The creek is where all the kids went to smoke bay leaves. They’d pick them off the low branches of the bay trees that draped their crooked arms over the damp and rocky creek bed, and roll them together loosely into short cylinders that never stayed lit for longer than one drag. Somehow this had become a neighborhood rite of passage—to crouch behind the wide, white-washed cement pillars of the bridge, hidden from the road and hoping no one’s mom would wander down the banks and catch you sucking down that woody, earthen smoke.
In middle school the bay leaves were cast aside for real cigarettes, Winstons swiped one-by-one from the pack mom or dad left on the shop table in the garage, or propped open on the dashboard of the minivan while they ran into the store for a gallon of milk. Cigarette smoking required walking even deeper into the creek, past the bridge, far enough that the birds were louder than the sounds of passing cars. The cigarette smell was more incriminating than bay leaves, so it was important to walk past the old rope swing, into the greener and more overgrown dark bends and turns, where the air was moist and it smelled like piss, and there were always dirty blankets and pale, rusted beer cans lying around.
Smoking bay leaves and cigarettes turned into smoking pot out of metal pipes fashioned from pieces of plumbing, or apples, or crushed, empty Coke cans speckled with pin-holes. This meant wandering even further into the creek, treading carefully across mossy, slippery rocks that rose only slightly above the trickling water. Here there were no wide, dirt banks; only muddy hillsides that had to be gripped with the soles of sneakers, toes curling to perch on tree roots, everyone whispering, “shh, shh,” when birds whistled or squirrels sprinted through dry leaves.
When the kids were drinking, though, they were back to right under the bridge, barely out of sight of the passing cars and pedestrians. It was loud shouting, glass breaking, pissing on the white-washed cement pillars, scrawling graffiti in black sharpie on the pale primer, and soaking the cuffs of too-long jeans in the stagnant water. Here they crouched on the bright white and gray rocks of the wide banks until it was dark and they had to rub the goose bumps out of their naked summer arms.
After climbing back up the creek-banks to the road, the summer nights seemed too still. The creek was like a loud and echoing room, in a house they’d all grown up in. It was broken glass and dirty fingernails, the pinpoint flies circling rapidly above the surface of the shallow pools. The night was always bleary and exciting, bright and looming around their bodies; not like on the street, where everything lay still and quiet in asphalt lines, where everything was mapped out. Nothing could happen up there, with the porch lights and the cars resting and ticking away in the driveways, the hum of television sets flashing bright blue behind windows.
Once they climbed up the banks, there was nowhere to go but home. Nothing to do but unlock the front door and listen to the dog jingle his tags as he scratched his ears, rolled over and went back to sleep. And then there was nothing to do but peel off your clothes, and climb under your sheets, the ceiling fan whirring against the warmth and heaviness of the room as you fell asleep, the thick, green musk of bay leaves clinging to your skin.
—Josey Rose Duncan
From my Reed College senior thesis, In This House Where We Were Both Outsiders , 2006.