When I was 16, I used to smoke cigarettes out of my bedroom window in the middle of the night.
My relatively brief stint (6 years) as a smoker started at my 16th birthday party and didn’t pick up as a true habit until I lived on my own when I was 17. In the meantime, I had one pack of cigarettes that I kept hidden and sometimes, after my parents were asleep, I would crack open the window and smoke.
There was a spot underneath my windowsill that sounded kind of hollow when you tapped on it and when I was little, I imagined that it was a secret passageway. I had heard of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and in my naivete didn’t understand that “underground” was a socio-cultural adjective, not a location, and that the railroad was mostly a figurative noun.
I imagined that I could squeeze through what would have been an impossibly narrow passage between the exterior and interior walls of my house and climb down into a portion of the trail that African-Americans followed out of slavery.
I recognize that this is completely bonkers and back when I was 16 and practicing the perfectly cool exhale, I would tap on the hollow spot through the floral wallpaper and shake my head at my 6-year-old self. Then I would go back to thinking about how badly I wanted a boyfriend, about ballet, and about who I was going to be.
During the winter, this was an especially risky activity. The cold air would pour into my room, not only putting me at risk for frostbite, but could cause a shift in the house’s temperature that my parents might notice. I would open the window only as wide as my face and work very hard to keep the smoke going out. Mostly, it just made my nose and cheeks numb.
I spent this past weekend alone, as the husband and the baby went to Blue Knob to ski, and I had the urge to go outside Saturday night. I had had a drink and was lonely and my living room was starting to depress me. I tugged on my big, winter coat and stepped out onto the front porch. It was pretty quiet outside, which was unusual. There were no signs of the revelers celebrating the end of another week on the main street below us.
Feeling the cool air on my face made me remember the illicit beginnings of my nicotine addiction and the embarrassment that I felt at how silly I was as a little girl.
I thought for a long time about an argument that the husband and I had had before they left. It was an ugly argument, one in which some of the more hurtful things that we’ve ever said to each other sailed through the air and hung there, following our thoughts around. Is that how we really feel? Is this who I’m going to be? How big are my mistakes?
My face started to sting as the low temperature became uncomfortable. 15 years stood between me and those moments by my bedroom window. And yet somehow the air felt the same.