© Sandra Jean-Pierre

© 2008 Sandra Jean-Pierre

I began smoking when I was 8.

My step-father was actually the only known smoker in the apartment and when he didn’t have an ash tray handy, he would have me bring the cigarette ends to the bathroom and tell me to put them in the toilet and flush or turn on the tap and make sure they were out.

But this was me he was talking to, the kid who he swore was pulling the wool over my poor mother’s eyes, though he had no proof. We became enemies immediately.

Except when he had me extinguish his cigarettes. Then, I tolerated him from the moment I took the butt in hand till the moment I watched the quick embers smoke up in the toilets’ water, ash sinking fast to the bottom of the bowl. Then, then we became fast enemies again.

Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t dumb enough to light up when no one was around (although I did try once, with a crumpled sad Newport Kool – too bad I couldn’t get the lighter to work). I only got my cigarette fixes when he was around and not every time either. But those times when I did…

He’d hand me the butt, slightly warm and dangerous with fire. I’d pretend to be scared and extra careful as I backed my push wheelchair down the hallway and into the bathroom. Once I got through the bathroom door though, I’d slip the butt between my index and middle finger and quickly bring the butt to my lips before the filter extinguished what was left to smoke – which wasn’t ever much. I’d pull in my breath quick and deep – usually till the thing extinguished itself. But not quite. I’d make sure to leave just enough burn to make a mark on the molding around the bathroom door. That’s how I kept track of how many butts I’d managed to smoke – every time I smoked one, I’d be sure to grind it out on the molding and leave a perfectly circular impression.

I got to five before my mother began to notice these strange marks, which she blamed on my step-father’s brute stupidity and negligence. He thought to turn the blame on me but just the fact that he had me extinguishing his cigarettes in the first place made my mother upset with him.

He still let me extinguish them but this time, he had me to put it in the toilet and flush. He actually went with me the first time after my Mom got upset with him, and made sure to explain to me what I had to do, like I didn’t have the good sense the lord gave me to know how to throw a flaming butt into the toilet and flush.

But even with this I deceived him. I would put the butt to my lips the instant I got out of his sight, puffing as I pushed my chair, so that by the time I got to the bathroom, I would reach around to the side of the door jamb, low, make the circular mark and quick fast throw the butt in the toilet then flush. No one was the wiser.

Something about the aroma of cigarettes intrigued me, made me hungry. I think I linked the smell of Newport Kools (specifically) and food together, the time my uncle’s wife (a chimney chain smoker) sat at our dinner table eating okra (smothered in onions and green bell pepper) and smoking her cigarettes. I was 6. She sat at the table, the cigarette between the index and middle finger of her left hand, her spoon in the right hand and her plate between. She’d place the food in her mouth, puff, chew – in that order, for the entirety of dinner. My mother thought it didn’t make sense, How can you taste the food?, she asked. My Uncle’s wife said it made the food taste better. I looked on in awe, as smoke wafted out of her nostrils and oozed out of her mouth every time she happened to open it as she chewed. The mixture of the tobacco scent and onion/okra/bell pepper aroma stuck with me. To this day when I smell Kool’s, I think of food.

The cigarettes where like food to me: this exotic, inhaled ambrosia. Consequently, I think this period of my life also marked the point when my food issues began in all earnestness. This is the time that I began stealing food. I wasn’t ever hungry and I never ate at people’s houses (unless you count the old lady on on our floor who used to feed me stale oatmeal cookies as I played outside her door) but my Mom began to notice my penchant for finishing things off and had to begin hiding the snacks.

I had a knack of going through the entire box of pop-tarts in a day, slowly, sneakily, stealthy. My Mom baked cakes from scratch and for those who have ever had an excellently made piece of Haitian cake with the Haitian icing, you know how irresistible it is. So imagine me, going back time and again to the cake and cutting small slivers off of it till it was all gone. I would be nervous, hoping I wouldn’t get caught, excited about making off with my “prize”, nearly orgasmic (as much as an 8 year old can be) at the prospect of the moist cinnamon/anise infused cake touching my tongue and the tartish sweet icing melting down the back of my throat. Just like how I used to puff on the cigarette, hoping it would never go out, I sought food in the same way – that it would never run out and that no matter how full I was, I would make room for more.

My secret “addiction” to cigarettes spawned my addiction for food. When I began to get sick from what my mother thought was my step-father smoking too much in the house (but what was really my smoking too much – much less at all), I had to lay off the cancer sticks and what replaced it was food. I remember reaching a point, where I would look at the butts before puffing away and when that sick feeling would wash over me when I was done, I would feel so awful for not being able to stop.

But one day I did. I remember my Mom went to pick me up and she grabbed me under my arms, as her thumbs dug into the front parts of my chest, I winced in agony. Because of all the smoking I was doing, my lungs were probably inflamed and irritated and when she let me go I felt an itchy imprint where her thumbs once were. Have you ever had surgery and you felt an itch deep down in your healing incision but couldn’t reach it? Or have you ever worn a cast and had an itch where you couldn’t touch? That’s how my lungs felt. I couldn’t tell her what I had been doing cause I wasn’t supposed to be doing it.

My step-father got the blame (yet again), for my terrible chest cold that followed the summer of smokes. After I kicked the cancer stick habit, I got the unexpected end of the bargain that I had unwittingly signed with the devil – a full blown eating disorder. No, I wasn’t diagnosed at that point in my life, but it had to be a disorder of some sort if I was stealing food and hiding in the bathroom to eat it. No, not just eat it: crave it, devour it and as soon as I was done ingesting it, my mind was immediately looking to ways of conning and conniving to get more.

I can’t say that the smoking is to blame entirely. There were other issues going on that were conducive to my eating disorder but by and large, the smoking and then cold-turkey quitting had a lot to do with it. All by the age of 8.

Savory foods didn’t do it for me – they were too cumbersome to fiddle with. Sweets always seemed to be ready and on hand. The fact that my Mom LOVED and always had cookies at the ready didn’t help either. I remember that there were these brand of cookies up north (1980’s) with a slogan similar to Just Like Grandma Used to Bake (or Make) but these cookies in particular had this strawberry jam under this lattice top – it looked more like a bar than a cookie. Anyway, since my Mom had caught on that I was a cookie fiend, she had these particular cookies up on top of her TV, which was on top of her bureau.

On a good day, I would have been able to stand up and reach them suckers, quicker than you can say pie in your eye. But that particular day, it was cold, I was fiending for some cookies and my legs were not cooperating with me – that day I needed help getting up out of my chair every time I had to use the restroom.

So there I was, sneaking into my Mom’s dark room, trying to reach and make my arms longer than they were, just so I could get some of that baked soft cookie goodness. And there they were: my legs, having a weak moment. I cursed my arms for not being long enough and doubly cursed my legs for being weak punks. I tried to pacify my unrelenting desire for cookies by trying to convince myself that I really didn’t want them anyway.

But I did.

I resigned myself to this mission impossible task.

I put on my wheelchair brakes and tried to lean my left elbow into the armrest, while willing my body up, hoping that this would be enough of a lift to get me on my feet. But it wasn’t.

So I devised a position, that would give me as much height as possible, with as much stability as possible and then the rest would be up to my free right arm.

Pilates may be new to y’all but I am telling you, I invented that mess, specifically the Extended Side Angle Pose… go, Google it to see what I’m talking about… I’ll wait.

My left leg was bent at the knee and was the stabilizing portion, my right leg was extended and provided me with counter-balance, my left elbow was dug into the armrest for further stability and my right arm, the free arm, was made to do the rest.

The rest consisted of using my index and middle fingers as “legs” that spider-maned up the side of the TV. Once those fingers walked the side, the ring and pinky were made to grapple hook on to the top of the TV as my index and middle fingers repositioned and became extractors. I couldn’t bring the pack of cookies down – I wouldn’t be able to get it back up there. So I had to quietly, carefully extract and drop as many cookies as I could reach either onto the floor or onto the bureau top but not so recklessly that the cookies broke or knocked into anything else and made a noise or worse yet a mess that would take me more time to clean up.

I was SWEATING like a Thanksgiving turkey ready for slaughter in the back shed. I had to hurry cause at any moment, my Mom could walk back to her room and the whole operation would be in danger.

Finally, after much groping, I was able to get down three cookies. I fell back down into my wheelchair in utter exhaustion – you try holding the Extended Side Angle Pose for any amount of minutes at a time and tell me how you feel.

I quickly scanned the bureau top for any signs of crumbs and made a hasty retreat to the nearby bathroom. Once safely behind the closed door, I kissed my fingers for their good work, cursed my legs once again for failing to get me standing up straight but acknowledged that at least they held the pose I needed and slowly… slowly, savored each cookie.

Mission accomplished.

Until my Mom called my name a bit later, in that particular tone and pitch of voice that made my bowels loose… then, then I knew it was all over… again.