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Puffing the stress away

Nonsmokers would not normally be found anywhere in the vicinity of a hookah lounge, but I was a nonsmoker in a smoker’s world as I made my way to the Meridian Hookah Lounge on Sunday night.

Getting out of my car, I was extremely nervous. Until my visit to Meridian that night, I had never smoked anything in my life. My roommate Monika came with me for support.

We entered the lounge and the smell of sweet, pungent smoke was in the air. A woman behind the counter was puffing away on a hookah, with heavy white smoke coming out of her mouth as she exhaled. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was blaring from the speakers, prompting Meridian patrons to start banging their heads a la Wayne’s World.

After the man at the counter checked our IDs, we paid a cover charge of $7 for unlimited smoking. We were directed to a couch situated on what is normally the stage and told that our server would be right with us.

“Our server?” Monika asked, laughing at the thought that the Meridian could have servers just as they do at a restaurant.

Right above us was a soft white bulb, illuminating us slightly more than everyone else in the lounge. Monika and I sat on the edge of the couch, feeling as though we were newcomers on display.

When our server came over to take our order – again, another restaurant term that sounds odd at a hookah lounge – our fears quickly dissipated. I told her that Monika and I had never smoked before and a big smile swept across her face.

“I love it when the nonsmokers come in here,” she said, putting us at ease rather than making us feel like losers.

She explained to us that smoking a hookah is much less harmful to your health than smoking cigarettes but didn’t try to give us the impression that hookah smoking is totally harmless.

“It’s very relaxing,” she assured us.

We got to decide what flavor tobacco we wanted to try, and our server was very helpful with suggestions. Mint, she said, may be too strong for first-time smokers, while an orange dreamsicle is not as strong and would probably suit our palates better. Monika and I decided on Bahama Breeze, a combination of fruity flavors that our server created herself.

As I saw the server coming toward the table with the hookah, my nervous feelings returned. The hookah itself looked like a table lamp with no shade and had a black tube coming out of it. At the end of the black tube was a metal topper that became wider as it went down. We got individual plastic mouthpieces to go over the metal topper.

As our server took a drag from the hookah and demonstrated how to do it, we heard the watery, gooey tobacco solution in the base of the hookah bubbling. She added ice to it for us to make the smoke less harsh.

She handed the mouthpiece to Monika, who passed it off to me like a hot potato. Monika gave me this look as if to say, “You’re the one who dragged me here; now you’re going to try it first.”

So I did, taking a short drag and exhaling a small puff of smoke. The smoke that came out of my mouth reminded me of being a kid in Wisconsin during the winter, pretending I was smoking by blowing the cold air out of my mouth. Now it was real.

“This is fun!” I said, giggling like an idiot.

Monika took a drag and giggled with me. The guys at the couch across from us looked over at us and smiled at our inexperience.

“This is our first time,” I told them.

We continued passing the mouthpiece back and forth, taking hits off the hookah while listening to everything from the Barenaked Ladies to the Killers. For a fellow nonsmoker, Monika turned out to be skilled with the hookah, taking long drags and blowing large puffs of smoke.I, however, was not as good. When I had the mouthpiece in my hand, I had to remind myself how to breathe. I took small draws that got stuck in my throat, making me cough.

Monika gave me some tips to help: Inhale from deep within your stomach, and hold the smoke in for a little bit before blowing it out. Her tips helped me, and my coughing became less frequent.

Our posture changed as we finished off the hookah, as we went from sitting on the edge of our seats to leaning back on the couch in a reclined position. We felt we could not fully relax though, because if we did, we were afraid we would fall asleep.

As we got up to leave, our server told us to come back on Wednesday nights to see an acoustic guitar player a hundred times better than John Mayer. We wanted to come back on a Thursday for the belly dancer show, another new and interesting idea.

The Meridian was a fun place with a cool vibe, which made us feel at ease. I won’t make smoking a hookah a regular occurance, since smoking increases the risk of cancer, but maybe once in a blue moon, I’ll go there and order an orange dreamsicle to celebrate a special occasion.