Why I Keep Coming Back to Smoking
Falling in and out of life's smoke-filled voids
The first time I started smoking, I was 14. A five-foot-five, 90-pound, pink-haired, baby-faced teenager desperate to be intimidating and formidable and taken seriously. Looking back at myself as a baby person from my lofty view of adulthood, I can see so well all the ways I chose to armor myself. The intentionally ill-fitting and torn clothes, the spikes around my wrists, the chains around my neck. It makes me laugh now to picture baby-me imagining that I could force others to see me as formidable so easily; by stepping into a costume or following a recipe I could assert power and remain safe; I could build a wall between myself and others that they could see through but could never safely climb.
We would sneak out into the woods or sit under the railway bridge down the road from my house. We would steal smokes from our parents or bribe our older siblings into buying them for us. After I got my license, I made a friend at a nearby gas station who I drove back to jail a couple of times when he was done with his work-release shift, and in return I could buy whatever I wanted without having to worry about being carded. Remembering, I’m struck by what a spectacularly bad idea it was to chauffeur a man I didn’t really know back and forth from jail, but I’d been armed with my boots and my Crass shirt and my frowning and my smokes. Clearly, I was some sort of she-monster of mythical proportions and this man was well-aware of it. And he might have been: this time, in this story, I was safe.
When my mom found out about my smoking, she stood with a sad and disappointed look on her face for about thirty seconds before telling me, “If you’re going to do it, I guess you’re going to do it. Don’t throw your butts in the yard.” She built me a little area out back, between the dog run and the garden that we never used because the owners of the house before us had built it over where the septic tank was buried. Three mildewed old lawn chairs and a big gray bucket, arranged in a tight circle; That’s where my friends and I spent most of our afternoons after school.
My parents were divorced, and for several very good reasons. Where my mom bent, soothed, and accepted, my dad forced, fumed, and controlled. Several months into my career as a badass and a smoker, a friend and I went to see the dyke punk/queercore band Tribe 8. Since we were still baby badasses, we had asked my dad to drop us off a block away from the theater, so we could walk in by ourselves. The theater was small, but uncrowded, the room was dark and hot and loud, and the band was mostly naked. Someone paused to screech something into a microphone about fresh meat and my friend started jokingly pushing me towards the stage.
I remember the music, I remember the laughter of my friend, I remember laughing myself, turning from the stage with a cigarette in my hand and naked, sweaty, screaming ladies just over my shoulder. I remember looking up at the entrance to the theater and making eye contact with my dad. I’ve never been in more trouble with him than I was that night. We left the show, ashamed to be seen with our ride, and were driven home in complete silence.
Once home, I left my friend in my room and went out to confront the Disappointment and Anger and Shame of my father. Waiting for what would surely be an endless and angry lecture about sexuality and bodies and the way I was expected to behave, I was confused but gleeful that the only reason I was in trouble was because he had seen me in the most compromised position he could imagine: I had been standing in real life—in public—with a lit cigarette in my hand. I promised him, emptily, that I would never smoke again. I swore, falsely, that I understood that smoking was one of the worst things I could ever do to my body. He was pleased. Ten minutes later I was back in my room with the window wide open, sneaking a cigarette and giggling to myself.
I smoked for years. I would quit for a few weeks at a time occasionally, but I always went back. For me, smoking cured everything; it could be anything I needed it to be. I could celebrate, mourn, fume, and daydream. It was proof that I existed: I was interacting with my environment and leaving evidence, all the while putting forth pretty much the least amount of physical effort possible. It was an excuse to sit and look at things. I could sit and stare into the middle distance and think to myself all I wanted because I was still doing something: I was smoking.
I quit when I became pregnant with my daughter, almost eight years ago. I don’t remember it being hard at all. It was for her, so I didn’t have a choice. I just stopped and that was it. Maybe it didn’t hurt so much because, since I was pregnant, I had pretty much carte blanche to behave however I wanted. Unless she’s actively harming you or someone you love, it’s pretty difficult to chastise a pregnant woman for very much. For years, I forgot about it completely. Smoking didn’t even occur to me. I looked down on smokers. They were weak, gross, self absorbed. Didn’t they know that they could just decide to be finished with it all? Why would they be so unwilling to stop such an obviously foul and dangerous activity? I was sad for them.
Six months ago, I found myself once again with a cigarette snuggled firmly between the index and middle finger of my right hand. I’m not sure how it started. There were friends and nights out, there was a road trip, and at the end of it all there was me, once again a smoker. I can just smoke one at the end of every day, I’d thought, just to relax. I can come outside and sit in the quiet and look at the sky and have my single cigarette and unwind. I can absolutely control myself enough to just smoke one. I am an adult and a she-monster of mythical proportions and I can decide things for myself. But! Of course I couldn’t. In a week I was smoking half a pack a day and by the two week mark I was up to the entire pack. At first I tried to be stealthy, only smoking when my husband wasn’t looking or my kids were in bed, but eventually I branched out to smoking whenever the hell I wanted to, no matter who was looking. Because it was important. It was something I had to do. I wound up, once again, with the small circle of mildewed chairs and the bucket in my backyard and a reason to sit and think and look at the sky for a few minutes every hour or so.
My daughter knew better than to try to appeal to my sense of self preservation, she skipped me and went straight to frogs. She would latch on to me at bedtime, dramatically, with a frown on her seven year old face and in the most stern voice she could muster, she would shame me for killing frogs. “They’re already EXTINCT in some places!” (Here she would stop to glare at me a little extra.) “They’re dying because of TOBACCO. They’re dying because of YOU.” (This is the part where I google “tobacco is killing frogs” and get three results from shoddy sources and realize that my daughter is a very, very good liar).
Eight days ago, I smoked my last cigarette. It isn’t easy this time. It hurts. I wander around, feeling like there’s something I’m supposed to be doing but coming up empty. I’m crabby, and sad, and my hands feel completely useless; I have absolutely no idea what to do with them. Assuming the average length of each one of my cigarette breaks is seven minutes, then 13 percent of each 18 hour day is devoted to smoking, but I feel idle and confused and frustrated most of the time that I’m awake. Yesterday, I walked in aimless circles until finally giving up and forcing my children to play and craft with me. Cutting paper, gluing things, stringing beads, my kids are so sick of crafts that I think they’re starting to avoid me. Shunned by them by mid-afternoon, I busied myself by making three different loaves of bread. Between mindless snacking and frenzied baking, I ate at least a stick of butter over the course of a single day. But at least, I told myself at the end of the night while undoing the button of my suddenly-tight pants, at least I’m doing this for my health.
Last week, I would have celebrated coming to the end of writing this piece by sitting in my mildewed chair and smoking a cigarette underneath a clear, cold sky. Maybe today I’ll just grab a tub of margarine and go outside to think about frogs.