My grandmother chose Benson and Hedges in the gold package until she saw an ad campaign for Eve and switched because it made her feel more feminine. She liked to think she was glamorous and had a drawer just for belts, three wigs to cover her thinning hair, and some poor-quality diamonds that her nasty mother had accidentally left her in an un-updated will.
I was always told my grandmother was beautiful, but I never saw it. Perhaps that’s because by the time I spent most of my weekend days with her, she was depressed and living in a housecoat and fake gold slippers. Or perhaps it’s because she was old, and, loving her as I did, I sat too close and could see every pore on her nose.
I sat so close to her and clung onto her thin neck so tightly she used to whisper in her smoker’s voice, “You will love it when you get your first boyfriend.”
“Why Nana?” I’d ask, holding her with both arms and swinging around to see her face.
“So you can love him so.” And she’d draw deep on her Eve cigarette, careful not to burn me.
I was never inspired to actually smoke, though I did convince her to teach me to blow smoke rings when I was seven. It was one of those lazy days as she and I sat on the couch. The suited anchorman named Walter Cronkite was talking, and for all I knew he could be speaking Russian because news was like a foreign language to me. No matter how hard I tried to listen, it always became mish-mash. One thing I did know for a fact: he was able to see me and he was looking. I had to be careful what I did when I was directly in front of the TV. I couldn’t change into my jammies, for example. Nor could I hit my brother, as the anchorman would be a witness. Basically, my only options were coloring in the coloring books Nana kept in the dining room china cabinet, practicing my dancing, about which he seemed oddly disinterested, or sitting with Nana on the couch. All shady business had to be undertaken out of his range.
I was unable to sit still for long, so both Nana and the couch became a de facto jungle gym. Invariably, I ended up sitting on the cushions behind her, giving her a bruising back rub or putting her hair in hair clips—one of man’s greatest inventions. Clip, they’re open, Clip they’re closed. Clip, they’re open, Clip my finger is stuck inside.
She was sitting, right leg crossed tightly over left, left forearm folded across her body (hand hanging down), right elbow anchored on her right knee serving as a hinge that opened and closed to bring the cigarette close in for a puff, dangling foot circling at the ankle. This was her pose. I thought it was handsome, so I copied her. I practiced it. I even practiced shredding the skin around my thumb with my index finger with the hanging down hand, which was her activity of choice when she wasn’t holding a tissue.
“Hey Nana, I want to blow a smoke ring.” I announced, snapping a clip in the pin curl I made in her hair. She pretended not to hear, so I poked her bony back and leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “I won’t tell,” I said.
“Oh Kathy, I can’t do that,” she said. I slid off my perch behind her, hooked my left arm around her neck and kissed her soft, powdery cheek. It was Saturday. My grandfather was at the hardware store where he worked because he couldn’t stand to be retired anymore. Drew, my brother who usually visited with me, was at Indian Guides where girls weren’t allowed. And my parents were at home raising my two baby brothers. Now was the time.
“Children don’t smoke,” she said.
“I won’t smoke,” I said. “I just want to blow a smoke ring.”
I felt her body sigh under my arm again. She was not looking at me.
“I love you,” I whispered, and even then I knew that bordered on the unethical.
Slowly she uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. Sometimes she moved like she was a million years old and sometimes she moved like a hummingbird. She grabbed her cigarettes from off of the gold painted coffee table.
“Hand me that, will ya.” She pointed to her metal flip-top lighter that was just out of reach. I jumped up and grabbed it. I was a veteran at lighting that lighter. I especially liked the smell and I’d sniff it until I was sick.
I flipped the lid open with my thumb, put the thumb on the serrated spinning wheel, snapped a grinding turn, saw a spark, spun it again and up popped the blue flame.
Nana hit her pack slowly against her hand a few times and pulled out a single cigarette. She put it in the corner of her mouth while she tucked the pack in the sleeve of her house dress, then grabbed the cigarette and leaned forward so I could light it.
“This is a terrible idea,” she said, blowing the smoke out of the side of her mouth away from me.
She paused, staring past me for a while, cigarette aloft, and I thought I lost her. I waited, still. Then the light turned on in her the way it did sometimes, and only then I’d realize it had been off. She’d sit up, her eyes would shine and a wickedness would come over her. The kind of wickedness that would prompt her to confide to my seven-year-old self on one of our sleepovers that she would have slept with John F. Kennedy if he asked her.
“Don’t inhale this,” she said, flipping the cigarette around, filter side to me. “Just pull the smoke into your mouth.”
She put the cigarette to my lips, her house dress sleeve sliding down to reveal her thin, veiny forearm. “And promise me you will never smoke.”
“I promise,” I said, maybe intending to keep it.
I pulled the smoke into my mouth. The cigarette’s tip glowed. The smoke burned my eyes, but I forced them open. Nana drew smoke in her mouth and formed a tight O with her lips. We looked at each other like we were under water. Lifting up her hand, she tapped, gently making a popping noise on the hollow of her cheek. Out floated a perfect circle. I put my finger through it, then tapped my cheek. Smoke came out of my mouth, but not in a circle. We blew out our smoke.
“Tap quickly, like this.” She formed my mouth into an O and tapped her finger on my cheek.
This time she handed me the cigarette. I had taken enough tokes on so many unlit cigarettes and pretzel sticks, had watched her and my grandfather and everyone else I knew smoke that I knew exactly how to hold it, how to draw, what I should look like.
I put the Eve cigarette between my middle and index finger and sucked more smoke into my mouth. I leaned forward and tapped the shaft with my finger to knock the ashes into the ashtray. Then I handed the cigarette to her, filter side forward.
We had smoke ring school periodically from that day on. There were certain conditions that had to be met of course. First, we had to be alone. Second, Nana had to be in that mood, so I learned to watch and wait for the light. Third, I had to promise never to light a cigarette when she wasn’t around or practice on one of hers when she wasn’t looking. After a few weeks, I had mastered the cheek tap smoke rings. It took a while longer to get the hang of the jaw pop smoke ring, but those were the holy grail of smoke rings and it was worth the month or two of practice that it took to perfect them.
With both types under my belt, I could begin to work on smoke ring gymnastics. I could blow a large and expanding jaw pop smoke ring, then repeat-fire a string of tight cheek tap rings through its center as it moved away. Nana could blow a jaw popper toward me and I’d send the cheek tappers through the bullseye of its center.
I never did pick up smoking. Both she and my grandfather died young of emphysema and lung cancer, devastating me and turning me against the habit with a vengeance. But every now and then, when I catch a whiff of an Eve cigarette on a city street, or see it’s discarded slim packaging lying in the gutter, I remember the days when Nana and I would have cheek tapper contests and blow rings at each other until we ended up laughing in a cloud of smoke.
Kathy Smith has published both fiction and creative non-fiction in Philadelphia Stories, poetry in Apiary, and twice won Glimmer Train’s Honorable Mention, once for Short Story, and once for Very Short Story. Most recently, she won Gotham’s Josie Rubio Scholarship Award, and was a finalist in Gotham’s Greatest Gift award. She received her B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. She lives in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.