The year we were thirteen years old, I got pertussis and my best friend Dani became obsessed with cigarettes. She liked French New Wave movies and Audrey Hepburn and The Velvet Underground. She aspired to an aesthetic that valued thinness, pallor, dark clothes, dramatic eyeliner, smoking. What life handed her was poverty and an early puberty of pimples and suddenly enormous breasts. She worked with what she had. She got black clothes from Goodwill and stole make-up from Rite-Aid. She tried to figure out how to get her hands on cigarettes. This, she seemed to think, would transform her.
I was less concerned with my image then and more concerned with having pertussis. We lived in a hippie town in Oregon, people used essential oils instead of medicine, and most of our middle school got it. It starts with a week or two of fever, then slides into a racking cough that lasts for months. Paroxysmal coughing fits gripped my ribs and made my stomach flip and my vision turn black. It was especially unfair because I got it even though I was vaccinated, while Dani, who remained well enough to worry about cigarettes, was not.
We sat across from each other at the coffee shop we went to after school. We liked it because it was mostly populated with students from the small state college in our town, and because the staff had interesting tattoos and played Neutral Milk Hotel. We liked to think we fit in there. I brought the money I earned babysitting my cousin and Dani filched cash from her mom’s purse (“It’s from my child support. I’m the child, aren’t I? This coffee is supporting me.”) She always got mochas. I got Americanos, and felt a little superior about it.
Dani said, “But obviously the vaccine didn’t work anyway. Because you still got sick.”
“It works like ninety percent of the time, though,” I said. “If everybody’s vaccinated then you get the herd immunity and that ten percent doesn’t matter. If there weren’t so many unvaccinated people around here it wouldn’t be going around in the first place.” I didn’t really know if any of this was true. I was just repeating what I heard my parents say when they were upset about their kid having pertussis.
“Or if no one’s vaccinated everyone has stronger immune systems. And besides, how bad is it, really? Nobody’s dying. You’ve got a cough and you’ll get better but for some reason you’d rather have mercury in your blood.” I knew, even then, that Dani was also repeating what her mom had said. This didn’t mean either of us were any less convinced we were right.
I started to answer but instead launched into a loud and alarming coughing fit. I registered Dani’s look of embarrassment at the spectacle I was making and scooted back from the table to cough into my lap, where I could not spit on anything or knock anything over.
When I recovered Dani was looking at herself in her stolen compact mirror, like nothing had happened, frowning and smudging more powder onto her face.
“I don’t know how your skin is so perfect,” she said without looking at me.
I felt spiteful. I said, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s all the vaccines.”
She looked out the window at the patio, where some college students were sitting around a table smoking. She said, “So here’s the plan for tonight.”
After the coffee shop we usually went to Dani’s house. My house had too many people in it: my two parents, my two younger brothers, our large dog, sometimes my aunt or uncle, sometimes my parents’ colleagues from the college. Even in my room you could always hear the activity in the rest of the house, you could always feel the presence of others. At Dani’s house it was just us and her mom.
Dani had provided several explanations of what was wrong with her mom. She said her mom had Lyme disease. She said she had fibromyalgia. She said her grandmother had been struck by lightning when she was pregnant, and then later that she’d taken thalidomide. I eventually stopped asking. The point was that Dani’s mom was Sick, in the same way that my parents were Professors. The symptoms of this sickness seemed unpredictable and incoherent to me, but whatever else Dani may have been impatient with, she never treated her mother’s condition with anything less than total seriousness. She never seemed to suspect for a moment, as I did, that her mother’s real problem was in her head.
Because of this sickness her mother often had elaborate errands to run: driving to a farm on the outskirts of town to get unpasteurized milk, going to lectures on natural healing, appointments for sonic therapy and aromatherapy and hydrotherapy. Their house was always immaculately clean. The crystals and chakra charts were dust-free. The plants that crowded every surface were watered and healthy. The spelt and probiotic cabbage and energy teas sat in the pantry in neatly labeled jars. It was like this because Dani’s mom insisted Dani keep it this way. She would often feel too ill to clean herself and would lie on the couch moaning while Dani mopped the floor in a quiet, powerless rage. But the impression it gave the house was of order and emptiness. This was where we liked to spend our time.
Dani said her mom wouldn’t be there that afternoon, but when we arrived at the house she was standing in the doorway. Dani said, “Oh shit,” and her mom, squinting at us from a few yards away, said, “What’s that shit on your face?”
Dani kept her head down and pushed past her into the house. “It’s nothing.”
“You know that stuff is poison, don’t you?”
“It’s not a big deal, Mom.”
I dragged my feet up to the porch and stood back. Dani’s mom looked to me like she was appealing to me for support in this. She said to Dani, “Harper doesn’t wear any of that shit.”
I ducked my head and went inside. Dani didn’t respond to that—a mercy to me; I knew she thought I only went without cosmetics because I was a clueless nerd—and whisked us into her room. Her mom kept talking, even after she closed the door. “It’s full of aluminum! You know what aluminum does? It leaches into your cells and gives you cancer. And paraffins! Paraffins are artificial estrogen. That’s what gets your hormones all out of whack and makes your skin break out. If you stopped putting fake cow hormones on your face it would clear right up.”
Dani sat on the floor with her back to the door, head on her knees. “I swear to God,” she said.
I had calculated that Dani’s mom was a little younger than my parents—she had been in high school in the second half of the seventies whereas my parents were there in the first half, meaning that since my parents were both 48 she must be 42 or 43. She looked a lot older than my parents, though. She had deep lines on her face and leathery skin. She was so thin you could see the knobs of her arm bones where they socketed into her shoulders. She moved like her joints had broken glass in them. She wore batik sarongs and crocheted tank tops but still spoke with the light Texas accent Dani had meticulously eradicated in herself. She called poison things that my family called normal—flour, sugar, pasteurized dairy; drugstore hygiene and cosmetic products; vaccines, antibiotics, Tylenol; dust and pet hair; television and organized sports and cell phones. Somehow my parents remained robust despite doing these things. Somehow I remained the stable, high-achieving, wholesome child while Dani seemed to choose at random which of her mother’s toxins to avoid and which to devote herself to pursuing.
Dani showed me what Iris Taube had shown her. Iris went to our hippie charter school with us but had a 17-year-old boyfriend from the high school. It gave her an air of danger and sophistication, even though we knew the boyfriend himself was not cooler than we were, just older. He wore the same Korn shirt all the time and his hair always looked kind of greasy. That didn’t affect the social capital he gave Iris in eighth grade. We made faces when we saw her making out with him around town, but would still immediately do anything she did.
Dani laid her things out on the bedroom floor.
“So you take some paper, like this,” she said, tearing a neat square off of some old homework, “and then some dried grass”—which she had collected earlier that day and put in a little plastic bag—“and then Iris said it tastes kind of bad just like that, so we’ll get some cinnamon or rosemary from the kitchen and add that, and then you just roll it up and smoke it.”
“It doesn’t have nicotine, though,” I said. “Isn’t that the whole point?”
“It doesn’t? Really?” Dani said. She held a straight face for long enough that we both started laughing. “Like, no, it doesn’t, but the point is it gets you used to it. So when we get to the high school and we’re able to get real cigarettes we’ll be ready.”
I nodded. I already suspected I may cease to matter to Dani next year when we went to high school. I failed to fit into her aesthetic even when I tried. I had no make-up and no daring, I did not steal things, I did not lie to my parents. My life was reliable and mapped-out ahead of me. I hated this. I didn’t particularly think smoking would change it, but I knew that being friends with Dani did. Which was why it was important for me to act the part of enthusiastic co-conspirator while I had the chance, while she still treated me like one.
Dani’s plan went further than just the cigarettes and further than Iris Taube would have thought to go. Her plan was to take our fake cigarettes to the playground at the defunct elementary school that night, where a lot of older high school kids and college students went to hang around at night. There wasn’t a whole lot to do around town if you weren’t into essential oils or homeopathy. We would go there under cover of darkness with our fake cigarettes, wait for real smokers to arrive, tell them the cigarettes we were smoking were our last ones and ask if we could bum a couple off them. Dani hunched in toward me, sitting on the floor with her eyes wide, telling me this. She was thrilled with herself to have come up with it.
“Go get some cinnamon from the kitchen to put in them,” she said. “If I go out there and my mom sees me she’s going to, like, make me mop the floor or something.”
I went to the kitchen. Dani’s mom was standing over the sink, holding a washcloth to her eye. She saw me standing behind her and jumped. “Oh my God! I didn’t even hear you come in. How long were you there?”
“I just got here,” I said. She was acting like I had startled her on purpose.
“You’re so quiet. You’re like a mouse,” she said. “Shanti always stomps everywhere like an elephant.”
Dani’s real name was Shanti Danielle Hauser. She had started going by Dani when she moved to our town four years ago. Even then she had a distaste for her mom’s aesthetics, but back then she liked Hello Kitty and Barbie and bright colors and glossy plastic. Her mom could never stop calling her Shanti, though. It was one of the reasons she invited me to her house and not other people. She knew I wouldn’t repeat the information at school.
I said, “Oh. Well.” I hadn’t really thought about how I would explain why we needed cinnamon in Dani’s room.
Dani’s mom poured some green glop from the blender into a mason jar and held it out to me. “Here, I made too much of this smoothie. Tell me what you think.” I took it. Dani’s mom had handed me things to try before and it had never been a positive experience, but I didn’t know how to say no. I couldn’t yell at her and call her ridiculous like Dani did. I tried the green stuff. I retched.
“Hmm,” Dani’s mom said. She took a sip from her glass and made a face. “Ugh. Yeah. Yuck.”
The retch strained my throat a little and I started coughing. I managed to say, mid-fit, “What’s even in it?”
“Pine needles,” she said. She put the washcloth back to her eye and looked out the window. “From the tree outside. They’re packed with vitamin C.” She looked at me like she had just noticed my whooping. She said, “It might be good for your cough.”
They didn’t have cable at Dani’s house. TV was a bad influence, TV gave young girls unrealistic standards of beauty. This was a thing my parents told me too, even as they allowed me to watch TV routinely. At Dani’s house they got DVDs from the library or from a friend of Dani’s mom who burned them onto discs and wrote the titles in sharpie.
After I had smuggled in the cinnamon—I seized the opportunity when Dani’s mom went to find some reference book on herbs from their shelves—we decided to go watch The Royal Tenenbaums for the gazillionth time. Her mom was lying on the living room couch. She lifted her head as soon as we came in and Dani went tense.
“Shanti,” she said. “Boo. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Everything hurts.”
Dani didn’t move her face.
“Can you clean up the kitchen for me?”
“Don’t forget under the stove burners.” She put the washcloth over both eyes and put on a cutesy voice to say, “Thank you, boo,” when Dani was already out of the room. I followed her as quietly as I could and tried not to look at her mom.
In the kitchen, scrubbing pine needle gunk out of the blender, Dani said, “I think I should bleach my hair. I used to think, like, blonde means Barbie, but now I’m thinking, you know, blond like Gwyneth Paltrow. I think that would look good on me.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That would be cool.” I could still hear her mom making sounds from the living room. I didn’t know what to think about her. I thought she might be in pain because she had just drunk a bunch of pine needles. That did not make the pain any less obvious and real.
When we felt it was dark enough we left the house. Dani’s mom asked us from the couch where we were going and Dani shouted from the porch that we were going for a walk. That was the whole conversation.
We held our “cigarettes” in our fists carefully, so they wouldn’t unravel. I didn’t feel scared until we actually got the playground. We hung out at the playground at night all the time, but this would be different. What if my parents drove by and saw me (there was no way they could actually see me from the road)? What if someone they knew saw me and told them (this was also virtually impossible)?
We sat in the turret by the slide and fidgeted with our fake cigarettes. Dani played with the lighter she’d found on the sidewalk a month ago and kept.
I said, “Maybe we should light the first ones now in case they don’t work and we look like idiots.”
Dani thought about this and agreed. We solemnly put the cigarettes in our mouths and held the lighter to them. I looked at Dani. She did not look cool. She looked like she was sucking a straw. I knew I probably looked the same. The homework paper got soggy in our mouths and the dried grass alternately smoldered to nothing or burst into open flame.
“This isn’t working very well,” Dani said.
“Iris is a bimbo.”
“We knew that already.”
We sputtered halfway through our first round and then threw what was left onto the damp wood chips below us.
“We’ll try again if we hear someone coming,” Dani said. “It’s dark. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s just so we’re not, like, obviously eighth graders.”
“Is smoking dried grass even bad for you?”
Dani looked at me like that was the stupidest thing she ever heard.
We were bored enough to be playing I Spy by the time we heard footsteps and low voices approaching us. Dani snapped into action. She shoved the next cigarette into my mouth and started grinding the lighter at me. Her face looked like this was an emergency. The voices got closer and until they were right below us on the playground. They were male. I smelled tobacco smoke.
Dani said, loud enough for them to hear, “God damn it.”
One of the boys said, “What’s going on up there?”
We looked down. He was a dark shape in an unseasonable beanie, looking up at us. Dani held up her cigarette. She said, as fluently as she lied to her mom, “They got wet.”
The other voices were talking amongst themselves with a tone that was amused or mocking, or sounded that way to me. The one who’d spoken to us said, “I got you, ladies,” and reached two cigarettes up to us between the bars of the play structure.
“Thank you, gentleman,” Dani said as she took them from him. She raised her eyebrows at me as she lit hers. She handed me the lighter. I watched her pull in and puff out. It made alluring smoke clouds around her. The real ones were different. She did look cool now.
He said, “Are y’all at the college?”
“We’re in high school,” Dani said. She knew not to push our luck too far.
He laughed. “Did I just commit a crime?”
“No, no, we’re eighteen—”
“Am I corrupting the youth?” he said, and all his friends laughed. It occurred to me that there would be no way for us to get down without walking through them. Dani gestured that I should light up.
Dani said, “Well I don’t know what else you do with your life besides handing out cigarettes on the playground…” I held the lighter to my face and breathed in.
The group went: “Ooh.” The boy started to respond but I didn’t hear it, because I launched into a coughing fit.
It’s absurd to me now that I never even considered that this might happen. It didn’t with the dried grass ones, but those barely smoked. This was harsh, pungent, it stripped my throat and set me coughing in a way that even the worst of my fits until then never had. Dani, I managed to see, looked alarmed. She patted me uncertainly on the back.
Someone else from below said, “Is she OK?”
“Yeah,” Dani said. “Yeah, she’s just had this really terrible cough for a while now.”
She looked at me to corroborate but I couldn’t speak. My lungs were an airless vacuum. She tried patting me again. I looked at her. I wanted her to know that I was sorry. I saw black spots and my head spun and I couldn’t stay upright. When I passed out I was looking at her face. She was looking at the boys, calculating.
We were silent on the walk back to her house, after I’d come to again.
Eventually she said, “It was all I could do to keep them from calling an ambulance.”
“What if I needed an ambulance?”
She rolled her eyes. “You don’t need an ambulance. You have a fucking cough. You passed out from a fucking cough.”
“I have fucking pertussis,” I said, “because of idiots like you and your mom.”
We didn’t say anything else. We didn’t say anything going quietly in the door of her house, nothing as I took my spot on the futon on her bedroom floor. She turned off the lights and turned her back to me.
The way things went from there was: we both started high school in the fall; my whooping cough got better; Dani made older friends from whom she had no difficulty getting cigarettes; we still got coffee together on weekends even if we didn’t hang out much at school anymore. The next year I got tracked into AP classes and she got a job waiting tables. We saw each other less. Our conversations were the same when we did: she told me her feelings and gossip, about her drinking and drug use, the men from the restaurant she allowed to pick her up. We never went to her house anymore. In senior year her mother had some kind of medical crisis that required Dani to spend a lot of time driving her around to appointments. She spent the rest of her time working or at house parties that scared me the few times she brought me to them. I went to college. She didn’t. We fell out of touch.
I know from Instagram that she lives in Portland now. I know that she still favors dramatic eyeliner and black-and-white photography, that she has a lot of friends who post cryptic jokes to her comments. I see her on porches drinking beer and striking ironic poses in front of local landmarks. I see that she still smokes.
I don’t post much to social media. She wouldn’t know about me going to work every day, waiting in line at the grocery store in my pilled fleece, making a new plan to be rigorous and orderly and healthful every few months and every few months sliding back into my default state of being none of those things. She would have no way to know that I still smoke too.
In the morning after our night on the playground Dani’s mother woke us up coming loudly in the front door, shouting, “Who wants biscuits?” She had decided to surprise us with nice things—things she probably couldn’t afford—at the food co-op. We sat across from each other at the little kitchen table, dazed. It was hard to stay mad at each other in the face of her enthusiasm, so we didn’t. The biscuits were made of spelt or something and the butter wasn’t real butter and the honey was thick and raw but it was all delicious anyway. She heated things in the oven and made us tea and flitted around the kitchen telling us what a wonderful day it was.
“I was just thinking,” she said, “about everything Shanti does for me and how serious you both are and—don’t forget to be kids, you know? It’s a beautiful morning. Enjoy being kids.”
Dani rolled her eyes. She was still smiling.
Her mom seemed almost high on feeding us but didn’t eat anything herself. I asked if she wanted a biscuit. She smiled and said no thanks and got some more of her pine needle smoothie from the refrigerator.
I must have made a face, because she laughed. “I know, I know!” she said. “But I’ve got to try whatever I can.” She sighed and looked at her green slime. She said, “Who knows, maybe this is what will heal me.”
McKenna Marsden is an MFA candidate at the University of Maryland. Their fiction has appeared in the New England Review and been nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story prize, and they were recently awarded a St. Botolph Club Foundation Emerging Artist Grant for a novel they are currently at work on.