278 Misha Zeitlin



My mother never, ever smoked. Except that one time, on the very first morning of our new lives in America.

That morning we all woke up in a seedy hotel with rickety cage elevator, stained carpeting, enormous circular beds with disposable paper sheets. Later in the day, we were scheduled for our first interview at the humanitarian aid agency that would support us, in the following few months: money, apartment, English classes, training, etc.

The rumor mill had it that the cash would be meagre.  Even so, the generosity seemed fantastical. More fantastical still was the rumor that the allotted cash stipend took into account the tobacco allowance for smoking members of the family.

This was the first great moral quandary my father faced on his very first morning in the land of the free. None of us smoked; my father militantly so. Worse still, only a few weeks earlier, a world away, he had once again venomously denied my eighteen-year-old brother his adult right to pointlessly destroy his own lungs, teeth, mind…LIFE. Needless to say, my brother was well into that project for years and, occasionally, the jagged, seismic waves from their conflict were palpable.

And now, for my father, a smoking teenager, when looked at from a certain angle, was…interesting. The money involved must have been a pittance. But things were going to be rough, and he knew it. Still, to reverse himself so transparently would have been a monumental climb-down; nor was it his way to be asking his wife for a way out of an impasse. My mother was a quiet woman, with an uncanny knack for never making waves. The knack went further still, she absorbed waves–jagged and seismic.

It was thus that on this, the very first morning of her new life, sitting in a dismal room, in a scary hotel, in a strange, new country that she asked my brother for a cigarette…

My brother must have been taken aback; his father within ear-shot. Yet he reached into his pocket and miraculously produced a pack of real, 100% American cigarettes of the variety never seen before. They were looooong, and they reeked of mentholated medicine. My mother took one, crinkled her nose, lit it inexpertly, crossed her ample thighs, and looked at my father almost fetchingly. “We could tell them I smoke.” she said.

That morning she had put on lipstick. She never smoked; she never wore lipstick. It left scarlet prints on the white filter.