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Jul 25 2011

Up In Smoke

By at 1:28 pm
Sarah and her mother in 2000, the year Sarah took up smoking

My mom had a symbiotic relationship with cigarettes.

She was a product of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when star-crossed lovers proclaimed their undying devotion while blowing smoke in each other’s face–thus sealing their fate that one day, they would die together. (Of lung cancer.)

She was also a product of a home where her parents would unwind after a long day by sitting across from one another at the kitchen table. Her father would strike a match, light her mother’s Lucky Strike, and then his own, and my mom would watch as the smoke from their cigarettes twirled in twin plumes, twisting together in the glow of after dinner peace. These were sacred moments of fleeting stillness– a way of being that transcended the pressures of work and raising children, of keeping house and cooking dinner. And as soon as the last ember fell from their Lucky Strikes, the moment would end.

Until the next.

(They kept the peace living cigarette to cigarette.)

So, it’s little wonder that my mom started smoking on a chilly night in October when the stress of midterm exams weighed down on her.

“Just one…” she said to her best friend as they sat on the steps outside Kingsolving Dormitory at the University of Texas. She coughed. She wheezed. She almost threw up. But she kept going.

One cigarette turned into another and into another and into another, and with a nine month exception in the early ‘80’s, she smoked until the day she died.

These are some of the things I remember about my mom:

1). When we’d ride in the car together, she’d slip Bach into the tape deck, and while humming along, she’d tap her cigarette out the window in staccato syncopation.

2). She’d sit at her desk, a cup of instant coffee cooling slowly beside the typewriter, and bang out a story pausing only to pick up her GPC 100 Ultra Lights. The room would fill with smoke, and her silhouette would fade into a blur of blue. When I was in high school and hammering out a history paper, she’d perch in the wicker chair by the window cigarette in hand, reading passages to me from Howard Zinn or Thomas Friedman–“You have to add this quote!” She’d say, and then she’d read it again while my fingers flew to catch up.

3) When she got sick –(ovarian, not lung)– her parents begged her to quit. She didn’t. She couldn’t. Instead, at family gatherings, she’d sneak outside to the back steps, hiding her nicotine stained shame in the shadows of Aunt Judy’s Santa Monica apartment. I would slip out with her, her co-conspirator, and we would sit side-by-side, speaking freely in the darkness. Then, she’d douse herself with GAP Dream perfume, her fingers, her hair, even her mouth, and we’d step back inside, our eyes glowing with a shared secret.

4) Even when the world around her gave up smoking in the wake of the Surgeon General’s Cassandra cry–first her dear friend, Nancy, then Aunt Judy, and finally my Grandparents–she held fast to her smokes. Sure, she tried to stop–Smoke Enders, the Patch, a day meditating at an Ashram, but in the end, she’d reach for that secret stash hidden behind the VCR. I would threaten her: “If you don’t stop, I’m going to start.” She would reply: “Don’t you dare.”

But dare I did.

I had my first cigarette when I was 18, on a sultry night in Tel Aviv while sitting across from a handsome stranger. Very glamorous. Very Bette Davis and Paul Henreid. And that first one didn’t feel like a big deal–I felt no rush of adrenaline, no woozy high.

“You have to inhale it,” the stranger laughed. “Breathe it in, deep into your lungs. Otherwise you look like a virgin”

I took a deep breath, and sucked. And it felt like someone had hit me in the back of the head with a sledge hammer. I coughed and choked. If I were a cartoon, I would have turned a putrid shade of green.

(In fact, maybe I did.)

“You have to have another one, until you learn how to do it. It’s just like sex,” he said. “Keep trying ‘til you get good at it.” He put his hand on my thigh.

I smoked that entire summer. And well into the next. My parents never found out, and really, it didn’t feel like an addiction because I could go days without lighting up.

When autumn rolled around, and I moved to Berkeley, I discovered vanilla cigarettes. Every afternoon after class, I would head to Wall Berlin where I would smoke and drink with itchy enthusiasm.

More than the physical aspects of smoking, I craved the experience of sitting outside with a cigarette in hand, talking to strangers – something that comes easy when you’re able to say, “Hey, gotta light?”

Still, I felt like I could quit anytime. And really, I did quit. Just like that in the middle of Freshman Year during the rainy season when meaningful conversations with random strangers were harder to come by in the wet, dreary alleyways next to Wall Berlin.

But when my mother died on an incongruously warm morning in mid-January four years after I had stopped smoking, I reached behind the VCR and found her secret stash. I could almost smell her in the half-empty package of GPC 100 Ultra Lights, the memory of her touch still there from only a few days before. I pulled out a cigarette, and after rummaging further back behind the VCR, I found her purple lighter. I touched the ridges of her fingerprints.

But still, even though I smoked that day, and on into the next few weeks, it was easy to quit. No, I swear: Just like that, I was done.

Six years passed. And when we landed in Israel, we were assaulted by the acrid stench of smoke from all sides, everywhere. It’s all around us here, clinging to the trees. Disgusting and dangerous. And yet, smelling the smoke everywhere slammed me headfirst into the memory of my mom’s office when we would sit in companionable silence while she’d dig for just the right quote to help me flesh out my history paper. And now, as the months slip by in Israel, and I feel myself falling further and further from the familiar–from my family and friends and the memory of my mom–I take a deep breath and ask the question that has led me to this moment: “Can I get a cigarette?”

And just like that I’m smoking again. Only this time, there are two little kids at home, and not only do I want to protect their fragile lungs from the choice I’ve made to smoke again, I also know through the lessons of my mom and her parents (and their parents, too) that I am willfully continuing the dysfunctional legacy of this symbiotic relationship with cigarettes.

And so, I’m sitting here at the coffee place on the kibbutz, typing typing typing if only to keep my fingers from reaching for the pack of cigarettes and purple lighter. But this time—for about ten thousand reasons—it’s harder to stop. Still, even though I want a cigarette so bad that I could actually suck the smoke belched from the cement factory a few miles away in Ramle right now, I won’t.

Because even though I have never smoked in front of my kids, I know that unless I stop right now, this fucking second, it’s only a matter of time before I am lurking in the shadows of the Hader Ohel with M. where I’ll turn to her and say “Don’t tell your father I’m doing this.” And her eyes will gleam with the excitement of being trusted with such a big secret, just as my eyes shone when I would sneak outside with my mom all those many years ago in a moment I carry with me today.


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