We met in the canyon. She lit the cigarette for me and handed it to me, and I admired it’s slim whiteness, the curls of smoke breathing out into the dry California air. I took a puff and predictably gagged and coughed. But I learned.
Soon, smoking was a regular weekend habit. I’d hang out with Cecilia in the canyon, or in her backyard when her parents were gone, feeling very cool. Or I’d meet up with friends in the parking lot of the movies or the pizza place, and we’d all cluster around, flirting and smoking. It was unifying, and it gave me something to do with my hands.
Within no time I was smoking every day. I hid a pack of Marlboro Lights in my underwear drawer and sometimes at night, I’d take a cigarette out just to roll it under my nose and smell it. A true addict.
When I became pregnant at 19, I quit. I stayed quit for a few weeks after my son was born, but quickly took up smoking at night on the patio when he was asleep. Smoking was an instant relaxant—similar to what alcohol does for other people, a cigarette did for me. I felt relaxed, even content, and for someone who lived in a high state of anxiety, this was magic. I could talk on the cordless phone for hours just outside the sliding door, where I could hear the baby if he woke and cried. I justified this to myself in many ways: I wasn’t drinking or using drugs, I wasn’t smoking around the baby, and damnit, I loved it.
Throughout my adult life, this was smoking to me—a release from everything proper, everything done for others. Something just for me, something subversive—especially here, on the West Coast—and something incredibly relaxing. My husband and I both smoked in our early 20s. It was our nightly ritual to escape the roles of parenthood and suburban etiquette and sit on the patio to smoke and talk. We leaned into each other, laughing, talking quietly. The world’s expectations of us seemed a million miles away, and for one moment, it was just the two of us again, hanging out.
After the birth of my daughter eight years later, I knew I had to quit for my children. I couldn’t explain to them why I insisted on doing something that might kill me, and I didn’t want to set them up for justifying smoking themselves as they became teenagers.
I still miss smoking. I miss it when I’m having a cold beer in the evening, sitting in silence. I miss the way the smoke would reach out into the air around me and give a particular and desirable atmosphere to mundane life. I miss reading crime novels and smoking. I miss smoking after sex, sweaty and still.
When I drink a hot cup of coffee and try to conjure words from thin air, I miss a cigarette inhale in between sips, the way the hot drink and smoke felt so good together.
Real adults aren’t supposed to endure in wanting things that corrupt—whether that corruption be in relationships, work or your lungs. For me, smoking was such a combination of emotional, sensual and strangely intellectual pleasure that I continue to desire it, years after I quit. I do yoga, I run, I hike—other pursuits that are known relaxants for stressed adults, and I enjoy those things. Yet none of them strike that same chord, that same quality of relaxed awareness, that smoking did.
For a writer, the sense of my mind opening was invaluable. I’d sit outside, notebook in one hand and cigarette in the other, and the ideas and words would come dreamily, curling around me with the smoke. It is that particular ritual of my younger years that I miss most.
It’s hard to justify a nostalgia for something as deadly as this innocuous-looking thin tube of nicotine, so I mostly keep these thoughts to myself. Yet the older I get, the less I care if anyone understands or accepts the way I feel about my own life. Somehow as I grow more interconnected with my loved ones, I simultaneously grow more aware of my central self and the true agency that must come with that self. I’m glad I quit all those years ago, but I still miss smoking.