The Bad Project

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Chapter 10. Smoking’s Next/Marianne

CMarianne and Crystal started out towards the dining hall for dinner, but they were a little early so they took their time. Marianne felt relaxed and expansive; she repeated a funny story one of the older faculty members had told her about panty raids in the early days at their residence hall.

“I do like our dorm. It’s old enough to have character,” Crystal said, touching the carved lintel of the main door as they left.

“I’d like it better if it was modern,” Marianne said. “Don’t you love the Gehry concert hall down town?”

“The Disney Hall? It shines, but it’s not my kind of place. I’m no classical music fan. And anyway, I like dignity in a building, and tradition.”

“Well, it’s already famous. That counts for something.” She thought it was interesting that Crystal, who was into the new biology, liked old buildings.

They walked along silently for a few minutes, then Crystal said, “Marianne, what’s your next Bad?”

She didn’t really have a plan in mind, but now Crystal was pushing her to come up with one. “I’m not sure what to do next,” Marianne said. “I guess I’m thinking about body piercing. You know that girl we saw in the dining hall said her one cousin had a parlor. I think a navel piercing would be hella good.”

“Aww, shit, that’s so similar to the tat. Couldn’t you think of something a little different? You shouldn’t do something else where your folks could catch you. You bet Mama will be snooping around after what happened last time, and a navel piercing wouldn’t get by her if she was determined to find you out.”

Marianne laughed. “That’s possible. She’ll be on navel patrol. Well, let me think some more. I have a test in Religious Studies on Friday, so I can’t do anything until the weekend anyway.” She hoped she could find a minute between studying and writing to think about it. Today had felt like an unexpected pop quiz.

Crystal and Marianne walked through the Quad, watching the Frisbee players and the students flirting, wrapped around each other, kissing, groping. Marianne wished sex was higher on her agenda. Watching these couples made her feel hot. They sat for a while on the grass next to the big tree trunks, where acorn woodpeckers had stored dozens of nuts in small oval holes.

“Maybe,” Marianne said lazily, “smoking or drinking would be good.”

“You mean Bad. Smoking is so bad for your health and so’s drinking.”

“But it’s free choice, right? And I’ve never had the right to do anything that might hurt me before, except for the tattoo. I need to practice the results of choices.”

“What sort of category would this Bad be, if you smoked?”

“Could be another rebellion against parents, or could be against bodily wholeness trumping experience. I have to get that experience.”

They arrived at the dining hall to find a long line of students waiting to get in for dinner, and joined the line. It was sunny and warm, with tree shadows dappling the courtyard where they stood. Marianne looked around and did a yoga-stretch, watching two girls smoking behind them in the line. They looked very self-conscious. She thought they’d probably just learned how to smoke. Crystal looked worried.

“You know I want to be a doctor. We doctors have to swear an oath. We are supposed to feel that first, we’ll do no harm. I don’t like to think I’m encouraging you to harm yourself.”

Marianne snapped at her. “Crystal, I think you’re being an a-hole. You’re NOT doing harm. It’s my decision, not yours. How can we be friends if you’re going to go all fucking moral on me, just when I’m making progress in getting hella real?” First she demanded to know what Marianne was planning, then she got cold feet.

Crystal didn’t answer, but gave Marianne a small wavering smile. They arrived at the food line, and started picking out their dinner items. Crystal got a big salad and a small baked chicken breast. Marianne got a stir fried beef with vegetables and rice. When they’d been served, they went out into the patio, where students were allowed to eat until the weather was really cold.

Almost no one was out there, but it was warm and sheltered from the breezes. A hummingbird visited a tall lily of the Nile planted along the side of the patio. Bougainvillea in a brilliant shade of red-orange spilled over the walls. Marianne smelled jasmine from a low hedge nearby.

“I want to help. I’m trying to suspend judgment, but sometimes it’s hard,” Crystal said.

“Keep trying,” Marianne said. “I feel like you’re about to let me down. It’s my life, and I have to do this. Shit, you can’t stop me, but you can help me to think it through if you still want to.” It was quiet for a few minutes.

After a while, Marianne looked up. She saw that Crystal’s eyes were watering. “No way do you have to keep on. I was wrong, we could still be friends if you want to stop.” She stirred her food with a disposable chopstick. “What do they do to this rice, anyway?”

“Never mind the rice. I want to help, partly because I need to know what you’re up to. Otherwise, I’d be so worried about you. If I had to guess, I’d imagine worse things than you’d…”

Did she think Marianne was planning to drop the whole Bad Project? Or she was picking wimpy Bad experiences that wouldn’t really accomplish her purpose? Marianne said, “Some day, I may surprise you.”

“I hope not.”

Marianne smiled at her. “You are the best roommate ever. I feel like seeing those two girls smoking in the line is an omen, so it’ll be smoking for the next Bad. Now I just have to get the cigarettes.”

“My brother got cigarettes over the internet in high school, when he was underage.”

“I’m 18 so it’s legal anywhere, but the internet sounds easy.” She stirred her rice again, pushed the plate away. “No, if I use the internet, I’ll have to use a credit card. I have one, but the bills go to my family. Maybe I better take the bus down to NoHo and get them.”

Two days later, Marianne sat cross-legged on her purple silk bedspread with pack of Marlboros and matches laid out, waiting for Crystal to come back before trying them out. When Crystal arrived, she said, “Hi. Sit down and help me now. Dean Shope wouldn’t like that I’m going to smoke in here, but I have to learn where no one can see me.” Marianne ran her fingers through her hair and said. “I don’t want to look dorky like those girls in line. You don’t smoke, but you know how it should look, so be my critic.”

Very unlike her usual grace, Marianne fumbled with the pull-tab to open the packet. Eventually, she pulled the cellophane top off. Then she had to open the foil.

“Just tear it open without taking in completely off, and you can fold it back down to keep them fresh,” Crystal said.

“Fresh? Do they go rancid or something?” Marianne’s eyebrows rose into her bangs and almost disappeared.

“No, they just taste stale, so my brother says.”

“Maybe I’ll be done with them before that. How long does it take?”

“I’ve heard him say that stale thing about a pack that was about three days old, when he accidentally tore off the foil.”

“Hmm. I’ll be careful not to tear the foil off. I don’t want to use them up in three days.”

Marianne tore carefully and revealed the round tops of the cigarettes. They were solidly packed in the package with no space between them. “They’re stuck so tight. How the fuck do I get one out?”

“Jason shakes the pack until a few stick out, then chooses one and pulls it.”

Marianne tried that, and cigarettes spilled all over the bed and the floor. “I was too powerful.” She looked a little stressed. “This sucks. I haven’t even started smoking yet and look at all this trouble.” Crystal helped her retrieve the cigarettes and put all but one back in the pack.

“Here I go,” she said. “But how do I light the match holding this thing?”

“Well, you should put it down in an ashtray, but we don’t have any.”

“This cup will have to do.”

“It doesn’t have that little bite out of it that the cigarette should fit into.”

“Too bad. I’ll get an ashtray tomorrow in the village.”

Marianne balanced the cigarette on top of the cup and picked up the matches. She tore one out and passed it over the striking surface. Nothing happened.

“Do it fast and hard,” Crystal said.She tried again, and the whole match head lit, came off, and fell on the floor. She screamed and jumped up, pouring her bottle of water on it. It went out immediately. Elise knocked on the door and asked if she was okay. Marianne opened the door a little, reassured her, and sent her away.

“You try it, Crystal,” Marianne said, handing her the matches.

“Okay, but I’m not lighting the cigarette,” she said. She was immediately able to light the match with Marianne watching her closely. Then, Marianne took back the matches and succeeded in lighting one. She picked up the cigarette and put the flame to the tobacco tip. The cigarette didn’t light.

You have to draw air through the cigarette to get it started. It can’t start all by itself,” Crystal told her.

Marianne put the cigarette in her mouth, sucked through it and tried again, just barely getting the end lit before she had to drop the match in the cup she was using as an ash tray. She puffed and put the cigarette down. Smoke poured out of her mouth. The smoke curled upwards lazily from the cigarette. Marianne watched it mournfully.

“It’s so fucking hard! I’ll never learn how to do it.”

“No, it just takes practice.”

“But it tastes and smells nasty too. Why do people smoke?”

“Addicted to the nicotine.” Crystal shook her head.

“It’s like a DRUG?”

“Oh, yes. Very addictive. The secret is to get you started young.”

“Maybe I’ll try drinking instead.”

“That’s a drug too, also addictive.”

“Which is worse?” Marianne’s eyebrows scrunched together into a frown.

“Both, no way to choose.”

“But drinking isn’t so hard. No lit matches falling on the rug. Tastes better too. I think I will switch to that. But shit, I don’t plan to get addicted.”

“That’s what they all say.”

“I’ll have to get fake ID so I can go to a party where they’re serving alcohol.”

“How will you do that?”

“I don’t know, I have to ask around. But now I have to study philosophy with Carl, so I’m going to the library. I thought it’d be about ethics, but it’s so deep I’m not sure WHAT it’s about. Carl thinks he knows and he’s gonna explain it all. See you later.”

Crystal thought about the Bad Project for a while before she started doing biology problems at her desk. Although she was worried about the deans, Marianne’s parents were the main danger to the project so far, and she couldn’t see how they would be able to find out about it if Marianne drank. Cass said that the deans were lax on student drinking as long as you didn’t need them to take you to the emergency room. She felt reassured, started concentrating again, and finished the problems in about two hours. She read Music Theory for an hour too.

Then, she took out the red notebook. She ran her hands over the smooth surface, and found she could write in it for a half hour before her shower. It reminded her of Hester’s Scarlet Letter, the mark of sin. Of course, Hester’s sin was a different kind. She wondered when Marianne was going to get to sex. She shivered and told herself not to worry. Alcohol leads to sex, a tiny voice in her brain reminded her. She told it to shut up and went to bed.

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