Home / Personal Essay / North Country Girl: Chapter 25 — No Smoking

North Country Girl: Chapter 25 — No Smoking

Published: November 8, 2017

After those weekend parties, I walked home alone through the frigid Duluth night, warmed by a sense of belonging, of acceptance. I had found a place in the world, and even more importantly, in high school. My gang of girls ebbed and flowed around me like a school of friendly, benevolent fish. We had our own designated cafeteria table within reach of an artlessly tossed roll from the table where the cute boys sat.  Among the hundreds of other kids at East High, we had an uncanny ability to find each other; we never walked alone down those not-so-mean hallways. At birthday sleepovers, all of us would be there, bearing gifts of warm beers, jars of watered-down Beefeaters decanted from our parents’ bars, and packs of Tareytons, the gang’s cigarette of choice. I desperately wanted to be a smoker, like my friends, who tried to teach me how to inhale. I was unable to get past that first puff without coughing until my eyes were bleary, teary, and crossed. Nancy Erman would pound me on the back then pluck the ciggie from my hand to finish it herself.

Cigarrettes

Tareyton cigarettes. (Wikimedia Commons)

I spent hours of each school day with Nancy, my own St. Peter who had ushered me into this heaven. We sat next to each other in all our advanced classes. We didn’t whisper or pass notes, we just vibrated together in the comforting solidarity of friendship.

Although most of my new gang had boyfriends, Friday nights were Girls Only, a rule we held to through all three years of high school, including summers. Saturday was date night; if you didn’t already have a steady boyfriend, this was when you tested out new guys at the Norshor or Granada movie theater, or over weird hamburgers at Somebody’s House, or making out in the back seat of a car. My heart-breaking experience with Steve LaFlamme had tamped down my desire to have a real boyfriend; this was a good thing, as outside of the slowly disintegrating Brad McCarthy, no boy seemed interested in me. Most Saturday nights a few phone calls would round up one or two other luckless friends and we single girls would hang out, drink, and look for unclaimed guys. On those nights when all of my friends were paired up with steady or prospective boyfriends, I sat at home, eating popcorn and watching Saturday Night at the Movies with my sullen sister Lani, who only looked up at the TV intermittently between scrawling nipples and pubic hair on all her Barbies with a black Magic Marker.

My friends took it for granted that since I was now a popular girl that I would, like all popular girls do, eventually land a boyfriend, the invisible magnet of popularity snaring and reeling in at least one boy. Even Carol, who despite her constant dieting, seemed to put on a pound a week, was out every Saturday night with big blond Artie, who never spoke but whose size earned him a starting spot on the varsity hockey team. As a token of love, before heading into the penalty box Artie always sent Carol a besotted wave of his gloved hand while standing over the body of his latest victim, who lay sprawled and bleeding on the ice.

Drifting along in my happy cloud of girlfriends, I had almost forgotten about Mary Ann Stuart until I got a letter asking if she could spend a week of Christmas vacation with me, since she had already told her mother I had invited her. Mary Ann arrived in late December, with a deep Florida tan, even bigger breasts, a gift of silver earrings for my still-crusty pierced ears, and disturbing news: we were double dating that night with a friend of John Bean’s.

It was a Friday night. I had looked forward to bringing Mary Ann along when I met up with my gang. They were not an exclusionary bunch, and Mary Ann knew some of the girls from the Deeps. But Mary Ann was too gaga over seeing, and kissing, and being felt up by John Bean to even consider the prospect of drinking lukewarm Fitger’s beer in Wendi Carlson’s bedroom while her mother was at bowling league.

Factory

Fitger’s Brewery, Duluth. (David Wilson, Wikimedia Commons)

I was torn. Even as it sunk in that I was only the Holiday Inn, that Mary Ann had really come back to Duluth to see John Bean, the code of honor among girlfriends meant that I couldn’t back out of the double date. I called Wendi and said we weren’t coming. Not showing up on a Friday night didn’t mean that you were ostracized or kicked out of the gang; knowing that you had missed out on the fun was punishment enough.

Skipping that Friday night with my friends was the first step in my accidental acquisition of a boyfriend. My date was Doug Figge, a pimply, unremarkable kid whose sole distinction was the ability to grow a slight moustache, a moustache that a first glance looked drawn on with eyebrow pencil. John Bean and Doug Figge went to the mysterious Central High, reputed home of tough guys and greasers, and they worked together at the Canal Drive-In.

Our dates dutifully arrived at seven and manfully shook hands with my father. Had Mary Ann not been there, my dad would never have allowed his just-turned fifteen-year-old daughter to get into a car with two scruffy boys with shaggy hair wearing black leather jackets completely unsuitable for Duluth winters. That must have been some sizeable golf bet.

Duluth postcard

Frigid Duluth

We did not go to Somebody’s House, home of gourmet burgers and real tablecloths. We did not go to the London Inn, the drive-in that was the teeming heart of Duluth teen social life, the destination for every kid with access to a car. We didn’t even go to the Canal Drive-ln, where John and Doug worked, a joint that offered second-rate hamburgers and zero ambience.

We went to Joe Sloan’s house, Joe who had played wingman to Wesley Baggot. I hadn’t been to that house for seven or eight years, back when Joe’s younger sister and I had occasionally played together. The gatehouse and the long driveway leading up to the massive Tudor Revival mansion, ominously stark against the snow, the gleaming grand piano lurking in the immense living room…it was all as familiar and as strange as a dream. Joe, who quickly shooed us inside his oddly dark and silent house, was no taller than he had been when I last saw him six months before, but he seemed older. He mumbled, “Hi Gay, something something” and again I got lost in his dark, deep eyes. I decided I did want a boyfriend, even if he was shut up at boarding school most of the year.

The five of us trooped down to the basement, which disappointingly looked like every other basement rec room used mostly by kids: sticky checkered linoleum tile floor, ping pong table with a torn net and one paddle, scratchy couches with hideous crocheted throws, and an aluminum standing lamp with a single working bulb. In keeping with dating etiquette, I had to sit next to Doug, while sending out frantic thought beams to Joe Sloan: HE’S NOT MY BOYFRIEND.

Joe did have a real stereo system, with separate turntable and speakers, instead of an RCA hi-fi disguised as a piece of classy furniture, or the tinny shoebox-sized contraption I received free (hah!) with my membership in the Columbia Record Club. Joe put “Hey Jude” on the turntable, that seven-minute drone that had been played over and over all fall in every basement and on every car radio. I wasn’t a fan of the B side “Revolution,” either, I just might want to carry a sign by Chairman Mao. But I smiled and twinkled at Joe as if I were the world’s biggest Beatles fan and ever so grateful to him for playing that particular track: Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah…

Closeup of Beatles record

Hey Jude. (Flickr, badgreeb Records)

Joe was not paying the least bit of attention to me as he was busy doing something with a small piece of paper. When he lit it on fire, I realized that here, at last, were drugs. The joint was passed around, refused by Mary Ann (“It makes me feel weird”…wasn’t that the point?) and came to me. I was thrilled that finally I was about to experience that transport of consciousness I longed for and scared to death that I would blow it, which I did. I took my first hesitant puff of a joint then erupted in a coughing fit a hundred times worse than a Tareyton one. Kind Nancy was not around to pound my back, Mary Ann just looked on, mortified. None of those boys ever offered me pot again.

Joe started to flip over “Hey Jude” when Doug handed him a Doors album, which gave Doug one point in my eyes, but did not make up for the pimples. No one talked, not even John and Mary Ann, the reunited lovers, who did eventually sneak away somewhere. The Sloan mansion had dozens of rooms they could use; it was a miracle they found their way back to the basement hours later. When Joe and Mary Ann left in search of a private love nest, Doug put his hand over mine, I scooted away, and Joe shut his gorgeous eyes.

That was my week with Mary Ann. If we weren’t in Joe Sloan’s basement, we were lounging around in my bedroom while she told me how much she loved John Bean, how it felt when he touched her, how every night a new piece of clothing was discarded and a new body part caressed.

Mary Ann sweet-talked my mother into driving us down to the Canal Drive-In, where Mary Ann and John traded looks of undying love over the sticky counter while John wrapped hamburgers in waxed paper. The garish yellow and red Canal was lit like an operating room, with chairs meant to encourage you to eat your burger and leave as fast as possible. Coming out of the crisp wintery air, the atmosphere at the Canal was a fug of uncirculated grease. Mary Ann and I sat there, scrunching our bottoms around in those plastic bucket-shaped seats, sipping cokes through paper straws until John and Doug got off their shift and it was off to the Sloan’s basement.

Mary Ann had not flagged in her crusade to pair me up with a boyfriend. She insisted that I like Doug: after all Doug had told John who had told Mary Ann how much he liked me, even though I don’t think we had exchanged ten words. On that basis, one night while Joe slipped into a pot and “Hey Jude” induced trance, Doug and I kissed and did the teen couple couch grapple.

Doug was a boy, so that was exciting, and he was a year older and had a driver’s license and smoked cigarettes and pot. He liked the Doors and he seemed to like me. I tried to like him back, as Joe Sloan still treated me as an inanimate object and there were no other contenders for boyfriend ringing me on the phone or walking me home from school.

Doug did not have all that much going for him as boyfriend material. A pong of French fries always clung to his hair. He went to a different high school so we would never walk hand in hand to class together. I hated going over to his pokey ranch house, which sat on a small, treeless plot in a neighborhood I had never been to before. His grey, sunken-faced parents, who didn’t speak to me, were always watching TV, slumped in matching Barcaloungers too large for their cramped living room. Plastic flowers stuck in empty bottles of Lancers and Blue Nun wine decorated the dining table and sideboard. There was not a single book in that house. I looked down my nose at all of it. I was a hippie, I was a revolutionary, I was a snob.

After her week of love, Mary Ann said goodbye to me through a veil of happy/sad tears: she and John had spent their last night together going all the way. Mary Ann claimed that he had a rubber, but as it was pitch black in that forgotten back bedroom in the Sloan mansion, she could not enlighten me as to how a rubber went on or came off, but who cares, she cried, it was magical, it was heavenly, she loved John Bean so much and he loved her, and she hoped that Doug and I would be just as in love. The sex sounded fun, but I could not imagine Doug Figge on the other end of a mysterious rubber-sheathed penis.

Mary Ann flew home to Florida, Joe Sloan was sent off to his bad boy boarding school, and I went back to East High and the company of my friends; a week away from them felt like an eternity. The girls were thrilled that I finally had a boyfriend, even if he did go to another school and therefore had no status, good or bad, in the East High caste system.

I wasn’t sure I had a boyfriend, or even wanted this particular one. But Doug beat out the competition, as there was none. He’d call, ask me out, and I went, Saturday after Saturday. We didn’t go to the movies or to Bridgeman’s for ice cream. We went to his sad little house, or if John Bean was working, down to the Canal Drive-In where John gave us free onion rings and cokes. When the Canal closed, John and Doug smoked pot and drank beers in the parking lot, while the gale-force wind off the lake buffeted the car. I sat smashed between them, trying not to cough as the air in the car turned blue with smoke. Doug and I would end the evening in the back seat of his parents’ Corvair, negotiating how much I really liked him.

Car

Chevy Corvair. (Christopher Ziemnowicz, Wikimedia Commons)

I had no problem letting Doug stick his hand under my shirt. Mary Ann had warned me not to make the same prissy mistake I had with Steve Laflamme. Thanks to sleep-over confessions, I now knew that every girl in my gang who had a boyfriend of several months’ standing had gone at least that far. We girls prided ourselves on sharing everything, starting with the first kiss; our Friday nights were filled with drunken truth-telling and laughter, at ourselves, each other, and our clueless boyfriends. My gang of friends bonded over tales of our teenage romances and the knowledge that all our secrets were safe among us.

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  • Janet

    O, Gay, you’re killing me!!! These stories continue to chip at repressed memories. I don’t know if I should hug you or scratch rumors about you on he bathroom stall!

  • Nelly

    The story is good and rings true. I would have preferred real names not be used without permission. Seems kinda mean, kind of embarrassing. The author’s experience is subjective, the facts related are private and intimate, the people are real, not characters in a short story, not fodder.

  • I read ” North Country Girl” and look forward to each installment. She captures the feelings, values and life experiences of that time as no one else has done.
    Please continue her columns. I appreciate your attention to my email.

  • Nancy Erman was your St. Peter, Gay? Of course she was! She plucked that cigarette out of your hand, finished it herself after some back pounding to get you some coughing relief from that Tareyton, after all.

    Sorry to hear poor Brad McCarthy’s looks just disintegrated further, but glad you kept your eye out for unclaimed boys. It’s a good thing Carol and Artie weren’t on a coed hockey team (if they’d existed), or there would have been a lot more victims of THAT wrecking team–for sure.

    Gotta tell ya Gay, ‘Hey Jude’ (and ‘Let It Be’) are two of my very least favorite Beatles songs; especially ‘Hey Jude’ that turns into a BAD repetitive mess of screaming—I hate that too! (I love the Doors and know a couple of the members of the ‘Strange Days’ present day tribute band).

    Pot just kind of made me feel uncomfortable and strange—in a bad way. Once was it. Can’t stand the smell of cigarettes at all now, but don’t mind the scent of pot if I smell it out and about.

    It sounds like Doug tried the best he could. Look, his home wasn’t that hot, he had pimples, but he had a drivers license, two kinds of cigarettes, a pong of French fries clinging to his hair, and access to a cool ’61 (?) Corvair!!

    I’ll have you know my grandfather bought that exact Corvair coupe (also white) new in 1961. He traded it in for the ’67 model several years later, also a white coupe. I wish I had that ’61 (especially) now.

    My parents took my sister and myself on a vacation tour of western Canada in 1968 (ages 7 and 11 respectively) where we just had tons of energy to run and play. At the time, several of the adults told my parents, “youth is wasted on the young.”

    I overheard it being said, knew what they meant, and felt it was sour grapes/jealousy. No doubt it in part was, but truer words were never spoken. Ever. It can also be applied to most aspects of these chapters!

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