Editor’s Note: Here’s the first story of Fiona Helmsley’s we published in Air in the Paragraph Line #13 back in 2010. Make sure to check out her new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.
I smoked my first cigarette the same night Guns N’ Roses debuted their video for Paradise City on MTV. I was spending the night at my friend Angie Caravello’s house. We opened her bedroom window to blow the smoke outside.
“I’m high!” I said, after completing my first correct inhale. I felt tingly all over and strangely energized, even for the late hour.
“No you’re not, dummy.” Angie retorted, annoyed at my ignorance. “You’re just lightheaded. It happens the first time you get nicotine in your system. Pot, now that gets you high. Next time you come over, I’ll have my friend from West Hartford get us some.”
But I wasn’t paying attention. I was too busy feeling dizzy and watching the coal on the end of my cigarette glow each time I inhaled. I was thirteen years old.
My parents were smokers. My mom liked Virginia Slims lights, my dad Merits. My dad successfully quit the year before I started, but my parents were divorced by that time so I didn’t have to worry about him smelling the scent of my new habit. We lived next to a gas station and I’d been buying cigarettes there for my mom for years. At first, the gas station manager had no questions when the brand of choice changed from Virginia Slims to Camels, but when he noticed a group of teenagers lingering on our rooftop next door, lollipops of glowing amber hanging from our mouths, he got suspicious and called my mom.
“Fiona, are you smoking?” She asked, hanging up the telephone later that night.
It wasn’t a good time for truth. It was the height of my “Where there is doubt, make it count” phase which coincided with all of my adolescence, which made it more than just a phase. And most of my young adulthood, for that matter.
“I hope not.” My mom answered, dejectedly. “Do you remember when you used to bury my cigarettes in the yard because you didn’t want me smoking them?” She spoke with a touch of guilty nostalgia.
I did. I’d done it more than once, too. One time in particular stuck out in my mind- election night 1984. I grudgingly went next door and got my mom her coveted Virginia Slims. She was so wound up in the election results, she hardly noticed as I slunk in and out of the TV room, each time taking another cigarette from the pack I just bought for her. As Mondale/Ferraro battled Reagan/ Bush for control of the country, I battled cigarettes for control of my mom. Each kidnapped cancer stick was placed in the same mass grave in the front yard. In a scene straight out of Good Parenting 101, my mother caught me on the fifth time around and demanded a heart to heart discussion. She appreciated my concern and she loved me. She would smoke no more cigarettes for the rest of the evening, she vowed. As I went upstairs to bed, I felt hopeful.
“No, no, NO!! ” I heard my mom scream five minutes later.
Then the flick of a lighter.
Reagan/Bush had won re-election.
My mother had lasted half an hour without a cigarette.
The first time I tried to quit, I was fifteen. It was very hard. I was a freshman in high school and had already been indoctrinated to bathroom smoking. After every class, the same group of girls would gather in the same designated bathroom for a quick puff before the next bell. We were a mutual addiction society, our shared cigarette bathed in the color of five different lipsticks. We crossed economic and social stratospheres, just like the kids in The Breakfast Club, only all female and all smelling like Judd Nelson’s character. I lasted two days. I missed my friends in the bathroom.
I convinced myself that if I quit for good, it would be a quick snowball effect until my friends saw me only at class, then only the weekends and then never. It was the same with the situation with the field hockey team I’d recently been in. A lot of my friends played, which involved travel for games and a lot of on- field bonding that I wasn’t apart of. Joining the team was out because I’d never so much as picked up a stick. I knew I had to find a way to ingratiate myself into the game, but it wasn’t going to be through playing. In desperation, I agreed to carry the team cooler. Field hockey, like smoking, was something that bonded me and my friends together.
Without the cigarettes, I was getting to class early and alone. Smoking had become a matter of social survival.
My eighteenth birthday finally came and with it the right to look every convenience store clerk in the eye when they asked me for ID at the counter.
At the same time I was getting my right on, non smokers everywhere were asserting theirs. They were developing their voices and the sound was disapproving. By the time I moved to NYC for college, the non smoking contingent was loud and proud. Why should they suffer for our dirty habits?
The college board at the school I was attending heard them and decreed no smoking on campus. None of the other students seemed to mind and the school bathrooms always smelled bleach-y and smoke free. Where had all my black lung compadres gone? Anyway, I kind of agreed with the non smokers. I understood their perspective, even if I didn’t appreciate their gains. I had empathy for the innocents. Inhaling second hand smoke was like getting crabs from a public toilet. Reaping the negative consequence of someone else’s pleasure. No fair.
But when their clean air movement infiltrated the bars of NYC, effectively outlawing bar smoking citywide, it was hard to remain so cooperatively passive.
First they came for the Communists and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Communist…then they came for the Catholics.. and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Catholic…when they came for the smokers, I keep my mouth closed and ruined my chances of playing muse to a literary great.
Thaddeus Robbery was my imaginary boyfriend. I’d read his zine “Robbery” for years. Published just once a year, I read and reread each years copy till the staples wore down and the pages fell out. Thad lived hard and loved harder, devoting the pages of Robbery to his criminal exploits and crimes of the heart. Some girls aspired to Playboy, I aspired to Robbery. There was nothing I wanted more than to be one of the women Thad wrote about in his zine. Part Jack Kerouac and part Iggy Pop, Thad had sang for a series of punk bands in the late eighties, but now devoted most of his time to writing.
And as my friend Lauren explained to me, when she called to ask me if I would meet him at a bar near my apartment in Brooklyn, trying to pay the bills in typical post punk rock fashion.
As a bar dj in Williamsburg.
“Thaddeus Robbery is in Brooklyn trying to line up a dj gig at Psycho Hose Beast. I know you love him. You were the first person I thought of to show him around. He knows no one in NYC. Hook up with him at the bar there. You can thank me later.”
The street directly outside Psycho Hose Beast was one large, drunken, human ashtray. Now that smoking was no longer allowed inside, this was familiar sight outside most NYC bars. I was about to join their ranks, lighter in hand when I was distracted by a voice that I’d heard before, only coming from my record player.
“You fucking smoker scumbags! What a bunch of sorry, fucking losers. This is fucking great. I love that you dogs are out of the street. Gives me an idea of who to avoid inside.”
And with that, Thaddeus Robbery entered Psycho Hose Beast. It was a perplexing scene to witness. I didn’t know how to react. Was Thad drunk? Did he just not like smokers? Maybe a loved one had recently died of cancer? Was Thad just an asshole? The crowd outside didn’t seem to care. These drunken outdoor smoking circles were a breeding ground for his type of angry outburst. I decided it better not to keep him waiting and threw my intended cigarette to the sidewalk, mystified.
My excitement returned as I passed through the door of the bar. I had a date with Thaddeus Robbery. Sort of. I wondered how well it would translate to the written word. I’d worn an a tight, black glittery dress so Thad could use lots of adjectives.
“Well when will your boss be here?” Thad quizzed the bartender, who already seemed annoyed. He’d only been inside a few moments and was already armed with a drink and a sneer. He was getting more and more intimidating with each encounter I witnessed. I tapped him lightly on the shoulder.
“No, I don’t want to buy any fucking batteries!” Thad’s arm made a shooing motion in my direction but he didn’t turn around.
“You took the L train here, didn’t you?” I pretended to laugh, completely ignoring his nasty assumption. “Let me guess, the Chinese lady, with the cart who also sells CD’s? She is really annoying! She totally got up in my face the other day singing Baby Boy in an attempt to get me to buy the Beyonce CD.”
He stared at me blankly, as if trying to determine my origin so he could make sure I never, ever happened again.
“I’m Lauren’s friend? Fiona?”
“Oh Fiona!” His eyes teased deceptively. “Well la dee fucking da! I have no fucking idea who you are! I do know someone in New York–this cunt, Lauren–who is supposed to be my friend. But instead of doing something real uncunty–like, like say, showing up here, herself, she sends out a COMPLETE FUCKING STRANGER IN HER PLACE! “
At the same time, my phone rang. Lauren’s phone number flashed across the screen.
“Its for you.” I said, handing it to Thaddeus. I couldn’t stand the thought of listening to him argue with Lauren about what an obvious, flashing light loser I was.
“I’m going out to smoke a cigarette.” I stumbled, handing him the phone.
Thaddeus’s body bolted up right, as if a large squirrel had just attempted to penetrate his asshole without permission or lube.
“YOU’RE GOING TO SMOKE A…. CIGARETTE?” His face twisted, like saying the very word left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“No,” I interrupted, “I’m going to go outside with The Cigarettes,” I took a deep breath. How had I forgotten his anti-smoking tirade? “There a band I know.”
I took the ten steps to the door five at a time, effectively ruining his chance to respond. A group of girls leaned against a car parked outside. I could see Thaddeus staring at me through the window as he talked on my phone. I made small talk with the girls.
My nerves were a mess. I thought of asking one of the fake Cigarettes for a drag of her namesake, but Thad was still watching me through the window. This was going all wrong. Why had I made that Beyonce comment? I’d hate me too. I wanted a cigarette so badly. It was as if Thaddeus’ scolding had stripped all the residual nicotine from my system.
My imaginary boyfriend had turned abusive. Did we need imaginary counseling? He continued to glare at me through the window as he hung up my phone. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, I told myself. He could find me. He knew all my potential hiding spots. He had my phone.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Thaddeus was knocking on the window to get my attention. He beckoned me with his finger.
As I reentered the bar, he shoved a drink into my hand.
“I’m sorry Fiona. Its not you. Its me. Lauren told me you’re a big fan. We’d be nothing without our fans…..”
His apology sounded like a Susan Lucci Emmy acceptance speech but with unexplained plural pronouns. My palms where clammy. I was in full fledged nicotine withdrawal.
“I need to use the bathroom.” I stammered.
“Go empty yourself then.” He dismissed my weak human need with a flick of his wrist. “Don’t forget to wash your hands. I will know if you don’t.”
The walk to the bathroom was a blur. My hands shook as I closed the bathroom door, brought the cigarette to my mouth and lit it in one fell swoop. The nicotine flooded my starved cells and I felt lightheaded.
“I’m high!” I mouthed the words in tribute to Angie Caravello, seventeen years after she’d first corrected me. I wondered if she wore mom jeans now.
“All right, whatever you’re smoking in there, drop it in the bowl and come out of the stall.”
I’d been so focused on my need for nicotine I ‘d completely ignored the cardinal rule of unlawful bathroom smoking-survey the scene first. Had I not learned anything in high school? I attempted to fan the smoke cloud from the air, but it was futile. I was caught.
It was the annoyed faced bartender who’d been talking to Thad earlier.
“What aren’t you getting? I saw you outside with all the other nicotine freaks. You know the deal. There is a zero tolerance policy in effect towards smoking inside bars now. Zero. We’ve had undercover cops in here for the past month just looking for violations. It’s the bar owners that get screwed for your stupidity. What you just did could get us shut down.”
I did understand her position. I decided to take the risk that maybe she’d understand mine.
“Would you believe I’m trying to impress a guy?”
“I don’t care. Get your shit and get out.”
So this was it. This was how the evening was destined to end. It was like an after school special for “Just be yourself.” I’d gone to this great length to hide my habit only to be exposed anyway. What the fuck would I say to Thad?
The bartender held the bathroom door open.
“Alright, alright.” My Robbery dreams had, for lack of a better analogy, just gone up in smoke.
“I know I broke the rules, but come on. This is really embarrassing. I’m here tonight with a guy I really like too.”
“Oh I’m crying for you. You have two minutes to get your stuff and get out. If I have to tell you again, I promise, you will be really embarrassed.” The expression on her face reflected the truth in her statement.
I considered my options as I made my way back to the bar. Thad was slouched on his barstool, elbows on the counter. He had a fresh drink in front of him.
Telling the truth was out. Thad had made his feelings on smoking toxin- free pondwater- crystal clear. He may of been at Psycho Hose Beast for a real job interview, but I felt like my evening was a job interview of sorts, too. I was auditioning for Robbery. I was acting like an idiot, but that was just it–I was acting. I wasn’t really an idiot. People all over the world did things like this when they liked a person–hid little aspects of their personalities that didn’t translate well to first impressions.
I still had hope I could get Thad to come home with me. Surely if we couldn’t have a meeting of the minds, we could have a meeting of the bodies.
Unhappily, I foreshadowed to Thad back at my apartment, with me in and out of the bathroom all night long to smoke. I couldn’t decide which fate was worse–Thad knowing I was a smoker, or Thad thinking I had chronic diarrhea.
“You smell horrid.” Thad said, handing me a drink as I approached him, my hands still wet from the furious cigarette stink disinfecting they’d just received in the bathroom sink.
“Listen Thad, your not going to believe this but….in the bathroom…”
I looked in his eyes, searching, looking for something, anything.
“In the bathroom…..I……… met an undercover cop and she said this place is about to be busted!” I paused for dramatic effect, then grabbed my jacket and phone from the bar, hoping Thad would follow suit.
Instead he began twirling his drink stirrer, watching it as it twisted.
“And that affects us because…”
“Thad, they’re going to take the whole place down! We don’t want to be caught up in that! Come on, We got to go! This place is crawling with cops!”
I grabbed at his sleeve, catching the peeved bartender’s eye from across the room in the process.
“I’m not going anywhere. I have nothing to fucking hide. I’m an American fucking citizen. I’ll just sit here and watch and make sure they do the job right. It will be like a live action episode of Cops.” He was defiant.
“Thad you’ve got to listen to me…we have got to go……”
“What do you have to hide Fi-fi?” He eyed me mischievously. “What, are you holdin’? You holdin’ Fi-Fi? You holdin’?” He said ‘holdin’ the way one would when making fun of drug lingo. “I’m so done with all the B.S, Fi-Fi. Done. D-O-N-E.” He slurred his words. “All of it. Be honest with me, you holdin’?”
I wanted a cigarette again. My want for Thad stroked my want for nicotine. It was a vicious circle since one canceled the other out.
The bartender moved into my field of vision, glaring in my direction. My time was up.
“That’s one of them, Thad. Shes giving me the secret signal. I gotta go. The bust is going to happen any minute.”
It was all so futile and stupid. ” And, yeah, Thad, I am. I am holdin’.”
I fingered the pack of cigarettes in my pocket. They were contraband as far as he was concerned.
“You know, I could tell the moment I met you.” He touched my hand gently than quickly pounded it with his fist. “Now make fucking tracks or I’ll turn you in myself.”
I knew as I turned to leave, he was probably not serious about the second part. Thaddeus Robbery was putting on a show just as much as I was pretending I wasn’t a smoker or that I had drugs in my pocket. Just like Glenn Danzig with the gym or Henry Rollins with the IFC, Thad’s attitude was just a post punk defense mechanism.
But then, I remembered, I did have drugs in my pocket.
As I walked to the subway station, tobacco filled cigarette in one hand and marijuana filled cigarette in the other, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. In effect, I’d chosen cigarettes over Thad. Maybe not directly, but I’d known his extreme feelings about the habit and taken the risk anyway. What else could I justify doing in the name of a nicotine refuel? What other dreams where I willing to defer? Laws were I willing to break? I’d thought I’d loved Thad. Or at least the idea of being in his zine. But I now understood–I actually loved cigarettes more.
You think your guy’s hot? Well mine’s smokin’.