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A Life in Smoke: A Memoirby Julia Hansen
Chapter One: Day 1
The end is quick — one defiant hiss as I pass the lit end under the tap. It dies like any other I've held under faucets, dropped into toilets, and inserted into half-empty cans of flat Diet Pepsi. After the murder there is the ritual disposal of the ashtray — this one the orphan saucer to a cracked teacup — and the sigh of relief and regret. The deed done, I head into the living room to watch CNN. The last cigarette has soured my stomach, but sweetened my mood. When John comes downstairs, showered and shaved, I can smile. Pausing at the couch for a kiss, he ambles into the kitchen, with me at his heels.
I take a seat and watch him work. Opening the refrigerator, he roots for a moment, then shuts the door with his elbow, cradling the carton of eggs, the butter and bacon, a wedge of Cheddar. John cooks breakfast every morning; he is Pennsylvania Dutch and needs his eggs and bacon. He's a big man — 5 feet 10, 240 pounds — and before we started dating he'd lost one hundred pounds, twice. He still struggles with his weight, and loves his bread and potatoes as much as I love my smokes.
As he cracks eggs into a bowl, I say, "Don't make me any. I'm not hungry. I had coffee and a cigarette." (Not a cigarette. The cigarette. The last one.)
He ignores me, keeps cracking. "Hon. You have to eat." He whisks the eggs into froth, pours them, hissing, into our cast-iron frying pan, then drops bread into the toaster. "You want bacon?"
"Sure." I sigh. He will nurture me into a size fourteen.
We eat in the living room in front of the TV news, as we do every morning. I wolf my food, as usual, but John eats the way his people do everything: slowly.
Finally, he lays down his fork and looks at me. "Ready?"
The chain lies in the corner in glinting disarray, one end already locked around the dining-room radiator. Gathering an armful, John drags it to the couch and searches for the free end, letting each heavy coil drop upon the last. Spooked by its clatter, my eleven-year-old cat, Frankie, crawls out from under the coffee table and skitters into the kitchen. I'm inclined to follow him.
John pats the coffee table. I sit and extend my left leg, a maid of honor accepting a garter. He kneels at my feet and, with the other lock, attaches the chain to my ankle with a firm quiet click. Suddenly, I am a chain gang of one. Where are my prison stripes? John is right: I am demented. But this is the only way.
John tugs gently on the chain, then sets me free again. "You better wear socks. This" — he rattles the chain — "will hurt in a few hours." I head upstairs, returning in socks but still wearing my bathrobe. I see no reason to get dressed.
John reshackles me, then checks the time on the VCR: 7:24. "I've got to go." John maintains and repairs machinery in a plant that makes car seats and high chairs, and has an hour's drive ahead of him. Stepping over the puddle of chain, he gathers his gym bag and keys and picks up the bag of trash I've placed at the door.
I lower my head, blinking back tears. It's my first day of kindergarten and my mother has just walked out the door. How will I survive this day, my life, without cigarettes? Without my trusty pack I don't exist, like that falling tree in the forest that no one hears.
I clank to the front door with him. We murmur the usual endearments, kiss, and then he's down the front steps. At the Jetta, he turns.
"You're okay with this? You're sure?"
"Yes, yes, I'll be fine. Go." What else can I say? My husband has chained me inside my house, because I've asked him to, and now he's got to go.
"I'll call you later." He gets in, pulls away from the curb, and is gone.
I shut the door gently, rattle back to the couch, and wait to go crazy.
For the first three years of my life, it was my mother and grandmother and me. We lived in my grandmother's little brick house on New Pear Street in Vineland, a small city in southern New Jersey populated by the working-class Italians and blacks who worked in its many factories. On the outskirts of the city was farm country. In August, tomatoes and corn burst from the fertile earth; peaches, swollen with juice, dropped from the trees.
My grandmother's woodsy backyard abuts a house with stables. The horses press against her split-rail fence; she lifts me high, my legs dangling, my dress riding up, so I can pat their velvety muzzles. It is late spring; I love the heavy clusters of lilacs, with their dew-silvered leaves and distinctive scent of honey and rain. I close my eyes and inhale.
There was Elisa, my mother; Julia, my grandmother,
the woman for whom I was named; and me. My father, Nicholas, was just gone. Both eighteen, they'd met waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant in Atlantic City, and he had gotten her pregnant under the boardwalk. Weeping, my mother confessed to my grandmother, who promptly flew at her daughter, slapping and screaming: Her putana of a daughter carried a bastard in her belly. Her brother — my uncle Art, four years older than my mother — cornered Nick, held both fists under his nose, and suggested that he marry her. Art had been my mother's protector since kindergarten; small, pencil-wristed boys in his elementary school had paid him to act as their bodyguard. He fought anyone, anytime, for a buck or for free. And so, in November 1962, a justice of the peace in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, performed a quick, quiet ceremony attended only by Art.
My mother didn't want to be married any more than Nick did, however, and they divorced several months before I was born. No real harm done; everyone eventually got what they wanted. My grandmother's pride was restored: I had a last name. Nick got his freedom back. My mother got me, a shining bowl into which she could pour all her inchoate yearnings.
I got something, too: a ghost. Nick's ghost — short, wiry, with black hair and olive skin, like mine, and small, delicate hands. It shadowed me everywhere. As a child, I could not understand the pain his desertion caused me; as an adolescent, I denied it. In time, it would consume me like a slow-growing cancer.
But that came later. When I was two, my mother enrolled in community college as an English major. During the day, she attended classes while my grandmother, a talented seamstress and a supervisor in a factory that made coats and uniforms for the army, terrorized the women who worked under her. Her next-door neighbor, Irma, watched me while they were gone. In 1965, this was day care. Each day, fat, kind Irma, in her faded housedresses and sturdy shoes, took me for walks and sang to me in lilting Italian. In the late afternoon, I played on her kitchen floor while she prepared dinner for her equally gentle husband, Jules. When my mother returned from her classes, we'd head outside to the swing set in our backyard, or I'd color in the kitchen as she cooked. Dinner, bath, my mother's crooning in the dark, eventually, her warm body next to mine in our shared bed. We lived in a world without men, and were content.
All that changed when my mother met my stepfather.
He was tall, this Kurt Hansen, with a high forehead and pale blue eyes. Looking at photos of him during their courtship, I see what she must have seen: strength. Wide shoulders, the shoulders of a man who would make everything all right. He courted me along with my mother, but there was no way I would let him be my father, as my mother sometimes hinted. Perhaps, at three, I was dimly aware that I already had a father, and believed he would return to me one day. What would he think if he knocked on my door, bearing love and gifts, only to find me living with another man?
But my mother married Kurt anyway. Their union was a huge wave that deposited me, gasping, on an unfamiliar shore. My mother and I moved out of my grandmother's house and into the furnished trailer he had purchased to accommodate his new family.
I was enraged as only a three-year-old can be. This man had taken me from my grandmother, the horses, my lilac tree, my beloved Irma. He had stolen my mother. As angry as I was with him, however, I reserved my fury for her. One morning soon after their marriage, she kissed him good-bye at the door of our trailer before he left for work. Suddenly, she screeched and clutched her lower leg, kicked blindly against the pain. There I was on the floor, scuttling away like a scorpion. I'd bitten her calf.
My brother was born a year later and named after his father. I can't say I welcomed his arrival. Perceiving the three of them as a family, myself as an intruder, I was too proud to step inside their shimmering ring of love. I was also confused. On the one hand, I resented my stepfather for displacing me in my mother's heart, or so I thought. On the other, he was my father, the only one I knew, and I had begun to crave his love and approval. I feared I would never win it and scratched at this anxiety constantly, as if at an infected mosquito bite. Nick's ghost whispered in my ear: Who could ever love you?
I had to admit, he had a point. My stepfather had to love my brother; my brother was his. But I was my mother's, so she had to love me. Didn't she? Or would she decide she didn't need me after all?
Looking at family pictures from around that time, I have the sense I was caught in the act of disappearing. In a photo taken just after he was born, my brother and I sit in our trailer on our couch. My mother has put him in my lap, but I refuse to hold him. My arms are under his swaddled body, stiff like a doll's, and he lies sideways across my lap, his eyes puffed, his face stamped with that wizened expression newborns have. I stare into the camera, my eyes blank as pennies. In another picture, I sit in the backseat of my stepfather's old red VW Bug, wearing a pink dress. My brother is strapped into his car seat next to me. This time, there's murder in my eyes. I can only imagine what I was feeling — betrayal, perhaps, an aching furious betrayal.
That's why I refused them all. Why I would not smile and take my stepfather's hand if he offered it. Why I pinched my baby brother. Why I lagged behind on family walks, kicking rocks and humming as if I didn't have a care in the world. We picnicked on the beach in Ocean City, fed peanuts to the elephants at the Philadelphia Zoo, but I was like the wobbly leg of a kitchen table, always the cause of upsets. My sullenness frustrated my mother and irritated my stepfather — he was trying, wasn't he? My mother assured me of his love, threw us together, forced him to kiss me good night. The harder she tried to draw me into the family circle, however, the more I withdrew.
I wanted to hurt my mother and drive a wedge between her and her new husband. If I could not share in their love, then I would sabotage it. But there was another motive for my self-exile: survival, pure and simple.
My mother's love for me knew no bounds. She believed we shared the same heart and that she could see her every thought and feeling reflected in my eyes. If she was blue or anxious, then so was I. If she believed that it was the two of us against my father — as she did more fervently with each passing year — who was I to dissuade her? I don't know when I made my first primitive attempt at deductive reasoning: My mother is life; I am alive; therefore I am my mother. All I knew is that when I looked inside myself, I saw my mother's face. More confusion. Who was I? Who was she? Was she a part of me, and if she ceased to exist, would I? I couldn't be sure. I yearned to merge with her; I felt engulfed by her. Her oppressiveness terrified me; so did my fear of her abandonment.
My mother was beautiful — an Italian Marilyn Monroe, all light and perfume and curves. She claimed the drawers in our bathroom for her zippered bags of cosmetics, and her dresser held stacks of neatly folded clingy sweaters in the bright colors she favored, orange and turquoise and pink. (My mother also wore tube tops. Oh, the shame of meeting a classmate and her mother in the aisles of the local department store.) Men beamed when they saw her; their wives tightened their mouths. She was like Mardi Gras: loud and colorful, all jingling bracelets and clicking stiletto heels, and disconcerting to certain temperaments. She laughed too loud in front of strangers. Profanities tumbled from her soft mouth like dice from a Yahtzee cup. And every morning after her shower, she smoked one cigarette — a Camel Light — as she applied her makeup. The bathroom was right next to my bedroom. Each day I woke to the fragrance of one of her overpowering perfumes, all with the same top note: smoke. When this suffocating yet comforting scent settled in my throat, I knew it was my turn in the bathroom.
If my mother's fingers smelled of nicotine, her heart was as soft as the marshmallow chicks she tucked into our Easter baskets. For most of my childhood, she worked with abused and neglected kids. When she couldn't place children with a foster family for the night, she brought them home, and they slept in our spare bedroom. This was against the rules, but she couldn't stand the thought of them spending a long, lonely night in a detention center. She read to my brother and me, made up her own fantastic stories about shy violets that talked, smothered our stomachs with lipsticky raspberries. She painted our faces, and her own, with chocolate pudding. And she threw the best birthday parties. Every year, beginning in first grade, she invited my whole class into our small backyard, popular kids and nose pickers alike, no one ever left out. There were games and lovely chaos and her beautiful smiling face above a thickly frosted birthday cake.
I learned kindness and compassion from her. When I was around seven, our next-door neighbors allowed my brother and me on their children's swing set, but not the kids who lived on the other side of them. I was outraged; I knew those kids had nothing. They were scented with that musky smell of poverty, and their father was often in jail. I told my mother.
"Those goddamned sons of bitches," she said. "Get in the car."
My brother and I clambered into the backseat of our banged-up Bug, now pocked with rust on the driver's-side panel. The car often stalled when we sped down the highway, which always froze my heart, but we made it to a local department store without incident. My mother raced through the electronic doors, my brother and I hurrying behind her, excited, a little scared — what was she going to do?
She bought a swing set on credit. My father assembled it when he got home from work. Something about the way he dug the holes for the swing set's legs, and the way my mother shook the frame to make sure it was securely rooted in the ground, made me feel, for once, like a part of them.
The next day, my mother invited the neighbor kids to swing. She pushed them first, and then my brother and me. I swung high, higher. Her palms against the small of my back afforded me a rare moment of peace. Happy, I showed my heels to the sky.
But for all my mother's zany energy and fierce maternal love, she was often engulfed by her own demons. At those times, I sensed something struggling inside her, like a sack of kittens destined for the river.
My mother grew up invisible, neglected by her parents, who worked long hours. My grandfather, a carpenter, loved his little girl, but it was his sons — one a high-school football hero, the other in medical school — who would bring honor to his name. My grandmother — primitive, simple as bread or a cup of water — didn't need or give love. All she needed was food on the table and shoes on her feet.
Need ran through my mother like a fault line. Fat, bullied by the other kids, she talked compulsively in class; her teachers sat her in the hall outside her classrooms. Each day after being savaged at school, my nine-year-old mother trudged home to an empty house, packed the hole inside her with food, and cleaned. Cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. She mopped the gray linoleum of my grandmother's kitchen floor, scrubbed the toilet and the tub, ironed her father's and brothers' shirts, cooked the family meal. At fourteen she turned exquisite, but the fat, lonely girl she had been was locked in her heart forever.
By the age of eight, I believed it my job to protect her and ensure her happiness. My father certainly wasn't doing it. She and my father raged in the night. I listened to their fights with a fistful of blanket in my mouth, my eyes wide and dry, silently chanting stopitstopitstopitstopit. He would thunder back for a while, then storm from the house.
When he's gone, the house is quiet. I can hear her wandering from room to room, keening. After a while, the hall light flicks on; a slice of it slides under my door. Seconds later, she opens my door gently, switching on the lamp with the purple flower inside the glass — she is always buying pretty things for my room, frilly curtains, fluffy bedspreads — and sits on the edge of my bed.
"Sweetie," she whispers. "Are you awake?"
I peer up at her from under the bedcovers. In the light of the hall, I can see the tear tracks on her cheeks.
"I came in to see if you were okay. I'm sorry if your father and I scared you. Are you okay?"
I nod, because she needs me to.
"Are you sure?"
Another nod. She cups her palm to my cheek and drops down, down, down into me, like a miner into a tunnel. "Come here," she says, gathering me in her arms. I smell cigarette smoke.
When she and my father fought, she smoked in the house — in the family room, his room — to spite him. Sometimes I stayed up with her while she waited for him to come home. She'd switch off the lamps and lower the volume on the TV to an almost inaudible level; the murmuring voices and muffled laugh track could have been the drone of bees. The room seemed to grow smaller then, as cozy as a cave, but scary, too, as if we'd never find our way out, never see daylight again. In the flickering glow of the television, her smoke appeared blue. I stayed very still, my mind drifting like her smoke, my eyes open against her chest.
"Your father and I...honey, we just don't get along. He's a rotten sonofabitch — he doesn't care about this family. And I know he treats you differently from Kurt — he's so much harder on you. He's just a selfish, selfish man. I should leave him — take you and Kurt and just leave. We could go live with Mom-Mom again and everything would be like it was before your dad. Do you remember when we used to go to the beach, just you and me? I don't want you to worry, honey, but we might have to get a divorce. What would you think if we did? Tell me the truth, sweetie. I really want to know. You can tell me. You can tell me anything."
I'm not sure what she wants me to say. Does she really want to know if I am okay? Or should I stay still and quiet, as I am? And what is this about my father treating me differently? I'd always suspected it, but having it confirmed so directly deflates me. My awkward position on her lap is making my back ache, and my stomach clenches at the possibility of divorce, every child's worst nightmare. I feel small and utterly overwhelmed.
Eventually, she gently pulls away and examines me, holding me at arm's length. In the light of the hall, her eyes glow soft and bright. "I love you more than anything in the world, honey. I love Kurtie, too, but I can't talk to him the way I can to you. He's too little. I don't know what I'd do without you. Are you okay? Are you sure? Because you can tell me if you're not."
No, I can't. It is my job to eat her pain, piece by piece, as dutifully as I eat my broccoli at dinner. So I nod solemnly against her chest: Yes, I am okay.
"Okay then, sweetie-pie — back to sleep. You have school in the morning. Sweet dreams."
She tucks me back in bed, lingers in the doorway for a second, her silhouette shimmering against the hall light, and shuts the door. After she leaves, her scent lingers — faded perfume and cigarette smoke, the smell of comfort and of need.
I huddle in the fake-fur tiger-striped blanket my mother made me for Christmas three years ago, the chain curled at my feet like a faithful dog. Half of me watches a talk show — a guilty pleasure, the only kind I allow myself. The other half wonders why I'm not craving a smoke. I've never quit cold turkey, and imagined sweats, shakes, agony — Frankie Machine's withdrawal scene in The Man with the Golden Arm, only with cigarettes. I didn't expect to feel so spacey, so profoundly alone. The couch is an unmapped island, and I am marooned.
During commercials for technical schools and slip-and-fall attorneys, I look around my living room, my universe for the week ahead. Dust blankets every surface. A pile of books, Daniel's school papers, and unpaid bills spill from the desk in the computer room, off the living room. Acceptable under normal circumstances, the disarray disturbs me today; my defenses are down. If my mother were here, she'd offer to clean. Insist on it, in fact. She'd scrub my bathrooms and the kitchen, strip the sheets from our beds, and declutter closets, occasionally crying out over such wanton filthiness. I finally had to tell her to stop bringing her rubber gloves, bucket, and scrub brushes when she came to visit. She honored my request — reluctantly — but still offers advice. "Don't waste your money on those expensive cleaners. There's nothing better than bleach. It kills everything."
Pushing past coats and shoes and rolls of Christmas wrapping paper, I drag out my vacuum cleaner. Redemption smells like bleach and lemon oil. If I can't smoke, I will clean — purge my house of cobwebs and dirt as I purge my cells of nicotine.
I vacuum the living room — ignoring behind the couch and under the coffee table — and picture my mother shaking her head, her mouth puckered in disapproval. When I'm through, I stand there for a moment — this small effort has drained me — then clank back to the couch, abandoning the vacuum in the middle of the room.
But still I see through my mother's eyes. The living room walls are painted a cheery yellow, but cobwebs lace the ceiling. Though expensive, the wool rug in soft greens and browns, patterned in flowering vines, is too small to cover the scratched wood floor. The knotty-pine entertainment center, from a naked-furniture outlet, is still naked. (We'd planned to stain it cranberry, but never did.) This very couch is my mother's castoff, as is the love seat across from it. I've covered both with pseudo-suede slipcovers in a shade of red she calls cayenne. Her hope is that, someday, I will buy a new dining-room set. Or a couch — at least a couch. When we talk on the phone, she pleads, "Break down and buy yourself some new furniture, Julia, will you? And don't be cheap. Spend a few bucks and get something nice. You'll have it forever."
Usually, I roll my eyes. Not today. Nothing matches: there's no color scheme, no theme. My house is wrong, pathetic, ugly. My mother has a flair for the decorative arts; she loves bright colors, wills beauty into her life. I grew up in rooms painted pumpkin and periwinkle, filled with lush potted plants, thick carpets of wine and teal, furniture and dishes that matched. A stranger would be seduced by the comfort she'd created, believing that nothing could go wrong in her house. Plenty has gone wrong in mine.
I have lugged around my mother's castoffs for twenty years — chairs, couches, lamps, end tables, sheets, curtains. But the photographs on the painted wooden mantel above the fireplace are mine, scenes from my own life: John blows out his candles on his thirty-ninth birthday. Daniel perches on John's shoulders outside our house. The three of us, a new family, pose bashfully in front of our crooked tree last Christmas morning.
I rattle over to the mantel and take down a photo. Through a film of dust, my son sits on John's broad shoulders, his button-brown eyes and mouth wide in mock panic. I see a gap, and smile; I keep his baby teeth with my jewelry.
He is why I am here, locked up like a chimp in the zoo. Both our lives are at stake and I won't let him down, even though I hear my Last Cigarette, giggling like Satan. Like dogs hear high frequency humans cannot, smokers hear cigarettes. They can sound like distant music, white noise, the crooning of a mother to her infant. Sometimes all you hear is the whisper of burning paper or the pop of tobacco. But you hear them. You hear them and you heed their call.
Like the moon circles the Earth, my father orbited the vast unknown planet of his family, trapped by its powerful pull.
My father was the director of a not-for-profit workshop that employed the physically and mentally handicapped. His job was to land business and government contracts that put them to work. His employees — of all ages and levels of disability — did things like sort ball bearings and assemble Val-U-Paks, small boxes of samples that companies mailed to people to entice them to buy the full-size products. For filling and sealing the boxes they were paid a small wage. When my father landed the Val-U-Pak contract, we had these little boxes of mouthwash, moisturizers, and shampoos all over the house, in every closet.
The gods visited a terrible fate upon my father. They made him an artist with a day job and a family to support. He defied them, however, escaping his life — us — through his art. He spent most of his weekends in the basement, transforming logs or slabs of wood into the visions in his head: twenty-foot-long plaques of wild, waving sunflowers, naked women with pendulous breasts and bulging eyes, gargoylesque figures with bared teeth and wings. He always carried a dog-eared sketchbook, and drew his figures in pencil before he put chisel to wood. When I snuck into his workshop and looked through it, touched his chisels and rasps, I saw the inside of my father's intelligent, twisted mind.
Back then, my father was a cold man, as distant from us as the stars. "Oh," he would say on Christmas mornings, holding up our gifts — the Old Spice from me, the sweater from my mother and brother. But he always drew out that stingy syllable and tipped it down at the end, so it sounded more like "Aw." He gave us brief, awkward thank-you hugs, explaining that he didn't want to catch our colds. We always seemed to have colds on Christmas Day — all winter, in fact — and for months he'd keep his distance, as if we were contaminated.
Our table manners were a constant source of irritation to him. If my brother or I put our elbows on the table, he'd jab his fork into the tender flesh of our forearms. One night — perhaps my brother was eating too fast, or I was smacking my lips — he snapped. "Jesus Christ," he snarled. "You kids are pigs. Look — this is you." He picked up a gob of whatever was on his plate — spaghetti? — and ground it against his mouth. I must have been ten or eleven. My brother stopped laughing in a hurry; he saw that my father wasn't joking. Ashamed, I lowered my eyes to my plate.
More than once, it occurred to me that my father came home every night not because he loved us, but because we belonged to him, and it was a man's duty to care for his property. Maybe his coldness stemmed from the fact that he was dyslexic. Could it have been that reading people's feelings and motives was as difficult for him as reading words on a page? But he read anyway, because the world captivated him. His nightstand was piled with books about ancient Greece and prehistoric art and how to make beer.
I was shy around him. We would sit in the living room, watching some sitcom, him in his avocado-colored vinyl recliner and me on the couch, and he was as out of my reach as a diamond ring down the drain. Convinced that I disappointed him in some profound way, I vowed to develop some singular talent to prove to him that I was worthy of his love.
It couldn't be art. I loved to draw, but my efforts looked pitiful next to his. So I took up the guitar and judo, only to quit them both because I could not bear to perform in front of him and risk his ridicule. Why in the world would he want to listen to me plink out "Red River Valley," stupidly tapping my foot to keep the beat, as my teacher insisted I do? And the thought of him watching me in judo class made me sweat. He often picked up my brother and me from our Saturday morning classes, and each week I prayed he would arrive late enough to miss my clumsy kicks and rolls.
I thought I had to earn love from him as I earned my allowance, and was furious that my brother did not understand this. Kurt didn't seem to care what our father thought of him. He didn't seem to care about anything, or at least the things that bothered me — our mother's unhappiness, our father's indifference, their constant fighting. He accepted the way things were in our house with the composure of a cow in the rain. My brother was a charmer, with red-brown eyes and freckles and hair the color of an old penny. I hated him for the way he came and went, with easy confidence and a ready smile, collecting friends as I collected resentments.
The coffee is almost five hours old, as bitter as a department-store Santa. Yet here I am at the pot, pouring my fourth cup. This is pure stubbornness. A cup of coffee without a cigarette is like Vegas without Wayne Newton, pizza without cheese: just not right. But caffeine is the only drug I have left. I will not give it up. In fact, I drink even more coffee than usual when I quit, and take it black hoping that its bitterness will drive the lust for nicotine from my brain.
It never does. Coffee and cigarettes — a more life-affirming duo does not exist. The Turks knew it, even coining a proverb in homage: Coffee and tobacco are complete repose. On summer Saturdays, when lawn mowers droned to life at seven A.M., or January snowstorms tucked me into my house for the day, I'd sit at my kitchen table with a pack of cigarettes and a fresh pot of coffee and live one perfect hour.
Having collected vices like men's phone numbers in my youth, I now cling to one: caffeine. How humiliating. Obviously, I am a pussy, as afraid to live as to die. Smokers are risk-takers, rebels, iconoclasts, artists. They foment revolution and walk on the grass. I am an old woman who frets about her bowels. My only consolation is my sure knowledge that I will never quit red meat. I may be able to survive as a nonsmoker, but would never make it as a vegetarian.
On the first day of seventh grade, I sit in Honors English, my last class of the day, trying to decide where to sit on the bus. We've moved to a new town and I am the new girl, even more the outsider than usual, and my decision may well chart the course of my life. When the bell rings at 2:15, my class stampedes toward the door. I merge into the sea of feathered haircuts and jean jackets already in the hall, and we all stream into the warm golden air.
Six buses snake around the school's circular driveway, motors running, drivers at the wheel. As I try to find mine, I bump up against a few kids who have stopped in the middle of the moving crowd. Girls and boys. Their Levi'd legs are planted against the surge of the crowd, their eyes narrowed in cool indifference. I look closer. Surprise snatches my heart and squeezes, hard. They are smoking. I watch them pull on their weeds and spew out thin blades of smoke. They look like rock stars. They've thrown an impromptu party, right here in the parking lot, and haven't invited me.
Kids weren't allowed to smoke. Were they? Astounding as it seems, they were. The junior high was connected to the high school, and every kid from the lowliest seventh-grader to the most anointed senior ate lunch in the same large cafeteria. One wall of the lunchroom, made entirely of glass, had a doorthat opened out into a courtyard. This narrow, sunless strip of lawn was where the kids smoked, with the sanction of both schools. Called the smoking lounge, it was hallowed ground, the domain of the stoners who brazenly displayed their packs of Marlboros and lighters in their front pockets. They congregated there before school and during lunch and study hall, the boys in their army jackets and work boots, the girls in their gauzy Indian shirts and clogs.
I'd felt like an outsider all my life, but the smoking-lounge kids were outsiders, literally. They could be seen from the cafeteria, and I watched them as I ate with my group. I was a Brain, according to the unwritten junior-high and high-school social hierarchy, but only because I didn't fit into any other category. I didn't play sports (my one anxious season of soccer didn't count), so I couldn't be a Jock. I didn't bring a hash pipe to school, so I wasn't a Burnout, either. I took Honors classes but loathed math and chess and didn't make the National Honor Society. The Brains were polite, but distant; they sensed my internal chaos, and it made them skittish. The smokers seemed more like me: sullen, suspicious, frayed around the edges. Their seeming inviolability intrigued me. I liked to think that if I opened that cafeteria door one day, stepped outside, and lit up, they would embrace me as one of their own.
Clearly I sensed the appeal of smoking early, and not just because of the parking-lot rock stars. Everyone in my mother's family smoked. My uncle Art chain-smoked. So did JoAnn, his intelligent, sharp-tongued wife. My grandmother's brothers and sisters — Uncles Johnny, Mingo, and Pep, Aunt Mary, and many of their wives and husbands — all smokers. Fun, handsome, vital people, they brought a party wherever they went. When we visited my grandmother in Vineland, the famiglia would bang at the screen door off the kitchen, take a seat at my grandmother's battered Formica-topped kitchen table, sip musty-smelling red wine, and chain-smoke, my mother included. (A social smoker, she got caught up in the conviviality of these reunions.) They filled one heavy glass ashtray with crushed butts within an hour; a toxic plume hovered above the table like a benevolent spirit. To me, they looked every bit as cool as my smoking peers.
It seems impossible that I never experimented with smoking: I don't recall taking so much as a puff on a cigarette before my freshman year in college. Probably, before that point, smoking was too open an admission of rebellion. My insurrections were performed in my head, away from the family I'd come to loathe in typical adolescent fashion. In photos of me from age twelve through my teens, I look at the camera with disdain, as if into the eyes of a firing squad.
By now, we were a family of strangers. I threw pots and pans at my brother. My mother continued to complain bitterly to me about my father. My father and brother talked neither to us nor to each other. Dinnertime was an agonizing though necessary event, like a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
"Stop picking the salad out of the bowl with your fingers," my father snaps. At twelve, my need for his love and approval coexists with my simmering resentment of him. All that anxiety and anger has fermented into a mighty strong brew. "If you want more, put it on your plate."
"Jesus, Kurt — what's the big deal? We're finished," my mother says. I hunch over my plate, humiliated and angry. I am sick of her always coming to my rescue, elbowing me out of my own life.
"Shut up. Am I talking to you? I'm talking to her."
"No, I want to know, God damn it! Why are you so much harder on her than on Kurt?"
"I think Kurt's stoned," I offer, to distract them. He sits there quietly eating his dinner, but his eyes have this jack-o'-lantern glow, as if lit from within.
After dinner, we scattered. My brother blasted KISS or Ted Nugent in his room and leafed through the dirty magazines he kept under his mattress. I read or wrote bad poetry in mine. My father retired to the living room to watch the news. My mother cleaned the kitchen or did laundry. At eight o'clock, my parents and brother reconvened in the family room to watch TV.
Almost every night, my mother tapped at my door and stuck in a crescent of face. I'd look up from my bed, my finger holding my place in Steppenwolf or The Bell Jar.
"Please come downstairs, Julia," she would say, softly. She was still begging me to join the family, and I was still trailing three feet behind them, scuffing my shoes.
"I'll be right down, Mom. Just let me finish this chapter."
But I rarely joined them. I felt calmer in my room, more sure of my boundaries. Here, the air had not passed through my mother's lungs first. This was my room, my bed, my desk, my shoes there in my messy closet, a Great Wall of footwear hiding glass jars of booze. I'd begun to steal my father's liquor and squirrel it away in old condiment bottles. I drank ketchup-flavored vodka, and gin with the faintest taste of Italian dressing.
Is this what life without cigarettes sounds like? This aimless hum inside my head that I cannot bear for one more second?
Despite the coffee, lethargy has closed over me, as murky as lake water. Actually, this whole day has the feel of a drowning: After a brief struggle, I let it happen. I sleep, stare at the television, sleep, rattle to the bathroom, sleep.
I know this torpor. When it finally burns off, my depression will float to the surface like a body. My sadness is as much a part of me as my eyes or my hands. I've carried it always, this isolation, this nagging suspicion that I am incomplete and unlovable and unworthy. Despite twenty years of therapy, my sadness persists, coming and going as it pleases, sitting on my chest like a fat housecat. A cigarette always shooed it away. Not anymore, not ever.
My urge to sleep is as unrelenting as a pillow over my face, but hunger finally drives me into the kitchen, where I slap peanut butter between two slices of whole-grain bread. As John predicted, the chain hurts, I slip my index finger beneath the links to ease its weight, but when I remove it, the steel resettles on bone. I lick my knife, add it to the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, and carry my sandwich to the couch without a plate. As I cross the dining room, a craving cleaves through me.
Screw this. I'll dig through the trash for my Last Cigarette and dry it in the oven on a piece of aluminum foil. Then I'll turn on my electric stove, bend to the heated front coil with the butt in my mouth, and puff until it catches. In the process, I will singe a lock of my hair, the odors of burnt hair and tobacco smoke sharp in my nose. It's happened before. Many times. Fuck it. In seven seconds, the time it takes nicotine to travel from the blood to the brain, life will be Technicolor again, clearer, sharper, brighter.
Then I remember: John took out the garbage this morning. The bag is sitting in front of the house. Even I am not desperate enough to rattle out the door in my robe like an escaped sex slave. Yet.
That I can even entertain this thought depresses me. How many times have I acknowledged to family and friends that I know smoking is a filthy habit and I'm paying Big Tobacco to kill me and it's dumb to stand in the rain/snow/cold to smoke and I'm pathetic to worry about gaining weight if I quit and I can't give up my self-destructive, death-dealing habit even though I'm forcing my son to suck down my secondhand smoke. I know that I am an idiot. Don't I know it. Yet I persist. Why does no amount of knowledge, guilt, shame, or scary statistics dissuade me?
Lectures don't work, either. My mother should know; she's phoned in her nagging for over five years. I wonder if she feels responsible. Parents who smoke tend to raise children who smoke, and children are marked by their parents' tobacco use shockingly early. But did my mother's smoking really influence my own? She rarely smoked more than one cigarette a day, for God's sake — ours was a one-ashtray household — and so beautifully. There's a photo of her, in her twenties, that I pull from her collection every time I visit. Wearing a sleeveless black pullover and white slacks, breathtakingly beautiful, my mother stares unsmiling into the camera. A cigarette nests in the V between her index and middle fingers. Even as a child, I admired that picture, was caught in her gaze like a wrist in a strong man's grip. This was not my mother. This was Cleopatra, right down to her black-rimmed eyes.
If that cigarette intensified her beauty — if I saw the slim white cylinder between her fingers as a magician's wand, conjuring poise and a regal distance — it's possible that her morning Camel Light made a lasting impression. Just as her childhood runs to the corner store for her father's packs of unfiltered Camels influenced her. Her father died at fifty-one of pancreatic cancer, one of several cancers thought to be smoking related, nineteen days before I was born.
The Last Cigarette stays buried in the trash. The peanut butter sticks in my throat. Sadness hums on the edge of my consciousness, as the rumbling of a distant truck causes a thrum in a pane of glass. I need a cigarette. I must have a cigarette. If I don't, my sadness will gather, crest, and smash into my consciousness like a tsunami wave. The sound of sadness is the groan and splintering of wood, the screech of bending steel. The sound of collapse.
Seventh grade went on and on, like a bad dream that sucks you to your pillow. One Friday afternoon, I board the bus for home, grateful for the weekend. A group of backseat girls get on a few minutes after me, wrapped in the sharp corrupt scent of smoke. They are in my grade but seem much older in their long denim coats and Candies slip-ons and dangly peacock-feather earrings — very Stevie Nicks. When they walk down the hall together, I study the bulletin boards or duck into the nearest classroom.
Now, I keep my eyes on the rip in the green seat in front of me and will them to walk on by. The leader, nicknamed Kermit because her eyes bulge alarmingly behind her huge plastic frames, stops at my seat, third row from the driver, where I sit alone. Kids bunch up behind her and her mean-girl clique, waiting to pass.
"We're going to kick your ass on Monday," says Kermit. Terror surges through me, that deep shocking thrill in the chest, like when you've been startled. I say nothing, just keep studying that rip, imagine crawling through it as they all high-five each other and saunter to the back of the bus.
It isn't the threat of a beating that freezes my heart. It is the certainty of their hatred of me, which confirms my own. What about me invites an ass-kicking? My Levis, are they wrong? Wrong cut, wrong color? My shoes? No. It is me, just me. They smell my weakness like blood and, like sharks, are hard-wired to rip me apart. I can understand that. I want to kill my weakness too. Carve it right out of me, like a tumor. To get a head start, I dig my fingernails into my forearm, leaving angry, pink half-moons.
The bus drops me off in front of my house. My father has stuck one of his carvings in our front yard. That house on the corner of Punch Brook Road with the totem pole? That would be mine. There is no hiding my pathology; I am a door left ajar, and anyone can walk right in whenever they feel like it. I am the girl with the totem pole, the girl who walks the halls alone with her head down, the girl who stinks like a loser.
I was sick to my stomach all weekend, anticipating my beating, but those girls never did kick my ass. Life, that ball-breaking bitch, went on.
I am dying. At least, some part of me is dying. It takes seventy-two hours for all traces of nicotine to leave the body. I imagine the nicotine fading from my brain, molecule by molecule. Each molecule is a piece of the puzzle of me, and the puzzle is coming undone.
With my index finger, I trace a small stain on the pseudo-suede slipcover over and over again. The movement soothes me. Keeps me from thinking too hard about the unwashed dishes in the sink, the vacuum cleaner left out, the dust that floats serenely in the wan winter light. There are most certainly dust balls behind the couch, or worse — on the rare occasions I've looked, I've found crusts from Daniel's breakfast toast. At his age, I pressed my Flintstones vitamins between the cushions of the couch, which annoyed my mother — they were expensive. She could have bought the generic kind.
But what she really hated was dirt. By the time I was in high school, I hated Saturday mornings, which were not for family breakfasts or team sports or music lessons but for vacuuming and Pledge and tears — sometimes my mother's, sometimes my own.
"God damn it!" she roars from downstairs; it is maybe eight o'clock, my brother isn't even watching cartoons yet. "This house is filthy! Julie! Kurt! Get the fuck up and help me clean this pigsty! I am not your maid!"
As her footsteps pound across the kitchen and up the stairs, I don my mental armor. While my mother's internal disorder still scares me, her rage now fuels mine. I want to douse her, shout her down, shut her up. I am sick of her tantrums, her constant scrubbing and polishing. Sometimes when she cleans, her face gets white and sick, like right after you throw up.
Then she is at my door, snorting like a bull. "Get the hell out of bed, get downstairs, and start vacuuming! And get behind the couch — pull it away from the wall! I'll check, and I swear to God if I see filth, I'll make you do it again!"
One morning, I fight back. "Jesus Christ!" I roar, throwing my legs over the edge of the bed. "You don't have to fucking scream! I can hear you!"
"Don't you raise your voice to me! I'm your mother!"
"Get out of my face. Go scrub a toilet."
"Bitch," she breathes, and lunges at me. Her hands, roughened by years of bleach and hot water, clamp down on my shoulders and she drags me from my bed. Tangled in my flannel nightgown, I grab her forearms so I won't fall, recover my footing, and shove her toward my door. Cat fight! I start to laugh; the situation is absurd. My mother thinks I am laughing at her, of course.
"You're a monster. A monster." She surges against me one more time, and then pushes me away, her face collapsing in defeat. "Get dressed and help me."
I would forgive her, and she me. We loved each other, were bound together forever. Still, I lived for our fights. For the few seconds this battle had lasted, I felt perfectly myself, comfortable in my own skin. But I did not forget, not for a second, that it was her or me. I remember our ragged breathing, our locked eyes, and my certainty that if I lost this fight, I'd lose them all.
My cell phone rings, interrupting this warm and fuzzy memory. I check the number: it's John. "Hey," I say, tracing the stain.
"How you feeling, Hon? You holding up all right?"
"Yeah." No. My numbness lifts like a curtain, pain pirouettes across the stage, the curtain falls again. I squeeze my eyes shut, hiding them with my hand, and sob silently, mortified that less than nine hours into Lockdown, I am falling to pieces.
"Well..." John knows I need comfort, knows he has none to give. "I'll let you go, then. I'll be home at five thirty, six. Need anything?"
"Cigarettes," I say dully, wiping my eyes. "Just kidding. Love you." I push End on my cell and toss it back onto the coffee table.
I don't know what I was thinking. I can't do this. I must do this. Failure is not an option. I've told too many people about Lockdown — my family, John's family. Made a huge stink that this was it, I was quitting for good this time. Why did I use the word "quit"? How foolish. In the past, I didn't "quit." I "cut down." I hedged my bets, the only sensible strategy. Now, trapped in the web of my bluster, I'll have to white-knuckle it for a month, at least, even if it kills me.
For some reason, I recall the boil that erupted in my right armpit when I was eight. Frightened by the hot swollen cyst, imagining a long, slow demise, I'd kept quiet about it until I couldn't lift my arm. My father took me to the doctor to have it lanced. It had been an evening appointment; I remember the porch light shining as we made our way to the car. Dead girl walking. I don't know where my mother was.
My father holds me down on the examination table while the doctor cuts into the boil and presses out the poison inside. The pain is hallucinatory. I writhe on the table, the crisp paper crackling beneath my bare skin. "It's almost over," my father says, in a rare display of tenderness. "It's all right, you're going to be all right."
But I wasn't all right, would never be. Pain and smoking, smoking and pain, inseparable as the links in this chain. I recall screaming on that table, but my father says I never made a sound.
I was graduated from high school in June. Class of 1981 — rah. I skipped the prom and the senior dinner. In September, I started my freshman year at George Washington University. In February, I bought my first pack of cigarettes.
On that gray Saturday afternoon, I stood in the liquor store around the corner from my dorm, buying a fifth of vodka. Hung over from the night before, I felt the acid in my stomach churn with free-floating dread. I was fucking up big time — drinking every night, cutting classes, waking up every Saturday morning in a different boy's bed. No structure; no parental restraint. Staying sober on a Tuesday night was as unfathomable to me as riding a unicycle.
The summer before, I'd wanted desperately to be free of my parents, counted the days before we packed the car and drove the eight hours to D.C. When my parents lingered in my dorm room, reluctant to leave, understanding the hugeness of this moment, my mother with proud and happy tears in her eyes, I thought I would explode. But now, hundreds of miles from home, I felt like a balloon released by a child, sailing toward its certain demise by tree branch or telephone wire.
As I paid for my vodka, I noticed the cigarettes on the wall behind the old man at the cash register. They looked pretty — small, neat, multicolored packs, stacked like oversized LEGOs. A thought leaped into my brain like a flying fish: I should try those. So as the old man behind the counter slid my fifth into a paper bag, I said, "And a pack of BensonandHedges Menthol Lights 100s, please," as if I'd been buying them for years. The box was a pale luminous green, like copper patina.
He gave me a hard pack. Once outside, I tore off the cellophane, flipped up the neat little lid, and pinched out one of the tightly packed cigarettes between my thumb and index finger. I placed it in the center of my lips, the way I'd seen my mother do. An errant piece of tobacco stuck to my tongue; I picked it off, then ripped one match from the book. The phosphorus on the tip ignited with a satisfying sizzle. I touched the match to the cigarette, inhaled, and Jesus Christ — my eyes went wide, flooded with water; I swore I felt my pupils dilate. I coughed, then retched. The six glasses of watered-down apple juice I'd had for breakfast, my hangover remedy, sloshed sourly in the back of my throat. An icy-hot burning gripped my chest. It didn't occur to me to stop.
Gingerly, I smoked the cigarette down to the filter, then tossed the butt into the street. I leaned against the store and closed my eyes. My head buzzed; my mouth crooked into a big wobbly grin.
A month later, my roommate — a hearty, preternaturally cheerful girl from Cape Cod — found me drunk on my bed, slicing my arms with a razor blade I'd pounded out of my Lady Schick. My bleary eyes met her shocked ones. She raised her hand to her mouth.
"Oh Jesus, oh Jesus." She inched toward me cautiously, as if attempting to befriend a snarling dog, and held out her hand. "Come on. You need to go to the emergency room."
"Just let me get my cigarettes."
When the resident on duty saw the gaping cuts on my arms, he wouldn't let me leave. I spent three weeks on the locked ward.
I don't remember much about that time. It is sealed somewhere inside me like a pickled tumor in a jar. I know I didn't eat for more than a week. Or talk. Or sleep. Every night until dawn, I sat on the vinyl couch across from the nurses' station and smoked while the nurses drank coffee and gossiped. Patients weren't allowed matches or lighters. The nurses were the keepers of the flame. When I needed a light, I shuffled sullenly to the station, held out my cigarette, and waited. The gesture was my one admission of need.
When my parents arrived, I lay facedown on my bed and refused to look at or speak to them. I don't remember what I felt. Rage, probably, like a balled-up rag in my mouth. Fear right behind it, surging in my throat. My parents drove to my dorm and packed my things. We made the eight-hour drive to Connecticut in silence.
My parents enrolled me in an outpatient therapy program at a local hospital — day care for the mentally unhinged. My mother drove me there at eight in the morning and picked me up at four. At home, I felt her red-rimmed eyes on my back, through the closed door of my bedroom, willing me to live. We attended family therapy once a week, but didn't talk about what had happened to me because eventually we had to walk through the dark parking lot to our car, knowing that what we'd said couldn't be taken back.
Slowly, though, I came back from the dead and fell in love with my therapist, Joe, an acerbic balding Italian with eyes like searchlights. I fantasized that he would fix me and we'd marry and I'd raise his black-eyed children, even after he told me what the psychiatrist at the hospital hadn't: I was an alcoholic. I told him he was full of shit. He merely raised his eyebrows.
After three months, Joe pronounced me sane and released me into the world. I enrolled at a local college but dropped out after the first week, depressed by the tiny campus and its embarrassment of business majors. A few months later, I applied for a reporting job at the paper for which I'd interned the summer before, wearing a long-sleeved blouse to the interview — which was in June — to hide my shredded arms. To my surprise I was hired, fresh from a psych ward and without a college diploma.
I forgot about Joe and fell in love with Eric, the paper's copy editor. Pale and thin-lipped and dreamy-eyed, slightly tubercular-looking, Eric looked like the pen-and-ink illustrations of princes in my favorite book growing up, The Blue Fairy Book. He was my first adult relationship, the first of my blue-eyed men, and he smoked too: Marlboros. Six months after we met, we were engaged. I wore the ring for a month before locking it away in a safe-deposit box. I told Eric I was afraid I'd lose it.
In the fall of 1984, I left the paper to give college another shot. Eric talked about quitting too. He wanted to return home to New York City to be a photographer. "You'll love the city," he said. "You can get a part-time job, finish school. When I'm making decent money, we'll get married."
"Okay," I said, and dropped out of school for the third time in two years. One morning in the summer of 1985, we packed the back of my father's old black pickup with domestic detritus from my parents' basement. My mother stood next to my father, her fist to her mouth, as I rolled down their dirt driveway toward my future.
Wrapped in my blanket, John by my side, I stare through a rerun, the TV, the wall, until my gaze reaches the end of the world.
"Tell me about your day," he'd said when he got home and unshackled me, a conquering hero liberating a prisoner of war. I shrugged. I didn't want to. I didn't want anything. Not dinner, not a shower, not even a cigarette. I'm spent. Hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. Somehow I'd forgotten that, at least for me, the first month without cigarettes is like running a marathon. Every day.
John draws my foot into his lap; his fingers feather gently over the sole, across the arch. "You holdin' up all right?"
"You're awful quiet."
Shh, I want to tell him. Danger, Will Robinson. I feel it. Animals sense imminent disaster — earthquake, tidal wave, volcanic eruption — in subtle shifts in barometric pressure and infinitesimal vibrations under their feet. They flee on foot. I flee into an electronic device that converts light and sound into electromagnetic waves and displays them on a screen. The less I talk, the less I hurt. The less I move, the safer I am. Without cigarettes, I am not safe.
Then again, I don't recall ever feeling safe. As I stare into the TV, a fragment of memory breaks loose like a clot. More sensation than memory: sun, wind. My mother at the wheel of a car; I sit beside her on a wide bench seat. I can't be more than two, which means my mother has not yet met the man who will steal her from me forever. For now, there is just me and her, two halves that make a whole.
There's just one thing: I can't see.
Wind lashes my eyes. I squeeze them shut. Gray squiggles float across an orange field. Wind whistles around my ears and drowns out the world. I am scared, so scared. Flattening against the scratchy front seat, I press against her hip, searching for a spot that feels safe.
We don't wear seat belts. When protection is warranted, she throws her arm across my chest. Her will is all that stands between me and disaster, but I trust her. What choice do I have? She loves me. Her love is all around me, heavy like her perfume. And I love her. She is inside my head at all times, fills me up, squeezes me, enormous with her love, her bright lipsticked mouth, her eyes as luminous as the moon. Every so often, she gropes for the wrinkled pack of Camels that lies on the seat between us, fishes out a cigarette with her painted lips, and pushes in the car's lighter.
My mind goes white like the projection screen after a home movie. My husband stands next to the couch, about to go into the kitchen. "You want anything?"
"A peanut-butter sandwich?"
John plods into the kitchen. He walks slowly. Talks slowly. A glacier could melt in the time it takes him to season, prepare, and eat a slice of meat and a baked potato. I can't stand it.
Fast scares me, but so does slow. Slow affords you time and space to think, unearths pain you plowed under years ago. I don't want time and space. I want tight deadlines and crowds and urgency. I discovered this in my first yoga class, which was also my last. A colleague had dragged me to a class at the company gym, and the mindfulness of it all — the nostril breathing, the Gumby poses, the stink of sweat and serenity — made me want to howl and bark and bust up the place.
John returns with a lager and a small box of pretzel sticks, the skinny kind mothers pack for their children's lunch. Carefully, he extracts one pretzel and takes a tiny bite.
My apathy burns off like mist. Finally I feel something: irritation. I know from experience that John can make a box of pretzel sticks last an hour.
He takes a sip of his lager.
One minute passes. He bites, sips.
Another minute. He's still on his first stick.
Dreamily, he bites the nub.
"Eat the fucking pretzel already," I snarl, the hard poisonous bubble in my gut bursting like an infected eardrum. I reach for his hand, contrite, but John's eyes let me know that it's too late for apologies.
"Screw you," says my husband, and trudges upstairs with his pretzels and beer.
I deserved that. Good night, John-Boy.
Copyright © 2006 by Julia Hansen
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