I fell in love with him in Austin.
The main street, Guadalupe, slices the city in two — houses on one side, vegan restaurants and bars and toyshops with finger-sized, plastic dinosaurs on the other. Austin natives call it the Loop; it is loud and shiny and vibrant and gaudy and dazzling in a way few streets in few other cities are. Austin sleeps, but the Loop does not.
Some blocks away from the main street, into the more residential neighborhood a stone’s throw away from UT, on the corner of 33 and a half and Lipscomb, he handed me my first cigarette. We reclined in wicker rockers on his front porch — just the two of us during a brief reprieve from our friends and his parents.
“American Spirits,” he said, explaining that the paper was organic and therefore healthier for me.
My grandmother had warned me not to smoke when I last visited her in China, at the end of the preceding summer. It was one of only a handful of things she said to me I could understand with my pithy grasp of Mandarin.
She said that she’d picked up the habit in her early 20s — barely older than me, when she miscarried the child before my mother. She needed cigarettes so that she could breathe again through an otherwise consuming sadness — the kind of sadness that sets your chest on fire if you don’t tend to it.
But, I had just turned 18 and discovered Bukowski. And he was almost 22 and could recite lines from “Bluebird” to me, and I thought that was what writers did — drink whiskey until our throats burned, smoke cigarettes until our lungs burned, and tumble into one another without thinking twice. I was a girl, charged on naiveté, and he had some intoxicatingly magnetic quality that drew me closer than I’d expected.
“You are a fucking child,” he would sometimes say to me out of frustration, before we’d made the trek down to Austin and while we stayed there.
I wanted to show that I could be every bit as adult as he seemed. Smoking mattered less than proving that I could be worthy of his affection, which he doled out in quantities that unfailingly made me wonder what I could do more. So, I bit the cigarette, my first cigarette, between my front teeth and tried as hard as I could not to cough as he lit it up.
Nothing awakes each of the senses as much as self-destruction can.
Between the two of us, we smoked an entire pack as the afternoon darkened to evening and the next morning, I woke up next to him, my face pressed against the ashy-sweet, warm space between his elbow and chest.
We had taken a road trip that spanned 17 hours each way, down to Austin, because Spring Break coincided with SXSW. He’d convinced me to go, along with a motley ensemble of his friends — none of whom I knew very well and all of whom intimidated me. I felt self-consciously young around each of them whose worldviews stretched past the length of Frat Row, and it was easy to think that their — really, his — cynicism and world-weariness suggested a sense of maturity that I just didn’t have.
On the last day we spent in Austin, we stumbled upon a free, outdoor Shins concert at the amphitheater next to the river that traverses the city. The band had just gotten back together to release a new record, and this show was the first of their upcoming tour.
The first few strains of music commenced, hanging in the air with the ripe smell of beer and slick bodies, and he stood behind me, wrapping his fingers around the belt loops in my shorts.
“I haven’t felt this happy in such a long time,” I murmured. When he asked me to repeat what I’d said because he couldn’t hear under the electric thuds of drum and guitar and melody, I shook my head and reached for his front pocket — where he kept a pack of cigarettes.
This was what love feels like, I thought with my eyes closed so that each sensation — each thick pump of bass, each heavy inhale, each accidental brush of his fingers against my thigh — felt heightened. Love was feeling this free, this blissful, and this alive. Love was at once knowing that your entire world could come crashing down about your feet at any moment, but that someone else was holding it up above your head.
Love was feeling your lungs scorch in Austin’s cloying spring air, so heavy with humid and smoke that breathing became nearly impossible.
The next morning, we left Austin early so we could make it back to school at a reasonable hour. As our car lurched down the Loop and I struggled to stay awake, I wondered how long this high that this city had sweat into my body — half nicotine buzz, half something else that I couldn’t quite pinpoint — would last.
Even today, I can’t bring myself to listen to much of Port of Morrow, that Shins album. But, I’ve quit smoking cigarettes.