Your Body

…I Can’t Believe I Used to be a Smoker.

By February 23, 2016 0
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I hated smoking my entire life. A whole half of my family smoked, and every holiday, I’d go home coughing and with a sore throat like you wouldn’t believe. I used to give them the kind of grief only a whiney, self-righteous seven-year-old could: “My teacher says smoking kills your lungs.” 

When all my friends smoked in high school, I gave them shit the entire time. I barked at them when they stopped at a gas station to buy a pack (“You’re not even 18! That’s illegal!”), I fumed at them when they tried to light one in the car (“If my dad smells that, you’re dead!”), and I snapped whenever they asked if I had a lighter (No, I was not a particularly popular girl, thanks for asking). But I didn’t care. Smoking was wrong, and it was disgusting, and it was a horrible habit, and I couldn’t stand to be around it.

Fast forward 3 years:

To be honest, I don’t even remember my first cigarette. I remember making the conscious decision to buy my very first pack – menthols, no less – and the people I was with at the time (also smokers), and I know I tried to coax my friend outside to come have one with me, all smiles and college-Friday-night happies, and she just looked at me and said…

“Oh, gosh, Jess, I hang out with these guys all the time, but I don’t smoke. I’ll come sit with you while you have one, though.”

I remember feeling a tiny bubble burst in my chest, but taking her up on the offer. It was our freshman year of college, after all – what was cooler than sitting outside in the quad on a Friday night smoking a menthol cigarette?

By yourself.

With your poor friend standing next to you, turning her face to the wind so she doesn’t have to breathe it all in.

And you, somehow, totally oblivious of her, and of the person you used to be, and the steadfast battle you’ve been fighting against smokers throughout your entire existence.

What’s that word? Hypocrite? Yeah, embodiment. Right here. Living and breathing.

I wasn’t a super consistent smoker for a long time, I don’t think. I remember them being expensive and enjoying bumming cigarettes at parties more than actually spending my own money on them, at first. At some point, I switched to, solely, American Spirits. Now I was, like, really cool. The cigarettes I was smoking were real cigarettes, real tobacco, none of that additive crap that those other brands had. They were also super heavy, so quite often, I’d smoke half and leave the rest for later. I was an English major, so pretty much everyone in my classes had a similar habit (didja catch that stereotype there? Good. Because it’s true). Our Native American Lit teacher used to take Spirit breaks with us. And I’d always get an eye from someone, “Whoa, Spirits, huh? Those are heavy,” and we’d start a conversation, and there we go – I made a new friend. Over smoking.

But in college, that worked. That was easy. It didn’t matter what I looked like or what people thought, because everyone here is going through, on some level, the exact same shit as me. Some of us smoke. Some of don’t. College made it easy. It was going home for the summer that was tricky.

When I was home, my dad took my car to get my oil changed. I was consistently well-stocked with Bath and Body Works spray, lotion, and the works, so no one adult in my life ever suspected I was a smoker. But I get into my car after my father so kindly got it serviced for me, and there’s my bright yellow pack of Spirits sitting right on my dash, completely untouched, expect for a big Sharpie-drawn circle with a line crossed through it over the American Spirits emblem.

The same bubble burst in my chest. My dad was the exact last person I would ever want thinking poorly of me, and here I was, caught red-handed with a pack of cigarettes.

So what? My heart rang. I took solace in the fact that he did not steal or hide my cigarettes away from me. He left me a message, and trusted me with it. So I ran with it, for the better part of the next two years, but I had to wear my identity on my sleeve now.

Later, my parents’ best friends took me on vacation with them. I was a giant ball of teenaged angst, and what’s worse, I’d brought a pack with me. Everywhere I tried to steal away to smoke, someone was there. I was constantly hiding around a corner, nubbing out the fiery stick, ducking under a palm tree. It was hell. I couldn’t let anyone see what I was up to.

Finally, they caught me in the act, and I was shamed immediately. The message was clear; I had to tell my dad myself, or they would do it for me. So I had to call him all the way from a lovely villa in the Dominican Republic to tell him what a moron I was. I spent the rest of the vacation smoking with the older college grads on the trip and wallowing in my own teeny-bopper sorrow. “Life is just so un-FAIR!”

In reality, I’m not sure which happened first – the Sharpie incident or the vacation – but I’m not sure it matters. They were hard, sinking stones in the belly of the beast I could never admit I had: an addiction.

The night I first kissed my now-fiance, we were out with our mutual friends. He followed us around our college campus for goodness knows how long, and I was wondering what he was up to. When my roommate went back up to our dorm, I stayed outside to have a cigarette, and he stayed, too. I offered him one and he accepted. I hardly noticed it at the time, but he didn’t smoke it. He didn’t smoke. He just wanted to have an excuse to stay outside and chat.

… Awww, how cute?

In retrospect, I realize how horrible it is that he felt that was how to hang out with me. He says later that he didn’t want to make me feel bad by just sitting with me, and also didn’t want to seem like a creeper by just sitting with me, but he hates cigarettes, with a fiery passion. He never smoked it.

So I probably quit because of him. Right?

Wrong.

I smoked for the following few years. He lived about an hour away from my hometown, so when we weren’t in school and I would drive to visit him, it was like an hour of heaven. It was summer, the sun was out, windows down, cigarette lit, favorite music blaring. I still to this day can think of few things I enjoyed more than the comfort of driving my reliable little Malibu, blowing smoke into the wind as I whizzed in and out of Connecticut and New York State on my way to see my favorite person.

And then I’d get off the highway, the second cigarette would hopefully be gone by then, and I’d whip out the toothbrush. I always wondered what people thought as they drove past that girl furiously scrubbing her chompers on her way into town. I’d swish and rinse, and give a final spritz of spray and dab of the most pungent lotion I could find, and I’d be good to go. He hardly ever said a thing. I mean, he knew it was a habit, so I’m sure he knew I did it, but he only ever made a big deal if I somehow came in reeking (like, say, if it was raining and I couldn’t have the window all the way down). And I’d put my tail between my legs and sulk, a little, but still do the same the very next time.

I used to smoke between babysitting jobs.

That one I never understood. No matter the precautions I took, they had to know I had smoked recently. But I don’t know that I could ever leave my own kids with a young girl who smelled like that, so maybe I really did cover it up. Every time one of the kids would come to hug me, I’d tense up and worry that they’d smell something funny and speak up. But they never, ever did. Not once. 

Finally, I graduated college and was ready for the real world. I was accepted into graduate school and would be interning in an elementary school for a year. I was done with my hippie English major courses and the cool hippie English major people I met there. I was done with courtyards and quads and afternoon naps and wearing flip-flops in the shower. It was time to be an adult, and so, my brain flipped a switch off, as suddenly as it had turned it on.

I quit using Blow Pops.

Yep, Blow Pops. I bought a big bag and I put it in my car. By this time, most of my habit was done while driving, so I rationalized that if I just had something else to enjoy while I was driving with the windows down and the lovely summer sun streaming in, maybe, just maybe, I could kick it for good.

It worked, because here I am, writing this article. I should have bought stock in Blow Pops before I came up with my plan. A Sour Green Apple could keep me happy for a solid few miles. When that was done, and the gum was hard, it was time for a Cherry. God forbid I pull out a Grape. I was thrilled I had found something that worked for me when I really needed it to.

But, the dirty, tricky secret behind me quitting, was… I couldn’t quit unless I knew I had a pack somewhere.

My fiancé wanted me to just throw out the pack I had. I couldn’t. I had to have a pack sitting somewhere, hidden but not really, like a security blanket.  After resolving to quit, I actually finished the last pack I had, and then went and bought a new one and didn’t even open it. I just stashed it away for safe keeping, so that only I knew where it was, and I never looked back.

I never wanted to touch that secret pack until one night about a year and a half after I was consuming 3-5 Blow Pops every time I got in the car. I hadn’t had a cigarette or even thought about one for ages. But, I’d had a few glasses of wine, and it was a warm Friday night, and I suddenly wanted one so badly. I leapt off the couch, I think giggling some gibberish about “finding a cigarette and not caring what you say!” but my fiancé insists I didn’t say a thing, he didn’t know what I was doing (See, drunk, yes?). I went down to the basement and found the pocket within the bag within the box within the box in which I had hidden my safety stash of American Spirits. And –

It was empty.

My heart half-broke. I kept tearing the bag and the boxes apart but came up with nothing. I couldn’t find a thing. I remember the drunken swirl of it all and the weird anger I felt. I couldn’t even blame my fiancé or anyone else for the pack not being there – literally, no one knew it was there except me.

Luckily, I did the smart thing, and I crawled up to bed and passed out, and never thought about the incident again. About a year later, when we were moving out of that apartment, I found the bag within the box within the box –

And the pack was right there.

It was exactly where I had stored it, years and years before.

And I took a moment to thank God that in my ridiculously drunken stupor, I was so poorly coordinated and thinking so irrationally that I couldn’t even find the damn pack that was right under my nose, let alone the fact that I decided breaking into it would be a good idea in the first place. I was so, so glad I’d never found it when I wanted it. I don’t know what that would have meant. I don’t know if I could have rebounded, sensibly, from a moment of such silly weakness.

I look back and I can’t believe I used to be a smoker. I can’t believe how much I conned, and hid, and shied away from people for so long. I loved the drag and the burn and the mini high. I loved the instant friendship you found around the quad when someone needed to borrow your lighter. I loved the youth and the freedom of it.

I do not love the black that has probably steadily spread over my lungs; I do not love hoping to start a family and wondering just how much I’ll regret smoking one day; I do not love the smell and the sight of it now; I do not love the person cigarettes made me become, a person I knew extremely well, intimately well, yet also not at all.

It was a stage, it was a time, and all I have to say is:

Thank God for Blow Pops.

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