In my high school class in the North German state capital of Kiel, where I grew up, several of the kids were promised a driver's license by their parents. On the condition that they hadn't started smoking by the time they turned 18.
Kind of the opposite happened to me.
With my parents, a license in return for not smoking was never on the agenda. They don't own a car, are absolute non-smokers, and wouldn't approve of that kind of education by reward anyway.
So I was 25 and well into my studies at the Faculty of Law at the Universität Hamburg before I started taking driving lessons that I, obviously, had to pay for myself.
It was the last day of April, I was nine lessons into the course and had a lot of other things on my mind when I met Herr Schwarzbach, the owner of Fahrschule Schwarzbach, at five to four on a Tuesday afternoon outside the small shop where I had taken my theory lessons. His purple BMW convertible was parked at the curb.
After deciding to take driving lessons, my financial situation had changed for the worse. I'd had to move to a more expensive apartment with my friend Hannah. And this coincided with my trouble getting enough working hours as a swimming instructor, the job that was financing my legal studies. On top of that, I was studying intensely toward an exam that I desperately needed to pass that summer in order to, eventually, become a lawyer.
So a lot of things came together that week as I sat down behind the wheel with Herr Schwarzbach, a friendly bearded and bearlike man in his late forties or early fifties.
"Let's go!" he commanded. I turned the ignition key, looked back, activated the left indicator and entered traffic. Within seconds I had earned a heartfelt honk from a large black Mercedes behind us.
"Oh, I didn't see that one coming."
"Don't worry. He is going much too fast anyway," Herr Schwarzbach tried to calm me.
It was my first lesson during rush hour and I immediately detected that I was much more stressed out and nervous than during any of the first nine lessons. I kept making silly mistakes and it seemed that one mistake just led to another and increased my nervousness. After a while, Herr Schwarzbach directed me away from the crowded main road an into a quiet neighbourhood of large villas.
"What's wrong with you today, Antje?" he asked. "You're trembling."
He put his large, left paw on the steering wheel. And I noticed that he was right. My hands were shaking.
"Pull over here!" he commanded as I didn't respond. He pointed to a green area in front of us with some benches and a playground.
I managed to park the car by the curb and switch off the engine before I started sobbing quietly.
"Let's get out of the car," he suggested, gently touching my sweatshirt on the right shoulder.
I got out and stood on the sidewalk while he was fetching something from the glove compartment. When he got out, I saw that it was a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Marlboro Golds.
"So you're having a smoke break?" I smiled and tried to wipe away my tears with my fingers, probably just ruining my makeup.
"Please sit down," he said and pointed to the nearest bench.
We sat down next to each other.
"I don't smoke. I was going to offer you a cigarette to calm you down."
"I don't smoke either," I said.
"I keep these in the car to calm down nervous students," he continued without taking notice of what I said. "Cigarettes have a deeply calming effect. I know that from experience. My ex-wife, the former Mrs. Schwarzbach, always had a cigarette when she got nervous."
Herr Schwarzbach handed me a Tempo paper handkerchief and went on.
"Actually, she is the reason I kept buying these cabriolets. They're expensive. But it's nice with some fresh air when you're in a car with a chain-smoker."
"Is she that? Your ex-wife? A chain-smoker?"
"I would say so. At least when she's driving."
"But you're a non-smoker?"
"Always have been. But I'm tolerant with smokers."
"So her smoking wasn't the reason for the breakup."
"No. She left me for another man. A smoker."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Would you like one?"
He held the opened cigarette pack in my direction. I looked at it. There were five or six cigarettes left.
"No thanks. I don't think so," I rejected his offer.
Herr Schwarzbach put down the pack and lighter between us on the bench.
"Is there anything that worries you? I mean apart from learning to drive?" he asked.
It was like pushing a button. Everything burst out of me at once: the exam, the rent, my job situation and the sad fact that I didn't know how to pay for my remaining driving lessons.
"So I have to take a break and come back to you and take the rest of my lessons when I can afford it," I concluded.
Herr Schwarzbach shook his head:
"Don't do that. If you take a break now, you will lose your routine and you'll have to start all over. That would be really stupid."
"Yes. I know. But I don't have the money. I'm sorry!"
"Let me help you, Antje. If you follow my advice, I won't bill you for this lesson."
"Yes. Smoke one of these!"
He held up the cigarette pack.
"Why do you want me to?"
"Just to prove my point. You'll see. It really calms you. And you don't have to worry about the money."
I thought about it for a moment. But there was really nothing much to think about. My friendly driving instructor was offering me a lesson for free.
"I'll try it," I said and picked up the cigarette pack. I took a cigarette that turned out to weigh almost nothing between my fingers and placed the filter between my lips. Herr Schwarzbach had already lit the lighter and quickly moved the flame to the end of the cigarette. I sucked in a bit of smoke and removed the cigarette while I quickly exhaled. It tasted chemical, bitter and, in fact, disgusting.
"You need to inhale to get the calming effect," my driving instructor advised me.
"What exactly does that mean?"
"It means you have to suck the smoke from the cigarette all the way into your lungs and keep it there for a moment."
"Okay!" I said and sucked in another big mouthful which immediately led to a coughing fit during which I exhaled a cloud of smoke with each new cough.
I dried the tears from my eyes as I had stopped coughing.
"I'm sorry. I don't think this has any calming effect on me. It just makes me cough. Can't I just put this out and pay for the lesson?"
"You don't have to pay. You've already earned your free driving lesson. But just give it another chance. Don't take in all the smoke at once. Try with less smoke. Keep it in your mouth for a second before you take it into the lungs."
I smiled at him:
"You sound like an expert. How do you know all that? You don't smoke yourself."
"I've been watching a lot of smokers. Now try it, please!"
I did, as told. There was this burning pain in my lungs that almost made me forget the sickening taste that had taken possession of my mouth and the bad smell in my nose. I blew out the smoke in a couple of small coughs.
"I'm sorry. I really don't think smoking is for me. And... I think I'm going to throw up. I'm sorry!" I said, dropped the cigarette and got up to take a few steps before vomiting in the grass.
Herr Schwarzbach had an unopened bottle of water ready for me when I sat down on the bench again.
"Don't be. It's all right. Drink this."
"Thanks! I don't think smoking has a calming effect on me."
"You don't? I think it will have, eventually."
"But I'm not going to try again."
"That's completely up to you of course."
We sat next to each other as I finished the water and started feeling normal again, although unable to get completely rid of the awful taste in my mouth.
"Okay. Are you up to it now?" Herr Schwarzbach asked.
"What do you mean?"
"The driving lesson?"
"Oh, yeah. I think so."
"Okay. Please get inside."
Herr Schwarzbach held the door open to me and I entered.
The rest of the lesson went smoothly. We got back into the heavy rush hour traffic, but I sensed no nervousness. Back at the driving school Herr Schwarzbach was full of praise for my driving skills.
"You're still trying to persuade me not to break off, aren't you?"
"Yes. I think that would be a big mistake. You'd have to learn it all over again. And waste a lot of money."
"True. But I don't have the money right now. So I really have no choice."
"I'll make you an offer, Antje."
"It's a little experiment. If you agree to smoke a cigarette at the start of the next driving lesson, I won't bill you for that either."
"As I said. It's a little experiment. It's scientifically proven that smoking helps you focus and get rid of your nervousness. You feel relaxed and focused at the same time. Which is exactly what you need when you learn to drive a car. What do you say? It won't cost you a cent."
"I don't know. I think smoking has the effect on me that it makes me throw up. I don't know about the focusing and getting rid of nervousness part."
"I don't want to push you. It's just an offer."
"My next lesson is on Thursday, right?"
"Yes. And the fact that today's lesson is free of charge means that you have already paid for Thursday. But if you accept my offer, you have already paid for the next lesson after that."
"Okay. See you Thursday at four then!"
I got out of the car. Another young woman was waiting on the pavement to get in for her lesson with Herr Schwarzbach.
My roommate Hannah couldn't believe her own ears as I told her about the driving lesson over dinner.
"He gave me the lesson for free because I agreed to smoke a cigarette. And he offered me another free lesson if I'd do it again."
"He said that it's scientifically proven that smoking has a calming effect. That it helps getting rid of nervousness."
"Yes. Maybe. But what is his interest in giving you free driving lessons?"
"I don't know. Maybe he wants to prove he's right."
"Maybe he just likes to watch young women smoke?"
"Why would he like that?"
"Because it makes him horny."
"You think so?"
"Yeah. Some men have weird desires. Speaking of men: How's Project P coming along?"
Project P, or simply PP, was Pascal from my study group at uni. I had confessed to Hannah that I really liked him, but until now there wasn't any sign of mutual interest.
"Nothing new. I think I'm kind of in his friend zone."
"I don't get that. You're so pretty!"
"Thank you. But maybe I'm not his type. Anyway, about driving school: It's pointless to go on. Because I don't have the money to pay for those remaining lessons, I need in order to get the license before summer."
"No. Absolutely not. You know that. With the rent and with my reduced working hours. As if I didn't have enough to worry about."
"What about our trip to Spain?"
Hannah was still working on convincing her parents to let us use their classic VW Bulli camper van for a holiday trip. But obviously I needed the license. Hannah didn't have one.
"I know. I'm sorry. I don't suppose you can lend me 500 €?"
"Not exactly. But why don't you take him up on his offer and let him pay for your next lesson?"
"Hannah! It made me puke! It was so humiliating."
"I know. I guess all smokers had difficulties in the beginning. Remember your first beer?"
"But I'm not a smoker. And I'm not going to be one."
"And you don't have to be. Just smoke another cigarette to make Herr Schwarzbach happy. And you'll be one lesson closer to your license and to our trip to Spain."
"And what about the rest of the lessons? I'll still need to pay for them. And I don't have the money."
"I don't know. Maybe this guy wants to go on with his experiment. Maybe you can get the rest of your lessons for free if you smoke a few cigarettes."
"But the taste is so disgusting. It fills up your mouth. I changed my clothes, showered and spent five minutes brushing my teeth and I still have this taste in my mouth."
"I know. But you might get your license before summer. And we could go to Spain."
"It's not your lungs, Hannah!"
"Don't be overdramatic now. It's not like smoking a few cigarettes will give you cancer."
"I'm not talking about cancer. But I really didn't like it."
"Just try it once more to get the free lesson. And then you get the one you've already paid for. And maybe you're ready for the test?"
"I don't think I'm even close."
"And when do you think you will be able to pay for lessons again?"
"I don't know."
"Doesn't that make it an easy choice?" Hannah asked with a smile.
Thursday was an extremely hot day for early May. I had been out in town all day when I arrived at four in front of the Fahrschule Schwarzbach. I was wearing a tight, black and yellow low-neckline dress with straps that left my shoulders, legs and a large portion of my titties bare.
The purple BMW was waiting at the curb, roof down, with Herr Schwarzbach in the front passenger seat.
"Oh, hello Antje. Nice weather today, isn't it?"
"Yes. Very much. I'm enjoying the sun."
I opened the door and sat down next to him.
"That's why I thought we'd drive in an open car today."
"Oh... I hope you brought some other shoes. You can't drive in those," he said, pointing to my high heel sandals as I was sitting down next to him.
Obviously, I had come without luggage apart from my small handbag. So, no, I hadn't brought other shoes.
"Oh! I'm sorry. No. I just put these on this morning without thinking about driving. But I think I'll be fine. I'm so used to high heels."
"Not to driving in them, you're not. Take them off please."
"Take them off and drive barefoot."
"Barefoot? Is that all legal?"
"Yes. Absolutely. But driving in high heels is dangerous."
I leant forward to remove my sandals.
"Fördekind," Herr Schwarzbach read aloud off the large cursive tattoo on the upper part of my back.
"Yes. I grew up in a house with a view of the Kieler Förde," I smiled at him as I put the sandals in the back of the car.
"So you're not from Hamburg?"
"No. And the white nettle leaf with the ship is the coat of arms of the city of Kiel."
"Yes. I know that one. You've got some nice tattoos."
"Have you thought about my offer?"
"Yes. I haven't billed you for the last lesson. And I won't charge you for this one if you smoke a cigarette now. Just to calm your nerves."
I stretched my toes to get them back into their natural shape.
"Well, I think I'd like another cigarette then. But I hope I don't... I mean I would hate to get sick in your car."
Herr Schwarzbach held up a brown paper bag.
"Don't worry. I've taken precautions. Just tell me if you start to feel sick."
"That's very thoughtful of you."
"Oh, you're welcome. Are you up to it now?"
"You mean driving?"
"No. I mean smoking."
He opened the glove compartment and took out the Marlboro Gold pack while simultaneously pushing the cigarette lighter on the dashboard.
"I guess I am."
I picked a cigarette from the pack he was offering me and held it in my hand. After a moment he took out the lighter and held it in front of me. I put the cigarette in my mouth, and he touched it with the glow of the lighter. My mouth was filled with bitter smoke that I blew out immediately.
"Now just relax and enjoy it," Herr Schwarzbach said.
Enjoy it? Did this man have any idea what he was talking about?
I took the cigarette to my lips and took in some smoke, kept it in my mouth for a moment and then inhaled it all the way into my lungs. It felt as if they were burning. I carefully kept the smoke there for a couple of seconds before I exhaled and managed not to cough.
"You're doing all right," Herr Schwarzbach encouraged me.
"Yes," I agreed.
I took another drag and drew the smoke into my lungs. The smoke filled my mouth, throat and nose, and my lungs were burning. But I didn't feel like puking this time. I exhaled.
"Beautiful!" Herr Schwarzbach commented.
The cigarette seemed to have an effect on my body. I sensed a pleasant tingle in my head and inhaled again to find out if it had anything to do with the cigarette. It seemed to have.
"Smoking suits you, Antje!" Herr Schwarzbach said.
"You think so?"
"Oh yes. The way you hold the cigarette, the lipstick on the filter and the way you blow out smoke. It really looks like you're starting to enjoy it."
I looked at the red lipstick on the filter and smiled before I took another long, slow inhale.
"Actually, it is calming," I said as I blew out the smoke.
"I told you so. Maybe smoking is what you need to get rid of your nervousness in traffic."
"Maybe. I just have to get used to the taste."
"You don't like the taste?"
I inhaled again, trying to taste the smoke, and thought about it for a moment with my lungs filled with smoke.
"Well, maybe it's not a bad taste once you get used to it," I smiled as a large plume of smoke left my mouth.
"I'm glad to hear that. Shall we go?" Herr Schwarzbach asked.
"Shouldn't I finish this first?" I asked and held up my cigarette.
"I think you should try smoking and driving. But it's up to you. The lesson has started anyway."
I moved the cigarette from my right to my left hand, pushed the clutch pedal with my naked left foot and started the engine. I switched on the left indicator, looked back and found room to enter the busy rush hour traffic of Hamburg.
The lesson went well. Holding the cigarette with my left hand and handling the gearstick with my right came natural to me.
"I like driving with bare feet. I'm in much closer contact with the pedals like this," I remarked and inhaled from my cigarette, which was almost smoked down to the filter.
"I'm really fascinated watching you tattooed legs and feet as you use the pedals. You have such beautiful flowers tattooed down there. Would you like another?" Herr Schwarzbach asked and held out the cigarette pack.
"I think I'm good for now," I replied and blew smoke into the airstream. I sucked in the last smoke from the cigarette and threw the butt out of the car.
"I'd say you've passed the test already," Herr Schwarzbach remarked.
"Yes. The smoking and driving test."
I smiled at him and felt the dizziness from the nicotine as I turned my head.
"I guess I still need to pass the real test before I can get a license?"
"Yes. And you'll need a few more lessons. Let's continue our experiment."
"You smoke a cigarette next time, and you won't have to pay for the lesson."
"I can do that."
"Yes. I know. And you know what, Antje: You look very elegant when you smoke."
"He said that?" Hannah asked as I reported the day's events over dinner.
"Yes. He said: 'You look very elegant when you smoke'."
"And he liked your tattoos. I think he is hot for you, Antje."
"No. Come on. It's just a nice compliment. He's twice our age."
"If Pascal doesn't want you? Herr Schwarzbach obviously likes to watch you smoking. Are you going to smoke for him again?"
"I'm not smoking for him. I'm smoking to get free driving lessons. And earlier this week it was you who wanted me to do it. Should I go on with his experiment, or should I just fuck this license and break it off?"
"You should go on. Our trip to Spain depends on it."
My next lesson was on the following Monday morning. I met Herr Schwarzbach at the driving school at ten and sat down in the open car. It was still hot and sunny. I unbuckled my sandals and put them in the back.