Tuesday, April 14, 2009

It's a little like Richard Burton and Liz Taylor.

Once when I was about 9, I went with my grandparents to visit some friends of theirs. Soon after we all sat down at their kitchen table for lunch, our hosts' teenage son hurried through the kitchen and out the back door, dragging on a cigarette, barely acknowledging us.

"Is Ronnie smoking now?" my grandfather asked.

"He's in high school," his mother shrugged.

"Well, I guess he's old enough," my grandpa said, and the four adults resumed their previous conversation.

The message I received that day, and would receive again and again, was that there were two kinds of people: those old enough to smoke, and those not old enough to smoke.

The background I'll provide is nothing new: (1) When I was little, my dad used to entertain me by blowing smoke rings. (2) Nearly all the adults in my family smoked, as did the TV characters my parents favored (Andy Griffith, the Ricardos, and a few of the characters from "Taxi"). (3) Then there were the musicians: John, Paul, George and Ringo, Bob Dylan, the Stones...and man, they smoked.

I was a very scrawny kid, and something about my face has always made me look younger than I am. (Once, during my freshman year of college, I was mistaken for a junior high school student.) To complicate matters, I always prefered the company of adults, but kids were pretty much invisible to the adults in my family.

My friend Joni had a much older sister, Tonya, who was an absolute bitch, in the bitchiest sense. She bought our cigarettes and held this power over our heads. The night of my 13th birthday, Tonya drove us around for hours while we smoked, threatening to kick our asses if we burned any holes in her upholstery. The nausea finally caught up with me and Tonya had to pull over so I could throw up. I was back at it again the next day.

A week or so later, after having smoked 4 cigarettes one morning before school, I threw up on the school bus. I was back at it again the next day.

Shortly thereafter I got strep throat. I switched to menthol for awhile after that.

My parents had the audacity to be surprised and angry that I'd taken up smoking. They thought I was somehow better than my surroundings:

"Haven't you listened to what we've been saying all these years? (Inhale)
Don't you know it's bad for you? (Exhale)"

An aunt I seldom saw pulled me aside at a family gathering and tried to talk me into quitting. The argument she used--and the one I heard most often--was that smoking would stunt my growth. My family is comprised of very short people, and I wasn't likely to be much taller than five feet no matter what I did to myself.

I smoked all through high school and college. I always knew I would quit. Eventually.

In my mid-20s, after I got married, my husband and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where only the unsophisticated smoke. This helped me along, I think, in my decision to quit. On April 1, 2001, I applied my first nicotine patch and, although I still had cravings, I succeeded, without cheating. The only exception was the morning of September 11th, when I sat on my front steps and smoked, just one. I didn't know what else to do.

The abbreviated version is that I stayed smoke-free for a couple of years, then went back, and back and forth it went. I thought I was done smoking for good once I got pregnant. But when my daughter was 6 weeks old, I cracked. I weighed a ton and the house was a disaster and my whole body hurt. My in-laws (who are wonderful) and my husband's wealthy, widowed, childless, in-your-face-Christian aunt came to visit. The aunt's very presence put me over the edge. Regardless of my dislike for her, I didn't want her to think I was a slob, but I was in too much physical pain from the rough delivery that I couldn't begin to tackle the mess.

My husband, his parents and his aunt left for a long outing (I demanded to stay home with the baby) and they weren't halfway down the block before I lit up. After that cigarette I cried. I knew it wasn't just one cigarette. I wasn't going to give them up, not for my perfect daughter, not for anyone.

For the next 3 years I smoked. Educated, liberal, Volvo-driving Portland moms don't smoke, so I hid it, which was a colossal pain in the ass. I walked the dog in the pouring rain just for the chance. My jaw ached from all the gum I chewed.

It was my aching jaw, plus the sharply rising cost of cigarettes, that made me quit this time. It was also the little line. I have that small wrinkle now, above my top lip, the one that tells everyone I'm a smoker. A right-handed smoker.

Columnist Mark Morford wrote about his experience quitting his "rock star habit." That simple, throwaway description still resonates with me. When I smoked I felt like an accomplished writer, an ass kicker, someone who didn't give a god damn. How I loved smoking.

It's been three weeks since my last cigarette. A side effect of steady nicotine replacement (i.e., the patch) is amazingly vivid dreaming, which I enjoy very much. Every night I'm dropped into a pretty good independent film starring me. I wake exhausted but amused.

My mom called from her home in northern California a few days ago and asked me if the price of cigarettes has gone up here in Oregon, too. I said yes, but that I'm not concerned with that anymore. How above it all I sounded already, proud of my self-control. She was obviously disappointed that I'd left the team and immediately began cheering for the smoking section. She cited the case of so-and-so who'd quit and died weeks later, as though his body had gone into shock from the sudden lack of carcinogens. She was skeptical of any pride or happiness I had in quitting, unable to fathom how I might go on with my life without cigarettes. I guess my smoking only bothered her when I was so young. As an adult, it was expected of me.

This is how I see it now: smoking is extremely pleasurable, but it's like scratching a mosquito bite: it's nice because it stops the itch, if only temporarily. Soon I hope to not have the mosquito bite in the first place. No itch, no scratch. Just calm. In the meantime I'm trying to overlook the weight I'm gaining. How I love Twix bars.

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