I had been living in Northern Virginia for a few months and met a friend of mine for drinks. We knew each other from Richmond, where I had spent the last half decade or so. We were drinking, smoking and talking about politics, ethics, whatever else, sitting on an empty patio on a slow weeknight. We wandered through topics from physics to psychology, wondering if all thoughts and actions can be explained through the careful observation of elementary particles.
We then moved perhaps to the dangers of motorcycles, perhaps a passing glance from an unknown drinker like ourselves, or even just a remembrance of perceived judgment of our daily choices, as we loudly ponder the morality of our preferred addictions. I think I mentioned my continued state of quitting smoking; daily attempts then breaks, maybe twice a week not smoking then smoking again.
Parallels were drawn like battle lines. Then he said, “lot’s of things are bad for you.”
Yes, but how bad?
I remember having my first cigarette. I was with a friend of mine, my best friend then and today, in one of those strip malls that populate the district suburbs where I grew up. It was around midnight I think. We were sitting on metal chairs bolted to the sidewalk, him and a few others I had just met. They were all smoking cigarettes, drinking over the summer between high school and college. I was edgy and nervous, as I was coming down on what would become a familiar depression.
I asked, “can I have one of those?”
He asked me if I was sure; I’d been one of the few holdouts from my friends who chose to abstain, committing to never being a smoker. I persisted, and he handed me a Camel, back when they could be called lights. I took it to my mouth, lit it, took a shallow breath. The smoke hit my throat in a way I can’t even remember now, harsh and unpleasant. But again, I persisted.
In the next few weeks I would wear white clothes and take walks in a park near my house. There were trees and asphalt walkways and a short bridge running above a narrow creek. Plastic bags and fallen tree limbs would drift slowly down the water. I would pull out my pack, the first packs I had bought, and light a cigarette then walk and look around. A person walked by, he was probably the age I am today, and asked politely, “how are you?”
“Great,” I would reply, the first time I can remember saying that in a while.
I talked to my father over the phone; he lived far away at the time. I said I had started smoking, he said I should stop. But I enjoyed my walks, this little reprieve. These help me calm down, relax, be happy, I thought, even if only for a few hours. I would be trading away years of my life for this, and at the time, I felt that was the right decision. Even when pressed with that knowledge, I kept going, taking a cigarette out one at a time.
Then I learned the little benefits of smoking. The free conversations out in between classes, breaks at work or even at bus stops. The easy excuse to get away, be alone, think. The bad too. That time you run out unexpectedly, leaving you with an extra hour or two without, the impending but largely imagined symptoms of withdrawal. The coughs from chain smoking in those too often stressful situations, attempting to conjure up some sort of mythical relief.
I have memories when I was little of my grandfather. Well, only onememory. Our family made a trip down to see him and our other relatives. I ran up the stairs in their house and saw him sitting on a recliner, I smiled and ran to him and he scooped me up and I laughed. It’s all vague now.
He died some years later of lung cancer. That’s all I can say about him.
My other grandfather died of lung cancer too, and I have no memories of him. But I do remember my grandmother later married a man who had worked for Phillip Morris. They sell the Marlboro brand cigarettes. By the time I knew him he had had a stroke, he was a long time smoker, and he would need help walking and could hardly speak. My grandmother would help him outside where he would pull out a cigarette. He would have a hard time lighting it because his hand wouldn’t stop shaking.
One time we were sitting in the living room and he wet the couch and started crying. He died some years later, too.
A few days ago my sister had a son. That makes me an uncle now. Since time relentlessly moves forward, no matter our own personal desires to the contrary, one day too I will die. I’d like to see my nephew grow up a little more before that happens, and it makes me angry that that might not happen because of a product I chose to consume years ago for a few weeks of happiness.
Will I become a vague memory, too?
I started smoking because I thought it would help. I wanted to be part of that group that would stand in a circle and pass the lighter around. I wanted to have coffee and cigarettes, know what a menthol tasted like, compare brands. Be an intellectual, different, I don’t know. I would watch someone put a cigarette to their lips and there was some vague, indefinable magic about it. It made them seem more real, somehow. Serious.
I lived for the past ten years or so breathing in thousands of cigarettes. More than twenty a day, probably. Last week I was mowing the lawn and had to take breaks because I would run short of breath every few minutes. Some days I have a constant headache because I have to have a cigarette whenever I read a news article, get anxious or take a break, causing a small overdose. A cashier asked me if I wanted to donate a dollar to a charity for curing some disease. I didn’t give because I needed that money to buy cigarettes.
Not to mention it’ll kill me you know.
Yet, here I am, sitting outside at three in the morning. My laptop’s on the table and my pack of cigarettes sitting beside. What if I stopped today? A friend of mine quit recently, she’d been smoking since she was in middle school. She started getting nostalgic because she could smell things she remembered from when she was a kid. I remember honeysuckles now, I would pull apart their petals and lick the dew from their stems. I don’t know if I could even taste it now.
Your senses comes back pretty fast. Maybe it’ll help me remember things that I thought that I’ve lost. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
There’s a poster in the doctor’s office with the symptoms of COPD. It describes it’s causes and symptoms, shortness of breath, persistent cough and others. There’s also a colorful infographic picture of the lungs. It’s red and pink and detailed with veins, encased in a ghostly and transparent ribcage. Why does this grab my attention now? I feel like begging the doctor to tell me to stop. It’d be doctors orders then and that’d be enough.
It’s my fault though. It’s up to me. Why not today? Not tomorrow, no commitments in the discounted future. No perfect times that I ignore even if they come or bad days to ruin things. Just keep going, try anything and everything. I know that I should or ought to, but I am not paralyzed by my own personal lack of agency as though my mind were my parent and my body it’s rebellious offspring.
You’re in charge man, do it.
*The RVA Mag Sunday Reader is a long form fiction series that connects stories and illustrations from some of Virginia’s most talented and aspiring writers and designers. If you are a writer and designer in Virginia and would like to be featured in the Sunday Reader send a short email, bio, and sample work to [email protected] with Sunday Reader in the subject header.