The next cigarette I smoke

          I smoked cigarettes for eighteen years. There were a couple of times in there when I quit for a few months, or Ďtried to quití (which obviously never involves trying hard enough), but I mostly smoked up a gale-force storm from when I started at thirteen until I quit at 31. Several of those years were at three packs a day and a couple of them were at four. I even had my five-pack nights at the height of my game. I was lighting them so fast that I often forgot about the one I was already smoking and lit another. When I played with my band, I usually had one in my mouth, one tucked in between the strings and the headstock of my guitar and one in the ashtray sitting on my amplifier. I loved having cigarettes around me because they were fabulously transferable symbols. You could associate them with anything you wished and then, once the association was made, they would construct these mutually beneficial, reflexive relationships wherein the cigarette would enhance your enjoyment of the thing and the thing would thereafter enhance your enjoyment of the cigarette. It was a really nifty trick for injecting pleasure into any part of the day that required some. Suddenly things like Ďthe cigarette after finishing a poemí or Ďthe cigarette when coming out of a movieí became cinematic moments to be relished and romanticized. Of course, through all of this, I was also becoming addicted to the little devils. I convinced myself (with their help, Iím sure) that they tasted good, that they looked cool, that I actually needed them for multiple acts and occasions. I steadily built the notion of quitting into a daunting, mythological task. Like Sisyphus with a lighter, I would roll back to ten cigarettes a day, then five, then eight, then twelve.
          By the time I was 31, I was back up over three packs a day again, with no particular interest in stopping. But my health took a turn off the map and finally managed to get my attention. I started getting winded when I would walk up stairs. In the mornings, I would hack and wheeze, often coughing until I threw up. I gained weight from lack of exercise. My voice deteriorated to the point where I couldnít hit the notes in my own songs anymore. I saw a couple of doctors who said they couldnít do anything about my symptoms unless I would quit smoking. I developed the constant sensation of having something in my throat, which regularly triggered my gag reflex. One day, on an otherwise lovely Parisian street corner, a coughing/gagging attack sent me sprawling to my knees, heaving chunks of grey sludge and blood into the gutter. An elderly woman looked on in horror, clearly imagining that I was closer to death than she was. It wasnít the first time that had happened to me but it was, for whatever reason, the time that made me quit smoking. I got up from the ground, threw away my cigarette (which I had been holding throughout the attack), and havenít smoked another one since. That was five years ago today as I write this. I knew it would be harder to quit if I told myself that it was forever, so I told myself I would quit for ten years. I had read somewhere that ten years was long enough to reverse the physical damage that smoking had done. I figured that might be a bullshit, arbitrary number, but a bullshit, arbitrary number was just what I needed right then, so I went with it. Now that Iím halfway there, itís hard to imagine why I would ever want to smoke again, but my five-year anniversary seemed like a fun time to try. So here it goes:

          Iím on a beach. No, Iím not exactly on the beach. Letís really do this right. Ahem. Iím about ninety yards inland from a rocky beach, on a wooden deck, two stories up, with a panoramic coastal view. Itís just after nine p.m. in the autumn, chilly but not cold. Thereís a hot tub bubbling away on the deck (to my right) but Iím not using it tonight. Iím stretched out on a greyish, slatted, distressed teak chaise lounge, with an upright wine barrel serving as a table on my left. A few vines are growing up the barrel from the greenery thatís invading that whole side of the deck. Iím barefoot, wearing thin cotton beige painterís pants, rolled up above the ankle, a beat-up old brown leather belt with a silver buckle, no underwear, and a creamy oatmeal, zip neck pullover with lots of navy blue flecks in the weave. My hair has been cut recently, but is much greyer now. Iím around 46 or 47. Iíve just come outside after eating dinner with Sophia, a South American art student who hangs out here sometimes and uses my wifeís studio. My wife is away for the week, shooting a photo project in Russia, but she is very close with Sophia and doesnít mind that we occasionally have sex with each other when sheís not around. Sophia has a freckled, olive face with dark, evasive eyes and a huge, wickedly childish smile. She laughs a lot. She doesnít love me but we have fun when weíre together. Dinner was a roasted pork loin on a bed of fresh baby spinach with a cinnamon-cranberry reduction, rosemary red potatoes and green beans sautťed with garlic and shallots. During the meal, we got two thirds of the way through a peppery 2004 Languedoc. I washed the dishes, looking out the window at the moon hovering over the sea, while Sophia put a crackling old jazz record on the turntable at a gentle volume. Then I poured two fingers of good cherry brandy into one of my grandfatherís thick crystal snifters and came out here to get some fresh air. I take a sip of the brandy and set it down on the little barrel table. I run my finger along one of the vines. A crisp breeze rustles through the bushes under the deck. Sophia bounces happily through the open double doors. I hear her bare feet slap onto the floorboards and I turn to her. She asks if I feel like a smoke. She holds out an open packet of Dunhill Blues, in the original square box, with one of the cigarettes already sticking out of the pack just far enough for me to be reminded of the little gold leaf lettering that each one bears on its paper. ĎOh, what the hell,í I think. I take the cigarette and Sophia hands me a strike-anywhere match, which I flick against the edge of the barrel and pull quickly into my cupped hand to protect it from the wind (a motion which never left the muscle memory). I light up, shake the match out and place it on the barrel, next to my glass. I take a good, deep pull, then suck some air in with it. I hold for an instant, letting my head drift backward to contemplate the taste, and then I slowly blow the growing white plume into the clear, dark sky, watching curiously as it obscures the stars.

          I wonder: Is it only if my life went a certain way, or if I found myself in a certain type of setting, that I would smoke again? How many prompts and triggers would it take to unlock the full force of those old cravings? It might not even take so much. I suppose it could be something totally banal that winds up pushing that button. Perhaps Iíll just be shitfaced on cheap rum at a boring party and someone will hand me something which I think is a joint, and Iíll smoke half of it before I realize that it tastes funny to me because itís nothing more than rolling tobacco. Or maybe Iíll break down and accept a drag from a Camel Light as a gesture of consolation at a terribly difficult funeral that I canít yet see coming. It could even work out that I never smoke again at all. It could be my own funeral that pops up on the horizon somewhere between now and my next cigarette. But I honestly donít really mind one way or the other. For now, Iím just sticking to my original plan, which means five more years of staying away from North Atlantic oceanfront property, cute South American art students and top-shelf cherry brandy. I havenít married that photographer yet, but so far she doesnít smoke. And she also doesnít leave me unattended for weeks at a time.