I didn't need another dare, for soon I was sneaking around lifting abandoned shorties from Grandmama's antique ashtray, attempting to match the poise she brought to her smoke rings. First she'd blow a big hoop then send several smaller ones to leap through it.
The wisecracking bluestocking always looked so regal under her halo of smoke, balancing that long brown cig between her dainty fingers, while she captured the room with her wit and wisdom. Little did she know that I had chosen her only weakness to emulate (though I still haven't mastered that damned smoke ring trick).
I became a really good smoker by junior high. Though I was an active, outdoorsy, A-student cheerleader, the memories that play in my head of being 13 involve standing in the woods chain-smoking, jamming out with the cool kids to Guns N' Roses: "Do you know where you are? You're in the jungle, baby, and you're gonna die."
A couple of years later, my family moved to the tobacco capital, Richmond, Va. As we entered the city for the first time, I waved to the giant cigarette-like tower that welcomed us to town, care of Philip Morris. By 16 I was working in a bar after school, accepting cartons of Marlboros as tips from a gentlemanly regular who always sat in my section after his shift at the tobacco plant. I also got complimentary Camels from dolled-up cigarette girls who dropped in to promote their product. They were so glamorous.
A more seasoned cocktail waitress there taught me the ultimate trick: If you smoke a slow-burning 100, you can rest it in the wait station ashtray to go deliver drinks and it'll still be there for you when you get back.
I became a very efficient and thrifty addict.
In college, cigarettes were my constant companions, helping me be creative, think deeper, stay alert (or so I believed). When asked to create a list of my 50 favorite things for a student project, I wrote: "1. Smoking." Everything elsedeep kisses, belly laughs, family, weeping willowsfollowed behind.
Soon I moved to Manhattan and embraced the lonesome cool of sitting in a cafe with long-ashed fag and thought-provoking read. Ah. Other times my bubbly side would take over and I'd be out sharing stories with new friends, waving a bourbon in one hand and a smoke in the other. But in 2003 it all began to change: The restaurant smoking ban took effect. Cut flowers replaced ashtrays on tabletops. I quickly sought out some underground bars where two fingers of water in a coffee mug were offered with a wink. But those illegal makeshift ashtrays stopped appearing over the next year or so as violations were issued in smoking stings by the NYPD. I began to bow out of lively cocktail conversations to brave the rain and suck down my nicotine. I smelled like a damp ashtray. My favorite habit was now officially an antisocial addiction.
One recent sunshiny day, I was strolling down the street, kindly blowing smoke upwardas is the current customwhen an old man with cruel eyes suddenly shoved me. Hard. His face popped back up in mine again and he spit on me several times—yes, spit on me—grunting and screaming, "I'm gonna put that cigarette out!" I shoved him off me, yelling back. He lunged again, cursed me, and ran off while I stood there shaking, desperately seeking solace in another drag. It no longer tasted sweet. That spit in my hair and on my clothes, that feeling of his hateful hands on me—it was the personification of the nasty abuse I'm doing to myself every day.
I must quit.
At 35, I've got too much at stake. My hips are dying (avascular necrosis of the femoral head), my lungs are plagued with chronic bronchitis, and I'm harming my husband and our hopes of a family. There is no joy in any of this anymore, just addiction.
I did quit before, if you count hospitalization (more on that later), but this time I want to do it right. I've never known life as a nonsmoker, so I'm going to need some help here.
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