Third prize winner of the Tobacco Lit Writing Contest.
I don’t know what this means, but I have no trouble connecting my mother’s cryptic label with the glamorous woman on our ship. Much later, I pin down the exact flavour of her tone: judgmental with a frisson of salaciousness. I’m six. I have only a vague idea of American, and absolutely no context for divorcée. I know enough to know that I can’t become American; in fact I desperately want to be Canadian, which is where we are heading to begin our New Life, sailing from Durban to Montreal in late September 1957. I decide then and there that when I grow up, I will be a divorcée. Smoking. Red high heels and lipstick. Tight red dress. Boobs. Platinum blonde.
In my cramped ship’s cabin I roll up a piece of paper and play-smoke in front of the mirror, my cigarette held languorously between fingers that I fantasize taper perfectly in long red-polished nails. I savour the sultry deliciousness of divorcée.
Inhale. Slowly, slowly. Exhale through pursed red lips. How do you do? I’m a divorcée. A Canadian divorcée.
I can’t get enough of it.
At nine, I smoke the DuMauriers and Players my friends steal from the packs in their mothers’ purses. We sneak them in the tall grass out behind Charlie’s, whom most everyone in Alliance, Alberta calls “the Chinaman’s.” I am forbidden to go there because that’s where the teenagers hang out in between bouts of driving around in cars smoking, drinking and necking. On TV there’s Fred Davis, the host of Front Page Challenge, his hair Brylcreemed, driving a convertible sports cars that he smooths round sweet coastal highway curves while the jingle spools out like melted Velveeta cheese:
Smoke DuMarier, for real smoking pleasure.
DuMaurier, the cigarette of good taste.
A mild cigarette with the best filter yet.
That’s why the trend today is to DuMaurier.
In high school, I’m drawn to the outlaw girls smoking in the bathrooms. In university classes, we smoke up a thick fog along with our draft dodger professors, while Paris and Watts burn and Pierre says, Just watch me.
I become a mostly secret smoker, a habit I continue throughout my adult life. I quit while I’m pregnant with my three daughters, but when the first is born in 1978, I go with my friends to the hospital smoking room for my first cigarette in nine long months.
One of my daughter’s boyfriends, a young man whose father was a matador in Spain, tells me I smoke like a porn star. I’m shocked that he’s so forward, but I get it. I tell him I smoke like a divorcée.
At sixty, I finally quit. I discover a brand of nicotine and tobacco-free cigarettes made in California. Ecstasy. We buy them from Hav-a-Cigar, run by a scowling, smoking woman with a thick Eastern European accent we call “the Slavtron.” We keel over laughing reading the list of ingredients:
Damiana, wild lettuce, catnip, light & love.