Diary of a Smoker

I RODE my bike to the boat pond in Central Park, where I bought myself a cup of coffee and sat down on a bench to read. I lit a cigarette and was enjoying myself when the woman seated twelve feet away, on the other side of the bench, began waving her hands before her face. I thought she was fighting off a bee.

She fussed at the air and called out, “Excuse me, do you mind if we make this a no-smoking bench?”

I don’t know where to begin with a statement like that. “Do you mind ifwe make this a no-smoking bench?” There is no “we.” Our votes automatically cancel one another out. What she meant was, “Do you mind ifI make this a no-smoking bench?” I could understand it it we were in an elevator or locked together in the trunk of a car, but this was outdoors. Who did she think she was? This woman was wearing a pair of sandals, which are always a sure sign of trouble. They looked like the sort of shoes Moses might have worn while he chiseled regulations onto stone tablets. I looked at her sandals and at her rapidly moving arms and I crushed my cigarette. I acted like it was no problem and then I stared at the pages of my book, hating her and Moses the two of them.

The trouble with aggressive nonsmokers is that they feel they are doing you a favor by not allowing you to smoke. They seem to think that one day you’ll look back and thank them for those precious fifteen seconds they just added to your life. What they don’t understand is that those are just fifteen more seconds you can spend hating their guts and plotting revenge.

My school insurance expires in a few weeks so I made an appointment for a checkup. It’s the only thing they’ll pay for as all of my other complaints have been dismissed as “Cosmetic.”

If you want a kidney transplant it’s covered but if you desperately need a hair transplant it’s “Cosmetic.” You tell me.

I stood around the examining room for twenty minutes, afraid to poke around as, every so often, a nurse or some confused patient would open the door and wander into the room. And it’s bad enough to be caught in your underpants but even worse to be caught in your underpants scratching out a valium prescription on someone else’s pad.

When the doctor finally came he looked over my chart and said, “Hey, we have almost the exact same birthday. I’m one day younger than you!”

That did wonders for my morale. It never occurred to me that my doctor could be younger than me. Never entered my mind.

He started in by asking a few preliminary questions and then said, “Do you smoke?”

“Only cigarettes and pot,” I answered.

He gave me a look. “Onlycigarettes and pot? Only?”

“Not crack,” I said. “Never touch the stuff. Cigars either. Terrible habit, nasty.”

I was at work, defrosting someone’s freezer, when I heard the EPA’s report on secondhand smoke. It was on the radio and they reported it over and over again. It struck me the same way that previous EPA reports must have struck auto manufacturers and the owners of chemical plants: as reactionary and unfair. The re-port accuses smokers, especially smoking parents, of criminal recklessness, as if these were people who kept loaded pistols lying on the coffee table, crowded alongside straight razors and mugs of benzene.

Over Christmas we looked through boxes of family pictures and played a game we call “Find Mom, find Mom’s cigarettes.” There’s one in every picture. We’ve got photos of her pregnant, leaning toward a lit match, and others of her posing with her newborn babies, the smoke forming a halo above our heads. These pictures gave us a warm feeling.

She smoked in the bathtub, where we’d find her drowned butts lined up in a neat row beside the shampoo bottle. She smoked through meals, and often used her half-empty plate as an ashtray. Mom’s theory was that if you cooked the meal and did the dishes, you were allowed to use your plate however you liked. It made sense to us.

Even after she was diagnosed with lung cancer she continued to smoke, although less often. On her final trip to the hospital, sick with pneumonia, she told my father she’d left something at home and had him turn the car around. And there, standing at the kitchen counter, she entertained what she knew to be her last cigarette. I hope that she enjoyed it.

It never occurred to any of us that Mom might quit smoking. Picturing her without a cigarette was like trying to imagine her on water skis. Each of us is left to choose our own quality of life and take pleasure where we find it, with the understanding that, like Mom used to say, “Sooner or later, something’s going to get you.”

Something got me the moment I returned home from work and Hugh delivered his interpretation of the EPA report. He told me that I am no longer allowed to smoke in any room that he currently occupies. Our apartment is small four tiny rooms.

I told him that seeing as I pay half the rent, I should be al-lowed to smoke half the time we’re in the same room. He agreed, on the condition that every time I light a cigarette, all the windows must be open.

It’s cold outside.

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