Blowing Smoke

We hopped off the expressway four hours into a five hour drive. Me and my sons, on a spring break excursion. We were all ready to get home but I had to go to the bathroom and it was way past lunch time. The boys were finishing up a movie in the back seat.

I decided to take a rural exit in the pristine Berkshires, a well known destination for stressed out New Yorkers and Bostonians. I scanned the businesses looking for an appropriate pit stop. There was a funky tapas place, but not open for lunch. A train station that had been converted into some sort of florist/restaurant but that wasn’t open either. 

Finally I pulled into a well apportioned parking spot on the main drag of town and found an old-time convenient store with a familiar cold cut company sign in the window.

I instructed the boys to look over the sandwich menu. “Be right back,” I said.

When I returned from the bathroom, Will knew exactly what he wanted. John announced there was nothing that looked good except chips. 

“Got to have protein,” I reminded. 

“Do they have bacon?” he asked. The friendly woman behind the counter nodded. “Make it a BLT please,” I said. We retrieved some drinks and then sat at a little table outside. People filed in and out. It was clearly a spot for regulars, on their way to and from.

“What does Dorothy want?” John asked.

“Dorothy who?” 

“In the book.”

Seriously? Wasn’t this why we’d bought the car with the DVD player, so they could be in the back seat entertained and I could listen to outrageous political radio or books on tape? Instead he’d been listening to my book about classmates getting ready for a fortieth high school reunion. It was hardly racy but still not appropriate.

“Dorothy is hoping to see someone that she didn’t have the courage to talk to in high school.”

“Why would it take courage to talk to someone?” John asked.

“Beats me,” I said, loving the fact that the concept didn’t yet register.
I added. “That’s really an adult book John.”

“Are there adult words?”

“Some. But it’s about adult stuff, things that are interesting to adults.”

I waited for the next question, there was always a next question.

But as I looked over, John had taken a big gulp of air and was holding his breath. A disheveled looking woman walked by.

Oh god. Was he holding his breath in response to seeing someone less fortunate? Pangs of disgust and embarrassment raced through me.

“John! Why are you holding your breath?” By now the woman was inside.

“She was smoking. Remember the commercial?”

“John, you can’t get lung cancer from someone who smokes walking by you.”

“You can’t?”

“No. The commercial was making the point that if people smoke all the time around kids, they’re putting their health in danger.”

“Have you ever smoked?”

“No,” I said definitively, and this was actually true. I’ve never tried a cigarette. Like John, growing up I was asthmatic. When the seasons changed, allergies made my insides feel on fire already, adding actual smoke never seemed smart.

“I did smoke a cigar once or twice in college,” I said remembering our “tradition” at the radio station where I worked of celebrating after a big project. It was clear John could use some help appreciating shades of grey. 

“Could that give us lung cancer?”

“No,” I tried again. “If Daddy or Mommy smoked in our house or the car everyday and you and Will were exposed to it, that would not be good. That’s the danger.”

“Did Dad ever smoke?” Will asked. I’d almost forgotten he was sitting there, he’d been so silent. 

“Daddy has never smoked for a long period of time but I think he’s tried smoking,” I said.

The truth was Rob had smoked on and off through high school and college. Just two years ago I’d actually suggested he start up again.   

We’d been walking in to Mass General Hospital, to visit my father-in-law, who was dying. My husband was in unspeakable emotional pain. As we approached the automatic doors of the hospital a handful of smokers were congregated. 

“I love that smell,” he said.

“It wouldn’t be the end of the world, if you had one,” I said, wishing him a few painless moments.

“It’s hard to have just one,” he said smiling, “That’s the problem.”
We had a good laugh. I was fairly certain I was in a small minority of women encouraging their husbands to smoke. 

I returned to the conversation at hand.
“Lots of people smoked when Daddy and I were little. Now people know how bad it is for them. It’s better not to start because it is very hard to stop,” I added, the boys still intently looking my way.

Then as if on cue, the woman, the one who’d started us down this twisted tormented trail exited the store. As she made her way to her car, I could see the carton of cigarettes under her arm. 

“Boys, smoking is bad but smokers are not.” There. That was the best I had. 

The sandwiches arrived. Silence consumed the table as we devoured our late lunch.

Had I accurately relayed the dangers of smoking while letting them know it was not the end of the world, even normal, to try things? Wait. Was that actually true? Oh god, why didn’t I say, “Never smoke, it’ll kill you!” 

I watched Will dive into his thick turkey sub, mayonnaise lining his lips. And John discreetly picking apart his BLT, to find just the bacon. I bit into my own many layered sandwich, thinking:

I'd better get my act together before the big sex talk.

Big Time

Every few months it happens. Our household is clicking along until...something seems strange. And then we, my husband and I, go into financial forensic mode. 

“Wow,” was all I could say, when he presented me with the total. Of what we’d (I’d) been spending on groceries. Of course I know what the big shop costs each week, because I’m doing it. But what I hadn’t realized was how much the “incidentals” were adding up.

Lately I’ve been feeling like I can’t keep groceries in the house. Which is scary because there are only four of us and our kids are 8 and 10. What’s going to happen when they’re 14 and 16?

“I guess I have to try something new,” I said. 

“Or maybe we have to plan to spend a lot on groceries,” my husband said. He’s always a good sport. But then again he NEVER eats leftovers. 

“I think I’m spending too much on paper products and snacks,” I said. He had no response because I am pretty sure he has no idea what a roll of paper towels or box of granola bars costs.

“I’m going to do something that I’ve been avoiding for quite a while,” I said, in dramatic tone. “I’m going to BJs.”

Later that week, after spending Saturday morning shuffling my two eating-me-out of-house-and-home offspring from lesson to class, class to lesson, I announced, “Boys we're going on an adventure!”

“What is this place?” asked John as soon as we entered. “It’s like Home Depot but it smells like burnt pizza.”

I tried not to laugh. I needed to remain focused. The last, and only other time I’d been to BJs, I’d left with a seven foot pre-lit Christmas tree that didn’t work out so well. 

“We’re here and I need your math skills. This store sells things in bulk so we’re going to buy items we usually buy at Stop & Shop, but more of them and it’s going to save us money,” I said, feeling like the Suze Orman of motherhood.

“They sell food here?” John asked.

It was a natural question, since we were surrounded by big screen TVs and computers.

“And jewelry,” Will said, pointing to the jewelry counter near the front door.

“Yes, I think the food is in the back,” This time I marched past the electronics and seasonal items and clothes, and finally saw a massive aisle of brightly colored bottles: detergent. 

I searched the long aisle, unable to find my preferred kind. My usual brand was there en masse but our particular kind was not. I settled on another brand, one that had the “sensitive skin” formula and not so effortlessly lifted it into the massive cart, where it rattled around like a bottle of orange juice.

Next on to the paper towels. I was used to picking the “whatever was on sale” brand. But since nothing was on sale or everything was on sale (depending on how you look at it), it was time for some math. 

“Okay boys, between these two brands, which is cheaper?” I asked, determined to instill some financial literacy.

They stared at me blankly. “Where are the prices?” Will finally asked. 

Good question, I searched the colossal shelves, finally finding the price placard above each. 

“In school we learned that it’s not just about what’s cheaper but you have to know about the quality too,” said Will.

Seriously? I mean of course, I agree, when it comes to meat or eggs or berries, but paper towels?

“Which is a better brand?” he asked, pressing the concept.

“No idea, they're probably about the same,” I said.

“Then there’s no right answer,” he said.

He had a point. They had the exact same number of paper towels in each package. And there was less than a dollar price difference. 

“We’ll go with this brand,” I said, applying the eeny meeny miny moe approach. Big math moment ruined.

We made our way through the aisles, until we officially arrived at the grocery section. It was, in short, overwhelming. It didn’t help that I’d chosen Saturday mid-day for our maiden voyage. This was clearly not a novice time slot. Purposeful people who either had 14 children, owned a restaurant or didn’t plan to be back for a really long time were wheeling their mega carts with precision. 

Will quickly spotted our favorite brand of mushroom ravioli. The last time we’d eaten it for dinner the boys fiercely fought over the last one.

There was clearly no discussion needed. I nodded and he placed the gargantuan package of pasta and cheese in the cart. I was pretty sure by the time they finished the package, they would never want to look at mushroom ravioli again.

By the time we reached the freezer section, I was hitting my stride. The look on John and Will’s face was priceless when I reached into the freezer and plopped a 5 pound bag of frozen broccoli in the cart. 

“Are we going to have broccoli for breakfast?” John asked. 

“Maybe,” I said.

But the epiphany came when we reached the yogurt. “Aaaah,” I said finding the mother load, literally. Our brand of yogurt in a twelve back for $13. I was used to paying $1.50 each. This was amazing.

A long hour and a half later, we were done. As done as you could be in a store with enough of everything to last a lifetime or more.

As we waited in line for the “checker” to look at our receipt and items, we were once again surrounded by big screen TVs and jewelry.

“Would you have married Dad if he bought your engagement ring at BJs?” John asked.

I don’t think John intended the question to be funny. But I was laughing so hard I couldn’t catch my breath.

Thankfully it was Will who finally found his right answer:

“At least the ring would be big, really big.”