What I wanted most was to please her. I wanted to have her approval most of all, more than from other friends, more than from my parents. She was two years older than me, Margaret, and the coolest thing going in my little world. A dividing line between childhood and adolescence came late in the summer of my 12th year, standing at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, staring at the candy and magazines and cigarettes at a checkout stand.

When Margaret first moved to town with her younger brother and sister after her mom’s divorce, I didn’t like her. Like really didn’t like her. I thought she was loud and coarse and a braggart, too big for her britches. She thought I was nerdy and pretentious and weak. Naturally, any new kid in a tiny rural school attracted great attention, and I hated it that she and her big mouth were reigning supreme. We avoided each other, except for casting heavy stinkeyes in the school hallway.

The inevitable showdown occurred one cold afternoon on the playground during recess. Everyone was into merciless games of four-square then, and I was holding my own pretty well, until the one day I dropped my guard and Margaret got me out. She made the most of it, stopping the game to laugh at me. I held on to the big red ball for a moment, feeling the little criss-cross pattern in the rubber, and seethed. Enough of this, I thought. Enough of you, interloper!


I spat the words out, hard and bitter, and with every ounce of directed strength I owned, I whipped the ball straight at her face. I was confident my throw would connect, which is why I did it, for to do it and fail would only make things much worse. It was about the last thing anyone expected out of me; I wasn’t prone to outbursts, ever, and had probably never sworn at school like that before, and certainly no f-bomb. My dual blast of ball and curse was most unexpected by Margaret. As the ball bounced off her face and continued on its way down the asphalt, she bent over and brought her hands to her face. She started crying. Her nose was bleeding. She started swearing back at me, which brought the attention of the teacher on playground duty, who frowned at Margaret and never looked at me as a possible culprit.

Watch your language! What’s going on here??”

To my surprise, no one said a thing. The other kids all just stood frozen, not knowing the “cool” thing to do. I set my mouth in a hard, pouting line. I wasn’t sorry. Margaret had stopped crying, wiped her face with her jacket sleeve and pinched her bleeding, red, swelling nose with her fingers. She answered, but looked me right in the eye.

“I wasn’t looking. It was an accident.”

Every single kid there, which by this time was most of the kids on the playground, turned to look at me. I stared Margaret right back, not trusting her. Her revenge might come later, when school was finished for the day. Whatever happened off-property was never any concern of the school’s. Oblivious to the eye-arrows at me, the teacher put her arm around Margaret’s shoulder and spoke again, more quietly this time, “Well, come on, let’s go to the office and get an ice-pack on it. Dennis, go get the ball. I think it rolled into the ditch.” As Dennis obligingly trotted off towards the ditch, the bell rang, and we all went back inside, some kids whispering furiously, some already tossing the drama aside and yelling back and forth about the usual things.

I was expecting to get my ass kicked. She was bigger and stronger and tougher, and seemed fearless. I was really, really hoping she wouldn’t break my nose, or worse, my glasses. But straight out of a old-time corny buddy film, what happened was that Margaret ended up laughing it off by the end of the day, looking at me with different eyes. I ended up seeing her more fully as well, someone who was actually very funny and smart, whose bravado was really just fluff. We quickly and happily settled into a solid friendship, as kids sometimes improbably do.

After the year had finished, I was hanging out with her, thrilled to be completely unsupervised. We rode our bikes over to the Piggly Wiggly with our meager funds, probably just some change, to get some candy. Waiting in line, Margaret , all of 14, was going on about being out of cigarettes. She had already searched the house for an open pack of her mother’s with no luck. I listened, and looked at the neatly-stacked packs at the checkout, mind starting to click. I looked all around. There was no one behind us, no one else, it seemed, in the store. As the checkout clerk turned towards the brown paper bags at the end of the stand, his customer, a chatty elderly woman, turned with him, probably making sure he was still listening to her. I shot my arm out, and grabbed the one single pack closest to me, palming it until I smoothly wedged it down the front of my shorts. Margaret, seeing this, moved in front of me to cover. We paid for our candy and hightailed it on our banana bikes out of the parking lot, hooting and hollering like we were Bonnie and Clyde.

We went back towards her house and parked the bikes under a big tree broad tree which sat stoutly at the dead-end road she lived on. I took the smokes out from my shorts, and we each climbed up the tree, far enough to be hidden from the neighbors’ view. I handed the pack to Margaret. She wrinkled her nose.

“Ugh! Parliaments! Oh, well…want one?”

I had spent most of my 12 years begging my dad not to smoke, stealing his Salems and flushing them down the toilet, to his fury. I hated smoking.

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t even know how to light it, so Margaret did it for me.

We sat there and smoked; well, I pretended to smoke because I didn’t even know to inhale. It felt dangerous and grown-up and stupid and thrilling. All logic went right out the window. My friend smoked. I was going to smoke. So I did, albeit rather casually, until I was 19 and then never had a cigarette again.

To the best of my knowledge, Margaret never quit.