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KICKER/Kathrin Perutz Learning to Smoke I started smoking at six, or at least that's the age I give for when I had my first puffs, riding in the car with my mother, lighting her cigarettes, learning how not to wet the ends when I drew in the smoke. Six, I say when people ask, though Tm reasonably sure I was younger, four or five probably, a nursery school renegade. But I've learned that most people won't buy it. They think I'm making it up, like a story from the Examiner or Star or Enquirer—"Baby Born Smoking"—with a photo of a diapered newborn puffing on a big cigar and a caption underneath: Cuban infant nursed on tobacco. They smile and say, "Really?" with an ostentatious intake ofbreath and thekind ofbrightlook people getwhen they think they're talking to idiots. Avery few, supremely dedicated smokers have believed me and have even confessed their own delighted discovery of the weed at around that age, but generally ifs regarded as either malarkey or perversion to suggest that a child might puff on a cigarette—and like it—at the same age as she first discovered the joys of playing with herself. "Six?" shrieked the terrible French teacher at the Alliance Française, where I was taking a course in hopes of reviving my once fluent, now nearly desiccated knowledge of the language. "Sees?" Mais non, Madame, vous voulez dire 'seize.'" I held up six fingers. "Un, deux, trois ..." She shrugged, defeated. It was a French class from hell that Td signed up for the month I quit smoking, thinking it would be amusing or educational, or at least a distraction while I waited for the craving to go away. Mademoiselle Estelle d'Estaing was one of those tatterdemalion young women who come into being fully matriculated on the Boul' Mich' or rue des Ecoles, near the Sorbonne, with their ideas preformed , opinions intact; who regard Simone de Beauvoir as a retro, if not exactly a bimbo, shrink back in horror at the sight of a Coke and take pleasure in informing you on first meeting that Americans are materialistic, lacking in culture, undereducated and—with an accusatory glare—rude. ". . . cinq, six," I continued counting, ending on the extra thumb. "J'avais six ans quand j'ai commencéde—commencéà?—fumer." She wouldn't help me out. In any case, whether I commenced of or at smoking, it was a lie. I wasn't six; ithad happened earlier, around the 154 · The Missouri Review time I learned to spell my first word, its pink neon flashing at the corner of Queens Boulevard and 83rd Street when we passed it coming home from nursery school. The pink shapes, on again, off again, were hypnotically beautiful, and when tiny Edward Davidson, who sat in front of me in the large station wagon, pointed to the sign and said, "B. A. R. spells BAR," I was awed. When he turned and repeated it, the letters fixed themselves like rare butterflies in my mind, and as I watched the sounds tumble from his mouth, I fell in love with him, even though he was the shortest boy in our class and I was the tallest girl. A few days later my mother and I were riding in the Chevy and when we passed the sign I crooned out, "B. A. R. spells bar." She looked at me with a moment's incomprehension, and then she laughed. She was proud of me, being that smart. Her English was still only tolerable then, and it must have tickled her that the first spelling word of her American child was an international one, like "taxi" or "toilet," as apt in Paris or Prague as in New York. It was around this time, the year the war ended, riding in the Chevy alone with my mother, that I began lighting her Chesterfields, making sure to keep the ends dry, holding out to her the torch of my love, handing her the burning proof of it years before I had words to declare myself. She was beautiful, she held herself tall, she had thick auburn hair swept...


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