My cousin Pattie was my best friend when I was fourteen. A year older, physically mature, and streetwise, she was coach and companion for my first forays into 1950s-style mischief. I was gullible with a puppy-like eagerness to be liked and accepted, and gamely stepped outside my comfort zone.
Pattie spent the night on New Year’s Eve. My parents went out and promised—I took it as fair warning—that they would be home soon after midnight. We watched musical specials on TV and mocked their sappiness. Bored by the time the ball was to drop at Times Square—9:00 p.m. our time—Pattie asked if there was any booze in the house. “We should have a drink to celebrate,” she said. My father’s heavy drinking was a source of contention for my parents, so there was no hard liquor in the house. Our search turned up a bottle of Manischewitz Concord grape wine that my mother kept on hand for Jewish holidays and menstrual cramps. I poured us each a stubby juice glassful. We toasted and sipped, neither of us acknowledging its disgusting taste: cloying and medicinal.
“A drink always makes me want a cigarette,” Pattie said.
“Yeah, me too,” I replied.
“I’m gonna quit for New Year’s,” she said, “so it would be nice to have one last smoke.”
I agreed to both quitting and wanting to kiss off my “habit” with a few last, fond puffs.
We found an open pack of Tareytons, a long-gone brand with the grammatically incorrect slogan, “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!” Or maybe they were Raleighs, which came with coupons my mother collected and redeemed for gifts. I’d seen my parents smoke all my life—nothing to it, I figured—but I burned my fingers holding a lit match to the cigarette before I realized I had to suck on it for the paper and tobacco to ignite. I inhaled, just a little at first, and coughed. “I must be catching a cold,” I said. “My throat’s scratchy.” When we’d finished we fanned the room, disposed of the butts, and washed the glasses. At midnight we went outside to watch nearby fireworks. My rite of passage was behind me. I would become more adept at smoking, drinking, and other vices in the days ahead.
I used to pose in front of the mirror. I’d hold a cigarette at different angles, dangle it from the corner of my mouth with narrowed eyes like the husky-voiced vamps in movies. I’d inhale deeply … exhale in smooth streams or plump rounded rings. I smoked in school bathroom cubicles and behind the gym, in my bedroom with the window open, at parties, drive-ins, the beach. All my friends smoked and drank. When I was fifteen I met an older boy with sky-blue eyes, a flaxen ducktail, and a smile that liquefied my brain. He didn’t smoke and didn’t think it was cool; he told me I smelled like an ashtray. Besotted and eager to please, I stopped. When he broke my heart after a brief but blissful summer, cigarettes—true friends that never fail you—consoled me in my anguish. I would slip into a hidden corner of the back yard, light up, and sob between deep drags.
My parents had been smokers since their own youth. At sixteen I thought it was time they let me smoke openly, join them in the ritual after-dinner cigarette. But first I had to tell them. I was a secretive kid, more used to hiding than disclosing things. I waited for what seemed the right time—a Saturday morning, both of them relaxed and in a good mood—then blurted out:
“I have something to tell you,” I started. “You’re going to be mad at me. It’s terrible …” The dramatic buildup was a result of nerves, not strategy, but by the time I confessed my sin, they were prepared for the worst: pregnancy, drug addiction, expulsion from school. I couldn’t have planned it better.
“Is that all?” they asked with relief.
My daughter was born before widespread alarm about the risks of smoking and drinking during pregnancy. I’d been doing a lot of both. One January night I got wasted on rum and coke while burning through a pack of smokes. The next day the rancid aftertaste of the booze was amplified by the sour remains of the cigarettes. My mouth felt like a gravel path: dry and gritty, scattered with dead bugs and bird droppings. My hangover lingered for days, and the thought of lighting up turned my stomach. When I learned the source of my queasiness—I was pregnant—it seemed right to quit.
I started up again a couple of years later as an on-and-off thing after meals, with drinks, under stress—until my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. That was the deterrent I needed. It was more effective than pictures of diseased lungs or the scene in “Dead Again” when Andy Garcia smokes through a hole in his throat. I quit for good, as did my father and brother. My mother stopped long enough to undergo surgery and treatment; minus one lung she resumed smoking. The cancer returned and spread until her death a few years later.
By forty I was a devout convert to healthy living. I wanted to work in health education, so I enrolled in a public health master’s program. The faculty focused on smoking as society’s great evil, made it the target of our health promotion efforts. It troubled me that they singled out smokers as enemies of society. Blaming the victim takes society off the hook. Weren’t there more critical public health problems, like poverty and disease? Who were we to cast blame from our lofty towers of privilege? I didn’t light up in protest, didn’t quit the program, though tempted to do both. I did come away with empathy for smokers.
Novelists and filmmakers understand the sultry appeal of smoking. From deep post-coital drags to scenes in every film noir, clouds and curls of smoke create a heady atmosphere. The ultimate in seduction was to light two cigarettes at once and hand one off to an intimate other. In Brideshead Revisited, Julia is driving and says to Charles, “Light one for me….” Julia is a spoiled debutante, oblivious to Charles as a potential suitor. He’s an impressionable young man, infatuated with her dazzling and eccentric brother Sebastian, but he perceives the significance of the act: “As I took the cigarette from my lips and put it in hers, I caught a thin bat’s squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me.”
My artist husband likes to experiment with materials and texture. For a time he was intrigued by the foil linings in cigarette packs. They had a shimmery, veined, mirror-like quality with random flaws that resembled antiquing. They reminded me of how, when we were kids, we saved tinfoil from candy and gum wrappers. We mashed them into shiny balls, and when we smoothed them out the wrinkles created a jewel-like patina.
His co-workers started saving empty packs for him, but he needed more for his collages. On a morning walk, a red Marlboro box on the sidewalk caught our eye, a bit of the shiny foil sticking out from the top. We exchanged glances, picked it up. We found a few more that day—smokers generally aren’t environmentalists—and scavenging for empties became a regular feature of our walks. We gathered them off sidewalks, streets, and parking lots, in residential and commercial areas. We adopted the line in The Third Man, when Popescu says to Holly Martins: “Cigarette? Keep zee pack.”
My daughter said she’d never smoke. She was thrilled when I stopped, thought I did it for her. To some extent I did—to set a good example, to live past my mother’s sixty years. Like me, my daughter succumbed to peer pressure in her early teens. Like me, she quit while she was pregnant—dangers to the unborn well known by then—and started back up afterward, sporadically, until she decided to take up running. Lungs restored to purity, now she runs marathons.
My grandson used to lecture his father about the evils of smoking: “C’mon, dad, quit for me!” In high school he gave up baseball and football, took up Camels. I see my teenage self at the mirror, recall the conflicted feelings of invincibility and vulnerability. It’s all part of growing up: rites of passage, wanting to be cool, taking risks, making choices.