The rotund cigar was positioned between index and middle finger of my right hand, while the left was positioned on my blue-jeaned hip. My friend, Bev, was standing nearby, waiting for her turn. The cigar had been filched from her father’s stash, which was the first thing that had made me nervous. But, hey, I was far from home, hanging out in Pontiac, Michigan, a city north of Detroit that felt as foreign to me as Detroit, itself. Gritty streets were jammed with honking, revved up vehicles, smog laced the air, and people yelled from their porches at the traffic jams and passersby. Even the extrenally more pleasant neighborhoods gave off a disgruntled air, as if the houses themselves would just as soon be elsewhere, and the stores would rather close up shop and migrate to the tranquil northern forests, even for a brief respite.
This was Bev’s town. I lived in a much smaller city in mid Michigan replete with lush lawns, a plethora of well designed parks, a major architect, Alden B. Dow, whose influence was seen everywhere. There were more churches per capita than almost anywhere. Situated there, commanding the services of everyone from renowned scientists to line workers, was the world headquarters for a major chemical company that Jane Fonda, in person, protested. The arts and sciences created their own complex and impressive culture. Beauty reigned, as well as excellent education. But clearly there was a significant lack of population diversity. All I had to say was “I’m from Midland” and Michiganders understood–or so they thought–what that meant. To me it was home for eighteen years, sometimes inhospitable and other times a seeming paradise.
It was true that in Pontiac I was out of my element, but this is one reason I liked to visit Bev. I had done some travelling but at fourteen I hadn’t yet experienced a wide variety of environments. My family travelled by car on vacation each summer. I had been to various summer arts camps and met people from all over the world, yes; at one I’d become friends with Bev, a talented pianist who wanted to be a composer. For world experiences I couldn’t quite count a week-end summer shopping trip to Chicago or Detroit when my parents and I would also attend a symphony concert and visit art museums. Pontiac gave off a slightly dangerous, exciting vibe. I thought this could be where authentic people lived, not just those who presented as perfectly well-groomed and mannered and appranetly free of the growing angst I felt. It was nineteen sixty-four, and the world sure was changing, per Bob Dylan and so many others. I was restless.
Since I was caught in the maelstrom of adolescence I had begun to try on different styles of fashion and types of behavior. Different personas, to see what might fit better. If I was out-of-town, that is, where it was safer to do so. And Bev seemed of my ilk, ready to push limits just enough, interested in deeper meanings and unusual possibilities, at least philosophically. We both had read Hermann Hesse and Ray Bradbury, Albert Camus and Kierkegaard and Jung. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Buffy St. Marie and Joan Baez were guides as well as Bach, Stravinsky and Handel. Ensnared by “teendom” and also the impulse toward adulthood, we explored life with a boldness shaped and at times undercut by an intrinsic sense of responsibility and well ingrained conscience.
So we did a few things that we told no one.
Earlier in the day we had wandered stores as we did on occasion, speaking in extravagant accents that undoubtedly fooled no one while garnering a little attention. I had a habit of trying to speak in another language even though I had barely begun the challenging task of learning French. Bev spoke what sounded like passable Spanish but I had no idea what she was saying to me. So I invented my own languages, utterances rolling off my tongue without self consciousness. I also wanted to indulge myself in even a barest imitation of how I imagined Anouk Aimee, Catherine Deneuve or Jane Birkin might be in their own cities, laughing and sharing secrets, gesturing eloquently and swooping about the aisles with eccentric, self-possessed grandness. I wanted to have that sort of magnetism, to be as confident as they were. And I wanted to play.
I might wear a floppy hat or bright head scarf with bell-laden, dangling Indian earrings my mother would have forbidden. I preferred black boots with bell bottom jeans borrowed from Bev or long gauzy skirts if we could find one at a second-hand store. It was costume time, an activity I missed from childhood. (At home I still wore slacks, matching skirts and sweaters with Capezio flats; my own trendy jeans, loose chambray shirts and love beads came a couple of years later. But never in school.) We bought a token something now and then–matching enamel butterfly pins for our jackets, a fancy pair of “natural tan” pantyhose, a bright bangle–to lend our forays more shopping authenticity and as momentos. I doubt that sales associates or shoppers fell for any of our raucous, amateurish attempts to appear like exotic European visitors. They likely were laughing behind our backs as we made our way from department to department or cafe to shop.
Never mind. We were having too much fun. Bev and I saw ourselves as romantic idealists. We vowed to live industrious, imaginative lives and thirsted for adventures that tested our intelligence, conferred high value on fledgling talents. We were powered by the zest and foolishness of youth, moved by a desire to make the world better but also more vivid and dynamic, as if we were worried it might not hold enough of either without our help.
Secretly, I wanted to be a stage actress and playwright–secretly because that sort of vocation would not do in my family. The best I could hope for was to perform in a few school musicals and plays, so I did. But I read all novels or memoirs (including Moss Hart’s remarkable offering Act One: an Autobiography) about acting I could, behind my closed bedroom door or in the big maple’s treetop branches. I was not a huge movie goer–it was not encouraged, as I had academics, church, cello lessons, dance, singing and figure skating to devote myself to first and last. But I might still see them on a group date or when visiting Bev or another friend out-of-town. Every now and then I was allowed to go to a Saturday afternoon matinee for a quarter at the Circle Theater.
But how unbelievably powerful to write a play (I’d tried a childish few), then direct it with characters placed about a bare stage, turning it into a pulsing, riveting piece of life lived before one’s eyes. How much better to be the actress who is given choice words to enliven a moment or an hour, to move an audience with a shrug of a shoulder or a lowering of eyelids, a small space of silence or a bellow of grief or joy. And, oh, to be someone else, anyone else but myself for just a little while…the freeing beauty of that!
So, you can see I was already at risk that spring day for something unexpected and untoward. I was perhaps overzealous in my passion for the arts, in my longing for exotic experiences, and molded by a certain naiveté that one develops living in a small near-cloistered Midwestern city. If Bev showed some restraint as we lolled about a street far enough from her house to both feel like visitors, I did not.
I smelled, then I lit the cigar. And inhaled. The fragrance and taste of the hot smoke hit me. I consoled myself with the thought that this was different and different must mean better. And then I choked, blew out a rapid stream of smoke. I felt light-headed, pleasantly so. Disoriented, perhaps, but not enough to raise alarm. I handed the cigar to Bev and she puffed away. I suspected she had done this before, had a small stash in her room along with marijuana and found this possibility awesome. I noticed a few people staring at us as they walked by, a couple of guys poked their heads out their car window and whistled. I reached for the cigar again and inhaled more deeply and slowly, tossing my hair back and adjusting my sunglasses. Exhaled more slowly. And began to feel as if I was on a merry-go-round and as if I was floating away, then turning upside down. I wondered if it might be laced with something bad. I wasn’t ignorant of some illicit substances but neither was I any expert. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling; I had thought it would be a little like cigarettes which I had tried once. A green wooden bench was to my left. I sat down and leaned back, inhaling a last time.
That was a mistake. I felt immediately nauseous and leaned over in time to vomit. Only I didn’t. I hadn’t eaten in a few hours and the dizziness seemed to stay and swirl inside my head, not quite upending my stomach. My heart raced and I began to perspire. Bev came over and spoke to me but I put up my hand.
“Okay, Cyn, what’s going on?”
“I think I’m going to die,” I whispered.
“Not possible. It’s only a cigar.”
“I am definitely going to die. Call 911.”
“Well, I don’t see a phone booth anywhere so just relax. Breathe.”
She sat down and rubbed my back and I jerked away.
“Don’t touch me, I’m going to be terribly ill.”
It was like being in some sort of tobacco hell, so nauseous and whirly-headed I couldn’t see straight, yet I was unable to divest myself of the sickness that consumed me.
“You inhaled, didn’t you! Why did you do that?”‘
I turned my head enough to see her accusatory look, her irritation.
“Why didn’t you tell me not to inhale?”
“I figured you would know that much.”
“I’m going to pass out. I have to get help.” I eyed a police station across the street and felt much sicker. No, not there.
Bev looked around. A couple of passersby slowed to gawk. I put my head between my knees when I heard a woman offer to assist us. Bev was talking to her and then her arm went across my back and her hand under my armpit with presure enough to lift me.
“Get up. We’re taking you across the street.”
“The police? No!” I wanted to stop talking and thinking, go to sleep, just wake up tomorrow.
“Yes, police department,” the woman said as she took the other side of my body and we crossed the street.
“No! I’ll get in trouble…”
“Already are,” the stranger said, cackling.
I loathed her help more than being ill.
The policeman who came out to meet us in the hallway took one look. “Drugs? What kind did you take?”
“None! I smoked a cigar. I’m so sick.”
He turned to Bev as the helper slinked out.
“She’s right, we shared a cigar. I don’t inhale but she did.”
“You do look pretty green, no kidding,” the policeman said. “You’ll survive. Lie down, I’ll get some water. You kids!”
He seemed tickled by my foolishness, though, and laughed so hard he clutched his stomach, another police officer coming out to see what was up. The longer this went on, the more I wanted to throw up. I gingerly lay back on a bench in the hallway and closed my eyes. I wanted to caution Bev to not give him our names or addresses, but figured she knew better. Everything was muffled as my head reeled and pounded, my stomach endured its stormy unsettling. I heard the man offer a paer cup but shooed him away. Breathe in, breathe out, think good thoughts, I told myself.
In a few minutes the spinning slowed some. I squeezed my eyes shut. I could feel Bev’s warm thighs under my outstretched calves and ankles. She kept drumming her fingers on my boot. I suspected she was practicing some piano piece she had to memorize, or she might be dreaming up something new. It irked me, then was calming. I fell into a light, woozy sleep, and dreamed of the open air stage of the music camp where Bev and I had met. It held rows of neatly seated cigar smokers.
In real time, a man and a woman came in arguing, followed by a teen-aged boy cursing at them both. My eyes flew open.
“Any better yet?” she asked.
I sat upright bit by bit. The spinning had stopped.”What time is it?”
“We’ve been here twenty minutes, maybe longer. You dozed some. I’m hungry.”
“You always are…maybe I could manage a pop.”
“Well, I guess you aren’t a born smoker.” She grinned, then hung her tongue out at me and widened her smallish hazel eyes.
“Stop. Not cigars, for sure…”
The others took the next bench, still going on about rent overdue and a car that had to be towed “or else” and tickets the boy had. I glanced into the office where police officers were milling about. They were paying no attention to me. I marvelled that I hadn’t been arrested for underage smoking or sent off to emergency for nicotine overdose. I wondered why they were so blase about a young girl nearly passing out on their turf. But I suspected this was the least of their worries, so stood up and tested my first steps. Success.
“Thanks,” I shouted into a hole in a thick glass window.
A guy who was studying paperwork looked up, gave a lazy salute.
We bought two soda pops in a machine down the hall, exited the building and waited for the city bus back to her folks’. I took off my hat and wiped off pale lipstick. It had been a heck of a day, and a painful mixture of relief and disappointment welled up. I put my arm around my friend’s shoulders. She elbowed me as we started to giggle. We both knew the next time I was in Pontiac there would be another caper.
I caught a Greyhound to Midland the next day. No one heard my tale at home. It was back to the routine, learning how to be a musician, reading and researching for school, hours on the ice rink and stolen moments with notebooks where I recorded the ins and outs of growing up. And my stories of brave girls and seriously beautiful romances, poetry of despair and passionate longing for more of life. I heard from my hometown friends that I was too earnest and sensitive, but I couldn’t seem to be otherwise.
The last I heard Bev ended up in L.A. and made a good living as a pianist and songwriter. That gave me happiness. We were true friends for a couple of years when we needed some zaniness as well as loyalty and respect. I found ways to grow into myself; it took time, endurance and better creative thinking. There were false starts and odd scenarios, a few leaps of faith. I had to admit that becoming whole and authentic was far harder than playing elaborate games of pretend, and the lessons of those times helped point me the direction I needed to go.
But lest you think that day was just a lark and had no real impact: I still cannot abide the barest whiff of cigar smoke fifty years later. Later, surprisingly, I did take up cigarettes for thirty years, and I regret every one smoked. But I was appreciative of a wise policeman who gave me a safe place to recover, put things into a right perspective with his good humor, then looked the other way. And lastly, you never know when what you’re looking for will turn into something else entirely.