By Michael Workman
I’m trying to quit again and I’m not sure if I want to. That is to say, I know the why but not the how. How do I give up the longest relationship I’ve ever had? I first picked up a cigarette when I was sixteen. I remember walking through the neighbor’s yard next to my girlfriend Elizabeth’s house. I’d had sex for the first time ever with her a few months earlier, and she just now broke up with me to get back together with Lenny, the boy she lost her virginity to, and is chasing me across the yard, catching up with me just as I light one, and take my first drag. How appropriate that word, “drag.” I turn to look at her, curly red hair fanning out in the breeze at her shoulders as she lopes toward me, skin flush but pale, lips thin, determined. I manage to crack a grin just as she catches up with me, snatches the cigarette from my hand, throws it to the ground and wraps her arms around me. We cry.
That’s the tradeoff. Nearly thirty years later, I’m in Winnipeg, visiting my girlfriend Norma’s family for the first time. I’m sitting across from her at a table in the restaurant started by her father, a lush, converted train station. It’s the eve of New Year’s Eve. We talk about smoking, her curly black hair shudders as she gesticulates, studying me. Her sister, who owns the place, sits with us, and talk quickly turns to my quit attempt. “You have to let him do it when he’s ready,” says her sister. “How is it going to be different from when you tried last time?” asks Norma. “It’s not a process,” I try to explain, “it’s a struggle.” Everyone in my family smokes except my dad, I stammer. Aunts, uncles, grandparents. My mom sneaks occasionally. “This is the last generation that grew up when smoking was still socially acceptable, cool even.” I say. Norma’s dad died from smoking, and she starts feeling ganged up on. The conversation descends into an argument that ends in tears. I’m frustrated, leave to smoke. Google the history of the stop smoking movement on my phone. Hitler famously banned it, Wikipedia tells me, after “German doctors became the first to identify the link between smoking and lung cancer,” and he was worried about its effects on reproduction among Aryans. Smokers were viewed as suffering from “racial degeneracy” and, of course, that it had been foisted on the world by “Jewish capitalism.” Exhale. Breathe. I glance down at the butt between my leather-gloved fingers. It’s cold outside. Too cold to stand out here smoking. That’s not what it is, that may have been how it started, but I know that’s not the right argument. Not worth making. And I don’t want to fucking die that way, suffocating, sat upright in a hospital bed. How am I going to beat this? I hear myself think.
It’s strange to think that something like this, something that’s so acceptable when you are young, how strange it is for civilization as a whole to turn and abjure it so completely. But it’s naïve to think that how you know yourself defines what is worth embracing about the world. Or that the world you decide to value is worth living for. Sometimes, it’s important to let what matters most to us, in our hearts, die a true and final death. Smokers are ostracized more vociferously now than heroin addicts, and it’s at least partly clear why that’s the case: my own grandparents both themselves succumbed to lung cancer, dying too young, too soon. I know a lot of people with friends and relatives who have died from it. I remember, for instance, visiting my grandmother Treva in the hospital when she was first diagnosed, sitting on a bed in her nightgown, thick white stream of oxygen mist flowing in a plume out the end of a frosted white plastic tube she is holding to her lips with arthritic hands, fingers frozen into right angles at the knuckles, eyes pinched shut as she struggles to breathe. She can only go out with an oxygen tank in tow after that, starts on the regimen of steroids that make her bloat up, grow large and fleshy, losing the trim figure she has always been so proud of. I go to see her after she moves in with my uncle Sonny. It’s all downhill after her conniving, power-hungry family gets involved. My aunt Karel sells the house out from under her the second she gets power of attorney. Treva sits in a dark corner of the family room, where she is more comfortable because it’s harder to see what she looks like, and I find a spot on the edge of the sofa next to her. “I look like Porky Pig,” she says, sad, defeated. We sit together in the dark awhile, the rest of the family not daring to approach the dark corner we inhabit, and we speak awhile on trivial matters, she likes the socks I’m wearing. I tell her I love her, procedurally, fighting not to feel everything I’m feeling. She’s dying.
I go outside, get in my car, and light a cigarette. Maybe if I die from what she died of, somehow I can make up for the loss I feel for how well she loved me. At home later that night, I’m watching “Wild at Heart,” high, alone, all the smoking scenes close-up cuts of the tip of a cigarette burning, a remembrance of the trauma Laura Dern’s character has blocked out, of the fire her mother set that burned her father alive. It occurs to me that my own relationship with smoking has this same power, to collect all the traumas into one, singular, exceptional realization, the balance in which hangs my decision to live or to give into my petty rationalizations for why it’s better not to. That in the good and the bad that happens, the decision to survive or succumb is entirely in my own hands, that smoking represents a form of empowerment over these petty indignities, and it occurs to me, these many years after my grandmother has died and gone, that maybe dying on my own is a more thoughtful way to honor that legacy, to show the power of the love she had for me, and to acknowledge that what she wanted most for me was to live knowing that I am loved. Exhale. Breathe.