I am walking home from the U-Store around 10pm on the first night I can remember not feeling cold after sunset. My Arrested Development poster of Tobias’ jean shorts keeps falling down and I need tape, but they only have the University-approved wall adhesive that mothers buy on your first day of college that you never use. I forget to buy allergy medicine. I stop for a moment on the sidewalk to fish a beaten up carton of 27’s out of my backpack. One cigarette appears to have been crushed by my textbooks. Good, I think. Cigarettes kill you.
I start walking again under pale orange streetlight, the wind is blowing, and it feels nice to be outside when everything is so quiet. The muted sounds of a singing group practicing, people crowded into small rooms playing loud music, boys shouting, girls laughing— the sound of the night settling into itself punctuates the silence.
I look up and blow smoke toward the Japanese magnolia blossoms. They are beautiful and I hope that the chemicals I exhale do not hurt them. I don’t know why I’m smoking. It is a fairly recent phenomenon; I used to be an exclusively “social smoker” and didn’t inhale, just like Woody Allen in Manhattan.
I think the smoking began after too many nights that started with drinking and ended with looks of panic or fear or confusion or profound worry on my best friends’ faces. And then drinking became less fun, the way something that hurts the people you love often does. That in itself is a good thing, but there is something perplexing about my suddenly lost good-time demeanor; after all, that is what won me friends in the first place.
Aside from my own awareness of the strangeness of walking home alone to do homework, backpack on, weekend in full swing, smoking, I feel other people noticing the changes in me. In the course of a weekend, I learned a lot about the sort of person I present myself as. Today a new friend wanted to introduce me to her friends, and finally she ushered me toward a familiar face. “This is Margaret!” Her friend and I were silent for a second, pausing in recognition, and just as I was about to tell her that we knew each other he said, “I have met her. Many times.” Totally blank, eyes clear and hard, and I noticed how nice they were. At first I thought his face was unreadable, that he was masking disapproval, but I realized that there was simply nothing to read. He felt nothing about me, wanted nothing more to do with me. It’s interesting the way first impressions rest on both people plus their respective current situations. I met this person once on the night I found out I had gotten hosed, and twice more when I happened to be crying. These three events and circumstances were the sum total of my contribution to our relationship. From every angle, to him, I am volatile and an arm’s-length distance is optimal, maybe more. I agree; if I were him, I would keep my distance too. Perhaps worst of all, this is not an entirely new experience for me. This guy was just the latest.
His friend, on the other hand, met me more recently, and she may have been drunk and feeling friendly, I don’t know. I gave her a cigarette and suddenly we were having a lovely conversation. This time it began with an infinitesimal kindness, as opposed to a crying girl in the arms of her friends who are loudly whispering, “It’s fine, it happens all the time, she’s really a good person, I’m sorry.” Their kindness is infinite, but I take baby steps—starting with cigarettes.
Now, still walking home, I want to sit down on the sidewalk and give up. I feel drained from half-illuminated self-awareness, I want someone to tell me that it is statistically impossible for everyone to hate me, for everyone to even have an opinion about me, that it just doesn’t matter. Or, I want to talk to my friends, but they probably need a day off from friend-therapy, so does Dr. Chin—it’s a weekend, too late to call. So here I am playing with a 7-Eleven lighter hoping there are strangers somewhere in the future who I won’t meet smoking or crying.
“Smoking will kill you,” I often mumble to people who bum cigarettes off me, but rarely has an acquaintance that started this way later stared back at me with eyes that say nothing but, “We’ve met.” I am responsible for that impression, and the others like it, so I cannot be hurt by the sterility of this exchange. But I hope that the change sticks, because never again do I want to leave such a bad impression on someone who could have been my friend.