My Year of Smoking

Illustration by Mary Anne Carter.

My year of smoking ended at my thirtieth birthday party, where my girlfriend and I split a last pink Fantasia and threw its golden 22 shell-remains into the street. The first cigarette I ever smoked was a blue Fantasia, when I was 20. My friend picked it to match my shirt. He put it in my mouth, lit it, and instructed me to get in the Radio Flyer wagon he had spent the afternoon racing down steep hills. I was reluctant to smoke, having seen as many pictures of lungs like Zip-Lock bags of moldy steaks as anyone, or to careen down a rocky trail and have to explain to an EMT how I was impaled on a wagon. “Today you’re going to become a man!” he said as I rolled down the hill, trailing smoke. He specifically told me not to inhale, a warning I now think was meant for my protection. The cigarette did nothing for me, but the ride left me shaking from adrenaline, and I was back on the wagon immediately. I swear this paragraph wasn’t just an excuse to make that pun.

I know starting at 29 sounds idiotic, but I just didn’t think cigarettes did anything until someone pointed out that I wasn’t inhaling. When I was done feeling stupid about that, the rush overwhelmed me—I was dizzy and euphoric. I’ve smoked one or two cigarettes a day for the past year now.

I’ll miss the euphoria. I’ll also miss the meditative quality of the ritual. I’ve never been comfortable just sitting and thinking, but somehow when I had a cigarette in my hand I could savor doing absolutely nothing. It was the best when I got stuck on something I was writing—often a walk around the block and a smoke was just what I needed to get my thoughts moving. My favorite thing was to go out late at night, before bed, and sit in the park, listening to the wind in the trees and watching the moon and the contribution of my breath to the air.

What I’ll really miss though, is bumming cigarettes. I enjoy the process of assessing who on the street is the best to ask, and have honed this skill to a point that I’m 80 percent accurate. I offer a dollar or fifty cents, but most of the time people just give them to me, which is great when I’m feeling less than optimistic about people. I met a guy named Shelby who had been alternately deep-sea fishing and hitchhiking since the 60’s, and complimented my jacket, asking “If I was part of a group he could join.” A woman called me “honey” when I offered her a buck (which she refused) and handed me a whole bundle of crooked Newports.

Once around 2AM I was smoking with the guys who hang out in the park outside my apartment, we heard yelling by the bar on the corner. I thought some stupid kid had hit his girlfriend, but when I ran over to determine whether I should call someone, it was obvious he had been slugged in the stomach by a woman old enough to be his grandma (who he appeared not to know at all.) He was doubled over. “You hit me,” he gasped, hardly audible through her curses, “I’m calling the police!” I turned to my companions. “We’ll all kill each other,” said a tall man with a white cotton candy floof of hair. His eyes were like delicate swirls on the surface of water you can’t see the bottom of. The rest of them laughed.

The latter of these experiences sums up my relationship with smoking. My urge to smoke is for rest, company, a shared experience, a moment of peace. But after the ten minutes in which I enjoyed these things, there was a wave of anxiety and physical illness. The only thing that sounded good was another cigarette. Sometimes I just kept going, and woke up with my mouth full of thick, bitter saliva and a sensation like the onset of a cold. It isn’t worth it, though in a way I’ll never return to the places I smoked, and for now I mourn them.