I climbed into the back seat of Reid Ferr’s GTO behind St. Joe’s, the fifth kid in. Catholic Youth Organization had just let out. I thumbed through my brand new paperback copy of Good News for Modern Man. Before we’d gone a block, Joey Ent, sitting shotgun, lit a match and sucked on a short, fat cigarette that had to be marijuana.
I wasn’t naïve. My ninth grade boyfriend smoked weed, but never around me. I would have freaked out facing it for the first time, but I knew all these kids. They were Catholics, not stoners.
As the joint passed from person to person my brain raced.
Smoking pot was illegal.
But it didn’t feel wrong, odd with all that Catholic guilt etched into me. Chastity breathed under my skin—carved there by Mom and the Church when I wasn’t looking. But drugs never made my sin list.
Did moral law—or lack thereof—trump governmental law?
I didn’t extrapolate Dad’s belief that I “taught” my eight-year-old brother to fear bugs into the possibility my smoking could cause him to do the same. Or how imbibing might affect progeny I’d yet to imagine.
I didn’t think about addiction and other vices hanging from my family tree that might be woken by a whiff of weed.
I didn’t even think about how Reid’s smoking might impair his driving.
No, I thought about fitting in.
Mary Catherine Jaine sealed her lips together, her cheeks puffing out, and handed me the stub.
Unlike Bill Clinton, I knew how to inhale—from my pack-of-Marlboros-a-month habit. My fingers shook as I pinched the twisted end of the rolling paper stuffed with not-tobacco.
I sucked in smoke that tasted like banana bread gone bad.
It burned down my throat, and I held my breath like I’d watched every other kid in the car do, passed it into the front seat.
My mind flashed through pictures of hippies strewn on park benches, crazed out on LSD, seen on my way to St Hugh’s Catholic School in Miami and the one time I’d seen Dad drunk.
But twenty minutes later I wondered whether one-fifth of a joint was enough to get a kid high. Ditching my drug virginity was almost a non-event, but everyone remembers their first time. I didn’t feel much different from when I shook Father’s hand and thanked him for the New Testament during CYO.
Just as well.
I wasn’t a good candidate for inebriation. After growing up with a dad who forbade crying, I’d perfected repression to the point that I preferred being in total control of my emotions.
However, I was all about being cool.
Now that I knew a small amount of Mary Jane would leave me in full or nearly full possession of my faculties, I smoked occasionally when it was offered. I didn’t love it. I didn’t consider parting with my hard-earned babysitting money to buy it.
A month later I stood behind our house while Dad dismantled the gear mechanism to repair the back tire on his bike. He’d ridden from Miami to Stuart to visit me and my brother. I stared at the jalousie slatted door that vandals had painted yellow before we moved in. Through that door and down the hall Mom shared a bed with her upgraded husband. That was a thought that deserved repression.
“Have you tried marijuana?” Dad said.
“What?” My gaze flicked back to him, his face sporting a full beard, his hair half-way to hippie.
His question levitated between us like a grenade.
My mind danced around it, grasping for a response that wouldn’t land me in Confession. “I can’t believe you asked me that!” I fanned indignation to life and stomped into the house, the jalousie glass rattling in my wake.
Maybe Dad angled for cool parent who okayed pot. Or maybe he had a safety lecture—like the ones I used to get on the boat—all primed and ready to go.
I didn’t want to find out.
That night a bunch of us piled into Reid’s GTO and headed for a party in Jensen Beach. After a few joints and a stop at the beach, we pulled to the side of a sand road jammed with cars.
Reid killed the engine.
Stupid with the drug, my gaze slogged up the stairs where kids and music and voices spilled from the doorway. I breathed in heavy ocean air and the scent of seaweed, my mind at half-speed.
Reid stumbled out the driver’s door with bloodshot eyes and let loose a high-pitched giggle.
My fingers clenched around the door handle. Weeks overdue, my cautious side came to.
I want to go home–alive!
It hadn’t been a prayer, but God must have listened because I landed safe in my bed a couple hours later, oozing gratitude, promising myself I’d never smoke again.
I reinvented myself so virginal in the next town where we lived one of my classmates thought I was born again.
In college I went rogue from Catholicism and really did get reborn. I plunked down roots in Protestantism by falling in love with a guy who would become a pastor.
Catholics make friends with Jack Daniels, Mary Jane, and a smorgasbord of swear words. They file their sins under venial or mortal and do penance to push away the guilt.
Protestants pursue lifestyles pure, white, and clean as Ivory soap. The pocket I fell into had barely unbanned movies, cards, and dancing. Alcohol had yet to make a comeback.
When I reinvented myself as “church lady” I locked my reefer experience in a don’t-tell crate and shoved it to a dark corner of my history. First on my church lady to-do list was raising four white-as-snow kids. Never mind that I barely saw snow—literal or figurative—the first twenty years of my life.
Turned out, some of my kids—with their affection for a well-placed colorful word or a bottle of beer—might have made good Catholics.
Like any Catholic, past or present, I walk a tightrope between guilt and regret. Part of me wonders if I actually did crack open a mystical door to drugs. Would my blood relatives have pissed away years of their lives on pot if I had not inhaled that first hit?
All I know is what Good News for Modern Man taught me. My marijuana dalliance and the rest of my regrets hang on the line of God’s forgiveness. Beside my laundry flaps my family’s failures—washed and smelling like sunshine.
I’m done reinventing myself. Changes these days come from someone who has the power to make them stick.
Note: Names and Reid’s car have been changed in deference to my friends who may not want their teen years run out on the line with mine.