More accurately, I suppose, it had happened a few days earlier. I arrived home to a message from my friend, Justin. He spoke quickly, saying to call him, but it wasn't much stranger than the typical awkward messages he left on my answering machine. I called him back. I never quite understood why people say “You should sit down for this” when they have big news, but when Justin told me that our close friend Jorge was dead, I sat down.
Jorge was fun and loyal, the type to give you the shirt off his back, and on at least one occasion he actually did. We were both underdressed for a surprisingly cold morning and he handed me his Old Navy button-down, which wouldn't have done either of us any good against the breeze, but the gesture always stayed with me—my definitive Jorge moment. During the summer between 9th and 10th grades, he went to stay with family in Utah and drowned while swimming in a lake, some combination of his being a poor swimmer and catching a cramp. The exact circumstances didn't actually matter to me because they were an answer to the wrong question. The question wasn't “Why didn’t he wear a life vest?” or “Why wasn't anyone able to get to him?” It was an infinitely broad and dizzyingly cosmic “Why?”
After Justin's call, not knowing what else to do, I called Jorge's house. His sister Vivian answered. I choked out some tearful version of “Is it true?” She howled yes and we sobbed in each other's ears for a few minutes. But I had never been so shaken as at the funeral, when I caught that first glimpse of him in the casket. The world melted away and I can't tell you where anyone was or even the color of the coffin, but the warm-hued image of my friend seared itself deeply, viciously, into my mind. He looked mature and calm, and somehow unfamiliar. He was buried in his Yankees jersey. Whatever I felt burning in my chest at that moment, it was dwarfed entirely by the plaintive wailing of Jorge's mother. I felt terribly small in that room. And if smoking that cigarette wasn't right, then it was something—a single modicum of control, a fleeting break from helplessness. Even if it was destructive.
Jorge’s death is not the reason I became a smoker—it was merely the unfortunate happenstance that set off my smoking habit. If it were as simple as just needing the relief at the funeral, I wouldn't have kept smoking, but I did.
In fact, I soon grew to love smoking. It became a wonderful crutch to me over the years. I loved the sound of a Zippo lighter snapping open. I loved having an excuse to strike up a conversation with people outside bars, or to break the monotony of a long work day with a few trips outside. I especially loved nights sitting on my stoop with my cousin, smoking and talking until the paper got delivered, just as day broke.
I liked to use stress as an excuse for smoking because people barely argued with it, but the truth is that I rarely felt stressed. I had a habit, no doubt, but it was a behavioral craving, not a physical one. There were times to have a cigarette: before school, at the bus stop, after a big meal, before bed. And I liked the action of it. There was a sense of ritual: Slide a cigarette from the pack, tap it a few times against the lighter, the flame, the sizzle. Inhale, exhale. Repeat.