Pack Mentality

It took me three cigarettes before I figured out how to inhale.

I was sitting on Ella Cattaneo’s porch. So was my boyfriend and his punk friend. It was March, and cold. They had all come to my modern dance performance because that was back when I was still a modern dancer.

Ella lived with three anarchists who used a bucket for the toilet so it wasn’t wasteful. She was younger than us, but she had dropped out of high school and moved out of her mom and stepdad’s house.

I loved Ella.

Or, I had loved her.

A year before, when we bumped into each other in the school psychologist’s office, I added “date Ella” to my to-do list. I hadn’t crossed it off yet.

We met in Latin class when we were freshman. She remembers us being partnered up for a skit practicing declinations. I don’t, but I think it’s nice she does. But that was before I knew I loved her and also before I really knew I loved people who weren’t men.

When we met again in the school psychologist’s office as rising seniors, both of us were coming off rough years. I’d been in inpatient care at the child and adolescent psychiatric hospital for a week at the beginning of May. It interfered with my AP History test. She had been in outpatient care and going to the remedial school. In the office, she wore ripped jeans (the kind that had worn out over time, not the kind that came that way), and necklaces with keys on them.

I took her with me to comedy shows and she told me about the Mountain Goats when we had coffee downtown after. But she was sort of sleeping with her twenty-two year old girlfriend and I was sort of coming on really strong, so eventually I stopped sending her messages with Tegan and Sara lyrics. That was around the time Nick started trying to get me to date him.

That was a whole thing too. I wanted to spend Calculus class daydreaming about my first girlfriend, not be bothered by the boy from my AP English class the year before. I barely even remembered him. Like I said, that was a rough year.

“You hated me,” he said to me when he got my attention from two desks away.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did. You always shot down everything I said whenever I made a comment.”

“Probably because you weren’t making smart comments.”

And then he fell in love with me and I said, “Believe me, you don’t want to date me. I have so much baggage.” But he just sat in his gold minivan in my driveway with me while I talked about how fucked up I was and bought me coffee after everyone else left my birthday party and that’s how five months later, we wound up on Ella Cattaneo’s porch after my dance performance.

Nick and his punk friend got stoned but that was before I started smoking pot all the time, and I guess Ella was into solidarity because she didn’t get high with them. And it was like this whole feminist thing, like Ani Difranco, like this is just between girls kind of thing. I felt it and I know she felt it because we kept accidentally touching hands sitting next to each other on the couch while my boyfriend and his punk friend watched adult cartoons on the rabbit-ear tv.

Then we felt it so much she said, “I’m going outside to smoke,” and I said, “I’m coming with you.”

The boys followed us, but we knew a lot of things they didn’t, like how it feels to fall in love with another woman, so it was okay.

Ella lit her cigarette. She offered one to me and I said, “Okay, sure.”

I hadn’t smoked since I’d bought a pack right after I turned 18 the previous fall. I bought Camels from the CVS by the grocery store. My parents had let me take the minivan. I had lied. I’d said I was picking up my prescription for my anti-depressants. The cashier didn’t card me, which was really disappointing because that was half the reason I was buying the pack.

I didn’t realize I hadn’t been inhaling until I was smoking on Ella’s porch.

It made me cough. But I didn’t want her to think I was a square so I tried really hard to hold it in, which made my eyes water. I didn’t know how to ash it yet and it didn’t look cool when I tried. I lost feeling in my hand smoking it because it was so cold outside.

I was breaking curfew and the longer we stayed, the more I wanted to kiss Ella and the more I thought it was a good idea. Nick was stoned, I kept thinking. He wouldn’t know what was happening.

We left. He drove me home. He wanted to make out in my driveway. I kissed him once and went inside.

That night, lying in bed, my fingers still smelled like smoke.

A week later, I told Nick I was in love with Ella and maybe we could make it work where I saw both of them. But he didn’t like that and neither did she. We sat in his minivan and he cried for a long time. It was the only time he ever did in front of me. I did not like the feeling of breaking his heart.

But that’s how I wound up back on Ella Cattaneo’s porch smoking more cigarettes. I kept saying, “Don’t let me start smoking,” and she’d say, “Okay,” but then we would have sex in her bed all night Friday and all day Saturday, and I just wanted to be as close to her as possible, so sometimes that meant taking the cigarette right out of her mouth and inhaling some of the smoke myself.

And that’s how Nick wound up glowering at me from across the classroom in our AP English class when our teacher compared me to Mrs. Ramsay from a Virginia Woolf book.

And then eventually, that’s how I wound up sitting on the university campus lawn smoking cigarettes downtown while skipping class because Ella had broken my heart. That was a really unexpected twist in our perfect beautiful girls-only romance.

Which is also how I wound up sitting with Nick in the lobby during our high school prom, him with a pack of cigarettes for me in his coat pocket. And how I wound up sitting at the end of his driveway with him, leaning my head against his shoulder and telling him we could probably have sex again and it would be fine.

This is how I wound up being the girl who knew how to flick the ash off the end of a cigarette and get her exes to sleep with her again.

It took three more years of smoking before I even tried to take a break from that.

It took empty paint cans filled with American Spirit and Parliament Light butts on the patio of my first apartment. It took ashtrays at the diner downtown where I drank coffee in snowstorms and gave the waitresses tarot readings. It took frozen fingers and car lighters and shots of whiskey and getting stoned in a house with crusty punk kids and falling in love with someone else and moving to New York so we could be together before I quit.

Before I quit the first time.

Because then my new girlfriend and I couldn’t resist smoking cigarettes when we were drunk on red wine sitting on our roof in Brooklyn looking at the Manhattan skyline. And I couldn’t resist smoking cigarettes after we broke up and moved into different apartments and I pretended like my heart wasn’t breaking.

Maybe if someone had told me not to inhale when I was on that porch in the cold night, I would have saved myself a lot of misery.

But no one did. Nick sat on the porch stoned and Ella was the one who offered and my dad and stepmom were at home fighting with each other.

That summer, when Ella agreed to be my girlfriend again, we smoked a lot of cigarettes on her new porch downtown. I cut my hair really short, like Edie Sedgwick, and wore Ella’s cowgirl boots and vintage Levi’s westerns. We listened to folk records in her room and watched the beginnings of horror movies in her bed before we got distracted making out. We smoked sitting on her fire escape.

Then when she broke up with me again, I kept smoking. I thought it would keep me feeling close to her. I took breaks from work and smoked in the alley where we took out the garbage. I smoked at the house where her friends lived. We got stoned and watched Robot Chicken while someone bleached my hair. We didn’t worry about the bleach catching on fire.

The next summer I moved into a co-op downtown. I did a lot of mushrooms there. The cigarettes felt bad when I was tripping, but I smoked them anyway. A lot of mornings for breakfast I had a cigarette and an energy drink.

I started seeing someone else. She lived on a farm on the state line. She shared my cigarettes with me when we got stoned in her car. Then she started buying her own packs. I was passing along the favor.

After we broke up and the new person I was in love with moved to New York, I started smoking with one of the line cooks from the diner. He came to visit me at work and we’d stand outside while I took drags off his cigarette and he’d take sips of the cappuccino I’d made him.

Pretty soon he got married and then we started sleeping together. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 played in the background on the tv and our Spirits smoldered in the ashtray on his coffee table while we fucked on his couch.

Then I met a recovering heroin addict while I was smoking outside the bar that never carded me. He spent a lot of time on my porch smoking cigarettes. He was very good at flicking the ash. That’s what I remember about him.

A lot of things have changed since that night on Ella’s porch. I don’t dance anymore. Nick fell in love with someone else and won’t talk to me. The person I was in love with for three years and shared a life with fell in love with someone else and won’t talk to me. I forgot how to read tarot cards. My dad got divorced again. I got my heart broken a few more times. I graduated college. Ella tells me about her new girlfriends and I don’t get jealous because it has been so long since we were the girls with our legs tangled up together, cigarettes or each other’s lips in our mouths.

I quit for the third time this past winter.

My depression came back. I started drinking a lot of wine at night alone, or whiskey with one of the people who would break my heart. I smoked cigarettes leaning out of windows. I bought Parliaments and Spirits, like always, and learned which bodegas had the cheapest.

It didn’t feel punk anymore. It didn’t feel like my own cinematic lesbian romance. It didn’t feel like a revolution; like sneaking out at night, having a beer at high school parties during blizzards, falling in love sitting on laps, drives home from dance rehearsal, leaving the sanctuary while my father was mid-sermon, painting portraits of naked women, or being alive without worrying that wasn’t forever.

I went back on meds so I didn’t feel like total shit all the time. They helped, which is good, and they also made me not want to smoke anymore. The cigarettes tasted like chemicals and staleness. I stopped wanting them.

By now, most of my friends have quit too. We worry about things like 401K’s and credit card bills and which one of us will get married first. We drink beer we bought for ourselves and we drink it in front of our parents. We don’t fall in love as hard or as often. We go to bed at reasonable times to wake up for our jobs. I live in Brooklyn; I don’t sit on porches anymore.

Still, I always keep a pack on my windowsill in the kitchen for the times I want to crawl out onto the fire escape, watch the sunset, and pretend I am a dancer who knows something about love and nothing about its finiteness again.

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