How was I ever gonna be able to let this go, I thought to myself as I sat on the patio furniture of our Richmond, Virginia, estate one final time this unusually warm mid-spring evening, taking up the center of the patio couch with my arms around the waists of two gorgeous young smoking women on both sides of me while overlooking the drained pool in front of me.
To my left was my loving wife Gretchen, 38 years old but as attractive and sexy as ever in her tanktop and pale blue cutoffs as she lit up the latest in her endless chain of Marlboro Reds 100s only seconds after crushing out the previous one in the overflowing ashtray on the table to her left. The mixed emotion was evident on her face as she dragged contemplatively from her freshly lit cigarette, as it appeared to be finally sinking in that this was her final night as the CEO of Philip Morris after three very eventful years of turning the company around and reinvigorating the cigarette marketplace that had been left for dead for a generation before Gretchen figured out a way, against all odds, to make smoking cool again. The job had been a love-hate affair for her for the past three years, but Gretchen had a young family to take care of and the demands of this job had kept her from tending to her family for too long. It was time to move on.
To my right on the patio couch wearing a black blouse and matching black leather leggings was Sophia Fiorentino, Gretchen’s 22-year-old protege who stood poised to take over Philip Morris in Gretchen’s absence after more than two years of being groomed for the position. As Sophia fired up her latest Parliament 100 while snuggling herself deeper into the right side of my body, her Italian goddess beauty shined as bright as her professional ambition. Whatever mixed emotion was evident on Gretchen’s face this evening, Sophia cut the profile of a young woman overcome with confidence, aspiration, and swagger who knew she was right on the doorstep of inculcating the professional world in a tangible way. The intense drag from her Parliament and deliberately stylish follow-up exhale that flowed symmetrically from her mouth and nose viscerally projected the confidence from which Sophia was about to take the world by storm. It was a look I recognized from Gretchen three years earlier.
I lowered my hands from Gretchen and Sophia’s waists to their asses, enjoying the contrast between the casual tight denim clutching Gretchen’s lower body and the smooth, buttery faux leather from Sophia’s leggings. I squeezed the two of them closer to me and admired that the superficial differences between the young ladies’ looks and wardrobe preferences fused together coherently when it came to their love of tobacco, and the smoky odor clinging to them as they cuddled with me was indistinguishable. The overlapping of their worlds was approaching its completion, and I’d been lucky enough to be the literal middleman enjoying both girls for the past year now.
Much as I was enjoying the smoky silence with the past and future faces of corporate tobacco, I just had to take this opportunity to pick their brains one final time, asking aloud “How crazy is it that this is our last night together?”, throwing the generic jump ball out there and seeing where Gretchen or Sophia would take it.
“Mmmmm….I’ll miss these nights with the three of us sharing this couch,” Gretchen mused through a dense talking exhale in her intensely husky long time smoker’s voice, a flirtatious look on her face as she added, “….and sharing our bed.”
Sophia laughed as she took a deep drag from her Parliament and nodded in agreement even though I had hoped for her own sake that Sophia was ready to move on from being the third wheel in our “throuple” just as she was ready to move on from merely being Gretchen’s top lieutenant at Philip Morris. She nonetheless played along as she flattered us through a talking exhale and added, “It’s definitely been the most exciting sex I’ve ever had with you guys. When I try to light up a cigarette in my next boyfriend’s bed and blow the smoke in his face I probably won’t get the same reaction that I get from you two.” Sophia gently nudged her chin on to my shoulder and added, “….especially from Mark,” a residual blast of Parliament smoke spraying me in the face and adding to the electric sensation I was already feeling.
Gretchen agreed but added, “I really do hope you get out there and date again soon, Sophia. We’ve kind of been a crutch for you the past year. Between us and the pandemic, you’ve sat out some of the best months of your life for playing the field. I definitely think it’s time to strike out on your own, in dating and in the corporate boardroom.”
I nodded in agreement with Gretchen. As much as I loved the regular diet of threesomes I was getting with Gretchen and Sophia, it was obvious it was an arrangement of convenience for Sophia, who got off on our mutual kinky fetishes and was able to indulge them sexually without the hard work and time commitments of dating.
Sophia seemed unconvinced as she took another deep drag from her cigarette, responding as though she’d already given this plenty of thought. “You know the regulators and our competitors are about to take the gloves off and really come at us hard now. I can’t let my guard down long enough to date the field,” Sophia responded in reference to her new corporate role. “Any free time I have I’ll be spending with Jordyn,” she added, in reference to her five-year-old daughter.
Gretchen nodded in agreement as she pulled in the final remnants of tobacco from her current Marlboro Red in a deeply intense drag that glowed brightly only a couple of inches from my left cheek. “I can’t argue with your priorities, Sophia. I know you take your daughter and this company very seriously.” Gretchen shifted to playful eyes again as she leered past me toward Sophia and added, “But I also know you well enough to predict you’re gonna explode if you don’t get laid!”
A husky laugh emerged from Sophia as she finished off her Parliament. “Oh I have some options in mind,” she responded unconvincingly, fluttering her eyelashes as the final stream of smoke spilled from her face. “Plus you guys say you’re coming to visit a lot. And I’ll be visiting the Midwest to check out our assets there,” Sophia added in reference to the tobacco fields in Missouri recently activated as part of Philip Morris’s comeback strategy that Gretchen engineered. “Maybe I’ll get out there a little more frequently knowing you guys will be waiting.”
Gretchen tried to hide her disappointment as she lit another Marlboro Red, not wanting to see Sophia continue to lean on the two of us for sexual fulfillment, particularly when we were about to be a time zone away. Even though having the opportunity to sexually service both the queen and princess of corporate tobacco for the past year had been the honor of my life, I couldn’t disagree with Gretchen that it was time for all of us to move on, and it was unfortunate that Sophia didn’t seem to be taking the hint.
Retrieving her pack of Parliaments with sexual lust in her eyes as she lit up, Sophia lifted her leg draped in the tight faux leather and extended it over my lap and Gretchen’s. With her Mona Lisa-like ability to direct eye contact upon both of us at the same time, Sophia ingested a fiercely deep drag of smoke off of the light-up and parted her exhale in deliberate and diverging streams off of her exhale, sending half of it drifting into my face and the other half drifting into Gretchen’s face.
I was fully enraptured by Sophia’s gesture, but Gretchen was not yet comfortable enough to fully get into it, looking over her left shoulder to our house with trepidation. Gretchen looked back to Sophia as if to indicate she should hold off on the foreplay a bit longer, and then verbalizing her misgivings about the timing. “Maybe give it about 10 more minutes before we get started,” Gretchen requested, using her cigarette to point to the upstairs of the mansion. “We gotta make sure Kaitlyn and Brayden are sound asleep.”
Sophia nodded in halfhearted agreement, understanding Gretchen’s maternal instinct of sparing her offspring from the awkwardness of our unusual romantic arrangement but also a bit annoyed that that maternal instinct was stalling the mood of what we all wanted to be a special night. Sophia kept her leg spread out across my lap and Gretchen’s as she looked past Gretchen to the baby monitor on the patio next to Gretchen’s ashtray that served as a listening post into Brayden’s bedroom, wondering how much longer it would be before bedtime for the kids would yield to playtime for the adults. Sophia gave Gretchen an inviting smile as both women took deep drags from their respective cigarettes while locking eyes, with Gretchen’s body language conveying her continued inadvertent power dynamic that lingered over Sophia both professionally and personally.
Meanwhile, from upstairs in our home, the glowing cherry of a freshly lit cigarette illuminated the dark bedroom window in the moments before the window was slid open. A plastic bag full of unknown contents was dropped through the open second-floor window and crashed onto the shrubbery landscaping with minimal noise. From there, a green rubber garden hose was tossed out, serving as a makeshift rope from the second-floor window to the ground outside.
Our 13-year-old daughter nervously tugged on the garden hose from her end, tied in a knot to the base of her bed frame and theoretically providing her a way out of her bedroom and a way back in while avoiding the detection of her parents or anybody else. With a Marlboro Red 100 dangling from her lips, Kaitlyn smiled with glee in the split second before making her escape. She climbed up on the window sill and began slowly repelling the garden hose to the great outdoors.
Kaitlyn descended the siding of our house with the stealthness of a cat burglar but without the appearance of a night bandit, her all-white ensemble glowing in dramatic contrast to the darkness of the night sky. Her lacy white top revealed enough skin above her chest and below her midriff to be parent-unapproved on its own, but Kaitlyn also poached her favorite white denim miniskirt from Gretchen’s closet to complement the top. Since she was a young girl, she’d admired the way the miniskirt looked on Gretchen, but now that they were close to the same size, Kaitlyn figured it was her turn to see how it looked on her. While she didn’t want to get caught as she approached the completion of her slow-motion descent, part of Kaitlyn wished there was a witness to her escape as she puckered her lips confidently around the cork-filter cigarette still dangling from her mouth and thought she cut the profile of a real badass sneaking out of her parents’ home in her miniskirt.
Kaitlyn quietly picked up the plastic bag that she dropped out the window before climbing out and proceeded to run into the darkness of the gated community to her destination. She took one final look over her shoulder while her home was still in view, knowing that Sophia was over and counting on us being distracted enough to not notice she was gone. Once she was a comfortable distance from home, Kaitlyn slowed down, her early teen lungs more winded than they probably should have been. As she approached her Marlboro Red to her lips for a final drag, she completely accepted that her windedness was unequivocally the result of her increasingly heavy smoking.
Kaitlyn dug her phone out of the back pocket of her white miniskirt and used the illumination of the final street light on the block to text a message on her phone to “Mason”. It only took her about 20 seconds to craft the message reading “I’m out! Lucas and I will meet you at the gate in 10 minutes!” before clicking send, the electricity of her naughty teenage antics beaming upon her face. She put her phone into the back pocket of her miniskirt where it came from, and also where she plucked her pack of Marlboro Reds and lighter from. A scheming smirk filled Kaitlyn’s face as she placed the unlit cigarette to her lips and recalled how the most trouble she usually got into was related to when Gretchen and I scolded her for smoking too much in recent months. As she approached her lighter to spark up the cigarette, Kaitlyn took satisfaction in realizing that smoking too many cigarettes would be the least of her parents’ concerns about her bad behavior tonight. A big messy burst of smoke blasted out of Kaitlyn’s face into the warm night sky before she scurried off into the darkness.
A few minutes later, Kaitlyn approached the fence at the front gate of the neighborhood where we lived, home mostly to Philip Morris employees and isolated largely for their security against a world full of haters. She smiled as she saw a familiar teenage boy standing nervously in front of the fence, revealing herself so as not to startle him.
“Lucas!” Kaitlyn exclaimed in an elevated whisper as she approached. “It’s me!”
The odor of Kaitlyn’s cigarette smoke tipped off Lucas to her emerging presence a split second before he visually spotted her, his breath taken away at the sight of the spunky Kaitlyn in her suggestive outfit. A mischievous smirk on her face, she lifted the plastic bag into Lucas’s line of vision and shook it as she made her final approach as if signaling she had a big surprise in store for him.
“What’s in the bag?” Lucas cooperatively inquired.
Kaitlyn’s mischievous smirk grew wider as she playfully responded, “You’ll find out in a few minutes,” pulling her cigarette to her lips for a final drag and then tossing the cork filter butt through the fence, watching closely at Lucas’s response as she theatrically released her exhale, hoping for some sign of visceral arousal from Lucas that she frequently detected from Mason, but being disappointed when once again failing to detect any. Her disappointment didn’t last long though as she admired the dimpled smile of her classmate and friend who she’d found herself increasingly attracted to in recent weeks, awaiting the aggressive return gesture of affection that she knew was coming.
“You always know how to keep me guessing,” Lucas flirted, putting his hands on Kaitlyn’s hips and pulling her close.
Kaitlyn beamed as she pulled in for a kiss, exchanging tongue with Lucas for a few moments as they both allowed themselves to momentarily forget that this would be their last evening together. The sound of rustling footsteps from outside the gates quickly broke Kaitlyn’s focus and she immediately pulled herself away from Lucas’s lip lock, not wanting to get busted by the boy she figured was probably approaching.
“Mason?” Kaitlyn called out in hopes of an affirmative response.
“Yeah. It’s me,” Mason identified himself, bringing about a beaming smile from Kaitlyn but a look of annoyance from Lucas who knew his time of having Kaitlyn to himself had now passed.
Kaitlyn walked up to the security gate and started punching in code numbers to allow “community outsider” Mason inside. The gate opened and Kaitlyn’s brunette seventh-grade friend stepped inside, mixed emotion on his face upon seeing Kaitlyn and recognizing it would be his last night with her, and also upon seeing Lucas, his friend from school who increasingly cut the profile of a romantic rival vying for Kaitlyn’s affections.
“Glad you could make it, Mason!” Kaitlyn muttered teasingly, as if he’d been holding up the show, even though he had by far the longest travel time of the three of them.
Mason rolled his eyes affectionately and responded, “My parents will kill me if they find out I’m gone!”
Kaitlyn laughed as she dug her Marlboro Reds pack out of her skirt pocket and responded, “Mine too, but who cares! It’s our last night!” With a pouty look on her face, Kaitlyn placed a cigarette between her lips and lit up, noticing that Mason maintained eye contact on her the entire time and reminded Kaitlyn why he was still in the game despite her more instinctive attraction to Lucas.
Kaitlyn began to reach into her bag, and through a talking dangle, rattled off the terms for her teenage male suitors. “No peeking just yet but I have a couple of gifts to pass along to you two right away,” Kaitlyn opened, pulling out two packs of Marlboro Reds and handing one each to Lucas and Mason.
“Thanks,” Lucas said, grabbing hold of the pack of cigarettes and rapping it against his wrist, giving off the vibe of a seasoned smoker before he opened the pack and plucked the first cigarette out. Lucas regained Kaitlyn’s romantic attraction as her female hormones raged upon witnessing the ruggedly masculine way that Lucas handled himself with that cigarette. With the unlit Marlboro Red dangling from his lips, Lucas made eye contact with Kaitlyn, asking “Can I have your lighter?”
Kaitlyn swooned as she handed Lucas her lighter and watched him spark up that cigarette and produce a geyser of smoke with his first drag. She could tell the harshness of the smoke was quickly getting to the novice smoker Lucas as he quickly reached up to remove the cigarette from his mouth, but Kaitlyn greatly appreciated the show of strength as she took back her lighter from him.
Mason picked up on the chemistry between Kaitlyn and Lucas and frowned as he disinterestedly opened the pack of cigarettes that Kaitlyn handed him. Mason had tried smoking cigarettes with Kaitlyn a number of times over the past year and a half, but despite the sex appeal it had for him when he watched Kaitlyn smoke, he didn’t much care for smoking himself. He removed one cigarette from the pack and stuck it behind his ear while putting the rest of the pack in his jeans pocket.
Kaitlyn swiveled around with lighter in hand, making eyes with Mason with a hint of guilt she barely tried to disguise. “Need a light, Mason?” she asked before taking a drag from her own cigarette.
“Nah…maybe later,” Mason responded, pointing to the cigarette that he placed in his ear.
Kaitlyn smiled, still finding it adorable that as much as Mason was intrigued by her smoking that he wasn’t much of a smoker himself. She smirked again and responded, “Well I gave you guys cigarettes for a reason and in a few minutes I’m gonna insist you light one up for me!”
Confusion filled Mason’s face as he responded, “Why?”
“Follow me to the park and I’ll show you,” Kaitlyn responded with a mischievous gleam on her face, grabbing hold of Mason’s hand and guiding him toward her destination. Upon looking to her right to see the envious look of Lucas, Kaitlyn proceeded to place her half-smoked Marlboro Red in her mouth, sliding her hand inside the handles of the plastic bag and then grabbing hold of Lucas’ hand. She led the way up the hill toward the park with a boy on each hand and a cigarette between her lips, feeling empowered, carefree, and even more rebellious than usual.
A couple of minutes later, Kaitlyn arrived at the park in the gated community, releasing the hands of both of her boyfriends and running a few yards ahead into the open grass of the park, announcing with a flourish “I might be leaving you guys, but I intend to go out with a bang!” as she opened the plastic bag to reveal its contents, taking out three separate racks of mortar tube fireworks.
Lucas and Mason made nervous eye contact for the first time tonight, slowly building to a smile upon realizing that Kaitlyn’s hype was about to live up to expectations completely.
Kaitlyn retrieved her pack of Marlboro Reds from the back pocket of her miniskirt once again and plucked out another. She placed it in her lips and fired up, taking an intense dangling drag off of the light-up and letting the smoke flow from her mouth and nose as she exhaled and clarified her point from earlier. “Now do you see why I gave you boys cigarettes?” fluttering her eyelashes to let them know they’d soon be helping her light the fuses of these fireworks.
Gretchen was sinking her lips forcefully upon my neck as Sophia unbuttoned and removed my shirt, sinking her face into my chest and applying oral pressure proportionally similar to Gretchen. Even as the air began to cool that mid-spring evening, the sweat was only now starting to escape my pores with horny female smokers raising my body temperature despite the loss of clothing articles adorning my upper body. I fully succumbed to the pleasure, savoring their hot smoky breath as it worked my body and completely taking it in this final time, knowing that none of us was long for this patio couch and that we’d all be heading upstairs for the bedroom at any moment. I closed my eyes for a moment and listened to the labored breathing of the two heavy smokers as their lungs struggled to endure the rising tide of sexual intensity, yet I was still fully confident they’d both muster up the stamina to exact their naughtiest fantasies upon me.
But just as I began to approach peak erotic ecstasy, along with the macho confidence needed to convince myself I was capable of pleasuring both of these young ladies, the momentum was broken by the sound of a ringing cell phone. I tried to block it out amidst the easily distracting feeling of female curves and lips slathered across my upper body, but after about the third ring, it was impossible to miss the pair of familiar lips drifting from my left side.
“Shit!” fumed the husky-voiced Gretchen as she pulled away from me. “Who’s calling me on my private line at this hour?”
I kept my eyes closed and hoped the distraction wouldn’t last long, savoring Sophia’s ongoing attempts to fill the void in Gretchen’s brief absence, but the flicking of a lighter represented a rare and ironic instance of bad news for me when Gretchen continued, “This number is familiar,” as if recognizing the digits even though it wasn’t coming from a regular contact.
“This is Gretchen,” announced my wife to the caller on the other end, leading me to finally open my eyes to gauge her body language in response to the surprise call. Upon seeing my interest, Gretchen silently mouthed to me, “It’s Mason’s mom.”
The momentum for my three-way sexual tryst was now completely stalled as I was entirely distracted by this development, wondering why one of Gretchen’s harshest critics was calling her after 10:00 at night.
“Whoa, slow down, there Angie,” Gretchen warned in the aftermath of a nervous drag from her Marlboro. “Do you have any idea how long he’s been gone?”
The fire in Gretchen’s eyes smoldered as she listened to the hot-blooded reply on the other end of the line and then responded, “Excuuuse me!” with the maximally intimidating husk I was used to at times when Gretchen’s tone was at its most vexed. “You better have your damn facts straight before you go throwing around accusations like that about my daughter!”
Sophia had by now retreated from my chest and I stood up from the patio couch, deeply concerned by the personal nature this conversation was going.
“I will check on her but I can assure you that she’s fast asleep,” Gretchen testily responded, pausing as more angry words were exchanged from Angie’s end. She took one more intense drag from her cigarette before interrupting once again with a renewed gravelly husk in her voice that commanded instant gravitas. “Stop right there! Let’s keep from saying things we’ll both regret later. I’ll check in on Kaitlyn….and you keep looking for Mason. If I hear anything and if she knows anything, you’ll be the first to know. Deal?”
Gretchen paused for the response, before cutting off the conversation with a curt “Alright.” As she ended the phone call, I followed her eyes as they guided me in the direction of Kaitlyn’s bedroom. Sophia hovered near the patio furniture, not knowing what to do with herself as she watched Gretchen and I quickly moving toward the back door of our home.
The two of us ascended the stairs hoping against hope that Kaitlyn would be in her bedroom fast asleep, but our intuition and her recent rebellious streak led us both to expect to find an empty bedroom. Gretchen softly turned the doorknob on Kaitlyn’s bedroom door with tremendous anticipation, and she and I looked at each other with disappointment and distress as the moonlight shining through Kaitlyn’s opened bedroom window revealed an empty bed with a garden hose hanging outside.
We hustled on up to the open window and peered out the window, quickly putting together that Kaitlyn planned to eventually sneak back in the same way she slipped out. Looking at Gretchen as she dragged from her cigarette, I couldn’t help but catch a glimmer of respect in her eye as she admired her daughter’s work, but the anger quickly returned as Gretchen fumed, literally and figuratively, before sneering “I’m gonna kill that girl.”
I nodded in agreement and responded, “Well we know she didn’t get far. Let’s drive around till we find her.”
We raced back down the steps and it wasn’t until we saw Sophia waiting at the door with anticipation that it hit us that our final night together was now officially a bust. While Sophia’s disappointment was evident by the look on her face, being a mother herself she understood our dramatically revised priority and offered, “Anything I can do to help?” when it became clear that Kaitlyn was not in her bedroom.
Gretchen apologetically smiled before replying, “If you could wait here while we drive around, in case she comes back while we’re away, that’d be great.”
Sophia lit up another Parliament as she nodded in agreement. “Yeah…of course.”
I looked at her sympathetically and offered, “Sorry we couldn’t make this work tonight.”
Her lips still puckered up around her cigarette filter, Sophia let it be known it was the last thing on her mind as she responded, “Don’t even think about it. Just find that daughter of yours,” adding with a wry smirk, “And don’t be too hard on her okay?”
Strutting toward the driveway with her Marlboro Reds in one hand and her car keys in the other, Gretchen snorted, “We’ll see about that.”
I shrugged with a half-smile gesture toward Sophia as I followed Gretchen to the car.
In moments, we backed out of the driveway prepared to search the gated community first and then explore outside the gates if necessary. Just as we pulled onto the street, we looked at each other as if knowing the most obvious place to check out was the neighborhood park a few blocks away, but before we could even verbally convey this shared epiphany with one another, we were startled by the sound of amateur explosives from a distance. We looked to the evening sky to see a burst of sulfuric color lighting up the darkness overhead. Next I made eyes with Gretchen, sensing both fury at Kaitlyn for running off with these fireworks to illegally fire off while they out of season as well as a bit of relief that Kaitlyn so quickly told on herself. Gretchen did her best to compete with our daughter’s colorful light display as she puckered her lips around her Marlboro Red and made it glow bright while driving in the direction of the light show taking place in the park.
“Back up, Mason! Back up!” Kaitlyn jubilantly cheered as Mason used his reluctant cigarette to set off the fuse for the latest mortar tube that was strategically placed a few yards apart from the one Kaitlyn had just set off.
Mason was rolling with the adrenaline rush as he obeyed Kaitlyn’s rhetorical command and backed away from the fuse he just lit, seconds before the fireworks erupted into the evening sky. The three of them watched with wide-eyed middle-school excitement as the fireworks they set off lit up, spraying a rainbow of color over the usually quiet neighborhood. All three held cigarettes between their fingers, but only Kaitlyn sold the look, pulling the Marlboro Red up to her lips for a natural drag as she watched the overhead colors fade.
“I got the next one!” Kaitlyn said emphatically as she scurried on up to the next mortar tube, her glowing cigarette extending from her right hand as she descended upon her target.
As she leaned over to place her smoldering cigarette to the tip of the mortar tube, Lucas and Mason both found themselves ogling Kaitlyn’s ass in that curve-hugging white miniskirt and taking it in for a moment before they both caught each other in the act. Mason and Lucas looked at each other and shared a satisfied chuckle about Kaitlyn’s show but Lucas placed his cigarette confidently to his lips to establish himself as the alpha male, correctly evoking the upper hand he interpreted himself currently having over Mason in courting Kaitlyn’s affection.
Kaitlyn broke up the peacock festival between the boys as she came barreling back toward them, half-smoked cigarette dangling from her lips. Her electric energy was contagious and redirected the boys’ attention back to the sky to see the visual spoils from the latest mortar shell she ignited.
“Your turn again, Lucas!” Kaitlyn exclaimed, using her cigarette to point to the final mortar tube in the collection that she wanted him to set off.
Lucas hustled on up and used his cigarette to set the fuse, albeit without the pomp and circumstance that Kaitlyn had brought to the occasion on the last one or the two previous fireworks she had set off. The trio nonetheless watched the sky light up one final time, wonderment in their eyes knowing they were responsible for this out-of-season show and feeling more pride than guilt for it, especially given that it would be the boys’ final night with Kaitlyn.
Lucas took the reins and wrapped his arm around Kaitlyn’s mostly bare waist, pulling her in and being taken aback by how intense the cigarette odor remained on her even with the otherwise dominating odor of sulfur in their midst, watching as Kaitlyn took a final drag from her cigarette and then tossed its smoldering remains into the grass. Kaitlyn welcomed Lucas’s embrace and put her arm around his waist in response and throwing an admiring glance at him as he dragged from his cigarette. But the moment was short-lived as guilt overcame Kaitlyn, recognizing that first love Mason was standing by himself just to her right. She looked over her shoulder and noticed the sadness in his eyes, a look she just couldn’t accept.
“C’mon Mason!” Kaitlyn exclaimed. “Let’s all head to the swings!” Taking a boy in each hand, Kaitlyn dragged them through the open grass toward the playground equipment about 50 yards away. Once they arrived, Kaitlyn’s eyes lit up with another mischievous flair as she said, “Let’s see how high the three of us can get this bad boy!” in reference to the swing directly in front of them. Kaitlyn looked to Lucas, suggesting “You’re the biggest….why don’t you sit down first?”
Lucas took a final drag from the cigarette he had been smoking since they started setting off the fireworks and then took a seat on the swing. Kaitlyn lit another cigarette before parking her ass on Lucas’ lap on the swing. She then looked at Mason, motioning him to take the top bunk on the human pyramid. Both boys knew that Kaitlyn was taking full advantage of the situation but nonetheless welcomed the opportunity for such close contact with the hottest girl at school, the touch of her body combined with the intense aroma of smoke clinging to her sending tingles through the boys’ bodies.
With a jubilant laugh, Kaitlyn stretched her feet to the sand below and Lucas did the same, sending the swing into motion. Even with both the swing and all three teenagers moving, Kaitlyn still adeptly placed her Marlboro Red in her mouth to take a deep drag before extending her arm out to avoid burning her friends. The eruption of smoke as she exhaled gave both boys just a little more motivation, particularly as their skin rubbed against hers.
After about 60 seconds of literal swinging, they’d had enough and Lucas let his feet bring the ride to an abrupt conclusion, leaving all three of them primed for a continued run of metaphorical swinging. After pumping her lungs full of cigarette smoke and deciding which boy to move on first, Kaitlyn ultimately followed her instinct and gravitated toward Lucas sitting beneath her, beginning to aggressively engage in an open-mouth kiss even more intense than the one they shared earlier. But doing her best to avoid making Mason feel left out, Kaitlyn grabbed him by the back of the head to press his lips against her neck. While Mason still felt a little jealous knowing his stature at the top of this pyramid did not translate to the pecking order of Kaitlyn’s current preference, he nonetheless indulged the opportunity to feast on Kaitlyn’s neck even if it meant occasionally bobbing heads with his romantic rival Lucas who continued to share lip action with her.
A look of adolescent ecstasy filled Kaitlyn’s face, her eyes lighting up brighter than all the artificial sulfuric color of the hundreds of dollars worth of fireworks she’d just shot into the sky. Whatever feelings of guilt that may have bedeviled her earlier were superseded by pleasure as she made out with her two best friends, feeling one of each of their hands stroking her bare legs. She had no intention of letting things go too far when she first sat down on this swing, but at this moment, it was becoming less clear to her that she could rein in her raging hormonal urges. No sooner did that thought enter her mind before an intervention brought her back down to Earth, with two shining headlights from a car in the nearby parking lot putting Kaitlyn’s show on full display for a critical parental audience.
Gretchen and I briefly sighed in relief as we saw the familiar face of our 13-year-old daughter a few yards in front of our headlights, but quickly reverted to anger as we recognized what she was up to with not one but two boys from school. Despite all three of them clearly noticing us, Kaitlyn defiantly beckoned Lucas and Mason’s respective lips back to her mouth and neck as if to maximize our annoyance. I laid on the car horn before stepping outside, about to vent my anger but knowing that Gretchen would do so far more effectively and intimidatingly than I was capable of.
“What’s wrong with you, Kaitlyn!!?” Gretchen exclaimed, angry bursts of smoke charging from her mouth and nose at an even faster speed than her hustled legs as she charged toward Kaitlyn and the boys.
With the smug self-satisfaction of a rebellious teen who had outsmarted her parents long enough to have an unforgettable night, Kaitlyn stood up off the swing with the boys and retorted, “Giving my friends something to remember me by on our last night together….that’s all!” as she took a final drag from her spent cigarette and flung it to the grass with an appropriately defiant flair.
Gretchen’s unamused response quickly shifted to Lucas as she asked, “Are you Jenna McNeill’s kid, Lucas?”, referencing one of Philip Morris’ marketing employees who lived in their gated community.
His face overcome with the most intimidation of the three despite his night-long efforts to play it cool with Kaitlyn, Lucas nodded affirmatively and responded “Yes ma’am!” to Gretchen with terror in his voice.
“If you run on home right now, I might think about not telling your mom about this tomorrow. Sound like a deal?” Gretchen bargained.
“Yes ma’am!” Lucas responded again, wasting no time turning around and running as quickly as he could in the direction of his home and hoping he’d dodge a bullet with his parents if he could sneak back in.
I decided to lower the temperature a bit as I directed remarks to Mason, who I had a good rapport with going back to Kaitlyn’s first date with him at the root beer drive-in well over a year ago. “Unfortunately, Mason. You’re not gonna get off as lucky as your friend. Your mom already knows you left home.”
Mason sighed, realizing this current confrontation would only be an appetizer to the trouble he would be in.
Gretchen picked it up from there, adding, “I’m calling your mom to have her pick you up. We’ll all be waiting right here till she gets here,” she added as she placed her half-smoked Marlboro Red to her lips and dangled as she dialed the phone. Nobody could take their eyes off of Gretchen as she spoke into the cell phone through a talking dangle to convey to Mason’s mother that they’d found him and would wait there to let her into the gated community and pick her son up.
When the conversation ended, Gretchen maintained her icy glare upon the two lovebird teens she was so disappointed with, and frustrated by the conflicting responses by the kids, with Mason looking fearful and despondent in sharp contrast to the brash, devil-may-care smirk that lingered on Kaitlyn’s face.
Kaitlyn stepped up her shameless rebellion as she put her hand around Mason’s waist and pulled him toward her. “Don’t let ’em get to you, Mason. It’ll all be worth it when you think back to this night and remember how much fun we had,” she said with a wink as she reached into the back pocket of her white miniskirt to retrieve her Marlboro Reds pack and lighter.
Gretchen and I were both about to tear into Kaitlyn for her sassiness but found ourselves speechless at the very adult-like way she slipped a Marlboro Red into her lips and flicked it to life with one motion, her pubescent bodily curves perfectly filling out that blouse and the miniskirt that Gretchen quickly realized was hers.
“Not another word from you till we get home, young lady!” Gretchen was finally able to get out while still mostly at a loss for words while visually taking in Kaitlyn’s hastening transformation from a child to a young woman.
Kaitlyn immediately picked up on her body being the center of attention, letting the cigarette hang from her lips as she continued to squeeze Mason tight and then immediately defying her mom’s command by responding, “Your skirt looks great on me, doesn’t it mom?” pausing with a mischievous smirk and adding through a bobbing cigarette, “But I’m sure it’ll still look great on you too!”
Gretchen and I both had to suppress a smile in response to Kaitlyn’s mind games, but I maintained my stern exterior as I backed Gretchen up. “Your mother said not another word from you till we get home, Kaitlyn. That means you keep your mouth shut!”
Kaitlyn nodded with another defiant smile, removing the cigarette from her mouth and exhaling in a way that clearly dominated the airspace of Mason who she continued to clasp onto. As uncomfortable as he clearly was at this moment, I recognized in him that he was nonetheless savoring this intense, upclose exposure to my daughter’s secondhand smoke. And as we all waited in silence for Mason’s mom to pick him up, it was pretty obvious that these were the final moments of pleasure for Mason to cling to before the consequences of running off to see Kaitlyn started really bearing down upon him.
A half hour passed before Mason’s mom picked him up and before Gretchen and I were pulling back into the driveway of our home. Sophia waited in the driveway, puffing away on a Parliament and not wanting to miss our arrival, partly to be sure Kaitlyn was okay but also curious to see how much trouble she was in. The three of us got out of the car, with both Gretchen and Kaitlyn smoking their respective Marlboro Reds.
Sophia came hustling on up to give Kaitlyn a hug, taken aback by her sexy outfit and the lingering look of self-satisfied pluck on Kaitlyn’s face. “Good to have you back, honey,” Sophia said with obvious concern for the teenage Kaitlyn who she viewed as something of a niece for as close as we’d all become over the course of the last two years. “But don’t ever do that to us again, okay? You had us worried sick!” Sophia pulled away from the hug and found it odd that Kaitlyn said nothing in response. Observing the continued defiant smirk in Kaitlyn’s eyes, Sophia finally pressed, “Everything okay?”
Kaitlyn’s smirk intensified as she put her mostly smoked Marlboro Red in her lips and took out her cell phone and started texting away. We were all curious what she was up to but knew it was gonna be another display of bratty teenage rebellion in one form or another. After about 30 seconds of typing, Kaitlyn pressed send and Sophia’s phone buzzed as she received the text.
Sophia opened the text and read it aloud through a talking exhale, “Hey Sophia! I’m great! I had an awesome night! But my parents told me I can’t say a word until I get home and technically we’re still in the driveway sooo…..” Sophia smirked but shook her head at Kaitlyn as if signaling for her to not dig her hole any deeper.
Kaitlyn appeared proud of herself as she took a final drag from the cigarette and tossed it to the grass.
“I think it’s time for me to head home as I think your parents probably want to hear from you now,” Sophia said, leaning down to kiss Kaitlyn on the forehead affectionately as was common custom in the heavily ethnic Italian home Sophia grew up in, with Kaitlyn savoring the aroma of cigarette smoke blending with Sophia’s perfume and leather pants.
“Thanks so much for staying here while we looked for her Sophia,” I bid her adieu and she moved toward her car. “We’ll see you tomorrow at the party.”
Sophia waved goodbye before driving off, leaving Gretchen and I with the singular focus of laying into Kaitlyn over all of her troubling behavior tonight.
“In the house right now, young lady!” Gretchen barked. “We’re gonna talk about all the stuff we saw tonight.”
The smirk that had been on Kaitlyn’s face since she first got busted tonight continued to linger and it haunted us as we walked inside, especially Gretchen because it was an all-too-familiar pose that she remembered giving her own parents when she was about Kaitlyn’s age and starting to sow some wild oats. Kaitlyn led the way into the house and hustled on into the living room to crash on the couch, folding her legs in the miniskirt and instinctively reaching to the back pocket to retrieve her lighter and another cigarette.
Neither of us had missed that Kaitlyn’s already prolific smoking habit had continued to escalate in the past few months, and with ready access to all the cigarettes she could get her hands on at the Philip Morris headquarters she visited Gretchen at regularly, had become nearly impossible to keep under control. As Kaitlyn placed the cigarette in her mouth, I intervened. “Another cigarette!” adding out of genuine curiosity, “How much are you smoking these days anyway, Kaitlyn?”
Kaitlyn maintained her defiant, above-it-all pluck as she approached her lighter to the tip of her cigarette and smugly replied, “Howeeeever much I want to.”
Gretchen’s rage boiled over and she reached out to rip the unlit cigarette out of Kaitlyn’s lips a split second before Kaitlyn was able to light it. For the first time tonight, the smirk on Kaitlyn’s face was replaced with genuine fear of her mother’s aggression, the look of intimidation that Gretchen was typically able to impose on her tormentors finally having its intended effect. The look of fury in Gretchen’s eyes and the dragon-like flairs of secondhand smoke bursting from her nose with every breath was a look Kaitlyn only saw when Gretchen’s rage was most personally and viscerally felt.
But seeing the fear in her daughter’s eyes and realizing how ineffective this approach had been on herself when she was Kaitlyn’s age, Gretchen abruptly backed down from the maximalist posture and put the cigarette back into Kaitlyn’s lips. The fear in Kaitlyn’s eyes quickly abated as she welcomed her mother’s lighter to ignite her Marlboro Red. At the very least, it appeared as though we broke through to her enough to get her off of the clouds and hopefully willing to engage.
“You know we don’t like being angry with you Kaitlyn but sneaking out in the middle of the night just won’t be tolerated,” Gretchen said as calmly as possible, letting out a mild smoker’s cough as she came down from her moments of raised blood pressure.
As Kaitlyn took an intense drag from her cigarette in silence and momentarily avoided eye contact, I continued “If you wanted to see your friends before you left, we’d have been happy to have let you hang out with them,” pausing to add, “Of course it would have been during the day and without any illegal fireworks.”
Kaitlyn couldn’t help but let another satisfied smirk cross her face before Gretchen laid in on what upset her most about what she saw tonight through a talking dangle.
“And what were you doing on that swing with both of those boys, Kaitlyn?” Gretchen inquired. ” I thought you were going out with Mason.”
“I am,” Kaitlyn responded with sincerity.
“Well then why were you kissing some other boy right in front of him?” Gretchen fired back. “That’s very disrespectful to Mason. You know better than that.”
“Pffft!” Kaitlyn sneered as she took another drag from her cigarette, adding “You guys are such hypocrites!”
Gretchen and I were both struck by Kaitlyn’s comment, and I responded with genuine confusion, “What do you mean by that?”
“Oh c’mon!” Kaitlyn replied with cigarette smoke angrily bursting from her mouth and nose just as it so frequently did from her mother’s. “Do you really think I don’t know about you guys and Sophia?!??!”
Our daughter’s words knocked the wind out of our sails as Gretchen and I made brief eye contact in appreciation of being thoroughly busted. Somehow, it had never occurred to either of us since seeing our daughter get groped by two teenage boys at once that we were inadvertently the source of the terrible example that inspired her human pyramid makeout session in the neighborhood park. An extended silence filled the room as Gretchen and I both tried to think of how to respond to having the tables turned on us to this degree. Sensing blood in the water, the look of confidence returned to Kaitlyn’s face and it was now Gretchen and I avoiding eye contact as Kaitlyn dragged from her cigarette like a boss, staring us down and sensing our shame.
The next afternoon, the banquet hall at the Philip Morris corporate headquarters was packed with people in a way that it hadn’t been in well over a year. Just in time for public gathering restrictions to be lifted in the late stages of the COVID-19 pandemic following a critical mass of vaccinations, crowds of families and fellow employees met for the bittersweet going-away parties of two pivotal employees. In addition to Gretchen’s departure as CEO, her mentor Wilson Stevens was retiring from the company, and they decided to have a going-away party for two on behalf of both of them.
Gretchen worked the banquet room saying her goodbyes to a number of employees, and I watched with pride from the seats near the punch bowl with Kaitlyn and Brayden as my wife received hugs and accolades from coworkers who clearly respected her greatly. Approaching us with a cigar box was Gretchen’s beautiful youngest sister Melissa in the company of her three-year-old daughter Olivia and her niece Kilee, Kaitlyn’s closest cousin, all of whom came in with the rest of the family from Minnesota for Gretchen’s party. Kaitlyn’s face lit up with excitement seeing the three of them approach, especially Kilee, and the girls’ electric energy was palpable as they didn’t get to hang out much since Kaitlyn moved to Virginia, a situation soon to be rectified as we were days away from moving back to Minnesota.
“Cigars anyone?” Melissa offered with a wry smile, upholding the Paulson family tradition of enjoying a cigar at a moment of celebration.
“Yeah, I’ll take one!” Kaitlyn responded excitedly, still smarting a bit from the previous night’s family drama but recovering quickly as kids do.
“Me too!” exclaimed an equally elated Kilee.
In her upscale black cocktail dress, Melissa was somewhat dressed the part of a 1920s-era “cigar girl” as she opened up the cigar box and handed one of the generous-sized sticks to both of her 13-year-old nieces and then took one out for herself.
“Got a light for us, dad,” Melissa said with a devilish smirk, placing the cigar in her mouth just as the girls did.
I shook my head pretending to be annoyed as I applied the butane flame from Melissa’s torch lighter first to Kaitlyn’s cigar, then to Kilee’s, and finally to Melissa’s, spending a good 60 seconds before they were all sufficiently lit. With swirls of aromatic cigar smoke stinking up the room in a way that was tangible even in a smoky tobacco headquarters banquet room, I spent the next few minutes chatting with Melissa about her life back home in Minnesota with husband Zack and their daughter Olivia, occasionally including the shy Olivia in the conversation.
Meanwhile, Kaitlyn and Kilee bantered on the chairs next to me as they puffed on their cigars, with Kilee making no attempt to hide her excitement about Kaitlyn’s triumphant return to Minnesota as she exclaimed, “I’m so happy you’re coming back!”
Kaitlyn wrapped her lips around the big cigar and hoped it would hide her mixed feelings as she responded, “Yeah, me too,” pausing and then adding with a hint of sadness, “But I’ll miss my friends here.”
“Awww,” Kilee responded. “You’ll make new ones fast though! And you’ll have me!”
Kaitlyn nodded in agreement, but wanted to change the subject and take her mind off of moving away from Mason and Lucas. She looked up to see Kilee’s mom Tina hand in hand with a well-dressed man she’d heard about and never seen before. Using her cigar to point into the crowd, Kaitlyn asked “Is that Mitch?”
Kilee looked over her shoulder as she puffed from her cigar and nodded enthusiastically, responding “That’s him! He’s a really great guy. We’re so glad to have him!” in reference to the man who swept single mom Tina off of her feet and recently asked her to marry him.
“That’s so sweet!” Kaitlyn responded with a smile. “Your mom seems so happy with him.”
Overhearing the girls talking about Mitch and Tina, I took the opportunity to dish with Melissa about Tina and her fiancee as well, pleased that after years on her own that Tina finally found what seemed to be Mr. Right. The apparent cozy situation at home with Gretchen’s family made it seem all the more appealing to leave the bustle of corporate life behind us and head back home to Minnesota in only a few days.
The dinging of silverware onto glasses distracted us from our conversation and we all looked into the crowd to see what the commotion was all about, seeing Wilson Stevens rise from his chair with a slightly embarrassed smile on his face. He had clearly been beckoned by the crowd to give a short speech and grudgingly played along.
“All right, all right. If this will get you off my back, I’ll say a few words,” Wilson said to applause from his long-time coworkers. “Damn it, I stayed in the sales department and the boardroom for as many years as I did so I wouldn’t have to give speeches. Y’all should know that by now,” he said to laughter. “Seriously though, I couldn’t have asked for more with my career at this company. We seemed to be going off on the wrong track several years ago but I’m pleased to see things have gotten back on track and I’m able to walk away knowing things are really looking good for the company I’ve spent more than 30 years with…..”
The room silently listened to Wilson’s speech, but the younger members of the crowd didn’t all have the patience for adult speeches, including my three-year-old son Brayden who was starting to fuss. Her sisterly instincts kicking in, Kaitlyn grabbed hold of Brayden and sat him on her lap, grooming his hair to help settle him down. I smiled at the gesture by my daughter to her younger brother, but she struggled to keep Brayden from continuing to act up. The source of Brayden’s annoyance a moment earlier appeared to be sitting through the speech, but now it was clearly being in the direct presence of his sister’s cigar smoke. As Kaitlyn cluelessly pulled the cigar to her mouth for an extended puff and carefully avoided burning Brayden with it, he pulled away with a wrinkled nose and buried his face in her sleeve in a futile effort to escape the smoke. Kaitlyn just kept stroking his head like a loving big sister, not putting two and two together that her only sibling didn’t appear to share her love for tobacco.
I couldn’t help but smile as I observed, at this point hopelessly distracted from Wilson’s speech myself. Having grown up with a smoking fetish myself and having noticed it in more than my share of other guys and young ladies over the years, I recognized the telling signs when they reared themselves…..and I also recognized signs of smoking repulsion when I saw it. Given the Ellsworth and Paulson bloodlines that produced myself, Gretchen, and Kaitlyn, the odds were strong that the fourth member of our family would follow the family tradition of being favorably predisposed to tobacco smoke, but having witnessed my son in the presence of Gretchen and Kaitlyn and their heavy smoking during his formative toddler years, it was becoming increasingly clear he was poised to be the outlier among us. I hadn’t mentioned these observations to Gretchen yet, but I can’t help but think she’s picked up on the same vibe. Time would tell in the years to come how Brayden’s apparently instinctive revulsion to the habit that defined his mother’s life would manifest itself, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought that feisty Kaitlyn may actually prove to be the least challenging of our two kids.
“…but ultimately you got the wrong retiring Philip Morris employee making a speech,” Wilson continued. “I will gladly yield my mic to my colleague who changed the culture of this company in a way I never imagined as possible and did so largely because of the silver tongue that I could never dream of aspiring to on my best day.”
Gretchen smiled upon hearing her mentor’s high praise and reluctantly walked toward him to rescue him from the spotlight, taking the mic and knowing that her audience was waiting for an inspiring message. All eyes gravitated on Gretchen, decked out in her trademark white tanktop and pale blue cutoffs, not surprised at all that she’d wear what she’s most comfortable with at her going away party. Raising her ever-present Marlboro Red to her lips for a deep drag before speaking, I was struck that from a distance she was almost entirely indistinguishable from the chain-smoking blond goddess I met at college 20 years ago despite a lifestyle that conventional wisdom said should have aged her much more quickly.
Gretchen waved her hand to calm the applause. “If we burn through all of our speeches right now, everybody’s gonna take off early. I gotta save something for after the meal,” she announced half-jokingly through a messy talking exhale, her extremely husky voice being the first superficial tell of Gretchen’s 20 additional years of heavy smoking since I met her. “I’ll make some final comments a little later on but I want to make this as much about celebrating and as little about business as possible. After all, we’ve spent a year trudging through joyless social distancing mandates waiting to party….so let’s party! In fact, I see my sister and daughter with cigars back there. I think I might have to get in on some of that right now. We’ll talk more later….”
The crowd applauded Gretchen’s brief oratorical appetizer as she parted the crowd huddled in front of her and ventured toward me and much of the rest of her family near the punch bowl. She took a final drag from her cigarette and crushed it out in one of the many ashtrays placed throughout the boardroom, another reminder of how much Gretchen had restored the tobacco-friendly culture of the office in the past three years as the building was entirely smoke-free back in 2018 when she took over.
Gretchen hugged Melissa again upon seeing her and wasted no time dipping into the cigar box Melissa held out for her. Gretchen indulged in a cigar a handful of times per year and it never quit being exciting for me when she did, so I happily did the honors of approaching the flame to the tip of her cigar. Gretchen took the opportunity to scan the room as the flame slowly brought her cigar to life, and she smiled at the sight of Sophia’s five-year-old daughter Jordyn enthusiastically holding court in front of a dozen or so adults at the party, amused by the adorable little girl’s complete lack of inhibition as she relayed a story from school with maximal intensity and charisma.
“Looks like you have some competition in the speech-making department,” I mused, as Gretchen pulled her cigar away from the flame, smirking at the moxie of young Jordyn who couldn’t have more perfectly resembled her mother in appearance or tact. We confirmed this as we looked past Jordyn and the crowd of adults she was entertaining to find Sophia engaging with a huddle of board members, wearing an adult version of the same black dress her daughter was wearing and also speaking loudly and authoritatively, enough so that we were able to eaves drop on some of her conversation.
“We’ve doubled the amount of Missouri acreage dedicated to tobacco in the last two years and I’m currently in talks with our farmers to expand it by another 100,000 acres next year,” Sophia asserted to the board with the certitude of an ascendant executive keeping her eye on the ball. “We gotta keep doubling down when we have a hot hand and keep demand rising,” she added, taking a drag from her cigarette that felt like it was an afterthought but still maintaining the pristine polish of her stylish exterior with a symmetrical exhale from her mouth and nose. “The regulators are gonna do everything they can to use this pandemic as an excuse to crush us. We’re gonna really have to push back with everything we’ve got or we’ll lose momentum quickly. At the board meeting on Monday, I’ll get into my plan in a little more detail for the next week’s FDA hearing.”
Gretchen beamed with pride as she drew from her cigar and observed her protege taking the reins with such commitment. But her moment of personal and professional fulfillment from observing Sophia was quickly in conflict with the subsequent observation of her own mentor Wilson Stevens stepping away from Sophia in mid-discussion, an agitated look on his face as he nervously lit a cigarette. Gretchen knew that Wilson wasn’t a big fan of Sophia, thinking she was a brash rookie without the business background necessary to successfully take the baton from Gretchen, but she figured it was a temperamental and generational difference for which Sophia’s performance would ultimately vindicate. Still that look on Wilson’s face as he drifted toward Gretchen haunted her.
Gretchen smiled as Wilson made eye contact with her, but Wilson did not return the smile, instead using his eyes to motion Gretchen to follow him out of the banquet hall and into the hallway. Wilson drifted toward the door and stepped outside, and Gretchen was by now very curious about what was troubling Wilson so much that he’d lure Gretchen out of their own retirement party to discuss.
Gretchen faked a nervous smile as she looked to Melissa and I, saying “Excuse me for a moment. I’ll be right back,” before following Wilson to the hallway.
Pacing the floor of the hallway smoking his cigarette in escalating distress, Wilson looked Gretchen in the eye and bellowed, “We need to talk! That girl’s gonna blow up everything you’ve done!”
Gretchen felt her heart sink that Sophia had clearly not won Wilson over a bit in the past two years, replying, “Oh c’mon Wilson. I know you’re not a big Sophia fan but after listening to her just now, you can’t honestly believe she isn’t gonna do everything she can to keep this company successful.”
Wilson shook his head as if to signal he knew something that Gretchen didn’t. “You don’t understand because you were unofficially retired for the past few weeks and have missed the last couple of board meetings. She’s got some really big plans, Gretchen. And they’re gonna be a big problem for us….much bigger than any pointy-headed FDA regulators could ever be.”
Gretchen drew nervously from her cigar, at this point genuinely alarmed by Wilson’s tone. “Well it sounds like this is something we better get squared away before I turn in my security badge.”
Wilson nodded in agreement before elaborating. “What she was talking about in there….pushing back against the regulators as they try to take advantage of the pandemic. You know what they’re proposing…..huge new federal and state taxes, menthol bans, Tobacco 21, renegotiating advertising contracts,” Wilson paused as Gretchen shook her head affirmatively, impatiently waiting for Wilson to get to the big revelation. “Well Sophia’s big idea to call their bluff is to threaten to pull Philip Morris products off of American store shelves and count on them buckling because they need us more than we need them.”
Gretchen’s eyes lit up as big and round as the cherry of her cigar as she responded, “Oh no! That…just won’t work.”
“Unfortunately, she’s convinced the regulators are bluffing….and I’m convinced she’s not bluffing,” Wilson reasoned. “I’ve tried to warn you she’s a loose cannon, Gretchen. Before you leave town, I hope you can talk some sense into her.”
The color was drained from Gretchen’s face as it began to sink in that her plans to drift away quietly into retirement had to be very quickly reconsidered….and that everything from her promised closing speech at this party to her plans to head back to Minnesota with her family at the end of their visit would need to be changed to keep Sophia from destroying all that she’d fought so hard to build in the past three years. With a determination in Gretchen’s eyes that Wilson hadn’t seen in the past few months on the job, Gretchen took another intense draw from her cigar and then nodded in agreement with Wilson’s assessment.
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” Gretchen asserted in a way that immediately washed away some of Wilson’s stress. “I’ll take care of it.”
Three days later on Monday morning, Sophia sat behind the desk of her new executive office, having wasted no time occupying Gretchen’s old digs. Despite her youth, she exuded maximal professional gravitas on her elevated chair, decked out in an all-white pantsuit that contrasted sharply with her long, jet black hair but matched the color scheme of the all-white Parliament 100 smoldering between her fingers as she held her office phone to her ear with her non-cigarette hand. It was clear by the intense look on her face that she was locked into verbal combat only a few hours into the job.
“The wholesale fee you pitched three months ago is off the table now!” Sophia insisted with conviction. “You’re gonna have to cut that by 25% or we’ll continue to take our business elsewhere.”
Sophia was temporarily thrown off of her game by a knock on her office door and the revelation of a face she didn’t expect to see in this building again any time soon…the face of very recently retired Gretchen Paulson. When Sophia recovered from the surprise, she used her cigarette to motion Gretchen into the room, knowing Gretchen would like what she was hearing. Sophia took a deep drag from her Parliament as she listened to the speaker on the other line wheeling and dealing with her.
“The bottom line is that CVS thought they were gonna kick Philip Morris while they were down, remove tobacco products from their shelves, and run an entire ad campaign about how virtuous you were because of it,” Sophia argued through a lengthy talking exhale. “Now your competition is kicking your ass and you want to come crawling back and fill your shelves with our cigarettes again. You know, we’re willing to forgive but we’re not just gonna forget. If you want to get back into the cigarette market, then I’m gonna insist you give us a substantial discount on your wholesale fee. Your disloyalty is not gonna come without a price.”
Gretchen took a deep drag from her Marlboro Red and smiled approvingly at Sophia’s initiative in playing hardball with CVS and other retailers that quit selling cigarettes during the lean years but want back in now that cigarette sales are ascendant again. This killer instinct was exactly the reason Sophia seemed like such a natural successor to Gretchen in this position. Watching as Sophia gave her an emphatic thumbs-up that the negotiation was going her way only confirmed how hard it was gonna be for Gretchen to express her doubts about Sophia’s master plan with regulators as soon as this phone conversation was over.
Sophia took another indulgent drag from her cigarette, smelling victory on the horizon in this negotiation but continuing to grind away. “The wholesale rate we’re paying to Walgreen’s doesn’t matter,” she insisted. “We negotiated our terms with them back when we had less leverage than we do now. If you want tens of millions of dollars worth of sales from our products back in your store, then you’re gonna have to cut that fee by 25 percent. End of story.” She paused and took another drag from her cigarette while awaiting the caller’s response. After hearing it, the streams of exhaled smoke pouring from her mouth and nose told the story of victory achieved even before she verbally responded. “Twenty percent…” she muttered aloud, deliberating for a couple of seconds with residual trickles of smoke flowing from her nose. “Done. I’ll have our attorneys draw up the contract and get it to you by the end of the week. Keep in touch if there any further questions. I look forward to doing business with you again.”
After bidding the caller adieu, Sophia put the office phone back on the receiver and let her jubilation fill the office at having pulled off her first major deal as CEO.
“Very nicely done,” Gretchen congratulated, stubbing out her cigarette on the ashtray on her old desk, the only cork filter amongst a half dozen of Sophia’s all-white inverted filter Parliament butts that represented a changing of the guard only a few hours into the new workweek. “Pretty good feeling settling scores against those who stabbed us in the back before isn’t it?”
Sophia remained on the clouds as she responded, “Better than sex!” with mutual laughter ensuing. “CVS was the big fish but there are still a number of others I’ll be strong-arming in the next few weeks. With the brick-and-mortar stores bleeding cash after the pandemic, they’re looking to reverse their decline by whatever means possible.” Holding up her shrunken Parliament, she added “Luckily I got just what they need to keep the lights on,” taking the final drag from the cigarette and crushing it out in the ashtray in front of her.
Gretchen plucked another Marlboro Red 100 from her jean shorts pocket and inserted it between her lips, trembling a bit in a way that she only did in front of Sophia whose ruthlessness continued to spook her a bit.
Sophia picked up on Gretchen’s nervous display and her enthusiasm tempered a bit as she asked, “So what are you doing here anyway? I thought you’d be on a flight back to Minnesota by now.”
Gretchen sighed hard as her congested lungs released the latest of the hundreds of smoky exhales they’re made to release every day. After a nervous smoker’s cough, Gretchen finally mustered up the courage to respond. “Rumors are going around Sophia. I wouldn’t undermine your new authority for just anything, but if what I’m hearing is true that you’re planning to bluff out regulators by threatening to remove Philip Morris products from store shelves to get your way, I’m afraid I can’t head back to Minnesota just yet.”
Sophia seemed shellshocked, and then angry, by Gretchen’s intervention, plucking out another Parliament 100 from her pack as she carefully considered her next words. “We’re in charge here, Gretchen. The FDA and our other critics need to know that.”
“Absolutely,” Gretchen responded. “Which is why the last thing we can afford is unilateral disarmament at this critical juncture where we have the whip hand.”
Sophia shook her head in bewilderment. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you of all people. They’re not gonna kill the golden goose at the exact moment they need us more than ever for all the golden eggs we’re laying for them!”
“That’s true but only if we do this smart!” Gretchen exclaimed, her tension rising in tandem with Sophia’s. “We’re giving them exactly what they want on a silver platter if we make that threat.”
“How do you figure? They know we have leverage with our international sales. If the worst happens and they call our bluff, we’ll be out of the U.S. marketplace for a few months and they’ll come crawling back just like CVS!” Sophia asserted.
“No!” Gretchen responded in her most elevated pitch yet. “If we make this threat, the regulators will pounce. It’s their dream come true to not have to deal with you or I. We’d be ceding the cigarette market to RJ Reynolds who would gain at our expense. They’d have a domestic distribution monopoly and would drive far less of a hard bargain than we have been because of it. This would destroy us!”
Gretchen took a deep drag from her cigarette as Sophia sat in silence, still outraged but pondering Gretchen’s premise as though it was an angle she hadn’t considered and made some sense to her. After mulling it over and taking another drag from her cigarette, Sophia defiantly responded, “Well, you’re the proven mastermind here so I’m willing to entertain any alternatives you have in mind for next week’s meeting. You know the FDA is gonna eat us alive so I’m willing to take a high-stakes gamble to preserve our gains. What kind of arrow do you have in your quiver?”
Gretchen paused, taking a deep and contemplative drag from her cigarette as if trying to put into words the hypothetical that she’d been toying with all weekend. “So our critics either want to get a bigger cut of the action of our sales or they want to stop our sales entirely,” pausing for effect with smoke still spilling out of her face with every syllable. “But what if we were to just….give the cigarettes away?”
Sophia furrowed her brow, wondering where Gretchen could possibly be going with this. With equal parts curiosity and fury about Gretchen not going away when she promised she would, Sophia nonetheless came to terms that the intervention was gonna stick. “Why don’t you have a seat,” Sophia offered, pointing her cigarette to the chair across her desk, adding with a salty flair “…and maybe try your best to stay on that side of the desk.”
Gretchen nodded with as humble of a smile as she could pull off, taking a seat as instructed. She didn’t know who would be more upset with her between Sophia and her family about this development, but it was pretty clear Gretchen would be sticking around the mid-Atlantic for another week to attend this FDA hearing with Sophia.
Eight days later, a dashing Sophia walked into the board meeting of the Food and Drug Administration meeting in Washington, D.C. in the company of long-time Philip Morris counsel Ken Quattrain to make their case for a lighter hand of regulation. Regaling the room with her dashing and youthful presence decked out in a white blouse and stylish Italian leather pencil skirt as she filled up the room with the odor of fresh secondhand smoke, the FDA board sat in an elevated semicircle that gave them an air of supremacy over those coming before them. The smugness of untouchability was almost always smeared across the faces of the powerful board members, but they really gave off an aura of superiority today looking upon Sophia and her lawyer, presumably because they figured they could walk all over the youngster filling the shoes of the successful power broker Gretchen.
Sophia fired back a confident smile, projecting to the board that their overconfidence might serve them poorly in the moments before she introduced herself. “Greetings board members. We’ve already formally met but as of last week I’m Altria’s new CEO Sophia Fiorentino, and I’m looking forward to having as good of a relationship as possible with this agency moving forward.”
Continuing to project an unjustified supremacy from his seat, board chair Don Henderson welcomed Sophia and banged his gavel to begin the hearing. “Ms. Fiorentino, as you know, it’s not the FDA’s role to have a ‘good relationship’ with tobacco companies. The board is about to make its recommendations to the federal government and to state governments and I don’t think your company will like them very much.”
Altria attorney Ken Quattrain took it from there, responding “We come here eager to listen to your proposal…to collaborate in places where we can find common ground…and to present alternative solutions on matters where we differ.”
Don Henderson nodded with continued confidence that he had the upper hand, replying “The arrogance and bad faith displayed by your company toward this agency’s decadeslong effort to reduce tobacco use in recent years is not likely to yield much ‘common ground’ between our goals and yours, Mr. Quattrain. Cigarette smoking has increased by double-digit percentages in the last two years and we’re gonna do whatever it takes to reverse that trend. The FDA is prepared to formally recommend a $2-per-pack federal tax on every pack of cigarettes and suggest that states move forward with new tax increases of their own. The new administration should be receptive to our proposal and I suspect with the hit that most states’ budgets have taken during the pandemic and ensuing economic recession that most of them will be equally receptive to our suggestion….”
Henderson paused to survey Quattrain and Sophia’s responses, taken aback by the continued confidence in their eyes as he continued, “…..In addition, we’re gonna recommend a federal Tobacco 21 law that your company has fought against for the past three years, a total ban on flavored cigarettes including menthol, and perhaps most importantly, shut down this loophole you’ve taken advantage of in the settlement agreement that allowed you to advertise your product and get kids hooked.”
Quattrain shrugged and responded, “Our company takes issue with that hostile characterization and respectfully submit that we think we can change your mind on some of those punitive solutions.”
Henderson nodded again, as if feeling prepared for what was coming next. “Yes, the board has heard a few rumors in the past week that you have a….very bold plan to counter the new regulations we’re about to impose.”
With a defiant smirk, Sophia responded, “Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t believe everything you’ve heard,” shifting eye contact from one board member to another to foreshadow that they were stepping into another Philip Morris trap by falling for the planted storyline.
Ken Quattrain followed Sophia’s lead, serving up the first big surprise for the board. “I could sit here and describe our counterproposal in detail, but I’d actually like to welcome a special guest to speak on the company’s behalf.” He looked to his right as Sophia abruptly texted “now” into her phone and sent the message.
“What is this?” Henderson inquired skeptically, having a feeling who was about to come through that door in the split second before it opened.
Stepping inside wearing the white tanktop and jean shorts that she always wanted to wear to formal meetings as part of her professional duties, Gretchen exhaled a stream of cigarette smoke into the board room chambers before dropping her Marlboro Red butt to the carpet and crushing it out with her foot with the exasperated guffaws of the board members as her unwelcoming backdrop.
Henderson banged his gavel as authoritatively as possible, “Ms. Paulson! You know there’s no smoking in this chamber.”
Gretchen shrugged with a look of bemused confusion on her face and the final wisps of smoke spilling from her mouth and nose, formally responding, “I know! That’s why I put it out.”
“With one push of this buzzer, I will have a bailiff come in here and remove you from the premises!” Henderson barked, continuing his futile effort to maintain control of the room.
Gretchen kept her cool and shrugged again. “Okay….what are you gonna do? Have me fired?” She paused to let the discomfort set in amongst the FDA board who clearly thought they were finally rid of her and found her stubborn continued presence most displeasing. “Besides, I figured you’d be most comfortable hearing Philip Morris’ counterproposal from someone you’ve dealt with before.”
Henderson nodded skeptically. “I’m sure your colleagues are thrilled that you can’t seem to let go of power and let them clean up the mess you’ve made.”
Gretchen gave a brief look over her shoulder to see a smiling Quattrain who, despite his years of nervous moments about Gretchen’s brashness undermining the company’s legal position, had grown comfortable that Gretchen had a better sense of the limit than he did whenever she blew right past the conventional boundaries. But looking past Quattrain, Gretchen sensed the mixed emotion on Sophia’s face and knew that she was probably not much more happy about Gretchen’s presence today than were the board members.
Looking back to the board members, Gretchen was ready to make her case. “I think you’re fundamentally misunderstanding the relationship you have with federal and state government bean counters….versus the role Sophia’s company has,” she said, pointing Sophia’s way to ease whatever turf war was simmering. “Now–much more than three years ago–it’s in these politicians’ best interest to listen to our advice…..not yours. As our sales have gone up, so has their tax revenue. And insofar as our advertising has boosted sales among young adult consumers, they know this revenue source isn’t going away unless a hostile third party takes it away. Sophia’s company donates to their resources. Your board sponges away their resources. And it’s not even a close call.”
Board member Lisa Bialek rolled her eyes. “We’ve been having this tired debate with you for three years now, Ms. Paulson. Sending hundreds of thousands of productive citizens to an early grave each year is no sane person’s idea of contributing resources. Maybe there’s a marketplace for ignorant and misguided consumers who buy what you’re selling, but this board is not among them.”
Gretchen grinned. “Well maybe these ‘ignorant consumers’ won’t have to worry about ‘buying’ what we’re selling much longer,” she teased, setting them up for the narrative they thought they were getting.
Henderson fired back, “If you think you’re gonna frighten this body with the threat of no longer selling cigarettes, then I think your chess-playing skills have greatly atrophied since the last time you were in here.”
Gretchen shrugged again. “Maybe so….but perhaps selling our cigarettes isn’t the only way to deliver our product to the more than 55 million Americans who consume them.”
Henderson, Bialek, and the other board members furrowed their brows, quickly realizing that Gretchen had duped them with another red herring.
“Let’s speculate….” Gretchen continued. “Let’s say a company had a couple of years of sales that were so impressive that they decided to give their customers a break. And for a week they gave away cigarettes….limit of two packs per customer for seven days. Such a gesture would foster goodwill among the customer base, stimulate brand loyalty, and probably raise the bar on per capita consumption levels. And because of this company’s profitability, they’d still come out of that week financially ahead. The only losers would be all the predatory middlemen trying to get their cut of the action on each would-be sale. Maybe such a gesture might even scare the government extortionists away from imposing a bevy of new regulations if they thought they wouldn’t be able to walk away with the envelope full of cash they were counting on.”
Despite the fear in Henderson’s eyes after listening to Gretchen’s proposal, which was more elaborate than Sophia’s original plan that was intentionally leaked to the board a week earlier, he nonetheless chuckled trying to maintain his authority over the room. “So you give smokers a one-week tax holiday in May that bleeds revenues to states and feds…..they’ll still be looking at higher net revenues in the months to come if they approve the higher taxes we recommend.”
Gretchen nodded, as if anticipating that response. “Well maybe Philip Morris’ one-week tax holiday wouldn’t only be for May. Maybe we’ll do another in June. And another in July. Each time we do, our customer base rises to cover our short-term losses while the revenue losses to federal and state governments mount for each month of lost sales. It’ll be pretty damn hard for them to balance their budget off of the Philip Morris ATM machine with that much revenue uncertainty.”
A rising tide of fury was evident on the face of Henderson and the other board members as they appreciated that Gretchen once again negotiated herself an upper hand. Nonetheless, Henderson pressed forward with steadfast determination bursting from his pores along with the sweat. “However many tricks you pull out of that grab bag of yours, it won’t change this agency’s ruling. We are moving forward with all of the recommendations outlined at the beginning of this meeting. Much higher taxes. Tobacco 21. Menthol bans. Closing advertising loopholes. We’re recommending all of it, Ms. Paulson.”
“You go right on ahead and recommend it,” Gretchen calmly offered. “And we’ll make good on our plan as well. We’ll see once and for all whether politicians are more afraid of the gavel of you and your pointy-headed paper shufflers or if they’re more afraid of closing down the most reliable source of revenue they’ve had during this pandemic. Three years ago, you’d have probably won that fight. But I like to think after my tenure here, and the steady leadership yet to come from my successor…” she added, pointing again to Sophia, “…you won’t be in a very good position to score the kinds of victories you took for granted before we started fighting back.”
Gretchen paused and plucked her pack of Marlboro Reds 100s out of her jean shorts pocket, eliciting another round of vocal tension from the board members just as she did when she walked in. “But I’ll respect your orders on one thing. You told me I can’t smoke in here,” she said, inserting the unlit cork filter between her lips and adding through a talking dangle, “….so I’m gonna take this outside and let you discuss the fine points of your DOA proposal with my colleagues. But enjoy this victory as I take my cigarette outside…because I think it’ll be the last victory you get for quite some time.”
Gretchen added an extra swagger to her hips as she walked toward the board room door, knowing the males on the board would have a hard time not looking at her ass as she exited the room no matter how much they hated her. With a cigarette dangling from her lips as she arrived at the door, Gretchen gave one last look to Sophia and observed the sexual tension on her face for the first time in more than a week, unsurprising given Sophia’s track record of being turned on by Gretchen’s aggressive tactics on behalf of the company. Gretchen winked at her in the split second before she stepped outside, a nonverbal cue to let her know that fulfillment of that sexual tension still awaited if she was interested when they both got back to Richmond that night. Their previous “final night together” with me was blown up, but just maybe we’d get a second chance before our plane officially left for Minnesota.
That night, Gretchen and I sat on the same patio couch outside our nearly departed home on an even warmer mid-spring evening than the previous week, only now with the swimming pool in front of us filled. Knowing that when we returned to Minnesota the late April weather would be much cooler than it was here in Virginia, Gretchen and I decided to fill the pool to let Kaitlyn and Brayden get a taste of summer before we left. Tonight, that decision would allow the adults to have a pool party of our own, as I was reminded of seeing Sophia’s car pull into the driveway.
I looked to my left with glee at Gretchen as she fired up another Marlboro Red, excited to pick up where we left off a week ago on what we expected to be our last night with Sophia. Unfortunately, the discontent I’d seen growing on Gretchen’s face all afternoon had only become more obvious, and I had a pretty good idea why. Watching the smoke flow lazily from her mouth and nose, I grabbed her hand hoping to instill some excitement and uttered with a flourish, “She’s here!”
Gretchen flashed a rather lifeless smile back and reinforced my suspicion that our great plans might be about to go sideways. It couldn’t have come at a worse time as I watched Sophia strut on up toward us from her car, wearing a bare-midriffed halter top and a thin black sarong hanging from her waist, giving a tease for the incredible body that was about to be revealed in even more visual detail before long. As Sophia approached her Parliament 100 to her lips for a stylish drag, I hoped it would get Gretchen in the mood.
Sophia dropped her pack of Parliament 100s on the patio end table next to the couch we sat on, fluttering her eyelashes at the two of us and getting right down to business, asking “So is there any chance Kaitlyn and Brayden will be crashing this pool party tonight?”
I smiled and responded, “Shouldn’t be any Kaitlyn interventions tonight. She’s staying at the the guest house with Gretchen’s sister Melissa and her cousin Kilee. Brayden’s there too.”
Sophia looked a bit surprised as she took another drag from her Parliament and asked, “Your sisters are still in town?” figuring they’d have gone back to Minnesota since the retirement party more than a week ago.
“Only Melissa,” Gretchen responded politely through a talking exhale. “She decided to stick around here with Tina’s daughter Kilee and spend some more time with us. Tina and Mitch went back last week.”
“Nice,” Sophia responded, letting her body language convey her pleasure at hearing those words as she placed her hand on my shoulder and began gently squeezing it. “Much as I love to spend time with Kaitlyn, I’m glad to hear it’ll be just the three of us tonight,” she added, sitting down and squeezing her way in between the limited space between Gretchen and I and inadvertently doubling down on the smoky aroma that Gretchen had up to this point been the sole contributor to.
Sophia put her arms around both Gretchen’s shoulders and mine, not picking up on the hesitation coming from Gretchen until Gretchen began to fidget and then spoke up.
“Ugh…” Gretchen opened as if kicking herself for reaching this conclusion. “I feel terrible about having you come here but I think I might have to pass again tonight.” She paused to let the disappointment sink in before explaining herself. “It has nothing to do with you or anything you did. It’s about Kaitlyn…”
“What about Kaitlyn?” Sophia asked with confusion, taking her frustration out on her Parliament 100 with an intense drag.
Gretchen finished up a drag of her own and continued, “Last week when she sneaked out and we caught her at the park, she was making out with two boys at the same time. It was kind of cute as first, but then she told us she knew about what we did with you. I can’t be that much of a hypocrite.” She then looked past Sophia toward me. “Mark, can you back me up on this?”
I sighed, my suspicion confirmed about what was bugging Gretchen tonight. And unfortunately I couldn’t disagree. “Gotta agree with my wife,” I responded grudgingly as I looked into the disappointed brown eyes of Sophia. “We’ve been a really bad example to her. Even though she might not officially know what’s going on here tonight, I think we can at least look at her with a clear conscience if she suspects us again.”
Gretchen continued to feel bad, her wink at the board meeting earlier being a de facto invitation that now just seemed like a cruel tease. “You’re a mother too, Sophia. I hope you understand.”
Sophia tried to reassert a Stepford wife smile to disguise her disappointment as she responded, “Sure…sure. I get it,” pausing to finish off her cigarette and think of what to say next. “Maybe I came for a pool party instead of what you had in mind anyway,” she added through a final talking exhale, doing her best to change the subject and disguise her feelings of rejection.
Sophia wasted no time taking off her halter top and removing the sarong over her waist, revealing an extremely stylish white bikini that, just like her pantsuit, contrasted perfectly with her dark brown hair and olive skin tone. It wasn’t wasted on me that Sophia was taking the opportunity to show us what we were missing as I tried my hardest not to admire her perfect figure standing only a few feet in front of me, giving me my first visual of the season of an attractive female in a bathing suit. Gretchen and I exchanged knowing glances as Sophia turned around to face the pool, wondering if we’d have the willpower to keep it in our pants amidst sultry displays like this.
Gretchen reached for her Marlboro Reds 100s pack to light another as she watched Sophia do a swan dive into the pool in front of us, her hourglass figure disappearing into the chlorinated water. Keeping one eye on Sophia as she swam briefly underwater and one eye on Gretchen as she pulled an enormous quantity of tobacco into her lungs admiring the same third party that I was, I found myself wishing Kaitlyn was around tonight to help break the awkwardness of this situation.
Kaitlyn and Kilee nervously descended the stairs of the guest house they were staying at, with Kaitlyn leaning past the wall at the edge of the stairwell to see her aunt Melissa standing at the kitchen. Kaitlyn took a nervous drag from her cigarette and motioned Kilee to follow her.
With a cigarette dangling from her lips and Brayden and her daughter Olivia sitting at the kitchen table, Melissa saw the 13-year-old cousins approaching her, cigarettes in hand with guilty looks on their faces. She immediately detected something was up and stopped the call she had just begun to place.
“Melissa, can you do us a big favor?” Kaitlyn asked, pumping cigarette smoke into her lungs as she prepared to butter her aunt up.
Melissa grinned as she exhaled a huge plume of smoke, responding “You two are up to no good! I can see it in your eyes!”
Kaitlyn and Kilee both giggled nervously, knowing they were already busted but confident that “cool aunt” Melissa would be enough of a pushover to help them pull off their great escape plan. “It’s just that this is my last night to see my friends…maybe ever,” Kaitlyn said with a sympathetic pout. “My mom doesn’t want me to see them but I just have to introduce them to Kilee so she can see how cool they are!”
Kaitlyn looked at Kilee as she pleaded with both girls dragging from their respective cigarettes, albeit with Kaitlyn continuing to sport the look of a more seasoned smoker. Kilee also gave Melissa puppy dog eyes, eager to run wild if only for a couple of hours with the bad boy friends of Kaitlyn’s who she set off fireworks with the week earlier.
Melissa frowned that the girls were trying to con her. “Awww, I was just gonna order a pizza. Wanted us all to hang out here one final night before we headed home. Your mom would have me for breakfast if I let you run off. Both of your moms would.”
“They wouldn’t have to know, Melissa,” Kaitlyn pleaded through a talking exhale, confident that with the right touch she would have Melissa on the ropes any second now. “We’ll be back by 9:00. I promise.”
Melissa looked at her phone again and saw it was 6:45. She took a drag from her Marlboro Red and began to consider it.
Sensing weakness and feeding off of Kaitlyn’s chutzpah, Kilee chimed in with her own two cents. “You were our age once too, right? Would you risk getting in a trouble to see your friends one last time or stay home to eat pizza with your cousins?”
Melissa laughed and shook her head as she watched Kaitlyn and Kilee nervously drag from their cigarettes in tandem again, looking them over and being amazed at how quickly they were growing up. A telling smile began to fill Melissa’s face as she shook her head, telegraphing to the girls that she was about to cave and triggering a premature celebration in them that she was quit to temper. “I didn’t say yes yet!” Melissa reminded, nonetheless making it clear that she was about to. After another pause for a contemplative drag from her cigarette, Melissa set the ground rules. “Nine o’clock sharp or I’ll strangle you myself! I get to see the clothes you wear before you walk out of here. No fireworks or anything illegal. And if any of this gets back to your mothers, I want pink roses at my funeral!”
The girls laughed and high-fived each other, shaking their hands in celebratory excitement much like they did growing up, including the many times they were sneaking cigarettes in the janitor’s closet of their elementary school. “Thank you so much, Aunt Melissa!” Kaitlyn exclaimed. “We owe you so much for this!”
“You certainly do!” Melissa half-jokingly asserted as she watched the over-the-moon teenage cousins turn around to head back to the stairs, the cork filter cigarettes between their respective fingers down to their stubs in the moments before they disappeared behind the stairwell. The memories were still pretty fresh in Melissa’s mind when she was the wild child sneaking out to meet her teenage boyfriends, and the mostly positive associations she still had with those nights. It felt good to see the next generation make some of the same memories of their own even though it put her way out on a limb with her sisters by doing so.
Melissa turned around to see Brayden and Olivia frowning. “We’re still having pizza though right?” Olivia asked with concern in her eyes.
Melissa grinned, unable to say no to kids of any age tonight. “Of course. And now there will be more for you, me, and Brayden!” she exclaimed to euphoric screams of delight from the three-year-olds as she got back on her phone to make her second attempt to order pizza. Holding the phone to her ear, Melissa lit another Marlboro Red and paced the floor waiting for the answer on the other end. Just like every other female smoker of the Paulson family tree, Melissa didn’t notice as Brayden pulled away in disgust from Melissa’s cigarette that was only inches from his face as she wandered by and began to place her pizza order.
I was the only member of the would-be threesome who hadn’t dipped a toe into the pool after an hour and a half in one another’s company. Much as I was enjoying the show of Gretchen and Sophia’s shapely bikini bodies indulging my basest male urges in this pool, it was impossible to avoid the awkwardly competitive nature of the two women playing out their newly minted cold civil war in front of me in what seemed like a highly risky manner that had the potential to blow up at any moment.
Ever since Gretchen jumped into the pool an hour ago to keep me from being singularly seduced by Sophia’s bikini body all night, the two of them had been playing off of each other with ostensibly good-natured competitions ranging from touching the bottom of the pool at its deepest point to racing each other from one end of the pool to another, pausing semiregularly for a couple of poolside cigarettes. Even though it was being done under the veneer of an “all in good fun pool party”, it was abundantly clear these two were letting their tug of war to be the alpha female of corporate tobacco come to a head under the guise of poolside competition. Despite the minefield of risk it posed, the potential for a fierce catfight ensuing was nonetheless turning me on more than any conventional three-way tryst in our bedroom as I originally had planned ever could.
All good things must end and it was pretty clear that the aqua ladies’ underwater odyssey was fast winding down as they floated parallel to each other to the edge of the pool. In seconds, they were both climbing out of the water in front of me, giving me a momentary sensory overload as Sophia’s white bikini and Gretchen’s watermelon-colored bikini dripped with pool water, the smell of chlorine thick in the late spring air and about to take the added aroma of cigarette smoke as they wandered up to the patio couch where I sat and reached for their respective packs of cigarettes on the end tables to the left and right. The awkward silence between the two of them worked to my advantage as I could hear their smoked-out lungs wheeze in the aftermath of the workout in the pool. The closer they got to me, the more labored their breathing was. While Gretchen’s additional pack years made her wheeze slightly more audible, her strenuous workout routine prepared her for it a little better than Sophia, whose workouts were more sporadic and consequently less prepared for tonight’s workout in the pool. For a few electric moments, the only sound filling my ears was the modest gasps for oxygen Gretchen and Sophia’s lungs were laboring for.
As the temperature had dropped, the looming chill had quietly set in, but it was quite telling that despite the visible goosebumps covering Gretchen and Sophia’s bodies, their top priority was getting their hands on those Marlboro Reds and Parliaments packs. Their bodies were craned in front of me in each direction as the two of them plucked out cigarettes and lit them in unison, the smell of cigarette smoke officially blending with the chlorine to push my sensory overload into overdrive for a split second before they picked up the towels sitting next to the patio furniture and covered themselves up. While the heavenly aroma lingered, the peak of the fantasy had ended just that quickly, and it was back to the reality of a threesome gone wrong in its uncomfortable final throes.
A shivering Gretchen sat to my left and a shivering Sophia sat to my right, both covering their mostly naked bodies with towels and slowly warming themselves up. It was as if the three of us were wrestling our strongest imaginable internal urges to the ground in painful silence for as long as was necessary waiting for the moment to pass, yet still being one indecent suggestion away from carrying on with the sexual tryst we had originally planned. Every drag from Sophia and Gretchen’s cigarettes crackled with lustful suggestion. Every exhale wafted into the airspace of the other, transporting pheromones like fiery chariots. And on it went for the duration of their cigarettes, with each of the three of us waiting on pins and needles for somebody to make a primal move of aggression that would either lead to the bedroom or a hair-pulling airing of grievances straight out of a 1980s soap opera.
As she reached the end of her Parliament, Sophia broke the silence with an abrupt, “Well I suppose I should head home,” pausing to look Gretchen’s way, their eye contact matching perfectly with the glow of the respective final drags from their cigarettes that offered a final metaphorical ember before the night’s heated prospects flamed out. Sophia tossed on one final open-ended life preserver as she added, “…unless you guys changed your mind.”
As both Gretchen and Sophia reached for their ashtrays and extinguished their cigarettes, it was clear even before Gretchen’s verbal response that it was gonna be a no. “Afraid not,” Gretchen replied, making it official as she nudged me for my hand. I proceeded to grab hold of Gretchen’s hand and put my other arm over her shoulder, making it clear to Sophia that I had made my choice.
Sophia seemed as though she had come to terms with the door having closed, but also seemed to sense the freedom of independence was now at hand. Her frown was replaced with a liberated half-smile as she stood up and retrieved her pack of Parliament 100s, lighting one up and declaring, “I guess I’ll head home and relieve Jordyn’s babysitter for the night. Let’s keep in touch though, okay?”
“Absolutely,” I responded, even though it seemed likely that it would be an entirely platonic arrangement from this point forward.
Gretchen lit her next cigarette as Sophia began to walk away, stopping her before she did. “Sophia,” Gretchen called out, keeping both Sophia and I on the edge of our seats wondering if she changed her mind, but ultimately letting the mustang run free by simply declaring, “You keep giving ’em hell tomorrow, okay?”
Sophia smiled, feeling as though Gretchen really meant it this time about walking away from her managerial duties, replying “God damn straight!” before walking to her car.
Gretchen and I couldn’t help ourselves from admiring her perfectly sculpted ass through that see-through sarong and the white bikini bottom underneath it until she was out of sight and climbing into her car. Gretchen and I made intense eyes with one another as she took a lustful drag from her cigarette. I pulled her close for an open-mouth kiss and we had little difficulty piling on the passion, releasing hours of built-up sexual energy but maintaining our early-evening promise of monogamy. Sophia may not have been there in person, but at least in both of our minds, she was very much the invisible third wheel fueling our fervor. That probably wasn’t the most healthy long-term arrangement for our sex life, but we’d start mending the fences of a post-Sophia world starting tomorrow. Neither of us was gonna feel any shame about it tonight.
In the same neighborhood park where Kaitlyn shot off fireworks with Lucas and Mason the previous week, a more subdued vibe filled the air tonight as the same three, along with Kilee, slowly paced their way across the park, talking and laughing with cigarettes glowing between the fingers of three of them. Kaitlyn and Kilee complied with Melissa’s request and dressed modestly, wearing sweatshirts and leggings that better fit the mood of tonight’s festivities. As the four traversed through the grass in the park that was taking on the greenish hue of spring season, a pecking order of social skill and smoking familiarity was obvious even to the most casual observer.
Kaitlyn played the role of ringleader and socially herded these three friends to maximize comfort level and conversation, all while chaining through a steady diet of Marlboro Reds 100s with a level of reassurance well beyond her years. Kilee, who was meeting the boys for the first time, was very comfortable with her regular stream of cigarettes and quickly developing a rapport with the group largely due to Kaitlyn’s leadership role in drawing connections. Lucas projected a bad boy veneer knowing it was hitting the sweet spot with Kaitlyn, but also seemed to recognize he was in over his head in having any measure of control over the wild child whose affections he pursued and was in way over his head in competing with her ferocious cigarette consumption. Mason turned down offers of cigarettes from his friends and seemed very worried about the trouble that awaited him at home when his mom found out that he’d sneaked out again. And while Mason also seemed troubled that Kaitlyn’s affection was leaning increasingly in Lucas’ direction, the newest addition of their group was starting to prove very effective in taking his mind off of Kaitlyn slipping away.
The teenage conversation kept building momentum and Kaitlyn frequently looked past Lucas standing to her right to observe Mason and Kilee, quietly thrilled that her master plan seemed to be taking hold. Whenever Kaitlyn had talked about or showed Kilee photos of Mason in the past year, Kilee swooned and lamented how much she’d love to date a boy like him. Kaitlyn had internalized her parents’ lecture about how unfair it was to lead two boys on at once, but had been torn on letting go of Mason when she still cared about him. Giving Mason and Kilee the opportunity to hit it off was by no means a flawless plan that Kaitlyn had constructed, but she felt confident that it was working here tonight based on their body language.
As the four of them approached the set of swings where Kaitlyn had formed her human pyramid with the boys a week earlier, she decided to step up her efforts to create two separate love connections. She flung her current spent Marlboro Red 100 to the grass and grabbed Lucas by the hand, leading him to an empty swing and backing him down onto it. She made quick eye contact with Kilee and Mason as if to nonverbally convey to follow her lead before proceeding to take a seat on Lucas’ lap on the swing, reaching for her pack of cigarettes and then lighting another. A rookie smoker’s cough sent the first blast of exhaled smoke out of Kaitlyn’s mouth and drifting into Lucas’ face, her still-developing lungs overloaded with how much tar she’d sent their way tonight.
After a moment of devastation where it hit Mason that Kaitlyn had officially made her choice, he nonetheless looked at Kilee and smiled, admiring the smoke flowing from her mouth and nose after her recent drag. He walked over to the furthest swing in hopes of whatever measure of privacy as possible and took a seat, offering inviting but bashful eyes to Kilee that she could join him if she felt comfortable with it.
Kilee placed her cigarette to her lips for an apprehensive drag, pondering whether she was mentally prepared to go further with a boy than she ever had before. She maintained oral pressure on the cigarette filter for several seconds as she deliberated, but smiled upon pulling the cigarette away and exhaling her smoke. It was abundantly clear at this point that Kaitlyn had set her up for this, but Kilee couldn’t pass up the opportunity to connect with this boy who she’d had a long-distance crush on ever since Kaitlyn first started talking about him.
Mason was just as thrilled to see Kilee choose him, apprehensively sitting down on Mason’s lap atop the swing. Up to this point, the only other girl Mason had been this close with was Kaitlyn, and while she was a tough act to follow, the more subdued girl-next-door charm of Kaitlyn’s beautiful cousin coupled with the familiar aroma of cigarette smoke clinging to her made it incredibly easy for Mason to welcome the replacement.
“I feel like I’ve known you forever,” Kilee confessed, tipping Mason off that she’d secretly fantasized about this moment as her body tingled with the feeling of her presexualized body pressed against a boy to this unprecedented degree.
“It just sucks that right when I get to know you, you’re gonna be leaving,” Mason responded, feeling a magnetic attraction that was unconsciously drawing her face closer to his.
Kilee took another drag from her cigarette, propelling the physical attraction a tick further before responding, “I know. But with my aunt’s connections here, I bet I’ll still be able to visit sometimes!”
Mason smiled, trying not to get his hopes up for that remote possibility, yet still loving the sound of it knowing that Kilee was as much into him as she seemed and admiring the stream of smoke flowing from her face that for a number of reasons seemed a tick more innocent than what he was used to from Kaitlyn.
“You sure you don’t want a cigarette,” Kilee offered, as if picking up on Mason’s instinctive appeal to her smoking.
“No that’s cool,” Mason responded, all but confirming that instinctive appeal as he added, “I wouldn’t want to be the reason that there’s any less in that pack for you.”
Kilee smiled, peering over to Kaitlyn and Lucas and hoping they were far enough away that they weren’t hearing this, but knowing that Kaitlyn’s radar was fully tuned in to what she and Mason were up to. A beaming Kaitlyn made eye contact with Kilee as she picked up on the electric chemistry between her cousin and ex-boyfriend. Kaitlyn then took the reins and pressed her face aggressively into Lucas’ face for an open-mouth kiss, expecting the gesture would be contagious a few swings over.
Mason locked eyes with Kilee and could tell by the moment of panic in her eyes that she’d never been kissed before. He wanted this moment to be Kilee’s choice and smiled at her, hoping it would prove disarming yet invitational. Kilee took a final drag from her cigarette and flung the spent butt to the grass with unfulfilled determination a split second before pressing her mouth to Mason’s, most of her exhale inadvertently spilling into Mason’s mouth. After making out with Kaitlyn several times in the past year, Mason was used to having cigarette smoke exhaled into his mouth while kissing and took it in stride, along with a significant measure of gratification that he procured the first kiss ever offered by this comparatively wholesome smoker girl. And now that she had gotten her first taste of male lips, Kilee was indulging with the pent-up demand of a girl who had been waiting a year and a half for this kiss to happen, and it happened to be coming from the boy she most frequently fantasized having her first kiss with.
Kaitlyn beamed with pride from three swings away as she continued to make out with Lucas. Her own long-time fascination with Mason kept her from realizing that he would be a much more perfect match with Kilee, but now that oversight was being rectified. And while it was unfortunate that it was happening on the only night they’d have together as a couple, she knew that Kilee would always have this moment to draw back on. Whatever risk was involved in sneaking out and whatever consequences awaited on the other side, it was more than worth it to all four of them right now.