My first cigarette is in a trailer park. I’m 17 years old, a hostess at Pizzeria Uno in Indianapolis, IN, giving a girl who works in the kitchen a ride home after work. The girl, whose name I’ve forgotten, has a sad face and thanks me for the ride. After she’s left I notice that she her pack of Marlboro Menthol 100’s behind, still sitting in the passenger seat. I do not smoke. But I’m 17 years old and I work in a restaurant and you only get to take a break if you smoke. Five minutes spent in the back, sitting on an empty, upside-down 5 gallon pickle tub, crammed between the dishwasher and the employee restroom, smoking. It doesn’t seem glamorous now, but it was. That’s where you go if you want to get invited to parties, to find out who’s newly single, to make out. This pack of cigarettes is a portal to this sexy dirty pickle tub world of intrigue and I want in.
I open the pack and take out a cigarette. I push in the cigarette lighter on my Ford Taurus’ grey console for the very first time. I wait for it to pop out nervously, hoping I did it right, but then it pops and I press the hot red curly metal end to the clean white paper of the cigarette and hear it sizzle. I roll down my window and start to drive, slowly, carefully inhaling the smoke and then immediately blowing it out. It makes me dizzy. The cloud of minty nicotine doesn’t touch my lungs because I don’t know how to let it. Swirling the smoke through my mouth is enough to make me buzz with an adult cool.
Three years later, in grad school at the University of Chicago, I smoke like this: constantly. Outside of Wieboldt Hall before and after every class. After every meal. Waiting for the bus. In a car. At every restaurant, coffee shop, bar. At home, at night, in my bedroom, while playing minesweeper over and over and over again on my piece of shit PC instead of preparing for class the next day. I love the feel of the smoke leaving my mouth and the way it hangs in the air, like Arabic script. I love how cigarettes always give me something to do. If I ever find a moment where I don’t know what to do I simply smoke. And I don’t know what to do most of the time.
My friends begin ripping cigarettes out of my mouth, “You just had three in a row. You don’t need this one.” But they don’t understand – it has nothing to do with needing a cigarette. Of course I don’t need that fourth cigarette in row. But I want it. I always want it. The cigarette I’m currently smoking, hot and ashy at my fingertips, its gray smoke rolling inside of me, its nicotine flooding my bloodstream – that cigarette is nothing. What I actually want is the cigarette I haven’t had yet, the clean white unsinged cylinder still sitting pristine in the box. The cigarette I’m currently smoking is only a means by which to get to that next, new cigarette. I smoke so I can always be lighting a new one. I only want the new one.
My friends tell me that I have a problem, that I’m compulsive, that I’m ridiculous, that I have to quit. I argue: no. I don’t have to quit because I’m not a smoker. A real smoker would never smoke like this: like they’ve been to war, like the tobacco industry is suddenly going to stop making cigarettes, like time is running out. The level at which I am smoking cannot be sustained and therefore will only go on for a short period of time. And, because it’s for such a short time, I need to continue to do it as hard as I can.
It’s 4 P.M. on a Sunday. I’m 23 years old, sitting on the creaky wooden balcony of my Bucktown apartment, watching rats scamper up and down the alley. I’m smoking. It’s May, chilly warm, and I’m by myself. I mindlessly inhale, exhale, and suddenly I see myself, sitting there, wasting time, money, lungs. I’m not interested in the next drag – it seems like a chore. I’m bored. I’m disgusted with myself.
I stub out the cigarette, take the pack back inside and throw it in the trash. Half an hour later, while watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I mindlessly think, “I want a cigarette.” And I’m immediately up, opening the lid of the trashcan. I stop myself – close my eyes – remember that moment on the balcony. I decide that that moment was truth and this moment is bullshit. I pick up the pack and break each cigarette inside into little pieces.
Two hours later I’m sitting on the couch, drumming my fingers on everything, incredibly anxious. My roommate comes home and I tell him, “I’ve quit smoking. I will never smoke again. If you see me smoke again I want you to promise to punch me in the face.” I tell everyone I know the same thing. I make them all promise to hate me if they ever see me smoke again.
I’m mean while I quit. I snap at people, burst into tears. I can’t go to bars, can’t stand to watch other people drink and smoke because they all seem so happy and I hate them. Stressful moments, when a tenant at the real estate office where I work calls to yell at me because the color of the grout the maintenance men used to re-tile his shower is an ABOMINATION, are suddenly so much worse. I used cigarettes let me know that stressful moment were over. They were a physical punctuation mark, but now there is no cigarette so my body can no longer tell when bad moments have passed. I have to re-learn how to calm myself down. I sit and am enveloped by the shaking, twitching, gnawing unanswered want. I decide that I’ll start smoking again when I’m 80 years old. I just have to hold out until then.
I count the days, weeks, months. I find that smoking has a half-life: the third day is worse than the first, the third week worse than the first, the third month even more worse yet. But the worse days get further and further apart and I finally forget to think about smoking. I can run, at the gym, so fast, breath coursing in and out of my body. I can smell my shampoo, and food, and my laundry detergent. I don’t get a cold every month. I sleep better. I have so much money. I know that smoking cessation statistics are abysmal that the odds of successfully quitting are against me. But years pass without a cigarette and I am swollen with pride – I am a curve breaker. I do what cannot be done.
And then I get engaged. I am elated in this moment, my husband-to-be and I are glowing, and we come across a friend who’s smoking. We bum two cigarettes off of him, in celebration. It’s my first in eight years. It is so delicious – it tastes like bitter crème brulle and my head spins like I’m 17 years old again, driving away from a trailer park. And in the build up to the wedding, in the parties and stress, more cigarettes slip in, until I’m buying a pack and smoking every day. In moments where I am lost in wedding planning, overwhelmed juggling my normal life plus wedding bullshit, I truly believe that all of the stress will be buffed away by rolling a bit of smoke through my lungs. But I find that I’m just as upset after the cigarette as I was before hand, only now I feel a fog of shame along with the slight and always lessening nicotine rush. I don’t know if it doesn’t work anymore, or if it never worked.
So I quit, again. Because I know how my mind operates and that, as long as I indulge it, the craving for a cigarette will never go away. And I don’t want one cigarette – I want 20. And there is nothing cleansing in slow destruction. The only thing that cigarettes truly contain is a memory of how, when I was young, I learned how to express insecurity through carefully practiced self-destruction. But now I am an adult and I may choose to put down my weapons at any time.