Some cigarettes burn longer, some burn quicker. Some lovers stay longer, some leave sooner. One can burn through a lot of both. But in the process of burning, discarding, and lighting again, it’s understood that perhaps, one day, there will be no need for any of it anymore. When one is a smoker, one will eventually have to quit, whether still in your 20s or 30s or when the doctor wheels out your first oxygen tank. When one is in the dating market, a partner will eventually be found, hopefully of the lifelong sort.
I happen to suck at quitting smoking and at dating, but goddamn it, I keep trying, trying to land on that vague inevitability somewhere in my future.
At a certain point, the prospective lovers start to feel like the very brands I’ve smoked. Hank smoked Parliament Lights, so I knew he wasn’t seriously addicted since the brand is light and quick-burning. We dated for a month, I left for a trip for three weeks. When I returned, I never heard back from him.
Will smoked American Spirit yellows and home-brewed kombucha while listening to NPR. He offered to fix my typewriter but never did. We broke up. Occasionally he’d text to see what I was up to in life. My updates were like his top-of-the-hour newscasts and he’d disappear after getting the latest. It was a slower burn.
Gabriel smoked Marlboro reds, had a tattoo of his deceased veteran brother on his ribs and disappeared to Hawaii to forget his past, maybe forge a new path. He coughed the hardest.
Benny didn’t smoke, but didn’t mind that I did. He said it reminded him of his mother who left him, since she was a smoker too. The whole thing was weird.
Michael would always roll his cigarettes with the measured precision of his mathematical proofs, methodically slow but perfect, using a cheap tobacco no one had ever heard of. He didn’t seem to care so much for smoking so much as the process of making the cigarette.
And for whatever reason, those who smoke Camels are the ones I fall for hardest and who never love me back.
I met Rob over coffee and cigarettes in Los Angeles, him sitting with a friend at a table next to mine. He smoked Marlboro Reds and I was smoking Marlboro 27s. I struck up a conversation and we inhaled each others’ words and carcinogens for endless hours.
We ended up dating for two years. Rob had been in Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, while I had my share of emotional demons, being a left-handed Pisces from the Pacific Northwest. Cigarettes felt like a necessary and manageable vice in the grand spectrum of catastrophic vices.
In retrospect, I should have quit Rob early on; but I held on, just as I held on to my smokes. It’s scary to be addicted to something, or someone; but it’s scarier to forge a path without either when one isn’t ready. I dug in deeper with both of my addictions, though I switched to Camels as though I were making some self-ascribed philosophical shift. With smoking and with Rob.
Eventually, Rob and I successfully quit smoking together; not long after that, Rob successfully quit me.
The withdrawals – of the nicotine and the person – were horrendous. Many of the symptoms overlap. There are the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief that manifest as batshit mood swings. Things can get confusing when one dances between bargaining and denial in any given half hour. I felt like a Tennessee Williams anti-hero. The bargaining is always the most shameful, with Rob and with the cigarettes. No one ever likes a haggler.
Of course, nicotine withdrawals also have their physical effects too. For me, it means being hot-n-bothered as hell. As such, I strongly suggest that if one goes cold turkey, have a trustworthy and reliable (if not insatiable) sexual partner, which I no longer had.
I spoke to a dude working at the Quickie-Mart around the corner about this. He nodded knowingly and smiled, “Quitting smoking saved my marriage.” He may have been waxing on the health benefits but the wink had me believe otherwise.
Once I got dumped, I slapped on the nicotine patch, exercised as though I were absolving the world of its sins, and invested in a real vibrator fit for a real, cigarette-and-partner-free woman. I had all that extra money I wasn’t spending on tobacco to blow at the toy store.
And I mourned. Profoundly.
It’s never easy to lose an identity, and I had lost two of them. The temptation to gain either back is gut-wrenching and disturbingly easy. $5 at the Quickie Mart would reunite me with my brand (these are Oregon prices, mind you). One drunken night at the computer could land me a lover for a little while. Why else would the internet have been invented?
Off the bandwagon I fell. Oh, the marts and the sites I saw, the tales to be told. I became intimate with both over the course of my mourning.
But after a year or so, the veil lifted. I grew stronger. I didn’t need cigarettes to define me or the lovers. In fact, I didn’t need a lover at all anymore. If I found an affair, it was pleasant. But it was never something that sustained me or that was necessary in passing the time. I sustained me. Along with my vibrator, I suppose.
And that’s the weird thing about quitting cigarettes, about finding a person that’s the right fit – whether it’s yourself or another: it’s not necessarily an “Aha!” moment, so much as a quiet discovery of personal unfolding, developed over time and maturation.
When one quits, I’m beginning to learn, is kinda when one actually starts.