My daughter Kaitlyn sat anxiously at her assigned desk in her fourth-grade classroom, looking up from her math assignment to the clock hanging over the door every few seconds. She struggled to concentrate for a few moments until she saw the clock strike 1:30, at which she point she stood up and approached the teacher’s desk. As Mrs. Conway noticed Kaitlyn approaching her, a faint smile emerged on her face, as it always does at the sight of the sweet blond girl whose good looks had every awkward young boy in the class just a little bit intrigued and intimidated. But Mrs. Conway couldn’t help but notice the usual nervous apprehension in Kaitlyn as she stopped in front of her desk and asked her, “Can I go to the bathroom, Mrs Conway?”
“You may”, Mrs. Conway responded, making sure to enunciate her grammatical correction to Kaitlyn’s inquiry.
“Thanks”, Kaitlyn said, avoiding eye contact as she turned to her right and exited the classroom into the empty elementary school hallway. Mrs. Conway looked up to the clock to see the clock reading exactly 1:30 once again, and a look of concern and agitation spread across her face.
Kaitlyn slinked down the hallway, nervously looking over her shoulder and passing on by the girls’ bathroom door, finally coming to a stop two doors beyond, a sturdy but off-colored wood door with a metal handle that clearly served a different purpose than every other door in the hallway. Kaitlyn gave one final nervous glance in both directions before opening the door and slinking inside what was clearly an abandoned janitor’s closet with the dim light turned on.
Sitting there with a gleeful grin on her face was Kaitlyn’s cousin Kilee, the dark blond daughter of my sister-in-law Tina who was in third grade and was best friends with Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn wasted no time sitting down and reaching to a vent duct in the back of the closet, prying open the corner of the vent which had been unscrewed and reaching her little hand into the crevice. In seconds, her hand came out of vent opening and was in possession of a pack of Marlboro Red 100s. Kaitlyn made eye contact with Kilee and they shared outbursts of jubilation in silence, struggling to contain their youthful excitement and evoking the beautiful innocence of children even as they were about to partake in a very adult pastime.
Kaitlyn opened the half-full pack of cigarettes with the lighter inside the pack and extracted two cigarettes. She handed one to Kilee and placed the second between her own lips. Kilee was afraid of the lighter so Kaitlyn approached it to Kilee’s cigarette and flicked it, bringing Kilee’s cigarette to life. Kilee took the briefest and most abrupt opening drag possible, avoiding coughing but quickly removing the cigarette from her mouth and holding it parallel to her face a few inches as a very small exhale of smoke filtered from her mouth. Wasting little time given the compressed timeline, Kaitlyn flicked her own cigarette to life, but unlike Kilee, let the lit cigarette dangle between her lips for a few seconds and puckering her small lips around the filter of the long cigarette and taking in an opening drag that was still relatively modest but far more substantive than Kilee’s first drag. Kaitlyn turned towards the same grate where she had hid the pack of cigarettes and exhaled a relatively impressive stream of smoke inside, aware of the need to direct her exhaled smoke in the least conspicuous direction. The girls had been doing this nearly every afternoon for the past month and the routine was becoming second nature to them.
For the next few minutes, they dragged copiously from their cigarettes, their shallow ingestions smoldering the tobacco down a couple of millimeters a time but the cherries glowing red from their stubborn persistence. Trickles of smoke spilled from Kilee’s mouth, and from the end of her cigarette, as she attended to her cigarette with the respect of a newcomer to the habit who didn’t want to overdo it and the pay the consequences. Just to her right, Kaitlyn was producing cloudier exhales and her cigarette was giving off more sidestream smoke. Kaitlyn would by no means qualify as a “confident” smoker yet, but she was clearly further along in her progression towards that end than was her cousin. Both girls awkwardly leaned forward to the vent duct and exaggeratedly blew their smoke into it after every rookie drag.
The girls were getting down to the final throes of their cigarettes and despite the discomfort from the hot filters and the harsher taste of each drag as the cigarettes approached their end, they were getting anxious to finish and get back to class, knowing they were pushing the limits on the traditional timeline of a “bathroom break”. But right as they were getting comfortable with the idea that they’d likely get away with it again, the girls were completely startled by the abrupt turning of the closet’s door handle. In a split second, the face of Kaitlyn’s teacher was scowling upon them, unequivocally busting the girls with cigarettes in hand. Mrs. Conway feverishly brushed the haze of smoke away from her face as she looked down at the girls’ respective deer-in-the-headlight looks. The girls observed in terror as Mrs. Conway’s expression shifted from fury to heartbreak. They didn’t know just yet which of the two looks scared them more. The day of reckoning had arrived, but they didn’t have a clue the extent of what that reckoning was about to entail.
Gretchen was working the treadmill in our bedroom for her daily afternoon workout when I got home a couple of hours early from work. Knocking on the door of 35 years old, Gretchen had to work a little harder each year to keep that perfect body of hers, and upgraded from her old exercise bike to a treadmill to enable a more well-rounded workout. Even after 40 minutes of aggressive treadmill operation that covered her in sweat, Gretchen was still a stunning sight to behold, her white T-shirt and jean short cutoff ensemble that had been her staple for about 20 years pasted to her body, partly because of the sweat and partly because they fit so snugly. While most gals would prefer a looser-fitting outfit while working out, Gretchen was nobody’s idea of “most gals” and liked to wear the T-shirt and jean shorts as inspiration for the outfit she’ll look best in as a reward for the workout. Even if the logic seemed a little sketchy, there was no arguing that the rewards of working out were clearly visible to anybody observing her perform the workout in that outfit. Her snug white T-shirt contained her ample breasts in a way that simultaneously contained the jiggle and stretched out the fabric as her body rigorously moved, much in the same way the tight denim of her cutoffs thundered with her bodily gyrations and showed off every fit muscle in her ass, hips, and crotch, not to mention those thighs and calves below the cutoffs that had just the right level of muscle tone to be strong and feminine at the same time. If you had looked at Gretchen only below the neckline as she worked out, you’d have thought she was the same 18-year-old I met at my college campus 16 years earlier…
As for above the neck, it was clear Gretchen was no longer 18. That wasn’t a bad thing though, as she had aged gracefully for a long-time heavy smoker. The ever-present Marlboro Red 100 dangled from her lips as she worked out, her heavy breathing from the workout accelerating the speed at which she turned those cigarettes into 100 millimeters of ash and spent cork filter as her lips puckered up on the filter and consumed even more intense drags. The heightened intensity of her drags was probably inadvertent, the simple result of her respiratory system having to work harder to consume the cigarette while struggling for breath, but it was amazing to behold knowing that for as much of a workout the rest of her body was getting, her smoked-out lungs faced the toughest challenge of all, doing double-duty in delivering her body the necessary level of oxygen for the workout while also consuming the steady diet of nicotine her mercilessly addicted body demanded. If there was a harder working pair of lungs in America, I’d certainly like to meet the person who possesses them!
And while still beautiful, Gretchen’s face bore the telltale signs of two decades of heavy tobacco use. The lips that held the latest cigarette perched in her mouth were swollen. Some women endure painful collagen injections for the “full lips” look that Gretchen was able to attain not from pain but from pleasure, the pleasure of ingesting hundreds of delightful drags full of tobacco, tar, and nicotine into her body every day. That pleasure was evident elsewhere on her mouth too. I began to see the early evidence of draw lines on Gretchen’s mouth in her early 20s, but they had become more intense as she advanced into her mid-30s, and more intense than ever while struggling through her workout to keep hold of that cigarette resting in her mouth. And no matter how many times a day she brushed her teeth with smoker’s toothpaste or used special whitening strips, they still couldn’t hide the faint black sheen near her gumlines that any dentist–and any experienced smoking fetisher in the world–can identify as a dead giveaway of a heavy smoker. Her soft facial features yielded to a hardening on her cheekbones on both sides of her nose, another telltale sign she’s endured many years of the “chimney effect” of a rising stream of cigarette smoke slowly changing her skin tone. Her mane of blond hair that flowed past her shoulders was up in a ponytail for the workout, showing no signs of graying. Yet with all that, she was still sexy as hell and still turned the heads of males (and plenty of females) aged 18 to 80 everywhere she went.
But if I needed any more reminder that I wasn’t gonna be sharing her, she gave me that reminder as, following the final drag from her cigarette stub, she proceeded to remove the cigarette from her mouth and dropping it into the butt bucket sitting on the front base of the treadmill, pick up the pack of Marlboro Reds and lighter sitting next to it, insert a fresh cigarette into her mouth and flick it to life, all without breaking stride on her treadmill. Oh this girl was all mine….and not only was she all mine, she was gonna be all mine right now! She hadn’t even realized I was there watching her until I walked into the room and rapidly turned the machine off, grabbing Gretchen by the waist and letting her firm body slip back with the final spins of the treadmill conveyor and fall into my arms as I caught her and lifted her up. She reeked of sweat and cigarette smoke, a combination most guys would have likely considered repulsive. But her aroma was complete catnip to me.
“Hey hun!” she said in a come-hither tone, sensing she had made me frisky and then adding, through a talking dangle of her freshly lit cigarette, “Looks like I’m gonna be shifting gears to a different type of workout!”
With a smirk, I nodded affirmatively and she began unbuttoning my work shirt and rapidly proceeding down to my pants, removing my belt and unzipping the pants with ease. As usual, disrobing me was the easy part, and the bigger challenge was mine to detach Gretchen’s tight clothes from her person, a task that was even more challenging with her body covered in a fresh mist of perspiration. It was telling in regards to my own level of physical fitness that I found myself getting a bit exhausted simply from taking Gretchen T-shirt and jean shorts off while this four-pack-a-day smoking female who had just spent more than 40 minutes on a treadmill still had enough energy to take the lead in the sexual courtship we were about to engage in.
After removing my shorts and stripping me bare, Gretchen forcefully tossed me back into the bed, watching my erect dick salute her as she hovered ominously above me. The fresh cigarette dangling from her lips added to her eerie appearance of a predatory beast operating on pure animal instinct in the seconds before she pounced, her female organ opening wide with a silent roar to consume what it craved. It was not uncommon for me to sexually initiate Gretchen yet still find myself at her mercy only moments later. We didn’t always do it this way, but the speed at which my being turned on managed to turn her on even more often competed with the speed of light. And I certainly didn’t mind, as I laid there observing both her passion and her incredible body….the breasts, stomach, and hips of a 21-year-old thrusting directly in my line of vision. Only when I saw the faded stretch marks on Gretchen’s stomach did it seem real that my wife was no longer that 21-year-old and had given me an even greater gift when she gave birth to our beautiful blond-haired daughter Kaitlyn.
Our sexual relations proceeded to completion, and Gretchen’s sweatier-than-usual body rested on my chest soon thereafter. I could feel her exaggerated breathing as she laid atop me as though it was my own, and that made it clear just how seriously strained her lungs were. That certainly scared me some about Gretchen’s future, but right here and right now, I was savoring the moment as I still found it sexy as hell, particularly whenever I felt her body go concave and knew without even looking that the extra moment of respiratory strain was coming from the latest intense drag from her cigarette, with the inevitable confirmation coming seconds later when a new cloud of toxic smoke rose from below towards my nose. I was so happy I came home early and wished I could sit here like this the rest of the day.
The ringing of my Gretchen’s cell phone on the nightstand quickly brought me back to reality though. It wasn’t until the third ring that I found the motivation to actually answer it, and Gretchen was on the same wavelength requesting that I take the call for her at the exact moment I was leaning over to pick the phone up. I didn’t recognize the number, but since it was local I accepted the call. My friendly greeting was countered with a cold female voice that quickly killed the cheerful mood.
“Is this Mr. Ellsworth?” she asked, to which I confirmed. “This is Rebecca Conway from Northside Elementary. I’m calling about your daughter….again”, with the “again” coming with a particularly snide flourish. I cringed, both at the sound of the no-nonsense teacher’s voice and the anticipation of what trouble Kaitlyn had gotten herself into, although I had a bad feeling I knew what was coming.
“We caught her and her cousin Kilee smoking cigarettes in the old janitor’s closet. Apparently they’ve been doing it for weeks”, confirming my suspicion that the source of the call was smoking. “This is a first in my 12 years of teaching at an elementary school and not something I ever figured I’d have to deal with in regards to third and fourth-graders,” she added, giving away the relative innocence of the era in which she’s taught compared to what I remembered growing up when this wouldn’t have been quite so unusual.
I was at a loss for words temporarily amidst an awkward pause that lasted only a few seconds but seemed to linger forever before finally getting ahead of the inevitable and asking, “So would you like us to come in and pick her up?”
“Yes, and your wife as well if possible. Also, I can’t reach Kilee Paulson’s mother but if you’re able to we’d really like to see her as quickly as possible too”. I agreed to the terms and said we’d pick her up on our way to the school, knowing Tina was likely busy at work and not answering her phone. After a chilly final exchange, the phone conversation ended and I turned to Gretchen to see the look of apprehension on her face, waiting for me to tell her what happened.
“Not again”, Gretchen muttered inquisitively, erroneously suspecting we were being called in for a follow-up on Kaitlyn’s previous infraction, but I nodded no before responding “Kaitlyn and Kilee were caught smoking”.
I could tell Gretchen was caught by genuine surprise, which I had found odd as we had discussed several times the likelihood of Kaitlyn experimenting with smoking, but apparently Gretchen didn’t think it would ever happen this quickly. She put her hand up to her face with a combination of guilt and dismay, also knowing she was about to be ripped to shreds again by Kaitlyn’s unforgiving teacher.
“Time to pick up Tina and go pay Mrs. Conway another visit”, I said, twisting the knife as I took her by the hand and led her out of bed so we could get ready to go to the school.
The “previous infraction” I’ve alluded involved Kaitlyn’s “sex video” from a few months earlier. Apparently she had taken a video on her camera phone of Gretchen and I having sex, cracking open our bedroom door and recording, and then taking it to school and showing some of her friends. We had our first visit with Mrs. Conway shortly after and to say the incident was embarrassing would be a huge understatement. We had already made a very bad impression as parents on this teacher and spent the drive to Tina’s office to pick her up dreading the next encounter, getting a few nervous laughs in thinking back to the previous embarrassment but doing our best to sober up our tone when we pulled into the parking lot of Tina’s office to see her approach our SUV, dragging fiercely from a freshly lit cigarette as always as she climbed inside. Tina always comes across a little frazzled but was really at her wit’s end today.
After a quick back and forth, Tina quickly raised the stakes by saying “I keep my cigarettes locked up in my bedroom so I’m pretty confident when we get there, it won’t be my Marlboro Blacks the girls were smoking”, her tone setting off immediate tension in that she seemed to suspect Kilee was an innocent pawn suckered into wrongdoing by Kaitlyn. I suppose that’s a parental instinct, but I knew she had to tread very carefully with Gretchen, who gave me a quick look after Tina threw down the gauntlet but let the comment drop without response.
Eventually, Tina resumed with more general distraught commentary, saying she felt so guilty for being a bad influence on the girls and that she’d wished so much she’d been able to quit on the numerous times she attempted. Gretchen and I mostly sat in silence as Tina continued taking, assuring us that she rarely let an opportunity pass to remind Kilee how bad smoking was and why she should never start. Tina was clearly not prepared for this moment at this young age….but neither was Gretchen. I was. Gretchen and I had noticed early on that Kaitlyn shared her parents’ respective fascinations with smoking, and we had debated amongst each other what our position would be if and when Kaitlyn decided to experiment. We had never come to a consensus as Gretchen seemed to think the issue was several years away from requiring a resolution, but as someone as tuned into smoking as I am, it was clear to me Kaitlyn’s fascination was clear and present. I picked up on cues in the last year when Kaitlyn would be in a room with me, keeping tabs on her mother in the kitchen and slinking out of the room when she saw Gretchen move around the house. I followed Kaitlyn on a few occasions when she’d walk up to an ashtray with a still smoldering cigarette that Gretchen had left behind, and take a quick drag. It was amazing to me that Gretchen hadn’t picked up on it, or that Kaitlyn had apparently been sneaking entire packs of her cigarettes and taking them to school since she and Kilee had been smoking in the janitor’s closet for “weeks” as Mrs. Conway said.
The moment of reckoning was upon us as we pulled into the school parking lot. As usual, I was first out of the car and a few steps ahead of everyone as I turned back to see Gretchen and Tina furiously dragging from their cigarettes to finish them off before proceeding into the school. The image provided the latest reminder of how rough I expected this meeting with Mrs. Conway was gonna go.
Once inside the school, I made the familiar walk to the principal’s office where my efforts to hover menacingly over my daughter to convey the deep shit she was in were deep-sixed as the icy stare I got from Mrs. Conway when I walked in door made my own attempt at a menacing performance seem pointless by comparison. A slightly less fierce-looking Principal Meyers sat next to Mrs. Conway, but there was no shortage of sternness about his demeanor either. I’d quickly discover I got off easy when Tina and especially Gretchen followed me into the office as Mrs. Conway launched daggers of ice out of her eyes at them. Even without moving her eyes, it was clear Mrs. Conway was disgusted by the example Gretchen was setting with her provocative outfit, and that fury became all the more tangible with each step closer Gretchen and Tina took, their substantial tobacco stench filling the room.
Gretchen looked to Kaitlyn and Kilee sitting on the bench on the other side of the room, their heads tilted down to their shoes and filled with sadness and fear, knowing Conway and Meyers had likely spent the better part of an hour raking them over the coals with over-the-top interrogation. It broke her heart to see Kaitlyn so sad and she tried to lighten the mood with an affectionate “Hi sweetheart!”
Kaitlyn moved her right eye to make just the briefest of eye contact and then whispered a faint, “Hi mommy”. The exchange made me proud of both mother and daughter, but the brief reprieve in the tension was definitely about to end as we sat down to listen to the consequences of the girls’ actions.
“Tobacco use among students is something this school district takes very seriously,” began Principal Meyers. “From what they told us before you arrived, your daughters have been taking cigarettes from home and hiding them in a ventilation duct inside an out-of-use janitor’s closet where they’ve also been smoking them. It sounds like it’s been going on about a month now.”
The smallest pause in the conversation led to the clearly more militant Mrs. Conway taking the baton. “I began to notice a pattern that at exactly 1:30 every afternoon, Kaitlyn was requesting to go to the bathroom. I noticed an aroma of cigarette smoke when she returned to the classroom but since I never saw any direct evidence of tobacco consumption in the girls’ bathroom, I figured the odor must have been the lingering result of the smoke she was exposed to in her home”, darting her eyes briefly at Gretchen with the end of the sentence before resuming. “Today, I made a specific point of combing through the hallway and was able to determine the source of the tobacco consumption. I opened the door and found Kaitlyn along with her cousin smoking separate cigarettes and in possession of these,” she closed as she placed the pack of Marlboro Reds 100s and a lighter in front of us. Gretchen remained stone-faced at the sight of the pack, but I could tell she was disappointed that Tina was right about the source of the cigarettes.
Mr. Meyers then passed the baton to us, asking if we’d like to add anything. Tina immediately stepped up, hoping to finesse the situation as diplomatically as possible while subtly directing as much blame as possible off of herself. “Nobody feels worse about this than I do since I’m a smoker and have clearly been a bad influence despite my best efforts to dissuade my daughter from picking up mom’s nasty habit. I really hope you’ll show leniency on them though. Children experiment and my daughter is no different”.
Gretchen was becoming frustrated with the tone and cut to the chase, asking “So what’s the protocol here? Two or three days of suspension? It seems like that would be more than enough.”
I could tell by the sneer on Mrs. Conway’s face as Gretchen spoke that there would be more to this story, but Mr. Meyers spelled out the unsavory terms. “Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Last year the school district revised its weapons policy and your daughters’ cigarette lighter fits the definition of weapon under the new guidelines. We maintain zero tolerance for students in possession of weapons and the new policy calls for immediate expulsion for the remainder of the school year for any students in violation of these rules. Regrettably, this applies to both Kaitlyn and Kilee. They will no longer be welcome at Hoover Elementary for the remainder of the 2016-2017 school year.”
“You can’t be serious!” Gretchen and I said almost in unison, before I took the lead. “You’re talking about nine-year-old kids here!”
“We are serious,” Mrs. Conway fired back. “Perhaps it is you who needs to be more serious about the way you raise your daughter.”
Gretchen launched out of her chair in rage and began firing back with “How dare you stand in–” before I held my hand up to motion for her not to inflame the situation at this point, at the exact moment Mr. Meyers interrupted verbally.
“Ladies, let’s not get into this here. The issue will be taken up formally by the school board at our next meeting on February 20th. That’s two weeks from now and you will be given a chance to appeal the ruling at that time. My experience is that the board is fair on such matters and will give you a chance to plead your case on your daughters’ behalf. With that, I think it would be best if we not litigate this further here and for you to take your daughters home.”
Tina sat there in disbelieving shock, unable to articulate anything while Gretchen’s disposition was smoldering at a hotter temperature than the cherry of her last cigarette after the final drag. “You will definitely be hearing from us,” I added, helping my distraught sister-in-law out of her chair and leading her towards the exit.
Gretchen motioned the girls to follow her as she stood up and looked at the vaguely sympathetic Mr. Meyers and the silent but visible schadenfreude on the face of Mrs. Conway one last time before leaving, adding to my comment “You haven’t heard the last of US….and you definitely haven’t heard the last from me”, reaching into her purse and removing a Marlboro Red 100 that she inserted into her mouth. Neither Mr. Meyers nor Mrs. Conway was gonna call Gretchen out for her own infraction knowing how hot the situation was, and Gretchen proceeded to exit the principal’s office with Kaitlyn and Kilee by her side, walking the hallway of the elementary school towards the exit right at dismissal time for the day, with an entire hallway of children watching in disbelief as this sexy mom of one of their classmates strutted down the hallway of their school with an unlit cigarette in her mouth. The second Gretchen hit the exit, she removed her lighter from her purse and fired it up, taking an intensely long and aggressive drag. Having been married to Gretchen for more than a decade, I could evaluate her demeanor by the way she dragged on her cigarette. This drag was the equivalent of a tomcat arching his back and hissing at another cat. She was off-the-charts pissed, even more than me.
I knew all hell was gonna break loose with Tina when we got into the SUV, and I was right, but thankfully it was directed at Kilee rather than Gretchen or Kaitlyn. But before Tina launched into her missive, the grip nicotine held over her prevailed despite her denunciation of it only minutes earlier and her sincere prior attempts to quit as she extracted a Marlboro Black from her purse and speedily lit it, desperate for a nicotine fix amidst the most stressful moment she’s endured in recent memory. Once lit up, Tina laid into Kilee sitting next to her through a tone-deaf talking exhale, “Do you have any idea how much trouble you are in, young lady?!?!?” Kilee sat there silently and motionless, looking to her lap just as she and Kaitlyn had done in the principal’s office. “Almost every day, I’ve reminded you what cigarettes have done to me and why you shouldn’t do them. Yet here we sit….with you EXPELLED from THIRD GRADE because of smoking! You’re off to a worse start than I was despite all my warnings”, her voice cracking up as she fought back the tears.
For the next several minutes, Tina continued barking at Kilee while Gretchen and I sat silently in the front seat. It was always hard to speak for Gretchen but at least for me, I thought Tina’s angry lectures directed at Kilee missed the gravity of the situation as clearly something much larger was going on here from a societal standpoint. I kept looking over to Gretchen as she made quick work of her first and second cigarette following the meeting at the school, consuming the cigarette with each angry breath to the point where she went from a freshly lit or freshly ashed cigarette into an inch-long granny ash in a matter of less than a minute. I couldn’t even tell if she was processing the loud argument in the backseat, a mostly one-sided argument as Kilee only responded with one-word replies to Tina’s loaded questions, but it was clear that Gretchen was still fuming far beyond what the messy and voluminous exhales of cigarette smoke flowing from her respiratory system suggested.
I usually know what Gretchen’s gonna do next, but sometimes when she reaches her breaking point, she catches me off guard. Such was the case about seven minutes into our drive home when she tossed her second Marlboro Light 100 butt of the drive out the passenger side window and then immediately opened her purse to extract another from the pack, inserting one into her mouth and lighting up, but then she turned to the backseat and held the open pack towards Kaitlyn, asking in as gentle of voice as possible, “Kaitlyn, honey, would you like a cigarette?”
The entire backseat sat in disbelief, wondering if Gretchen was serious, but the look on her face as she clutched her freshly lit cigarette between her lips with an intimidating sternness made it clear she was dead serious. Kaitlyn looked at her but remained reluctant, wondering if it was a trap of sorts before Gretchen added, “Don’t be nervous, baby. If you want one, go ahead and take one. Mommy won’t be mad”. And so Kaitlyn reached into the pack and took one, with a stunned Tina and Kilee watching as Gretchen reached with lighter in hand to the backseat to spark up Kaitlyn’s first mom-sanctioned cigarette. Kaitlyn took a subdued opening drag, still suppressing the extent of the habit she had developed out of instinctive fear that this was too good to be true. Kaitlyn and Kilee made limited side-eye contact for the coming moments as Kilee was clearly jealous of the unexpected freedom Kaitlyn was granted.
I had to sneak in subtle glances into my rearview mirror as well to take in the spectacle of my nine-year-old daughter openly smoking her first cigarette in front of the family, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with Gretchen’s impulsive choice. Tina’s backseat fury pressed on and was now directed towards Gretchen, but Gretchen continued to sit silently attending fiercely to her cigarette, a silence that comes only when Gretchen is at her angriest and most vindictive. On limited occasion during our marriage, I took her on when she got like this, and rarely won. I wished that she had consulted with before making the choice to sanction Kaitlyn’s fledgling smoking habit, but it wasn’t a fight I had any interest in litigating right now. Gretchen’s anger was clearly going in one direction, and it wasn’t towards anybody in that car. As bad as I felt for the girls being expelled from school over something so ridiculous, I felt worse for the school board….because I could tell my wife was mentally preparing a plan to go full-blown Charles Bronson on them.
Gretchen got home that night and immediately took to her laptop computer…..and pretty much stayed there for the next two weeks. With a cigarette permanently perched in her mouth and a haze of smoke surrounding her to the point that I nearly needed a foghorn to find my way to her, Gretchen sat at that computer doing meticulous research first thing when we woke up in the morning, throughout the day while I was at work, and most of the evening, taking the time to do some basic cooking with the understanding that Kaitlyn and I were responsible for doing clean-up while mom “prepared for the school board meeting”. Occasionally I heard her voice on her cell phone, making a number of calls that were clearly done entirely for business purposes. Curiosity got the better of me on a few occasions and I inquired what she was up to, but she made a point of limiting the outflow of information, assuring me I’d find out on February 20th. I would sneak up behind her in the evening hoping to entice her into a sexual dalliance, which she normally put up little resistance to, but those two weeks leading up to the school board meeting, she would reflexively pull down the monitor of the laptop to make sure I couldn’t see the screen, operating with full secrecy and zero sex drive, her single-minded motivation being the clearing of her daughter’s name. I saw a little of this side of Gretchen when she worked for Philip Morris before having Kaitlyn, and it was a little exciting to see this side of her back. With that said, I couldn’t wait for February 20th to arrive to get this behind us and figure out how next to proceed with Kaitlyn and her education.
Despite the rift with her sister Tina, Gretchen stayed in contact and consulted with her about a few things, eager to see how much of a fight she was willing to put up on Kilee’s behalf. As Tina recognized the insanity of the imposed penalty proportionate to the girls’ minor infraction of tobacco experimentation, she agreed and lent some assistance to Gretchen in terms of leg work. I was mostly kept out of the loop, and while this was frustrating at one level, it would likely make it all the more satisfying to witness Gretchen’s performance.
I also had mixed emotions during those weeks as my nine-year-old daughter, suspended from school and home with mom all day, was now smoking openly. Gretchen and I agreed to limit her to five cigarettes a day, recognizing by her technique that she already had the early stages of addiction and figured sanctioning but limiting her habit was our best approach, recognizing it would be a struggle with cigarettes so readily available in our home and Gretchen outpacing her daughter’s daily cigarette ration before breakfast every morning. Seeing my beautiful daughter sneak puffs from cigarettes left in mom’s ashtray was one thing, but coming home from work to a greeting of “Hi daddy!” from Kaitlyn as she sat on the couch with cigarette in hand was quite another. As a fetisher, I wished I had seen more of this sort of thing when I was in fourth grade. As a father, I felt like a failure. It was such a challenging dynamic as we sat and watched TV together, unable to take my eyes off of a mini-Gretchen’s habit developing and the sense of empowerment that Kaitlyn clearly felt while admiring the smoke flow from her pursed lips and fill the space in front of her. Her innocence was beautiful to behold, particularly since she clearly had no sense of the stakes involved of mom’s performance on February 20th and what it portended for her future.
Gretchen and I were getting dressed in our bedroom at 6:30, in advance of the 7:00 meeting. Not sure if it showed how nervous I was, but Gretchen appeared positively unflappable decked out in her black bra and panties with a Marlboro Red 100 coolly dangling from her lips as she draped herself in a business suit from her Philip Morris days that I hadn’t seen her wear in years. Those years in corporate America softened Gretchen’s hard edges just a bit compared to her days 15 years ago in my hometown’s city council, where she served for a year before we moved out of town, smoking openly in city hall and coming to meetings in her trademark T-shirt and jean shorts. To whatever extent that behavior was tolerated in 2001 by a brash 19-year-old, she knew it wouldn’t help the case of a mother pleading for her daughter’s expulsion overturned at a school board meeting in 2017.
And there was a special sex appeal to seeing Gretchen class it up in her business suit, as I was reminded of as she requested through a talking dangle that I approach her to zip up the skirt of her business suit. She turned her back and I made a point of feeling her sculpted ass with my hand as I slowly lifted the zipper of her skirt to the top, pulling Gretchen’s blond hair back from her neck to sneak in one frisky smooch below her earlobe, and as always being just a little bit blown away just how intense the odor of tobacco is when I approach her face. “To be continued on this until after we get home”, I whisper into her ear after the kiss.
She turned to me and nodded through her dangling drag, her eyes squinting as she responded with “Agreed!”, the first sign of romantic interest I’d seen in her since before the meeting at the school. The image was hard to get out of my head, but for now, she had a much more serious command performance to mentally prepare for.
Kaitlyn and Kilee were spending the evening at my parents’ place, their fate in the hands of their mothers addressing their school. We pulled into the school lot a few minutes before 7:00. Unwilling to rein things in too much, Gretchen kept a cigarette going on the long walk up to the entrance of the meeting place as other school board meeting attendees and even a couple of the board members walked the same path. Standing at the doors was Tina along with Gretchen’s youngest sister Melissa and her husband Zack. Like Gretchen, Tina and Melissa were also smoking cigarettes, producing a haze of smoke that, as is typical, was especially smelly in the cold and dry February air. I hadn’t seen Melissa in about a month and it wasn’t until I got closer that her swollen belly reminded me she was eight months pregnant with her first child. As Melissa, in her typically peppy and full-of-life way, called out a boisterous hello to Gretchen and I as we approached, I could only shake my head at the inadvertent damage the Paulson sisters were likely doing to their case before they even set foot in the board room.
Melissa embraced Gretchen in a hug as Gretchen thanked her for coming, to which Melissa said she “wouldn’t miss it for the world”, and then proceeded to hug me as well, immersing me in her intense tobacco stench while simultaneously allowing me to feel the firmness of her belly and the nicotine-addicted baby in its final stages of development in her womb. In any other situation, I’d have been thrilled to observe the stunned reactions of the stuffy passersby to this dynamic of three beautiful young ladies, one of whom was eight months pregnant, so unapologetically smoking, but as Melissa loudly spoke to us as the three of them finished their cigarettes literally five feet in front of the entryway, I was concerned with their obliviousness to the important audience about to be addressed, most of whom were furiously waving the clouds of smoke away from their faces and giving the ladies dirty looks as they went inside. And nobody sneered more emphatically than Rebecca Conway, Kaitlyn’s fourth-grade teacher who walked into the meeting giving our entire group the evil eye.
In moments, we were inside the meeting, a crowd of about three dozen or so filling the seats and looking up to the podium where the seven school board members sat, about to call the meeting to order. It was an agonizing wait as the board went through its listed items first before taking on the student discipline issues at the end of the meeting. Gretchen, Tina, and Melissa continued to not help their cause, sneaking out for a smoke regularly when it was clear the board was gonna be stuck on different matters for a few moments, and always returning to the seating area reeking of fresh cigarette smoke, which most of the audience noticed and wrinkled their noses at.
But around 8:20, the regular meeting was adjourning and the student discipline portion of the meeting was about to begin. Thankfully, Gretchen was in the room when the board chair requested she make her presentation, completely unprepared (as I was!) for what Gretchen was gonna say. I wish it was under better circumstances in which I could have appreciated it more, but it was so sexy watching Gretchen confidently strut up to that podium in her business suit and state her name and address for the record. And when the board told her the floor was hers to speak, she definitely did just that….
“My name is Gretchen Ellsworth. My daughter Kaitlyn has been attending Hoover Elementary for 4 1/2 years now. I have generously donated my time and money to this school district, contributing extra money at the beginning of each school year to a fund for other parents who can’t afford school supplies and accompanying my daughter’s classes as a chaperone for their class field trips every year. I’ve contributed to this school based on an expectation that it had students’ best interests legitimately at heart. I had no reason to doubt that until the afternoon of February 5th when my husband, sister, and I were called into the school because our daughters were caught smoking cigarettes. We were all prepared to accept whatever reasonable punishment was decided upon for our daughters, only to find out that the punishment levied was anything but reasonable….”
One of Gretchen’s semiregular smoker’s coughs interrupted her momentum in a nonhelpful way, but she quickly resumed, “I’m not sure when exactly it became school policy not to help its students become the best people they can be, but to throw up unreasonable and irrational road blocks meant to achieve the exact opposite result, but the April 21st, 2015, school board meeting where this body approved a weapons policy that included possession of a cigarette lighter as an offense worthy of expulsion seems as good of day as any. On what planet does it make sense for a child to be denied his or her right to an education based on the argument that possession of a cigarette lighter will be used as a weapon in the same way a gun would? We all know this is just a backdoor way to maximize penalties for students smoking disguised as a student safety measure. It’s insulting our intelligence to suggest it’s anything else….
“But it hasn’t always been like this, has it?” Gretchen asked while training her eyes on the early 40s female school board member with the nameplate Sheree Martin in front of her. “Board member Martin…..you smoked cigarettes as a junior high and high school girl, didn’t you?”
Sheree Martin sat there temporarily speechless, before finally responding, “Well yes, but that was a different–”
Doing her best Perry Mason impression, Gretchen interrupted Ms. Martin in mid-sentence, “And back then, when you smoked cigarettes, all you had to do was walk across the street from school grounds and light up between classes and at lunch with no real oversight, didn’t you?”
Another painful and embarrassed silence covered Ms. Martin’s face before she finally responded with “That’s correct.”
“And you carried your cigarettes and lighter with you in the school and kept them in your locker for your final five years of public education, right?” Gretchen continued.
“I did…there were no school policies in place at the time that forbid it.”
With perfect timing for dramatic effect, Gretchen responded with, “Exactly!” and then proceeded to ask Ms. Martin one final question. “And just for the record, how many times were you either suspended or expelled from either your middle school or your high school over tobacco use or the use of a cigarette lighter?”
Ms. Martin nodded in the negative a couple of seconds before finally officially going on record with “none”.
“Interesting,” fired back Gretchen. “I guess back then the school didn’t think it would serve anyone well to classify a cigarette smoker as a terrorist, huh?” she asked rhetorically before immediately leaping to the next board member target. “And as for board member Bill Anderson….you got in a fight in 11th grade when you knocked another student out cold right in the hallway, didn’t you?”
“What is the relevance–” Anderson began to respond before Gretchen cut him off.
“Please just indulge me and answer,” prodded Gretchen.
“Yes I did….and I was suspended for three days as was the school’s policy at the time”
“But that’s not the full story, is it?” Gretchen inquired. “It wasn’t your fist that you used to knock out a fellow student, was it? It was the ring of a padlock from your locker that you used as a brass knuckle to deck that classmate of yours in head, right?”
“Not sure how you found that one, but yes, that’s true.”
“And isn’t it also true that using a padlock in the same way in this school district today, according to your weapons guidelines, would constitute the use of a weapon and require expulsion?” Gretchen continued. “I’ll actually help you with that and read the passage of the guidelines so that everybody knows that you committed an expellable offense three decades ago,” she pressed forward before taking out a paper copy of the guidelines and reading it aloud to the audience and the stunned board members.
As I watched Gretchen read aloud in the middle of interrogating one after another middle-aged school board member, I felt a smirk emerge on my face and an instinctive bodily response tantamount to receiving an explosion of pheromones erupting from Gretchen as she confidently did her thing. I’m sure part of the reason she kept me out of the loop in regards to her presentation was knowing how excited it would get me to hear it without any preview. I figured Gretchen was going to serve up her own version of the old country song “Harper Valley PTA” to the board, but I was very impressed at the level of research she went through as a means of implicating those who were standing in judgment of her daughter and niece. And as I surveyed the audience for their responses, I noticed a bearded middle-aged man taking a special interest in Gretchen’s words in a way that stood out in the crowd. I made a mental note of him before turning my attention back towards Gretchen as she asked board member Bill Anderson why he felt entitled to stand in judgment of others’ violations of the school weapons’ policy when he had a history of violating it himself.
“And as for board member Bruce Abbott over there, he drove around in a truck with a hunting rifle in the back rear window when he was in high school.”
“Different times!” Abbott said abruptly in response, as if realizing by that point that Gretchen would eventually shine the spotlight on his past.
“Yes! Absolutely! Different times! Times when we deferred to common sense in regards to the use of ‘weapons’ when young people’s futures are at stake. And considering those ‘different times’ produced well-adjusted adults such as you fine people, perhaps our parents and grandparents were on to something when they didn’t permanently stain our records and educational growth process over the pettiest youthful indiscretions, no?”
Partly as a result of being caught off guard with their own personal histories being litigated, in some cases with instances from documents that they were assured were permanently sealed, the board was speechless before Gretchen selected the board chairman as her final victim.
“But enough about the past,” Gretchen pivoted. “Just yesterday, I became aware of a random weapons search at the high school discovering that the son of your own Chairperson Oliver had a Swiss army knife in his locker. Whatever may or may not have been allowed in the past, according to your updated weapons policy, that’s forbidden fruit.”
Sam Oliver nodded empathetically as Gretchen spoke, confirming her comment. “That is true. My son is in a lot of trouble right now. A tip came in about weapons in the school yesterday morning and my son Jeff was caught flat-footed. He will unfortunately be paying for that lapse in judgment just as your daughter will.”
As soon as the term “tip about weapons in the school” came up, I turned my head to those sitting next to me, first at Tina but then at Melissa who winked at me, confirming my suspicion that the “anonymous tip” came from the phone number of someone who the school didn’t have a record of. I didn’t know if they got lucky in that the school board chairman’s son was one of the students who screwed up or if they knew that Jeff carried this pocketknife with him, but I had mixed feelings over the idea that another young person was facing persecution for “weapon” possession.
After shining the spotlight on four board members, Gretchen was ready for her closing statements. “Even limiting my research to members of this school board I was able to learn that three of you skated through the educational system without punishment for committing the kind of offenses that have set my daughter, my niece, and Chairman Oliver’s son up for, at best, several months of disruption to their education, and potentially even more harm to their future as a result of that disruption. It’s time to put a stop to the insanity, right here and right now. Show mercy on Kaitlyn Ellsworth and Kilee Paulson, nine-year-old girls who didn’t have the vaguest hint that the cigarette lighters available for sale for a dollar each at the gas station constitute ‘weapons’ in today’s delusional public education world. I know each of you got into public education to improve young people’s lives just as it improved yours. You can do that tonight for Kaitlyn Ellsworth and Kilee Paulson. And that’s all I have to say.”
A few in the crowd erupted in applause at Gretchen’s aggressive prosecution of her case, including those in our party but also, notably, the bearded guy a few chairs to our right who still intrigued me. This lasted a few moments before Chairman Oliver banged his gavel and sucked the oxygen out of the room with the board’s immediate verdict.
“Ms. Ellsworth, I thank you for your impassioned plea on your daughter’s behalf. The record will show that I was the lone vote on this board two years ago to reject the updated weapons policy as I thought it went overboard. I lost the vote and now my son has lost out as well as this board’s ruling will almost certainly be the same for him as it will be tonight for your daughter and Kilee Paulson. Had you been able to credibility discount the legitimacy of the charge regarding your daughter’s possession of a cigarette lighter on school grounds, the ruling may have been up for debate, but unfortunately our policy is zero tolerance, and having gone on record confirming that the girls were in possession of the lighter, the board has no choice but to abide by our own statutes and expel them. All in favor say aye…” Mr. Oliver closed with all seven board members responding in kind. “All opposed say no…” Oliver continued to a response of silence. “The board unanimously votes to expel Kaitlyn Ellsworth and Kilee Paulson for the remainder of the 2016-2017 school year. The two of them are free to re-enroll next fall and they will likely be accepted back, but they are not to set foot on school property the rest of this year, understood?”
Gretchen was too distraught to speak, so I responded in her stead before Chairperson Oliver put up a motion to adjourn to which the board concurred. It was a done deal, and Tina was openly sobbing after the ruling but Gretchen was too strong for that…and also genuinely shellshocked. Nothing in Gretchen’s background, from her privileged upbringing to her background in city government and the marketing meetings of corporate tobacco, had prepared Gretchen for a defeat this visceral…..or the inevitability of a game that was rigged from the start. None of her usual tactics had worked, and even stepping up her game to this level on behalf of Kaitlyn and Kilee yielded the worst possible outcome. In more ways than one, it was a different world that Gretchen simply didn’t understand anymore.
I put my arm around Gretchen to console her and was a little surprised when she showed enough vulnerability to lean into my shoulder, but it was short-lived as Melissa and a stressed-out Tina were rising to their feet to go outside and smoke. Gretchen soon followed their lead, and it struck me as she reached into her purse to extract a Marlboro Red 100 that this was likely the longest she had gone without a cigarette while conscious all year. I followed the three blonds outside but Zach and I had couldn’t keep up with them at our normal walking pace, not guided by the same nicotine motivators as the females were. I listened as we stepped outside and heard three flints flicker in rhythmic succession, their lighters bringing their respective cigarettes to life and filling the cold evening sky with more carcinogens and foul aroma. If anything was gonna lift my spirits this terrible night, it would be a three-for-the-price-of-one sighting of the Paulson girls smoking together.
But alas, the best-laid plan was thrown another curveball as the bearded middle-aged man from the audience came outside to flag down Gretchen, hurrying out so as not to lose her and calling out “Ms. Ellsworth?”, immediately landing Gretchen’s attention as well as everyone standing out there.
“Yes?” Gretchen responded to the mystery man.
He reached into his coat and removed a business card as he formally introduced himself. “My name is Robert Banks. My wife is Carolyn. She and I are former public school teachers who as of a couple of years ago decided to ‘go rogue’ and start up our own fully accredited private school in Rosemount especially for students expelled over cooked-up PC charges. It’s a growing trend as you’ve discovered first-hand. We vet our students closely and don’t take in genuinely troublemaking students with violent histories who were expelled for legitimate reasons….only kids like your daughters who fell through the cracks because of bureaucratic stupidity. I’m not asking you to commit to anything here and now but I can e-mail you some of our materials tonight when I get home and you can respond if you’re interested. We charge a very low tuition fee and will make sure your daughters complete all of their requirements and advance to the next grade level. And if you decide you want to stick around next year rather than return to the public school that just blackballed Kaitlyn and Kilee, you have that option.”
Gretchen, Tina, and I looked at each other with promising eyes, thinking the deal sounded a little too good to be true but definitely wanting to find out more. I spoke up on behalf of the women whose mouths were occupied dragging from their cigarettes and told Mr. Banks, “Please do e-mail us the materials. It sounds very promising,” while writing down Gretchen’s e-mail address on the back of one of his business cards. Banks thanked me and then noticed Chairman Oliver exiting the school and made the same sincere pitch to him, and despite being the school’s chairman, seemed just as receptive to Banks’ sales pitch as we were, nodding affirmatively. Banks looked up to Gretchen finishing her cigarette and smiled approvingly, recognizing they were in the same situation and ultimately of the same mind about the school losing its way. As we all began to drift towards our vehicles, it hit me that the last thing any of us expected going into this meeting would be a kinship with the school board chairman.
All of us headed to my parents’ place to break the bad news to the girls, but also to share the possible silver lining of a new and more intimate educational setting they may be able to attend together. A negative nod towards my mom when I walked in the door let her know the news was bad, and we proceeded to head inside and tell the girls that their school was not true to them tonight. A few tears were shed, tempered by comforting words for the girls from everyone in the room, but Robert Banks quickly made good on his promise to e-mail us with literature and photos of the alternative school he and his wife ran out of their home. Everything seemed legit and we all quickly began moving in the direction of signing the girls up for it. Final paperwork and a tour of the facilities still needed to transpire before we’d commit, but after a few additional e-mail exchanges, we told Banks we were leaning towards a deal with him for both girls.
Everybody’s spirits went up in the aftermath of the e-mail exchange, and even Kaitlyn and Kilee got a little excited realizing they’d be together at the new school, even if they wouldn’t be around the rest of their friends. And in another few minutes, Gretchen found cause to break out the cigar box. The “victory cigar” was a long-standing rite of passage among the Paulson girls and even though there was no official victory, the promising consolation prize was impressive enough to justify passing around the stogies. Gretchen, Tina, and Melissa all took theirs, with Zack and I passing, and my mom taking the cue to leave the room to get away from the cigar smoke. As the three ladies lit their cigars, Gretchen took a final glance over her shoulder to make sure my mom was definitively out of there and then startled Kaitlyn by removing another cigar from the box for her.
“You want to try a cigar, sweetie?” Gretchen inquired, and Kaitlyn giddily shook her head in the affirmative. This was no surprise to me as I had noticed Kaitlyn taking a particular fascination whenever Gretchen had smoked cigars at our house. I figured the time would come where I’d see my wife and daughter smoking a cigar together, but never imagined it would come this early in Kaitlyn’s life. Gretchen’s Churchill cigars looked gigantic in the mouths of Gretchen and her adult sisters, so it seemed absolutely hulking when Kaitlyn placed the cigar in her mouth, clutching it with her teeth which required her to open her mouth as wide as she could. Gretchen gave Kaitlyn a quick tutorial about how to smoke the cigar and then used her torch lighter to fire her daughter up. It was absolutely surreal watching my elementary-age daughter draw in the smoke and produce growing clouds of cigar smoke from her mouth as she breathed. Kaitlyn removed the cigar from her mouth and blew, holding the cigar in her tiny hand which managed to make it look even bigger than when it was in her mouth.
“You like it, honey?” Gretchen asked while the whole room watched for her response, and she giddily nodded in the affirmative as she took another puff. The room laughed at her excited response while Kaitlyn exhaled to make her contribution to the already massive haze of cigar smoke in a room where the cigars had only been burning for the last couple of minutes.
Tina noticed sadness and envy in Kilee’s eyes as she watched her mom, aunts, and cousin smoking their cigars while she sat quietly in the corner. Tina shook her head in defeat before calling out to Gretchen, “Gretch….why don’t you hand over one more cigar here.”
Kilee’s spirits rose and Gretchen smiled and Kaitlyn again expressed her youthful jubilation that Kilee would get to share the experience with her. Being a year younger than Kaitlyn, the gigantic cigar seemed even more dominating in the mouth and hand of Kilee. Part of me thought Tina’s strategy here was to give Kilee such a huge dose of nicotine from the cigar that it would make her sick and hopefully dissuade her from continued smoking, but as unlikely as that seemed at the outset, it seemed even more unlikely 20 minutes later when the girls continued puffing on their stogies and talking amongst each other, filled with joy in a way I hadn’t seen in quite some time. Zach and I were chatting it up as well, and since he had the same affection for smoking females as I had, albeit without being out of the closet about it, I recognized him surveying the crowd just as I was, enjoying the visuals and the odor from five females filling the small room with cigar smoke. I noticed Zach making eyes with Melissa at the same time as I made eyes with Gretchen. It was pretty clear that whatever sexual tension had been festering up to that point, in my case for two sexless weeks, the dam was gonna be bursting in a major way later that evening!
And the dam did burst that evening, so much so that three weeks later Gretchen announced to me that I was gonna be a daddy again. It was well-needed good news, as was the smooth transition Kaitlyn made with her enrollment in Robert and Carolyn Banks’ school ran out of their home, along with Kilee and even Jeff Oliver, the 11th grade son of school board chair Sam Oliver. Kaitlyn enjoyed her new classroom setting and its freedoms, making a few new friends at her classes. The Bankses were even receptive to Gretchen’s request to let Kaitlyn have a couple of cigarette breaks during the day. Since it was an educational facility, state law mandated that she couldn’t smoke inside, but on the days when I drove to Banks’ place to pick Kaitlyn up, I usually saw her sitting on the front step smoking. As tough as it was to get used to the visual of seeing my adorable nine-year-old daughter smoking a cigarette, it was even more otherworldly to have her climb into the passenger seat of my car and sweetly saying “Hi daddy,” while reeking of smoke just like her mother.
And it didn’t happen right away but within a month or so it was no surprise that I went to pick Kaitlyn up and saw Kilee outside on the front step smoking a cigarette with her. I was never privy to the conversations Tina had with either Kilee or with Gretchen about her own daughter taking up smoking, but I just knew the tide would be strong for Tina to suppress, despite the rather aggressive resistance Tina had tried to put up. I often picked both girls up since Tina worked late most days, and both in terms of look and odor, the growing girls reminded me of those days 15 years ago when Gretchen and her younger chain-smoking sisters hopped into my car drenched in tobacco odor. It’s a much different era now and I worried about their smoking habits affecting their futures, but the next generation of the Paulson matriarchal bloodline was in no way gonna be denied its tobacco birthright.
A couple months later, the school year was near its end and summer was upon us, with Gretchen, Kaitlyn, and I headed to the crowded local beach on Memorial Day weekend. Gretchen wanted to get as much summer sun in as possible while her baby bump was still barely visible. As the three of us walked from our car and reached the sand, searching for a nice opening amongst the substantial beach crowd, Gretchen managed to turn the heads of many she was passing by, even amidst all the attractive beach bodies and even while still decked out in her T-shirt and jean shorts, cigarette dangling from her mouth. As was the case whenever we walked together in a public setting, I could feel the male eyes briefly checking me out and wondering how the hell I managed to land a girl as drop-dead gorgeous as Gretchen. And even among those admiring Gretchen’s looks and body, I could also read some mixed emotion in their body language as they took note of Gretchen smoking in front of her young daughter.
“Let’s sit there!” Kaitlyn said excitedly, pointing to an opening on the beach about 10 yards ahead, to which Gretchen and I concurred and followed her lead. I set out a beach towel on the sand as well as two folding chairs I was carrying and we were soon ready for some time on the beach…or almost ready.
I had come in my trunks and a T-shirt while Kaitlyn was already in her bathing suit, but Gretchen still had to disrobe from her T-shirt and cutoffs to reveal the hot pink bikini underneath, and I was eagerly awaiting it.
“Hold this, please”, Gretchen asked, handing me her half-smoked cigarette, which I happily held for her as she pulled off her T-shirt, showing off that shapely chest firmly contained in the bright bikini top and well-toned stomach with a tiny baby bump that would only be noticeable to someone who knew she was pregnant. And then came the button and zipper on the fly of her jean shorts, as I savored the visual display of their removal as if it was being done in slow-motion, her hips and ass slowly surrendering the tight denim that had been containing them. The shorts were off and her lower body was exposed as well. My eyes were fixated on her crotch in that pink bikini, amazed that in another seven months a second child would be passing through. Gretchen shook her head with a smile that confirmed I had been busted for checking her out while reaching out her hand to reclaim the cigarette. I shrugged helplessly with a smirk of my own as I handed it back to her.
Gretchen sat down on her beach chair and handed me her suntan lotion bottle which I proceeded to apply to her back and shoulders as she was applying sunblock to Kaitlyn. Partly because I was taking my time in manhandling Gretchen’s body, I was still applying her lotion by the time Kaitlyn was finished getting her sun protection applied. Gretchen finished her cigarette and squashed the butt into the sand, reflexively reaching to her purse to extract another when Kaitlyn looked at her hungrily.
“Mommy, can I have a cigarette before I go into the water?” Kaitlyn asked with a sweet smile.
Despite the very public setting, Gretchen no longer had a use for others’ opinions on how she and her family decides to live, even if I had a little more hesitation about it myself. Gretchen patted her daughter on the head while saying, “Of course, sweetie”, removing a second cigarette from her pack and handing it to Kaitlyn. With a single flick of her lighter, Gretchen brought her own cigarette to life as well as Kaitlyn’s. I watched as Kaitlyn’s cheeks collapsed as she dragged fairly intensely while dangling, letting the cigarette rest in her mouth for a moment while the smoke trickled from her nose. My little girl was already becoming quite the smoker.
I didn’t share Gretchen’s willingness to let Kaitlyn smoke publicly, so I knew that even if nobody had noticed the nine-year-old blond with cigarette in hand in their midst yet, somebody would quickly enough. And sure enough, within seconds, several faces were turned our way with reactions ranging from shock to disgust. As I bashfully scanned the crowd waiting for someone to lay into me or Gretchen for our parenting choices, a familiar face leaped out at me…..Kaitlyn’s old Hoover Elementary teacher Rebecca Conway. Mrs. Conway’s mouth was hanging open with the kind of horror you’d expect from someone who just witnessed a deadly car wreck as she looked upon us from a few yards away.
Kaitlyn made eye contact with her former teacher at the exact moment she exhaled a plume of smoke. I anticipated Kaitlyn would pull back and hide behind mom as she typically did in the face of confrontation, but she startled both me and Gretchen when she maintained her eye contact and stiffened her posture, ready to bark out loud to her former teacher.
“What are you staring at??! ” Kaitlyn opened defensively. “You’re not my mother! You’re not my teacher anymore either!”
As Mrs. Conway continued to train her eyes on Kaitlyn in shock at what she was witnessing and now hearing, Kaitlyn wouldn’t back down, with every person within earshot watching this amazing one-sided exchange. Kaitlyn seemed to feed off of the energy of the crowd, leaning forward and using her cigarette to point aggressively at Mrs. Conway, adding, “You don’t get to tell me or my parents what to do anymore. I don’t go to your school and I’m not going back!”
Kaitlyn finished her tirade with a drag from her cigarette, followed by an exhale directed Mrs. Conway’s direction that constituted a mic drop-equivalent final act of her defiant rant. She turned around to Gretchen and I with a naughty smile and then sat down on her beach towel, the entire crowd aghast at what they had just witnessed, and nobody more than Rebecca Conway.
As much of a struggle as it had been for Gretchen to maintain her militant defiance of an escalating antismoking culture in her generation, the next generation of smokers was gonna have an even taller order. But the next generation of tobacco users was getting off to a good head start in identifying its early champion! And just maybe, that champion could finish what she just started with Rebecca Conway and the other misguided emissaries of the public education system that won the first round against her mother.