There was a cigarette butt floating in the toilet bowl. Soggy, truncated, the orange paper at the tip and the black of the ash clarified under the water. If the stray flecks of ash composed a message in code, it read: Dad was smoking again.
The sole reason I’d been in my parents’ bathroom in the first place was because it had been a decadent thing to do when they weren’t home (even the shade of paint—pale apricot—in contrast to the vulgar, yellow, fingerprint-smudged walls of the bathroom I shared with my sister seemed to say, Here is a place where one bathes). Finding the butt was a surprise because Dad was supposed to have quit weeks ago, but it didn’t faze me. I lowered the lid and left the room, not feeling happy and not feeling sad.
I was twelve when this happened, when my mother requested, half-flirtatiously, that my father quit smoking by the weekend of their big anniversary party. I didn’t know how long ago he’d started. I knew that in our old house Mom had been more lenient, even at the dinner table, where we ate scalloped potatoes and peas under a veil of smoke. I knew that when I wore Dad’s bomber jacket to school (I liked how the sleeves fully swallowed my arms and hands) the girls in my class would tell me I smelled like cigarettes. I couldn’t tell because I was immune to it by then. It seemed impressive to me, that they could identify the scent at their age.
It was around this time that my sister, Ainsley, took up smoking, although it’s possible she’d been doing it for months without my knowing. She was older by five years, and the age gap between us—unusual among our friends, whose parents had the foresight to stagger their children at two-year intervals—was a source of anxiety for me. I understood that in the coming years certain distractions (college applications, mall jobs, guys with facial hair—all of which were more alluring than me) meant our relationship was probably doomed.
Ainsley had a friend named Shan, who was skinny and had big eyes. Shan was, given my limited social net, the prettiest girl I knew. When she came over I was always very nice to her, and sometimes, arbitrarily it seemed, she was nice back. Other times, she ignored me completely. Both Shan and Ainsley were especially good at pretending not to notice someone for no particular reason.
I’d seen Shan smoking before, in an empty parking lot where feathery weeds stuck out of cracks in the cement. I’d watched her to see how she was doing it—something I’d never done with my dad, who seemed to smoke purely out of necessity. Employing deliberate, seductive flourish, Shan would elongate her neck in front of the boys and tilt her head skyward as she exhaled. The first time I saw this I made a silent promise to take up smoking if a girl asked me to.
Sometimes I would go with Ainsley and Shan to a coffee shop in town where you could get a custard tart or a chocolate-coconut doughnut for a quarter. Riding in Shan’s car was one of my earliest adolescent thrills, even though the girls changed radio stations and sang pop songs with more enthusiasm than they ever reserved for me. They would buy milky coffees and slide into a vinyl-upholstered booth—their booth—with such authority, marking their territory with packs of menthol cigarettes, stickered lighters, nail polish, and ballpoint pens without caps.
Usually, Ainsley and Shan ignored me on such excursions, encircling me with a strip of imaginary hazard tape. When they did address me it was to suggest I get another doughnut, allowing them a snatch of privacy. I went, of course, because as long as I obeyed I didn’t feel guilty for being there. When I returned, I lapsed into my private habit of studying Shan as if it were my job to catalogue her every teenage-girl tic.
“Can I help you? ” she said once she noticed.
I didn’t answer.
“Leave him alone,” Ainsley said. “He’s not going to say anything.”
“I just think it’s weird,” Shan laughed, then said to Ainsley, “Why don’t you get a doughnut? ” She had a way of sounding like she was challenging you.
“Because I don’t want a doughnut,” Ainsley said.
A couple weeks later, Ainsley began acting strange. I noticed that she wasn’t going to school. She often said she was sick, but evidence of this—the hot water bottle, throat lozenges, crumpled tissue balls—was conspicuously absent. Ainsley was always one to complain of phantom aches, to stop doing things that required her to stand for too long, but this time seemed more selfish and more serious than the others.
There were new laws governing our household—each more mysterious and unspoken. Ainsley didn’t have to eat meals with us. She didn’t wake up until the afternoon, and it was rare to see her applying lipstick in the hallway mirror before school like she used to. I didn’t say anything to her, and I didn’t say anything to my parents. We didn’t talk about it—that was the most strict law of all.
I worried more about what Ainsley’s teachers thought about her missing so much class than I did about her health, because her symptoms were invisible to me. She just seemed like she couldn’t bring herself to do anything—iron a shirt, boil an egg, leave the house.
One morning I woke with the flu. Mom was working days at the time, so Dad stayed home. I was in bed with a cool facecloth on my forehead when I heard him yelling at Ainsley. Then things started banging on the kitchen table. I got out of bed and sat at the top of the stairs in my pyjamas. Dad was pulling things out of the refrigerator one at a time and calling out their names like they were what he was mad at.
“Pickles! Macaroni! Bean Salad! Salami! There’s plenty in here! I’m looking at it!”
Ainsley wasn’t saying anything. Dad was using the same booming voice he’d used on us when we were much younger, one that provoked instant, frightened submission. I don’t think he’d yet learned how to make teenagers obey him. Ainsley, shrunken on the couch, seemed more impatient than intimidated.
“Cottage cheese!” he said, as the tub vibrated on the counter. “Plums!” His voice was starting to crack, sounding desperate, almost pathetic. “Come on now,” he pleaded with my sister. “Eat something.”
Eventually Ainsley agreed to eat a banana. I watched as she placed it delicately on the coffee table in front of her then did nothing. The freckled banana just lay there, frowning back at her. Dad put everything else back into the fridge.
“You’re going to eat that,” he declared, pointing his finger. “And I know you’re smoking. You better cut that out too.”
I remembered the cigarette butt I’d found in the toilet. My instinct was to stick up for Ainsley, even though I didn’t understand why she was being punished. But I guess I didn’t have the courage to snitch on a grown-up.
“Yes, Dad,” Ainsley whispered.
Once he’d left her alone she peeled the banana and bit off a quarter of it. Her cheeks puffed up, and after swallowing she took the remaining portion and threw it against the wall as hard as she could. I think she knew I was watching. The peel dropped lamely to the ground and little bits flew everywhere, as if a custard tart had burst.
By the week of Mom and Dad’s anniversary, things had settled down, although there was no staged reconciliation. It’s possible Mom had just told everyone to be nice, as practice for when company came over. Still, Ainsley seldom went to class, but she was eating again. Everyone was making sure of it. (One night she’d theatrically eaten an entire chicken wing in one bite, pulling out the clean, grey bone for her finale.) There was a fog of mutual embarrassment around the dinner table. I think she ate only out of duty—not for sustenance or pleasure.
Dad had started smoking again, officially. This failure didn’t cause much of a stir. Mom busied herself with preparations for the anniversary party, vacuuming corners and ledges and crevices, retrieving jars of pickled asparagus and frozen meats from the cellar.
On Thursday morning before the party, Mom had given me a short grocery list of things to pick up for Saturday: two loaves of bread, sweet relish, plain potato chips (so as not to offend anyone’s particular potato-chip tastes). On my way to the store I saw Shan alone on a quiet street. She was walking on the narrow curb, her arms outstretched to steady herself, a stubby cigarette between her knuckles.
“Shan!” I said.
She turned slowly, the expression on her face glazed and neutral.
“Hey,” she said. Maybe she’d forgotten my name.
“Hey,” I said. It suddenly occurred to me that Shan had not been to our house in a while—in fact, she hadn’t visited Ainsley since she’d gotten sick.
We walked a bit in silence.
“How’s your sister? ” she asked, finally acknowledging she knew who I was. She took a drag on her cigarette and I felt powerful beside her.
“She’s fine,” I said.
Shan nodded as if she knew that already.
“I’m just going to the grocery store. My mom asked me to pick some things up for Saturday.”
“What’s Saturday? ”
Foolishly, I’d assumed everyone knew what Saturday was. I’d given away how small my life was.
“My parents’ anniversary party,” I said. “Their twentieth,” I added, hoping in vain to convey its importance.
“Hmm,” she said. “I see.”
We walked in silence a little farther. We were heading in the opposite direction of the store, though I didn’t say anything. We came to a strip of grass that seemed to have no purpose, an expansive front lawn belonging to no one in particular. Shan sat down on the grass. Her bra strap was showing and her eyes were glassy. She butted her cigarette in the soil and crossed her legs, then did something she’d probably never done before—she took a long, greedy look at me.
The feeling of being looked at like that was unlike anything I’d ever felt. It awakened insecurities I never knew existed, let alone had the chance to consciously suppress—the fact that in places I was still doughy with baby fat, the feminine way I threw a baseball or Frisbee. Suddenly my skin was alive with the knowledge that people could be nasty toward me, that I could be the target of some cruel, private joke long before I had the tools to notice it.
“What’s your sister’s problem, anyway? ” she said, spitting on the grass.
“I don’t know,” I said, genuinely confused.
“She never calls me back. I called her twenty times, probably.”
“She’s been sick.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “Too sick to pick up a phone.”
She lit another cigarette and I avoided her large eyes. Did she think Ainsley was lying?
“You want one? ” she asked.
I got the sense, as the smoke curled out of her mouth, that this was another one of her challenges.
“No,” I said. “No, thanks.”
That’s how brittle my promises to myself were back then. Suddenly I felt like I was in the presence of some predator.
“I have to go to the store now,” I said. I pivoted and walked away.
On the way home I tried to think if I’d seen Ainsley pick up the telephone in the past month. I tried picturing her lifting the receiver, hanging it up, lifting it off the hook again. I imagined her dialing a number really fast, letting the cord coil around her fingers. I couldn’t remember any of that happening.
When I got home my father was setting up the projector and swearing every ten seconds. During its assembly Dad would allow himself to swear in front of us, as if dealing with technology gave him some kind of immunity. Mom was sitting on the couch with her arm around Ainsley. The cleaning tools had been abandoned in various spots around the house: the vacuum cleaner leaning against the panelled wall, the feather duster on the edge of the bureau, an orphaned sponge on the linoleum floor. It seemed like the first time all week Mom wasn’t motoring around the house, asking me to perform some tedious, inconsequential task.
Once Dad got the projector running we all hushed. The only noise was the hum of the machine, which sounded like a baseball card in bicycle spokes. The picture had a violet wash over it. People cluttered the backyard—grandparents, uncles, cousins. Every once in a while I zoomed into the shot, riding in circles on my toy motorcycle. This was at our old house, before the patio got covered up by the deck, and the patio tiles were big, flat squares, pink and beige. There were family members we hadn’t seen in a while—versions of them with darker hair, narrower waists.
“There you are with Lois,” Dad said, “splitting a beer.”
He laughed. In the shot Mom and her sister were passing a big silvery-blue can back and forth.
“As if splitting a beer made any difference when you did it all night long!”
In the film Dad was standing at the grill with a Minnesota Vikings apron on, a cigarette jutting from his lips, barbecue tongs in his hand. He took a drag and then flicked the butt onto the ground in what seemed a practised gesture, stamping it out with a foot he’d evidently forgotten was bare. We laughed at the sight of this—Dad hopping around on one foot, his face knotted with pain. I continued motoring around, gathering speed, while everyone else stopped to see what had happened. My uncle Bill passed the camera to Lois so that he could fetch the garden hose.
The next scene was indoors. A big chocolate cake was being ferried out for Ainsley’s birthday. We all sang “Happy Birthday To You,” our faces lit from below by candles. Afterward, Grandma could be seen squawking, “Who wants cake? ” and, “Who wants ice cream? ” and people were scurrying around, setting serviettes out and swishing the ice cream scoop in a jar of warm water. When the camera settled on Ainsley she squealed, “Dad, stop!” (Watching this, Ainsley groaned. Not much had changed.) But we all laughed when she appeared on the screen because Ainsley had indeed changed. She looked so different then: her hair—crinkly and sculpted with mousse—resembled a waterfall, and the chubbiness of her cheeks and neck struck me as altogether foreign. I think I’d forgotten she ever looked like that.
The camera lingered on her, though she no longer seemed to notice. She made the first cut in the cake, as was tradition, and after the first generous slice was flopped onto a paper plate she took the knife and, without anyone noticing, licked the chocolate icing clean off the blade. Watching this we all shrieked and laughed, except for Ainsley. When I looked over at her, she was not laughing. Maybe for a second, to look like a good sport. But a second and no longer.
The film ended. In the moment that followed, before the lights came back on, I was overcome with the feeling that I had a secret—a feeling of burden and pleasure and isolation. But everyone knew by then Dad was smoking again, so it couldn’t have been that. And I didn’t want to tell Ainsley about seeing Shan, at least not yet. The moment passed. Mom got up to resume cleaning and Dad sighed at the thought of disassembling the projector. Ainsley made herself disappear. I didn’t move right away. I stayed where I was and let the secret float inside me.