It had been several years since I last attended a Paulson family wedding but I was watching one unfold this sunny June afternoon, enjoying my front-row seat for the pending outdoor ceremony as I awaited the wedding party’s arrival. Gretchen’s middle sister Tina was about to exchange vows with her fiancee Mitch, and it was a courtship that everybody in the family was over the moon about. As the organ music in the background filled the air, I looked to the two teenage girls sitting to my left to get a look at the person who I knew was most ecstatic about the pending wedding, and the beaming smile on Kilee Paulson’s face said it all.
For as far back as Kilee could remember, her mother had eschewed the dating scene. She didn’t know the exact reason, but correctly assumed that her mom had been burned by Kilee’s father and had closed the door on romantic relationships moving forward. Kilee had likely assumed, along with the rest of us, that her mom would never allow herself to become vulnerable enough to give herself away to any man, but the sweetness and sincerity of Mitch Finstad managed to break down Tina’s defenses. As I watched Kilee fight back the tears through her smile as the processional was about to start, I caught myself in my own moment of emotional weakness. While I felt a loose investment in seeing Gretchen’s middle sister finally find the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with at age 37, Kilee had a much more direct investment, and it was a rare moment of unambiguous joy to witness in the eyes of a 14-year-old girl.
Seconds later, the innocence of the moment was corrupted by my own 14-year-old daughter Kaitlyn, who proceeded to pull out her pack of Marlboro Reds 100s from the pocket of her pink and white dress and pluck out two cork-filtered cigarettes. Kaitlyn broke her cousin Kilee’s concentration as she handed her a cigarette, quickly flicking Kilee’s cigarette to life before igniting her own. It was the inaugural blast of a smoky aroma that I knew would be a mainstay of this ceremony, as well as the reception and dance in the hours to come. And I also knew that there would be plenty of people in the crowd who wouldn’t be thrilled about that.
The beginning of the processional redirected my attention as the groom strutted past me, arm in arm with Gretchen and Tina’s mother Jennifer. Much of the rest of the wedding party followed, and the expected aroma of additional cigarette smoke came with them. I winked at maid of honor Gretchen as she strolled past, freshly lit Marlboro 100 in hand, and then observed the rest of the wedding party line up on either side of the bride and groom. Tina’s nonsmoking best friend Suzy stood to Gretchen’s left along with Gretchen and Tina’s cigarette-wielding baby sister Melissa, the groom’s nonsmoking 30-something sister Samantha, and the groom’s 16-year-old niece Isabel. As I observed the friends and relatives of the groom in their tuxedos on Mitch’s side of the processional, I was more content than ever to have not been asked to be part of the wedding party.
I made eye contact with Gretchen, lost in the moment and taken by her beauty as the sunshine beamed upon her full mane of platinum blond hair. But the smug satisfaction of watching this wedding from the cheap seats must have been obvious on my face as she sent a playful yet icy glare my way, dangling her Marlboro Red from her lips as she tended as subtly as possible to the wedgie that the lush pink bridesmaid dress was giving her.
Gretchen’s annoyance quickly transitioned to motherly pride at the sight of our four-year-old son Brayden, serving as the ring bearer of this ceremony, approaching the altar with a small box holding the ring that would soon be on Aunt Tina’s finger. Approaching the altar ostensibly parallel to Brayden was his cousin, Melissa’s four-year-old daughter Olivia, acting as flower girl. The two blond children of obvious Nordic lineage elicited good-natured giggles from the crowd as they worked their way to the altar, with Brayden ultimately zooming ahead and Olivia dutifully sprinkling flower pedals down the aisle. Brayden ultimately delivered the ring to the best man, looking up affectionately to his mother but then frowning as a stream of her cigarette smoke drifted into Brayden’s eyes.
Kaitlyn and Kilee were oohing and aahing in observation of the wedding party as Olivia and Brayden wandered off, and I gently waved my hand their direction as a nonverbal cue to quiet down. The girls cooperated and quit talking, approaching their cigarettes to their lips for respective drags. Catching my eye from the wedding party hovering in front of me was teenage bridesmaid Isabel, who couldn’t take her eyes off of Kaitlyn and Kilee smoking cigarettes in the front row. The cute light brunette teen in the lush pink bridesmaid dress was clearly in the throes of significant temptation as I watched her breathe in to savor the smoke coming from Gretchen and Melissa near her with the two nonsmoking bridesmaids. I didn’t know Isabel well and had never seen her smoke, but I’d been around enough female smokers in my day to where I recognized an urgent cigarette craving when I saw one. Just as I was beginning to feel sorry for her, she did a hard pivot and turned her back to the crowd, appearing to reach into the cleavage of her bridesmaid’s dress. I knew what was coming next and could hear the flick of a cigarette lighter breaking through the rhythm of the organ music.
Sure enough, Isabel turned around moments later with wisps of smoke spraying from her mouth and nose after her inaugural drag, making a flimsy effort to cup her hand around the freshly lit cigarette as she stood there. I marveled at the sight of a girl Isabel’s age smoking a cigarette so publicly in front of her family, only a few years removed from what seemed like the imminent cultural erasure of cigarette smoking. As I averted my gaze over to Gretchen dragging intently from her Marlboro Red with no inhibition, I was reminded that she pretty much single-handedly changed the course of history only four years removed from her hostile takeover of Philip Morris. Gretchen had retired from her stint at Philip Morris CEO last year, but her legacy was on open display amidst this bridal party where three of the five females, including one teenager, were wielding cigarettes while standing at the altar awaiting the bride’s arrival. As the shutter of a nearby camera went off incessantly, I was thrilled that a wedding photographer was on hand to capture this surreal moment.
I was struggling to contain my amusement at the sight and smell of all of this cigarette smoke invading my airspace and my line of vision, but I did my best to wipe the smirk off of my face as I caught the icy glare of mother-of-the-groom Barbara Finstad sitting on her chair on the opposite side of the wedding aisle. The icy glare wasn’t directly aimed at me but I figured it would be soon enough with Kaitlyn and Kilee sitting next to me smoking their cigarettes. I felt kinda bad as the organ melody of “Here Comes the Bride” began playing as Barbara’s mind was clearly elsewhere, her rage hidden behind a Stepford smile that was thinner than the bride’s veil as she watched her granddaughter Isabel shamelessly indulging her rookie smoking habit with a fairly intense drag.
Seconds later, Barbara’s eyes shifted to Gretchen as she took a drag from her cigarette, immediately connecting the dots of the corrupting influence on her granddaughter, her face turning red as she stewed. Sure enough, Barbara’s eyes then shifted my direction and focused on Kilee, soon to be the latest addition to the Finstad family, two years younger than Isabel but already deeply addicted to cigarettes. All things considered, Barbara had composed herself as a proper upper-middle-class matriarch through the wedding preparations, but her face said it all about her thoughts on her son marrying into the family of “the most hated woman in America”.
Barbara’s attention, along with my own, was finally redirected where it should have been as Troy Paulson walked his daughter Tina down the aisle. I stole another glance at Barbara and saw a hint of joy flash on her face as she admired the beaming blond bride in her dazzling white dress approach the altar hand in hand with her father. I had noticed in the past that Barbara seemed to have a soft spot for soon-to-be daughter-in-law Tina despite her misgivings of the Paulson family generally. Perhaps it was just a matter of being pleased to see her son meet his soulmate, but Barbara’s smile seemed to be directed specifically to Tina in observance of her lush wedding gown as Tina ascended the altar to greet her smiling fiancee Mitch.
The pastor soon approached the couple on the altar and officially opened the ceremony, reading from the script he held in his hand with the exchange of vows language. “Thank you all for coming. We have all come here today to celebrate the love of Tina and Mitch. Tina and Mitch have chosen each one of you to be here today and they’re so happy to share this moment with the ones who are closest to them. They have known you many years. You have watched them grow up. You went to school with them. Or you worked with them. Because you’re the ones who have supported them so well for so long, it only made sense for you to join them to help celebrate the most important day of their lives….”
My eyes continued to wander from the bride and groom to the bridesmaids, picking up on the escalating emotion on everybody’s faces as the moment had arrived, occasionally giving a side-eye to my left to see the most emotional attendee of all. My niece Kilee really felt the impact of the pastor’s opening words, taking a drag from her cigarette to help absorb the emotion, but ultimately giving in to the moment and raising her hand to her eyes to wipe away the soft flow of tears simultaneous to the soft flow of cigarette smoke rolling from her mouth and nose.
I diverted my attention back to the happy couple as they continued to look into each other’s eyes and listen to the pastor’s words, but I couldn’t concentrate of them as closely as they concentrated on each other with the otherworldly visual of three smoking bridesmaids indulging in cigarettes during the ceremony. As Gretchen took a final drag from her Marlboro Red, I was curious what she planned to do with her spent butt and watched with a smirk as she tilted her head upward to release her final exhale and then tossed the smoldering cork filter butt behind her where it just cleared the altar. Gretchen then proceeded to reach to the panty line of her dress and attempt a stealth adjustment from the rear, and it was endlessly amusing to witness her discomfort in this bridesmaid’s dress. I had a nagging suspicion another cigarette was forthcoming, and it only took a moment for a pack of Marlboro Red 100s and a lighter to appear from a pocket in her dress.
A small but mildly audible gasp emerged from the crowd as Gretchen casually approached the cigarette to her lips and flicked it to life, dangling the freshly lit cigarette for a moment and entirely unconcerned about how it played with the crowd. I watched in amazement as the inaugural blast of exhaled smoke from Gretchen’s new cigarette drifted directly into the pastor’s face as he read Tina and Mitch’s vows. The pastor handled it like a pro, never flinching as the stream of Gretchen’s smoke completely invaded his airspace. My eyes drifted leftward to observe similar encounters amongst the rest of the bridal party, where nonsmoking Suzy and Samantha were sandwiched between Gretchen, Melissa, and Isabel who were all smoking cigarettes.
For whatever reason, this visual was matched by the sound of a cacophony of lighters flicking behind me, triggering me to turn my head over my shoulder to observe that a mixed-gender selection of about a dozen attendees, some familiar faces and others not, were smoking cigarettes. No sooner did the astonishment of this observation hit me than the flicking of lighters from the chairs directly next to mine drew my attention, with Kaitlyn and Kilee firing up another round of Marlboro Red 100s for themselves.
And as I looked back up to the wedding party, I couldn’t help but notice the youngest groomsman’s eyes were trained on my daughter and niece, unable to look away from their youthful consumption of cigarettes. I didn’t know the 16-year-old brunette kid personally, but I knew his name was Elijah and that he was Mitch’s nephew and the twin brother to bridesmaid Isabel, the latter of whom was finishing her cigarette and following Gretchen’s lead in tossing it behind the altar. Making a quick mental comparison of the apparently nonsmoking Elijah and his twin sister turning her head rightward to exhale her smoke away from the crowd, it struck me that Elijah probably had some complicated emotions going on in his head right about now just as I did when I was his age. I had no idea if Elijah had any sort of fetish or not, but there was no question that seeing your female contemporaries become cigarette smokers at such a transformative time in a young man’s life has a tangible and often confusing impact on his perspective for better or for worse.
I then scolded myself for taking my eye off of the happy couple and redirected my attention to Tina and Mitch just as they began their formal exchange of vows. “Mitch,” the pastor inquired, “Do you take Tina to be your wedded wife? Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, and to remain faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”
I recognized Mitch’s life-affirming smile as he parted ways with his bachelorhood forever, confidently responding, “I do.”
The pastor turned to Tina and repeated the same question to her. I couldn’t see Tina’s face from the angle I was sitting but could tell by the tone of her voice that she knew she had turned a corner toward happiness after so many years in purgatory as she exclaimed her own “I do!” in response.
As they exchanged rings in the moments ahead, I flashed back to my own wedding day with Gretchen nearly 18 years earlier. I knew I had found my soulmate, and everything about Tina and Mitch’s vocal inflection and body language affirmed that they were destined to experience the rest of their lives as a couple as well.
“And so now….” the pastor pressed forward to the climactic finale of his presentation, “….by the power vested in me, it is my honor and delight to pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss your bride.”
The pageantry of the afternoon hit its crescendo as Tina and Mitch locked lips for the first time as a married couple while the crowd clapped and cheered. Tina had resisted the urge to smoke a cigarette during the ceremony in the way that three of her bridesmaids did, but all I could think about when I watched the nonsmoking Mitch kiss her was that her breath probably still had the residual taste of tobacco smoke. I know Gretchen certainly continued to taste like cigarettes on the first kiss that consummated our marriage 18 years ago. I chuckled as I then mused that this could well be the least smoky kiss Mitch would ever get from Tina over the course of their marriage.
“Ladies and gentleman, I present to you Mr. and Mrs. Finstad,” the pastor closed with a flourish, eliciting another eruption of cheers and applause from the crowd.
I got my first clear look at an elated Tina as she faced the crowd, seconds before progressing hand in hand with the groom, camera shutters snapping from all directions. The rest of the wedding party followed and they formed the receiving line several yards behind the seating arrangement to greet guests. Sitting in the front row, I was one of the first to depart and go through the receiving line. Unsurprisingly, Gretchen and Melissa quickly lit up a fresh round of cigarettes but the bride resisted the urge. I hugged Tina and wished her the best while going through the line, but I could feel from her embrace that she was dying for a cigarette and would light up her first as a married woman as soon as everybody had passed through this receiving line. Moving on to Gretchen next, I gave a sympathetic smile that she immediately picked up on.
“Another 15 minutes and this damn dress is coming off and staying off!” Gretchen whispered to me declaratively with her trademark husky voice, wisps of smoke spraying from her mouth and nose as she spoke.
I nodded affirmatively in response, knowing Gretchen’s aversion to wearing dresses would ultimately lead to a change into more casual clothes in the near future. Kaitlyn and Kilee exchanged pleasantries with Gretchen before we proceeded down the line, touching base with the bridesmaids and groomsmen. And as I greeted the twins Elijah and Isabel and observed the typical awkward eye contact between teenage strangers as they made eyes with Kaitlyn and Kilee, it struck me that it could be an interesting reception and dance this evening.
Fifteen minutes later, Gretchen hustled on out to our parked car, freshly lit Marlboro Red 100 dangling from her lips. She held up her dress as she progressed, careful to keep the hem out of the grass and dirt but almost crawling out of her skin to slip out of it as quickly as possible. She had asked Kaitlyn, Brayden, and I to give her a few minutes to change before we returned to the car, and was about to take full advantage of this time for a secondary mission that we were kept out of the loop about.
Gretchen climbed into the backseat of the car, still pumping out smoke through her dangling cigarette, as she laid out of sight and unzipped the dress and slip underneath. In seconds, she was stripped down to her bra and panties, feeling even greater relief to be out of this dress than the nicotine relief she felt every time she took a dangling drag from the cigarette. She reached down to the waiting white tanktop and pale blue jean short cutoffs lying on the car seat that she had the foresight to bring along. She couldn’t help but chuckle through her dangling cigarette at her own immaturity streak when it came to changing out of her maid of honor dress and into her casual rags, but as she slipped on the white tanktop and slid into the tight, hip-clutching jean shorts, she sighed and reminded herself that only now would she be able to enjoy her sister’s wedding day.
Gretchen squeezed together the buckle on the jean shorts and zipped up the fly before finally ashing her cigarette out the cracked window. With the most important matter at hand taken care of, it was now time to take care of the second-most important in the limited time she had, putting her phone to her ear and clicking the “Sophia” icon on her call log to dial up her closest associate.
Gretchen took a long, deep drag on the cigarette while awaiting a response on the other end of the phone line, quickly hearing the voice that she wanted to.
“Hey there,” Sophia Fiorentino responded cordially. “Got a new brother-in-law yet?”
“Oh yeah,” Gretchen responded with a mix of happiness and exasperation. “The ceremony just ended and I think you’ll be getting some pretty quality shots by the end of the day. Between your recommended wedding photographer and the plants in the crowd, we should have some great images to work with.”
Sophia listened intently, a mischievous smile beaming on her face as she leaned back into her chair at the CEO’s office at Philip Morris, dragging deeply from her Parliament 100 until the cherry lit up the room like a laser beam and contrasting nicely with her dark brown hair and tanned features. A satisfied follow-up exhale filled the already smoky room with even more carcinogenic smog.
“Can’t wait to see them,” Sophia responded coyly. “These shots should be the perfect launch for our smoker-friendly wedding package promotion. The photographers are gonna keep working the reception and dance tonight right?”
Gretchen beamed with pride at her protege’s ongoing ambition, using the cherry of her nearly-spent cigarette to light up her next one before responding. “Damn right! We gotta ride this train for as long as it lasts before the regulators figure out a way to derail us as you keep saying. I feel a little sketchy doing it at my sister’s wedding, but those images are gonna be gold for selling this experience at our subsidiaries.”
“Absolutely,” Sophia replied with an affirming smirk, taking another intensely deep drag from her Parliament before snap-inhaling it into her dark lungs. “So this is still entirely between you and I?” she asked, the smoke slowly trickling out of her mouth and nose as she spoke.
“Yeah,” Gretchen responded with a hint of guilt. “My sister wouldn’t love finding out she’s a lab rat for Philip Morris at her own wedding but she’d get over it pretty quick.” Pausing to take a drag from her Marlboro Red, she then added, “But there are some other people who attended today who would probably be a little less forgiving,” the image of a scowling Barbara Finstad immediately popping into her brain.
An increasingly husky laugh coming from Sophia’s end reinforced to Gretchen that Sophia’s smoking habit was slowly taking its expected bodily toll on her caramel-skinned Italian protege. “Business is business,” Sophia responded, justifying their ruthless tactics on behalf of Big Tobacco with the flamboyance of a mob boss stereotypically associated with her ethnic profile.
Gretchen was then caught off-guard by a child’s voice in the background on Sophia’s phone. “Hi Gretchen!” thundered the boisterous greeting of Sophia’s six-year-old daughter Jordyn in the background.
“Hey Jordyn!” Gretchen greeted back, shifting her vocal pitch to the appropriate tone for addressing a child. “You’re in the office with mommy today, huh?”
“Yep!” Jordyn responded. “Mommy brought me in to show off my dolls.”
Gretchen furrowed her brow in confusion. “What are you up to, Sophia?” she asked as she listened to Jordyn’s footsteps running out of the room.
Sophia smirked again as she responded. “Just trying to make some partnerships with toy companies. Jordyn’s gonna give our board of directors a little demonstration and give them some help deciding which products would be most helpful to align ourselves with.”
Gretchen’s face continued to elicit a mixture of confusion and amusement. “Are you gonna try to get the dollmakers to put cigarettes between the fingers of Barbie?” she asked.
Sophia responded with another husky laugh and added, “A little more subtle than that. More like getting the toymakers to color-coordinate their design schemes with our products. Offer discounts to parents who purchase our cigarettes. Maybe alter the voice of their dolls so they sound more like smokers. I have quite a few ideas actually,” she crowed.
Gretchen was thoroughly impressed by what she heard. “I knew that place would be in good hands after I handed the baton to you and you’re proving it a little more every day.”
“Thank you,” Sophia answered like a proud daughter getting praised by the mother she idolized. “As we’ve discussed before, we gotta plant seeds in as many places as we can if we want to keep sprouting buds and weather that next inevitable regulatory hammer.”
Much as Gretchen wanted to continue talking shop with Sophia, she looked up to see me approaching the car with the kids and knew she needed to cut the conversation short. Lowering her voice a tone to tip off that she’d soon have company, Gretchen bid her farewell. “Looks like I’ve run out of time here, Sophia. Mark and the kids and coming to the car. But let me see those wedding shots first thing in the morning and feel free to ask me any questions.” She paused before adding, “And Sophia….keep up the good work.”
Gretchen abruptly ended the call a split second after Sophia thanked her for the compliment as myself, Kaitlyn, and Brayden were almost at the car. She opened up the back seat door and was about to slip into the passenger side of the front seat. After being a couple for nearly a quarter century, my radar was always raised whenever I detected a hint of deception from Gretchen, and seeing how quickly she ended that phone call just as we were approaching tipped me off that she had a secret agenda going on.
Kaitlyn looked at her mom and then into the backseat where her discarded bridesmaid’s dress lied in a rumple on the seat and giggled. “I can’t believe you don’t want to wear your dress to the reception, mom. It looks so pretty on you.”
With a hint of nervous energy, Gretchen responded “Well you’re certainly welcome to stay dolled up in your dress all night if you want to. I value comfort.”
Gretchen closed the door and sat down in the passenger seat of the car, her presentation matching that trademark Gretchen Paulson image dating back to the first time I laid eyes on her in her freshman year of college. She slipped on her sunglasses to fully authenticate the image, the half-smoked Marlboro Red 100 dangling from her lips as she crossed her tanned and perfectly toned legs flowing out of the tight pale blue denim. When I looked a little closer, I could see the crow’s feet around her eyes and draw lines on her mouth, but never would I have imagined back on our wedding day that my bride would be superficially identical at the doorstep of turning 40 as she was when she was 22. I smiled as I recalled how she was all too often up to no good then just as she clearly was today. So many things simply hadn’t changed since 2004.
But I was reminded of the one big thing that had changed since then as I prepared to back out of the parking space and looked in the rearview mirror to see Kaitlyn behind me lighting up a new Marlboro Red 100. My eyes then briefly drifted to Brayden sitting next to her. He was already clearly uncomfortable with his mother’s secondhand smoke drifting into his airspace, and was now giving Kaitlyn a nasty side eye as she lit up and added to the air pollution. I had a suspicion Brayden wouldn’t be thrilled about the atmosphere at the indoor reception hall we were heading to next.
Two hours later, forks dinged against glasses throughout the reception hall. Gretchen knew the time had come for her maid of honor speech, and seemed unusually nervous as she mentally prepared herself for the big moment. She grabbed hold of a Marlboro Red 100 from her pack and sparked it up in a rapid flourish a split second before rising to her feet. A combination of laughter and groans emerged from the crowd as they realized Gretchen would be giving the speech with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and dressed like she was about to sing karaoke at a country bar, but Gretchen was undeterred.
“I’m Gretchen Ellsworth, older sister to the bride,” Gretchen opened in her trademark husky tone, cork-filter cigarette bouncing up and down between her lips as she spoke with a swirl of fresh smoke enveloping her face. “I’m not really one for making speeches…..” she continued with a wry smirk, eliciting laughter from the majority of the crowd who knew her professional history.
“….Around this time last year, I swore off ever giving speeches again….and I swore off ever getting dressed up again. But just for you, Tina and Mitch, I broke one of those promises.” Laughter again ensued as Gretchen drew attention to her casual presentation. “Tina, we’ve known each for thirty-…..” she paused with another smirk, “….well, many years.” The intermittent laughter continued as Gretchen’s comic timing fed off of the engaged mood of the crowd as she removed her cigarette from her mouth to ash. “My first memories of you were sneaking animal crackers out of your crib while mom wasn’t looking, so we didn’t exactly get off to the best start…..you’re probably just finding out about that now. Looking back at those early days when I was stealing your animal crackers, it’s pretty clear I had an unfair advantage in our sisterly relationship. I guess that’s still true today since I’m up here roasting you as your maid of honor and back on my wedding day you were still in high school so you kind of missed your chance to send some public humiliation my way….”
Tina laughed with the crowd listening to Gretchen’s opening lines from one chair over. Gretchen’s words of an unfair advantage were resonating at many levels, and at this very moment they were connecting at the most visceral level as Gretchen’s cigarette smoke was drifting Tina’s way. Tina was desperately craving a cigarette right now just as both of her bridesmaid sisters were currently indulging, but was gonna restrain herself from participating as a proper presentation was still important to her. Tina’s eyes drifted the same direction mine did to look at the stone face of her unamused mother-in-law.
While most of the audience was laughing at the ongoing punchlines of Gretchen’s maid of honor speech, Barbara Finstad was hiding behind her ongoing Stepford smile and taking a therapeutic swig of champagne from the long-stemmed glass in front of her. Barbara continued to be disgusted beyond words at Gretchen’s crude display, resentful to her core that she needed to maintain the necessary etiquette to put up with the obnoxious maid of honor not only on her son’s wedding day, but in all future encounters with her daughter-in-law’s extended family. After watching Barbara take another swig of champagne, I diverted my eyes back to my wife to listen to the rest of her speech, sensing the tone was about to turn more serious.
“….I’m very lucky right now to be able to raise my son Brayden alongside my sister’s daughter Olivia,” Gretchen opened, looking over to youngest sister Melissa seated two chairs over and smoking a cigarette. “We got to see how well those two worked together a couple of hours ago as ring bearer and flower girl. It really helps to be able to raise kids with a close partner, and I learned that the first time around when Tina and I were first-time parents raising our daughters together. We were both learning as we went along and were better for it. We got to experience the joys and the hardships together….offer each other advice when needed and a shoulder to cry on when appropriate. It brought us much closer as sisters and it killed me a few years ago when I had to move away for a while and leave you and Kilee alone,” she continued, referencing her three years living in Virginia as the Philip Morris CEO. “I cherish all of our memories together and lament the moments I missed out on. But in the years before I moved away, I always felt like I had that unfair advantage because I had another shoulder to cry on when needed and for so many years Tina did not….”
Gretchen looked over warmly to make direct eye contact with her sister. “Tina, you and Kilee will now have that extra shoulder for support under your own roof….and I truly couldn’t be happier for the two of you,” she continued, clutching her dangling cigarette stub in her lips to try to contain her emotion before directing the rest of her speech to her new brother-in-law before stubbing the cigarette out in the ashtray in front of her. “Mitch, I’ve gotten to know you pretty well in the past year, and the only regret that I have is that I couldn’t have been here to see when you and Tina met. I instantly picked up on the amazing chemistry the two of you had when I first spent time with you, but after so many years waiting for Tina to meet Mr. Right, I just wish I could have seen that magic in your earliest encounters. Tina and Kilee have been deserving of the angel in their lives that they’ve been praying for for quite some time. I knew right away that you were that angel, and today you sprouted your wings and are carrying them both away to their long-awaited Neverland.”
The audience swooned at Gretchen’s characterization as she approached the end of her speech. “Now, Mitch, I just hope you can recover your reputation after being complimented by the most hated woman in America,” she closed, calling back to the Time magazine cover from her days as a tobacco CEO, eliciting a final wave of laughter before letting the best man take the baton for his speech.
Gretchen sat down in her chair as I smiled at her from the nearby table, nodding approvingly at her speech. She smiled back as she lit up a new cigarette, winking at me and then doing a visual sweep of the crowd, first looking at Kaitlyn and Kilee sitting next to me with freshly lit cigarettes, a wide spectrum of emotion on their faces. But as Gretchen’s visual scan progressed through the sea of familiar and unfamiliar faces in the crowd, she made abrupt but fleeting eye contact with Barbara Finstad, who maintained a rigid scowl that was no longer even being camouflaged by the Stepford smile she’d maintained through most of the day. Gretchen knew that for at least one person in that reception hall, she remained the most hated woman in America.
Two hours later, the reception had transitioned to the wedding dance. Two lines had formed leading up to the dance floor for the dollar dances with the bride and groom. I was next in line to dance with Tina, standing with my dollar in hand and looking forward to having a brief moment of small talk with the new bride. Looking over to the adjacent line, Kaitlyn and Kilee were standing immersed in conversation with their dollars in one hand and their respective cigarettes in the other. I tried to grab their attention to remind them to lose the cigarettes before stepping up to the dance floor, but they were too distracted by the loud music and their teenage conversation. It was my turn to have a dance with Tina so I stepped up with a smile, admiring the beauty of the blushing bride even though she definitely hadn’t aged as gracefully as Gretchen, the hardened lines on her face telling the story of a stressed single mom who finally got to have some of the burden lifted off of her shoulders.
“How is your evening, Mrs. Finstad?” I inquired as I grabbed hold of Tina’s waist and she wrapped her arm around mine for a platonic slow dance.
“Oh, you know, kinda slow. Not much going on,” Tina teased back, our banter consistent with our long-time lighthearted jesting. “Bet you thought I’d be a spinster with only a houseful of cats to keep me company as soon as Kilee left home, didn’t you?” she inquired with a smirk.
“Eh, there were some times I pictured a lot of quilts being knitted in your future,” I joked back as we slowly worked over the dance floor. “Seriously though, it looks like you waited as long as you did for a very good reason,” I added, looking over to Kilee about to step up to dance with Mitch, a flash of startled guilt on Kilee’s face as she realized it was her turn and she was about to dance with her new stepfather with cigarette in hand and no ashtray in sight.
Tina made eye contact with me as if her mind was suddenly elsewhere before she finally responded, “The best reason of all,” she responded cryptically, looking back at Mitch and Kilee about to dance. “And I think Kilee is just about to find just how much we’re about to be a family.”
Kilee nervously flashed a smile as she grabbed Mitch’s hand and put her right arm, along with her cigarette-wielding right hand, behind Mitch’s back to dance. “Sorry Mitch. I got distracted in line and forgot to put my cigarette out,” Kilee shyly apologized.
Mitch laughed gently, a hint of tension in his own voice as he dismissed Kilee’s concern. “You’re okay. Between you and your mom, I think I’m getting used to being around cigarettes,” eliciting a return smile from Kilee who quickly relaxed and enjoyed the dance.
As Mitch made loving eye contact to the 14-year-old girl whose mother he just married, he realized his time was short to make his second big declaration of the day to the second woman of Paulson family lineage. “So I’ve been thinking Kilee. I just made a lifetime commitment to your mom earlier today. I think it’s a perfect time to make a commitment to you too. How would you feel if we went to the courthouse tomorrow and started the adoption process. I think of you as my daughter just as much I think of your mom as my wife….and if you’ll have me I’d like to make that official.” Mitch offered warmly.
My dollar dance with Tina had just ended but as I yielded the bride’s arms to another man, I kept my eyes locked on Mitch and Kilee. I couldn’t hear them over the music but learned everything I needed to know by the body language as my niece became instantly overloaded with emotion to a greater degree than I’d seen at any other point in what was an emotional day for her. Kilee buried her head in Mitch’s tuxedo lapel to hide her tears from the crowd, but I was close enough to see the discharge rolling down her cheek. Mitch put his hand lovingly on the back of Kilee’s head as I read her lips as she declaratively responded with a “yes” before continuing to softly speak with the man about to officially become her father.
I struggled to maintain my own emotion as I continued to observe them and tried to process just how much this meant for Kilee, who had only visited her derelict birth father a handful of times in her life and who struggled through her formative childhood years without a father figure.
All too quickly, their dance ended and Kilee yielded the dance floor to my daughter Kaitlyn, who could tell that Kilee had just had a big moment and was clearly curious what it was all about. Kilee darted off the dance floor in a hurry, eager to seek a quiet space to process her emotions and inserting her half-smoked cigarette to her lips, her cheeks hollowing in a desperate but fruitless attempt to reignite the cherry of the cigarette that had been neglected for two minutes before the dance. I continued to observe her fast-walking her way toward the her abandoned table to get hold of her lighter so she could be alone with her thoughts and her Marlboro companion for the brief window of time until Kaitlyn rejoined her.
As Kilee wandered off, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one watching her. Sixteen-year-old Elijah a few positions behind me in the line for the dollar dance couldn’t take his eyes off of Kilee just as he hadn’t for much of the day and evening, clearly having realized something momentous had just occurred with her.
As I’d been doing all night, I then averted my eyes to Barbara Finstad, who continued to sit stoically in her seat staring at her son Mitch with another layer of regret and concern in her eyes. It was pretty clear that Barbara knew more than I did about her son’s plans to adopt Kilee going into tonight, and it was also clear that she realized the question had just been asked and that Barbara was even less thrilled with this development than she was about Mitch marrying into the Paulson family in the first place. Barbara took another sullen but resigned swig of champagne from what seemed like a bottomless glass that had been in front of her since the reception began.
Several moments later, Kaitlyn and Kilee had found a table to themselves and were clearly chatting at length about Kilee’s big news. I gave them their space as I casually observed from a distance, but it felt good to see Kilee so happy and to see how personally invested Kaitlyn was in her happiness, hugging her several times. I couldn’t help but notice Elijah’s wandering eyes their direction from a few tables over, engaging in the same voyeurism as I was only for a different reason.
The girls were just wrapping up another round of cigarettes when my attention was diverted to Gretchen’s youngest sister Melissa firing up a big cigar and beginning to make the rounds through the dance hall looking for customers, as she so often did during celebratory evenings in the Paulson family. My eyebrow raised with intrigue as I observed the wedding photographer slinking around the room with her camera photographing Melissa passing out cigars to several interested wedding attendees of both genders, a few of whom still didn’t look remotely familiar. I had a hint of suspicion that someone may have had a secret agenda as it applied to the wedding photographers and some of the wedding guests during the ceremony, but my radar was really elevated now watching the camera flash lighting up the room every time someone else grabbed hold of one of the cigars Melissa was offering, and I smiled as I began to put the puzzle pieces together in my mind.
I watched from a distance as Melissa approached Kaitlyn and Kilee’s table with her box of cigars, and as expected, both girls jubilantly grabbed hold of one, accepting an extended light from Melissa’s torch. My eyes reflexively diverted to Elijah and I correctly predicted his eyes would be fixated on my daughter and niece upgrading from their steady diet of cigarettes to Churchill-sized cigars. My smirk grew wider as I pondered the mixed emotion likely going through Elijah’s head as his extended observation of Kaitlyn and Kilee’s smoking just got taken to the next level.
Melissa chatted with Kaitlyn and Kilee for a few moments as it was clear the girls were passing along Kilee’s exciting news. It was endearing to witness such a heartfelt moment shared between two teenage girls and their hip aunt amidst the backdrop of thick cigar smoke destroying the air quality in this already smoky reception hall. I was used to seeing it, but I wouldn’t have been if I was Elijah’s age. As Melissa got up to continue her cigar distribution tour, I noticed Elijah stirring around his table, hitting up older groomsmen for something. It would be very interesting to see how this played out.
Meanwhile at the girls’ table, Kilee continued to open up to her cousin. “I just never thought anything like this was gonna happen for me. I got used to the idea of it just being me and my mom for our whole lives.” She paused to take a hard and contemplative draw from her cigar before adding, “We both owe Mitch so much.”
Kaitlyn clasped Kilee’s hand with shared elation but also sought to partially correct her. “This is what you and your mom have deserved all along, Kilee. Don’t ever let yourself think you deserve anything less, okay?” she added with her usual charisma and spunk, drawing even harder from her own cigar than Kilee just had and belching out a massive blast of thick, dirty smoke as she exhaled. The girls had been sharing these kinds of moments since they were young children, but as they looked in each other’s eyes, they evoked the kinship of best friends for life whose relationship would always transcend their shared blood line.
But this tender moment took a surprise detour as both girls watched a young groomsman approach their table carrying three glasses of champagne. Looks of instinctive teenage attraction filled their faces as the handsome brunette Elijah navigated through the dense and smelly haze of cigar smoke until arriving at their table, where he sat the three champagne glasses down. He fought through his discomfort, both with the cigar smoke and the general anxiety of approaching attractive teenage girls, and formally committed to courting their affections.
Elijah focused his glare primarily at Kaitlyn, who he was more attracted to and had a less direct familial connection to. “If you’re interested, I was able to get my hands on something to drink that didn’t come from the punch bowl,” he opened with a proud smirk for having procured these glasses of champagne for a duo of girls he figured would be thrilled about it.
Kaitlyn flashed him a sweet smile, finding him attractive, but instinctively preferring to play hard to get. “I would have never guessed you were 21,” Kaitlyn flirted, looking to Kilee and asking “Does he look 21 to you?”, eliciting a far more bashful smirk and nod from Kilee.
Elijah smiled back, confident he had Kaitlyn where he wanted her. “Oh I got some connections!” he responded.
“Well I don’t know if we should be flattered or insulted that you think we’re 21,” Kaitlyn replied with a giggle, drawing from her cigar and blowing the smoke toward Elijah’s face without being too obvious about it.
Elijah held his breath to avoid the obnoxious cigar smoke as much as he could but sat down at the chair in front of her, confident that he had an invitation to socialize with the girls. “Since you’re smoking, I figured you had to be 21 and didn’t ask for an ID,” he said.
“I see,” Kaitlyn continued to flirt. “And maybe after a drink, you thought you could get a dance too?” she asked.
Elijah smirked awkwardly, suddenly realizing Kaitlyn might not be as easy of a mark as he originally anticipated. He shrugged and responded with visibly declining confidence. “Not too many other people around her our age so if you want to do some dancing, your options are limited.”
Kaitlyn smiled back, evoking her whip hand as she took another deep draw from her cigar, blowing more smoke into his airspace and responding. “Well maybe before the night’s over we can talk about it,” Kaitlyn equivocated. “But right now Kilee and I are kind of having a moment. She just got some big news!”
Elijah made eye contact with Kilee for the first time and offered a halfhearted “Congratulations” without digging any deeper, tipping off to Kaitlyn that his priorities were probably pretty sketchy and reinforcing her original uneasy vibe about this pretty boy.
“Thanks,” Kilee said bashfully, indicating a combination of reserved interest in Elijah and disappointment that he instinctively began hitting on Kaitlyn first as so many boys did.
“Maybe we can catch up with you later in the night….” Kaitlyn said dismissively, exhaling her cigar smoke to Elijah’s face more deliberately.
Elijah resumed eye contact with Kilee, who still had a twinkle of interest in her eye, as though she was a consolation prize, which didn’t set well with Kilee, especially after reminding herself that they were now technically related through marriage. Gaining confidence after Kaitlyn spurned Elijah, Kilee responded “Don’t look at me. I already have a boyfriend,” referring to Kaitlyn’s ex-boyfriend Mason back in Virginia, who she continued to refer to as her boyfriend despite having only seen each other a couple of times since Kaitlyn returned to Minnesota. Kilee blew cigar smoke in Elijah’s direction just as Kaitlyn had, feeling empowered at the idea of pushing away a cute guy whose vibe didn’t feel right.
Kaitlyn offered up a halfhearted smile to Kilee, proud of her for rejecting Elijah’s lackluster game but disappointed that she was still clinging to Mason rather than seeking out boys closer to home. Kaitlyn confidently clutched her large cigar between her teeth and looked up to Elijah to give him the final blow-off, mumbling through the cigar in her mouth. “It was sweet of you to bring the drinks but I think we’ll pass for now.”
Elijah’s humiliation transformed to a spurt of anger as he gasped for breath with a swirl of Kaitlyn and Kilee’s cigar smoke enveloping his face. His face turning a mix of red and green, he wrinkled his nose and made sure to get the last word. “That’s okay. On second thought, I couldn’t put up with all of the smoke anyway,” he snorted, turning around and heading back to the groomsmen’s table while listening to the girls giggle as he walked away.
Kaitlyn kept her eyes trained on Elijah until he sat down, puckering her lips tightly around the cigar still clutched between her teeth. Elijah still had a bit of a pretty boy appeal for her, and she suddenly found him more attractive after he stood up to her. She took a mental note as she watched Elijah sit down to sulk with the fellow groomsmen, still prepared to keep her word to him that they might share a dance before the evening ended.
Kaitlyn then looked up and became a bit startled as she noticed the frosty eyes of Barbara Finstad were trained on her, staring her down with a passive-aggressive glare. Kaitlyn broke eye contact at the first opportunity just as she had when she noticed Barbara looking at her disapprovingly earlier in the day, and wondering how much she had just witnessed of her grandson getting rejected by the naughty Paulson offspring.
Soon it was another member of the Finstad family that Kaitlyn found herself looking at. Seeing 16-year-old Isabel wandering around in her bridesmaid’s dress like a fish out of water, self-consciously clutching her lighter and pack of Marlboro Ultra Light 100s as if looking for a friend, Kaitlyn decided it would be a perfect opportunity to become the friend she was looking for, and probably piss off grandmother Barbara and twin brother Elijah as a bonus. “Hey!” Kaitlyn called out through the cigar still clenched between her jaws, drawing Isabel’s attention. “Is it Isabel?”
Isabel looked back at Kaitlyn nervously with a deer-in-the-headlights glare, nodding affirmatively at Kaitlyn’s question but suspicious about her agenda and at least as intimidated by her profile as brother Elijah was.
“Come on over,” Kaitlyn invited warmly, hoping that Kilee knew Isabel better than she did to make it easier for them to bond.
Isabel hesitantly approached the two younger teens smoking the big cigars, intimidated but also welcoming the company. She looked at Kilee since she at least nominally knew her through uncle Mitch. “I know Kilee,” Isabel awkwardly introduced herself, “….but I don’t think I know who you are.”
“I’m Kaitlyn!” Kaitlyn formally introduced herself with cigar smoke spraying out of her face. “I’m Kilee’s cousin. My mom Gretchen was the maid of honor.”
As introductions and early small talk progressed, Kaitlyn sent a quick side-eye to Elijah and, as expected, Elijah was fuming from across the room, annoyed that Kaitlyn was connecting better with his sister than she was with him.
Kaitlyn took the opportunity to hold her cigar up toward Isabel to draw the girl’s attention. “Would you like a cigar? I can hail down my aunt and she’d be happy to give you one.”
Isabel wrinkled her nose. “No thanks. I don’t think it would be for me.”
Kaitlyn laughed. “It’s okay,” she responded, training her eyes on the pack of cigarettes in Isabel’s hand. “Looks like you’re a fellow smoker though.”
“Oh yeah,” Isabel replied with a nervous laugh. “I started about a year ago. All my friends were doing it so I decided I wanted to. You know how it is….” she added.
A smile beamed on Kaitlyn’s face, knowing how heartened her mom would be to hear that because of her efforts as the Philip Morris CEO that teenage girls as sweet as Isabel were once again facing the peer pressure of friends who smoked just as was the case when Gretchen was in high school back in the 1990s. Kaitlyn finally nodded in agreement with Isabel’s assertion as Isabel plucked an all-white cigarette from her pack and lit it up.
“It was pretty badass seeing you light up at the altar of the wedding,” Kaitlyn complimented.
Isabel laughed and nodded as she took an intense inaugural drag from the long all-white cigarette, pulling the smoke in as hard as she could to get the needed nicotine in her bloodstream before she began to vocalize her response. With smoke trickling out of her mouth and nose, Isabel eventually began speaking. “With your mom and aunt’s cigarettes so closeby, I couldn’t resist. I’m sure my family was thrilled seeing me smoke so publicly,” she said with a giggle, adding “….especially my grandma.”
Kaitlyn and Kilee both laughed, making a pretty good connection with Isabel as they watched her take another deep drag from her cigarette and then pump out a middling exhale that contributed to but ultimately paled in comparison to the dense presence of tobacco smoke in the dance hall, particularly at that table. Kaitlyn eyeballed Isabel’s Marlboro Ultra Lights 100s pack more closely and decided to chime in. “Not telling you what to do or anything, but I’d probably smoke four packs a day if I was smoking your brand.”
Isabel laughed. “Some of my friends tell me that,” she said, taking another extremely deep drag and growing the length of her ash by a quarter inch with one pull. “I guess it’s the brand I’m used to though.”
An evil smirk emerged on Kaitlyn’s face as her hand instinctively grabbed hold of her pack of Marlboro Reds 100s. “Want to try one of mine?” she asked. “Just to compare them?”
Isabel’s curiosity was piqued as she pondered the offer before ultimately accepting. She took a final deep drag from her Ultra Light before stubbing the two-thirds-smoked cigarette out of the ashtray before grabbing hold of the Red that Kaitlyn offered. Without too much hesitation on her face, Isabel inserted the cork-filtered cigarette between her lips and fired up.
Kaitlyn and Kilee watched with mischievous anticipation as Isabel took an instinctively hard pull from the Marlboro Red 100 just as she was used to doing with her Ultra Lights. It took less than a second after inhaling before Isabel realized what she had done, her eyes enlarging like saucers and the rich smoke spraying out of her nose. She avoided coughing as intensely as Kaitlyn and Kilee expected, and her discomfort quickly morphed into a smile. After regaining her composure Isabel responded with a giggle, “You two are tougher than me if you can smoke these all day!”
Kilee took the reins, increasingly comfortable with Isabel as she responded “I bet if you smoked them for a week, you wouldn’t be able to go back to your normal brand.”
Isabel took another more modest drag from the cork-filtered Red 100, a more pleasing nicotine sensation now flowing through her bloodstream and she smiled at Kaitlyn and Kilee, replying “Maybe,” as though she could be convinced.
Amidst the girls’ increasingly comfortable banter, Kaitlyn looked up to see her annoyed younger brother Brayden walking around through the dance hall, rubbing his eyes from all of the smoke, and looking unkempt with his bow tie loose and coming undone.
“Brayden!” Kaitlyn called out upon seeing how disheveled her younger brother was. “Come here and let me fix you up!”
Kaitlyn’s exclamation drew many eyes her way, including the usual suspects of Elijah and Barbara who observed as a whining Brayden drifted reluctantly in the direction of the table full of heavy-smoking teenage girls.
Brayden’s frown deepened as he got close to the heavy stench of cigar smoke. Engaged with her cousin and Isabel, Kaitlyn failed to pick up on the extent of her brother’s discomfort as usual. She clutched the half-smoked cigar in her mouth and distractedly grabbed hold of the fussing Brayden.
“Nooooo!” Brayden protested as he found his way deeper into the fog of his sister’s cigar smoke. “Leave me alone!”
“I’m just trying to fix your bowtie, buddy!” a tone-deaf Kaitlyn responded through the cigar in her mouth as she picked Brayden up and set him on her lap so she could tend to his bowtie more closely while still listening to the conversation between Kilee and Isabel.
Brayden looked fearfully to the giant smelly cherry of Kaitlyn’s cigar only a few inches in front of his face and began to pull away just as Kaitlyn was retying the bowtie around his collar.
“Hold still!” Kaitlyn commanded as she finalized the knot, with Brayden twisting his head every which way and finding no reprieve with Kilee’s cigar smoke coming at him from the right and Isabel’s cigarette smoke coming at him from the left. “Jeez, Brayden. I’m almost done!” Kaitlyn finally tightened the knot to her satisfaction before letting Brayden out of her lair. “That’ll work!” she finally declared victory, showing him off to Kilee and Isabel and asking, “What girl could possibly resist this guy, now?”
Brayden quickly sprung to his feet and ran away. The girls giggled as he departed, figuring his fast departure was out of embarrassment about his big sister’s fawning, failing to realize that the thick smoke was what was really scaring him off. As Brayden drifted out of sight, he began incessantly rubbing his red eyes as he let the ammonia-fueled tears squeeze out of his eyes, providing him the faintest bit of comfort until he wandered as far out of the smoky environment as was possible and settled upon a remote table in the corner of the dance hall. He sat there alone, continuing to rub his eyes, his anger beginning to burn as red as both his eyes and the Marlboro 100s packs that were constantly within arm’s reach of his mom and sister. He wasn’t old enough or wise enough to appreciate that most boys his age didn’t have to live like this and, until recently, hadn’t had to for the past generation, but he instinctively found it appalling and unfair that he did.
Elijah’s eyes drifted back and forth from his twin sister Isabel–cigarette in hand as she so often was in recent months, cutting it up with the cigar-chomping Kaitlyn and Kilee–to young Brayden, sitting alone in the corner trying to escape the smoke. Elijah found himself empathizing with the young blond boy fruitlessly seeking refuge from the offensive and omnipresent odor of tobacco smoke by the females closest to him in life, and also empathizing with him for having just been humiliated by the likes of those same tobacco-smoking females. One female in particular was responsible more than anyone else for their mutually miserable night, Elijah mused, as he sent a shady glare at Kaitlyn as she once again exhaled a toxic blast of dirty cigar smoke.
Elijah decided he’d seen enough and quietly rose to his feet, slinking around the perimeter of the room and approaching the back corner table where Brayden continued to sit alone. He didn’t want to frighten Brayden so he announced his presence from a few yards away.
“I think we’re doing the same thing here,” Elijah opened, compelling Brayden to take his hands off of his eyes. “Mind if I sit back here with you and try to get away from all the smoke?”
Brayden shyly nodded even though he didn’t welcome this older boy with a mysterious agenda sitting near him.
Elijah sat down across the table from Brayden, breaking the awkward silence after several seconds. “Smells disgusting, doesn’t it?”
Brayden again nodded in agreement but avoided eye contact.
“That’s my twin sister over there,” Elijah pressed, pointing subtly in the direction of cigarette-wielding Isabel still mingling in the company of Kaitlyn and Kilee. “She was one of the bridesmaids. Is that your sister across from her?” he asked, feigning ignorance about Kaitlyn’s identity.
Brayden nodded again, beginning to become comfortable with Elijah’s banter.
“Yuck! She and her friend are smoking cigars! They’re even nastier than cigarettes, don’t you think?’ Elijah continued to press.
Brayden nodded in vigorous agreement and finally spoke up. “That’s my cousin next to my sister.”
Elijah feigned ignorance again. “Oh yeah?”, he asked rhetorically, sneaking a peek over his shoulder and then adding. “They seem pretty cool I guess but I can’t deal with the smoking. I think you and I should hang out over here for a while and stay away from all of that.”
Brayden smiled in agreement and began to engage more thoroughly with Elijah, pointing out others in his family and doing most of the talking for the next several moments as Elijah nodded along and tried to appear interested in Brayden’s barely coherent descriptions and commentary.
Over the course of the prolonged interaction, Kaitlyn’s eyes wandered in the direction of Elijah and her brother, taking a vaguely uneasy mental note of their commiseration at this back corner table. At one point, she nudged Kilee to draw her attention to it as well, but ultimately decided it was harmless enough to not investigate further, even being a bit flattered that Elijah might be interrogating Brayden to get more intel on her.
Elijah punctuated his extended conversation with subtle glances at the direction of Kaitlyn, Kilee, and Isabel as well, increasingly annoyed at how aloof they continued to seem along with the incessant obnoxious tobacco smoke that was increasingly unavoidable. Elijah was also finding himself increasingly annoyed at Brayden’s continued monologue, feeling some buyer’s remorse for having joined him at this table 15 minutes earlier.
Finally, Elijah had enough, cutting Brayden off mid-sentence to pass along his escape plan. “Sorry buddy, but that smoke keeps drifting our way and I gotta get away from it. I think I’m gonna head outside for a bit,” Elijah explained, quickly rising to his feet and moving toward the nearest exit. In moments, Elijah was outdoors, breathing in the fresh evening air on the warm June night and wishing he’d thought of stepping outside earlier. He inhaled the fresh air as deeply as he could and was struck by just how prominent the stench was on his own clothes after a few hours in that reception hall.
Elijah only got a few seconds to himself though before the side entrance door opened, with Brayden coming out to join him. Elijah quietly sighed that he hadn’t successfully shaken off his pint-sized follower but remained civil with the kid. “Couldn’t take the smoke any longer either huh?” Elijah asked.
“Nooo!” Brayden exclaimed with obvious conviction, coughing in tandem with the verbal disdain for the air quality in the room.
Elijah was overcome with sympathy, realizing based on his observations of both Gretchen and Kaitlyn tonight that this poor boy is probably choking on polluted air almost uninterruptedly. “Let’s enjoy this fresh air while we can, buddy,” Elijah responded. “Nice night, huh?”
Brayden agreed and continued with his lengthy monologue from earlier, trying Elijah’s patience again and compelling the older boy to begin to wander around in the dark, hoping that Brayden would be afraid of the dark and wouldn’t follow. But Brayden kept following Elijah even as the latter wandered to the back of the reception hall, the lighting getting increasingly sparse as he ventured to a rear door.
Elijah squinted his eyes to make out the word “maintenance” printed out on the rear door and, almost as an afterthought, turned the door handle, fully expecting it to be locked. He was surprised with the door handle twisted and opened the door, enabling him access to the small room. He reached his hand inside and flicked on the easily accessible light switch, illuminating the room.
Elijah exchanged mischievous smirks with the suddenly silent Brayden as they looked inside this maintenance room, their mutual boyish instincts for adventurism kicking in as Elijah led the way by stepping inside and Brayden followed.
The dance floor was beginning to fill up in the reception hall as the music got louder and the attendees were getting more drinks in them, my own wife included among them. I sat alone at my table taking in all the ensuing activity as Gretchen mingled with the crowd that wasn’t already out on the dance floor, heartily nursing several glasses of champagne and burning through reams of Marlboro Red 100s. As I observed Gretchen hips and feet become increasingly mobile to the beats of the music played by the band, I anticipated it would only be a matter of time until Gretchen would coax me onto the dance floor.
Seconds later, the trigger would be tripped as the band announced they were “gonna play a few hits from Journey.” I smirked as my premonition came to life as Gretchen abruptly ended her conversation with Tina’s friend and bridesmaid Suzy to turn around and explore the crowd until she laid eyes on me. I sat there waiting with a broad grin splashed across my face, letting Gretchen know I anticipated being beckoned at any moment. With a come-hither smirk on her face, Gretchen placed her half-smoked Marlboro Red 100 between her lips and dangled it as she walked toward the dance floor, pointing at me and motioning for me to join her. Watching her incredible curves stretch out that white top and jean shorts, I began to approach, resigned to some aggressive dancing on my very near-term horizon.
Even in this incredibly smoky room, the intensity of the tobacco aroma grew as Gretchen and I stepped closer to each other, and really hit critical mass as she put her left hand on my waist and her right hand behind my back. It wasn’t particularly often that the odor of alcohol was mixed in with Gretchen’s tobacco stench, but she managed to smell like a distillery and a cigarette factory at the same time tonight as we began to sway our hips to the opening chords of “Faithfully.”
As I watched Gretchen’s eyes close with an erotic smile while listening to the music, it was pretty obvious she was fast approaching the point of total intoxication. She dragged hard from her cigarette and let it lazily wander into my face with the same pleasured look on her face, compelling me to lower my hand down her waist and onto her jean shorts, still amazed that her body was as perfectly toned as it was the day we met.
As Gretchen pressed her face into my shoulder while we danced, I did a quick once-over of the room, noticing most of the unfamiliar faces from earlier had departed but that there was still a single photographer lurking in the background with her finger on the camera shutter. Curiosity got the better of me, and I figured now was as good of time as any to call Gretchen out on what I expected to be going on.
“So there were some rather attractive faces at the wedding and earlier at the reception I’d never seen before today…and it seemed like they were always smoking every time I looked at them,” I opened with a playfully accusatory tone. “But wouldn’t you know it seems like all of them left by now. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”
Gretchen responded with a lighthearted smirk confirming that she was busted before placing the stub of her cigarette between her lips and using her nicotine-stained finger to playfully motion me to be quiet. From there, Gretchen guided our bodies toward an empty table at the edge of the dance floor with an empty champagne class, where she pitched her expired cigarette, successfully landing the cork filter butt inside the plastic glass from a few feet away. She then made eye contact with me and responded through a slightly intoxicated drawl, “Instead of being friends of the groom or friends of the bride, they were ‘associates of the maid of honor’,” she confessed.
I shook my head in a futile attempt to bestow some lighthearted shame upon her. “Let me guess. It’s part of some promotion on behalf of smoker-friendly weddings?” I inquired.
Gretchen nodded yes as she plucked out another Marlboro Red 100, dangling it unlit from her lips and letting go of my waist just long enough to light herself up.
As a fresh blast of Gretchen’s smoke exploded into my face, I pressed. “Your idea or Sophia’s?”
Gretchen pondered the question for a moment and then responded. “I seem to remember us coming up with the idea pretty much at the same time when we were talking about new promotion ideas. With smoking numbers going up again, there are gonna be a lot of brides and grooms looking for venues that allow smoking. Thanks to Philip Morris’ purchasing power and some flashy advertising of beautiful people smoking at weddings, Tina’s wedding today may not be such an aberration moving forward.”
I shook my head once again. “I take it you didn’t inform Tina about this?”
Gretchen nodded flamboyantly in the negative as she took a deep drag from her cigarette, exposing the deepening draw lines around her mouth and especially her lips before verbally replying. “You’re the third person to know about this besides me and Sophia. Hopefully we can keep it that way.”
I continued to smile and bust Gretchen’s chops, testing her critical thinking skills moderately impaired amidst her inebriated distraction. “Don’t you think Tina and Mitch will figure out something’s up when they look at their wedding photos and realize neither of them know certain people in the crowd? I mean, how many people that the bride and groom wanted to attend didn’t make the cut for the sake of your Philip Morris photo-op?”
Despite my mild-mannered tone, I could tell Gretchen was getting a bit annoyed by my interrogation, taking another deep drag and exposing those draw lines again. She then thoughtlessly flicked the long ash onto the dance floor, trying to work through the implications I posed despite her being in a diminished cognitive state. “If that happens and Tina finds out, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. She knows me too well,” Gretchen responded. “But there are some people I’m a little more nervous will find out who I don’t expect to be so understanding,” she added, diverting her eyes in the direction of Barbara Finstad, who remained in the seat she’d been sitting in all night, her eyes already locked disapprovingly upon Gretchen as if she knew we were talking about her.
I resumed dancing with Gretchen without distraction for a few moments amidst the closing chords of “Faithfully”, enjoying the feeling of her body in my arms and her intensely foul aroma continuing to dominate my airspace just as thoroughly as she did when the dance began.
The vibe quickly pivoted once again, however, as the band transitioned from “Faithfully” to “Don’t Stop Believing'”. Immediately after the opening chords started, Gretchen’s denim-draped hips started shaking. She tilted her head skyward as she dragged deeply from her cigarette, hip-checking me as her filthy lungs pumped out smoke straight upward.
Feeling her pelvis repeatedly bumping against my own, I couldn’t resist getting in a dig. “Are you sure a woman of your vintage should be twerking her hips like that?”
Gretchen’s face playfully smoldered as bright a shade of red as the cherry on her cigarette. “Some of us have a few more days before we turn 40. Others of us long ago blew past that threshold,” Gretchen reminded me, being more at ease with the idea of turning 40 than she had been at turning 30 a decade earlier.
I nodded in agreement as Gretchen’s hip checks got increasingly aggressive as the lead singer began vocalizing the lyrics of Journey’s most famous song. “I’m kind of worried about both of our hips right now if I’m being honest.”
Gretchen laughed, stepping up her game as I knew she would. “I can’t be married to a guy that fragile,” she opened, taking the bait as she turned her ass toward me and begin grinding it into my crotch. “At least not yet!”
I had already witnessed some grinding and other controversial moves on the dance floor tonight, but given her proclivity to control any room she sets foot in, all eyes were trained on Gretchen right now as she backed her posterior into my crotch and throttled me, those perfectly chiseled asscheeks of hers bursting out of the tight denim and grabbing hold of my erection. The sensation was reinforced with bursts of secondhand smoke drifting into my face after every drag she took and each residual breath that followed.
After several moments of grinding, Gretchen turned around to face me, compelling me to extend my leg so she could gyrate on my thigh and give me an improvised lap dance. With my right leg bent at the knee, she wrapped both legs around mine and foisted her crotch onto my thigh, grinding away until I could feel the burn of her pale denim shorts wear right through my black dress pants. I got lost in the moment and even with the loud music in the background, I could hear Gretchen’s damaged lungs wheeze breathlessly amidst her bodily workout.
A mix and match of laughter and scandalous guffaws filled the room and I looked up to find Kaitlyn, Kilee, and Isabel on the dance floor together. The giggling girls were fashioning a three-way variation of Gretchen’s lap dance on one another. With two-thirds-smoked cigars in their hands, Kaitlyn and Kilee pretended to grind down upon cigarette-wielding Isabel’s thighs as she crouched down. The three girls quickly discovered that their attempted replication of Gretchen’s moves were far more unwieldy wearing dresses compared to Gretchen’s daisy dukes, but it didn’t stop them from continuing to try and enjoying themselves doing so.
I nudged Gretchen on the shoulder and pointed out what Kaitlyn and Kilee were doing to the youngest bridesmaid, but after a few seconds of observing the tawdry spectacle, it hit me that there was probably somebody else watching this debauchery unfold from the cheap seats who found it less amusing.
Sure enough, I looked in the direction of Barbara Finstad and instantly observed her most appalled reaction yet as she looked upon her granddaughter Isabel on the receiving end of such a disgraceful scene. Barbara’s eyes then pivoted to Gretchen doing the same move on me, shaking her head as though she had about reached her limit for what she could sit idly by and tolerate. I watched her take a final giant swig of champagne, draining the glass and taking a few seconds to compose herself before standing up and staggering her way slowly toward the dance floor. I grimaced as I realized that a wedding party that had thus far avoided exposing the rigid fault lines of the two families joining as one seemed poised to have the first major shot fired across the bow. And knowing Gretchen as I did, this did not seem likely to end well for Barbara Finstad if she followed through on the confrontation that seemed increasingly likely as her migration toward us progressed.
Meanwhile, in the maintenance room behind the building, Elijah and Brayden were in full explorer mode as they checked out the shelves full of supplies and cleaning equipment. Elijah knew and Brayden seemed to sense that they weren’t supposed to be in this room, and both of them were getting a cheap thrill out of digging around in there anyway.
Elijah looked up to the panel on the back wall at what appeared to be fuse breakers and other building controls. He walked up and opened the panel, where some of the switches were labeled on a piece of masking tape to identify what they controlled. He gave it a casual once-over and was about to retreat until he noticed a dial labeled “smoke detectors”. An evil smirk emerged on his face as a petty little revenge strategy popped into his head, and he couldn’t resist sharing it with Brayden.
“Check this out,” Elijah alerted Brayden, drawing his attention to the control panel and pointing specifically at the smoke detector dial. “This dial apparently controls the sensitivity of the smoke detectors in the reception hall,” he explained, temporarily unaware he was speaking with a four-year-old.
Brayden’s early excitement gave way to a look of confusion before he responded, “What does that mean?”
Elijah grinned broadly before responding with a half-truth. “It means we get to make that room a lot less smoky when we go back in.”
Brayden smiled back as Elijah’s mischievous glee about asserting some control over the reception hall full of heavy smokers was contagious.
It wasn’t until Barbara Finstad was a few feet behind Gretchen that my wife sensed her imposing presence, turning around at the exact moment Barbara came to a stop, ready to speak her mind.
Barbara’s Stepford smile had by now yielded to an unmistakable scowl as she made eye contact with Gretchen, raising her voice so that her partially slurred words could be heard above the music. “I’d like to have a word with you,” Barbara opened sternly, pausing for only a moment before continuing to express the grievances she’d kept bottled in all day. “You’re an adult and can do whatever you want to yourself but can you please set a better example for the kids?” She gave a quick side-eye to Kaitlyn, Kilee, and Isabel still clowning around on the dance floor, laying the shade on thick as she added, “If not for your own kids, at least for my grandchildren. Maybe stop acting like a pole dancer just for tonight.”
I observed with tense anticipation as Gretchen turned red while getting dressed down by Barbara’s blunt words and judgmental glare. Gretchen took the time to pluck out another cigarette from her pack of Marlboro Red 100s, using the cherry from her current cigarette to ignite the new one, taking the opportunity for a moment of silence to gather her thoughts and to debate how heavily she wanted to get into it with the bride’s mother-in-law on her wedding day. Gretchen then exhaled a toxic tornado of carcinogens that erupted like a stick of dynamite into Barbara’s face as she proceeded to drop the expired cigarette butt to the dance floor and stomp it out with her boot as though she was outdoors, knowing this defiant display would only raise Barbara’s ire further.
Finally Gretchen engaged with Barbara, calmly but intimidatingly asserting, “I’d love to hear your thoughts on the bad example I’m setting for my own kids and other people’s, but first can I ask you back up a couple of feet. I’d prefer to avoid an explosion from the liquor on your breath igniting this open flame.” Gretchen lifted her cigarette to Barbara’s line of vision and Barbara’s bloodshot eyes struggled to maintain visual control of it.
Barbara sneered with visceral disdain, the altercation beginning to turn a few heads on the dance floor. “I barely know you but I’ve already figured out that years ago you got my new daughter-in-law addicted to cigarettes. And that you got your own daughter hooked. And now two of my granddaughters are hooked on your poison,” her voice raised as she pointed toward Isabel and soon-to-be-adopted granddaughter Kilee. “And God only knows how many other people’s grandkids have gotten hooked…..or have asthma from secondhand smoke the way your little boy will soon enough.” She paused leading up to the delivery of her mic drop final thought. “You’re an evil person.”
I tried to rein Gretchen in, knowing we were entering the danger zone of a thermonuclear scene, but Barbara’s indirect reference to Brayden distracted Gretchen for a moment. Like me, Gretchen realized she hadn’t seen Brayden for a while and was quickly scanning the reception hall for any sign of him, feeling a flash of concern when neither of us spotted him.
Between her middling state of intoxication and the distraction of her missing son, Gretchen struggled to articulate a comeback as snappy and merciless as what she usually did, but nonetheless laid her frosty blue eyes on Barbara in a way that cut into her soul as she mused. “When the family looks back on tonight, it’s not gonna me who will be remembered as the evil one. Or the one who’s ruining my sister’s wedding because of “secondhand” demons. I’ll give you one last chance to walk away and we’ll forget this happened,” Gretchen offered a rare olive branch, pausing for a second before asking “What do you say?”
Barbara raised her finger as if poised to point it into Gretchen’s face and escalate the confrontation to inevitable mutually assured destruction, but before she could bellow out her first slurred word in anger, a sonic eruption emerged from the ceiling as multiple smoke detectors began to thunder. The band quickly stopped playing and vocal bewilderment filled the room. But bewilderment would quickly yield to full-blown mayhem when, a few seconds later, the sprinkler system turned on, dousing dozens of attendees in a cold shower.
My eyes were fixated on Gretchen as the sprinkler water instantly doused the cigarette in her mouth that she just lit, and my eyes then diverted to my gobsmacked 14-year-old daughter, her stylized platinum blond hair going flat from the steady shower of sprinkler water raining upon her head. The bright red cherries on the cigars in Kaitlyn and Kilee’s mouths quickly went the way of Gretchen’s cigarette, the life snuffed out of them as the soggy remains dangled lifelessly from the girls’ mouths. What on Earth was happening?
Meanwhile, out in the control room, Elijah found himself in an even more elevated state of panic than the wet dancers in the reception hall as the consequences of his cranking up the sensitivity dial on the building’s smoke detector system were proving greater than anticipated.
“Shit!” Elijah shouted as he could hear the distraught screams from the drenched wedding reception guests, looking at Brayden with contagious terror in his eyes as though desperate for any idea on how to fix this mess he created for himself.
Elijah then proceeded to look at the other controls on the panel and realized his best option might be to kill the power to the building. Without having much idea of what would come next, Elijah concluded it was worth the risk and flipped the main circuit breaker on the panel, turning the lights off for the whole building. The panicked screams from inside the reception got even louder as the building went dark, but at the very least the sprinklers seemed to have shut off. Brayden burst into boisterous tears of his own as he lurked behind Elijah in the blackened maintenance room.
After a few moments of darkness, Elijah flipped the main circuit breaker to its original position, praying that it would turn the power for the building back on without restarting the sprinkler system. He sighed with relief when both wishes came true. He then looked over to the tearful Brayden and apologized. “Sorry to scare you there buddy,” patting him on the shoulder and realizing some people inside were likely missing him by now, especially after the unintended excitement. “You should head back inside so your mom knows you’re safe,” he added, pausing to make eye contact and then trying to intimidate the boy into submission out of self-preservation. “But don’t tell anybody about our little secret, okay?” he closed, pointing to the control panel and circuit breakers, not particularly confident about the boy’s ability or willingness to keep this secret for him.
Brayden took off out of the room and hustled around the corner to the reception hall entrance, going back inside to reenter a soggy room full of frazzled guests, overhearing the best man on the phone calling the fire department to hold them off of coming after the false alarm. He only had a few seconds to wander inside before Gretchen noticed him.
“Brayden!” Gretchen called out in relief, running toward her son with freshly lit Marlboro Red 100 in hand. Her relieved mother voice abruptly yielded to scolding as she sternly and huskily inquired, “Where were you?!”
Brayden avoided eye contact as he looked to the floor and bashfully whispered, “Just went outside.”
Gretchen hugged him tightly and lovingly, my son visibly grimacing at the stench of Gretchen’s smoke now commingled with her soaked hair and clothes.
An equally soggy Kaitlyn walked toward her mom and brother amidst their hug, lighting a Marlboro Red 100 of her own on the walk over and lovingly placing her hand on Brayden’s shoulder in gratitude of his return, but she was quickly connecting the dots in her mind regarding the timing of her brother’s disappearing act and the power outage. As soon as Gretchen and Brayden broke apart, a flash of anger filled Kaitlyn’s face as she asked, “Where’s Elijah?”
Brayden watched as dragon flares of cigarette smoke burst out of Kaitlyn’s nostrils, her soaked dress and flat, wet hair hanging in front of her eyes evoking the image of a horror film heroine about to lay on the hurt to her tormentors. Brayden knew whenever he saw those dragon flares from either his sister or his mother, they were pissed and he was at high risk of being in big trouble. He shrugged, unconvincingly feigning ignorance of Elijah’s whereabouts.
Kaitlyn looked up to her mother, cigarette dangling from her lips, as she tattled. “He was sitting there with Brayden about 20 minutes ago and then they just vanished.”
Gretchen knelt down to look Brayden in the eye, applying her maternal pressure as she authoritatively inquired, “Where is Elijah and what did he do, Brayden?”
Brayden hated being on the spot in front of everyone, and with Gretchen’s secondhand smoke once again directly invading his airspace from close range, he was on the precipice of another breakdown, defiantly whining, “I don’t know!” with the accompaniment of a new round of tears.
At that moment, the sound of the door slowly opening drew the attention of everyone in the reception hall as Elijah thought enough time had passed that he might be able to quietly slip back in undetected. He hadn’t even gotten one step inside before noticing every eye in the room was fixated on him. He gave a quick look to Brayden standing next to Gretchen and Kaitlyn, trying to figure out if the kid ratted on him but realizing it probably didn’t matter as the room had likely already figured him out.
No sooner did Elijah come to terms with his own exposure before Kaitlyn took two steps forward, looking more imposing than I’d ever seen her look before decked out in her wet dress with disheveled blond hair.
“You did this, didn’t you?!?” Kaitlyn asked angrily as she pointed to the water-logged room, her dragon flare nostrils firing on all cylinders with cigarette smoke blasting from her apoplectic young face. “You ruined my aunt’s wedding?!?”
Elijah stood still with his mouth agape, his face identifying his guilt without uttering a word as he desperately looked for the verbiage needed to soften the tough crowd whose eyes were all bearing down on him. “I mean, I guess….but it was an accident,” the words finally fumbled out of his mouth.
“An accident?!?!” Kaitlyn fired back with the pluck of a bloodthirsty prosecutor going in for the kill on an uncooperative witness. “Look at this place!” she pressed, pointing at all the sad and disappointed faces attempting to clean up the damage. “You didn’t just tip over a drink!!!! And then you try to get a four-year-old to take the heat for you!?!?’ she pressed, pointing to Brayden.
Elijah shook his head, futilely searching his mental checklist for an effective comeback. “I’m not trying to get anyone to take any heat for me!” he staggered with even less verbal effectiveness than his inebriated grandmother several minutes earlier. “It was accident like I said. I pushed the wrong button in the wrong place. Look, I’ll make it up to everybody, okay.”
Kaitlyn continued to be the designated mouthpiece for every angry attendee in the room as she pressed forward. “How are you gonna make up ruining the most important day in my aunt’s life? And your uncle’s? And my cousin’s? It was a very special day for all of them and look what you did!” she badgered, pointing to Kilee as she dragged from her cigarette and looked at Elijah with a combination of anger, disappointment, and pity. “And you did all this why? Because I wouldn’t dance with you?! Because Kilee and I wouldn’t let you get us drunk so you could have an easier time getting our dresses off??!?” Kaitlyn thundered, an audible wheeze emanating from her lungs similar to what I heard from Gretchen during our dance moments earlier.
As Elijah shook his head and kept simpishly mouthing, “No….no….no. Nothing like that,” Gretchen grabbed her agitated daughter by the shoulder and pulled her back a bit as if pleading with her to back down. But I could tell by the thinly veiled smirk on Gretchen’s face that she was thrilled to see Kaitlyn take the reins and dress this guy down…proud that she was grooming the kind of strong woman who could one day take on an entire room full of male board members invested in her failure but could always persevere at their expense.
Kilee had by now joined Gretchen to help rein in Kaitlyn, knowing the potential existed for Kaitlyn to make a scene disproportionate to Elijah’s misdeeds, but having married one Paulson woman and raised another, I knew Kaitlyn wouldn’t acquiesce without a cutting final word. As she sent a final frosty glare to Elijah and locked in until he maintained eye contact, she took a deep final drag from her cigarette and added in a softer but equally cutting tone, “Just so you know….you didn’t have to throw a tantrum, ruin everybody’s night, and get my brother in trouble to get my attention. If you’d have just been patient, I would be dancing with you right now.”
Kaitlyn turned around and spiked her spent cigarette to the floor with a flourish of adrenaline. She walked away with Kilee, looking at the faces of the dumbstruck wedding attendees who were holding back giving her a round of applause but conveyed through their body language that she spoke their minds as it applied to calling out the teenage party crasher. Tina in particular gave her niece an appreciative nod for holding Elijah accountable, but also continued to maintain that new bride glow as she dragged from one of the first cigarettes of her married life. She was clearly determined to avoid dwelling on this 11th hour setback in what been a magical day for both her and Kilee. Now it was a matter of trying to regain some of that momentum and salvage some enjoyment before the night concluded.
I couldn’t resist taking another look at Barbara Finstad as she had quietly returned to her table and was sipping on another glass of champagne, the Stepford smile of earlier in the evening now a distant memory. She was clearly irate that her attempt at an intervention against Gretchen went sideways and the people she deemed the villains of this story had just gotten rebranded as the heroes. She shook her head as she looked up to Elijah, upset with his disastrous stunt but even more upset that he was publicly humiliated by Satan’s spawn in front of the family.
The sound of Gretchen’s gruff chainsmoker’s voice again diverted my attention elsewhere. “Now you’re gonna explain to me and your dad why you were outside sneaking around rather than in here with the rest of us, young man!” Gretchen authoritatively barked, leaning down toward Brayden, her freshly lit cigarette bouncing up and down from her lips only inches in front of his face before she guided him toward the table where I sat waiting for their return.
The pout on Brayden’s face said it all as he and Gretchen progressed in my direction. He once again rubbed his hands on his eyes as if maximally annoyed by his mom’s cigarette smoke, before looking angrily at Kaitlyn seated at the table next to ours as she lit up a new cigarette of her own. But he then turned his head over his shoulder to offer a final visual apology to Elijah.
As the boys’ eyes met from across the room, the mixture of sympathy and fury on their faces spoke volumes about the unlikely kinship they established. They were sick to death of the overbearing cigarette-smoking females in their lives rendering them physically and emotionally powerless. Elijah seemed to be just coming to terms with this emasculating imbalance, but Brayden had worn that sentiment on his sleeve since before he was even wearing diapers. As he ripped his hand apart from Gretchen and climbed into my lap as if looking for any ally he could with a Y chromosome, I patted him on the back lovingly and forgivingly. Being from Gretchen’s bloodline, I wasn’t underestimating the fight the kid might have in him for the inevitable continued battles within the family–and the family business–on the horizon. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that Brayden was destined to be the underdog in their pending altercations.