Stella Stilettos, Part 1

(by puffery@prodigy.com (now quin_chris@hotmail.com), 05 November 2012)


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Stella Stilettos
Part One

Dad extended his lighter and of course I accepted it with a courteous smile
and an extensive exhale. No one at Billy McHale's took much notice. That
reaction - no reaction - was pretty much routine around town now, given that
I looked well beyond my sixteen years. That was hardly the case, though, some
four years ago when this odyssey began. But I guess I'm getting a bit ahead
of myself, I'd better provide a little background.

A guy T-boned the driver's side of my mom's car while running a red light. I
was buckled into the passenger side back seat and the car was spun like a top
around the intersection. I had a couple of broken ribs but otherwise was
okay. Mom wasn't. She died on impact days before my twelfth birthday. 

Dad was in Cleveland on business when the call reached him. He was at my
bedside within a few hours and he was the one who had to tell me that mom was
gone. We suddenly shared a gaping hole in our lives that defied filling and
could only be cauterized by each other. Together we could somehow survive -
would survive - but we hardly dared let each other out of our sight.

As a recent single parent, dad had little problem transferring to a desk job
at headquarters, which allowed us to be together daily. A new life began.  He
made breakfast and my lunch each morning as well as all of the shopping while
I quickly learned how to at least get dinner started before he got home from
work.  Salad would be on the table and the food requiring cooking would be
laid out on the counter.   

Our evenings were quiet and our conversations limited but we had the safety
of each other's presence.  Dad would down a cocktail or two and then sip a
couple of glasses of cabernet over dinner along with a continuous stream of
cigarettes.  For years he'd had mom's companionship and collaboration in both
endeavors - now he was sailing solo.

For the previous several months I'd been looking for some way to express my
displeasure at their harmful behavior.  With mom now gone this no longer
seemed quite so pressing - a mom drinking and smoking sure as hell beats not
having one - and there was simply no right time to confront dad.  I kind of
tried a couple of times but it was like he didn't hear a thing I said.

Over the ensuing three months we maintained these mealtime rituals even as
dad fell deeper into the throes of depression.  An extra CC, a third glass of
wine, and an endless stream of cigarettes all evening provided him no relief.
Despite every tactic I could think of, there was little I could do or say
that would engage him for any length of time.  Any conversation simply
drifted away as he stared despondently off into space - somewhere I could
neither go nor be there to help.  

One evening as we sat in silence, I watched him literally slump down in his
chair and I feared him dead too.  I called 911 and pleaded for help.  The
ambulance was there in less than five minutes and soon I was accompanying him
to the hospital.  They held him two days while performing many tests and
eventually concluded that he was suffering from extreme depression.  Though
alarming, at least he wasn't checking out on me as mom had.

The doctor prescribed a pretty strong set of drugs for him and demanded he
take the remainder of the week off from work.  I made certain he took his
meds each morning before I left for school and rushed home to help in the
afternoon.  I knew that he needed me and God knows I needed him.  I was
determined to get him well.

That Friday night - knowing that I had the whole weekend to care for him -
I'd taken a chance and picked up a couple of nice steaks and some fresh
asparagus (dad's favorites) at the Safeway on the way home from school.  Dad
did keep me flush with cash - he was terrified of me being without - and we
had an open account there as well.

Tonight would be a double first - boiling asparagus on the stove and getting
the barbeque up and running - but how hard could either be?  Not that hard,
as it turned out.  Still keeping one eye on the stove in the kitchen, I
tossed the steaks on searing them for a minute as I'd seen dad do many times.

Drug-induced, dad remained near comatose during the preparation lounging in
his recliner.  But to say, as I set the picnic table, that he was pleasantly
surprised with the meal would be supreme understatement.  It was the most
life I'd seen since the accident.  Suddenly alert he gave me a huge hug as we
sat down to enjoy the meal.

He hadn't had any alcohol since beginning the meds but that evening he
knocked back a couple of whiskeys as I served the meal and dove pretty heavy
into a merlot as we consumed it.  He had nothing but compliments for me and,
uncharacteristically, popped up to help clear the table and put the dishes in
the washer.  In five minutes the chores were complete and, as usual, I was
about to head for my bedroom to read presuming he would again drift off into
the comfort of his oblivion.  But here's where things began to change.

Dad sounded more animated than I heard him in months (as well as a bit tipsy
too) and insisted that I rejoin him in the backyard for a while.  When I
turned on the washer and joined him, I was shocked first to find that he'd
opened up a second bottle of merlot and, second, that he had poured two
glasses.  It seemed apparent that the extra one was likely for me but this is
more than a little peculiar given that I've never even tasted alcohol before
in my life.  

So I plopped myself down next to dad on the lakeside view bench, having no
idea of what to expect next.  Did he really want me to share the wine with
him or was he just in need of some company?  Was he going to finally emerge
from his cocoon and become conversational?  I was extremely hopeful for the
first time in weeks.

For a good five minutes no answers were immediately forthcoming.  He didn't
specifically offer me the wine glass but it remained in front of me
untouched.  And then the weirdest chain of things began to happen.

"You haven't touched your wine yet have you Kate?" he asked, as if I were
mom.  Not knowing either what to do or what to say, I just smiled and then
took a sip of wine finding it, as anticipated, a bit off-putting.  I knew
this to be an adult taste and knew myself not to be an adult.

As things progressed - he drinking wine and me very occasionally sipping - he
was chatting with me in a casual manner non-existent since mom's passing.  We
both commented upon how pretty the spring flowers were down by the lake and
that we should take a walk down there - which of course we didn't do.  He
even began to chat a little about how his new assignment at work was less
challenging than previous ones.  The conversation was less animated than I'd
observed with mom but nevertheless welcome and real.  

Meandering along he mentioned about how proud he was of my grades and overall
behavior and seemed more blissful than I'd seen him in the four months since
mom had left us.  The only peculiarity was that he kept referring to me in
the third person - not "you" but "Stella".  And then, in his rote manner, he
reached for his Marlboro Gold 100's. Shaking out two as he use to do with mom
- and lighting both - he handed me the second as he wrapped up the monologue
with: "We sure do have a great daughter don't we?"

I was flabbergasted.  The distinction between mom and me was lost on him.  We
seem to have merged into one being.  I needed to react quickly.  Refusing the
cigarette would surely break this spell and that I didn't want.  Tonight was
the first non-morose one in months and I wasn't about to end it.  

I accepted the cigarette, having little sense of what I would do with it.
Sure, who hasn't stolen a puff or two but that's night and day from casually
sharing a smoke with someone else - particularly a parent.  I guess the good
news was that he neither viewed me at this moment as a child nor a non-smoker
so I'd simply make the best of it.  I'd try my best to channel mom.

So there I sat with a wine glass in my left hand and a cigarette in my right
and little experience of what to do with either.  That issue resolved itself
quickly as he moved his wine glass towards mine saying, "a toast to our
daughter".  Befuddled, I touched my glass to his to apparently drink to
myself.  There was an amusing aspect to all this.  

Pursuant to the clinking of glasses and being more familiar with drinking -
albeit not alcohol - than smoking, I joined him with again another small sip
of wine.  Meanwhile the cigarette smoldered away un-smoked but at least held
erectly between my right index and middle finger as mom had always done.

Over the next few minutes I shared a few more sips of this not particularly
enticing wine with my dad while knowing enough to tap and round the cigarette
ash on occasion and doing so with what I thought looked like some expertise.
I brushed it passed my lips on a few occasions as well but never attempted an
inhale.  There was no point in playing the fool.

The occasional sips of wine which I took were already playing tricks with my
brain and as the cigarette finally burned short I extinguished it with some
sense of relief.  Then within a few moments dad seemed to pop out of this
trance he fallen into with apparently no knowledge of what had just
transpired.  How weird was that?

The following two evenings were near carbon copies with the meds and alcohol
creating a somewhat delirious but also rather delightful dad.  These
evenings, where clearly I was Kate, while befuddling were at least some
connection to the dad I once knew.  On both evenings I again sipped a little
wine and faked smoking.  

Dad seemed to take little real notice of either activity on Saturday but by
Sunday evening he was far more alert.  My glass was being regularly refilled
and he was now expecting me to accept a light rather than an already lit
cigarette.  I knew enough to suck in a little when offered the flame and
enough also to just blow it back out.  I'd attempted to inhale a couple of
times in earlier illicit conditions and knew that to be a fool's errand.  

Since lighting up now entailed taking smoke into my mouth - if not actually
inhaling it - my behavior began to more resemble "the real thing".  I began
to routinely take in a number of un-inhaled puffs just to play along with the
theatrics.  It was fun in a peculiar sort of way though completely mystifying
as to how anyone could enjoy this taste.  That fact alone comforted me that I
was unlikely to be harming myself.  

Monday came and with that some sense of normalcy.  Dad was back at work and
consumed far less evening alcohol.  Less alcohol meant less meds interaction
and I was again Stella - not Kate.  In one sense I felt highly relieved
because this peculiar charade had abated but in a strange way I missed the
intimacy of being treated as Kate.  This dad was again sad and aloof - the
other one cheerful but a bit deranged.   

A nice piece of salmon was on the grill when dad got home on Friday night and
clearly he was pleased.  He knocked back a couple of hearty Canadian Clubs as
I set the table and I had conflicted feelings as I then watched him pour two
glasses of wine, this time a white - pinot grigio.  

I felt a Kate moment coming on but was I over-anticipating?  For the moment
he simply seemed to find it appropriate to be serving his eleven year old
daughter a glass of wine (which, by the way, was much more pleasant than the
cabernet), but a cigarette didn't appear forthcoming.

On the other hand I hadn't been altogether wrong because as I toyed - even
kind of enjoyed - a second glass of wine, he polished off the bottle and
searched for another.  Stella now became a third person reference and clearly
I'd again been transformed to the Kate persona.  This was clearly driven home
as he shook a Marlboro Gold 100 my way and I attempted to accept it with some
grace - and the ensuing light as well.  Though not inhaling I did my
damnedest to look like I had.  He took no obvious notice that I was a novice.  

Three more nearly identical weekends ensued and I looked more and more
forward to each.  For sixty hours I had my real dad with me in whatever role
I might be playing.  I was easily downing a fifth of wine over the weekend
and close to a pack of his Marlboro Gold 100's.  Neither practice seemed as
nauseous as they had three weeks earlier.   

On this fifth or maybe it was even sixth weekend as the "Kate surrogate", the
first two days were much a replay of the previous weekends but that changed
on Sunday.  Dad had to go into the office for a few hours midday which left
me some time to regroup.  My homework is done and I've got chicken breasts,
rice, and asparagus to prepare for dinner along with an arugula salad.  The
question of the hour was, though, since he's been at work, who I'll be dining
with tonight - weekday dad or weekend dad?

Weekday dad is generally quiet and a little on the morose side but he does
know who I am.  Weekend dad is frequently ungrounded - incapable of
distinguishing me from my mom - but he is considerably more pleasant to hang
out with.  He does however expect me to behave like mom, to both drink and
smoke with him.  The dilemma I'm facing is whether I need to be two people in
order to save my dad.  The evidence is building up that I do.

Drinking a glass or two of wine is not much of a challenge.  I'm not so fond
of the heavy reds like cabernet but a nice light white like pinot grigio is
pretty easy to knock back - and the little buzz that goes with it isn't bad
either.  Smoking, however, is quite another matter.  I've watched both my
folks be slaves to cigarettes and that scares me.  Two months back I was
ready to make him quit.  

The previous weekend I'd begun to notice that I was inadvertently taking a
few light inhales - breathing in occasionally before I'd expelled all of a
puff - and with seemingly no real consequences, so maybe that would be
possible. The charade of not inhaling couldn't last much longer but could I
legitimately smoke just enough to be a companion to dad without becoming an
addict?    Inhaling certainly would make me feel more like I was really
smoking with him and I'm sure if dad bothered to notice it would probably
make his visions of mom even more vivid.

This was a true turning point.  At that moment learning to inhale and become
a casual weekend smoker with dad seemed to be the only viable solution.  Who
he needed me to be at that moment was someone who happened to smoke, so my
goal would be to become a light but proficient smoker.  It's not an identity
I'd ever sought but it was what it was - and surprisingly kind of intriguing.
With that a plan was hatched.   

While mom and dad often shared his Marlboro Gold 100's, their offhand
comments led me to know them to be stronger than mom's regular brand.  It
simply made sense that if I were going to smoke I should at least take the
easier route.  And with that I went into the pantry and pulled out one of the
four remaining cartons of Marlboro Light 100's that had languished there
untouched since mom's departure.

I pulled out a pack and headed for the den knowing precisely the ritual.
First, pull the wrap around plastic ribbon and then unfold the foil cover.
Next, pop out a couple of filters with a wrist tap and lift one out.  I'd
watched this a million times or more.  Ashtrays and lighters litter the den
and soon my cigarette is encountering the flame.  Like the preceding evenings
I suck in a puff but this time I don't spit it out.

I've grown up with smoking and smoking means inhaling.  There's no way around
that so here goes.  While I've mostly resisted that for the past several
weekends it's now time to bite the bullet.  I need to really smoke - which
means inhaling, if I'm going to be the partner that dad is looking for - and
with that I exhale much of the puff but pull in the rest.  I've apparently
done it right because the remaining smoke sails successfully into my lungs
and emerges seconds later in a wispy little jet.  I don't cough, I don't
choke, I don't heave.  What more could I ask for?

This ritual requires repetition and repeat I do.  With each drag I inhale a
bit more, gauging my capacity.  Seven or eight puffs in, I've performed
pretty much impeccably but the nicotine has my head spinning.  Enough is
enough, at least for now.  Now isn't such a long time, however, and within
less than an hour I have another go and smoke the entire cigarette.

I give myself more than a passing grade.  It also occurs to me that the taste
which I had found kind of obnoxious is far overwhelmed by a kind of a high I
was suddenly experiencing all over my body.  I'm disturbed by this because
this habit I've abhorred suddenly seems to have an interesting side to it. 

When dad returns around four he's in the best mood I've seen since mom's
passing.  He pours three fingers of Canadian Club as I'm beginning dinner
preparations and pours four fingers once the first three are done.  He's
already calling me Kate and I'm kind of okay with that.  He says to sit down
and have a drink with him and I do.  It's absolutely awful.  I can't imagine
how anyone could drink that stuff and ask him if maybe I could have some
pinot grigio.  

Of course he complies and then shakes a Marlboro Gold 100 my way.  When I
pull the pack of Marlboro Light 100's from my apron he smiles even more
broadly and offers a light as I extract one with reasonable proficiency.  I
know enough now to inhale cautiously and do so.  If I say so myself, it
really does now feel like I'm channeling my mother.  I exhale without a flaw
and follow up with another drag almost immediately.  This smoking thing takes
surprisingly little effort - too little effort.  

Over the course of the evening I have five (maybe six?) cigarettes, two
hearty glasses of wine, and am frankly getting pleasantly buzzed on both
booze and nicotine.  What's more, it's beginning to feel more like I'm dad's
buddy than his kid.  That seems strangely comfortable to him and not all that
weird to me either.  This behavior is a lot more seductive than I would have
expected.

Monday morning arrives and I'm back to Stella.  Dad fixes my lunch and then
drops me off at school like any normal parent.  When I get home from school
though, I have no idea whether I'll shortly be seeing week night dad or
weekend dad.  If it's the former it will be quiet and we'll go our own way;
if it's the latter we'll be engaged.  Given that I have a good bit of
homework, the latter would be fine by me - at least for tonight.  

The one thing different this particular afternoon is that my pack of Marlboro
Light 100's is still sitting on the counter in close proximity to a rinsed
out ashtray and one of dad's multitude of Bics.  My body says have one - just
one - but my mind warns against it.  Smoking is just coming way too easy to
me and that scares me.  I'd promised myself over the past ten days that I'd
only smoke with dad as it seemed to provide him some peculiar kind of
support.  My mind won - I slipped the pack into a kitchen drawer.

As it turned out it was week day dad that arrived home that night.  With a
single whiskey and one glass of wine my identity remained Stella all evening
and neither alcohol nor cigarettes were offered my way.  That was comforting
in some ways but not all.  I really wouldn't have minded having a cigarette
or two.  I tried to mentally position that as a comfort to dad but knew it
more as a comfort to me.    

Monday night replayed itself the next three evenings and my cigarettes
remained in a kitchen drawer all week.  I did take the pack out a couple of
times and even had a cigarette to my lips once but didn't light it.  I kept
telling myself that becoming a smoker - a smoker at twelve and a half - would
be more of problem than a pleasure.  My friends would be mortified to find
out and I'd be embarrassed.  That chat with myself prevailed but hardly felt
like a satisfying closure.

Frankly Friday couldn't come soon enough because the return of weekend dad
would require the return of my Kate persona.  A couple of rib-eyes were ready
for the barbeque as dad arrived and his bottle of Canadian Club was also
awaiting him on the counter.  He wasted no time downing a couple of drinks
but as we sat down to dinner there came no wine and no Kate - and he lit a
single cigarette as we finished.  I was okay sans wine but I really wanted a
cigarette - and I kind of hated that I wanted it - but want it I did. 

My emotions were now completely conflicted.  On one hand I thought about
asking or just retrieving my pack but couldn't quite get up the nerve while
on the other I was also a little disturbed that the craving seemed so
powerful.  My mind said I needn't smoke while my body was asking to.  Again
my mind won.

That night I laid in bed for at least an hour without falling asleep.  The
struggle of resisting a cigarette all week with week day dad had been helped
by the anticipation of weekend dad.  Now that that guy didn't show up my
resistance was gone.  I really did need to have just one cigarette.

I got back up and headed for the kitchen with the intention of slipping
outside for a single cigarette.  Pack and lighter now in hand, I shook one
out and lit it with an urgency that shocked me as I headed for the back door.
Inhaling again as I slipped out, there was dad on the chaise lounge with a
drink and cigarette in hand.  "What took you so long, Kate?" he said as I
sputtered out a near choking exhale.

We chatted until nearly two in the morning as I polished off most of that
first pack.  Dad offered me wine but I opted for a couple of Cokes instead.
All was well until he muttered "well I guess we should go climb in bed".  In
alarm I responded rapidly, "I guess we should, Dad" and that brought him back
into the present.  This Kate thing needn't be carried too far.

The trance broken he opted for one final whiskey while he lit my final
cigarette of my first pack.  Now I was recognizably his daughter and my
smoking seemed a non-issue.  I wondered if that would be the case tomorrow
but then his unpredictability continued to be enormous.  Of course I might
decide tomorrow that I wouldn't care to smoke.  Ya, right! 

He awoke before I did and had scrambled eggs, ham, and toast waiting on the
table, along with coffee mugs.  I would occasionally drink something kind of
akin to a latte - more milk than coffee - and that's what he fixed me.  As I
finished breakfast dad lit a fresh cigarette, without offering me one.  Here
we go again, I thought, but I reacted differently this morning.

My body had now convinced my mind that smoking at some level would be just
fine and my mind assured my body that dad wouldn't mind.  With that I went to
the pantry and took out the second pack from mom's remaining stash.  Packing,
peeling, and popping, I soon had a cigarette dangling from my lips as I
awaited dad's light.  It was not forthcoming.

"What the hell do you think you're doing young lady?" came raging from his
lips.  

"Dad, you've been encouraging me to smoke with you for the past several
weeks.  I thought you were good with it."     

"What the hell do you mean encouraging you to smoke?  Do you think I'm
crazy?"

"I don't think you're crazy at all but you do sometimes call me Kate and you
do offer me cigarettes and occasionally wine.  Don't you recall that?"  I
reached for his lighter and lit my cigarette myself.  I take a double drag
and follow with an exhaustive exhale. He watches intently, his eyes seemingly
out of focus, and then mumbles something about Kate.  Clearly he's now lost
in some space amongst his several identities.

"That was you who I've been with the past few weeks?  I thought I was just
dreaming about your mother.  Oh my God, what have I done?  Have I really
turned you into a smoker?"

"No daddy you haven't," I lie.  "You've just wanted me to be more like mom so
as to comfort you and smoking a little has been part of that scenario.  I did
do it for you to start with but now I'm beginning to enjoy a cigarette now
and again," expanding upon the lie.  "I'm sure it won't be a problem"
completing the lie trifecta.

He seemed to buy the story and much of it was true.  The only fib was my
investment in the situation.  As long as he was going to allow me to smoke, I
was pretty certain I would and if he decided not to allow it, I couldn't see
how he could enforce that.  I'm not sure I've ever seen him so perplexed as
he watched me finish off the cigarette.  

Finally he seemed to come to grips with the situation.  "Stella, I'd be the
world's biggest hypocrite to smoke myself while denying you.  I will tell you
that to nearly a person, all smokers suffer regret that the habit owns them
and you'll likely face that too, but since I seem to have gotten you hooked
I'm not going to coerce you into quitting.  We'll just keep this between the
two of us and we'll make sure you don't get too dependent."

"That works fine for me, dad.  I may even decide that I don't really want to
smoke."  Yup, yet another lie.  "I'll just smoke around the house."  And that
settled the issue.  At twelve and a half I was allowed to smoke, almost
encouraged to smoke, and was becoming proficient at it.  I was also even
beginning to think it tasted pretty good.  I'm not sure if I understood that
as a sign of addiction.  

I figured that I'd probably have a couple of cigarettes after school and then
wait for evening and smoke a few more with dad.  For the next three or four
weeks that formula held but cigarettes in the morning on weekends began to
lead to cigarettes in the morning on weekdays and chaining three or four
after school.  Nor did dad seem to object when I began smoking while doing
homework.  When dad talked about me smoking lightly I'm not sure what he
meant but a half a pack or more a day was my new norm.

One strange thing did occur once I began to smoke regularly.  Dad's trances
became fewer and fewer.  Now that he was more cognizant that the person
smoking and drinking with him was me, he very seldom confused me with Kate
any longer.  Nor did he seem to hold any judgments.  He never lectured me on
my behavior and I guess in turn I never lectured him.  We'd established
equilibrium.


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