What If There Was an Emergency?

I have a routine for my morning cigarette. First, I open the door and survey the weather. The ridges of snow around the yard reflect the blinding sunlight. Extending an arm into the winter air, I am pleasantly surprised to observe that it actually feels warm – high thirties, maybe.

I close the door and open my backpack to make sure I have all the necessary supplies – lighter, pack of Virginia Slims, gum, and travel-size perfume bottle. With everything accounted for, I slip into my coat and throw the backpack over my right shoulder before heading outside. It’s silly to follow this procedure just for a smoke, but I live at home and don’t want my parents to find out.    

I sit on the top step and extract the lighter and a cigarette. The cold seeps through the fabric of my skirt to my legs, making it feel like I’m sitting on snow. For good measure, I prop myself up on my hands to check the cement underneath. It’s dry. I sit back down, hold the cigarette between my lips, and click the lighter. In the wind and sunlight of morning, the flame is weak. It takes four or five separate, tentative flickers to finally burn the tip.

My friend Nicole is turning twenty in May. She doesn’t normally like to celebrate, but this year she wants to have a party themed Leaving Behind Adolescence. “I found a recipe online for mixed drinks incorporating Pop Rocks,” she tells me over lunch, “and we can put vodka into Capri Sun.”

I put down my fork and laugh. “Beautiful. All drinks must be fixed in secret, on the floor of your bedroom,” I propose, “and we will take a scheduled smoke break, in which we walk down the street out of sight of your house. And afterwards, of course, spray our clothes and hair vigorously with perfume, pop some gum, and hide all the evidence.”

She groans. “Oh, God—”

“Hey,” I interrupt, “if that’s not what trying to become an adult while living at home is about, I don’t know what is.”

Nicole has three tattoos—“The singing bird will come” on her shoulder, a Depression-era nomadic symbol on her rib, and an eye on the side of her hand. Her girlfriend and my best friend, Daisy, has two—“I am, I am, I am” under one breast and a crescent moon on the side of the other. Both of their mothers know about their first tattoos. The arguments incited by those revelations have left impressions deep enough to hide the subsequent ones. Old enough to make these decisions, but too young to fully own them.

***

I pull in the first drag. It doesn’t feel like much; usually it takes about three to get going. The first two roll in like waves at high tide, not quite reaching the shoreline. The dull, burnt bitterness coats my tongue. I don’t like the taste of cigarettes, but I love the acrid, foggy odor – always have, even when I was a little kid and never dreamed of being a smoker. I exhale and pull in a second time.  

It’s 11:30 in the morning, and there’s at least a full hour before my mother comes home from the elementary school. Still, a microscopic internal tension squeezes my gut every time I hear a car coming down the street. Maybe there’s an early dismissal. Or maybe it’s one of my friends’ mothers on her way to the gym.

Unfamiliar cars appear and disappear into the shrubbery on either side of the yard, passing without recognition. The tension in my stomach relaxes in cadence with smoky exhales. I just don’t want to have to answer any awkward questions.

I live a one-hour train ride from New York City. In theory I could go in all the time—groom myself as a metropolitan, ride public transportation till I know the lines like the palm of my hand, and find obscure shops and street art tucked away like treasure in the pockets of each neighborhood.

I don’t. I lack the funds, I lack the energy to seek permission from my parents, and I lack the bravery to do any solo exploration. I am also afraid of the subway. I would sooner walk for an hour through unknown neighborhoods than try to figure out the train lines by myself.

I made plans last month for a business dinner on Mulberry Street. The night before the meeting, I pulled up Google Maps on my laptop, typing Penn Station into the origin field and the restaurant as the destination. I clicked the walk icon and pressed enter.

47 minutes to walk. 20 for a cab or subway.

I wouldn’t be able to make it into the city in time to make the trip on foot. A small, nagging pain rose in my chest. “Dad?” I called into the hall. “I think I’m gonna have to take the subway downtown tomorrow.”

For an hour he sat in front of his computer, the MTA website in one tab, Google Maps in another. Finally, he came into my room. “You could take the—”

I snapped, “Dad, stop, I can figure it out myself. You’re making too big a deal out of this,” despite the fact that I had the same tabs open and was fervently typing directions on my phone’s notepad. Eventually we agreed that I could take the N train to Prince Street without much trouble. “But take a cab back afterwards,” he warned. “You’re not ready to take the subway that late at night.”

The dinner went well. We walked out into the street afterwards, our breath materializing in front of us like puffs of smoke. After the exchange of handshakes and cards, I walked down the street and up another until I was alone.

Cabs zoomed past in quick succession, yellow, black, and red blurring into traffic lights and neon signs across the street. I felt the small ripples of nausea welling up in the pit of my stomach as I reminded myself what to do: “If the center lights are on, just step into the street and wave your arm.”

But it felt like jumping rope back in elementary school. I watched too hard, waiting for the right moment to jump in, and always missed it. The cars rushed past. Was I supposed to hail one that was heading uptown? Which direction was uptown?

It wasn’t this direction, I decided, and walked one street over, where all the cars were driving the opposite way. But now I wasn’t so sure that direction was uptown either. I also now had to pee. I ducked into a convenience store, used the bathroom, bought gum, and reemerged onto the sidewalk. My stomach twisted again. There weren’t as many cabs around now, and I was running out of time.

The subway station was down the street. I remembered my promise and felt bad as I hurried to the entrance and down the stairs. “It’s fine,” I decided as I stepped onto the Q train and took a seat, “it’s only five stops.” My dad meant well but I was twenty. I was old enough to do this. I settled on that conclusion, and let it crowd out the much smaller thought that I was also old enough to figure out how to hail a cab.

When my dad picked me up at the train station at home, the first thing he asked was how the taxi was. “I’m fine—it was fine—got to Penn Station early,” I replied. “There wasn’t much traffic.” I was too tired to be honest.

On the third drag, the burn finally hits my lungs, crashing on the shoreline and unfurling to fill every empty space. There’s a suspended moment after I exhale, and then my head starts swimming.

Blanketed in sudden tranquility, I curl into myself and rest my arm on my knees. I feel sleepy and lucid at the same time. The wind and birdcalls seem louder. The snow sparkles brighter. I write reflective sentences in my head, imagining that I can see the words spelled out in strung-together smoky letters against the white winter sky.

At the same time, I can see where the ashes land in the snow and compulsively crunch over them with my boot. A car rushes down the street and I turn my head sharply in response. My bad choices and I are alone, but it doesn’t feel that way.

It’s better at night, when I inch the front door open a sliver and squeeze myself out. The lighter works on the first try at night, clicking open a steady, lasting flame that burns through the entire tip. I lean against the front door or sit on the stoop, not caring about sitting on snow or getting caught. Nobody drives by at one in the morning.

On the third drag, the entire night opens itself up to me. The white-gold orb of the streetlight hangs immobile under the moon like a reflection in still water. Naked trees cast stark shadows on velvet folds of snow. Everything is quiet. My mind starts turning out words, phrases, lines of poetry. It’s prolific but not hectic. Every thought is clear and within reach. I think about how I used to burn my arms with matches, and wonder why destruction feels better when it’s self-destruction. When I’m the one who pushes myself to the precipice and then pulls myself back. I can’t see the ashes land in the darkness, so I don’t stamp them out. They fall and disappear.

But even at night, as I near the end, I just want it to be over. The tide goes out; the burn disappears. Now it just tastes bad. In both darkness and daylight, I start caring again, about smell and breath and teeth and lung cancer and addiction. Especially addiction. I start worrying about the fact that I’m now smoking two a day, when my limit used to be one. I worry about three, then four, then five eventually becoming acceptable, my grip slipping until even self-destruction is out of my hands. The taste is unbearable now. Still, I smoke it down to the filter.

At 11 PM on Valentine’s Day, my phone rang with a call from my friend McKenna. I fought the urge to call her back in five minutes after my movie ended, and picked up the phone. You never know when something’s really wrong.

“What’s up?”

“This is important,” she said immediately, and from a girl whose first word in a call is usually “Heyyyy!” her rigid tone was enough to make me sit up and change mine.

“What’s wrong?”

The upshot was that her teenaged sister was home alone and having an anxiety attack. Their parents were on a date and McKenna was away at school.

“Can you just go over and check on her? Take a walk, talk to her, calm her down. It’s not a big deal, I just want to make sure she’s okay.” I asked a few questions and then said, “No problem—if I can find a ride, I’ll go over as soon as possible.”

My parents were watching a movie in the basement. I tried to be unassuming as I walked down the stairs and waited by the couch for them to notice me and ask what I wanted. I’m not afraid of my parents, but this was going to be a challenge.

“Is there a chance one of you could possibly drive me over to McKenna’s? She wants me to check on her sister.”

They immediately looked skeptical. I immediately got defensive.

“She’s having a panic attack, so I figured I’d go over there and talk to her a bit. If you can’t drive me I can walk-“

“You can’t walk,” my mother snapped, “It’s freezing”, and then they started the typical barrage of questions, like, “Why can’t she call her parents?” and “Is she in danger?”

“It’s nothing serious, I just need a ride—”

But ignoring their questions ignited the whole “Why are you being so shady?” and “If it wasn’t so cold out, you would have just left the house without asking, wouldn’t you?” routine.

Suddenly we were fighting. Explosively—the kind of fight where your own voice deafens you. In the middle of it, McKenna texted me “Never mind, she’s fine,” but we were too far in now.

“Why the fuck don’t you trust me?” I yelled. “I shouldn’t have to justify the importance of this.”

“You can’t ask us to do this and not tell us anything about it. You’re talking about a kid—what if something was seriously wrong?”

“What if there was a fucking emergency and I couldn’t get out of the house in time to respond to it because you were too busy asking me questions and making me prove it was an emergency?”

“You don’t know how to handle these things—”

“I do it at school all the time! I asked all the questions, I made sure the situation was something I could handle. I know how to do these things on my own, Dad, I need to know how to do these things, or I’m going to be the most useless adult of all time!”

He didn’t yell back. It makes you feel stupid, to yell and not have someone yell back. My lungs and eyes and head felt tired and limp.

He let out a long exhale, more to catch his breath than out of frustration. “But why couldn’t you just tell us?”

I didn’t even know why anymore.

There’s a whole routine to it. I grind the cigarette into the pile of snow next to my stoop, then stomp on it, mashing up the telltale pattern of black flakes so that it disappears into dirt. I take the butt back into the house with me and stash it in the pack. I take the subway and I lie about it. I open and close the front door quietly so that nobody knows I left, and I stand on the porch at midnight. I sneak around just to get fresh air, to observe how the bare tree branches converge and diverge until they disappear into the black velvet of the night sky, and feel for ten minutes like I’m alone.

They’re stupid little acts of illusory rebellion for a girl who doesn’t really know to be rebellious. I want to make my own decisions, but my parents are somehow involved and invested in all the good ones. Questionable decisions are the only ones left for me to fully own.

Yet, I can’t fully own them. Gracelessly suspended between childhood and adulthood, I travel around with gum and a travel-size bottle of perfume to spray myself on the doorstep before I reenter the house. “They know,” my uncle says, when I tell him this, “They’re just giving you the benefit of the doubt.”

I half believe him and half don’t. It isn’t really them, either way. The judgment and uncertainty are my own.