Smoking Smoking (I)

(The first in a series)

I used to smoke. I quit about a year ago, fairly recently, at least when measured against the decade and a half I spent with a cigarette either in my mouth or less than ten feet from it, so you can feel free to doubt anything I say, any observation I make from this vantage point; I may be a former smoker but am I “former” enough? Does what I say matter? Have I really quit or is this just a valiant but doomed interruption, a longer than average gap between puffs? I am confident I’m done, but other, far smarter, folks have quit for longer periods, sticking it out only to get stuck back in. Standing as I do on sorta shaky ground – the only place I can be until I balance those scales with a corresponding decade and a half of not smoking – I beg your indulgence.

But nonetheless I was a smoker and I’m not anymore. Common sense (if not state law) says the best time to smoke might be between the ages of fifteen and about twenty-five, when being reckless can be read as a responsibility – a nice way of testing the boundaries of your recently solidified self – and when youth is there to be spent, not preserved; I filled out most of that unlicensed window of license and well beyond it, of course (about eight years). What I’m certain I’ve gained with this sudden distance between myself and my vice (not even the contact of the pack on my person, probably good still for an endorphin rush) – beyond the certainty that my clothes don’t stink (“Is that me?”) and a possibly longer lifespan – is perspective enough to consider the decade and a half of quiet daily devotion to emitting smoke a little strange. I don’t call it strange out of disapproval, or just out of disapproval, but because willingly holding a burning stick of leaves wrapped in paper in your hand can seem odd, and that’s when you’re not placing that burning stick of leaves in your mouth, the sustained flame perched at most about two inches from your vulnerable lips which speedily becomes one and then less than one, while you grasp the smoke it emits with your breath and cajole it inside of yourself, as deep in your interior as it will go, every available nook it can reach before looping back around to exit from your mouth or nose, which might seem even more odd.

And never mind doing that at almost automated intervals. I’d begin most mornings feeling like a nicotine addict more in theory than fact, carrying the pack and lighter with me out into the world, but not quite the urge. With no need pressing, four, five, sometimes six hours could pass before the first cigarette of the day, which I didn’t so much anticipate as it lay in wait for me, less a craving than an expected indulgence – like a donut. That pleasure soon became complicated – the synapse pattern of my habit would light up from then on like neon in my brain, with the next cigarette coming an hour, an hour and a half afterward, and so on, snowballing until I’d find myself around eleven o’clock that night feeling mildly befouled (but maybe smelling far worse – you’re never too sure unless someone tells you), wondering if there’s a miasma, an anti-aura, surrounding me, the kind of thing known innately by babies and pets and suspected by the everyone else, feeling guilty of a little excess, the roughly ten cigarettes I’d tried (and probably failed) to space out in the hours since, and realizing that one more would do little to add to whatever conscious burden I’d earned that day…so why not?

Barring illness, this, in broad strokes, was what every day from my late teens to my early thirties looked like; as regular as three expected meals a day but a little more submerged in instinct. I averaged between eight and eleven cigarettes daily, with fourteen or fifteen for maybe a year at the height (or nadir) of my habit (and apparent financial confidence). There were exceptions – periods of economic famine when I would drop overnight to three, sometimes two, a day for about a week and, once, a whole semester – but otherwise change was stable, easily seen over macroscopic months and years, but difficult to discern daily; habits make each day its own dramatic arc, a mostly discreet unit.

All those disruptions were entirely practical – I never attempted to quit cigarettes and, in fact, never really considered the idea.* Smoking was a closed system – you smoked less or you smoked more but you always smoked; as with most addictions, you think easier in the moment than the long term. I’d keep a constant tabs on the week ahead, mentally marking off whatever days I figured on buying cigarettes based upon my supply of the moment, but rarely much further. If I furrowed my brow really hard, I could sometimes see myself, whenever I cooled into a real adult with a real regular paycheck, going full bore and becoming a pack-a-day person (maybe even two packs), or my idea of one, like Haruki Murakami (three packs per day at his peak before quitting cold turkey) or a prototypical Humphrey Bogart (d. by esophageal cancer), evidently trading healthy lungs for cool-as-fuck laconic world weariness in a Faustian pact (best case scenario, that; almost everyone I encountered who genuinely smoked that much wore it like a curse).* Conversely, when I was twenty-one, twenty-two, and my habit would come up, I’d say I intended to stop when I turned twenty-four – an age I chose only because it flew off the tongue easily, one of those signpost ages in adulthood: no turning back! And maybe I would quit then?

As a principle, I didn’t so much ignore consequences as assume they didn’t exist (young, very). The goal buried somewhere in my brain was to never flag or waver but reach some presumable balance, a state of low key contentment wherein I’d smoke freely but not to excess, lose track of myself as the natural course of things but never veer too far out into no man’s land. Bluntly, I’d exercise my freedom to smoke continually and simply sail my way through all hazards, silly and illogically.

That was the idea, anyway.

*I was most impressionable in the eighties – the twilight of cigarettes roaming the earth with impunity, when a pack-a-day habit could be mentioned casually in television/movies and more likely bemoaned (if it was) as filthy than a death sentence; for all I knew later as a smoker, a new dawn was on the way, made bright by a smiling, welcoming, and ever-ascendant mascot sun who’d take care to extend a ray for the sake of lighting my cigarette.

(More, more, more…rambling about the pleasures and hazards of cigarettes, dammit! Probably later in the week. Or early next! I deleted a bit about “siren’s song”!)

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