It begins in a town called Millthorpe. The crickets chirp in the distant bushes and flies buzz across the top of sizzling meat. Men grumble over the barbeque and women laugh, breathing in the country air, tipping back their plastic champagne flutes as their heels press into the dry grass. I move to the front porch, escaping my cousins demanding we play LEGO. I watch a woman in a leopard print dress stumble through the front door, leaving me in silence. Next to me lies a plastic container, maybe it has sweets. I open it and see cigarettes stacked inside. My eyes widen, I put it back and clasp my hands over my lap. Like a good girl.
The front door opens, Mum spots me, eyes drifting to the cigarette case.
“Didn’t you want any?” she asks, her champagne flute is empty.
“No,” I reply, legs swinging underneath the seat. Mum comes and sits next to me. She grabs a cigarette, lights it and inhales.
“I still smoke; you know,” she says. I watch grey plumes fade into the blue sky above, “before you were born Dad wanted me to stop, I said I would never do it in front of you, doesn’t it look so natural in my hand?”
I look at her hand, index and middle finger holding the cigarette, the end tipping forward in her grasp. Mum looks so pretty.
She hands me the cigarette, “have some. It’s better you have it with me than with some stupid friends for your first time”.
I take it and suck the end. Am I doing it right? I inhale a bit and cough. Mum laughs. She throws it in the plant pot next to us and goes back inside.
Fourteen-year-olds sit in a park late at night, I am with them. One boy got his brother to buy a packet of Winfield’s and a girl across from me starts shaking and stuttering. Peer pressure, she’s probably never touched a cigarette in her life. We pass each cigarette around the circle until its embers die. My lungs feel warm, I wonder if this is how Mum feels. The recycling bin is always filled with those rectangular boxes, ever since Dad left. The girl across from me is crying now, her friend hugs her. I ask for another.
A day after my last exam, I walk home. I pass bakeries filled with schoolchildren pressing their sweaty hands against the glass, and coffee shops steaming cold milk. I pass a travel agency. A peeling poster of an Italian villa faces me, a happy couple smiling as they join hands and walk towards the shining building. A snapshot of happiness. Mum always wanted to go to Italy, she would tell me over our store-bought pasta dishes that we never bothered to transfer onto ceramic plates.
I pull my backpack from my shoulder and extract a crumbled sheet of paper from school. I write down the name of the villa printed in tiny, yellowed writing. I’ll do what mum never did. One last hurrah, I tell myself, before life gets in the way.
Two months later I fill my backpack up and walk around my room with it on, imagining myself in the small alleyways of Venice and along the beaches of Naples. Mum leans against my doorway a few times, smiles and then walks off. Minutes later smoke wafts through my flyscreen. I move my dying cactus out of the way. I should try a cannoli over there.
Three weeks in Rome sees me sitting on the top bunk of my hostel bed, a book from home resting on my lap. A Canadian girl left this morning, leaving me her cereal before muttering a goodbye. Three Persian guys arrived a week ago, I only see them at sunrise, stumbling around in the darkened room and closing the door loudly behind them. A new guy walks in, I watch him dump his duffel bag on an empty bed. He looks up at me.
“You smoke?” he asks.
I don’t hesitate. “Yeah.”
I nod. I’ve never done it before. I imagine Mum, inhaling and exhaling as the smell of tobacco permeates our front lawn, broken garden gnomes littering the pathway to the front door. The ladder creaks under me as I get off the bed.
We smoke on the balcony. I learn he is from Israel and just finished his military service. He laughs at how I hold the joint. I laugh too. In the morning he is gone, the taste of marijuana lingers in my throat.
I am thirty-three, I stand in a convenience store bathroom with a pregnancy test resting on the sink. Positive. Fuck. The bathroom door creaks shut behind me and the owner looks up, brows raised and eyes sceptical. Rows of rectangular boxes are behind the counter, displaying yellowed teeth and blackened lungs. I think of those ads, where a random child asks for cigarettes because their dad has them all the time, and now, they want some as well. I buy a packet of Pall Mall’s for $24.99. That ad does not apply to me Mum, you’re twenty years too late. I call my boyfriend and tell him the good news, with a cigarette hanging from my mouth.
White lace and silk hug my body, I run my hands down my sides, fingers twitching against the fabric. Bridesmaids rush around me, gushing about my hair and makeup. My Mum isn’t here. She booked a trip to New Zealand. South Island. It’s supposed to be real pretty this time of year. My aunt is in another room with my baby, I can hear it crying. I slip away, cracking open the sliding door to reveal the distant acres of bushland. My bare feet slap against the concrete path as I hold my dress up. I can feel the panic of my bridesmaids from the room above. Her dress! Her hair! Her feet! Obscured by trees, I sit in silence on a wooden park bench, a rusty plaque against my back reading:
REMEMBERING JIM MATHEWS
BELOVED CARETAKER AND HUSBAND
I wonder who they were. Did Jim smoke until his head caved in?
Someone sits next to me. My fiancé grabs my hand. “It’s bad luck,” I say, before realising I don’t really care, “do you have a cig?” He frowns and shakes his head. He does not laugh at me like Mum or the guy from Israel. He just holds my hand tighter.
It ends in an apartment building facing the harbour. A friend from work invited us. My twelve-year-old daughter laughs from the balcony as a black Labrador nudges its head against her and licks her hands. I join her. My fingers run through her hair, “do you want anything to eat?” She shakes her head.
“What’s that?” she asks, pointing to a box left precariously on the balcony railing. I think of the last time I saw my mother under the blue hue of x-ray scans. I think of dying embers and smoke.
“Nothing,” I reply, “it’s just a box.”