A summer Saturday afternoon in the 80’s.
But you do it every other day, he won’t know the difference.
“I can’t. He’ll know they’re for me this time.”
“He won’t sell to me anyway, I look ten. He knows you.”
I’m fourteen. I walk downstairs and into the convenient store we live above.
“Winston soft pack please.”
I hand Shocky a dollar, accept my prize, turn and leave. Once outside, I dart up to my apartment emitting a high pitched squeal, as if a ghost is on my tail.
Allison and I race over to Washington school, sure the Winstons hiding in my pocket have some way of announcing their presence to the entire town. Up the wall we scale, onto the roof, tucked in a hidden corner. She lights up first. We’re giggling as if aiming toxins at our lungs is cause for celebration. We’re petrified, thinking as clearly as the tiny stones beneath our feet. I follow. We’re still giggling. We see a cop car, no lights, no hurry, drive down Main street when we peek around the second floor wall. Sure we’re about to be busted, leaving eighteen cigarettes behind, we scramble down the wall and speed back to my place, entering through the front door breathless and excited.
Allison and I like our roof top corner. Every few days we return to smoke a cigarette, just one. Our girlish fear fades. We’re having a now and then adventure, the way we go to the beach a few times a week or slide down my steep front stairs with pillows tied to our seats after school when we can’t think of anything else to do.
Gymnastics season hasn’t started yet at the high school. It’s 4pm, I’m downtown, out front of McDonalds, hanging out with a newly familiar group of kids. One lights up. Then another. I ask for a cigarette, light up too. Just like on the roof, only we’re not hiding. I’m not a child anymore. The wind lifts my hair, brushes past my smile, colors the scene happy. An hour later I want another cigarette. The next day, I walk into the convenient store and buy two packs of Winstons from Shocky.
Late Freshman year, barely after dawn, between getting dressed and gathering books into my backpack, I take a last drag off a Newport then squash it into a large, round silver ashtray sitting on my dresser. I’m ready to walk to school.
Sixteen years old, on my day off from IHOP, I’m in the back room of a downtown cafe, (my haven) behind the dish washing area, next to the bathrooms. I sit alone at a small square table with a half sized spiral, “Johnathon Livingston Seagull,” a latte, an ash tray and a pack of Marlboro 100’s.
I’m twenty three, living in the bedroom of a girl I never met in a town I’ve never been to until now. Her parents are friends of my mom. She asked if I could live with them while I get back on my feet (again). Before I go out looking for a job each January day, I sit on their front steps with a hot cup of strong coffee, my notebook and a pen. After putting out my morning cigarette, I head back in, drop the butt into their kitchen garbage and head out into the still-too-big world.
After living there a week, Elliot asks me to collect my butts outside and dispose of them away from their house. Their kitchen is beginning to smell like an ash tray. I’m amazed. I can’t smell a thing.
I’ve been sweating in a green polyester lace-lined dress all day, serving lunch to those who prefer a presentation for their wine service, fine maroon carpets and stain glass views. I’m Twenty four, in my own apartment and finally experiencing a small bit of stability. I’m sitting on the end of my couch. Next to me is a second-hand end table with a black plastic ashtray holding a burning cigarette, a glass of orange juice, a couple sugar cookies and a six inch table top fan pointed toward the kitchen. I’m reading Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon Days,” laughing at how illogical and fragile people can be.
Walking to a cafe, I light up a Marlboro. I watch smoke trail from the far end. I take a second drag. I throw the rest down on a broken sidewalk square.
I’m driving down the highway. It’s a cold winter day. I light a Newport, crack the driver side window, take a drag, look ahead at endless road. I wonder why, really, do I smoke? I toss the other half of the cigarette out the window.
I repeat the scene over and over for months.
Spring has come, summer is around the corner. I wake before dawn. Strong coffee brews in the next room. I write morning pages at a small round table.
I’ve been doing this for eight weeks. Writing before coffee, cigarette, food or water. I’m listening. Pages written, I move to the sofa, cross my legs and pray. Before I get up to pour a cup of coffee and light a cigarette, I read aloud from an index card words in my own handwriting, “I am a non-smoker.”
Then I pour cream in my coffee, light a Marlboro and start getting ready for work. Before bed I read aloud the same words on my index card.
I do this every day, wondering how I’ll go about quitting.
Two weeks later I’m at a seasonal Baha’i school for my state. Standing outside during break, a friend of my parents, a man I loved playing word games with at Poppin’ Fresh when I was ten, asks me for a quarter so he can call my dad and encourage him to attend. Mike sees the Newports in my hip pack when I fish for change.
“You keep your quarter, I’ll pay you to quit smoking.”
Lightning flashes in my eyes.
“Don’t bring it up again. I have no other vice. I’ll do this on my own time.”
Later the same evening, I’m playing Tubesockey, darting across the gym with a stick made of a wrapping paper tube with a stuffed sock taped to the end. Out of nowhere, a rabbit comes alive in my chest – a kicking rabbit who keeps perfect rhythm fast and hard. I look down and see my rib cage moving, thump, thump, thump. Sounds of joyful screams fade completely as I set down my stick and walk quietly into the warm night.
Thankfully no one follows and I’m alone outside.
My dad told me how deep breathing helps him relax. I take in a deep, slow breath.
Thump, thump, thump my rib cage dances, rocking my body, so forceful is the movement of my… heart?!
“O God, I will never smoke again, if You will just make this stop.”
I’m a walking meditation.
Thump, thump, thump, rapid movement of my chest is still visible through my shirt.
“O God, please! I promise, I will never smoke again if You will make this stop.”
I don’t want to go to the hospital.
I don’t want to die.
I don’t panic.
I breathe in, I breathe out, listening only to my prayers and my heart.
I find a patch of grass, lay down, stretch my body the way I was taught in relaxation class in eighth grade.
My body jerks up and down.
Measured breathing changes nothing.
Breathe in, “O God, Please!!! I swear, I will never have a cigarette ever again.”
Breathe out, “Please! Make it stop!”
I pull my jerking body up to sitting, cross my legs, rest my hands, palm up on my knees.
Deep breath in, slow exhale… nothing changes.
Rocking to a demanding beat, I sing aloud, “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha,”* over and over, just like my dad used to every night of my childhood, just like he did when he saw that truck right before it slammed into the passenger door the night when he walked away unharmed.
Thump, thump, silence.
I’ve kept my word.
I quit three times before that fateful night. Twice (a week each) to recover from bronchitis, another time for nine months. I haven’t had a cigarette for almost fourteen years.
* O Thou the Glory of Glories
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