Don’t get me wrong. If I remember anything from The Big Sleep it’s Lauren Bacall with a cigarette between her lips. And Bette Davis had gloriously sad smoking eyes when Paul Henreid lit up a deuce in Now, Voyager. Later, there was Monica Vitti, Giulietta Masina and Anna Karina. I don’t remember if that trio smoked, but, if it did, I’m sure the puffs were sensual and glamorous (and possibly heartbreakingly tragic in Masina’s case). So don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against the movies. I spent a good part of my childhood lusting over dead and aging actresses. But besides the time I put an end to my mom’s cassette deck with a copy of Nights of Cabiria that I borrowed from the library and never returned, the movies lie. The stench and the irritation of the eyes and the bad teeth don’t penetrate the silver screen. The story ends before the skin yellows and tightens into the leather they use to make fake Italian sofas. And don’t get me started on the clothes: saturated with an entire history of matches and lighters and Saturday afternoons spent coughing in the garage.
Listen, I don’t mean to sound like a smoking infomercial. The truth is that I don’t care how many people die from throat cancer or if underprivileged kids have to suck in second hand smoke because their parents get the shakes if they don’t light up every hour on the hour. All I care about—and what I can’t get out of my head—is the sweet mouth of Ginnie Peters in the eighth grade, open and waiting for me and my tongue in a little nook on the southwest wall of St. Bartholomew’s Elementary. I’ll never forget that first taste of saliva. No lingering mintiness of sugar-free gum, no taste bud memories of a winter morning’s bitter black coffee. Just sweet, warm and fresh saliva replenishing itself with the swallow-swallow frequency of a nervous teenage girl. If you happen know the album cover for King Crimson’s In The Court of the Crimson King or maybe Edvard Munch’s Screams, you know that once adulthood hits, open mouths become the gaping maws of monsters. But back then it was still the pinnacle of burgeoning eroticism to see those jaws spread and the spit coming down the sides of Ginnie Peters’ teeth like my own private Niagara Falls. I stuck my tongue into that beautiful cavity and lapped up the taste.
Recess and noon hour and sometimes after school, weeks upon weeks, we spent in that spot with our faces joined at the lips, exchanging fluids. Of course, it wasn’t all about the saliva. There were also the teeth and the tongues, and the hotness of breath making the tiny hairs on your upper lip stand up. Sometimes there were the hands, too, but we didn’t do much of that. It was other young couples that snuck off to explore the insides of each other’s underwear. We were mouth people.
Even before our lickings and suckings started we’d been friends. Ask my mom where I was when I wasn’t home and she’d nine of ten answer, “He’s probably off with Ginnie somewhere.” Nine of ten she was right, too. Probably in Ginnie’s basement, where she and her brother Felton had set up a room especially for audio-visual pleasures. A giant rear projection TV against the wall, a Japanese stereo and, in both corners, big Bose towers with enough bass to restart your heart. Although Felton generally left us alone, he was our primary source for movies. He was older than Ginnie—in his last year of high school. A couple of his friends were already in college, so he’d raid their college libraries for us, bringing back 70s rock albums and the classics of Hollywood and European cinema. If there was anything more appealing than sucking out every last drop of Ginnie Peter’s unspoilt saliva, it was feasting on that saliva while Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Graham fell in love on screen.
The trouble with Nicholas Ray films, however, is that they usually don’t end well for the lovers. You see, brother Felton picked up another thing from his college buddies: the taste for nicotine. I first caught on from the faint smell on his jacket. He was discrete with his habit and good at airing out his clothes, but versus someone with an acute sense of cigarette smell like me it wasn’t enough. When I sheepishly asked him about it one day while Ginnie was in the bathroom, his face turned red to match the colour of the popped blood vessels in his eyes and he begged me not to tell Ginnie or his parents. Cigarettes weren’t all he was smoking, and he was glad to buy my silence for a pack of Camels that I didn’t even particularly want. I wasn’t going to talk anyway but he pushed them into my hand and nodded like we’d just concluded an international arms deal, so I kept them.
Which brings me back to Lauren Bacall with the cig dangling from her lips in The Big Sleep, me and Ginnie on the couch, our lips mutually wet, and Ginnie’s hands making a rare trip under my shirt, then down my body to the tops of my jeans and toward the front pocket where I’d stashed my Camels that day so that I could brag about them to a friend at school. She didn’t actually stop kissing me until she pulled out the pack and smiled, saying, “I didn’t know you smoked.” I was about to say that I didn’t when the shot came up—Bacall sucking on that filter-less piece of shredded dry tobacco—and I let my pulsating youth get the better of me.
“You should try it,” I said, “I bet you’d look good with a cigarette.”
She laughed and took one out of the pack. She held it up and looked at it, then spun it round a few times before sticking one end between her lips. I felt a pang of jealousy, but only a pang. Then she smiled and struck a Hollywood pose. There she was: my own personal Vivian Rutledge. I told her to stay right there and I ran to my book bag, where I carried the cheap camera the school had given me to take pictures for the yearbook. She struck another pose and I got a decent shot. And another. And she said, “Wait, it won’t look the same without the smoke,” paused, then added, “but there’s probably a lighter around here somewhere.”
There wasn’t. So she came back with an old book of camping matches—the kind that supposedly work underwater—which worked just as well above it. She lit the cigarette, inhaled, and exploded into a sandpaper-coarse cough. She took another drag and it looked good to see her struggle with it. When her coughing calmed down a little I took some more shots. She’d been right: she did look better with her softly moving lips cushioning the smoke up toward the ceiling. The only regret I had was that the world wasn’t in 35mm black and white.
After she’d smoked the cigarette down to the nub, she handed it to me like an urn of human remains and with the utmost reverence I put it in the garbage, even wrapping it in a used tissue to make sure it wouldn’t be found.
The movie had already finished and no one had shut off the television when I got back on top of her and licked her lower lip. She stunk bad up close, that much I could tell right away. But it wasn’t until I actually tasted the inside of her mouth that the full horror of what I’d done stuck its talons into the tender underbelly of my heart and ripped me open. I didn’t throw up in her mouth. I at least managed to pull away and run. But I didn’t manage the bathroom, either. I stopped somewhere between the kitchen and the dining room and flung out my dinner onto the Peters’ faultless hardwood floor.
Ginnie helped me clean up. She was sweet as usual. That was probably the worst thing about it. I could handle the embarrassment and the lack of self-respect that comes with throwing up in front of the girl you’re in love with, but to see her unchanged sweet exterior while knowing that inside she was changed—charred. I grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. I looked into her eyes, “Promise me, Ginnie, promise that you’ll never smoke another cigarette.” She promised and sealed the promise with a kiss on my cheek. I clamped down on my teeth till I tasted calcium to stop from shuddering at the smell of her smoke-infected hair, but I believed her.
July 24, 1945. Potsdam. President Harry S. Truman leans over to Joseph Stalin and whispers that the Americans have perfected the atomic bomb. Stalin nods in understanding. Truman scratches his head at the lack of a reaction, Stalin makes a mental note about the expediency of spying. Consequently, while I was never one to advocate peeping on one’s allies, espionage among friends is a little like torture: condemnable, but with benefits. And so the Monday after next I decided to sleuth after Ginnie after school. Where was she going, I asked. To her aunt’s for dinner. Where did she go? To our little nook on the southwest wall of St. Bartholomew’s Elementary.
By now we both think we know how this ends. There is no other boy. There is no secret lesbian girlfriend. There is only Ginnie and her fingers fiddling with a pack of Camels that she paid her brother to get for her.
Or at least you think you know how this ends. What you don’t know is that every second that it takes her fingers holding the cigarette to reach the level of her lips is a punch to the liver. What you don’t know is that each sniff as she runs the cigarette under her nose and delights in the smell of that putrid paper is a dull knife scratch to the wrists. By the time she takes out a lighter and ignites the flame, my knees are buckling. Blood is coming out of my nose, my ears. And when she touches the flame to the tip of the cigarette, my limbs catch fire.
Suddenly her eyes move to look straight at me across the schoolyard. She takes a step toward me. I want to run. I want to get away, but I can’t move. All I can feel is the heat. She takes a drag. The sound is unbearable: like my soul being sucked out. My skin crackles and starts to melt from my bones. She comes closer. I think people are starting to scream. Or maybe I’m screaming. I touch my face but there isn’t one anymore, only a hard, white skull. She smiles. There are two cigarettes in her mouth. She puffs on both. Then takes one from her lips and holds it out to me. I don’t want it, but I can’t swat it away. My arms are charcoal. She pushes the cigarette between my teeth. My body burns out from under me. I feel myself getting shorter and shorter. Soon, I am nothing but a skull resting on a hill of ashes.
“Don’t let’s ask for the moon,” she says as she picks me up and holds me in her hands. “We have the stars.”
She gives me a kiss and our teeth clatter against each other.
There is no saliva. There is no wetness.
If I am ever properly buried, please write the following on my tombstone:
Dear Bette Davis, Fuck You.