Issue No. 20 | Spring 2019
My Life As Measured Out In Books And Smoking Breaks
If you had asked me, my junior year in high school, what my favorite book was I would have told you Franny and Zooey with enthusiasm. This was in the early 2000s (in a part of America where news had not yet reached anyone that J.D. Salinger was a problematic male writer). All I knew was that I loved the Glass family. The Glasses were witty and tender and wise. They also smoked an astonishing amount of cigarettes. My sixteen-year-old self was amazed at how many ashtrays they kept in their house, and how many packets of king-size cigarettes Mrs. Glass kept in the pockets of her housecoat at once. Every word Franny or Zooey uttered seemed dramatized by the rhythmic pause of inhaling, tapping, or lighting a cigarette. So it comes as no surprise that, around this time, I also took up smoking.
My brand was Camel lights. From the first time I tried smoking, I loved it. The scrape of the lighter, that first long pull, the way you held it between two fingers pointed up in a V, and gestured while you spoke. My friends and I used to hang out in our suburban high school parking lot and smoke. That is perhaps where the similarities between my life and Franny Glass’s end. My friends and I used to sneak out at night to hang out at the 24-hour IHop beside the highway. We pushed packets of sugar around, and speculated as to why the gruff and pervy baseball coach had been abruptly fired last year, only to be spotted months later, working the cash register at Foot Locker in the mall—and we imagined all the places in the world that must be better than our town. We could always count on Jared, the toothy 32-year-old who worked the night shift at the gas station, to not card us for our cigarettes.
In high school, my best friend and I used to drive around in her car at night, windows cracked to let cold air in, and streams of exhaled smoke out—smoke and charged conversation. Especially our senior year, when all we talked about was college applications and getting out of town. On my own, I liked to sneak out at midnight and walk alone. I used to go to the park up the street and sit on tops of picnic benches—made of peeling plastic, and faded by the rain and sun. I stared up at the moon in the distant sky, and the moon shined down on me. This was the only way I ever prayed, and, somehow, cigarettes were part of it. Later, there was a boyfriend who joined me in my moonlight sittings. He heard all about my love for Franny and Zooey, and my longing to get out into the big wide world. Ivy League education, become a writer in New York City. The boyfriend did not last, but smoking did. And so did my love for reading.
I ended up going to college one state over: Texas. UT Austin was a great place to be a student—with its sprawling campus, lined with oak and pecan trees, and a well-funded library to study in. Texas was where I discovered my love of late-night writing sessions, and my love of late-night coffee haunts. In Texas, I discovered a whole new canon of problematic male writers to idolize. Seated on the benches outside the library with all the other night owls, I debated the merits of T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. I learned I was good at talking, good at listening, good at thinking, with my cigarette poised between taut fingers, wrist bent just so. I punctuated everything I said with cigarettes.
Beneath the Gothic-style library was a little coffee shop called Prufrock—a reference to the T.S. Eliot poem, “The Love Song.” There is a line in the poem that goes:
… evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
I liked that line. This line made me understand what was so pleasurable about rhythm. Not just the melodic meter of the language, or the way that “afternoons” is made to rhyme with “coffee spoons.” More than that, I liked the insight into the rhythms we find within our daily habits. Even the most ordinary rituals, like stirring sugar in your coffee, or flipping a “lucky” cigarette around inside your pack to save for last. Like smoothing the page of your notebook, clicking your pen two times and biting your lip before getting down to write. In this way, I fell into rituals around my midnight smoking breaks outside the library. Even when no one else was out there but the moon.
Those nights in Texas were hot, swampy, mosquito-bitten—backlit by a low, swollen, yellow moon that was somehow different and the same as the moon in my hometown. I used to go outside alone and sit on squeaky porch steps barefoot, communing with the moon while all the world slept. The moon watched each night as I fumbled for my matches, sucked in my cheeks and made countless cherries grow red-hot, crackling in the humid dark. In the quiet. The moon watched me stubb out countless butts into ashtrays, overflowed with rainwater. That was college, and it was fun while it lasted.
In the time I lived in Texas, I had one or two boyfriends who tried to get me to quit smoking, who disliked the ebb and flow of currents inside of me, which sometimes pulled me outside, or to my writing desk at night, instead of to them. Eventually, those currents carried me to travel: I lived abroad, I went to grad school. It took me a lot longer to get to New York than I intended, but when I did get here, I was still smoking. Still trying to be as clever as J.D. Salinger, even though I now understood how hurtful he had been to the woman in his life who was the inspiration for Franny, the character I’d loved so much when I was young. By then, I had collected enough hurts of my own to understand.
Walking around New York, I would plunge my hands in my coat pockets and feel the hard, crisp square comfort of a freshly-bought pack—not because I loved this so, but because it felt like safety. Smoking had become something that I did without thinking. It had become an excuse to leave the dinner table early; to be alone, rather than with people. In social settings, when I found myself empty-handed, I got anxious. As if I might dissolve without something to hold onto. In retrospect, I was deeply unhappy. Those first few years in New York, when I could not sleep at night, I would climb up to my roof and look out at the city while I smoked. Frustrated, lonely, hating myself but not wanting to admit it. The harder I worked, the faster I walked. The brighter I talked, the more energy I effused; the more cash I dropped on cigarettes to burn through. I cringe, now, thinking about how much money I inhaled smoking. When I developed a rattling cough in winter, I blamed the weather.
Eventually, what got me to quit was a bad case of pneumonia. I was delirious, sweaty, hacking up phlegm, haunting the aisles of CVS at midnight like the workaholic fool that I was—and still agitated enough to crave a cigarette to grate my lungs with. I felt very far away from my old midnights with the moon. So I quit. It wasn’t easy, and it was not clean break. I tried vaping (which did not suit me), and I hand-rolled cigarettes for a while (still do occasionally). Hand-rolling has a slower tempo to it. It demands moderation. And if you use the skinny filters and natural tobacco, at least you are protecting your health. At least you are not throwing money at the chemical industry. Mostly, though, my journey towards letting go of cigarettes came down to finding a way to like myself enough to not want to be choking all the time. Liking myself enough to just breathe.
T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Prufrock,” in the end, is about mortality. The poet fears growing old and missing out on the extraordinary. Smoking cigarettes is also about mortality, I think. When I was young, I smoked in defiance of death. But since I have grown—and grown into being, grown into better, more loving relationships—my perspective is more gentle. As I grew into myself, I slipped off the need to bolster myself with cigarettes and cleverness. I am grateful for that. I am more able, now, to enjoy quiet moments. I am content with afternoons and coffee spoons as markers of a life well spent. Though it took me an awfully long time to get here.