Burning a Life: A Memoir of Smoking

by Kate Brandt

My first writing teacher, Tom Spanbauer, spoke a truth I’ve always remembered: When we write, he said, we are burning a life. This is the story of ten years that changed me forever. It starts with a lit cigarette, and the story burns from there.

Fall 1974: First Drag

In 1974 I am fourteen, the beginning of ninth grade, a girl with small breasts, brown hair curled under at the neck, and solemn eyes. Thin. Maybe too thin.
       I am…a marvel. That is what Mrs. Axelrod, my teacher, wrote about me in the “comments” section of my report card. Most of the adults in my life agree. I write poems and plays. I get only As, and blow the other kids out of the water because I always know the right answer, the correct spelling of a word.
       We live—mother, father, daughter, son—in a town called Shrub Oak: deli, stone Methodist church, library. A canopy of trees arch over Main Street. In the supermarket, neighbors know each other by name. It’s 1974—on TV there are long-haired young people marching against the Vietnam War and footage of the drone of helicopters overhead, speeches about equality.
       But not in our town. In Shrub Oak, there are tag sales and fire drills out on the endless green lawns of the schools and fourth graders sing songs about pollution:
       Let’s clean up our water, clean up our air
       Let’s all get together and let’s all do our share
       I know the town so well, it is an extension of my body. The pizza place, the green house with the wooden porch littered with holly berries. When I walk through it, it is like we are looking at each other—me and the green house with the sloping floorboards. Here we are. It has always been this way, and we are not sure why.
       Other families in Shrub Oak live in raised ranches, watch The Brady Bunch after dinner. We don’t watch television; we read books instead. My father is a writer, an unlikely thing to be in Shrub Oak. Tall and commanding, he listens to Bach, eyes closed, with a glass of sherry in his hand. Because of him, our house is filled with odd objects: statues made by artist friends, poems typed on index cards and tacked on the walls.
       My mother, a visiting nurse, is the one who fits in. At the dinner table, she likes to talk about her coworkers—gals, she calls them. One gal is having trouble with her daughter. Another gal has high blood pressure. This kind of talk bores my father.
       I am like my father. I read everything he gives me: Dickens, Lewis Carroll,  Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens. That is how I became a marvel.
       But at fourteen, something has changed; I have stopped reading Emily Dickinson and started reading Teen Magazine instead. I get it every month as soon as it comes out and study it, lying on my stomach on the four-poster bed that I have slept in since I was six years old. I look at the faces, take in their smooth, glowing skin, well-chosen outfits, flawless faces. I know what I want to be: perfect, like them.
       It starts on a Saturday. Me, my parents, and Sally B. in the house. From the open door of my bedroom, their voices drift up the stairs to me, along with the smoke from Sally’s cigarette. I can hear my father’s low rumble, Sally’s amused voice darting in and out, my mother’s uncertain ha. Easy to picture them: my father slouching in his red armchair, his black hair swept back from his handsome face; Sally Bittner with her dirty blonde shag haircut, sky-blue pantsuit. At the other end of the couch, my mother in Bermuda shorts with her brown wavy hair, a lipsticked smile eager to be part of it all— but her voice is the one I hear the least.
       Downstairs, that hushed tone adults get when they worry about something. I know what it is: Sally’s son Richie got in trouble last week.
       Sally has trouble with all her children. They are all teenagers and she is raising them alone. Years ago, Sally divorced her husband.
       I’ve heard my parents talk about Richie when Sally isn’t here. I’ve heard the word “troubled.” Last week when I was helping my mother do the dishes, I asked her why Richie was arrested, and she didn’t answer right away. The kitchen sink was in front of a window that looked out to our backyard. <y mother stood gazing out at the yard for a few minutes before she finally said, “drugs.” With a big intake of breath, as if she wished she never had to say the word.
       Weed, grass, reefer—I know about these from the films they show in health class. Uppers, downers, smack, acid. I listened while the man in the film explained it all in an ominous voice. How it started with peer pressure. Someone offers you a cigarette and you try it. After a while, smoking cigarettes leads to trying marijuana, then you are on to harder drugs. Hashish. Acid.
       I am not the kind of girl who will ever get mixed up with things like that. I am a marvel.
       Today, I lay my head down, close my eyes. I inhale. That is when the smell of Sally Bittner’s cigarette drifts up the stairs to me.
       Sally smokes Winstons. Chain-smokes, actually; she lights one up, lays it in the corner of our cut-glass ashtray, and the smoke curled upward while she talks. My parents have never had a friend who smoked before, and when she comes, they set the ashtray in front of her and sit back in wonder while she inhales, her hanging cheeks like a bellows, the smoke hovering in her open mouth for a minute then disappearing down the back of her throat. She blows it out in a funnel shape and the smoke fills the living room, obscuring the Morris Louis over the mantlepiece, drifting through the house.
       Today, Sally’s smoke drifts up the stairs to my room. I inhale, eyes closed, and I see things. Parties, the kind adults have. Voices, lights, brightly colored short dresses and bangles on wrists. Laughter.
       The world.
       And I remember. It was an evening last month—I was coming back from the library and I passed Frankie’s, the town bar. It was busy—a lot of pickup trucks parked outside. The door swung open once and sound poured out. That same smell—the sharp perfume of cigarette smoke—drifted out the door.
       Someone spoke—I hadn’t noticed him standing there, a guy with curly hair in a flannel shirt who smiled at me.
       “Hey, beautiful,” he said.
       I knew he couldn’t mean me. Me with the loose-leaf notebook and the small breasts.
       “Wanna come in? Join the party?”
       I blushed. I walked fast, hoping he wouldn’t see it. That would be impossible. Not me, the quiet, smart girl with the books on her arm.
       The smell of Sally’s cigarette makes me think about the sound of that music. I think of him standing there—close enough that I could touch the sleeve of his flannel shirt. How would it have been if I followed him through that open door?
Sally’s smoke curls around me. It enters a nostril, snakes through my brain, and I hear the laughter through the open door of that bar, the music. Hey, beautiful.
       A week goes by before I work up the courage. One Tuesday after school, I stand in front of the counter of the Shrub Oak Deli and ask casually for a pack of Winstons. I have always come to this deli with my father—the workers all know him. This time, I have my story—I am buying cigarettes for Sally B.
       But no one asks. I am still just that girl who lives around the corner. Gus hands over the box wrapped in its shiny cellophane along with a pack of matches.
       I know where to go: the playground behind the church, where I have swung on the swings, pushed myself down the dented slide. I sit with my back to the row of lilac bushes that grow behind the swing set, unpeel the cellophane, open the lid, pull one out.
       I have to strike a couple of matches before I get it lighted. The first inhale has me rolling on the ground, choking, tears streaming out of my eyes. I clutch myself. My chest has never hurt this much before. I need oxygen. I grab at the air.
       But I try again and by the third time, I’ve got it. I have to open my throat up, let it in. When I do, something amazing happens: my skin tingles. Everything is soft.
       When I look out at the playground now, everything is the same—the Methodist church, the rolling green of the cemetery lawn—but it is also different. I am alive now; my whole body throbs. The world tilts—the green of the lawn blurs into the things around it.
       I kneel on the grass, holding the lit cigarette between my first two fingers, laughing.
       I’ve done it.
       I have changed my life.

Spring 1975: Marlboro Country

My parents hate it. My father the most—at the dinner table, he won’t even meet my eyes.
       At school, I change my image. No more getting up early to use a curling iron so that my hair makes a feathery wave away from my face. I let my hair grow, cut class, and hang out in the smoking area instead.
       I meet Sue and Julie a month after I start smoking. I am stubbing out my cigarette when I look up and there is Sue, with her white-blonde hair falling down from her face, cuffed jeans, a wide-brimmed leather hat that shows the stitching. With her walking stick, she looks like a blonde hobbit. Next to her is Julie, taller, her hair almost white.
       “It looks to me, Julie,” Sue drawls, “that there is a person here in need of a buzz.”
       Julie giggles, her round, white face lifting in a grin. “We’re going up into the woods to get stoned,” she says. “Wanna come?”
       I’d never been up there before: pieces of broken glass from green soda bottles, litter, beer can tabs. We sit on a row of gray rocks while Sue rolls the joint and licks it.
       When I inhale, hot smoke fills my throat, chokes me. I cough my chest up while Sue and Julie giggle.
       Then the world transforms. The air is fragrant. My body sings. Light falls through the trees, lights the leaves from beneath, dances off the beer can tabs littered on the ground.
       After that we go up regularly during eigth period. Sue is the funny one. She takes two beer cans and makes them act out the conversations she has with her mother at home.
       “Get that OFF THE COUCH” screams the-beer-can-that-is-Sue’s-mother. “I just vacuumed. Do you ever think about what you’re doing? Do you ever pick up after yourself?”
       “You need a lobotomy, you uptight bitch,” says the-beer-can-that-is-Sue. “Go fuck yourself. Go take a bath in lemon-fresh Pledge.”
       “You will not talk to me like that young lady,” screams the beer-can-that-is- Sue’s-mother.
       “You will not talk to me at ALL,” yells the beer-can-that-is-Sue. Then her beer can dives into the other. They fight.
       “Take that.”
       “Take that.”
       Julie can’t contain herself when Sue does this. She laughs helplessly, holding her belly. “Lemon fresh Pledge,” she gasps. I laugh, too. But really I am just breathing, drawing the velvet air in.
       Sue and Julie introduced me to Jeff. One day, Sue took me with her to buy a nickel bag and there he was, glorious with a mane of hair, torn T-shirt that revealed his chest muscles, his jeans sliding down and revealing a sculpted back.
       “Sue-chi,” he called her.
       “My favorite dealer,” said Sue. “Meet my new friend, Kate.”
       “One hot chick,” Jeff looked me over approvingly. “You old enough for this?”
       “Yes,” I said defiantly, blushing.
       “M-a-a-a-a-an, have we corrupted this one,” drawled Sue.
A day in June:
       I am in the back seat of Etta’s car, a red Volkswagen bug. Outside the sun blasts; it’s only June but it’s ninety-five degrees. The music pumps into us—Jimi Hendrix—thump, thump, thump, thump Foxy Lady! Somehow we’ve managed to fit three of us together in the backseat—me, Sue, and Julie, our shoulders jammed together, the sweat like glue between our bare arms. The music is so loud it takes over our heartbeats. There’s no talking through it, and wedged together like this, all we can do is turn our heads from side to side like ventriloquist dummies, grinning idiotically, as Etta takes a left out of the school parking lot.
       It’s eighth period. I have French with Mr. Witte, and there’s a test today on passé composé. I think about this as we pull out onto the road. Part of my body leans back to the school, but a stronger part of me leans forward. I’m used to this now: There are different worlds in my life—the smoking area, the classroom, the house. I have learned to pass through them, keep my head down, slide on by.
       Up front, fast-talking Etta with her short blonde hair, eyes blinking behind John Lennon glasses, drives barefoot in a loose flowered dress, hitting the steering wheel with each drumbeat. Next to her, Jeff, with his tawny mane of hair and raucous laugh. Jeff is the one kid in school that everyone knows—the geeks, the jocks, the greasers. In the smoking area he is always on the move—conferring over bags of pot, hanging in the car doors of souped-up Dodges. He is in the center of things and now I—me, the invisible girl—now I am in the same car with him, speakers blasting, town streaming past the windows as we sidle along East Main Street.
       We pass the house with the sloping porch and the holly berries, Frankie’s, the pizza place. On the tape deck, the next Jimi Hendrix song. Sue swivels her head first to me, then to Julie. “Mars,” she mouths comically. Julie throws her head back, cackles without any sound.
       Now in the car I look up at Jeff in the front seat, “Hey Joe” playing, and my body tingles.
       We come to the end of Route 132, where there is a white Presbyterian church and a cemetery. Etta takes a right and we climb a hill on to a rocky dirt road, and the car dips from side to side. Sue and Julie and I turn our heads, make faces, the tops of our heads banging against the roof. It’s so hot the heat is radiating from my temples.
       We stop. Etta and Jeff get out and Sue, Julie, and I push the seats forward, wedge ourselves out the doors, breathe. The cooler air chills the sweat on our bodies. Etta is already ahead of us. She’s put on flip-flops for the walk through the woods, but walking behind her, we can still see the dirty soles of her feet with each step.
       Crazy Etta, with that short, white-blonde hair, the flowered dresses, the fast talking. She doesn’t even go to our school anymore (she graduated), but she comes around in that red Volkswagen when there are parties. She’s taken everything—uppers, downers, smack, acid. When she and Jeff are together there’s this energy. It’s like they both come from the same world; a world where the only thing that matters is the next party, the next good time. I want to be like that; a person who can leave home and not think about it . . . free . . . But I’m not. Even now, there’s something in my head whispering to me, reminding me I’m cutting French now; later, I’ll have to go home.
       Halfway up the path, we stop, huddle behind a boulder, and Etta takes out a pipe. We can smell the difference in the pot right away—at school it’s usually homegrown, but this smoke is pithier. I haven’t smoked out of a pipe before—the smoke is hotter and sears my lungs.
       “What is this stuff?” says Sue, startled.
       “Sense,” says Etta in a tight, getting-high voice.
       “Sensimilian!” Julie crows.
       “Oh maaaannn can you taste it,” says Sue.

Two tokes is all it takes for my insides to turn to velvet and purr. My lungs sparkle. Shafts of sunlight fall through the trees, illuminate big, fanlike leaves.
       Etta turns and keeps on climbing, and we follow, through the trees and up into the sunlight. The heat now is a blast furnace; I can feel it at the roots of my hair, an aurora around my head that encloses me.
       But there’s the water.
       Each of us steps out of the darkness onto a rock and it’s there below us, a thousand reflecting pinpoints spread out to the horizon with a fringe of trees all around. We blink, narrow our eyes.
       Etta’s first, pulling the flowered dress over her head in one motion, stepping down to the edge of the rock, jumping. Small breasts, narrow back, red-blonde pubic hair. There’s a loud splash and silence and we wait until her voice sings up, “Far OUT.”
       I struggle with my jeans—they stick to me and I have to wedge them off. When I’m naked I don’t look down at myself—too embarrassed. I wonder if Jeff is looking at me, what he thinks. I step carefully down the rock, leap.
       Freezing. The water closes over my head and for a minute I’m frantic, trying to push the cold out. I kick up, swim hard until my blood comes back. Swimming is something I’m good at and I swim fast, way out to the center of the water, before I roll on my back, feel the sun on my face, look into the plane of the sky.
       And smile: Here I am. A miracle. I was an invisible girl who got up at six every morning to curl her hair with a curling iron and walk slowly to school. I was that, and now I am here.
       Sue and Julie are two white bodies under the green surface of the water; wet.  Sue’s skin looks like a dolphin’s. She’s still got her glasses on; she’s blind without them. “Now that’s damn refreshing,” she says.
       “Alright there, Junior?” says Jeff.
       “Yeah,” I say, smiling shyly. Jeff’s thick forearms move under the water. When he comes up from his dive, he tosses his head and his wet hair falls down his neck in a sculpted wave.
       Later we sit on the rocks in the sun, looking carefully at each other’s faces and not each other’s naked bodies. Sue talks about “the old man.” Usually it’s her mother she makes fun of, but today it’s her father. “The old man wants me to get a job,” she says. “He had a talk with me last week. Took me outside for a cigarette, y’know, talk to me father to daughter. The old man thinks he’s a cowboy,” she says. “He thinks he comes from Marlboro Country.”
       To imitate him, she stands on the rock, naked, with a belt around her waist as a pretend holster, her tuft of blonde pubic hair sticking out under the belt. “Susie,” she drawls, “this here is Marlboro Country. Man’s got to be stronnnggg here. Got to take care of himself, stand on his own two feet. We don’t bellyache here. We don’t cry. Fall off your horse—” Sue shakes her head comically, “well you just have to get back on and ride.”
       Julie can’t even talk, she’s laughing so hard. “Horse,” she squeezes out.
       Jeff raises his eyebrows. “Can you dress that way every day?” he says.
       “Shut up, Jeff,” says Etta carelessly.
       “Now, Mr. Jeff, that was an inappropriate comment,” Sue drawls. “This here is Marlboro Country, and I ’spect you to treat the ladies with respect.”
       I wish I was like them. Julie’s mother is a born-again Christian, always telling Julie that she’s a sinner, but she laughs and does what she wants anyway. Jeff and Etta are always on to the next party, the next funny story, the next bong hit.
       Not me. I sit here on the rock with them and laugh but I can’t forget. The way my father won’t look at me anymore, the curling in my stomach when I walk into the house and even the air feels hostile. Everything reproaches me. I have made a choice: drugs. Now, this is all I have.
       My parents have made it clear—whatever I do, I have to be back at six. Behind me, Jeff and Etta talk in low voices about The Oak Room, a bar up on Mill Street where minors usually get served.
       “Let’s,” says Etta to Jeff lightly.
       They rise. “We’re gonna go to this bar on Mill Street,” says Etta.
       I hear my own voice, loud, pinched.
       “Um, no I can’t do that,” I say. “I have a curfew.”
       “A curfew.” Etta looks at me in disbelief for a minute, blinks.
       “How old are you?” she says, frowning.
       “Fourteen.” She gives Jeff an annoyed look for bringing me, turns away.
       “You’ll call them,” she says.
       “That won’t work,” I say. “I have to get back.”
       But she’s already walking back down the path. “You’ll call them from the bar,” she calls over her shoulder. “Tell them the car broke down.” There’s a hole in my stomach—this is what I hate, when my two worlds touch. It won’t work; I know that. But they all want to go.
       The phone call doesn’t go well. The Oak Room is hopping and I keep thinking my parents can hear the bar noise through the phone.
       “Where are you?” says my father suspiciously. “Who are you with?”
       “Sue. Julie,” I say. “We went hiking.”
       “After school, I hope,” says my mother. 
       “Of course,” I chirp.
       “If you were hiking, why is there a car involved?” says my father.
       “Well this guy came along and gave us a ride because we were lost, and then it broke down.” I say.
       “Tell us where you are,” says my father. “We’ll come get you.” My stomach flips.
       “Um,” I say. “I’m not sure.”
       “Ask,” says my father acidly. I put my palm over the receiver. Jeff is standing near me with a Molson in his hand.
       “Where are we?” I hiss. He shrugs.
       I don’t get home until eleven. On the way back, Etta plays the Stones, my favorite.
       “Angie. Yyaaannnngiieee.” 
       I close my eyes, try to walk into the music, but I can’t pretend, even to myself.
       When I get home, there they are at the kitchen table, faces grim. “Hi,” I say weakly.
       “Where,” says my father heavily, “have you been.”
       “I told you. I called you.” I hate my own voice—high, frightened. The voice of a liar.
       “Do you think we’re stupid,my father says fiercely.
       “It didn’t sound like you were on the street,” says my mother, looking at me steadily. “We heard voices. A lot of them. And music.”
       “It was a bar. That’s where I went to call.” “That’s not what you told us,” says my mother. “It isn’t?”
       “Do you think we’re stupid?” My father’s voice is full of renewed fury. “Do you think we don’t know what you’re doing.”
       “What I’m doing is just being myself,” I say. “That’s all I’m doing.”
       “Are you on something?” says my mother gently. “Are you taking something?” I feel the heat on my face.
       “No,” I say. My voice is high. “I’m not taking anything.”
       My father holds up a card. “Your report card came today.” He leans forward, eyes burning. “A ‘D’ in French. What are you doing at that school? Are you even going to class?”
       “Of course I’m going to class.” I take a big breath. I think of those afternoons in the woods behind the school, the way the broken glass on the path glinted and the light fell through the trees.
       “I guess I just didn’t study enough,” I say lamely.
       “You expect us to buy that?” my father scoffs. “You could pass French in your sleep.”
       I hate the way he does this to me—I come home happy, there’s a world out there—and he takes it all away.
       “Do I really even need French?” I say. I smile at him, trying to catch his eye, look ironic.
       “Yeah, who needs French?” my father says sarcastically. “Who needs English, for that matter? Why even go to school?”
       “It’s not everything,” I say sullenly. “You think school is everything.”
       My father leans forward, eyes blazing. “You’re fourteen,” he hisses. “What do you know?”
       Something rises in me, pushes away. “I’m not stupid,” I say, “just because I don’t agree with you. I’m not like you. I don’t think school is everything. It’s all you think about. You care about my marks. You care about me being smart. You don’t care about me.”
       My father’s face convulses. He rises in one motion from his seat at the kitchen table and then I feel it—the stinging on my cheek, my neck stiff from the blow.
       We look at each other. I know my body has never felt like this before—I don’t even know where the air stops and I begin.
       Then I turn away and start walking up to my room. I pass the chest of drawers against the wall in the entrance to the living room. I move through the living room, past the orange couch, the red armchair.
       I almost go back. I almost go back and say that I’m sorry and that I will be who they want me to be. Whatever I have to do. I want to be loved again. This is my house. This is what I know—what belongs to me, what is mine.
       But I don’t. I keep on going. I pass the flowered curtains. The shelves with my father’s rows and rows of books—Areopagitica, Pnin.
       There are some things I can’t give up; some things that I have to have, now that I’ve found them. Jeff’s forearms. Sue’s skin, smooth as a dolphin’s in the reservoir. The sun on the surface of the water. The world.
       “You’re going to need a different environment,” my father calls out from the kitchen. “Away from these friends of yours. Next stop, boarding school.”

Boarding school.
       My legs are rubber. I approach the French doors between the living room and the foyer that leads to the stairs, grasp the cut-glass doorknob.
       Sending you away.
       But this is where I have always been—this house, this town.
       I climb the steps. They creak. As I climb, I build a wall inside.
       My legs ache by the time I come to the top stair. I pass the rickety table with the black phone on top. The pale green wallpaper with white flowers on it; the framed print of my mother on top of a mountain in a red sweater with the wind in her curly, dark hair.
       I open the door to my bedroom. There is the four-poster bed. There are the bookshelves with my books: Alice in Wonderland, Great Expectations. There is the full- length mirror. I close the door, lean against it, close my eyes.
       And when the tears start to come, I stop them.
       After all, this is Marlboro Country. If you want to live here, you can’t let them see you cry.

Fall 1975: Bum a Smoke?

For about two minutes, I am alone in the Dairy Barn common room. Gray stone floors; white cinder block walls, low blue couches. Beside the couches, waist-high orange ashtrays as round as car tires, filled with sand and dotted with forests of upturned butts. Outside the window, the acres of woods described in the school brochure. Darrow School: an independent college preparatory high school nestled in the heart of the Berkshires.
       After dinner, this is where we all go. We need to light up, feel the familiar bite at the back of the throat, the aahhhh that hits the blood.
       I lean against the wall, a pack of Marlboros tucked into a pocket inside my jacket. Post-dinner is prime cigarette bumming time, and once news gets out that there’s a full pack somewhere, you’re finished. That’s why I snuck out early: to extract one cigarette from the pack without anyone looking, slide it back inside my coat. I inhale, drop my head back, send a plume of smoke upward.
       The wooden doors between the dining hall and the common room thwack open and out comes Jamie Ehrlich, golden curls flying. He steps heavily in his Dunham boots and torn jeans; that pouty mouth makes him look like Little Lord Fauntleroy in a blue down vest. Behind him, Junks with his blond afro, hawk nose, and beady, watchful eyes. Tim Malloy, his face a mass of acne. Nevin, with his wire-framed glasses and helmet of wavy brown hair. They amass together near a window, bending over, getting lights. The Hinkley Boys, Valerie calls them—they all live on the top floor of Hinkley, the dorm right in the center of campus.
       It’s a small school—one hundred students. A small school, and the Hinkley Boys are the stars.
       It’s not like my old high school. There aren’t the greasers in the parking lots in souped-up cars wearing T-shirts with the sleeves cut off, the jocks in their jerseys, the geeks, the heads. We’re all country hippies. We wear jeans and Dunham boots because of the mud on the roads. Down vests, denim overalls, flannel shirts. There’s a golden retriever named Fred we throw a Frisbee for.

My parents decided to send me here at the end of June. I didn’t think it was possible. That they could send me out of my house, an extension of my own body. My town that knew me—the green house with the sloping wooden porch; the playground in   back of our yard.

Across the common room, Valerie, with her elegant shoulder blades, crown of blonde hair all different shades of yellow, from white to brown. Banana-shaped breasts in a rainbow-colored shirt; jeans she patched herself with a red bandana; multiple necklaces draped across her chest on fine gold chains, a different pendant at the end of each: a single pearl, a silver spoon, a wire twist.
       The first day, I broke into sobs when my parents left. Valerie was the one who adopted me. It’s because of Valerie I’m accepted here. That I’m in with the Hinkley Boys. It was Valerie, also, who explained it: We were all here because we weren’t wanted at home. The way she put it, that meant we were free.
       She stands next to Nevin, getting a light. Nevin leans into her—she must have said something funny because he turns his head to the side, laughing. I smile too, happy I’ve found her.
       “10cc, the band.” says Valerie. “I’m telling you. It’s true.”
       “Aw come on, no, that’s disgusting,” groans Nevin.
       “I’m serious.” Valerie gets vehement about these things. She doesn’t like to be disbelieved.
       “Do you know where their name comes from?”
       “No.” I don’t even know this band. I’ve never heard of them. Who am I, a girl who only read the classics up until a year ago, to know band names?
       “10cc—the amount of sperm it takes to get a girl pregnant.”
       “Noooo,” says Nevin.
       “Hey, you’re messin’ with Nevin’s head here, Valerie,” says Jamie. “You know how clean and pure he is.” He grins, wide face creasing.
       After dinner, there’s always the same desperation. Study hall is coming: two hours of forced study, the hot, silent room and the book swimming in front of your eyes under the fluorescent lights. The antidote to this desperation always rests in a single name: Feds.
       Last of the Hinkley Boys. Short, with a swinging walk. Long hair to his shoulders. Just a middle-class kid from New Jersey, but he’s got money and he’s addicted to pot, so he always has some. When Feds comes walking up the road that runs through campus, the call goes out, an endless drone, “Feeeeeddddsssss.” Here he comes, Feder the school dealer. He walks along, a swinging walk, putting up with it. “Shut up guys,” he says, when he’s close enough for us to hear.
       Tonight he is pressed, doggedly.
       “Nothing,” says Feds. “I’m out.”
       “Oh come on, Feds, you expect us to believe that?” “I expect you to believe that,” he says.
       “But we don’t.” Nevin throws his cigarette out in front of him, crushes it with a toe. “We really don’t.” He puts an arm around Feds’ shoulder.
       “I need it,” he says.
       “I don’t have anything, Nevin,” says Feds.
       “Yes you do. You always have. You’re a have, Feds.”
       “Feeedddssss,” they all take the call up.
       “Shut up guys,” says Feds comfortably.
       “Don’t make me get violent, Feder,” says Nevin.
       “Jesus!” says Feds.
       “Feeddddsssss,” the rest of us plead.
       “Alright, alright,” says Feds finally. “Come on.”

We don’t all leave together—that would be too obvious, and other people would invite themselves. Valerie, Feds, and Nevin go first. I look down from the Dairy Barn window and watch them come out the front door and walk along the road, Valerie’s blonde crown pushing through the semi-darkness outside. A few minutes later I follow with Tim Malloy.
       Hinkley is yellow, built on top of a small hill. We all climb, then fan out in the patch of worn dirt at the smoking area and wait while Feds goes inside to get a pipe and reefer, and Junks goes in to put some music on and turn his Bose speakers out the window.
       We peel off one by one—Jamie, Junks, Tim, me. Huddle behind a sumac bush. Feds arrives, lights up, inhales, passes to Nevin who passes to Jamie. Jamie takes it up, pulls the smoke in, hands it to Junks.
       “What is this stuff?” says Nevin.
       Feds shrugs. “I don’t know. New Jersey homegrown.”
       “Tastes like you mowed the lawn and dried it,” says Nevin.
       “Take it or leave it, Nevin,” Feds wearily. “Whatddya want?”
       “Just sayin’,” Nevin shrugs.
       “Stop fighting you guys,” Valerie growls. She has pulled her hair up into a bun behind her head—she looks even more beautiful that way. She leans down, pulls the smoke into her mouth without touching the end of the joint. She has tried to teach me how to do that, but I’m no good. A bracelet jangles around her lower wrist. Music flows up the hill toward us, threads through the trees.
       So get down
       Get down children
       Get loud
       Well you can be loud and be proud
       Be proud you’re a rebel cause the South’s gonna do it again
       And again.
       “What is this?” says Feds.
       “Charlie Daniels Band. My man. Charlie.”
       “South’s gonna do it again—What are we, in the Confederacy now? Back to the old plantation?”
       “Southern rock, Feds.” “What are you a bigot, now?”
       “Shut up, Feder. It’s about rebellion.”
       “Oh yeah, who’re you rebelling against?”
       “Junks is rebelling against his jeans,” jokes Jamie. “They won’t let his hard-on out.”
       “Seriously, Junks. You’re a rebel?”
       “You’re a douchebag,” says Tim and laughs, but no one else does.
       “What are you rebelling against?” says Feds. “I mean really.”
       “The powers that be, Feds,” says Junks, inhales, his voice all nasal and wise- sounding. “The powers that be.”
       Valerie cuts in. “Don’t be a douchebag, Feds. You know what it is. It’s freedom.” she says. She does that—uses their language, hose, douchebag. I don’t even know what a douchebag is. “Freedom,” she says. “Don’t let people tell you what to do.”
       For me, the only true freedom comes on Saturday nights, when I get as much as I can of whatever we’re drinking that night—rum, gin, tequila—and wait for the blackness to come. Then there’s no voice in my head, no “I” talking and no “you” listening. There’s just blackness, and finally I can rest.
       That’s how it is every weekend. I am famous for it now. Nevin calls me “Wasted Kate.” Every Saturday night, we go down to Sam’s cabin in the woods, almost a mile away from the main campus, and I am always the first to get falling-down drunk. I can’t help it—I want the blackness. Drink enough and then you are nothing. The darkness opens up. You can dive into those folds and forget.
       Nevin looks at his watch. “Christ—6:50, babes. Gotta go.” Feds flicks the ashes away between thumb and forefinger. I look down the hill: At twilight, the sky is regions of pink interrupted by bruised blue clouds.
       It might be homegrown, but it’s done the trick—my lungs glow. The music reaches up through the trees, takes us.
       You can’t be late to study hall—they make you stay over and that’s brutal. We start walking through the trees, Dunham boots crunching the dead leaves. Ahead of us, the yellow squares of light in Wickersham, where the study hall with its glass doors and sizzling fluorescent lights waits.
       We walk toward them, unworried. On the outside we follow the rules, on the inside we have our own world, our own place to go. Put a piece of blotter paper on your tongue and an icicle can turn to a crystal palace. The sky can glow green.
       Jamie walks beside me. His down vest flies open and one blond curl moves across his face. Everything takes its own time. We have our music.
       And we’re free: the troubled teens of Darrow, the free citizens of Reefer Nation.
       A new song, just before Junks goes up to turn the stereo off: Allman Brothers; “Midnight Rider.” The sound cascades over the smoking area behind our backs, fills the  air.
       And I’ve got one more 
       Silver dollar
       And I’m not gonna let them get me, no—
       Not gonna let ‘em get the midnight rider.
       We keep walking. We don’t care, so nothing can hurt us.
       We are midnight riders, piercing the night, burning the atmosphere. Pot, acid, speed, Quaaludes. Tequila. Cigarettes.
       No one to catch us or stop us. No one to call us their own.

Summer 1978: Burning a Life

Some scenes from the Divorce Diary:
       Scene One: My mother sits at the kitchen table in shorts and a peach-colored T-shirt in the Shrub Oak house. My father left two days ago. Strands of brown hair have escaped the rubber band that holds her ponytail. There’s a bottle of wine in front of her— one of those big gallon jugs of cheap wine—and one arm rests on top of the table. Someone is taking a picture with an instamatic camera, and my mother stares into it, unsmiling. Yes, her look says. Yes, it is the middle of the afternoon and I am drinking a bottle of wine.
       Scene Two: I have just arrived home from getting stoned in a parking lot with some guy who picked me up hitchhiking. I walk into the living room: olive rug, low orange couch, flowered curtains. On the mantlepiece, there is an index card with a stick figure drawn on it, and underneath it the words: Ariel the Whore. Ariel is the name of my father’s new girlfriend. I look around the room: there are about ten more of these. My mother is shouting.
       Scene Three: My mother has sold the house. We are leaving this town: Gino’s, Frankie’s, the green house with the wooden porch that slopes down, the arc of trees over Main Street. At the end of the driveway for the garbage men to take away, my mother has placed the orange living room couch, the red armchair my father used to sit in; the Morris Louis that hung over the mantel. My mother is throwing my life away. I go out to the end of the driveway and pick things out: cushions from the couch, the antique lamp. My mother watches me from the front door. I make four trips, carrying things that she has left out as garbage back to my room, while my mother watches. On the final trip, I am holding the antique filigree lamp.
       “There’s no room for that where we’re going y’know,” she says. I ignore her, climb the steps. The cord from the lamp bumps against each step as I ascend.
       After the divorce, there was a lot of fighting. “I hate living here with you,” I said to my mother with regularity. “Leave any time you want,” was her inevitable answer.
       I did.
       At eighteen, I hitchhiked all over the place:
       To Providence, Rhode Island, to see a Grateful Dead concert.
       To Massachusetts, to see Valerie.
       To a store three towns over that sold feather earrings.
       To the reservoir to go skinny-dipping, but I couldn’t find a break in the fence.
       In people’s cars, I’ve talked about the weather and how screwed up society is and what a mess the government is, even though I never even think about these things. Sometimes, I give hints about my home life: My parents don’t care about me, I’ll say. They don’t know what I’m doing. They don’t know where I am. Cheap appeals for sympathy.
       The truth is, when I leave the house to go wandering, I don’t even know what I’m searching for. The old certainties about “freedom” and “being myself” are starting to leave me. I still do the same things—smoke, search for pot, spike my orange juice with vodka—but I’m no longer sure why.
       A memory: I leave the house in the morning, amble out to the main road, stick my thumb out.
       The man driving the car I get into has thin, greying hair, wears a golf jacket and polyester pants. When he asks where I’m going, I make something up. I tell him I’m going to the mall.
       “The mall, eh?” he says. “What are you going to do at the mall?”
       “Look for a job.”
       “What do you need a job for?”
       I raise my eyebrows. “I need money,” I say. “Badly.” I wonder what he does, this man in a golf jacket. When I ask him, he says he’s a salesman.
       “What do you need money for so bad?” he asks me.
       I sigh, give him a conspiratorial look. “Get out of the house,” I say. “Away from my mother.”
       The art of hitchhiking involves keeping track of your whereabouts while making small talk. Out the window I see that we are passing through the next town over, Thornwood. There’s the Honda dealer. There’s the red brick building with the Firestone sign.
       “I could probably help you out with that,” he says, looking ahead. “The money part.”
       “Oh yeah?”
       “I’ll give you $50 if I can put my hand down your shirt.”
       Out the window, Wendy’s is passing. I watch it, smiling.
       “I don’t know,” I say. The Firestone station goes by; the Terrace Restaurant. Then I say OK.
       “Move over closer to me,” he says. He puts his arm around my shoulders, then slips his hand down under the neck of my T-shirt, brushing my nipples. He moves his hand from one breast to the other, very slowly. With his other arm, he drives, but under the steering wheel his legs start to twitch. “I hope I don’t come in my pants,” he says. I look straight ahead.
       That’s when the town of Thornwood really makes its mark on my mind. The Thornwood Diner with its chrome sign. The parking lot for the Grand Union. As we pass Arby’s, I realize that we are close to my mother’s office. I picture my mother’s face when she just happens to be passing by, even though she is supposed to be at work right now, and how she will look at me. I start to sink down in the seat so my face can’t be seen through the windshield.
       “I can’t reach you,” he says.
       “Stop,” I say. “I’m getting out here.”
       “I was almost there,” he says.
       “I’ll give you twenty-five,” he says, when I open the door. “It wasn’t very long.”

Here is what happens after my parents’ divorce, in the years between 1978 and 1980:
       My mother puts a lien on my father’s bank account for not paying child support.
       My brother fights with my mother about which college he could go to.
       My father convinces my brother to break with my mother and live with him. He arranges a meeting with lawyers, calls my brother in, and asks him to choose which parent he wants to live with—on the spot.
       My mother sobs the way she did when my father left.
       I write to my father about what he did and receive a letter back from him: I don’t want to hear from you or see you for a long time to come.

Then silence. We were a family that lived in a town of tag sales and fire drills.

I am twenty-four when I give up smoking. That is also when the depression hits.  I stop sleeping. I lie down at eleven or twelve after slogging through another exhausting day at work, close my eyes, and start talking in my head to every person I feel has ever wronged me. How could you do that to me, who do you think you are, that’s not what love is.
       Awake at one. Awake at two. Awake at three. At first I try aspirin, then Benadryl, then tequila. Then all three.
       I have been taking a writing class, but one night at 3 a.m, after hours of rumination, I decide to burn everything I have ever written. The kitchen in my New York apartment has a hulking white stove, burners encrusted with black grime.
       In the middle of the night, I sit in a straight-backed chair and turn the stove on. Get up, take the stack of papers I have been working on, feed them to the flames.
       Sit there, looking at the four blue crowns of flame on my stove, and listen to the sound of my own breathing.
       Then I understand.
       Everything burns. The girl who sits behind me at work. The man begging at the subway stop at 103rd Street. Family life.
       And it would have happened anyway, sooner or later. Even if I hadn’t smelled Sally’s cigarette. Even if I hadn’t crouched in the playground in back of my house, my face laughing up to the sky, the end would still have come.

Kate Brandt has been writing and teaching for many years. Her work has appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Talking Writing, Literary Mama, and Ginosko, among others. Her novel Hope for the Worst will be published by Vine Leaves Press in 2023.