Essay: On Smoking.

I started smoking when I was 20.  I read somewhere once that this makes me a statistical anomaly—that people who smoke have almost all started by the age of 18 and if you are past that age and have never smoked; the statistics say you won’t ever smoke.  But not me.  I just had to be different.
I started smoking because I needed a vice and I didn’t favor the loss of inhibition that drinking and drugs promised.  Plus, unlike alcohol, I was of age to buy cigarettes, so smoking it was.  I needed a vice because at the time I felt too goody-goody.  I was in college, that college was a women’s college, I was getting very good grades, I was on the straight and narrow as far as the substances were concerned.  I was even a resident assistant in my dorm, which meant that I “got” to write up people for drinking and other infractions.  I hated feeling like I was all good—and the people I wrote up made comments along those lines—so I started smoking.  Just to show them, and the world, that I wasn’t quite the goody two-shoes they thought I was. 
I bought my first pack (Camel Ultra Lights) during Christmas break my sophomore year and smoked a few cigarettes on my own before heading back to college. In my anal type-A way, I planned to smoke for five years and then quit, figuring I would have gotten what I needed from cigarettes by then, and the health damage wouldn’t be too profound.  I did not at all realize at the time that this is perhaps the greatest of goody two-shoes plans for a vice.  At any rate, it didn’t work.  My twenty-fifth birthday came and I smoked my last cigarette.  But that lasted a few days and I bought myself another lighter and another pack.  I quit several times, but it didn’t take for a long time.  In all, I smoked for seven years, until a combination of worry about those fine lines developing around my lips, a regimen of the Nicoderm patch as well as moving across the country and not setting foot in bars for many years finally did the trick.
When I first started, cigarettes were a treat.  On Friday nights, my friend and I would meet up behind our dorm and have a cigarette to celebrate the end of the week.  Saturday was a work and study day for us, and so we met up Saturday night for a smoke too.  It was our time to rebel, and chat, and only one person ever came across us during our smoking time.  I didn’t need all the people who saw me as a goody two-shoes to know that I smoked, I just needed to know that I smoked. 
I transferred colleges and cigarettes went from a treat to a crutch.  I still kept my intake to more-or-less to once per day, but I started to slip now and then and one turned into two.  Then, the summer after junior year I lived alone and cigarettes broke the monotony of time spent by myself.  That was the summer I learned to roll my own, buying first a packet, then a can of Drum Tobacco.  After a time I switched back to filters, (American Spirits, blue or yellow box depending on how virtuous I was) but I’m still glad I have that rolling-your-own skill to fall back on, although I have no idea when I would use it. Perhaps the Zombie Apocalypse will call upon that particular skill set?
After college was when the smoking really took off, especially after I went to work at Whole Foods.  We got two fifteen minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch and I could fit at least one cigarette in all those breaks.  Plus, I moved into a house where my roommates all smoked and we could smoke inside, though we tended to go through stages of quitting so the numbers varied from five smokers to one stalwart firmly gripping the lighter and ash tray.  I also discovered just how much fun smoking in bars could be.  There were times when I went through three or more packs per week.
There are so many reasons I’m glad I don’t smoke. Health, of course, and money.  Those packs of cigarettes add up after not too much time.  And my clothes don’t smell and I don’t have to find places and times to smoke.  Someone once remarked that their favorite thing about quitting was that they never had to manage their cigarettes anymore.  Gone was the pressure to make sure they had enough to last, gone was the search for matches.  And of course, location is a major factor.  Let’s face it, for 10 months of the year Portland, Oregon is a horrible place to smoke.  There are few indoor places and outdoors is miserably cold and wet.
I haven’t smoked for over eleven years now and I’d love to say that I’m completely free of the addiction, but I’m not.  There are times when I would still love to have a cigarette.  There was something about smoking that was just so damn comforting.  I loved the ritual of it.  The chair, the ashtray, the smell of the struck match.  I loved that initial first inhale, watching the flame catch on the smooth edges of the papers, taking in the smoke.  I loved managing the ash—either letting it grow long, seeing how long I could keep it all together, or tapping the ash off the cherry, rolling the cigarette a bit in the ash tray, keeping everything neat. I loved holding an unlit cigarette in my mouth, I loved blowing the smoke of a lit cigarette in different directions to make a point. I loved lighting two cigarettes at once and passing one over to a guy.  I loved when my friends and I would share one. I loved that sometimes when I didn’t want to figure out what to eat for dinner, I could just smoke for a while and call it good.
But mostly what I loved about smoking was that I could do nothing for a set period of time.  I consumed a lot of cigarettes while chatting with friends, but a good portion of the smoking I did marked the transitions in my day.  I could come home from work, collapse into my chair on the porch, light up and watch the smoke dissipate as I thought about my day.  It was a break.  I didn’t have to start right in on the dishes or figuring out when I would get my laundry done, it was just me and the cigarette and time passing.  Since I quit, I’ve never had those breaks again and I miss them still.  Sure, I could come home and set the timer for 10 minutes and just sit, but it isn’t the same.  My hands aren’t occupied, my mouth isn’t occupied, and the cigarette itself served as a kind of timer.  When I finished one, I had to make the decision, “one more?” or move on with my day.  A timer doesn’t do that. 

I’ll never smoke again.  At least I hope I won’t.  I fear that if I have one, I’ll be back up to a multi-pack week in no time.  But there are still echoes of smoking in my life.  Sometimes I inhale when walking by a smoker.  Sometimes, I toss a pencil in my mouth to hold it while my hands are occupied with some other task, and the sense memory overtakes me.  I still dream of smoking now and then, and when I get very tired and very overwhelmed there that craving is again.  But I just can’t put my toe back in, so those ghost cigarettes are all that’s left.  It’s for the best, really, but a part of me hates it.

2 thoughts on “Essay: On Smoking.”

  1. Thanks for giving me insight into a vice that I was never interested in. (I'm not sure that there are any real vices that I am that interested in…perhaps racing cars, eating crappy food – does that count? I'm truly such a goody-goody that I cannot even help myself). I have always wondered about the why of smoking. It never seemed alluring to me, so I just didn't get it. This really helps me understand…

  2. I still have such a hard time imagining you as a smoker! I didn't know you then. Like Sara, I've never had any interest in smoking, so I found this essay very insightful. It's always been hard for me to imagine why someone would start a habit that they know is harmful, like smoking or drugs.

    As you know, I dated a smoker for 5 years. Although he was never allowed to smoke in the house, I came to loath the habit. I have virtually no tolerance for it any longer. Some of our customers who are smokers bring in their boxes, and it's truly appalling how strongly these boxes reek of smoke.

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