Monday, August 1, 2011

Confessions of a Secret Smoker

I smoked my first cigarette on the rooftop of one of my dad’s fan apartments when I was eight and he was in the shower. But I didn’t fall desperately in love with smoking until ten years later when a friend lent me a clove during a reading at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. The next day I bummed a Marlboro Red from a boy I hoped would not only lend me his cigarette, but his confidence. Not to mention his exclusive, intellectual brand of love. He lent me his cigarette. I became a pack a day smoker overnight.

When I decided to quit drinking five years later, I told my mother that I was going to wait just a few more years before I quit smoking too. “Fine,” she said, “but would you rather cut your arm off all at once or bit by bit, in pieces?” I decided she had a point. Instead of using gum or the patch, I used an old wiffle ball bat. Beating my couch senseless and crying hysterically for a month did the trick. I was a non-smoker once again. And after writing a long, heartfelt letter about the necessity of living long enough to be there for his children- and grandchildren- my dad quit, too. Good riddance of a nasty habit, I thought. Other than salivating a tiny bit when someone struck a match on the big screen, I didn’t miss it at all.

Until one morning after a storm last summer when I found a miraculously intact package of Black Clove cigarettes in the street next to my car. They had not only been run over, but rained on. I picked them up, ran into my backyard and smoked the entire pack. And then went out to buy another. I knew it was bad. I knew it was wrong. I knew that I never wanted my son--- or any other young person I knew—to see me smoking. Despite this and despite knowing everything that everyone knows about the side effects of tobacco and nicotine, I couldn’t not do it.

Smoking created a smokescreen that neatly hid the things I was hiding from. It reconnected me to the 18 year old girl I’d left behind and badly missed. It gave me a sense of ownership over my time and space, even if that time and space was stolen in furtive puffs next to the dumpster in my backyard. Best of all, smoking cured me of a nasty case of self-righteousness I’d developed the decade prior.

Other mothers in the neighborhood smoked openly while waiting at the bus stop. Now I could no longer think of myself as more highly evolved than they, but still I wondered how they managed to have no shame at all. Shouldn’t they be crouched down behind their dumpsters like me, trapped in an ever quickening cycle of craving and shame, pleasure and remorse?

I knew I had to quit but the idea seemed in the same vein as moving alone to Siberia in the middle of winter. I couldn’t imagine any other way of introducing such a quick rush of pleasure into my life. And, since there were now other actual people living in my house, a wiffle ball bat was no longer an option. I would have to find something meaningful to not only replace the cigarettes, but the ritual they created. I joined Twitter. When that failed, I dug a garden. I took up running. Slowly, these things and others--- making connections through words and people--- began to seal up the place the smoke had filled. I no longer felt the need to hide quite so much or so often—from others or myself. I didn’t have to wonder if I smelled like an ashtray, what kind of example I was setting for my son or if I was going to hack up a lung after dinner. I stopped being so quick to judge others by their vices, reentering a world defined by its many shades of gray. Still, every time a storm passes over our house, I find myself scanning the street to see what may have washed ashore.


  1. You are just wonderful. As a writer. As a person. Thank you. Meg

  2. Nicely done. Twitter didn't work, eh?

  3. Thanks Meg and Jonah! And no, Twitter did not work-- at least it hasn't yet! I'm worse than a Twitter dropout-- I'm an occasional lukewarm twitter lingerer. Oh well. Maybe one day!

  4. i love this, valley. thank you for illuminating the struggle.

  5. yep...i seriously relate...great work. i won't ask if you've completely quit.