Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cringing While Smoking

I guess I can blame Gina for my short stint as a Marlboro Lights smoker. She had fiery red hair and she took me to the movies in her light blue Volkswagon bug. The cassette soundtrack from Grease was turned way up as she weaved in and out of Los Angeles suburbia traffic. She was taking me to see Annie at a huge shopping center. It was the best day of my life so far. I’m ten and Gina is eighteen. She is the daughter of my grandparents’ friends, whom we are visiting in California. I had just taken my first plane ride, and now this. A movie date with a pretty teenager, and she is talking to me like a friend. She is singing along with the tape and is encouraging me to sing too. She opens the glove compartment and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. She is so cool. Later, as we pull into her parents’ driveway, she asks me not to mention to anyone that she had been smoking. Don’t worry, Gina. Your exciting secret is safe with me.

Fast-forward about seven years. I am feeling cool, transporting four girlfriends to the beach on a Friday afternoon in June, 1989. We have music blasting, cigarettes burning, earrings dangling, and effervescent chattering about our half-day off. We are so close to not being high school girls anymore; graduation feels minutes away under early summer sun. We are happily idling at a red stoplight. And please note that we are not in a cute convertible; we are in my mother’s minivan. And yes, I am flagrantly smoking in her car, and allowing four others to do so as well.

“Who’s that man looking at us?” Linda remarks. The smoke from her cigarette is pluming out of the passenger window. She taps her ash.

It’s my dad. I drop the cigarette I am holding and it burns my calf. I’m cringing, but I am also terrified. The strange thing is-- he is looking at me with amusement. He waves. My father loved pretty girls and there is a carload full. The stoplight turns green.

I didn’t understand the bemused look on his face in 1989. I understand it now, and I am not even halfway there in parenting years. My six-year-old son is just one-third of the age of that teenaged girl. I can just start to see the glimmer of a different, outside world personality that is his own. I see it when he laughs with a schoolmate, uses a weird tone of funny voice, or refuses to tell me about some piece of gossip I have lifted from another nosy mother. My father recognized in my cool, smoking moment that I was much more than the sullen adolescent girl that had withdrawn in the past few years. As I led a caravan of young women across the Connecticut state line, smoking cigarettes, dreaming about boys and the prospect of college, I was more like the confident four-year-old girl who used to meet him at the door at dinnertime and shout hello. He loved that little girl, even though now she was smoking a carcinogenic cigarette, and probably driving a bit erratically.

“I am so dead,” I moan. I can’t think of continuing on to the beach and worrying my fate until I get home. I have to take my lumps now. I motion for Dad to pull over so I can work some damage control. We both get out of our cars and meet in the middle.

“Are you cutting school?” he asks. I’m relieved that I can answer truthfully.
“No, we have a half-day.”
“Ok, then. Are you going to the beach?”
“Uh huh.”

I am waiting for him to bring up the smoking. He doesn’t.

“Have a good time then,” he smiles. “I’ll see you later.” He waves cheerfully at the girls in the car, who are slightly crouched down (in cringe mode).

If it had been my mother, there would have been a ghastly scene on the side of Route 123. Screaming, hair-pulling, general hysteria. It would have resulted in serious cringing for all involved, even passersby.

My father never mentioned the smoking stoplight again. It’s good to be a Daddy’s girl.


  1. I am addicted to the Weekly Cringe.

    Capturing adolescence, and an ode to your father and your boys! Bravo.

  2. Started my morning off with a smile again. Thanks Tracy
    Mrs. B

  3. This is not cringe-worthy, it is cry-worthy! I'm sitting at a Starbucks with tears rolling down my face. First, b/c I know how close you were to your father, and second, b/c my girls are 3 and 5 and I dread that time when they no longer want to be glued to my side. Third, b/c I'm probably PMSing or something.
    As always, I love reading your posts, and it's a good thing that I'm crying and laughing at the same time!

  4. I love that. your dad saw past the naughty because you were happy...only a dad can be so cool and keep perspectiive like that. Nice memory Tracy

  5. My favorite so far. The picture makes it perfect.

  6. Hmmmm... who's the other nosy mother?! ;o)
    I love, love, love reading your blog!