I Smoke, Therefore I Am

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Posted January 24, 2008 in Feature Story

By the time you read this, I’ll probably be dead.

See, I smoke and, unrelated to that, I think, I’ve been having some problems getting my work published since I started sleeping with my editor. I finally married him, but seriously, it hasn’t really been the kick-start to my writing career that I hoped it might be. He smokes too, though, and while that’s not enough to make up for my stalled writing career, it does give us something to do together after sex.

I started smoking at 14. I would sneak cigarettes from my mother after she went to bed, always sure she’d notice them missing in the morning but wanting to be cool so much that I didn’t care. If she did notice, she never mentioned it, largely—I suspect—because there wasn’t much she could say. Since she was providing the means of my habit, she’d lost the moral high ground. I also think by that point in her life, she’d lost interest in just about anything my siblings or I did. My mother had ceded all metaphorical landscapes—the moral hills, valleys, and glacial plains—long before I started sneaking her cigarettes.

When I started smoking, just before my first period, it never occurred to me that I’d still be smoking some 30 years later. I’ve been smoking longer than I’ve been menstruating, largely due, my doctor gleefully tells me, to the fact that women who smoke also seem to start menopause earlier. Like this is a bad thing. I can tell he wants to blame my late onset of menarche on smoking, too, but he’s leaving that spot of happy news for another day.

He shares the menopause information with the same tone he tells me any news about smoking. I could go to him with raw, shattered bone sticking out of my forearm and he’d tell me in that same happy tone that smokers have far more bones sticking out of their arms than non-smokers. Ever the optimist, unlike my doctor, I see the positive that comes out of smoking: anything that stops my periods is a good thing. Periods were a nasty habit I’d wanted to give up for years.

Smoking was important when I was 14; it was how I knew I was cool. Now, at 46, it’s how I know I’m an addict. About once every two hours, the little addict clock goes off in my head and reminds me that, rain or snow, heat or hail, it’s time for a smoke. And, just like that cool teenager my mother ignored, I’m still sneaking around, looking for a place to smoke. But it’s harder now—now I have to track the whims of every city council in the state. I need a directory showing where I can smoke. Can I smoke in a park in this city? Can I smoke on the sidewalk? How about alone in my car? Top down or top up? Finding a place to smoke is a full time job and one that I resent.

Oh, sure, I could quit smoking. Again. And I probably will. Again. As part of his carpet bomb anti-smoking campaign, my doctor also mentioned that quitting for even a month is better than smoking. I think he means to be encouraging, but it really sounds like permission to stop and then start again. Addicts are always looking for the edges, the boundaries where they can prop up the reality distortion field. How else do you keep doing something that leads to lung cancer and the many other bad things helpfully listed on each cigarette pack?

Besides, it’s the only bad habit I’ve got left. I’ve quit drinking, drugs, deep-fried foods, sleeping around, and monthly bleeding. It’s all I’ve got that ties me to that cool rebel I once was. How will I know who I am if I don’t do at least one bad thing? I don’t want to be a self-righteous former smoker. I want to be a self-righteous current smoker, lurking by the ashtray in the cold rain, calculating the biological value for X: a sufficient level of nicotine against a plunging core body temperature. Doing the math is how I know who I am.

But I can’t quit unless my husband also quits because one of us smoking and one of us not means both of us smoke. He wants to quit, but then, his writing career is going better than mine. He feels less pressure—he’s selling. And if we both stop smoking, what will we have in common? What if this is why the marriage works—because we keep each other company by the ashtray?

Smoking may be the glue that keeps my marriage together.


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