I used to smoke. A little.
Smokers gauge the personal investment in their habit by the number of packs they smoke per day. Even when I did smoke cigarettes, the idea that I would smoke an entire pack in the course of one day was enough to make me queasy. But I counted as a smoker, and I know this because I would roll my eyes at non-smokers at house parties who would bum a smoke the minute they got tipsy. It’s incredible how the most health-conscious among us will crave a cigarette after enough vodka.
The most I ever smoked was probably three cigarettes a day, on average. This habit — and, relatively mild as it was, it was a habit to be sure — started in high school. I did it so my sister’s older friends and my best friend Annie would think I was cool. I didn’t need to try and impress Annie once we truly bonded, but she continued to impress me for a number of reasons, including her commitment to smoking about a pack a day of Marlboro Reds. Reds! By sophomore year! The last time I saw Annie was in Oklahoma, and we hit up a Kum n’ Go to buy a couple packs of smokes. We smoked a couple, guiltily. The older you get, the less cute smoking becomes. Annie has kids. I’m at high risk for cancer in my intestines due to my health history. Put ’em down, girls.
In college, though, that was when I smoked for keeps. Smoking was cute when I was twenty and besides, it was strategic. I was studying theater and everyone knew that auditions were essential, but the real casting happened on the stoop of the theater building between rehearsals and classes. If you wanted to date or go to parties, you flirted and got invites whilst puffing away on your American Spirits. The smokers were the cool kids and I was desperate to be cool by the time I got to Iowa City. In high school I was only grudgingly accepted. I wasn’t a social leper but in the galaxy of Popular Kids, I was a distant, dwarf star. I remember being at the legendary senior party at the end of senior year; just being there engendered love for my fellow classmates, even the ones who would never talk to me. Ben Radish* and a bunch of other people were in the kitchen of the house where the party was and Radish squinted his eyes and regarded me from across the room. He lowered his can of Natty Ice and nodded his head, barely.
“You know, Mary Fons? I guess you’re pretty cool.”
It was like a blessing from the Pope. It’s amazing how much I craved validation from a high school wrestler in a HyperColor shirt whose last name was Radish.
Anyway, the whole cool kid thing, the strategy thing with smoking, it kept going after college because I continued to make theater in Chicago and I was a waitress. Same cultures. Same five-minute break structure in a person’s day. You smoke, therefore you have friends; you smoke, therefore you have something to do between the early morning rush and the mid-morning rush.
But I bagged smoking some time ago. Years ago, with occasional “Let me just see if this still works for me” transgressions. It does not. The more you are not a person who smokes, the more revolting the stink of cigarette smoke becomes, at least for me. I like the way a cigar smells when it’s being actively smoked twenty feet away from me; I do not like the way my shirt smells even after simply holding a cigarette for someone while they button their jacket.
I walk the cities where I live and see people lighting up. I get it. I used to really love smoking. It was a habit and I’m a fan of habits, especially ones that relieve anxiety (e.g., patchwork, chewing my cuticles, rocking ever-so-slightly during intense conversations, etc.) But smoking is for the birds. And the birds don’t even smoke. So probably no one should.
Of course, we could all vape.