A veil of smoke drifts above my childhood: my father’s elbow riding the windowsill of his rusted Malibu, Lou Reed on the stereo or maybe the Rolling Stones. My small fingers worry black stars seared into the upholstery. “It’s an awful habit. Don’t ever pick it up,” he tells me, as he lights another. In the hazy world of my early recollections, it’s the vices I remember most. Once a month, a cop stood beneath the alphabet banner of my third-grade classroom and preached the dangers of cigarettes and alcohol, the importance of always saying no. Every month, I stared into the twin pleats of his navy pants and wondered where my family fit into these decrees. I was well acquainted with the crack of a match, the rattle of ice in a tumbler, the way adult’s voices ascended with every glass. Surely there had to be some kind of appeal. Even then, at eight, my mind probed for grey areas, as though already a little addict lay fully formed within me, waiting for the right moment to take flight. Once, after school, I slipped a cigarette from my father’s pack and rushed down the basement steps, heart thudding. I had no interest in lighting it then; I knew it could give me cancer, and I’d internalized Smoky Bear’s edicts about forest fires, besides. Whenever a neighborhood kid flashed a stolen lighter, I yelped with terror, certain one wrong move would engulf us all in flames. My curiosity was structural—I wanted to see this thing’s bones. Crouched in the furnace’s shadow, I slit its belly with my fingernail, pressed my nose to the brown crumbs spilling into my palm. I recall identifying the loamy scent that clung to my father’s shirts, but twenty years later, it’s not a memory I can access. It is my own scent now and therefore imperceptible.
My mother smokes, too, but never on the sidewalk, never in the daylight, never out of a car window. She smokes on unlit porches, a shawl flowing around her shoulders, ashamed, secretly, in pain. She can pick it up and stop at any time. I smoke like my father—a diver surfacing with an empty tank. An endless clamor of need, anytime, anywhere.
In his Pulitzer finalist The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America, medical historian Allan Brandt describes the narrative arc of the cigarette over the past half-century:
The fragrant has become foul; an emblem of attraction has become repulsive; a mark of sociability has become deviant; a public behavior is now virtually private. Not only has the meaning of the cigarette been transformed, but even more, the meaning of the smoker… a pariah, the object of scorn and hostility.
Sixty years ago, in the cigarette’s heyday, my grandmother, an avid Junior League member and churchgoer, smoked and drank bourbon through the duration of five pregnancies, forsaking the former when it went the way of girdles and Jell-O molds. Bourbon, however, never goes out of style. Not in Savannah, Georgia. Not in a family where the curse of Tantalus sings in our blood, a perpetual drumbeat of I need I need I need. Dissecting my father’s Camels as a child, I’d suspected adult rituals had layers I couldn’t comprehend, that they followed certain scripts depending on the occasion. In my late teens, I passed over an invisible threshold and holidays began dissolving in a boozy fog: Bloody Mary’s with brunch, beer with lunch, wine with dinner, and then nightcap hour, which sprawled indefinitely from dusk until after midnight. I reveled in the glow of inclusion when one of my uncles poured me a glass or passed me a joint on the front porch. These moments of initiation, when my throat burned with whiskey and smoke, were the only times I can recall feeling a closeness with these strangers whose blood I shared.
“I don’t understand why you won’t give up that horrible habit,” my grandmother sighs through the screen door whenever I visit. For ten years, I’ve stammered sheepish promises of “Soon,” made a show of stubbing out my cigarettes on the porch bricks and pocketing the butt, indicating I’m okay with tarnishing my lungs but not the camellia bushes, so no worries. I’ve never seen much of myself in this stoic woman, a lifelong denizen of her muggy hometown who equates makeup and bright hair dye—trappings of femininity that I enjoy—with vanity and indolence. Her preference for tending hothouse orchids and rows of collards over tending to children, and her aversion to outward displays of emotion, make her something of an outlier in her own sphere, where women tend to be singularized as nurturers. I’ve often wondered at how little I know of her own private joys, if perhaps she didn’t want to be a mother. How much of her life was designed by her social strata rather than her desires. As a sensitive child, I lacked these insights. When she chastised me in her low-country drawl or shooed me away, I grew certain she despised me. I was always slouching, reading instead of making polite conversation, crying too much, saying the wrong thing. As a teen, my clothes were gaudy and I was too thin, a nuisance in the kitchen. Smoking is just another thing wrong with me. When my grandmother tells me that my habit is horrible and I should quit, I’m irritated because we’ve never been close enough for her criticisms to feel well intended. It feels like less a maternal gesture than a concern that smoking looks trashy. Cocktail hour, five sons inhaling Viceroy smoke and whiskey fumes in utero, are never mentioned. In the case of my family, health seems purely coincidental. Some rituals are sanctioned. Others are not.
I smoke like a sieve, like the world is flowing through me and vanishing in thin air and the only way to hold on is to capture its effluvium for myself, hold it in my body. In the continuous present of memory, it’s July in the South and I am thirteen, hunched behind a garage with my cousin Amy, the two of us hacking on stolen Camels to be close to our fathers. If we couldn’t hold their attention, we had to become them.
Every summer, they spearfished together in the greenish depths of the Atlantic. My own father was no hunter. Most of the year, he was a French teacher and an artist, dweller of lecture halls and pottery studios, contemptuous of gun culture. Around the other men in our family, he transformed into a boozy adrenaline junkie. Like clockwork, we returned south every summer and I’d marvel over this metamorphosis. Clutching a rod at the surface wasn’t exciting enough; our fathers craved the thrill of swimming alongside their prey, blood marbling sea. “It’s deadly,” they insisted of their chain smoking, yet they did it anyway. Amy and I had the impression that nothing could touch them, natural or manmade, and we wanted to claim this immortality for ourselves. We rested uneasily on the cusp of the children’s table, still a few years from being poured a nightcap after dinner. Yet already we knew that men were the sun around which our family orbited, and we the silent ushers to their spectacle, occasionally thrust into the spotlight to smile for Christmas card photos. The grim warnings of the D.A.R.E. program had begun to lose their urgency. So we snuck behind the garage and squinted into the horizon, tapping ash with a casual thumb flick. As if, just for a moment, inhabiting our fathers’ postures lent us their place in the world, the space they took up in it.
“You’re ashing too hard.” A freckled arm snaked towards me, molding my hand. “That’ll make the cherry fall out. Do it like this.”
“Can we practice kissing again?” I asked, trying not to sound too eager. Amy was two years older, all charm bracelet and wheat-blonde hair. We were both the only daughters of failed marriages; we shared a lineage marked by the I need disease, a fluency in tearful Christmas dinners and slurred shouting matches. In the past, her own father had been known to fling dinner plates across a room, after a few too many rounds, if a conversation wasn’t going his way. But Amy didn’t seem to care about any of it, or she did a better job hiding it if she did.
In the dark, we swatted mosquitos and practiced kissing for our future boyfriends, and I pretended her powers were spiraling into me. At thirteen, I wanted to be Amy more than I’d ever wanted anything. She crossed streets leisurely, long-legged and self-assured, daring a car to hit her. They never did. I was short and flat chested, a veteran worrier and nail-biter, often mistaken for a younger child. Amy was tall and blasé, new breasts swelling beneath the triangles of her bikini top. She rimmed my oversized eyes with a black pencil to make them look smaller and therefore older, but it was no use, I just resembled a baby raccoon.
While my parents shuffled between jobs, states, and lovers, grimacing when they spoke each other’s name, Amy’s had drifted a few blocks apart in the same sleepy Florida town and remained friends. I suspect it was this security I envied most of all. My entire family was rooted in the coastal South, I was raised mostly in the Midwest, and I felt no sense of belonging to either place. Even after she decided the kissing was weird, the smoking, too, felt like an exchange of power, like holding onto something and claiming it for myself. Are all beginnings romantic or do we just reinvent them that way?
Anywhere I can’t smoke is not a safe space. Like any addict, I resent anything that comes between me and my fix: smoke-free patios, airports, Uber rides. When I was an undergrad at Ohio State, the university cheerfully announced itself a tobacco-free campus, the decree accompanied with murky threats of punishment for outliers, which in practice amounted to little beyond a shortage of ashtrays and the occasional dirty look. On a wintry morning, a tall stranger in a Buckeyes hoodie once knocked a lit cigarette from my hand on the sidewalk, tone indignant as he exclaimed, “That’s not allowed!” I was familiar with men reaching into my space and reminding me of my powerlessness through whistles and blaring horns, ass grabs at the bus stop, but never before under the pretense of public health. He and I both knew my only recourse was a glowering stare, scuttling away to light another. After this, I hunched secretively when I marched to class, cupping a flame in my palm, inhaling fast, greedy puffs.
Even when no one says anything, I feel uncomfortable around nonsmokers and imagine they are silently judging me. I lean away theatrically, blowing clouds into the wind. The only thing that overrides my shame is the perennial clamor of I need I need I need. Years later, I stumble upon a loading dock obscured behind a brick wall on campus, and it’s like I discovered Shangri-La. The oil-slick pavement is littered with butts. Hunched around the dumpsters are a band of outlaws, all with the same weary, pensive expression on their faces. We nod grimly at one another in acknowledgment. We don’t need to say anything at all. My people, I think, breathing a sigh of relief.
In the parking lot of my Catholic high school, hunched between cars in knee socks and a pleated jumper, I smoked because I thought it made me look like someone who didn’t give a shit what other people thought. In truth, I cared deeply what everyone around me thought: my classmates, my new stepfather, passing strangers. I smoked around boys because I was always searching for reasons I wasn’t enough and at fifteen, I was certain those reasons were my flat chest and shyness, the easy tears my grandmother labeled “high-strung.” I knew men didn’t like you if you cried; both at home and in the halls of Saint Francis, I’d heard the “Crazy” label hurled at women whenever they expressed pain. A cigarette clenched between my fingers lent me a toughness I knew I couldn’t manufacture on my own.
At fifteen, in the grip of my first heartbreak, I began stealing from my mother’s covert stash of Benson & Hedges and lighting up alone in the church parking lot that bordered our backyard. I practiced blowing rings into the gray Ohio sky, the November air sharp with cold, and pretended I was the heroine in a sad French movie. I stood very still, riding out a faint wave of dizziness until I felt something in my chest unclench, a knot loosening. Observing my parents, I’d already drawn connections between cigarettes, secrets, and managing pain; these solitary explorations cemented them together. Smoking with Amy was purely performative; smoking alone was both a performance and an act of self-care. That slow exhale, the repetitive dance of fingers to mouth, massaged the bursts of mania that had haunted me since late childhood, an endless loop of racing thoughts and involuntary twitches that often emptied into lethargy as quickly and inexplicably as it had begun. Over a decade later, cigarettes remain the quickest palliative I’ve ever found.
I was always slightly disappointed when I slid in the kitchen door, stinking of my transgression, and neither my mother nor stepfather said a word. Provoking a reaction wasn’t my only motive for smoking, or etching angry lines in my skin with a pink Venus razor, but it’s true that part of me longed for someone to stop me, to take control. Later that same winter, I was admitted to a psychiatric ward for self-harm for the first time, and discovered a tremendous relief in knowing my own body wasn’t my problem anymore, an IV biting my arm, meals rolled in on plastic trays. The laminate bracelet circling my wrist was the evidence I hadn’t realized I’d needed, proof that I wasn’t imagining things, something really was wrong.
As an adult, I have a vocabulary for the crests and troughs of my moods, a label that shifts between bipolar and borderline depending on the doctor. I haven’t expressed my desire to externalize pain through cutting in nearly a decade. Yet even now, taking care of myself feels like a job I can barely manage. When I light a fresh one off the cinders of the last or scroll through Instagram late into the night, I still find myself waiting for some cosmic arm to reach down from the heavens, a voice roaring, Little girl, it’s way past your bedtime! What are you doing to yourself? Stop this very instant!
Smoking has ceased to be about mythmaking or rebellion. Now, I smoke for something to do. I smoke to avoid doing things. I smoke as a time marker on long road trips. I smoke to give my hands a task besides compulsively chewing my cuticles and squeezing my pores. I think of my mind and body as though they exist independently, two separate entities. One of them is screaming in pain and the only way to pacify it is to poison the other one slowly. Cigarettes are the semicolon linking one moment to another in the continual run-on sentence that is my life, which despite my best efforts, keeps going and going and going and going and going.
The first thing my doctor asks me is always, “Are you still smoking a pack a day?” Every time, I hang my head like a scolded child and mumble affirmatively. She sighs, shakes her head. “Do I need to go over all the reasons you should stop again?” Emphysema, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, constricted blood vessels, early menopause, poor vision, lower bone density, strokes, yellow teeth, wrinkly skin…yes, yes, I know. These menacing images do little more than inflate the shame tugging the pit of my stomach, that I am not the kind of person who takes care of her health, not the kind of person who can forgo instant gratification even for a day, not the kind of person who makes the right choices. I am a sick and broken person, not normal, not normal, not normal. I’m not sure how to explain what smoking gives me in a way this stern, well-meaning woman will understand. As soon as I collect the next raft of prescriptions that are supposed to mollify the seesaw of my moods, I rush outside to my car, crawl in the driver’s seat, and slam the door shut. Before the key is in the ignition, I’m groping for a lighter. Only then am I safe. The day you come up with a pill that makes me want to live, I’ll quit, I imagine telling my doctor. One and done.
What most anti-smoking and anti-drug rhetoric fails to acknowledge is that the threat of illness isn’t compelling to those of us who are already ill. We are triaging our pain, staunching the most urgent wound. In my early twenties, my lover sank a syringe in the crook of my arm nearly every day for over a year. We’d met in a Classics seminar, two of a handful of smokers, and bonded on the sidewalk over this shared vice, our alcoholic families, the gnaw of need we’d inherited from them. I’d never heard another person vocalize this feeling the way I thought of it: a hole in my chest in perpetual need of filling. Our courtship bloomed fast, as they often do when two hungry people see something that looks like wholeness in each other. Within months, I’d moved into his bedroom, and he’d guided me over the threshold of a world I’d only read about in the Beat writings I’d favored in high school: tabs of acid, lines of crushed Percocet, eventually heroin. Nodding out, we burned holes in sweaters, sofas, pillowcases. It was impossible to separate the drug from the romance; they breathed from the same lungs. When he chose my wardrobe and forbid me from leaving the house alone, there was a sick comfort in relinquishing my ability to make decisions. I always seemed to make the wrong ones, anyway. It was like the psych ward all over again: I wasn’t my own problem. I didn’t even exist anymore. The belt snaked around my bicep felt like releasing a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. I’d read William Burroughs’s oeuvre, watched Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream. At twenty-one, I already knew addiction turned people into shadows and intravenous drugs were the least acceptable addiction of all, marked deviant in a way no bourbon-soaked Christmas ever is, although they flow from the same impulse. Knowing this, why, then, did I hold out my arm for the needle? The answer is simple: I was tired. Life with the disorder every doctor had a different name for, a different pill but no cure, was exhausting. I was tired of trying to name the knot in my chest, that frantic, pawing thing. I wanted to see what it felt like, even for a moment, to be at ease.
I’ve heard smokers joke that quitting nicotine is harder than quitting heroin because you can’t buy smack at Speedway. It’s true; cigarette addicts break no laws in copping their fix and are nowhere near as stigmatized as drug users. Nonetheless, there are echoes. 20% of respondents to a 2012 survey from the American Lung Association believed lung cancer patients “should have known better” and a chilling 15% that smokers “deserve cancer.” Type “Should smokers…” into Google and one of the first suggestions is “Should smokers be denied surgery?” I’ve read editorials pondering whether the opiate blocker Narcan should be readily available because a remedy to overdose deaths might tempt users to do more drugs. Six years after my last fix, I can still recall the way strangers’ eyes hardened on my bruised arms, the woman at the gas station who muttered “Junkie trash” in my direction, the moments I came closest to understanding what it means to be nothing. Blame wheels around addiction, as it does around disability, racism, and poverty. You made a choice to be sick, these onlooker’s glances seemed to say. Why should we waste our compassion on you?
In a 2018 interview with Slate, Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, spoke at length about this shroud of blame. She characterized smoking bans as elitist and cigarettes as “a desperate measure in the face of overwhelming stress.” When the conversation shifted to the opioid crisis, Ehrenreich said, “What makes me very mad about all the attention to the opioid epidemic is how little attention there is to pain. We have a pain epidemic in America. Where does that come from?” She offered a nuanced perspective on dependency’s intimate ties with class, describing the plight of blue-collar workers who use cigarettes and painkillers to function in high-risk jobs that destroy their bodies and mental health.
I cannot claim these struggles as my own. I grew up middle-class, the daughter of two language teachers; although neither of my parents has had much job stability on the academic circuit, the hardships they’ve experienced are not institutional. As an addict snared in an abusive relationship, my sunken ribs were a result of circumstance. In 2012, when I made the difficult choice to break away from what no longer felt like a choice, I had the privilege of therapy and medication, the compassion of friends, and a forgiving mother. All of which, in America, translates to the right to live. It isn’t a coincidence that many of the friends I’ve watched vanish into heroin and never return lacked this level of support. Still, Ehrenreich’s quip about a pain epidemic resonates with me. Pain defies categories; it trickles beneath doorways, flows between generations. Walk into any twelve-step meeting and you’ll find an array of bikers, housewives, lawyers, and artists who describe hunger in much the same way. As a student, I have access to health care and a variety of smoking cessation treatments. So why don’t I take advantage of it? All this privilege on my side and I still won’t quit. Why? After two decades of reckoning with a bulky sadness that defies poetics and hangs over my shoulders like the cliché it is, I understand the need to make pain go away. The summer I left my abuser, I hunched in a rocking chair on a friend’s porch nearly every night, emptying packs until my throat burned, trying to reassure myself I was safe. I know well the paradox of being kept alive by the very thing that might kill you. No longer in crisis mode, the first smoke of the morning, paired with black coffee on the stoop of my apartment, still gives me a sense of peace I hear other people find in running or meditation. It grants me the spark of energy I need to shower, get dressed, brush my teeth, all the minute tasks that expand into monuments when one is chronically depressed. From the Internet to the doctor’s office, the wrong questions are being asked. It isn’t Don’t you realize what you are doing is harmful? Don’t you know it could kill you? Rather, it is: What drives you to do things that you know are harmful and could kill you? What pain is so critical that you have to manage it before all else?
Occasionally even I am gripped with short-lived fits of determination to shed all my bad habits, start doing yoga, drink enough water, and buy more skincare products. I download apps that calculate how much money you save by not smoking and delete them a few hours later, shamefaced. I peruse the American Cancer Society website. These moments of contrition feel halfhearted even to myself, motivated more by a wish to appease the world around me than a concern for my own health. I often have trouble untangling my own desires from the desires of other people. On one such occasion, my eyes light on a passage on the ACS site claiming “Cigarette smokers are more likely to get into fights, carry weapons, attempt suicide, suffer from mental health problems such as depression, and engage in high-risk sexual behaviors.” The text later adds, “This doesn’t necessarily mean that tobacco use caused these behaviors,” but the paragraph’s laundry list of reasons why smoking is bad still suggests some kind of causality. Couched between weapons and high-risk sex, “Depression” leaps out at me, and the juxtaposition makes me feel accused. As though depression too, is a form of cancer. Not the bad luck cancer inflicted on a Lifetime movie martyr, but a cancer you choose for yourself. This passage is the closest the site gets to acknowledgment that smoking is a coping mechanism. No suggestions are given as to how to grapple with this need for a crutch, both ritual and chemical, just the ever-inspiring chant of, Stop smoking! Stop! Stop it right now! The website’s ominous language stresses me out so much, I smoke two. Consecutively.
In a recurring nightmare, I am a passenger on a lengthy international flight. I fidget in my seat, watching fleecy clouds drift by the window, anxious for landing. The pilot’s voice rasps over the intercom, a calm monotone informing all passengers that this flight will not, in fact, be landing anywhere, but will instead orbit the Earth until the plane runs out of fuel and we plummet to our deaths. Oh, and as per usual, no smoking. Violators will be subject to federal prosecution. My dream self doesn’t question the purpose of this star-crossed voyage, how federal prosecution might be enforced mid-air, why it would matter at this juncture, or even her own impending mortality, but rather wonders, Why the hell can’t I smoke? Gripped with panic, she falls to the navy carpet of the aisle, sobbing.
When I visit my father in Montreuil, the Parisian suburb where he immigrated ten years ago, I gulp down Xanax to avert this kind of mid-aisle meltdown and fall into a dreamless slumber, waking somewhere above the British Isles. On the ground, Europe is a relief: ashtrays on every café table, scowling Parisians fashioning rollies from the contents of tiny, fragrant pouches. Strolling the leafy pathways of Père Lachaise on an overcast morning, a cigarette in one hand and a Moleskin in the other, I can’t help but feel like a comrade of Sartre and Beauvoir. Last summer, I hunted for an iconic pack of Gitanes and was astonished to learn they’d been discontinued, deemed trop cool, their cultural cachet an incentive to smoke. No pedestrians glowered at me when I lit up on the sidewalk, but things have shifted overseas, too. Instead of branding, European packs now bear lurid images of child-size coffins, tar-scorched lungs. I tried to imagine my own lungs, two rotten pears collecting flies in the basket of my ribcage. This bleak still life disheartened me, but did nothing to curtail the mound of butts rising on the balcony of my father’s apartment.
“What happens to you if you don’t smoke?” my half-brother asked, twirling a fidget spinner in each hand. He is seventeen years my junior, a Parisian native who floats effortlessly between French and English, a child’s frenetic energy and a calm introspectiveness that feels older than eleven and often catches me by surprise.
I paused, searching for the right metaphor. “You know how in Georgia, we swim to the bottom of Grandma’s pool and let our air bubbles out? So we can lie down and look up at the surface?” He nodded, rapt. “And sometimes it hurts when we come back up ‘cause we don’t have enough air left? That’s how it feels when I don’t smoke. Like I’m drowning.”
I watched his eyes widen, trying to disassemble the strange machinery of adult compulsion, what pistons might drive a person towards actions they know are self-defeating. I puzzled over this at his age, too. He hasn’t asked why Christmas with his American half means slammed doors and empty glasses, three generations of bubbling wounds. I imagine someday he might and I hope I’ll have a thoughtful response by then.
My hope is that other rituals will stay with him instead: our grandmother’s pianist hands, now too arthritic for the keys, shucking corn or arranging magnolias in a glass bowl, loving us in her own quiet ways. Leaping off a dock at low tide with our uncles, whooping all the way down. I hope that, unlike me, he can churn his legs in dark water without wondering what’s underneath. As I slunk to the balcony, fumbling in my pocket, he sighed, exasperated. “Daddy quit, so why can’t you?”
The kid had a point. A couple years ago, after four decades of chain smoking, our father accomplished the inconceivable. He doesn’t minimize what this triumph entailed: months of sleepless nights, alternating outbursts of rage and despair. I need I need I need is printed on our DNA; it doesn’t give up without a fight.
Back in Ohio for my first semester as a graduate teaching assistant, I crouch barefoot on my front stoop, exhaling smoke, phone clutched to my ear. The stress of standing in front of a group of eighteen-year-olds three times a week and pretending to be some kind of authority figure has me emptying packs at an alarming rate. As if I needed an excuse. When my father’s voice crackles across the Atlantic, interrupting my complaints about English 1110 to remind me I need to quit, I roll my eyes as if he can see me. “Yes, Dad, I know.”
“You have an incredible amount of self-discipline. When you really want something, you make it happen. You got that from your mother.” I’m so astonished, I almost singe a hole in my dress. My father attributing a positive trait to my mother, my name and “self-discipline” appearing in the same sentence, any of it. I’ve never thought of myself as someone with any discipline at all. I’m the kind of person who sits on their bed after a shower, dressed only in a towel, and gazes into their phone for an hour, brooding over the things they have to do that day instead of getting dressed and doing them. I avoid making dentist appointments because I’m afraid of being scolded for not flossing. If I don’t write to-do lists with simple entries such as “Brush hair” and “Answer emails” every morning, I feel out of control. I live in constant fear of confirming myself to be the fraud I’ve always secretly suspected I am.
Dad isn’t entirely wrong, though. Six years ago, I walked away from heroin, from a lover who insisted no one else would love me. It wasn’t a clean break. But it was a triumph, albeit one that feels as remote to me now as a film I watched a long time ago. I still don’t know what carried me through cold sweats and feverish voicemails—I’m going to kill myself and it’s all your fault. Give me $100 or I’ll tell your mother you’re a prostitute. Come back, I love you. Life in the shadow of that hunger had to grow so intolerable that the discomfort of starting over paled by compare. It had to stop; there was simply no alternative. I’ve had no such decisive moment with cigarettes and at twenty-eight, I can’t comprehend the tenacity of my younger self. Why does quitting smoking feel not only laborious but simply impossible, a breach in the laws of physics? If I don’t smoke, how will I know which streets lead home, what pedals to mash beneath my feet? How will I know when sex or a meal is over? How will I reward myself for victories and console myself for failures? Underneath all of this, a small voice whispers: What’s the point? Of any of it?
Shortly after I returned from France last summer, I ran into Amy, my former smoking and kissing mentor, at a family reunion. We hadn’t seen each other in nearly a decade. She still had that sun-spangled hair, those narrow blue eyes, but no cowboy killer jut from her lips, no midnight scheme or alibi for a missing six-pack. They held only a polite stranger’s smile. A two-month-old son clung to her breast, a husband beaming good-naturedly beside her in pressed khakis. I felt her eyes appraise my tattooed arms and rainbow hair, and surprised myself with my own shame, a fleeting wish to forsake my own body. The years had ferried us into different womanhoods entirely, yet I still yearned for her approval. I spluttered a few pleasantries, the customary coos over the new baby, and quickly shuffled behind the garage, where no one could see me light up. I inhaled deep puffs, contemplating the irony of my rebellious idol transformed into a walking L.L. Bean catalog with a law degree and me, initially the innocent one, still a moody teenager smoking behind a garage. A delinquent Tuck Everlasting. I inherited the nicotine yoke from my father and Amy in the first place, yet despite our shared predispositions, both have shed it and left me behind. All those years spent trying to compensate for my not-enoughness and no payoff. It feels unfair, like I lost some kind of cosmic contest. It isn’t that I want a law degree or a husband or a baby, or even that I want to quit smoking, really. It’s that I feel like I should want those things and I don’t.
Not caring about my own health feels like a fuck you. It feels revolutionary. But who am I rebelling against, exactly? Who am I sticking it to? The truth is, after years of chain smoking, I can feel hard lines settling around my mouth. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of aging. The damage is no longer theoretical. I wheeze when I climb flights of stairs. Common colds sprawl into lingering infirmities. And yet, still, I need I need I need. A few puffs into the last cigarette of the evening, my tongue parches, my chest aches, and sometimes I stub the whole thing out, disgusted. When friends ask if I plan on quitting anytime soon, I joke, “I’m here for a good time, not a long time,” a quip that haunts many a Tinder bio. Privately, I suspect my compulsions have little to do with a carefree, carpe diem attitude. I’m not sure if I’m having a good time or if I’m just too busy damming the perpetual leaks in my hull to care what I’m sailing towards. Neglecting the future to survive the present makes perfect sense to the depressed, the addicted, and the desperate. I still marvel at my mother’s clandestine stress smoking, invoked only in exceptionally difficult moments. For me, every moment is that difficult moment. I, too, feel ashamed when passersby glare at me or when my athletic neighbors cart Whole Foods bags up the sidewalk and catch me in my private ritual. I want to apologize, insist it’s not what they think, I’m not one of those people; I have control in other areas of my life. Peel back the hazy layers of any dependency and I suspect you’ll find shame at its center. Yet the shame is never as powerful as my desire to calm my nerves. It seems unlikely I’ll forgo buying my own and bum off strangers after a round of beers, as many friends of mine do; my addict brain knows no such shades of gray. I cringe at enthusiastic converts to vapes, those complex gadgets that spew clouds of blueberry or Mountain Dew-flavored smoke. I’m still too attached to the mythology of cigarettes—Jean Paul Sartre brooding at a café table, Amy French-inhaling behind a garage at fifteen.
I’ve always claimed I love cigarettes enough to die for them, but as the years pass, this level of cavalier nihilism becomes more difficult to maintain. As a depressed adolescent, mortality was a distant abstract; as a depressed adult, it feels more immediate, yet it still doesn’t exert the urgency that I think it should. I’m afraid to admit that at twenty-eight, being alive feels as difficult as it did at sixteen. It’s not the inspiring message I want to deliver. To quit smoking would be more than surrendering a coping mechanism; it would require severing part of my identity. Giving up habits isn’t purely a matter of willpower, but also of re-evaluating one’s self-mythos. A cigarette cocked on my lip has always soothed my rattled nerves, lent me the fierceness I long to claim as my own. I’m still waiting for that pivotal moment when the discomfort of smoking, the wheezing and yellow teeth, the reproachful looks, usurps the discomfort of quitting. Will it be too late to reverse the damage by the time it comes? I’m not sure. Until then, my body plucks the same melody it knows better than it knows itself. I haven’t had enough just yet. I need one more.