During my grandfather’s long, drawn-out death, I smoked one cigarette a day. I was neither addicted to tobacco nor trying to quit. Every evening, on the second-story balcony of my apartment, I would have a cigarette and watch my stained breath slip away into the night sky like a prayer.
I had my first cigarette when I was in the sixth grade. There was a girl in my class whose mother let us smoke in her apartment, and even provided any brand we desired, free of charge. (This girl was very popular.) The first drag made me want to vomit, but I took another and another until, amazingly, I liked smoking. It felt right somehow, like breathing. Not cool or hip, but right.
Organized sports kept me smoke-free in high school, but I started smoking regularly when I was in college. I was an English major, and many of the authors I admired smoked. The professors who had a cigarette with me between classes were always the best professors. To me back then, smoking was a great barometer of character.
I was — and, I guess, still am — the type of smoker who will never become addicted. I can smoke a pack a day and then refrain from smok-ing for months. I once watched a television sitcom in which a character says basically what I just wrote, and an addicted smoker retorts, “There’s a word for smokers like you: bitch.” And, indeed, I felt like a bitch when one of my best friends — to whom I had given many ciga-rettes — got addicted and had to wear an expensive nicotine patch to quit. And I feel like a bitch knowing that another friend’s little brother, who used to steal cigarettes from my glove compartment when he was in high school, still smokes my old brand.
My mother asked me once how I could ever smoke after seeing what cigarettes had done to my grandfather. There is no good answer to this question. Maybe I should have said that I did not value my life enough to care, that sometimes it seemed as though whatever comes after death might be a welcome alternative — so why not speed up the process? As a Christian who believes in a literal heaven, she should have understood this concept. Or I could have argued mathematics, saying that my grandfather had smoked as much as 40 cigarettes a day for half a century, whereas I smoked only one cigarette before bed each night and maybe a few more at the bar on weekends — therefore I was unlikely to meet the same unfortunate end. I think if I’d told her I was addicted, my mother would have better understood my need to smoke, but I was not addicted. So I simply shrugged and said nothing.
I no longer smoke, except when I am in a foreign country. I have made a deal with my wife that when abroad, I am allowed to smoke the local brands with the local people, as a cultural experience. This is silly, I realize, but it sounds refined to say that I am an “international smoker.” Rest assured, I am not out of the country enough for this to se-riously affect my health.