How to Survive a Break-Up: Quit Smoking
At the end of January 2009 I’m a freshman at Knox College, reeling from a breakup with a baseball-playing math major. The breakup was expected—I had cheated, made out with another guy over winter break because he refused to answer my phone calls after the Bears were knocked out of the playoffs—but I’m only eighteen. I still believe that every man I’m involved with has the potential to be the one I marry.
I’ll grow out of this. Eventually.
I take a creative nonfiction writing class with Dr. Webb, a firecracker sixty-something with a sharp voice and a thirst for the complete annihilation of traditional writing assignments. She has me write my obituary the second week. I describe my own suicide. She pulls me aside and recommends that I go to the counseling center. I do. I make the counselor cry. I don’t return.
In this class I meet Mandy, a short Polish-Filipino girl with bright eyes and huge boobs. She invites me to party with her every weekend, introducing me to her roommates and pulling me in with the “cool kids” for once in my life. Five years after my first crush told me his friends wouldn’t approve because I wasn’t pretty enough, Mandy has me dressed to party every weekend, slamming back tea light holders filled with UV Blue, being fawned over by random men who belong to fraternities across the street from my dorm. I love this life.
India, my fast friend and semi-mentor (being a year older than me), lets me drag her into this group of freshmen, recognizing our urge to rebel this first year out of high school. While waiting for everyone to gather in Post Lobby, the first level of Mandy’s all-girls dorm, India sees her crush outside, smoking. She takes me outside and hands me a lighter.
“Have a cigarette with me?” she asks, already pulling a pack of Camels from her purse. I’m so shocked I can hardly engage the lighter. I didn’t know India smoked. I didn’t know she had cigarettes. I didn’t know she even could smoke. She has asthma. That I do know.
“Uh, sure,” I say, taking the slender stick from her fingers. She snatches the lighter back from me when she realizes my incapacity, lights a cigarette, takes a drag, then hands it to me. Still confused, I accept it as she takes back my unlit one and lights that as well. And just like that, I’m smoking.
India is a social smoker, she claims, but she’s really a stress smoker. I learn to search for her in the loading dock late at night when I can’t sleep, her fingers flicking ash over the railing, her lips permanently ajar with smoke drifting out. She smokes during midterms and finals weeks, after a conversation with her parents, before or while getting drunk. I don’t want to pick up the habit, but it becomes easy. Many vices have become easy these past few months.
Days before spring break, a junior named Andrew invites me to his fraternity house to drink. He’s been chasing me since I was seventeen, when I made the online declaration that I was coming to Knox. When I showed up on campus and started dating the baseball player, he made several comments about me not giving him a chance to seduce me. It doesn’t occur to me that, though his words are meant to be sweet, they’re actually predatory.
Since I’m newly single, Andrew has been looking for me at every party, encouraging me to drink more, trying to get me to come to his frat house at all hours. But I keep refusing. Following the breakup, I’ve subsisted on turkey sandwiches, apple juice, and chocolate milk. Every weekend, I give up eating entirely and drink vodka-laced concoctions on Mandy’s floor. She always invites me to brunch Sunday morning, but I always decline, claiming a hangover; but really, I don’t want anyone to know I haven’t been eating.
This is not how to survive a breakup. Making out with strangers at parties is not how to survive a breakup. Going to a trombone player’s dorm at three in the morning, following a black light party at his frat, and giving him my virginity while John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme plays in the background is not how to survive a breakup. Letting a different frat boy cheat on his girlfriend with me while saying this is better for both of us is not how to survive a breakup.
But I don’t know that yet.
I get addicted to men wanting me this way—naked, moaning, wet—so I make myself available to them. I jump from virgin to well-educated in a manner of weeks. Turning eighteen had suddenly made me attractive and desirable to men. It also turned me into a rape survivor almost two months to the day after I became legal. As badly as I’d treated him, it was the baseball player who taught me that rape is assault, not sex—told me I was still a virgin until I decided I wanted sex.
As I knock back shots and pose for photos with Mandy and her friends, I don’t feel bad about it. I have no idea what depression looks like, how latent PTSD suffered from last summer’s rape manifests itself in lack of appetite, reckless behavior, and sexual promiscuity. I’m popular now. It’s fabulous. I smoke hookah one night at Mandy’s, and decide I prefer this to smoking cigarettes. While visiting home in early February to appear in court for a speeding ticket, I discover PrimeTimes, little flavored cigars that look like cigarettes but taste like hookah. I buy several packs and start smoking them at school. Not regularly. Not even intentionally. Just sometimes—at parties, with India when I can’t sleep, after my first night with Andrew.
He swings by my dorm during finals week. I’m done—having effectively bombed my psychology final, I’ve accepted that I am strictly right-brained and that’s okay—so when I hear him hollering outside my window, shaking a bottle of vodka, I get dressed and follow him across campus with a drunken pile of other students, mostly freshmen, to the Phi Gamma Delta house. I have nothing better to do. This guy likes me. Why not enjoy some attention?
In some unassigned room, Andrew plays “Roxanne” by the Police, and makes me take a half shot every time they say, “Roxanne.” He takes a shot every time they say, “Put on the red light.” I’ve never heard this song before—only familiar with the Moulin Rouge version that still gives me chills—and I don’t realize until the song starts to die out that I’ve had twenty-seven half shots of straight vodka, no chaser. I know I should have taken more, according to the rules, but suddenly I can’t see straight. I’m still not eating. I should throw up but I don’t. I think there were more people in the room, but I can’t remember. The lights go out. Andrew is kissing me on a dingy mattress in the corner. There’s loud music booming in the living room downstairs. The bass shakes the walls. Andrew is telling me that he needs to make sure we’re sexually compatible before he can start dating me. This makes sense, I think. I’m on my period. Andrew doesn’t care. I can’t really participate in this, but I can’t speak because I’m too drunk to speak, too drunk to move, too drunk to think. My brain goes into self-preservation mode and just starts recording everything: the physical sensation of my jeans coming off, followed quickly by my panties; Andrew removing my tampon and dropping it on the floor; his dick rubbing between my legs as I lie face down in a pillow, murmuring for him to stop, say I’m going to vomit (maybe I just thought that, didn’t actually say it?); his dick inside my pussy for a minute, then forced into my ass. I scream—well, maybe not. Maybe I just groan. I remember the sound of a scream in my throat, the scratch of one coming, but maybe it didn’t make it out. He’s telling me it feels so good. I can’t imagine that. I want him to stop. I don’t know how to make him stop. Soon enough he does. Puts my panties back on and passes out next to me. The night goes by fast. I don’t want to move. I couldn’t move if I tried.
At first light, I get dressed and run home. Actually run. I don’t say anything to Andrew. I run to my dorm, shower, pack, get dressed, and run to the train station. I go to Chicago, then St. Louis, and my stepmother picks me up from the station. She doesn’t ask if I’ve been raped, and somehow I expect her to. I wonder if she can tell—that this is not the first time, that this will not be the last—but instead I say nothing. My father drives us to Denver (thirteen hours) in complete silence—partially because he won’t turn on the radio, partially because I think if I speak, I’ll tell him about this boy who forced himself on me even though I’m not sure if it really went down like that. I need him to keep believing that I’m not a whore. At least until I survive my teenage years.
In Denver, safe in my mother’s house, I finish my pack of PrimeTimes and buy two more. Raspberry and grape. I smoke a whole pack during the week, intermittently, with no real intention. I go dancing with my friends. I eat my favorite Denver-based foods and don’t drink. I don’t tell anyone what happened. My sister lectures me on self-esteem when she notices I’m acting out of it, so I visit my mother’s hairdresser and shave my head. Andrew calls and tells me he wants to talk when I return to campus. I submit. I don’t know how else to be.
Back at Knox the following week, Andrew tells me he can’t be with someone who’s been with everyone. He says he wants to be with someone serious, not a slut. No one has ever called me that before. It hurts. Surprisingly. Mostly because it’s not true, I don’t think. Mostly because it negates my 4.2 high school GPA, my full-ride scholarship to Knox, my intellectual brilliance. Sluts aren’t supposed to be smart or driven or blessed with any talent other than thigh-spreading. If I’m a slut, I’m not a teacher, a writer, a dancer, a world-shaker. I’m the woman who comes forward when Andrew runs for superintendent of Chicago Public Schools. I’m the woman who gets interviewed/slut-shamed on national television by Barbara Walters or Anderson Cooper when I tell them about being young and dumb, drinking underage, desiring to be loved by someone older who should have known better. If I’m a slut, I lose all identity. It won’t matter if I write a bestseller, if I win the MacArthur Genius Grant, if I cure cancer with poetry. Sluts don’t save lives; they ruin them.
In this moment, while he goes on and on about my reputation, one I didn’t even know I had, I want to tell him he raped me, but I don’t. Why not? My head is foggy and my fingers twitch. I return to my single dorm room, smoking absentmindedly as I walk, and take an Advil PM. I never step foot in the Phi Gamma house again until after Andrew graduates.
Months later, the night Michael Jackson dies, Andrew calls to say he misses me. I’m in my room at my mother’s house in Denver, listening to Michael’s entire discography on shuffle. I’ve been crying most of the day. I imagine this is how white people felt when John Lennon died. Andrew wants to commiserate with me, but I can’t listen to him. When he asks how I am, something snaps. I tell him he raped me, that I don’t want any further contact with him, and that he should leave me alone. It’s so abrupt I can hardly believe I’ve said it. He gets quiet. He doesn’t confirm or deny my accusation. He says he understands, apologizes, and hangs up.
I go outside on the back porch and smoke my last cigarette. I have another pack in my room, but I don’t open it. I don’t smoke again. My body never feels the withdrawal, never asks for more.