"It was a foolish thing to do", my mom says, as she lights up her cigarette and rolls down the car window. Frankly, I hate when my parents smoke in the car, but after putting up with it for so many years it would be strange for me to start complaining now. So I just turn away saying nothing.
"Can I please finish my story?" my father asks from the driver's seat.
"Yes, of course, daddy, go on" I reply leaning forward to hear him better as our old car rattles while we drive through the bad part of the road.
"So", he continues, "it was a cool thing to do. A thing that everybody did. And I was a first-year student in Chernihiv State University, accepted into the group of older guys. And I have never had a company like this before. We would have parties often, and we would drink a lot, too. And when we drank we also smoked cigarettes. We were very silly back then", he admits. But I can tell that he is smiling.
"I told you it was a foolish thing to do" my mother says. Nevertheless, she also smiles at the memories of her youth as she contributes her own story to our discussion.
"I was a small-town girl who entered a university in the capital. My two girlfriends came from wealthy Kiev families, had graduated from "specialized" secondary schools, very rare in the Soviet Union. For them, my inability to smoke was a convenience because it gave them a reason to make fun of me every time we went out." She continues, suddenly serious, "It took me a while to learn. It was really difficult, too. Smoking would make me sick. It would make me throw up, give me a headache. But I learned, got addicted, and until now I cannot quit."
My mother pauses to light another one of her R1 Slims, and adds, "Neither can Irina." I know that she is referring to the one of her two university girlfriends - Irina -now a successful business owner, a grandmother, and still a heavy smoker.
"I think we were the first generation in which many women started smoking", my mom says after a long silence, "Before it just wasn't very fashionable, not among Ukrainian women anyway, maybe among Russians. For them it was a sign of belonging to high society".
"What was the legal age for it?" I enquire.
The next moment I am shocked by my parents' unanimous reply:
"There wasn't any".
"At least we have never heard of it", my father explains. "Nonetheless, you could get in trouble for smoking at school".
And I cannot help but recall the boys' bathroom in my own secondary school always, it seemed, filled with tobacco smoke. And later the same cigarette smell inhabiting the girls' bathroom, as we grew up entering the 8th grade, passing our first set of national exams, smoking openly yet separately from our parents and teachers at graduation.
Since then stickers like "We don't sell cigarettes to children under 18" have appeared on the shopping windows, the warning on a cigarette pack has grown larger, and a recent law has prohibited Ukrainian citizens from smoking in public places. It has also obliged every dining place to have a non-smoking section: sometimes nothing more then a folding screen serving as the border between the two.
Other than that, not many things have changed. People are still smoking on the streets. At my university in Kiev, the women's bathroom is always full of cigarette smoke; university staff smoking openly, while the signs around the building warn students that they could be expelled if caught smoking inside the university building.
"What does it matter if you smoke or not?", I recall my friend saying, "You inhale the stuff anyway because everyone around you smokes".
And I think to myself: "She is right". My parents have smoked around me since I have been a child, and my brother has started smoking after turning sixteen. Whenever there is a party someone is always lighting up a cigarette; and every time I go out with my friends I have to sit in the smoker's section of the bar because most of them smoke when they drink. For years I used to follow my parents' advice and have not really even tasted a cigarette. In fact, I used to take pride in the fact that I was the only one in my family who did not smoke. Perhaps, it has not mattered at all.
Then the next time I went out with my friends for a drink, my brother's girlfriend offered me a cigarette too. I held the pack in my hand, hesitant, then took one of them out and stuck it in my mouth.
"Alright!", I heard a few people cheer, and got various instructions on how to do it from smokers around the table. As the familiar tobacco smoke filled my mouth, I was suddenly appalled as it revealed to me its disgusting taste.
Suddenly I gained a new understanding of my mother's words, "smoking used to make me sick", as I finally applied her experience to myself. Revolted, I refused the second offer of a cigarette unable to bring myself to taking even another puff. Then, I stared at my friends in wonder: "And they still do it? What for?".
If nothing else, the memory of an unpleasant tobacco taste in my mouth is strong enough to keep me away from cigarettes.
At least for now.
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