Unexpected Questions, Part 1

(by an4@anon.lelnet.com, 17 March 1998)


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Unexpected Questions
an4@anon.lelnet.com

   Anne hated interviews.
   And while she'd known full well that her interviews would be with principals
when she took up education as her chosen field, it was still an extra layer of
intimidation, being interviewed by one. And of all places, here in her old
high school. It was more than strange, walking back into this place- of all
places, this place, with its familiar corridors and smells. She'd come in down
on the west wing because she had this strange idea that she wanted to see her
old locker.
   Number 117.
   She'd walked past it without stopping, her eye drifting over the old dent
under the handle where she'd kicked it once after it had jammed. That was nine
years ago now and of course, nothing had been done to repair the damage. The
door still hung loose on the hinge and she wondered if the student who had the
locker now was smart enough to occasionally tighten the hinge bolts.
   "Anne Skinner ?" a voice said from behind her. 
   The bell had just rung and classes were changing. High school students poured
through doorways like so many ants, moving in identifiable socialised
patterns, a complex dance of behaviour most of them would never even
recognise, much less comprehend. They split and flowed past Anne as she turned
around, acting like a large rock stuck in hard currents.
   The voice belonged to Patricia Longfellow, the aptly named English teacher
who'd always been Anne's personal favourite. Her quick smile and bright face
seemed unchanged, unaged- she was forty-five now but still looked as much the
graduate student as Anne had been only a matter of months again.
   "Hi, Ms. Longfellow."
   The smile was a beacon, the tip of the lighthouse in the storm of teenagism
that was flowing around them.
   "You're not a student anymore, Anne. It's Patricia. What brings you back this
way ? Reliving past glories ?"
   "Hardly. I have an interview with Principal Wozniak in twenty minutes and I
wanted to try and get comfortable."
   The two women stepped closer as Patricia reached down into her purse and
pulled out a pack of Virginia Slims and a lighter.
   "Gives a whole new meaning to the idea of going to the principal's office.
You're interviewing for the guidance counselor's job, I take it."
   "Yeah. I mean, yes."
   "Ah," Patricia admonished, wagging a perfectly shaped finger. "We don't stand
on formality here. I'm headed outside to have a smoke. If you join me, I'll
offer a little advice about how to handle Mrs. Wozniak."
   "Sure," Anne said.
   They walked back down the hallway, heading for the same door that Anne had
slipped in. As they walked out into the glorious spring sun, she was
surrounded by students, most of them girls, also indulging in the opportunity
for a cigarette. The two adults separated themselves slightly, Patricia
nodding or smiling at a few of the girls as she made her way to a spot of open
ground about fifty yards outside the door.
   She lit the cigarette casually and inhaled deeply on its slim length.
   "A lot of the girls smoke these days, don't they ?" Anne asked, surprised to
see at least fifty students outside- pretty amasing for a high school which
could only boast about two hundred and fifty total in all four grades.
   "The students lobbied successfully over the summer to increase the time
between classes from five to seven minutes. Very clever. The president of the
student body said that it was so that students would have time to consult with
teachers between classes, but-" She used her free hand to point out Melissa
Trent, an attractive senior with striking blonde hair and the sort of pert
breasts only a high school girl could carry so unselfconsciously. "-there's
the real reason."
   "Of course, that means the school day is twenty minutes longer, but no one is
complaining. The parents were all for it- they seem to think we don't work
hard enough as it is."
   "Tell me about Mrs. Wozniak. I mean, I had a few meetings with her way back
when I was here, but nothing that would give me an insight on what to expect
in an interview."
   "She was just starting here when I interviewed with her- she was about a year
younger than me- still is, I guess. God, that was eleven years ago, and she's
changed a little." Patricia paused, drew deeply on the cigarette, and Anne
took the opportunity to take an overview of the smokers.	
   She seemed to remember that the kids who smoked openly when she here were-
well, skeevy was the only word she could think of. A lot of boys, mostly kids
who cut gym, swam in the undercurrent of the class rank, and rarely appeared
to shower. The heavy metal, pseudo grunge element, not the sort of people-
   It was snobbish, but not the sort of people she hung with.
   Sometimes snobbish was also true. Private school or not, that hadn't been her
element.
   Anne focused on Melissa. Such a serious looking girl. Her eyes were bright-
electric blue- but the cast of her face was serious. She must be popular- Anne
knew from experience that you didn't get to be school president without people
liking you- but she was standing alone, smoking in the sort of contemplative
way which would have made Oscar Wilde reach for his pen. She had the cast of a
girl who sat at home in the evening studying, listening to bands like Nine
Inch Nails or the Cure, wrapped in dark, brilliant thoughts.
   Project much, Anne ?
   The younger woman shook her head. Had she said that or had Patricia ?
   She looked at her former teacher, who was exhaling a long stream of creamy
smoke and realised thankfully that it was just something she'd thought to
herself.
   "The thing you need to know is that Mr. Harold didn't suddenly retire.
Marilyn fired him. You know, we still rank in the top five percent nationwide
in scores- PSAT, SAT, Achievement tests, AP exams. You name it. But college
placement and scholarships were down, and- well, Harry was wonderful, but I
think time had passed him by. Small school like this you have to part
psychologist to fill your position- well, let's hope it becomes your position-
and he wasn't up for that role in the least. His contacts had gotten old or
died- he just couldn't pull strings like-"
   Anne frowned, not liking to hear how things had gone for Harry.
   "Like he did for me. I would never have gotten into Harvard- and that wasn't
that long ago. But I guess I understand. The woman there who got me in died my
junior year."
   "That's the problem with being seventy and having people expecting you to
have an in at the top thirty universities in the country. It's the one way
that the old boy's network can hurt you."
   "There's good and bad in that," Anne agreed. "There are a lot of younger
women in today's old boy network. They even let us sit in board rooms and
smoke fat cigars."
   Patricia smiled. "Now that would be a dream job. I haven't had a cigar since
I broke up with Mr. MacMahon."
   "You were dating John MacMahon ?"
   "For over a year. Gave the students something to talk about. It was quite a
challenge, listening to yourself discussed in the halls and the cafeteria and-
well, we brought in on ourselves. Remind me to tell you about last spring's
prom sometime."
   "If you ever see me again," Anne said morosely.
   Reaching out, Patricia patted Anne on the arm. "I know exactly the sort of
person that Marilyn is looking for. But let me ask you one personal question.
Do you smoke ?"	
   Anne looked at her old teacher, wondering what that could have to do with
anything.
   She found out soon enough.

   The office was very nice. But this was a private high school, after all. It
had and hadn't changed in the years since Anne had been a student here. The
shape and placement of the furniture was unchanged and Marilyn's diplomas
still hung on the wall to her right and behind. The other awards had
modernised, the books lining the west wall were more current, and the place
had a little brighter look to it than Anne remembered.
   Marilyn stood up, extended her hand across the desk, and Anne tried her best
to shake it firmly.
   "It's good to have you back, Anne. Never thought I'd see you in my office
again but I'm glad, to be honest. How was Harvard ?"
   "They should call it Hardvard," Anne joked.
   "Well, you always liked your studies. So tell me what brings you back to
interview for the position- aside from your impressive qualifications. Twice
published in the British Journal for Guidance and Counseling. I found your
article on Integration and eclecticism in counseling and psychotherapy to be
fascinating reading. You do understand that the position entails both standard
academic guidance as well as psychological servicing, don't you ?"
   Anne nodded. "I wouldn't want to fall into a position where I was just
telling students what colleges they should consider- or what colleges will
consider them. Don't get me wrong, I think that's incredibly important, but
it's only half what I'm capable of."
   Anne frowned. "I hope that doesn't sound arrogant."
   Marilyn smiled. "A little more arrogance would be a welcome change in that
office, to be honest." She sat back in her chair, picked up a pack of Marlboro
Lights 100s from the desk, and lit one.
   "Well, I'm going to be asking you questions for the next half hour or so, so
I thought I'd give you a chance to ask a few of your own."
   "Well, I guess I'll start with the tough one. Did you really fire Mr. Harold
?"
   There was something like a dull smile on Marilyn's face. She drew on her
cigarette, inhaled, exhaled. Repeated the gesture.
   "Yes. I know- or at least I imagine that I know- that he helped you get into
Harvard. Probably spoke to Gretchen Flood on your behalf. Poor Gretchen."
   "She did a wonderful thing for me. So did he."
   "If you can call sending a seventy year old man home with a full retirement
package and six month's severance pay firing, then the answer is yes. But we
have quite a few kids on quite a few fences right now, and this isn't the time
of year to have someone who is not quite up to the task of running the show.
You'll be on the phone eight hours a day for next three weeks or a month- if I
decide to fill the position to your advantage, that is."
   Anne wondered if anyone else had applied for the position, and although it
was supposed to be a mortal sin (or at least venal) to ask, she did anyway.
   "Am I the only person interviewing ?"
   "You were as soon as I read your resume and portfolio. To be honest, I think
that this position might be a little beneath your skills, and that's one of
two reservations I have about offering you the position."
   Anne's heart leapt. This wasn't a screening interview, then. It was a
qualification meeting, a much different thing. Which might have explained why
she suddenly felt sweat pouring down the inside of her armpits, verifying just
how human she was sometimes- and making her glad she'd opted for a bulky
sweater over her black mock turtleneck.
   "Of course, I've violated the first rule of interviewing candidates- I've
expressed how desperate I am to get a qualified person in the position.
Nevertheless, I had to, because I'm not looking to fill this for a few months
while you cast your nets. To be honest, I'm surprised that you didn't fall
into something straight out of university."
   She drew again on her cigarette and filled the space between them with the
smoke from it.
   "I decided to take a few months off and work on my writing. I was also
considering the merits of moving on to a doctorate, but decided finally that
I'd rather get four or five years of real world experience first." It was a
carefully crafted, almost honest answer, one she'd anticipated on giving.
   "Well, I can be comfortable with four of five years. Initially, we'll offer a
probationary contract which runs through June. If we like what we see we'll
expect a three year commitment at the most competitive salary we can possibly
afford. If you decide after that on furthering your academic career we'll look
for a way for you to do that while continuing here."
   "You said that you had another concern," Anne said. It was nerve wracking,
mentioning that, but better to get it out of the way.
   Marilyn got up, placing her cigarette in her mouth and walking over to the
half-open door to her office. She closed it tightly and sat down again, after
which she rescued the dangling cigarette from her mouth amidst a smoky nose
exhale.
   "This is strictly off the record, and if you say anything about it I'll deny
it. Sorry, but you can't be too careful these days. Do you smoke, Anne ?"
   The answer was no, of course.
   But watching Marilyn finish her cigarette and light another, she understood
something strange. 
   The right answer was yes.
   In a way, Marilyn was right. With her grades and her publishing record, Anne
might just be able to land a better, more prestigious job. But the truth was,
most of those would be as the junior in a pair of guidance counselors, and the
reason she'd jumped at applying for this job when her old Harvard friend Beth,
who'd ended up her home town after graduation running the town's almost modest
art gallery, had told her about it was because it was a chance for her to come
into a situation where she would have total control, where she'd be able to
learn what she was and wasn't capable of. Which was what she really want.
   Not to mention that it meant coming home, in a sense, even if her parents had
already sold the house she'd grown up in and moved back to Toronto- the
advantage of early retirement with a nice stock portfolio.
   "Yes, of course."
   Marilyn looked at her skeptically, as if smelling the lie.
   "Because personally I think that's important. About seventy percent of our
students smoke, you know. And being that we're a private school, we can allow
that. Now you're asking yourself what difference it makes whether or not you
smoke, right ?"
   "The thought had crossed my mind," Anne said.
   "Well, when those students walk into your office, I want them to feel
comfortable. Harry, god bless him, was an inveterate pipe smoker. But he never
let the kids smoke in his office, and I think that's a barrier. The other half
of your job, the half which has nothing to do with getting these kids into a
nice college, is very important. There's a lot of stress here- at least among
the upper echelon of the students. We still have a small core of remedials-
students who are children of alumni, kids who don't fit into more traditional
programmes but we have a financial responsibility to accomodate- but as an
alumni yourself you know that's never been the focus at Ashwood. I want you to
be able to offer them a comfortable environment."
   "And part of that putting a smoker in that office, right ?"
   "Exactly. Feel free to indulge yourself," Marilyn said, pointing at her purse
just before lighting another cigarette of her own.
   "I didn't bring mine with me," Anne lied. "I knew that as nervous as I was, I
would have to smoke before the interview, and with the way things are today, I
thought that might have a negative impact-"
   "That's understandable. Look, I have other appointments this morning- we're
bringing in roofers to fix that damn leak in the gym- again. Let's have lunch
tomorrow. Pick me up at noon. I'll make reservations at Tre Scallini."
   Anne stood up, shook hands again, and walked out of the office with her
stomach feeling as though someone had dropped an empire of dirt into it.

   "Why do you sound so panicked, Anne ?" Beth asked. "Did you bomb the
interview ?"
   "No, but I need you to go out to lunch with me. You could call it an
emergency of sorts."
   "An emergency ? You just got into town last night. What the hell sort of
emergency could you be having ?"
   "Well, I'll tell you about it when I pick you up. Say fifteen minutes ?"
   Beth agreed, intrigued. Anne was not the panicky sort, after all.

   The first thing that Beth noticed when she got Anne's shiny new Camry was
that the ashtray was open.
   "Raiding your quarter stash again ?"
   "No. Aren't you, like dying for a cigarette ?"
   "As a matter of fact, I am, but I wouldn't want to get this new car of yours
smoky."
   "Yes you would. Please."
   "What ?"
   "Smoke, damn it !"
   The request was so bizarre- and so urgent- that Beth instantly and happily
complied. She tore the wrapping from her new box of Marlboro Lights 100s and
went to use her lighter, but Anne put her hand up and stopped her. 
   "Use the lighter, for christ's sake."
   Beth thumbed the lighter home and looked at her friend with wry amusement on
her face.
   "What's gotten into you, for fuck's sake ?"
   "I need the car to be smoky. I need to be smoky. Tell me, can you learn how
to smoke in one day ?"
   "I know I did, but why would you ?" she asked as the lighter thumped out. She
lit her cigarette with it and automatically reached to thumb down the window.
Anne immediately thumbed it back up.
   "I think Mrs. Wozniak is going to hire me, but I need to be a smoker."
   "What ?"
   "Well, she feels as though my position requires someone whom the students can
open up to, and I think she feels that a smoker is more in line with that."
   "Well, that's great- from my point of view, but do you have any idea what it
is that you're getting yourself into ?"
   "If I did, I wouldn't do it, right ?"
   "You'll never get me to say that. But-" She took her cell phone from her
purse and held it with the same hand as her cigarette as she dialed a number.
"I'll take the rest of the day off from work."
   "It's not that big a deal," Anne said, not so much because she believed that
as because she was trying desperately to convince herself of the fact that
starting to smoke no bigger of a deal than changing diets.
   "If you think you can learn over lunch how to look like you've been smoking
for three or four years, you're sadly mistaken. Pull into this convenience
store and we'll start working on this. Lucky for you your best friend from
college ended up working in your old home town."
   Anne did as she was told.
   
   "Maybe the easiest way to explain it is this. Remember when I started smoking
?"
   "Sure. It was that college play. Wandering Eye. You got the bad girl part,
and of course, the bad girl was a smoker. I remember the first time I saw you
smoking outside of rehearsal and you told me you were just trying to get into
the part."
   Beth wasted no time lighting another cigarette, her third since they'd been
seated. Anne was still just staring at the pack they'd bought at Fasio's
Convenience store just about twenty minutes ago. It was one of two actually.
The second was sitting in the glove compartment of her car. She was supposed
to find some excuse to open the glove compartment after Marilyn got into the
car- real smokers, Beth assured her, always kept a spare pack in the glove
compartment, just in case.
   The more Anne stared at the cigarettes, the more she knew that eventually she
would have to open them- open them and take one out and actually- try at
least- to smoke it.
   She felt as though the pack was gently mocking her.
   "You didn't believe me in the slightest. You just gave me this `You really
are a naughty girl' look and went on talking. Of all my friends, you were the
only one who wasn't phased."
   "That's because I not only went to the play twice, but I went with you
understudy night and watched Regina Fulsom butcher the part precisely because
she couldn't smoke to save her life. Remember that one scene where she lit the
cigarette, pulled it out of her mouth, went to put it back in to inhale-"
   "And it popped from her hand and fell on the stage."
   They both laughed. "It was too bad that wasn't the biggest laugh she got all
night. But that's exactly the sort of thing which could happen to you, which
is why I'm here today."
   "You're going to teach me how to avoid that ?"
   "Among other things. There's more pitfalls to smoking than you can possibly
learn in a single day, but I may be able to get you over the biggest humps. If
that's what you really want."
   Anne reached across the table and grasped Beth's free hand. 
   "What I want, more than anything, is that job. If that means you have to
tutor me in the ways of smoking, then I'm all ears."
   Beth reached out and picked up her Guinness, draining the bottle. She then
took a deep inhale on her cigarette and Anne watched the process. The way her
lips tightened around the filter before she drew on it was expressive of her
enjoyment of the ritual. She lifted her head up- slightly but not far enough
so that her exhale would carry over the head of her shorter friend. Rather, it
met her full in the face and Anne decided that the smell of the second hand
smoke was strangely pleasant.
   "You have to actually start smoking then, girl."
   Anne's eyes glanced around the room. Naturally, this was of course the
smoking section, the part of the restaurant where she should not feel strange
or funny about lighting a cigarette. The fact was that just thinking about it
was enough to make her feel very warm in any entirely specific way- a way that
was more than a little overdue. Leonardo DiCaprio didn't give her that
feeling, but the thought of lighting the cigarette did.
   "Now," Beth added.
   "Oh yes, now."
   Anne did as she was asked. And although Beth told her not to inhale as she
lit the cigarette, she did anyway.
   It was an amasing beginning.

   Sitting in front of the steps of the school, engine running, Anne tried to
run through all the things Beth had told her in the space of a few fragile
heartbeats.
   It was like being back at university, cramming from some daunting mid-term.
So much information, and so little time to absorb it all. No one mistake would
be fatal, but like a challenging essay question, enough incorrect supposition
and she would give herself away.
   She did not look towards the school because she knew she would be tempted to
rush the cigarette towards her mouth and look awkward doing it. Instead she
sat quietly with the window open, her hand dangling out the window, the
cigarette resting lightly between her fingers. She did not squeeze it tightly-
Beth was of the opinion, right in Anne's estimation, that only men held their
cigarettes in such a proprietary way, as though they might escape if allowed
too much freedom. It dangled, smoke curling off it lazily.
   When it felt right, staring straight ahead, she began lifting it up towards
her, tapping it once with her index finger to trim the ash. She was thinking
that it would be nice if Marilyn didn't notice the way the six cigarettes
she'd smoked yesterday plus the four- including this one- she'd had today, had
made her hoarse.
   She drew on the cigarette, enjoying the way the slight lightheadedness
brought a terrible bright clarity to the world just before that other
sensation which made the perfectly measured inhale she took worth whatever it
might be doing to her. That was one thing Beth had stressed- that there was a
limit to how deeply she would be able to inhale at first, and she should
respect that.
   She saw movement out of the corner of her eye.
   As if on cue, the sun peeked out from behind a wispy cirrus cloud, bathing
the car and its occupant in harsh spring light.
   Marilyn went round to the passenger side, waving with an hand holding a
cigarette, the gesture entirely natural. She drew on it slowly as she swung
the door open. As she slid into the seat Anne non-chalantly asked the
principal if she'd mind fetching her sunglasses from the glove box.
   Marilyn opened the small compartment and saw the usual items in a well-
ordered car- insurance papers, car manual, a few dog-eared maps. And an
unopened pack of cigarettes.
   "I don't see them."
   "They're probably behind the cigarettes."
   Anne didn't smile, didn't say they had  to be behind the cigarettes because
she had put them there. Instead she watched as Marilyn pulled the cigarettes
out and found the sunglasses.
   "I always keep an extra pack in my car. Do you rotate ?"
   This question would have made no sense to Anne, save that yesterday Beth had
explained exactly what rotating was and how it was important.
   "Yes, I do."
   "Well, do you mind stopping for me. I have to admit that I forgotten to grab
a second pack when I walked out of the house this morning and I'll never make
it through the day without another pack."
   They were right near the store where Beth her bought those two packs for her
yesterday, but as she put her signal on, Marilyn actually laughed, if mildly.
   Trying not to be nervous, Anne drew on her cigarette in what she hoped was a
non-chalant manner as Marilyn koshed the idea of the convenience store. "We
can get cartons two dollars cheaper at the Mobil Mart on Fifth Street- lowest
prices allowed by law- you'd swear you were in Virginia."
   Anne turned and smiled at Marilyn, blowing smoke.
   "Really. You don't say ?"
   All she could do was wonder if she looked even mildly convincing as she
smoked.

   The Mobil Mart was, for all intensive purposes, a convenience store. The long
wall filled with coolers- everything from Yahoo to Miller Lite and 2%
Buttermilk. The magazine rack with its' odd mix of skin rags and pc gaming
slicks. There was even a single MacAddict, sitting proudly on the top self,
still in its plastic baggie, CD rom safe from the sort of teen age punks that
made the whole concept of the CD magazine iffy.
   The groceries, if overpriced, covered nearly every need from gastronomic to
household.
   Even rat traps of every make and design.
   Of course, they were here for none of these things. Marilyn didn't make any
show about poking about the place's cavernous expanse. There was no point. She
was a smoker and she was here to buy a carton of cigarettes, for which she
would- after tax- have to part with no more than a twenty and two quarters.
   The transaction was quick, smooth, and then it was Anne's turn.
   Why had Beth bought those two packs for her yesterday ? Why hadn't she been a
good friend and forced her to buy them herself.
   Why had she told Marilyn that yes, the pack in the glove compartment was her
last pack ?
   Just because it was true ? That seemed rather silly now, all things
considered.
   "Can I help you ?" the man behind the counter asked. He was a stooped sort of
personage, and as he spoke his mouth moved, revealing a large gap in his lower
teeth as though he'd simply forgotten to put in his bridge this morning on the
way to work. She turned as much away from that gap as she could, her eyes at
least dropping mercifully to the name tag over his left breast pocket.
   Hal Tabbercson, Owner.
   Owner hadn't shaved this morning- he was of that indeterminable male age when
not shaving no longer left whiskers on his face but rather a strange white
stubble, like that of an inveterate drunk- although Hal didn't look to have
that problem.
   "Can I help you ?"
   It was amasing, Anne realised, the observational hoops her mind would jump
through attempting to avoid something unpleasant. Not that buying a carton of
cigarettes had to be unpleasant.
   "A carton of Marlboro Lights 100s please."
   He reached under the counter then stopped. The look on his face was one of
annoyance, either at being asked to bend his old frail back to fetch her
cigarettes or because something had been forgotten. For one brief instance
Anne flattered herself into thinking that he was going to ask to see her
license, but that sensation quickly passed.
   "Soft pack, box, or am I supposed to just guess ?"
   It came out strange. The missing tooth somehow made it difficult for Hal to
say certain letters, and it seemed as though he was asking her if she wanted a
softball. But she was ready for this question- Beth had told her that the
freshness of cigarettes packed in the boxes- although she was at a loss to
explain why- was superior to the soft packs. The higher nicotine content
proved it in her opinion.
   "Box, please." There was no hitch in her voice now and no inattentiveness,
she felt as though she was on very thin ice with Mrs. Wozniak.
   She was wrong.

   Sitting at her desk less than sixteen hours later, it was still hard to
imagine how well lunch had gone, how easily Marilyn had accepted her as a
fellow smoker- it felt like some secret club to which only certain women were
admitted, and the truth was that Anne liked that very much.
   They talked and laughed and never once was there the slightest look of
suspicion in Marilyn's eyes. It was almost too easy, all things considered.
But rather than considering it, Anne had simply accepted, had enjoyed it, and
today, as she sat behind her desk and powered up the new G3 sitting on her
desk, she lit a cigarette.
   It was a nice way to start the school day. She'd resisted the urge to have
one at home and the truth was although she'd had to smoke in the car yesterday
for Marilyn's benefit, she wasn't exactly comfortable doing it. She had
visions of standing on the side of the road, watching her car burn because the
cigarette she'd been smoking had slipped out of her hand and set the rug on
fire.
   She was, however, enjoying her new life as a smoker. There was definitely a
sense of freedom to it, as though she'd been holding back on something for
almost twenty five years and then finally allowed it to break free. Except for
some occasional hoarseness there'd been no negative side effects, and as she
had her new job to think about there was really no question as to whether she
intended to continue.
   It was a minute or two short of seven, so Anne was surprised when she heard a
sheepish knock on her door.
   "Come in."
   "It's not too early ?" a quite teenage girl voice asked.
   She looked at the head peeking through the door and saw that it was Melissa.
   "Melissa Trent, right ?"
   The girl smiled, stepped through the door and closed it behind her. "They
make you take last year's yearbook home and memorise it ?"
   Anne smiled back. She then exhaled. "No. I saw you out on the-" she stopped
herself before said  `playground' because that would have been stupid.
"-smoking area the day before yesterday and Ms. Longfellow pointed you out as
the student president."
   Brushing her blonde hair of the shoulder of her black mock turtleneck,
Melissa gave a `gee, that student president thing is really nothing' grin. "I
suppose that lodestone is never going to be off my neck. When I'm fifty, mom
will be pointing to me from across the room and saying `She was school
president once.'" She smiled again, but Anne finally understood what was wrong
with the girl's perfect smile.
   It was a smile of nervousness, not joy.
   "Trust me. School presidents are obligated to move onto bigger and better
things."
   "I guess you'd know, having been one, right ?"
   "How'd you know ?" Anne asked, intrigued.
   "The acting student body president is granted access- that's exactly how Mr.
Reznoir puts it- to the library of past presidents."
   "Is he still making you keep a journal ?"
   "Yeah. It's a real challenge, trying to make that prose come alive. I mean,
there's only so many ways to describe the annual student vote on Pizza day. At
times, I'd rather write about my bathroom habits."
   Anne drew deeply on her cigarette, held the smoke, and exhaled. She then
remembered why it was Marilyn thought that a smoker should fill this position.
   "You should feel free to smoke, Anne."
   "I was only going to stay a minute," she lied, and although the lie was
transparent, it was still well-delivered.
   "Homeroom isn't for half an hour, and my first appointment is at eight-
thirty, so feel free."
   Melissa did just that. The smile left her face as she reached into the small
black leather purse which matched her shirt exquisitely. She then dug into her
knee length khakis and found a book of matches. She pulled a cigarette from
the box, struck the match against the sole of her birkenstocks- a real trick,
and lit it, quickly extinguishing the match as she drew on the cigarette. Not
until she'd taken a deep draw and tossed the match in the ashtray did she take
the cigarette from her mouth, exhaling as it gently flowed down by her side.
   She was, as Anne already knew, a quite attractive a smoker. That was the nice
thing about being a woman. You could watch another woman smoke and enjoy it
for its sexuality with no strings attached. Sad that men couldn't be open
enough to do the same, in her opinion. Although-
   She decided not to follow that line of thought. It was probably better off
for women that men had no such skill.
   "What can I do for you today, Melissa ?"
   The school president flashed that nervous grin.
   "God, I hate to start down the path. It being your first day and all, you'll
probably never forget this."
   "And it's embarrassing, isn't it ?"
   Anne groaned. Her first day, and her first big mistake. That had to be the
wrong fucking thing to say.
   But Melissa seemed to prefer getting that out in the open. She pulled on the
cigarette, the inhale sharp but not hurried. It always amased Anne how
completely teenage girls smoked these days- not the tame smokers she
remembered from her own high school days. It was a very adult inhale, more
full-bodied than her own.
   She tried to match it, almost succeeding.
   There would be no matching the long, supple nose exhale.
   Melissa struck her as someone who would not take an elliptical path. Her eyes
spoke of sharp reasoning, direct linear thinking. That was a lot to read from
somber blue eyes, but Anne did nonetheless.
   "Do you ever- masturbate when you smoke ?"
   It was an hard question to start with. Anne had only been smoking for three
days, and she did not, as a rule, masturbate. 
   Not consciously, anyway.
   However, she had been dreaming that she was smoking last night when she'd
woken up at three in the morning.
   Woken up in the middle of one of the most glorious orgasms random thought
could provide. It had been what she called a `movie orgasm', complete with the
heavy panting and moaning of a racy X rated screen burner. Her left hand had
been beyond moist and the sheet was all but ruined.
   She'd immediately lit a cigarette and discovered the value of the post-orgasm
smoke.
   "I prefer to call it `playing with myself.'"
   "You mean like when you play both sides of the chess board ?" Melissa asked,
clearly teasing.
   "Not exactly. And that's my answer, too. Not exactly. But I will say- and
this of course is just between you and me-"
   Anne paused. She was about to say the sort of thing which could very easily
get a person in her position fired. There she was, this teenage girl, lit
cigarette held jauntily by her mouth, wrist bent, her long pale fingers
caressing it, and she was about to tell her-
   "-playing with yourself is perfectly natural. In fact, it can be an important
component of relieving stress. I'm going to ask you a very personal question
and you should feel free not to answer. Have you ever had sex ?"
   "No."
   "Well, then as two of the few women who can honestly say that we reached the
ripe old age of seventeen without having had sex, we both should acknowledge
one simple fact- there isn't a healthy, well-adjusted seventeen year old girl-
or boy, who hasn't masturbated at least once. But I do have to ask what about
it brought you into my office ?"
   The only thing harder to believe than that she was having this conversation
on her first day was that she was actually enjoying it.
   "Well, I feel- guilty is the wrong word-"
   "Funny about it ?" Anne finished her cigarette, finding the desire to light
another one both compelling and pleasing. So she did as Melissa drew deeply on
hers, reached forward, and trimmed her ash with a single flick of her index
finger which was both understated and quite effective.
   "Exactly."
   Anne took the first real inhale from her cigarette- she still had a
disturbing habit of taking a baby puff  when she lit the cigarette instead of
a deep inhale which seemed more appropriate, and thought about the best
approach her. They really didn't cover playing with one's self in psych
classes- well, not the ones Anne had taken.
   "Let's start with why and when you started smoking and go from there, if you
don't mind."
   Melissa drew on her cigarette again, deep in thought. She was a brooder, that
was for sure, and it looked good on her.
   "It was the day before classes last year. You know how private schools are-
they hand out permission slips, waivers, and sign-offs of every sort for every
possible contingency, from driving to school to, of course, smoking. Mom
called me into the living room and handed me four of the slips- driving,
parking permit, after-school activities waver, and smoking permission. I was a
little confused."
   "Why ?" Anne asked, intrigued.
   "Well, I had never smoked a cigarette in my life."
   "And your parents ?"
   "Dad started when he was eleven, Mom was she was twelve. I guess they just
assumed that teenagers smoke. She didn't say anything about it, just `here you
go' and then she was off to some play with Dad. She never said a word."
   "Have you ever asked her about it ?"
   "No. I didn't. It was so weird. I sat in that chair for, oh, half an hour or
so, and then I got up, got in the car, drove down to Mackey's and bought a
pack of the same cigarettes Mom smokes. I figured, why not, you know ?"
   "And that was it ?"
   "Basically. I had my first three cigarettes that night while they were out.
They came back home and I was upstairs, smoking the last of them. They were
kind of beat- it was a three hour play, I guess. They just said good night and
went to bed."
   "Has it ever come up since ?"
   Melissa didn't need to think about that. "No. I can honestly say that it
hasn't. Isn't that bizarre ?"
   Anne would liked to have said no, but that too would have been on the order
of a lie.
   "A little. It's not really something parents usually dodge. So now I know a
little of the history. Tell about- this other thing."
   For a moment, neither woman spoke. Instead they smoked quietly, reflectively.
One of the things Anne was learning about smoking was that it was a great
equaliser. You had to concentrate on doing it only peripherally, just enough
to open your mind and get a chance to think.
   "You're probably still asking yourself why I would bother to come here at
seven am to talk about this."
   "Well, either this is one of Mrs. Wozniak's insidious first day tests or you
want to talk this out with some neutral party who has no preconceived
opinions. Please say it's because you want to talk this out-"
   They both laughed.
   "Well, it's just- I don't want to sound like a pretentious egoist, but I read
Steinbeck and Shakespeare in my spare time. I loathe Friends. I'm not what
you'd think of-"
   "When you think of someone who plays with herself ?"
   "God, it creeps me out just talking about it, you know ?"
   Anne drew deeply on her cigarette, noticing that it was getting easier with
each one to actually inhale.
   "But you're doing it anyone. Look, there's nothing- I don't know, anti-
intellectual- about being in touch with your own sexuality. At the risk of way
overstepping my bounds, tell me how it happens."
   After finishing another stylish nose exhale, Melissa answered.
   "I- sometimes after a light a cigarette, after I take that first draw of the
smoke, I just get these urges. It's as though that feeling you get when you
inhale- it's as though my whole body gets infused with that. I can feel my
skin, my hair. I just- I think the word for it is electric. But it's not just
on the outside. It's all through me. Like the way your stomach feels after you
drink brandy- at least the way I've read it feels. But it's strongest all the
way down there-"
   "Smoking is a very sexual act. Look at the history of it in the movies, for
example. True, it's the bad girl who always smokes, but if we want to draw
trite analogies, let's be honest. Everyone wants a girl who is at least a
little bad. Smoking is by nature infused with sexuality."
   Melissa nodded. "Even though I've never talked about it with my parents-
maybe because  I've never talked about it with them- it feels naughty
sometimes."
   "Does that naughtiness correlate with when -"
   "You know, I never thought about it that way, but yeah."
   "Did you ever think maybe that's why your parents never talked to you. That
they appreciate the good feeling of being a little naughty some times ?"
   "I don't think my mother intended me to play with myself while I smoked !"
   "Who knows ? If I were you, I'd stop worrying about it. You're obviously
well-adjusted, and more important from my side of the desk, your grades are
excellent. I say keep it up."
   "That'd be a lot easier if I was a guy. Look, I have to get going, but I want
to thank you. I feel a lot better about- about things."
   With that she was gone, but this time her smile was genuine.

   Marilyn walked in about three. As soon as she'd closed the door she sat down
and lit a cigarette.
   Anne bookmarked the website she'd been browsing, trimmed the ash from her
cigarette, and smiled at the principal.
   "So, are you coming back for a second day ?"
   It wasn't exactly a facetious question, but it was close.
   "I think so. I want you to know, I called in my first favour today. I got
Johnny Simmons a second interview at Harvard- I'll try to coach him, because
this time of year there aren't many opening left."
   "I saw Melissa sneak in here this morning. How's she doing ?"
   It was perfectly natural for the principal to be concerned about her school
president and one of her top students, and the tone in her voice was not
asking her to tell all but rather just confirm that the flagship of the fleet
wasn't taking on water. Anne realised at once that she might just enjoy
working for Marilyn.
   "She's a perfectly normal teenager. Just wanted to shoot the shit, meet and
greet the new girl in town."
   Marilyn's exhale filled the room with smoke. Anne wondered how it was that
she could have gone so quickly from someone who hated that sight to someone
who liked it.
   But she had.
   "You were right. She was much more comfortable talking to me once I told her
she could smoke."
   Marilyn could have pressed at that point, could have reminded Anne that a
comfort zone wasn't necessary for meet and greet. Instead she stood up,
grinning, and said "Glad to hear it, even though as the principal it's my
prerogative to always be right."
   "I'll try to remember that," Anne said, half-jokingly.
   "Good. I think this is going to work out just fine."
   And in the end, that was just what it did.


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