Smoking with Laura Tanenbaum

by Beth Thomas Read the Story September 29, 2010

I love the honesty of the voice. It is sweet and innocent but also, in some ways, wise. How do you know this narrator? Is this you at sixteen? Now?
A bit of me, yes. Certainly the restlessness was me – and still is, to an extent. But I was also thinking about how profoundly strange I remember it being. Teenagers are self conscious about their age, and adults attribute everything they think or do to their age. But being young is something you can’t really have a perspective on, because you don’t know you’re young. You never know you’re young except in retrospect. In the moment, you’re always just the oldest you’ve ever been.

In your story, sixteen is both an accusation and a wish. In what way do you look at the current sixteen?
It’s a cliche to say that youth is wasted on the young, and of course looking back it seems true. But think about it from the perspective of the one who might be doing the wasting: you sense you are wasting it, everyone seems to resent you for it, but you have no idea what it would mean to not waste it, what you’re supposed to do with this great power you supposedly have.

Does she want the man to come to her door, or not? Is the not knowing more important?
I think she does, very much, although less from some tangible sense of what might happen, which is likely abstract to her, but because of the desperate desire for something to happen, for the boredom and sameness and propriety of things to be broken up.

Tell us about the origins of the story.
I was listening to “The Pharoahs” off of Neko Case’s most recent album over and over and took the basic scenario from there. I like songs that are like flash fiction, that turn on a single moment or image. The song uses this to get at how, when sex is new, a single sex-tinged comment can throw off your whole sense of reality.

What will become of this girl at seventeen and beyond?
I tend to think more in terms of mood than character, especially with a short piece like this, so I don’t have a clear sense of that. In the song, we end with “I want the Pharoahs, but there’s only men,” which is kind of a terrible way to put it, but it might be somewhat indicative. Disillusionment is where her actual story might begin.

About the Author:

Laura Tanenbaum teaches composition and literature at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. Her writing has appeared in failbetter, Steel City Review, and Open Letters Monthly, among other publications.