I smoked my first cigarette at age 10, in the raspberry bushes across the street with my friend W., who had stolen his father’s pack. We hid the rest under a bush for later, but that night in a fit of penitence I came back and snapped them all in half, then mixed them with sand for good measure. When we met up to smoke some more, I pretended to be as surprised as anybody.
I didn’t smoke again (except cigars, which don’t count) until I was about seventeen. I had been just sort of wanting a cigarette for a while, no particular reason, just wanting to check it out; when lo and behold, I stumbled across an unopened pack in a parking lot, cellophane still on it: Marlboro Ultra-Lights, I’m pretty sure.
These days I’d have to smoke three of those to feel anything (ultra-lights, pshaw!) but back then a few puffs would send me pleasantly reeling; so that summer I’d go for a walk each night, taking the pack (which fairly tingled with verbotenheit) with me. Eventually my mother found the matches in my jacket pocket, made a guess (I probably stank) and confronted me.
So I agreed not to smoke, except I smoked anyway, because here was a positive pleasure in what was already a fairly lonely life. It didn’t really pick up until my 18th birthday, when I quit my heinous summer job as a Kirby salesman and bought the first pack that I didn’t have to beg anybody for. I finally asked my mother to remove her injunction against tobacco, since it wasn’t doing anything but make me feel bad, and she relented.
Smoking became a part of life. After meals, after Mass, after class; and then also before meals, before Mass, before class; after a movie, before a movie. After and before anything at all. Something to look forward to in the morning, something to close out the evening. By senior year I was well past a pack a day.
I marked time with cigarettes, the way we mark time with sleeping. If our bodies didn’t need sleep, we’d still want it, to prevent life from becoming one long blur: we need lines, demarcations. Life without smoking, like life without sleep, was a kind of nightmare.
Most people had only two forms of bodily consumption to enjoy, eating and drinking: I had three, and wasn’t eager to part with any of them.
Some time after college came my first serious efforts at quitting. The most success I had was the three months when I stayed with the order in Peru, when I didn’t smoke a single cigarette…okay, a single one. I managed to separate myself from the group during a trip to the market, bought a half pack, finished my chores early, and smoked behind the chapel like a fifth-grader. Then I had to confess it.
When my stay was done, Padre F. dropped me off at the airport; as his pickup pulled away, I walked to the newsstand — trailing clouds of glory from my three months of prayer, service, poverty, and soul-searching — and bought a pack of Camels.
Last Saturday I sparred after Kung Fu class for the first time in months. I didn’t do badly, and learned a few new tricks, but had to bow out early because I was puffing and blowing too hard to continue. The rest of the class, from fifteen years younger than me to fifteen years older, continued on. I was still riding the rush of a few good matches, but losing my breath — when the rest of my body is healthier than it’s ever been — made me feel frail and a little sad.
As I write this, it’s been 43.5 hours since my last cigarette. The last couple days haven’t been that bad. I am twitchy and achy and feverish and disconnected, but it’s not that bad. My little brother described it pretty well in a sympathetic text message: “For me [quitting] always felt like all the interstitual fluid in my body was becoming mildly acidic.”
And it leaves you wanting…something, something like smoking, something slightly forbidden and mildly painful that makes you feel an immediate difference. Like sticking your finger in an electrical socket; that might be an appropriate substitute.
I know if I start again I’ll just have to quit again. I know, also, that after the physical addiction is gone, the psychological addiction will linger. Meh, like they say, one day at a time. I can’t wait to take on my Sifu without wheezing like an invalid. I think I can feel the difference already.