I. I’m sitting in Florence, Italy at a small, round table outside of a bar called Volumé. It’s my
penultimate night as a study abroad student before I move back home to rural Freetown,
Massachusetts after four months of exploring Europe. My roommates and the friends I’ve made
at the Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute are sitting around me, mojitos in hand, as laughter fills Piazza
Santo Spirito. In between the tips of my pointer and middle finger is a cigarettenot just any
cigarette, but the first cigarette of my life. I feel a sense of empowerment, although I still have
yet to actually bring the Camel to my lips. I just hold the slim, filtered stick there, daintily, my
wrist easing my hand backwards, as the smoke begins to mingle with the December air.
I lived the first twenty years of my life following the rules, even advocating against
smoking “cancer in cylindrical form.” But, here I am, freshly twenty one and just drunk enough to
become a hypocrite. Through the somewhat distant noise of music and chatter, through the
stale sadness of leaving this vibrant city, and through my own drunken thoughts of what drink to
order next, I think briefly of my mother.
Back in 1973, Mom would sit at a coffee shop with her best gal pal, Carol, and smoke
long, thin cigarettes before heading off to her 6th grade schoolhouse. I always pictured the table
being tall and circular, with her little black strappy shoes dangling above the ground. Every time
she told the story, my mouth would fall open and I’d shake my head in shock, as if I hadn’t heard
it several times before. A twelve year old child smoking a cigarette wasn’t legal now, nevermind
socially accepted. Mom would laugh.
“It used to be cool!” She said. “I never inhaled, anyways.”
Mom never smoked after that, at least not that I know of. She always told me she was a
reputable young woman, one who focused primarily on school and never got distracted with the
70’s hype on drugs or underaged drinking. I followed her example to the T, as I assumed was
her intention. I got good grades, joined the National Honor Society and stayed away from
alcohol until I was in college. I stayed away from cigarettes until I studied abroad.
I picture Mom as I put the cigarette to my mouth. Her grey roots growing in, her tired
green eyes framed by thin, square glasses. How her head tilts back when she drives so she can
look past the steering wheel. I know Mom would be disappointed if she saw me, a cigarette
dangling from my red lips. I assume I feel just as glamorous as she did at twelve years old, but
to her, I’m the one in the strappy shoes. A friend snaps a picture from across the table and I
remind her repeatedly not to post the blurry image of rebellion online where my mom could see.
My friend obliges, thankfully. I suck the smoke into my cheeks and taste the hot air with my
tongue. It’s bitter. And then I part my lips and let the smoke leave my body, feeling the warmth of
its escape on my face. I watch as it disappears, and in my drunken state, it looks beautiful. My
friends laugh. They tell me I’m a natural.
“You smoke like you’re from the 20’s,” they say, “like Audrey Hepburn.”
No one cares that Hepburn was barely an infant in the 20’s. I bring the cigarette back to
my lips a few more times. When it begins to crumble, I take another one, presumably the last
cigarette of my life. Not once do I inhale.
II. Mom is driving me home from Guys & Dolls rehearsal my sophomore year of high
school. There’s a bottle of diet pepsi in the cup holder, as always. Butterscotch candy wrappers
and toothpicks litter the center console. I drum my fingers on my thighs as we sit in silence. My
sixteen year old self is beginning to realize my awkward phase may be permanent. Mrs. Young,
the musical director, put me in the back for almost all of the ensemble numbers because I can’t
dance. My clothes never match, I’m terrified of public speaking, and I have many bouts with
social anxiety. Mom takes a right onto Middleborough Road.
“After I graduated high school,” Mom says, “I ran into a boy at Bridgewater Savings that I
used to have class with.”
I stare out the car window as we pass Boehler’s Garage. The VFW. The house with the
“And he told me,” She continues, “He said ‘I never asked you out because I was too
“Oh yeah?” I humor hereven turn my head to look over.
“He thought I was too beautiful. I made him nervous. A lot of beautiful girls make the
boys nervous.” She briefly moves her reassuring eyes to meet my gaze. I’ve seen her high
school photos, and can attest to her beauty. She had high cheekbones and long, dark hair. I
look in the rearview mirror at my own round cheeks and disheveled bangs.
I nod my head and smile. I don’t remind her that she’s told me this story before. I don’t
mention that it makes me feel pitied.
Later that year, I go on my first date. Mom’s a little too happy for me. It’s with Derek
Belanger, Sky Masterson in Apponequet High School’s Guys & Dolls. I’m confused when he
asks me out because I consider him out of my league. He’s charming, with a great rendition of
“Luck Be a Lady.” Mom’s excited and when he comes to the door, she shakes his hand. We
drive off in the his blue minicooper to the New Bedford Flagship where we see the third Narnia
movie. The movie is horrible and Derek talks during the entire thing. When he drops me off back
at Middleboro Road, I anxiously jump out of the car before he can try to kiss me goodbye. A few
days later I tell Mom that I don’t think I’ll see Derek again.
“Why not?” She asks. We’re on the highway, probably driving home from Price Rite.
“He’s too old for me.” This is partly true, two years is a big deal to a high schooler. He’s a
senior and that intimidates me. Mostly, though, it’s because the whole thing makes me too
“When I was a sophomore in high school I was dating a man who’d already been
divorced!” Mom laughs, “He’d already fought in ‘Nam.”
I feel my face twist with confusion because this story is new. I thought all the boys were
too nervous to ask Mom out.
I think of all the men in Mom’s life. After piecing together the stories, I realize she must
have dated a lot in her youth. The memories of her love life linger on my mind like a longlasting
butterscotch candy. I wonder if I’ll ever have as many boyfriends as Mom, or as many new and
exciting personas. When Mom, at eighteen, was married to a local cop, Jimmy Detano, she
axed the name Rosemarie and went by Marie. Marie Detano had a huge perm and wide framed
glasses. Mom divorced Jimmy when she was nineteen, after he ran off with Claudette, a
bridesmaid in their wedding. She shortened her name to just “Ree” when she married my dad.
She kept her maiden name, Walsh. Ree Walsh was a lot different than Marie Detano she was
a new, independent mom. Then Mom and Dad divorced too. Mom says she married her third
husband, Brett, when I was six because she was sick with undiagnosed Celiac disease and
wanted someone to look after my sister and me in case something were to happen to her. She
sometimes took Brett’s last name, Hawes. Only sometimes. Rosemarie Hawes was a lot more
passive. “I don’t love Brett,” she told me once, years after their wedding, “I respect him.” I
wonder if she loved any of the others. I wonder, a tad melodramatically, if love even exists at all.
I see Derek again, but just a few more times. We don’t fall in love. I don’t fall in love with
Garett either, or Jake. Or Ben. I don’t fall in love with Tyler or Aiden or David.
III. I’m ten years old in 2005, and I’m with my family on a Greyhound bus heading to
Orlando. It’s August, and the bus is filled with hot, sticky air and untidy luggage. I try to play
cards but they fall in the aisle. A woman sitting in front of us gives my sister, Amy, a bible that
has sections noted with yellow highlighter. We’re heading to Disney World, our usual vacation
spot. At one in the morning, the driver makes an unscheduled stop and everyone has to get off
the bus. Apparently they need to fix something.
“I’ll never take a Greyhound bus again!” Mom says as we ooze out of the bus and into
the station. But she will never take a plane, either. Mom’s been terrified of flying since a rocky
landing in 1987. One year, she had even turned down free tickets to Vegas that a friend got her
as an anniversary present. Brett is flying to Florida and meeting us in Orlando with my step
sister. I had the option to fly, too, but flying is number one on my list of ultimate fears.
“Why?” People would ask me, “Cars are more dangerous than planes.”
“But if a plane goes down, there isn’t a chance,” I’d tell them. That’s what Mom would
That’s what I’m thinking 10 years later, when I’m on my first flight in the summer of 2015.
I’m heading to Orlando with my boyfriend, Cary. We’re going to Disney World. Mom gave me
anxiety meds for my nerves and I’m almost falling asleep before take off. Cary grips my hand.
The plane reminds me of a Greyhound bus. I thought it would be bigger, like the planes on TV. I
sleep the entire flight, and I’m glad I do. When I get off the plane, I consider the fact that it was
all a dream. It wasn’t.
Later that summer, Mom gets on a plane for the first time in 28 years. She drove with her
sister to Florida and then flew back, alone.
“I never thought you’d do it!” I tell her.
“Well, if you can do it,” She says, “I can too.”