another excerpt: 2002
another excerpt: 2002
"Where are we going?" I asked, suddenly aware that we had veered away from the main road. My best friend Jim and I were following Matt Griffin through the suburban streets of wooded Northville, the big expensive houses silent in the fading dusk, but we had turned suddenly onto a dirt trail that branched off from the sidewalk, and I was hesitant to leave the clean, well-lit path of the lamp-lit street. The trail ahead looked like it led to a small patch of woods behind a mini mart that was lit by neon martini glasses. It looked like the kind of lot you see on missing persons shows.
"Just follow me," Matt said, that mischievous grin on his face.
And something about the way he said it got my adrenaline pumping; we were always chasing after that next adrenaline rush in those years, our hormones imbuing in us the devil-may-care attitude of reckless youth, looking for trouble and causing all sorts of mischief because it gave us a sort of high we hadn't found elsewhere yet, and the look on Matt's face told me he would take me to it. I followed anxiously, always chasing the next rush like I would later so desperately seek my next drink.
The three of us were supposed to be walking back to the Griffin's house from Ashley Blanchard's house, but we were young, full of life and night, and we were in no hurry to go home back then. Besides, neither Jim nor I knew the surrounding area well enough by then to be able to navigate it on our own -- we had only recently started hanging out with Matt, when he transferred to St. Mike's for the start of junior high -- so we really had no choice but to follow him anyway.
Matt flipped open his cell phone, holding it out like a flashlight, and the green glow of its translucent light guided us into a wooded thicket of tall grass, where the foxtails blowed breezily in the night air. We continued on a hundred feet or so through the woods until we arrived at a small opening in the trees that looked like some sort of construction work graveyard -- orange traffic barrels, broken cinder blocks, and rusted metal pipes strewn haphazardly around the trailside in varying stages of nature reclamation. Overhead, I could hear the bats flying blindly across a golden sliver of a moon, which hung like an ominous sickle in the inky purple sky.
It was the Springtime of our eighth grade year, and by then Jim and I had been through just about everything together. After seven long years toiling in the shadows of the class above us, it seemed we were the kings of the school at last: we were popular, active on the track and baseball teams that Spring, and we had just spent the night making out with our girlfriends on Ashley Blanchard's basement sofa. After several years of nervous speculation, we had also recently discovered that we would be attending the same high school together in the Fall, and it seemed nothing could tear us apart. Still, though our eighth grade graduation was fast approaching, the hedonistic pursuits of post-pubescent teen boyhood far outweighed our nostalgia as one door was closing and another opening.
"Here it is!" Matt cried ecstatically, getting down on his hands and knees to shine the light of his cell phone into a hollow concrete pipe that was tangled in vines and roots. He reached in and pulled out a crumpled up brown paper bag, which he carefully unwrapped. He pulled out a small, teal green box. It was a pack of Newport Lights.
"Stole 'em from my mom," Matt boasted to us before we could ask, placing one of those thin white cigarette butts I had heard so much about between his lips casually, like he had done this dozens of times prior. He was always trying to play the James Dean schtick, especially with the girls in high school, something for which I resented him because he already was the star quarterback, the lovable jock -- he couldn't possibly understand the first thing about James Dean. "She just thinks she smoked 'em all herself," he mused, breathing, and all three of us watched the clouds of cigarette smoke billow from his lips as if they spelled out the secret to life.
Matt carried on smoking while Jim and I just stood there, dragging the toes of our tennis shoes through the dirt, trying to look occupied. We both knew what he was going to ask next.
"You guys want one?" Matt asked, and Jim and I looked at each other nervously.
On some level, the entirety of my fourteen year long upbringing seemed conditioning for this moment -- had conditioned me to "just say 'no'".
It had certainly been made abundantly clear to me in my home life that smoking cigarettes would not be approved. My Mother never smoked, and I remember she used to emphasize to us that "smoking kills" whenever we would pass by a smoker outside the mall or in the park, intentionally instructing us loud enough for the second-hand-smoke-wielding culprit to hear. As a consequence of this I regarded cigarette smokers along the same lines as the junkie or the wino outside the liquor store in my early years.
As for my Father, it was sort of an unwritten rule in my house that we weren't to talk about my Father's late night smoking habit. Though I was ignorant to the whole charade for several years, I began to pick up on it about the same time I started watching the Red Wings with my Dad. Sometimes, especially during hockey games, he would slip out the garage door and disappear for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, returning to the couch smelling like a chimney, pretending as if he hadn't left at all. Neither my Mother nor my Father would say a word about it; my Mom would just continue on folding laundry in silent disapproval. Sitting there on my living room sofa, I was quite sure that I would never be like my parents. The unspoken silence in regards to the issue was more persuasive than any anti-smoking commercial ever could have been.
Then there was school. And there was nothing so influencing on my perception of drugs and tobacco than St. Michael's Catholic School. Starting in second grade, there was a rumor that would bi-annualy recirculate around school concerning some seventh or eighth grade boy who had been expelled from school for smoking cigarettes on school grounds. Then in fourth and fifth grade we completed the D.A.R.E. program, which was ran by my friend Chuck 's Dad. Created to "keep kids off drugs" in the the wake of the Cobain-fueled heroin scare of the early nineties, D.A.R.E.'s dishonesty when it came down to discussing the drug epidemic ultimately failed me like it failed so many kids of my generation. It indoctrinated us to regard heroin and marijuana and even cigarettes as similar evils, and by the time I was through with that I was quite sure I would never smoke or do drugs.
I couldn't even really blame peer pressure, either. At St. Mike's, I was surrounded by private school kids who lived lives that were sheltered from the drug culture rumored to be rampant in the public school system; the kids I grew up alongside in school came from upper middle-class households with wide lawns and narrow minds.
I couldn't even hide behind my the sins of my own best friend. As soon as the question was on the table, no more than five seconds passed before Jim quickly declined: "No thanks, man, it's not my thing," Jim said collectedly, confidently. I could have easily said no at that point -- we would have outnumbered Matt two to one. It probably wouldn't have been a big deal.
But the thing is, no matter how many different ways I was told that cigarettes and drugs were bad for me, there was always a part of my soul that gravitated towards saying "yes" and more, more, more. I was one of those lost souls who couldn't be told that something was bad for me; I had to figure all that out for myself.
"I'll take one," I said, and Matt obliged, lighting the cigarette for me. We stood there smoking under the stars while Jim stood idly by a short distance away, out of range of the cigarette smoke, and a few minutes later it was over. The three of us wandered back to Matt's house, talking girls and sports like nothing had changed. But it had.
Jim took the road less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.