Bright Leaf

A habit. A comfort. An addiction. An indulgence. A nuisance. A crime. A vice. A sin. An error. A joy.

Surprising cigarette-smoking locations:

The dentist’s chair in Italy. The dentist was a friend of the family with whom I was staying. His name was Gigi and he could see me that afternoon. It was a gum abscess, quite painful. He was both quick and careful while fixing it.

Then I felt faint.

“Just stay there,” he said. “Don’t get up.” He brought me some water and put his hand on my arm. “Have a cigarette,” he said. “It’ll make you feel better.”

It did.

Driving lessons at the age of thirty-five. Driving made me nervous, which was why I’d put off learning for so long. I went for one jerky spin around the parking lot with my instructor. Then: “Pull over.”

I came to an abrupt stop.

“Lady,” he asked, “Do you smoke?”


“So will you please have a cigarette. You’re too tense.”

“I don’t know if I can smoke and drive at the same time,” I said.

“You gotta learn. Might as well do it all at once.”

In Charles DeGaulle airport. Decades after smoking had been banned in the air and then almost everywhere else, I found a small, yellowed room on the floor below gate access with a sign on the door in three languages: SMOKING. Inside, several travelers were stoking up for their voyages. I joined them. I had four cigarettes in a row, enough to make me feel sick to my stomach. I was halfway across the Atlantic before I wanted another, and by then I thought I could make it.

Standing on the steps of the M.I.T. infirmary where my mother lay dying. But she had told me, just two days before, when I offered her a cigarette, “You smoke it for me.” The staff were so indulgent of her that they had, until that point, allowed her to smoke. But then they put her on oxygen, which was why I had gone outside. One of her doctors passed by.

“You have to stop smoking. You have to!” he said.

I didn’t. But after she died, I resolved never to smoke inside again, and I have kept to that—except in unusual circumstances like the dentist and DeGaulle Airport.

I have said, “It’s too cold to smoke,” when it was an extraordinary fifteen below zero in Cambridge. But in fact it wasn’t too cold to smoke, because I did. It was too cold to inhale, though. It was too cold for the cigarette to burn in its regular way. The same thing on the day when it was a hundred. I went out with an umbrella and stood right beside the house trying to keep out of the blazing day. It was so humid and thick and smelly that the atmosphere was rather like a cigarette already. I wasn’t exactly smoking; I was making the gestures of smoking.

Quite a few of my boyfriends have said, “You love smoking more than you love me.”

People do not hesitate to tell me to stop smoking and to inform me how dangerous it is, in case I haven’t heard about that. Some kinds of bad behavior are off-limits for comment: drinking too much, eating too much, spending time with idiots or losers. Doing those things may provoke disapproval, but almost nobody will criticize the person in public. Smoking is not like that. People often justify this by talking about secondhand smoke, but since I don’t smoke inside and they aren’t exposed to my secondhand smoke, this argument doesn’t have much weight.

At eight-thirty one morning I was walking to work at my proofreading job through an almost-deserted Harvard Square. Another woman was walking about fifteen feet in front of me. I lit a cigarette. She began waving her hands around her head and making little coughing sounds. After a block of this, she turned around.

“Would you put that cigarette out,” she said. She had a disdainful, pained expression.

“I think Harvard Square is big enough for both of us,” I said.

I crossed the street, but I kept smoking.

I have a friend who doesn’t smoke anymore, except when I am visiting. She is so reluctant to be seen doing it, however, that she won’t smoke on her front porch. We have to hide in the backyard.

People often remark on how tan and healthy I look, especially in the winter. “Smoking,” I tell them. That surprises them.

The fellowship of the exiled smokers, outside offices, theaters, waiting rooms, restaurants. Nobody ever asks for a light anymore. These days you can’t be sure of finding another smoker, so everyone has a lighter of his own. No flimsy cardboard pack at the convenience store, no elegant, memory-provoking box at the restaurant. A host of advertising opportunities lost. Also, another thing that used to be free, but which now you have to buy: Matches! It’s like buying water. Thirty years ago you couldn’t have imagined it; now, it’s the norm.

I like joining a clot of smokers at intermission or between courses. I will be welcomed into the group with a slight shuffle of rearrangement on the pavement to make room for me; maybe a raised eyebrow indicating “This is what we’ve come to,” particularly in rain or snow, the kind of weather in which people don’t just stand around outside.

What is smoking for? People who don’t smoke think it’s for feeding an addiction, and they’re right. Once you’ve started smoking, it’s hard to stop. But that’s a narrow definition. There’s a physical addiction and there’s also a spiritual addiction. Perhaps you could call it a metaphysical addiction.

To have a cigarette is to step out of day-to-day existence and into a private, solitary existence. It’s just you and your cigarette. Hello, says the cigarette, You’ve come to visit me. And you say, Yes, hello—but really, you know that you’ve come to visit yourself. The cigarette is a method of being alone and listening to yourself, of having nobody but yourself to listen to or to be with.

It’s also a way to stop time. Time spent smoking is not real time. Nothing else is happening. There is no progress. There is no trying to start something or complete something or even forget something.
Since smokers have been excommunicated from indoor life, this contemplative aspect of smoking has come to the fore. I’m grateful that I can’t smoke inside anymore. Now, about once an hour, I can stop whatever I’m doing without making an excuse for stopping it, and go outside. Then I am with birds and trees, or with skyscrapers and trucks, or with rain, or with the sunset that is beginning, pink and streaky, over in the west. The whole world is there and I am also there, but I have nothing to do except watch it or ignore it and smoke my cigarette.

Smoking is also a punctuation mark, probably a period, but sometimes an exclamation point. Dinner’s in the oven, time for a cigarette. Did all the errands on my list, cigarette! Finished reading that book, emptied the dishwasher, got through to that person who never answers the phone: cigarette, cigarette, cigarette.

And a clock. Smoking is both a marker of the passage of time and a way to elude time. I know how long an hour is because nicotine tells me. Then the cigarette gives me four or five minutes (I am not sure how many minutes it takes to smoke a cigarette) that are not exactly minutes. They are pure existence.

Since I began to smoke, I have stopped only once. A frightening dentist refused to extract my rotten tooth unless I promised not to smoke for two weeks. Otherwise, he predicted a dry socket, which sounded terrible. He assured me it would be terrible. He also assured me he would not help me if I got it and hadn’t stopped smoking. So I did.

It was very odd. I felt that I was in a sensory-deprivation tank. Part of that was being in a nicotine-deprivation tank, but there was more to it. My day had no shape. None of my activities made any sense, because my life had become unstructured, as if it were one long, run-on sentence. I had no excuse for getting away from people, and I realized that much of my delight in smoking had to do with the ready escape it provided. Boring dinner party? Endless-seeming movie? Argument with the sweetheart? Cigarettes solved these problems.

I didn’t get the dry socket and my gum healed nicely, and I had a glimpse of an alternate self, one who didn’t smoke. I didn’t understand her. She was just there, always present in the Now. She felt amorphous to me—me the smoker. I could see that she had her good points. For instance, she could walk faster than I did. One of my friends said her face looked better, but since this was a particularly anti-smoking friend, I dismissed that. Her pocketbook had more room in it because she didn’t have to carry a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. But I—I the smoker—felt that I had forgotten something essential every time I left the house. And I had. I had forgotten my cigarettes. I felt also that I had forgotten myself.

After two weeks I went outside to resume smoking.

Wow! Smoking made me feel that I was going to pass out. I remembered this sensation from when I was fifteen and learning how to smoke.

I couldn’t finish that first post-extraction cigarette. And for about a minute, I wondered if perhaps I should stop smoking for real. After all, I had begun to stop smoking. I had spent quite a few nights jolted awake three or four times by nicotine withdrawal. I had gone out to dinner and sat at the table for the entire evening with no excuse for getting up. I had made a good start on not smoking.

Standing outside in my garden, looking at my beloved little ashtray (a terra cotta pot saucer with a bigger terra cotta pot saucer as a lid to keep the weather out), which I had hidden behind the bag of Plant-Tone for the two-week abstinence and had just ceremonially replaced in its spot on the stone wall of the raised bed, I was so happy to be back in my familiar smoking position, in my familiar smoking peace, that I decided No. I didn’t want to stop smoking. I didn’t know myself when I wasn’t smoking and I didn’t want to be somebody who didn’t smoke. It didn’t matter that I had to relearn how to smoke. I was confident I’d be able to do that.

I was being a self-destructive fool. I was squandering the only real opportunity I’d ever had to stop smoking. What was my problem?

Though it’s embarrassing to admit, I didn’t want to participate in the general wellness culture. I didn’t want to be one of the many people who were improving themselves by going on juice fasts, cutting out red meat, or meditating daily. Smoking was my meditation. I didn’t want to hear from people who’d been telling me or even begging me to stop smoking how wonderful it was that I had finally done so. I had (and still have) an adolescent kind of rebelliousness. I saw that, and I knew it was ridiculous and petulant and inappropriate (a terrible word used by people who were on juice fasts or who didn’t eat red meat) for a supposedly adult person. That was one reason.

The main reason, though, was that I enjoyed it.

Every cigarette still thrills me. The zing, the smell, the trail of vapor beside me, as if I am a tiny airplane.

And I am a tiny airplane, going off on a brief trip to bliss.

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