My First Cigarette
I was twenty-two when I smoked my first cigarette. It was 2008 on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson, the sky a creamy sherbet pink peeking through the low-slung buildings of lower Manhattan. It perfectly matched the delicate Nat Sherman Fantasia I inexpertly held between my thumb and forefinger. They’re discontinued now, those cigarettes. You can buy a pack online for $39 plus packing and shipping.
I usually waved away the offer throughout my teenage years, mostly to girls with hair that smelled like Herbal Essences leaning over the driver’s seats of their mother’s mid-size sedans. I said no to most things that could set me down a road that wasn’t my very specific plan; moving to New York City. Becoming a writer. I took my BC pills like they were Tic-tac’s, while tossing condoms to my annoyed boyfriend who I’d soon leave. I couldn’t get trapped and pregnant. He was a Hooter’s chef, for Christ’s sakes.
But here I was now – safe in the city, un-knocked up. I inhaled slowly and figured I’d earned the right to give my vital organs a little leeway. Plus, back home didn’t have anyone like Aisha Attack.
It wasn’t her real name, but I wouldn’t know that until after she died. We were both unpaid interns at the indie cool kid magazine of the time, nestled on Greene Street surrounded by Prada, Anna Sui, and a place with giant expensive chocolate chip cookies. I met her moments after the Editor-in-Chief’s jetlagged pit-bull vomited in front of the crystal castle doors of the latter luxury brand.
“Oh, fuck. You’re Lyz, I’m guessing?” I heard a swift intake of breath followed by stifled giggles.
Biting my lip and holding my nose, I looked up to view one of the most stunning girls I’d ever seen in real life. Aisha was tall and lithe and Iranian, absolutely dripping in colors at a time and in a city where even the mention of a bright hue would set the fashion set aghast. I was clutching my own black oversize V-neck American Apparel T-shirt that I bought with my meager hostessing tips. Aisha’s teal -rimmed eyes observed the bouquet of dripping plastic bags I had used to try and wipe up the mess. My mouth opened and closed, unsure of next steps.
“We gotta get you outta here,” Aisha said, now openly cry-laughing. She grabbed my arm, threw the bags in the trash, and insisted we spring out of view from the Prada store employees. Pretty soon I was smoking a petal-pink cigarette at dusk, and the languid pit-bull was sleeping on the sidewalk in front of us.
“They asked me to come find you, but they’ll like be totally fine,” she rolled her eyes, referencing the magazine staff. “They’re really nuts in there, huh?” I rolled my eyes in agreement. They were nuts, but the job was still a dream.
“Did you start today?” I asked. I hadn’t seen her before. She nodded.
“I’m from Canada,” she said. Like that answered a question I forgot I asked. Like Canada was small.
Aisha Attack was a singer mostly, she said. But she did all the things an artist does. She made her own clothes, she sang, she played the keyboard, she drew, she wrote. She bartended at night. She lived in a makeshift loft in Bushwick, the kind where people build walls to make rooms and silent raves happen in the basement. Where shirtless men with bongos smoke joints on the roof and girls in tattered dresses dance with fire.
“Okay well, we have to be allies then,” Aisha said, and grinned, stamping out her Nat Sherman into a bench. “Let’s head back before they think we kidnapped this dog.”
It was news to me that people that stunning could also be nice. That cigarette was the beginning of me letting go a little – of the so-tight grip I’d had on behaving. I was here now…I could say yes to the things I used to say no to.
Aisha and I spent our days at the magazine doing whatever and soaking in the magic; it was a place that ran on cool. We helped ghost write an advice column for a foreign princess who came into the office only to sit on desks and play the ukulele in a flower crown. We walked the dog a lot. We watched the endless stampede of office inappropriate workwear with glee - purple velvet overalls and lacy bras and so many Dr. Martens.
The difference between us was Aisha saw the facade in it all and didn’t take it seriously. Aisha already knew one of life’s most exquisite secrets — only you can decide what you are. She would show up to work wearing her grandmother’s Persian garments, peacock blues and neon pinks and shimmering ribbons of gold thread. Feathers fell like waterfall from her hair. She was nice to everyone and talked to everyone —even the scary people who threw stilettos and screamed at assistants. Stature didn’t faze her.
“We’re just as cool as any of them,” she would say. I wasn’t so sure. I was over the moon when someone threw me a dried-out mascara to take home. I gladly stayed late to fill gift bags to parties we couldn’t go to. Aisha would snort, laugh, and pull me out the door to drink watered-down cocktails at a pirate-themed bar down the street.
“It’s not like this is our art anyway,” she would say. “We have our own things to say.”
I felt like a fraud when she talked like that. Like she thought I was this artist like she was. Despite coming to New York to write, besides the occasional 100-word music reviews for the magazine, I wasn’t writing. I didn’t know what my voice was. I was so exhausted and hungry and broke, that all I could do at night was eat cereal and drink one single Corona under my covers in the room I was renting in Greenpoint, waiting for whatever HBO drama I was binge watching to illegally download. When I tried to dream, it was a technicolor swirl of baby doll dresses and neon eyeliner.
Aisha and I started to hang out outside of work, every spare afternoon or night we had free. We would fill our arms with clothes we hated and walk with them (hulking fashion monsters teetering on our boots) to the snobby consignment shop Beacon’s Closet in Williamsburg. Then we would promptly dump everything at the nearby Goodwill, after a bored girl with an eyebrow ring rejected everything. We walked a lot. We’d duck into record stores and donut shops, and little jewelry stores that sold delicate chains like spun spider’s gold. We’d split some decadent flourless pastry and sit outside in our hats and gloves. Then, when we’d get too cold, we’d take the M train to Montrose and wrap ourselves in blankets and she would brew tiny cups of Turkish coffee.
Aisha’s grandmother taught her how to read the thick sludge that dried inside your cup if you flipped it over when you were done drinking it. She lit candles and incense and threw a red scarf over top of a lamp and stared into my cup. Her eyes would widen, and sadden, and get excited. She’d tell me that I had two shadows in my life, and they were constantly switching places. That while one was happy, the other was deeply troubled. And that it would always be that way, back and forth. She had no idea I had twin sisters both struggling with opioid addictions but also she had no idea that I identified that way – one shadow who behaved, and one who was dying not to.
Aisha and I bonded over darkness. We both struggled with versions of an eating disorder, though she told me foggy, fluorescent stories of hospital stays. We both hadn’t yet discovered how to be all the things we were, trying instead to be one thing at a time. We’d talk until the early hours of the morning, and I’d drift off on her couch in the campfire radiator air, a few tealights still aglow. I’d awaken at odd hours of the morning to the distant sounds of Aisha playing her keyboard softly in the next room. And with the sleepy shimmer and glitter from the night before, I would trudge home to the cold floor of my room to write. Being with Aisha inspired me.
We started to hang out at night more, after our restaurant shifts ended and we were both full from free drinks stolen from our prospective bars. I would sloppily pour sugary sangria into a pint glass, no ice, and drink it faster than a kid who wasn’t allowed Kool-Aid. I’d check my phone, then meet Aisha sweaty and flour-dusted at whatever address she suggested. Her invitations read like refrigerator magnets.
“221 Ludlow. Gaga’s producer is here. We’ll dance. Here! Then go dancing after. Then coffee on my roof!” in manic, excited bursts.
I always went, to sit in an overly air-conditioned studio with some music producer while Aisha sang for him. To some overpriced club in the Meatpacking District because we thought it would be “funny” to go sweet talk the bouncer into letting us in wearing Converse. And Aisha always had a trail of beautiful artist friends who came along with her, graffiti artists and French DJs and pretty girls she just “met one day in Union Square.” And they all asked about my writing, as if I was one of them. So I wrote more. And eventually my eyes would grow heavy, and I’d slump into whatever plush red velvet booth we were lounging in. I always gave up before she did, and Aisha always left me in the dusty dawn purple moments of morning, onto her next adventure.
It was around that time I realized that Aisha Attack never actually slept.
On New Year’s Eve, I was running late to meet Aisha at a party in a secret hotel. You needed a key card to get in, and inside was a warehouse that held events that lasted for days. The kitchen guys handed me two chilled shots of tequila for my empty stomach at 11:30pm as I ran for the subway, which dizzily went to my brain by the time I got above ground. I sprinted for the hotel to meet Aisha before the clock struck midnight and tripped. I flew through the air and landed hard on the gritty, cold concrete. My sheer black stockings ripped to shreds, my tipsy brain told me I was fine. I looked better, even. I dusted myself off and ran for the stars and the brick building in the distance. When I arrived out of breath at 11:58, Aisha handed me a glass of champagne and kissed my cheek.
“Happy new year,” she said. “To the year you write your book.”
It hadn’t even been a dream I’d allowed myself to say aloud, but she knew. That underneath the safe dreams I made public to friends and family back home, writing books was a dream that always felt out of reach. To out of reach to try. Until Aisha made it real, in the air there in a hotel that wasn’t a hotel on New Year’s. I woke up the next morning with a bulging wrist that killed, a hot searing pain that signaled at least a sprain. I trudged through the snow to a nearby pharmacy, no health insurance, and let a kind old Russian lady wrap my wrist with a splint and gauze. I remember watching the black and blue disappear behind the stretchy beige. I didn’t tell my parents, for fear they would ask me to come home. I left the pharmacy to join Aisha and her friends, who were still up and drinking coffee in her kitchen.
Five months into our internship at the magazine, I started to get antsy. I was sick of eating free pizza at work, and there was no paid job in sight. Our editor offered to send me to another unpaid internship at a larger, more corporate brand. She suggested I try the fashion closet, where I wouldn’t be writing but I would get to see another side to things. The hours were longer and it was a lot more physical, lugging black garment bags full of ballgowns around the city, and handpicking hundreds of Swarovski crystals off a pair of jeans because one editor “didn’t like them.” Between that, my restaurant job, and the novel I had started, I had no time to play at night with Aisha anymore. I started forgetting to respond to the 2 a.m. texts. I no longer recognized the names she mentioned, the people she saw. Over months, it became harder and harder to realign our lives. I started to learn the lesson of adulthood where friendship stops getting to mean that your lives are completely entwined. Things take over, responsibilities take over, and the magic of sleeplessness and dusk take on a darker, more depressed tone. I missed Aisha a lot, but I figured her life was full without me. And we tried our best.
One of the last times I ever saw Aisha was on one of the long walks we used to take around Brooklyn. We had coffee and pastries from Peter Pan Donuts. It was warm, and she was taller than I remembered. I never stopped feeling stunned by how beautiful and warm and open her face was. We walked to the very tip of Greenpoint, where it looks more like a fishing village and less like the sprawling precipice of a metropolis. We ducked inside a slashed fence so we could sit on rocks and pretend to dip our toes into the putrid, polluted water. She seemed calm, stoic, and loving. We discussed what we often discussed throughout our friendship; how no matter where life takes you or what wrong paths you go down, you always find your way back to where you belong. I believed that, held onto it like an heirloom necklace. It gave me hope, that even if where I was now wasn’t who I truly was, that I would find my way back to it. For me, that always meant writing. Calling myself one always felt strange in my mouth, like the dry water-flour mixture of the melting Body of Christ in my mouth.
For Aisha, I think it was something deeper. A truth or a peace she had been struggling to find her whole life. I believed her, and so I kept writing.
In 2014, the magazine we interned for was sold out from under its founders. A lot of other magazines folded. Lady Gaga was still very famous. No one cared about clubs in the Meatpacking District anymore. And I realized it had been a long time since I had seen or heard from Aisha Attack.
She always hated Facebook, but that was where I quickly and devastatingly found my answer when I saw her page had been switched to “In memory of.” The tears fell as I realized my dear, magical friend had passed away over a year ago.
I reached out to her lovely roommate, a sweet girl who had fled New York soon after Aisha’s death. When I read her response, I dropped and shattered a juice glass I had been clutching onto. After weeks of crippling insomnia, Aisha jumped out of the window of the 24th floor of a luxury apartment building on the Upper West Side. Her family had been on their way to help her.
I didn’t know where to put my grief. No one in my life at that time knew her, had even met her. The French DJs were gone, the rave girls, the graffiti artists. They had been hers, not mine. I found the last texts we ever sent each other, hers as always so supportive of my secret dream.
“How’s the book coming?” What are you writing? Show me!”
My fingers hovered, wondering where the words would go if I answered them now.
Aisha showed me how magical life could really be when you say yes to things. How dizzy, distracting, focused, and colorful. How the scariest part of admitting your dreams was saying them out loud. How no matter what paths you turn down in life, if they’re a little off or unclear, not to worry. That what you do is not who you are, and you’ll always make your way back to your true home eventually. I just wish that Aisha had been able to receive what she had given me – that she could’ve trusted in the journey and knew that no matter what, she would’ve made it back to her true self eventually. I wish I could have been to her who she was to me, in her final moments. I would have made her coffee, wrapped her in blankets, and tried to show her how loved she was.
I’m writing books now, and I know on some level her spirit is a part of my voice. I thank her silently, close my eyes and try to fall under the spell she cast with her pastel-pink cigarette that swayed like a conductor’s baton between her fingers as she spoke.
Lyz Mancini: I am a writer living in Catskill, NY, and a beauty copywriter for brands like Clinique. I have written for Catapult, Slate, HerSTRY, XOJane, Roi Faineant Press, and Huffington Post. I'm also a Pitch Wars 2020 and Tin House Winter Workshop 2022 alum, represented by Victoria Marini of Irene Goodman Literary Agency.