Farewell to All That Part One: In the Beginning…

June 28, 2011

I haven’t had a cigarette in a week, and while that may not sound like much of an achievement, it’s the longest I’ve gone without a cigarette in over a decade. I had my first taste of smoke when I was 12. Didn’t become an actual smoker until 18. This used to be a deviation from the norm, as only until recently most smokers began smoking from 12-17. This has changed, unfortunately. So now I’m decidedly average. 18.9. Whatever. Jerks.

So it’s been a week. And, as far as I’m concerned, a week is a while, really. It means something. Seven days. Seven. The ancient Jews and Christians went bonkers over the number seven. David Bowie wrote an underrated song called Seven. Seven is the name of George Costanza’s would-be child. There are seven samurai, seven deadly sins, seven dwarves. Seven even rhymes with itself. Say it out loud right now: “Seh-vehn”.

It’s a psychologically satisfying number. It makes one think. Reflect.

In brief: it’s been weird. Quitting, I mean. When I consider my decision to quit, I’m forced to realize that, in one way or another, I’ve chosen to jettison a trait that’s been with me for a whole third of my life. It’s lasted longer than certain philosophical and political principles which seem intrinsic when I consider them now. I’ve smoked longer than I’ve loved certain movies and books that I consider defining. I’ve smoked longer than I’ve loved certain people. I’ve smoked longer than the Bush Administration was in power – and those eight years felt friggin’ endless.

I don’t really know how to approach my quitting, emotionally speaking. I’ve managed to handle the cravings easily enough (which is surprising, since in the past I’ve lacked the wherewithal to come even close to where I’m at now – more on that later). But still, despite my control over my urges… emotionally speaking, it’s confusing. It may seem silly to a nonsmoker (or a fellow-smoker – I don’t mean to suggest that all smokers have this experience when they quit), but there’s a quality to this experience that’s not unlike grief. Like I’m burying a part of who I was. Or like I’m breaking up with smoker me.

This last week has brought a number of interesting experiences with it, and I assume the following weeks (should I maintain my nicotine-free resolve) will be equally as interesting. So, naturally, I feel it’s best to try and put them to words – as I try to do with most things I find interesting (to varying degrees of success…). It’s my hope that I’ll manage to actually say something of some emotional value about this experience, and avoid merely cataloging the many ways in which quitting smoking completely blows. Just so we’re clear: It does, it does, oh good glowing God it does. Whether or not that’ll happen is still up in the air, of course. We’re here to experiment. To play. Let’s face it – we’re here because you don’t want to do your work, and you can’t bear to play another game of Minesweeper.

So here’s the first of what I hope will be several entries regarding my quitting smoking.

Number One: In the beginning…

I remember the first pack of cigarettes I ever bought. It was a pack of Marlboro Reds, purchased from a grimy pull-tab cigarette machine in a pool hall in Berlin, NJ. I was probably 17 years old. I was a Senior in high school.

Around halfway through the school year, a friend of mine was suddenly dumped by his long-term girlfriend. Long-term, in this context of course, means about a year or so. But these are high school years, which are akin to dog years. High school relationships are the frozen-concentrated-orange juice of romance, in that they are a sickeningly overpowering facsimile of the real thing. Frozen-concentrated orange juice isn’t orange juice. It’s a stand in. It’s what you buy when you can’t have the real thing. It’s a knock-off. One that rots your teeth.

Consider further: At sixteen, human beings are as preternaturally drawn to the hysterical devouring and destruction of high school romance as we are to standing in the frozen waft of our open freezer, spooning dollop after dollop of frojay (I just invented that, and I think it’s utterly charming) into our mouths, with no thought to how endlessly disgusting the experience is, or how much we’ll come regret it later. One does not think of how gross frojay is. One merely consumes it.

This, my friends, is high school love.

So my friend got dumped. Powerfully dumped. Frojay dumped. And beyond that, to add insult to what was already considerable injury, she dumped him for a guy named Earl. Earl who, true to his name, was on the high school bowling team.

Ouch.

*** A brief interlude where I’ll succumb to my baser desire to write a few pun-infested sentences ***

She called a strike on their relationship. He wasn’t to be spared. Of course he felt like a turkey, being tossed into the gutter like that.

*** I’m done. As bad as that was, feel thankful that I chose not to stoop so low as to write a sentence including the phrase “ball polisher.” I had a good one. ***

My friend (whom I’ll call Doubleday, because I think it’s a funny name) went to pieces. Doubleday was the first among my group of friends to experience (or at least to share) the terrifying agony of being dumped. The rest of us were either still in happy relationships (everyone else), or couldn’t get laid for love or money (me). So when Doubleday melted into tears one afternoon during lunch, the rest of us merely stared at him. We lacked the experience or wisdom to have anything to say. We had no idea how to stop this strange chemical process occurring on our friend’s face. Hell, most of us were probably still under the misapprehension that boys aren’t allowed to cry. We were in high school – we were stupid. So we just sat there and watched him cry for a while, our mouths agape, pausing from our rapture to take small secret bites from our Otis Spunkmeyer cookies.

In the end it was the least expressive of the group (whom I’ll call Viceroy) who helped him. Viceroy – quiet, dignified and private – got up from the table and ushered Doubleday from the cafeteria. “What did you say to him?” I’d later ask. “I have no idea,” he said, “I have no memory of it at all. All I remember is putting my hand on his shoulder – then nothing. It was fucking terrifying.”

I’ve always been very proud of Viceroy for that. For the utter decency of it. He didn’t help to court attention – Viceroy has never been one of those exhausting nudniks for whom helping another person is merely an opportunity to prove their own sensitivity to whomever’s looking. Viceroy saw Doubleday lose his shit, registered that the rest of us were agog, and then did the right thing completely without thought. Good man.

One should also know that I was terribly jealous and resentful of Viceroy, as well. His kindness exposed my own awkward ineptitude. I dropped the ball when Doubleday needed me. Bad friend. I figured I should do my job, too – take a page from Viceroy’s book and help my sad friend. Having never really counseled a freshly-dumped friend before, I had no idea what to do. It’s a guy thing, I told myself. What do guys do in this situation? The answer, of course, was drink. But we were 18. Completely unable to drown sorrow in a bar… where sorrow belongs. So I went to the next most appropriate place I could think of – a place dingy and gross. We went to a pool hall in one of the seedier towns near my high school. There we’d play pool (poorly) and grouse about woman problems (despite the fact that neither of us really knew what we were talking about) until Doubleday wasn’t sad anymore.

It all seemed so terribly adult to walk in there and knock the billiards around. To make flippant comments about life and love and women. “Hey man, that’s women. You can’t trust ’em.” It’s a strange time in a person’s life – the teenage years. It’s a long, awful stretch of seven (Seven! Again!) years where a person consciously attempts to act as adult as possible, and in so doing behaves unquestionably like a child. That’s what teenagers do – they pretend to be adults. What ninnies.

I wasn’t a smoker at that point. In fact, until that evening, my only experiences with cigarettes were connected with either the bad kids who smoked under the bleachers at school (who were jerks, by the way), a disastrous canoeing trip in Maine when I was 13 (more on that in another post) and my paranoid-schizophrenic uncle whom I never actually saw smoking, but who always reeked of it. Each of these instances marred smoking for me – it was something jerky bad kids or my terrifying uncle did. Not for me, thank you.

Fastforward to that evening, Doubleday and I knocking balls around the billiard table without sinking a single shot, and suddenly cigarettes seemed almost necessary. We were there to deal with an adult problem – Doubleday’s broken heart – and guys need to smoke when they’re nursing a broken heart. I knew that for a fact. I’d seen it in movies.

*** NB: I do not wish to equate my decision to smoke with the whiny, handwringing suggestion that smoking in movies and television makes people smoke. In this case it wasn’t television that did it – it was the fact that in that moment Doubleday and I discovered that life, when you get right down to it, sucks. We’d learned a secret: Losing love is the inevitable aftermath of finding it. Life is a series of losses… one might as well wring whatever glee they can find from the losing. (Addiction: “Andrew, that’s a great argument to start smoking again…”)

If you want to put an end to self-destructive vices, do away with the things that lead people toward them: the fact that we’re alive, and that life, despite the cheery, granola-breathed blithering you hear from those who’d seek to remove smoking from popular media, is not always fun. In fact, most of life isn’t fun. Life sucks. People don’t smoke because television tells us to. People smoke because we know, deep down, that life is full of shit. Smoking (like all vices) is a temporary satisfaction, a treat, a moment of quiet bliss punctuating a long, miserable series of frustrating and exhausting events. Is it stupid? Hell yes. But that stupidity runs way deeper than a cartoon camel with penis for a nose. ***

“We should smoke,” I said. “I’m gonna buy us some cigarettes.”

“Good idea,” said Doubleday.

We were so earnest.

We pooled together a few dollars, and I marched myself over to the vending machine. I picked reds because marketing, despite my previous lecture, works.

Doubleday and I puffed at our new cigarettes for the rest of the night. I’m not even sure we inhaled. We just talked and puffed in that grimy pool hall, the billiards clacking and the Credence blaring, like two little locomotives choo-chooing our way around the table – the neon lights catching the silvery smoke trailing from our cigarettes. It made our gesturing all the more pronounced. Magic, almost. Like we were writing brief, curling messages to each other in the air.

I hated the taste of those cigarettes. But I loved how they looked between my fingers.

“You’re gonna be okay, man,” I told my friend.

“Yeah,” he said, his smoldering cigarette perking from his smiling face, “I’m gonna be okay.”

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