When I was seven, I remember sitting on the swingset with my older sister. Her eyes would gaze out at the distance, clouded with some emotion that I could never read. She was the one book I couldn’t decipher.
We took off our gloves and hats, setting them beside the swings, preparing for the inevitable competition of who could swing higher. And I remember her face as she smiled with pure joy, throwing her head back in laughter. Her hair tangled around her petite nose, but she didn’t care. I held onto this moment like a photograph, keeping it close to my heart.
As we eventually slowed our movements on the swings, she looked at me with a funny smirk. Her breath came out in bright puffs that reflected like clouds against the darkening sky behind her.
“My breath kinda looks like smoke, huh?” she’d said to me.
I’d tilted my head, intrigued as I watched her bring two fingers to her mouth, mimicking the classic move on every tobacco commercial I’d ever seen. She looked so mature, so poised, so bare. It left me in awe as she laughed after one more pretend puff.
As the lightning processional of stars began to dance around us, we packed up our gloves, holding each other’s hands like our lives depended on it. My mother always said to stick together because danger lurks everywhere. I didn’t know that danger lurked that close.
Eight years later, we’d moved to Colorado.
We laid on the ground, fingers entwined like a web of strung silk. She was gazing at the clouds in the sky. Her breaths seeped out of her mouth in a toxic stream of white vapor.
Only this time, instead of pretending, a real cigarette dangled out of her right hand, the bright embers burning, and after every few moments she would take a large puff of it, releasing it in a cloud.
I watched this with curiosity, and inhaled deeply after every waft drifted over my body.
She wasn’t wearing her gloves or her hat, despite the cold temperature of Colorado. She wore only the cigarette, and I wondered if the burning in her lungs was enough for her to keep warm.
The cigarette died down, closing out the ember that flamed between her lips. I wondered when she grew up, when she left her sister behind, and if she did it because of the layer of nicotine she couldn’t quite shake. I wondered if the smell it left on me was addicting, and if maybe I needed to grow up too.
Maybe the symphony that she created as she released smoke from her mouth every night was the preshow to the danger that lurked inside of her body, and maybe it made me a loser in this game to want her to give me a cigarette too. I didn’t like being left behind, and I didn’t like knowing that after every single second, my lungs burned without that familiar secondhand smoke.
Her hand tightened around mine as we stared at the sky. The sun was slowly setting in the distance, coloring the air with an orange and purple haze. But it paled in comparison to the color of that orange ember that inflamed every cigarette my sister lit.
It was a beautiful performance of bright colors and opposing forces mingling with life.
It was frightening, it was wonderful, and it was intriguing.
But it wasn’t for me.
My older sister raised her right hand to light another cigarette, and flipped the box over to offer me one.
I stared at it for a moment before declining.
I just wasn’t ready to grow up and face the dangers.