Cover Photo: aimhelix Creative Commons
aimhelix Creative Commons

Remembrance of a smoking life past

A relinquished romance

here was something so romantic about smoking even though it was a co-dependent relationship. It was there with me as often as I wanted. It was especially there for me when I was having deep thoughts. Deep thoughts inhaled and exhaled. My thoughts became visible billowy clouds that I could watch vanish into thin air. Everything seemed more meaningful punctuated with a cigarette. A book, a song, afterglow. My cigarettes were there when I cried. There when I needed the fuel to get out of bed to get coffee. There when I felt alone in the middle of the night.

In college I loved to write with a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes by my side. Those two things and my typewriter made me feel that I was a real writer. A female Hemingway. There was a time when I thought I needed to drink to write, to loosen up and get in the flow. It wasn’t just my Irish side that put the bottle on my desk, it was also my love of Kerouac, who, on alcohol and whatever else and maybe sometimes sober, or soberish, was unique. His writing was always so damn jazzy flowingly beautiful like Coltrane or Miles off on a tangent with sentences that stretched on for miles without care or worry like children playing in the exploding sprays of water just set free from a fire hydrant on the hottest August afternoon with ice cream trucks singing nearby — subway cars on the elevated clanging and rattling — the kids were oblivious to the bums under the “El” drinking Wild Turkey out of paper bags watching everyone from the shadows seeing the lives they used to have before they became desolate angels.

So, these accomplices of mine, especially my devoted cigarettes, made me feel like maybe I had something worth writing. It would never be anything like Kerouac, no one could do what he did, that was his own beat-generation language. But I had my happy delusions at nineteen years old that I could do something, write something. Too young to be drinking legally or heavily. I was really a light weight. A light drinker. I hadn’t lived enough life to write about. I was never on the road. I was really just trying to find myself and learn a thing or two in college.

Back then, I was old enough to buy cigarettes, no one ever refused to sell me those no matter my age, and I was rarely carded for alcohol. Oh, but I smile now, remembering the last time I was carded. I was forty-five, glowing from a weekend of new love. It was a dark bar and the waitress needed glasses I think, but still, a sweet digressing memory. Of course cigarettes and alcohol did not improve my writing or help me get into the flow. The real accomplices I needed were what we all need — reading and writing, living, and always more and more of each.

he old black and white movies made smoking look so cool. Everyone looked so smooth. Every woman looked more beautiful placing a cigarette on her lips. Her hand would look so exquisite holding one, and then the way she would move her arm to bring it to her mouth, it was as if she was engaged in a dance movement. There was the magical way she would look up at a man lighting it for her. Her face would glow as the flame was presented to her. Pulling back from him, once it was lit, she’d hold that cigarette and him at a distance, so femme fatale.

Being a desirable woman seemed connected to smoking in those old movies I loved so fervently. A woman with a cigarette in her hand was all sex and depth like Lauren Bacall. She was one of the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She’d take your breath away and she always played strong smart women. How could you not love her?

Laren Bacall To Have and Have Not

Everyone smoked. But few did it as well as she did. I wanted to be like her and all of the other beautiful actresses in those old black and white smoke-filled movies that were decades old when I watched them.

hen I was little, I never imagined I would smoke. It started the year I lived in Queens with my father and I did the 8th Grade in Catholic school. I needed to smoke to prove I was tough. I needed to smoke to ward off the vicious girls who might have otherwise beaten me up more than just the once.

When I returned to my suburban high school the next year, cigarettes proved I was cool again. They were my gateway. They led the way to my experiments with experimenting. Smoking then opened doors for me that I might have been better off had they stayed closed. High school could have led me down a very different path than it did if I hadn’t discovered literature and poets that I loved. I wonder who I would be today if I had never discovered “One Hundred Years of Solitude” freshman year.

Cigarettes got me through college and student poverty. Which, although it wasn’t anything at all like real poverty, felt real enough to me hundreds of miles from family. I learned I didn’t need to eat if I had a cigarette, which was good because a lot of times I didn’t. I couldn’t work and study. There were always choices to be made at mid-terms and finals. Work and eat or take time off and study hungry and get good grades. But there were two things I always had money for in college — cigarettes and books. Freshman year with my foreign student friends, I’d smoke exotic foreign cigarettes. Later, less subsidized by my also struggling parents and no longer on the meal plan, I bought whatever was cheapest.

I remained in Boston after graduating from my university. I never wanted to return to the sprawl of suburbia. After all, Thomas Wolfe said you couldn’t go back. Much to my horror, a few years after graduation, smoke-free workplaces were mandated. My addiction had to be kicked. I couldn’t take a smoke break once or twice an hour and I couldn’t work without one. So hard to believe now. I used to smoke at the office like a smokestack. Non-smokers were just whiny “complainers” until they got loud and won the war.

quit smoking at the time the Berlin Wall came down. German freedom and my freedom from addiction happened with wrecking balls. I quit smoking when I lost my job. Recessions are brutal. They shatter your illusions. The paycheck I thought was guaranteed was suddenly taken away. The value of all the possessions I managed to collect and all the memories they contained were so worthless on resale. I would have to return home.

I couldn’t begin collecting unemployment for two weeks after I got laid off. The recession knocked me back onto the grad. school path. That had always been the plan. I had spent a few years looking for alternatives that never materialized. I was young and I didn’t know what it meant to take on substantial debt. Graduate school was what you did when you were young in a recession, if you could. Anyway, the exam prep course wouldn’t begin for two weeks so I lay in bed watching TV and detoxing. I was so hardcore. I used to smoke half a pack just in the morning, before leaving my apartment. I smoked close to two packs a day, at twenty five. But I kicked it. Cold turkey. That’s the only way to do it. The hardest part was how long it took me to learn what to do with my hands. It took my hands longer to figure out what to do with themselves than handle my body’s withdrawal. I felt naked without the shield of a cigarette.

It seems like a lifetime ago now. Because it is. I feel happily healthy and old thinking back to that time in my life. I’m glad I lived those years even with my deadly friend. Life is an achievement. Not my life, not in any big way, but I am still very glad to be alive. I don’t take it for granted that staying alive and being alive is an accomplishment, it is. Quitting my addiction, for me, was one of the hardest things I ever did. I only now miss my smoking life having written about a time when I was so different than I am now but also, so much the same. It’s only memories and body aches that remind me that I’m no longer twenty-five.