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Five Times Sharon Had a Cigarette, and One She Didn’t

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1.

“Truth or dare?” said Amelia, lounging across the back of Dawn’s couch.

“Dare,” said Sharon, who always said Dare, because if she said Truth they’d ask who she had a crush on.

“You’re so boring,” whined Dawn. “It can’t be that bad, Sharon. Is it Joey Marcus?”

“Dare,” said Amelia, rubbing the nosepiece of her spectacles. “Dare. Kiss Dawn!”

Dawn shrieked with laughter. Sharon shrieked in protest. “Oh, come on,” said Amelia, puckering up her lips and making horrid kissy noises. “You know you want to!”

Sharon did. That was the problem.

“Dawn and Sharon, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-“

Dawn rolled her eyes and pinned Sharon to the floor beneath her vast breasts. Dawn’s red hair was soft under Sharon’s hands, her lips tasted like chap stick and coffee and every cliché in every Harlequin romance novel and…

And then Dawn rolled off Sharon, laughing and wiping her mouth ostentatiously, and life went on—for everyone but Sharon, whose heart was drumming like the pep band.

This was so, so much worse than paying way too much attention to the models in Seventeen.

Three dares later, they raided Dawn’s mother’s purse for cigarettes. Dawn and Amelia shared one, and between the two of them couldn’t finish; but Sharon smoked three, which made her sick to her stomach so she threw up in the bathroom and had to go home. At least she was spared the sight of Dawn falling out of her baby-doll PJs.

And the cigarettes did steady her hands.

 

2.

Her freshman year of college, Sharon went on a date with a boy. It was college, after all, it was time to reinvent herself: the New, Improved Sharon, who was on a date with a boy with a smug grin and stubble that he probably thought looked rakish.

They went to a bar, even though they were too young to drink. He bought baby back ribs, and Sharon bought a salad and spent most of the evening smoking and trying not to look at that girl at the bar, the brunette in the low-backed red dress who left smears of lipstick on her pint of Guinness.

Sharon ended up smoking a whole pack, even though she usually only smoked to calm her nerves after calculus exams or big debate tournaments or watching Dawn try on prom dresses.

The boy kissed her on the walk home, his hands slipping like octopus tentacles under her coat. “It’s like licking an ash tray,” he complained. “An ash tray made a concrete.”

It’s like kissing a bottle brush, thought Sharon. She felt ill just looking at his mouth. But that could have just been the cigarettes, not anything about his…maleness.

They split up once they reached her dorm, and Sharon spent a long nauseous night alone.

 

3.

So dating wasn’t her thing. Lots of girls didn’t date in college. Too much commitment. She just wasn’t a commitment kind of person. Or a beard kind of person. Maybe it was just inexperience.

So she’d go to parties, to get experience.

She got all dolled up in a tube top and short shorts and bright red lipstick, and kicked down shots till her throat tasted like sweet cotton and her own reflection in the mirror turned her on.

Sharon remembered the party mostly as a blur of loud music and strobe lights. The only clear thing was interlude when she made out with the head quarterback’s girlfriend (who later headed a regional chapter of ACT-UP).

The school thought it was very amusing for three weeks and then forgot about it, but Sharon swore never to get drink again. It loosened too many inhibitions.

Smoking was a much better vice, a more Sharon vice, secret and solitary.

Sharon’s mother thought it was a dirty habit, and Sharon couldn’t smoke in the house. Sharon lit up on the back porch and listened to the cheerleaders whoop up the Super Bowl half-time show through the window.

 

4.

When Sharon first joined her law firm, she was the only person who smoked. But Lakshmi Joglekar, who joined two years later, smoked like a chimney, and they started to take their smoking breaks together.

Sharon’s next performance review noted a sharp drop in productivity. She liked to stand with Lakshmi in the alley behind the building, listening to Lakshmi rant about the topic of the day (poor media representations of Indians, her boyfriend, the best Disney princesses, her boyfriend, her mother’s poor opinion of dating, her boyfriend…)

Sharon didn’t think much of Lakshmi’s boyfriend, and not just because she thought Lakshmi was way too adorable to date guys.

It was hard not to smile when Lakshmi and the Evil Boyfriend finally broke up. “On top of everything else,” Lakshmi said, tossing her sleek black hair to dismiss the bastard once and for all, “this means I can’t call Callie like I meant too. You just can’t call up an ex just after you’ve broken up with your current flame, you know?”

Sharon sucked on her cigarette like a lollipop, and nearly coughed up a lung. “Callie?” she choked.

“My ex-girlfriend,” said Lakshmi. “Um. I’m bi. Did I mention that before? Does that bother you?”

“Oh no,” said Sharon. She shivered on the cusp of self-revelation, then lit another cigarette.

It didn’t matter. Pretty soon Lakshmi switched law firms, and she quit smoking and got married to a nice Indian boy just like her mother wanted.

 

5.

After three years of dating, not-dating, and dating again, Beth and Sharon eloped to Canada. The falls were so much more spectacular across the border, when they stood by the rail holding hand and watching the mist glow in the light from the street lamps.

“I wish you’d stop doing that,” said Beth, when Sharon disentangled her hand and lit yet another cigarette.

“Sorry,” said Sharon. She cupped her hands around the cigarette. The mist was threatening to blow it out.

“You could have at least let me get the honeymoon suite,” said Beth. “They add the damage charges into the bill at the beginning, so we wouldn’t have to pay this ridiculous smoking fine.”

Sharon shuddered. Beth frowned, like she did when Sharon looked furtive when they ate together in restaurants, and Sharon said hurriedly, “It’s cold. It’s just co—it’s just so cold.”

Beth snagged one of Sharon’s hands. The cigarette blew out. “Let’s get back to the room, hmm?”

Sharon smiled and tried to look inconspicuous, because she saw a guy who looked like someone she might have known in high school.

They ended up paying a hundred extra dollars for their room. Smoking charges.

 

+1.

Two years later, after the brouhaha settled down, Mrs. Tyler insisted on throwing Sharon an enormous wedding.

“Mother!” cried Sharon. The only good thing about being a lesbian (well, besides Beth) had been avoiding making a spectacle of herself in a white dress.

But Mrs. Tyler insisted, so Sharon walked down the aisle on her father’s arm past polite but twittering friends of the family. He patted her hand awkwardly, as if he wasn’t wishing for his perfect brilliant straight (imaginary) daughter back, and Sharon fixed her eyes on Beth and smiled.

Unfortunately she couldn’t spend the entire reception pretending no one but Beth existed. Sharon smiled at the receiving line until her jaw hurt, and wished for a smoking break.

Beth didn’t like the taste of tobacco. So Sharon chewed Nicorette gum, instead.

At least the Tyler family friends could talk about how gauche Sharon was, instead of just how gay.