The smell of smoke from pot burns my chest, generates a ringing in my ears, brings back the oscillating sound of choppers, makes me cower with old fears: My father will be hauled off.
Strange things come up around Thanksgiving. Last year, I had just moved in with my boyfriend the day before Thanksgiving. It was evening, and I was still trying to finish some work, as the move had taken so much time.
The fight started harmlessly: “What’s that smell?” I said. “It smells like skunk.”
Two grown men keel over in laughter in the kitchen. “Sorry, we’ll smoke outside,” my boyfriend says.
“You’re smoking dope?”
He thought I wouldn’t mind. He had asked me once before in our two-year relationship, and in that case, I didn’t. But on that particular evening, he hadn’t even warned me that marijuana would be in the house.
I still had more work to do, but I grabbed my purse and stormed out the front door. He followed and caught me by the arm. “Hey, are you leaving?”
I turned in a fury. “Do I live here or not?”
He was surprised by my anger; I was, too. But I was also scared to find myself in a new home with no say over what went on inside it. My hands were shaking with a mixture of rage and fear, so I did the thing I knew to do: I ran.
“I don’t want to spend Thanksgiving with you,” I hissed as I left.
But as I drove, I realized I didn’t have anywhere to go. My condo was sold; boxes with all my belongings were stacked in the hallway of his home. I ended up at a park 10 blocks from the house; dark and deserted, it was the perfect place to feel sorry for myself. After all, I wouldn’t dare drag my crisis to a friend’s house. What would I complain of? My boyfriend was smoking pot. No one would bat an eye; maybe they’d ask if he had any extra.
There was one other dimension to this story—my past—which I knew was another reason my boyfriend assumed I wouldn’t mind. I had grown up on a marijuana farm between the ages of 8 and 12. I’d been around pot most of my life.
But what my boyfriend didn’t know was how the smell of smoke from pot burns my chest, generates a ringing in my ears, brings back the oscillating sound of choppers, makes me cower with old fears: My father will be hauled off. My mother was already in prison (although for a different crime). What would happen to me?
When I returned late at night after crying at the park, my boyfriend had already left. He had been planning to spend the night at his brother’s place to start the turkey early the next morning.
In his office, I find a purple canister on his desk. I open it, the skunky smell immediately clogs my sinuses, burns a hole in my head. I felt like I am falling down a wormhole in time filled once again with worry. No one told me I’d be moving in with a drug user or into a dope house. Where would I end up?
I thought the dope was his friend’s, but here it is sitting on his desk.
In my mind, smoking dope was someone else’s habit, someone we sold to. I was adamant in the lines I drew. I felt it kept me safe, all those years.
On Thanksgiving morning, his bed, now our bed, feels empty without him. I had been sad all night, missing his warmth, missing his sleepy eyes to greet me before I faced the cold, short walk to the heater. Cold and sad still, as I brushed my teeth and the fresh morning air seeped through the crack in the window where he had burned a candle the night before, it had flickered in the breeze and blackened the windowpane.
I’ve had days like this, when love had gone, a vessel between two people, broken. But then it starts. The sun rising higher in the day, its rays coming through the skylight warming the house, where he once stood, a moment to feel his presence, like when I usually set the kettle on the stove for my morning tea, and he would come up behind me to nestle his nose at the nape of my neck, the intimacy of him smelling me, sleep’s soft sweat and the scent of coconut conditioner thick in my hair.
I wanted to say I was sorry about the night before, for the words said in haste. His hurt, confused eyes at my anger.
What do I really know about him? What does he really know about me?
When he finally gets the turkey in the oven at his brother’s house, he calls me to talk. He tells me his buddy bought the weed as an early Christmas gift. He doesn’t need it. He’ll throw it out, if it’ll make me feel better.
I, in turn, tell him what it was like to grow up on a marijuana farm, how my father was a good grower; how we kept a dog in a fenced-in pen for the purpose of alerting us to potential intruders; how vacuum-sealed bags of weed filled our standing freezer; how the choppers flew often, sometimes when my father was at work; how I worked on the farm after school, plucking leaves from buds, drying branches by hanging them upside down on an indoor clothesline; and how when someone started stealing, and our dog wasn’t enough of a deterrent to scare them away, my father set up booby-trapped shotguns, and how I was afraid, especially one quiet Saturday morning when the shotgun went off and my father took off running down the land in the hopes of catching the culprit.
No one else in my family seemed to worry, except me. My parents told me never to speak about the weed or how I helped on the farm. It was a burden to carry such a secret, but one day my prayers were answered: Our farmhouse burnt down. My family was safe, but a police officer entered the charred framing to investigate; the freezer was still in tact. He opened the lid, and the inner lining fell in so he couldn’t see the contents. We were lucky because we had enough weed in that freezer for my father to be put away for a very long time.
After that, we moved into town and couldn’t grow anymore.
My boyfriend is still on the phone, but he’s quiet. I shut my eyes and remember another morning long ago, dark clouds threatening a downpour; a metal insect buzzing somewhere, beyond sight.
Mom is sitting at the kitchen table with several bags of weed in front of her. She has taken off her jeans, and has a glossy look of heat shining off her face, as she rolls another joint. I head out the back door to the wooden water tank at the rear of the house. It’s hot and I’m thirsty. The tank sits in the shade surrounded by Ti leaves and banana trees, its sides covered in thick green-black moss and a thin layer of moisture. The rainwater that fills the tank is sweet. I slurp it straight from the spout, letting the run-off splash on my muddy toes.
Then the metal insect emerges, as if from between some parting clouds. We hear it before we see it. “Get out of here!” Auntie shouts and waves her hands as if trying to shoo a fly. “Go on, damn it.”
Mother’s at the door waving me back inside. The chopper hovers low, so low the tree branches sway in the breeze of its blades.
A second chopper joins the first. They take turns making passes over the long strip of land. They circle five times, as if they can see something, and then they fly off. We listen for sirens. Will they come for a bust?
“No way are they taking my plants.” Auntie runs into the dense growth and emerges with two marijuana plants, one cradled in each arm. “They can send the cavalry. I’m not letting them into my house. Now you see it, now you don’t.”
Mom helps her carry plants in. Each tree is potted in a black plastic bag with holes through the bottom. They hide the plants in closets and behind doors; the smaller ones go under the sink or behind furniture.
Then it starts to rain. It beats down on the tin roof like pelting pebbles.
“Go upstairs,” Auntie scolds, when she nearly runs me over.
Upstairs, small puddles have begun to form on the covered lanai. Auntie and Mom are too busy bringing in plants to move the customary pots under the leaks.
“Get under the bed,” one of my cousins calls from inside the closet.
Downstairs, we hear the screen door continue to squeak open and slam shut. Then it goes quiet, and we wait, wondering if the cops will arrive. We’ve seen it on TV, families taken away in handcuffs; men and women hauled off to jail. Kids taken into child protective services and eventually foster care. If they came, they were in for a fight. We would kick and scream and bite.
We wait in our hiding places until our stomachs begin to growl; our limbs cramp and ache, then go numb. Finally, we brave the stairs and go down to find our mothers asleep on the couch. Auntie has the blanket that covered the couch wrapped over her so I could see the stuffing coming out of the armrest, where one of the cats has scratched. Mom’s asleep on the small armchair. Trails of mud and water drip down her calves.
We let them sleep and tiptoe through large puddles to the kitchen. We open cans of tuna and find sweet bread in the cupboard. Eventually, Auntie and Mom join us. They tear fistfuls of bread from the loaf, scoop tuna and mayonnaise on top, and stuff their mouths. We do not say a word. We eat in silence, safe for now.
On the phone, I finally hear my boyfriend clear his throat, “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was like.”
I am thankful he’s empathetic, trying to understand what he could have labeled as an emotional over-reaction. And thankful, too, he knows now that pot is a sensitive subject, and has agreed to discuss it before it’s brought in the house again.
“Will you still come over for Thanksgiving?” he asks.
I did. We didn’t talk about marijuana around the Thanksgiving table. I don’t often talk about what it was like to grow up on a marijuana farm. With changing sentiments in the nation over the legal status of marijuana, people might view it as a cool life experience. Maybe I’ve mentioned it to those closest to me in passing, but they’ll never really know what it was like, and for that, I’m thankful, too.
Tianna Thomas is a writer living in Los Angeles.