Been caught smoking

I didn’t get caught smoking until after my freshman year in college.

To be fair, I didn’t start smoking regularly until I moved to Albuquerque in the first place. The small town I grew up in – technically New Mexico, but only five miles from West Texas – was a hornets’ nest of neighbors, my parents’ old friends and any number of Gladys Kravitzes more than willing to snitch on a teenager. My mother had eyes everywhere.

I’d had a cigarette or two before I went away. One time at a debate tournament, my friend and I sneaked a pack on the bus and tried to smoke in our hotel room. We’d barely lit the first one when someone knocked on the door. The cigarette was quickly flushed down the toilet. The pack was tossed down an empty hallway in an anonymous high school as soon as we got a chance.

At UNM, though, I discovered the magic of keg parties and learned pretty quickly that smoking and drinking at the same time felt really good. After a while I realized that a smoke first thing in the morning felt really, really good. And soon after that I figured out that smoking after sex – well, you know.

It was only a matter of time before I started buying my own hardpacks of Marlboro Lights at the grubby Diamond Shamrock across the street from campus, where on a lucky day they would cost under two bucks. My friends and I all agreed – if we had to choose between smokes and food, cigarettes always won. Smoking covered up hunger pangs so that we could make it through long, hungover Saturday afternoon till it was time to drink again.

Those were very heady days.

The summer after my freshman year, I moved home and spent a lot of late night time playing Nintendo with my friends. I much preferred driving in endless circles on Mario Kart to driving in endless circles through the streets of Hobbs, where getting pulled over for imaginary infractions was just a matter of course. People always gathered in our living room – we had the house where stray teenagers, refugees from difficult parents or untenable jobs would end up, perched on the couch or in the kitchen eating sandwiches. Most every night someone was available to carouse with, even if only mildly.

One night in June, I went outside to stand watch while my other friends smoked – none of their parents knew, either. For whatever reason, I was not smoking at that particular moment. Thirteen years later, this is still my contention.

My friend Laura, absent that evening, called my parents’ phone number to see where everyone was. She asked my sister if I was outside smoking. My sister conceded and then heard a telltale click, the sound of my mother hanging up the phone on her own extension.

My sister hurriedly got off the phone but the damage had been done. My mom stormed into the living room and inquired as to my whereabouts. My sister pointed outside. My mom opened the door and called me over.

“Your friends need to go home,” she said, calmly.

Which meant certain doom.


Not quite sure what had enraged her, I shooed my friends off and came inside. I catalogued a list of my more pressing sins but couldn’t come up with anything immediately. Being naturally pretty sneaky, I was out of practice in plausible deniability.

I barely even got in the door before my mom confronted me.

“Do you smoke?”

Honestly, what choice did I have? I’d been smoking for months, including when I visited home, and hadn’t been caught. Clearly I was invincible. I picked the most prudent course of action – bald-faced lying. “No.”

She leaned in and said, more quietly, “Do you smoke?”

I backed up against the foyer wall. My voice wavered, but I was committed. “No.”

She came so close that I knocked my head into the mirror behind me. “I’m going to ask you one. More. Time. Do you smoke?”

And then I broke. I cried like a baby and spilled secrets like I’d taken codeine. My sister sat curled in the corner of the big purple couch we’d inherited when my grandparents died, watching the free show.

She spoke up. “Don’t be too mad at her, Mama,” she said imploringly, like a little match girl left outside at Christmas, or maybe a cobra. “I smoked a cigarette once.”

It took every bit of what was left of my fortitude to keep a straight face. I happened to know for a fact that my younger sister, who had started smoking long before me, had an entire carton of cigarettes secreted away under a blanket and several half empty bottles of Febreze in the trunk of the Dyna-Ride, her maroon Buick. A carton! Buying a carton is a commitment. It says, “I am not going to quit smoking for at least ten more packs.” If you’re taking the long view when it comes to smoking, something is wrong. I have never in my life purchased an entire carton of cigarettes and yet. And yet! My sister was the picture of innocence and I was left to take the brunt of the blame.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth went on for a good half hour. My mom kept repeating, “Just wait until tomorrow. Your daddy is going to wake up and you’ll have to look him in the eye and tell him that you smoke.”

My father smoked through most of my childhood. He underwent hypnosis and lasers, eventually succumbing to the indignity of chewing acres of cinnamon toothpicks before he finally quit just in time for his daughters to start.

After all the noise, my father finally wandered out of his bedroom, wearing tighty whiteys but not his glasses, so that he squinted in the bright light. It’s worth noting that the last time I saw him up in the middle of the night like this was when my mother overheard my sister’s eyeliner wearing boyfriend offer casually to kill my parents. That time, he had his shotgun. To be fair, my mother overheard that conversation by listening in on the extension, too.

My mother shoved me forward by the shoulder. “Tell him. Tell your daddy what you did. Go ahead and break his heart.”

When I made my confession, he looked disgusted. Always a practical man, though, after a bit of a lecture, he announced that it was time for everyone to go back to bed and disappeared into the recesses of the back of the house.

Being found out was actually a relief. I didn’t have to sniff my hair for smoke and I could loiter in the front yard all day long if I wanted. I didn’t have to worry about any nosy relatives or neighbors driving by and then frantically calling my parents, hoping to be the bearer of bad, bad news.

When my mom and I went to the doctor together that summer to get diet pills, my blood pressure registered incredibly low. “Hey, at least I smoke,” I told her. “If I didn’t, I’d probably be dead.” I think she wished I hadn’t said that in front of the nurse but in the end she had to agree with me.


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Okay, I had a fool grin the whole time I was reading this, but I cackled at this:

A carton! Buying a carton is a commitment. It says, “I am not going to quit smoking for at least ten more packs.”


I have significant envy of kids who all have their own phones and text plans who never have to worry about a parent picking up the extension.



PS: I love Mama Butler. I need to take lessons from her.

PPS: How did you two not figure out the extension trick after the first time? Really? REALLY, ELIZA???

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