Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams
Almost 60 years later, memories of a transformative summer, childhood hijinks, and smokes at the beach still smolder.
By Beth Ayotte
From our August 2016 issue.
I’m 5 years old, and this is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done with my friend Fran. I slide the plastic wrap off a pack of cigarettes, peel open the silver foil, and pull one out. To light it, I hold a cardboard matchbox in one hand and strike a wooden match against the scratchy side. The match bursts into flame. I push the filtered end of the white, paper-covered tube between my lips, put the lit match to the opposite end, and then suck in. The burning tip reminds me of how the coil glows red inside the dashboard lighter of Daddy’s olive-green Mercury.
One puff burns my throat. Two puffs make my throat so dry I cough. After I stop hacking, I smile so wide Fran sees straight through the gap left by the recent loss of my two front teeth. More short drags make my head float. My tongue feels like a bale of hay. I’m shivering, sand covers my bathing suit as thick as the sugar on the donut I ate for breakfast, and I’ve lost my pop-bead bracelet, but I don’t care.
Sometime between making sandcastles, sweeping the porch, and setting the table, I decided to smoke this summer.
Fran and I are out of sight because we crawled on our bellies through a hole in the latticework skirt under the shingled, three-story home on Drakes Island in Wells, where Fran’s grandmother, Shirl Girl, spends every summer. With at least a half-dozen bedrooms and a long line of wicker rockers on the porch, it seems like the grandest beachfront cottage ever. Nothing but a seawall separates the front lawn from the sandy beach. If we’re allowed to lunch on fancy cucumber sandwiches in Shirl Girl’s living room, I try to count the teardrop crystals hanging from a chandelier above the velveteen sofa.
Each August, my family makes the short drive down from Kennebunk to vacation in a cottage on Drakes Island that’s been in the family forever. Fran’s family comes up from Boston and stays nearby. When we were babies, our parents laid us on beach blankets in the sun. Before long, we crawled in the sand. With another year, we stood upright. Soon Fran and I could hold hands while we jumped over frothy waves. Now I’m old enough to notice grown-ups praising the simpler way of life here in the salty air, under the hot sun. We can walk to everything we could possibly want or need: community house, playground, tennis courts, island store. Mom and Dad play bridge whenever they can, but Daddy always finds time to fish my box kite out of a tree, and Mommy is never without a reason to bake chocolate chip cookies. Like the beach roses, Fran and I are nourished by the seashore.
Today, under the porch, we stink to high heaven. We stub out our smokes and scramble into the fresh air and sunshine. Extending our arms, Fran and I pretend to be stunt planes and dive-bomb along the beach, scattering sandpipers at the water’s edge. While Fran practices the eye roll that so annoys her mother, a grown-up hears me repeating aloud, “I want mustard on my ice cream.” Smart and curious, we’re testing our limits this summer as our parents gab with friends they haven’t seen all winter. It’s easy to sneak away during the all-you-can-eat blueberry pancake breakfasts and sunset cocktail parties.
Fran and I have often watched our parents hold the phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Trays full of ashes sit on coffee tables, at bathroom sinks, and next to our parents’ beds. Once a week, Mom uses a plastic bucket of soap and water mixed with Pine-Sol to strip grime left on the walls by smoking. We see Lucy and Ricky Ricardo lighting up on the black-and-white TV. And during commercial breaks, glamorous adults pause while riding bikes, playing golf, rowing a boat, or hiking a trail to smoke cigarettes with strange names such as Viceroy, Marlboro, and Lucky Strike. Boy, do I glow with a sense of accomplishment whenever I use my finger to poke the cigarette lighter next to the steering wheel inside Daddy’s Mercury.
Before long, we locate unopened cartons inside Fran’s kitchen cupboard. A couple of loose smokes always hide behind the Captain Kangaroo cookie jar atop my refrigerator. Open cartons stand on a shelf in the garage at my house. If one of my parents forgets a pack of cigarettes somewhere, I’m often allowed to fetch it.
I see how cigarettes seem to calm adults fretting about the horrible threat of nuclear war and increase their fun at parties. Cigarettes are part of our family, but they’re never offered to me. Why not? So, sometime between making sandcastles, sweeping the porch, and setting the table, I decided to smoke this summer.
After that first time under the porch, Fran and I get away with smoking inside linen closets, on decaying floorboards, and under goldenrod growing beside tidal pools. One day, during our last full week together for the summer, after carefully gluing bits of dried seaweed and sea glass onto pretty quahog shells at Fran’s house, we head to Shirl Girl’s. She invites us in but stays in the kitchen, making her famous blueberry bramble as we skip down a short hallway to Uncle Richard’s bedroom and shut the door.
Uncle Richard doesn’t sleep here anymore. He’s all grown up and serving in the U.S. Army. Fran and I sit cross-legged on the floor, our foreheads practically touching, to puff away on a shared cigarette while we thumb through his old Playboy magazines. When I drop a lit match, it singes my finger and falls on a page of naked hips where it burns a small hole before snuffing itself out. I flip through page after page of women’s curved backs, parted thighs, and breasts so huge they don’t look real. One woman after another touches her private parts, something Mom forbids me to do. To examine up close and in secret everything usually hidden is exciting to me. We stare at these women without clothes. Who are these people?
We freeze at a loud knock at the back door. Fran and I pick up the sound of shuffling shoes coming from the kitchen, near Uncle Richard’s bedroom door. We hear Mom’s gruff voice asking Shirl Girl if she knows where I am. I can’t make out the rest of their muffled exchange. Bang. The back door slams shut. I sense my mother is gone. Then the sliding screen door to the front porch screeches open — probably Shirl Girl going outside. Fran and I decide to make our getaway. We exit the bedroom, tiptoe down the hallway, slide across the newly waxed kitchen floor, and slip out the back door to the dirt road, where we sigh with relief.
That August, 58 years ago, I gave up sucking my thumb for locking my lips on a tobacco-filled roll of paper. Afterward, Fran left for Massachusetts, and I returned home to Kennebunk to start school. I still remember the soft beach sand slipping between my toes on Drakes Island and my summer exploits with my friend. That first month of smoking was also my last. It wouldn’t have been any fun without my partner in crime.
Beth Ayotte lives in Kennebunk.