
her mother with deeper amasement. "You really took to smoking fast, didn't
you ?"
    Jane put the cigarette in her mouth and closed her lips around the filter.
Both hands free, she started the car, and spoke around the cigarette between
a pair of deep inhales.
    "No. Veronica just pissed me off-again."
    Maura didn't understand. All she knew was that her mother was starting to
drive through the parking lot of the convenience store with a cigarette
dangling from between her lips. Maura had been smoking for year and could
still only achieve that dangle for a few seconds at a time. Some of the other
girls were pretty good at it, but they looked trashy doing it. Somehow Mom
pulled it off far better, looking almost elegant with the long white
cigarette between her lips. Probably because it wasn't hanging at an angle.
It stood straight out, unmoving.
    She'd just about managed to turn the car around so that it facing forward
when Veronica walked around to the driver side door.
    "I want you in my office first thing tomorrow morning. We're going to have
to review your health coverage, since you obviously lied about whether or not
you smoke."
    "I'm taking a personal day tomorrow, Ronnie."
    Maura's eyes bulged. Mom had told stories about what happened when people
made the mistake of calling Veronica 'Ronnie'.
    But all Veronica did was stare icily at Jane and storm off.
    Jane took the cigarette from her mouth and found she still had the strength
to smile.

    Maura was finishing her second cup of coffee and her third cigarette when
she finally asked her mother what was going on.
    "You told Veronica you were taking a personal day, but then when Ann called
and said her car was in the shop-"
    "I know what I'm doing," Jane said around her cigarette as she lit it. It
was just her second- she couldn't keep up with Maura, not yet anyway.
    "I can't believe how much you've changed in the last twelve hours, Mom. You
look like you're ready to eat somebody for breakfast."
    "Maybe I am," Jane answered. "But you are going to be late for school if you
don't leave right now."
    As soon as Maura headed out the door, trailing smoke, Jane sighed deeply and
began having second thoughts about what she was planning to do. Sure,
Veronica was a pisser sometimes, but-

    There were two reasons why Jane held the BMW down to the speed limit on the
way over to Ann's. the first was that she was getting more nervous as each
second passed, more unsure of herself. The second was that she wanted to
completely smoke the cigarette in her hand before she got to her friend's
house. That way she could light one just as Ann walked out the door.
    She wanted her friend to see her for the first time with a freshly lit
cigarette. She wasn't sure why, but that was how she wanted it.
    As she drove down the road she was shocked to notice for the first time how
many other people were smoking in their cars. It was still early and the high
school crowd was out in force. It seemed as if the girls were mostly the ones
with cars- and they were all driving around with their windows down, smoke
trailing out, cigarettes held by steering wheels or out windows in slim,
young hands. The smell seemed to be everywhere, a pleasant communal scent
that coated the roadway with a common bond.
    There were plenty of adults out too, and even they were smoking in what
was-	
    It was clearly a majority.
    She stopped at the four-way down the street from Ann's house and looked
across the intersection as she inhaled deeply, taking one last pull on the
cigarette.
    Jay Worthing, the second selectman, looked at her and smiled.
    Jay never smiled.
    Then he waved, displaying a big, fat cigar in his hand. She waved back and
returned the smile.

    Just as Ann opened the door, Jane lit her fourth cigarette of the day.
    Her friend stopped dead in the driveway. Smoke escaped from between her open
lips and-
    She practically ran to the car.
    "Is it-"
    For a minute she just stood there, her own Virginia Slim forgotten, and
watched through the window as Jane took an increasingly deep series of
inhales on the fresh cigarette. She exhaled through her nose and from her
mouth. Out the moon roof and into the windshield. She let herself bathe in
the smoke until that wonderful smell was everywhere.
    Finally, Ann got into the car.
    "Did Maura get you to do this ?"
    "Yes and no," Jane said with a laugh.
    Ann's cigarette had burned down and she quickly lit another. "Is this- is
this permanent, or did you just lose your mind over the last eighteen hours
?"
    "It's permanent. Speaking of which- when you talk about starting our own
brokerage, are you serious or is it just your usual bluster ?"
    "We have the stock options we can trade in, we have contacts outside the
firm's clients. And I can't imagine either one of us being as difficult to
work with as Veronica is-"
    There was a long pause. The two women sat smoking in silence and finally Ann
said "You're actually serious. You show up in my driveway smoking a cigarette
and talking about leaving the brokerage and you mean all of it. What the hell
happened ?"
    "I was just thinking that we could start our own office. Hire a couple of
assistants- a couple of assistants who smoke- none of this non-smoking office
crap-"
    "Well, if that's part of the package, count me in," Ann said.
    They smiled at one other and started making plans.


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