I am fifteen years old, trapped at a football game when my two best friends approach me. I knew they were up to something as soon as I felt Ellie’s impish smile tingle my skin. I start to squirm.
“Hey, Madi,” Ellie taunts a few yards away, “wanna get out of here?”
I am dressing a hotdog I had just bought from the concession stand, and upon hearing her call out my name I misjudge the ketchup-to-dog trajectory and miss, spilling ketchup all over the aluminum table.
“What?” I barely breathe out. “Where would we go?”
“We’re gonna go to Tanglewood!” Chelsea reveals as the two get closer, with her normal vigor and enthusiasm. I forget about my hotdog and the three of us hug once they are close enough. Ellie moves in closer and I can almost feel her breath on my cheek, it smells like Oreos and toothpaste.
“We’re gonna go smoke cigars in Tanglewood, are you down?” She asks in a constrained whisper and she is so intense that the question comes out as a swift statement. I feel like everybody can hear.
“Wait, cigars? We’re on the cross country team… what happens if we get caught?” An exited tightness edges its way into my chest when I start to realize that yes, I am in fact down to go with them and that I don’t necessarily care if we get caught.
“Dude we’re totally not gonna get caught, we’ll be fine. Chelsea bought Febreeze, gum, and car freshener for the ride home. Let’s go.” She pushes my shoulder. If this were anyone else, I would have considered it to be peer pressure. But the thing is, it isn’t about the cigars. It isn’t about smoking something and rebelling against our parents. It’s not even about ditching the football game we are at. It’s about a shared experience and doing something meaningful, together. Plus, the push is lighthearted and she is my best friend, so I agree to go to Tanglewood.
We gush about the cigars the entire car ride there.
“What kind of cigars are they?”
“White Owls, of course,” Chelsea is confident when she states this, as if it is the only plausible response to my question. She is eighteen and seems to know the ropes when it comes to tobacco products and the like. She drives to Tanglewood as if she knows the roads backwards with her eyes closed.
Is that obvious? Hold your enthusiasm, Madi. Pull back. You know what you’re getting into. You know what you’re doing.
“Well, what flavor did you get?”
“We picked out four. Cherry, black cherry, grape, and strawberry.”
My goodness, four kinds? How many more flavors could there be? There are two kinds of cherry?
“Cool. Alright, cool, yeah sounds great,” I say this as if those were the flavors I would have obviously picked out as well if I had been old enough to buy them.
Ellie can’t wait to crack open one of the cigars. They’re the kind that come in different colored plastic tubes that have a screw-in lid in case you decide to end the cigar early and keep it for later.
“Chelsea, can’t you drive faster?” Ellie is quite literally sitting on the edge of her seat and hasn’t bothered to buckle in. She isn’t even phased by the sharp twists in the hills that lead to Tanglewood. This is unsurprising to me—Ellie does what Ellie wants and everyone knows it.
I can still hear the soft crunch of tires rolling over the tiny grey rocks of Tanglewood’s entrance. As we exit the car, I realize the forest is beckoning to us. The rustle of the trees pine to our small troupe, promising tomfoolery and the first taste of nicotine and tobacco on our tongues.
With Chelsea as our ring leader, we tromp through the wood dodging roots and large rocks along the way. She navigates the forest as if an old sage had once shone her the way before.
“Where are you taking us? Have you been here before?” I inquire.
“You’ll see,” Chelsea responds with a sly smile, looking back at me. “Ryan took me here once.”
Ah, Ryan. This place must be special.
“Chelsea, how much longer is this walk?” Ellie whines, but it’s not because she’s a brat. Just an eager-beaver ready to get a taste of something naughty.
“We’ll be there soon,” evading her question, Chelsea brushes it away with a simple smile most likely bemused at Ellie’s impatience, and I laugh along with her.
The air is thick, and sweet with the smell of rotting wood and the fresh scent of pine and other coniferous plants. Sweat lines our brows and I can’t tell if the perspiration is from the heat of the day or the moment. Maybe it’s both.
Tanglewood is so dense and full of textures and twists and turns– when there is a sudden break in the conifers we are taken aback. We go from being surrounded by green, pine needles, and sap-soaked tree trunks to a wide open space of orange, red, and brown leaves in an instant. There are tiny creeks sleeping in the lowest curves of the leafy hill and fallen tree trunks bowing over streams, creating natural bridges and spots for sitting– just for us. As the endless green made an abrupt break, so did any internal worries. We ran into the wood, kicking up leaves and dirt as we went.
Our small company subconsciously picks the centermost log as our spot to smoke. Nestled in a rivulet which flows over slimy rocks, the log acts as a multitude of things; a balance beam for clumsy teenage girls, an unstable table for our almost empty lighter and cheap cigars, a damp seat for our butts, and even a bed to balance and lay on for those of us who dare try it out. The log is in the center of the orange autumn oasis, and this becomes our small private universe.
No one knows how to properly light a cigar. Minutes seem to melt into decades as Ellie and I wait for Chelsea to light one, flicking the Bic into almost into extinction. Our fingertips fumble over the spark wheel in an attempt to bring the butane to life and then we have it.
“Give it here give it here, I wanna try and blow an ‘O!’” Ellie grabs at the cigar and Chelsea pulls away just in time to keep it out of Ellie’s reach.
“Patience, Ellie, jeeze will ya chill out? Madi, do you wanna try it?” she looks me the eye.
“Yeah, I could try.” I feel special that Chelsea lets me smoke before Ellie. They are sisters after all. “How do you do it, exactly?”
“Here, I’ll show you. Puff on the cigar. Draw in the smoke as if you’re sucking something through a straw but don’t inhale it,” as she explains, she uses the lit end of the first cigar to light the second. This process is much quicker than it was with the lighter.
She gives the cigar back to me and we quietly puff together, and then Chelsea shares hers with Ellie. Before I can even get a few solid draws off of mine, Ellie starts hacking.
“Ooooooohhhhh my god, I think… I think I’m a little high!” Ellie gets up and does a stupid dance near the crick. “Did you know you could get a tobacco high?!” Chelsea rolls her eyes at her. A large part of me wants to try inhaling, wants to already know how to inhale, and wants to inhale better than anybody in the whole forest.
I didn’t end up learning how to inhale that day.
Nevertheless, we take turns trying each other’s cigars, attempting to blow smoke rings and teaching each other different tricks like how to French-inhale. We conclude it’s too windy to puff perfect “O’s,” and that the French-inhale is the sexiest thing since sliced bread.
My ten best friends and I all share a joint in the dark, this time on a different log in a different area of the forest. Tanglewood is the same, with bridges made of logs and trodden paths created from decades of dog walks and annual summer teenage shenanigans. Soft green moss and brown bark still cover every inch, and every surface smells of dirt and fresh air. It is gritty and it is what I think of when I hear the word “home.” We giggle and trip over roots as we navigate our way through the pitch black. Years ago I would have been afraid to come here past ten PM, afraid of the unknown noises in the brush, the night so dark shadows can’t even be seen. But tonight is different, it is not my first or even my second rodeo.
Tonight I am leading the way with Ellie, sharing the ways of this forest with newcomers. No one questions where we’re going, no one fights over the rotation of the joint, and no one is worried about getting caught because we are young and filled with love for each other and new experiences.
It is my first day of classes at Geneseo. I am sitting outside of Milne smoking a cigarette. I no longer have to question how to smoke, I just smoke. It is as easy as breathing, maybe easier. I sit near a blue picnic table, and I know this is a smoking spot because I’ve come to know how to identify the signs over the years; empty cigarette packs here and there, small brown circles in the picnic table where people have ashed their perspective tobacco products, and cigarette butts litter the periphery of the space. I sit feeling alone despite the grubby young man who sits parallel to me. He smokes Senecas—a staple of Geneseo smokers, but I didn’t know it at the time—and I recognize the coffee mug he is sipping out of as one from a local festival near my hometown.
“Are you from Ithaca?” I decide to ask; being timid has never paid off in my experience.
“Yeah, well actually I’m from Trumansburg but it’s the same area,” he replies, and the discussion opens up.
I tell him my name, he says his is Joe and we shake hands. I make my first friend at Geneseo.
Side effects of smoking include: increased risk of stroke and brain damage, loss of sense, smell, and taste, yellow teeth, tooth decay, bad breath, and cancer.
Side effects of smoking include late night talks outside on a summer night. Laughs so big they hurt your belly while sitting on a bridge. Cigarette kisses that taste like tar and love. Meeting new people outside of libraries or at parties. Experiencing your friends in a new light. Warm memories.
Madi Bussmann is a first semester junior at Geneseo, originally from Elmira Heights, NY. Some of Madi’s favorite things to do are eating her friends’ food, petting dogs, and doing puzzles. If asked what type of lettuce she would be if she were a type of lettuce, she would say spring mix. Madi is an adolescent English education major and hopes to teach and inspire eighth grade students someday.