Tar and Nicotine

Smoking cigarettes was an easy way to fabricate a little cool out of boarding school uneasiness. I particularly liked to smoke late at night, alone. The boyish fantasy of subterfuge was empowering and hermetic. At seventeen, tobacco tasted sweet on the inhale and bitter on the exhale. I even taught myself to blow smoke rings. I formed my lips into an ‘O’, exhaled gently, clicked my jaw just so, and a wonderful loop rolled into infinity. But after midnight, a Marlboro at the bottom of a snowy stairwell was deliciously satisfying. The crunch of my boots and the glow of the ash.

The only sanctioned time and place for the boys to smoke was after meals on one of the embankments above the soccer fields. Out there, a whiff of cool could be presumed and shared from packs of twenty. Out there, the unspoken social pecking order of everyday campus existence didn’t hold, not in the face of wanting a cigarette and having to bum one.

A few years later, in college, everybody smoked. Cigarettes cost forty-five cents a pack and they tasted good like cigarettes should. Plus, the drinking age was eighteen. We approached addiction like adults; we smoked and drank all the time. People got stitches, puked wretchedly, had bad trips, car wrecks, and romantic disasters. Still, this constituted social drinking because it took place in public and in the context of custom. Nothing clandestine about it. Not even in the car.

On the subject of clandestine activity, I should mention the billows of marijuana smoke. Another smoke altogether. It was 1970.

Years later still, I married a smoker, but she eventually quit on me. I could smoke in the kitchen, nowhere else in the house. What had been a co-equal indulgence became a solitary vice. Finally, as my wife’s second pregnancy came to term, I began to succumb to the pressure to quit. The law was closing in. Smoking at the workplace was about to be banned. What if I couldn’t puff feverishly at my desk? Filling the ashtray was the most productive part of my day.

So I quit. I said – This will be my last cigarette – and it was. I had no idea what I was in for. Without my nicotine fix, I vibrated, perspired, and chewed terrible cuds of sugarless gum. Sometimes I felt like my central nervous system was being yanked out of my body from the base of my neck. I became both easily startled and impervious to stimuli. My life began to feel homicidally spectral, in a Mr. Hyde kind of way, with pools of ground fog and crashing organ chords.

By early winter, my shrink began looking at me over the tops of the eyeglasses she didn’t wear. Once a week we would sit opposite one another, while she said very little and I occasionally looked up and muttered. The only rise she could get out of me was when her hearing aid went into civil defense feedback mode and I would holler over its piercing shriek, “Jesus Christ, Helen, you hear this, don’t you?”

Clinical depression, aggravated by my bid to stop smoking, was her diagnosis. She suggested that I might be well served by a twenty-eight day program at one of those newfangled codependency treatment centers. They dealt with everything.

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