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Why You Took Up Smoking

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Why You Took Up Smoking

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Adam Strong continues his series of stories about life in the ’90s. In this essay, he reflects on his last year of high school, taking up smoking, and getting suspended for drinking.

Why you took up smoking was because during Senior year you went on a theater trip to Daytona Beach. These kids in your drama class had Marlboro reds, and within a few minutes of being outside of earshot of a chaperone and following one coughing fit, you were hooked. Smoking gave you something to have in common with people, “Hey, can I bum one?”

There were different ways to smoke, cupping it in your hand, between index and middle finger, there were different ways to inhale, regular, or French, people standing in circles, taking a moment to think and reflect. Some people started to see you in this new light. There were girls you met; they didn’t look away immediately after being introduced to you.

Daytona Beach had bars that served beer to underage kids, which meant you and three new friends snuck off to TC’s Top Dog, where you bought massive plastic beer mugs with long frankfurters on them. The frankfurter donned a top hat and monocle. You weren’t terribly surprised when they didn’t card you. You were there with your three new friends Brad, Brian, and Mike, who everyone called Michelob on account of his last name, “Like the ear,” he said. The three of you perched there at the bar like proper grown-up malcontents.

That week in Daytona there was beer and weed and laughs with Michelob and Brad and Brian, whose father was a Mafioso who paced around in his bedroom in an FBI-issued ankle bracelet and a bad soap opera addiction. Brian, who spoke in a stoned register even when he wasn’t stoned, who topped an entire bag of Doritos in easy cheese and ate it in one very stoned mound. In Daytona there were moments when the four of you had your arms around each other.

You bought your first pack of cigarettes, your first Zippo lighter that you used for lighter tricks: rolling the wheel and lighting it off of your pant leg, then your arm, even the side of your head on the balcony of your hotel room cheers-ing each other with the TC’s Top Dog mugs.

“Adam dawg,” Brian said, the back ‘aw’ of dawg had a hollow stoner bellow to it, “I think that chick Mariah is into you.”

Mariah, the one you bummed a smoke from, after you’d had your initial coughing fit earlier in the day, you smoked like a champion in front of her that same evening. Something about the tightness of her curls, the round edges of her jeans against the deep red of her long-sleeved shirt. If you closed your eyes, it could be more than just a fantasy.

Smoking was a desperate way to cover up who you were before so you could be called that thing that you would never call yourself, “cool.”

Smoking was a desperate way to cover up who you were before so you could be called that thing that you would never call yourself, “cool.” 

The smoking trip was three days in Daytona and then two days at the University of South Florida to try out for scholarships. Five days of staring at your copy of 100 Monologues for Teens. All the characters were kids in this book, so you found the most brooding, pissed-off one you could find, Biff Loman’s monologue in Death of a Salesman, the speech that brings Willy, the character’s dad, back.

You don’t so much remember the audience or the temperature in the room, but you remember that you were so into the character that the son’s words were your words, you were at the Loman dinner table, trying to talk your dad out of offing himself.

When the house lights came up, so did the applause, your eyes were watery, your eyes burned, time for a cigarette.

The performance was good enough to get a scholarship to the University of South Florida, not that you would ever live in this state again, but they had a theater program and they wanted you.

Then it was off the bus and back to your beat-to-shit brown bomber.

Two bottles of liquor rolled around in the back seat. You figured if you were going to be a dork you might as well be a dork with a drinking problem who knew no less than five cigarette tricks.

One afternoon you had a bullshit algebra test you wanted to miss. You had the TC’s Top Dog plastic mug. You asked Gary to drink with you, but he said he had a history test he wanted to be there for. The choice of booze was going to be scotch, but then you heard that vodka was the easiest booze smell to cover up. You drove home after you dropped Gary off at school after lunch was over. By now you were supposed to be in 5th period business class, an old woman bathing in the gray light of IBM clone computers.

The light was different in your parents’ kitchen with both of them at work. You knew where the vodka was, the same place you got the two bottles of scotch, J & B and Johnnie Walker Red, you had in your car. But that was for evening drinks and now you were at lunch, well after lunch, and after lunch needed its own kind of groove, vodka.

Mix two parts vodka with four parts orange juice, five because you kept pouring and now you have to fill the rest of the cup with as much juice as you can fill up to the line. Which spills on the counter, and you have to clean it up but since it’s vodka you just slurp it up and you drink enough so you can drive without the drink sloshing all over the inside of your car.

You drink it all the way to school, even during the red light where you think there might be a cop hanging out. You take your sip with confidence, it is orange juice, the vodka doesn’t smell, there’s no booze in this. You park the car, and you’ve got all of this vodka and the car’s shitty upholstery is spinning and you are spinning so you leave the drink in your car, and you stumble a bit into school, so you straighten up and walk straight into the business classroom, sit right down at your usual computer.

She asked you a question you were not at all prepared for.

“Adam, do you have a pass?”

“Nah, I didn’t need one,” you said, “I was in my car.”

“And what were you doing in your car?”

“Just hanging out.”

“Principal’s office,” she said, “now.”


The first thing you noticed about the principal was that rounded drawl of his Texas accent. He kicked back, put his boots on the table, cowboy boots, black with little red roses on them.

You thought there was going to be this folksy speech about how we are “not in Texas anymore” and “remember the Alamo” and then you’d go back to trying to play Tetris when the teacher wasn’t looking.

“Vodka will kick the shit out of you, son,” he said.

But he wasn’t talking about steers or longhorns, he picked up the phone and called your mom.

“Mrs. Strong, come to the school immediately, there’s been an incident involving your son and alcohol.” Then he hung up.

The buzzed drunk feeling was gone, the burning sick in your stomach did a slow crawl to your throat. Swallowing hard didn’t make your mom’s arrival come any faster.

“We’re recommending five days of suspension,” he said to your mom, who just sat in the chair next to you and said “oh dear” a lot, but you could hear the crack of a cry in the back of her throat.

To this day you don’t know how you got that lucky, you chose to drink and walk into school the day your father was out of town on a business trip.

After the five-day suspension, the first day back was great until you got to Brooks’ drama class. He called you into his back office. “I am profoundly disappointed in you.”

You were off the dramatic reading group that was due to perform at the state Debate Tournament in Tallahassee even though it was your deep voice, thank you voice crack that helped propel the team to State.

There was a roster, a dog-eared sheet hung there on the door to the black box theater room, and you weren’t on it.

Brad, that fellow Daytoner, the mousy little Freshman, that rumor had it already had a girlfriend, was now taking your place at State. Brooks didn’t look you in the eye when the door to the first rehearsal shut in your face.

Michelob was bummed about you missing State.

“You’re gonna miss one hell of a party, I was going to bring the gravity bong.”

Also on The Big Smoke

You continued to try out, but instead of being offered leading roles, now you were lucky to nab a spot in the chorus, and you couldn’t sing.

When your mom was in the principal’s office, there was a simple request, “Can you tell me what his attendance has been like?”

There it was, the dozens of missed periods you left to drink and come back, the periods you drove to Specs CDs & Tapes, the extended lunches where you ended up somewhere by the water, watching egrets nest in the marshes.

You did this thing in your environmental science class, the teacher was a hippie burnout who played Iron Butterfly in class and one time had you all line up, one by one, to place each of our hands into the ceremonial dirt in a large pot at the center of the classroom, all the while the organ solo to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is going and she was spinning around and her dress was billowing out, Birkenstocks and a silver toe ring.

You started walking out in the middle of class after that. She’d be in the middle of some hippy-dippy diatribe and you’d just walk out right in front of her, and she wouldn’t even notice.

“Adam has missed environmental science 14 times.”

Now, after you’d been suspended and your parents had a holistic view of your actual attendance, you had to go to class every day, you had to scrub fish tanks coated in green slime, and you had to apologize to the hippie.

And sure, going to all of your classes and staying late and scrubbing fish tanks was a bummer, but you had no idea how much you were about to lose, that your parents had been tracking the levels of their liquor bottles for months now, and they had just noticed that two bottles were missing. One Saturday morning they searched your car, and there they were.

They did an inventory on the boat too, there were more than a dozen beers missing.

Your dad wasn’t having it. “I’m selling your car to someone more deserving.”

He sold it to Anthony, one of his employees, a sweet man with a snickering laugh. His wife and kids could all fit in the car, and they could still afford to send money back to their family in India.

“There’s just one question Anthony and I have,” he said, “what’s with the passenger side door?


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Adam Strong

Adam Strong is the founder of the reading series Songbook PDX. His work has appeared in Entropy, the Atticus Review, NAILED Magazine, Gravity of the Thing, in the anthologies City of Weird, The Untold Gaze, and on the Storytellers Telling Stories podcast. He writes, draws, and loves in Portland, Oregon, and is a high school Digital Arts teacher.

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