By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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My face and throat are swollen. This is the third sinus infection I’ve had this year. I ache, go to bed with fever and shivers. I take antibiotics, which make my face painfully sensitive. My ears feel like they’re about to explode. My teeth hurt.
We seek pleasure, strive to avoid pain. Cigarettes give me more pain than pleasure, yet still I cling to them.
I smoke four or five before I get out of bed — the fifth is delicious with strong French coffee. I smoke cooking, planting, gardening, pulling crab grass. I smoke dancing, skating, riding. I smoke writing, reading, painting. I smoke in the bathtub. I smoke while making love. A cigarette is the last thing I reach for at night after I turn out the lamp, the first thing I reach for before fully awake. Show me someone more ridiculous than a jogger smoking. I can do five miles on the track, but only with cigarettes. Show me someone more dexterous and adroit than a swimmer on her back, floating, sucking on a cigarette like a submarine. If I am conscious, I am smoking.
Alden, my husband, has no intention of quitting. He gets bored with all my agonizing. Either worry or smoke, he says — not both. Worry will give you cancer, he says, quicker than smoking. He’s been smoking years longer than I have, but not as intensely. Alden does not have to get up in the middle of a good movie for a cigarette. It’s harder to quit smoking than to quit drinking, he says. For a Welsh-Irish poet who used to drink like Dylan Thomas, that is quite a statement, but Alden is incapable of any sort of greed, even spiritual. Deliverance from one hang-up per lifetime is enough for him. He sits serenely, smoking like a saint.
My addiction may have begun in the womb. Doubtless the air was thick-hazed at my conception. From the time I was born until my parents died, I watched them smoke. Both grandmothers smoked. My maternal grandmother’s name (honest to God) was Gertrude Smoke. But no, I can’t blame them. Born Caesarean, I sucked up blood during delivery. They had to swing me by the heels, whack and smack me, inject adrenalin into my heart to persuade me to breathe.
They should have offered me a cigarette.
All idols smoked in my youth. Remember the jaunty tilt of Roosevelt’s cigarette holder? Churchill’s cigar? Remember Humphrey Bogart lighting up Lauren Bacall? It was romantic, intimate. They gazed at each other with smoldering eyes. They smoked, but I didn’t. Not yet. I survived the death of Rowan, my first husband, poverty, life as a single working mother, without a cigarette.
I got hooked at a writer’s conference up north. A sophisticated Yankee editor of a famous magazine said she would seriously consider two stories if I could give her neater copies before she left the next morning. I bought my first pack of cigarettes, worked all day, most of the night. Got the stories to her just as she was leaving.
She kept them three years. Every six months I wrote her, politely requesting a decision. No answer. When my first published work appeared elsewhere I wrote that if she did not return the stories I would charge her back rent. Home came the battered envelope without so much as a note, manuscripts scribbled throughout with insults in red ink. I have no idea why she treated me so shamefully.
Meanwhile, back in Memphis, my home (the sinus capital of the world), I thought I could smoke now and then without getting hooked. Within a month, I was chain-smoking.
Five years passed. Five good smoking years with no physical or emotional complications. Then my father died of lung cancer.
The first time I tried to quit I went to a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for smokers. I’d been to AA meetings with Rowan’s father, and with Alden. Compared to smokers, alcoholics are as tranquil as Zen meditators. Never have I seen so many on the verge of hysteria: chewing gum, sucking candy, chewing their fingernails to bloody nubs, clinging to the backs of chairs, their eyes glazed, fixed in suffering. Some jerked and twitched.
We were each assigned a “smoking buddy,” someone to call. My buddy never called. I never called her. Alcoholics talk for hours. Still, I did all the prescribed: walked miles, drank gallons of water, paced like a caged tiger. If only I had quit then. No one told me it could get worse.
At the last meeting a man confessed, “I haven’t smoked in a year and I still want a cigarette more than anything on earth.”
When advised by our leader not to eat spicy food, an old man leapt to his feet, tears in his face, quavering hands, fingers spread like the claws of a landing eagle. “You said we could have steak!” he screamed. Who knows what he meant? We were all about to go berserk. Our leader tried to soothe him. Someone asked our leader how long he had smoked.
“Never,” he said. “I never smoked.”
For one hideous moment I thought we were going to attack en masse, tear him to shreds. Hisses, boos, moans. A third of the smokers got up and walked out. I made it to the car alone before I reached for a cigarette.
In every other way, I am perfectly respectable. I love to cook. We eat healthfully and exotically. If promised immortality, maybe I could quit.
That I should persist in chronic pain confounds me. There’s no way to predict one’s addictions. Once Alden and I smoked pot together. How silly, sucking on that little weed. I wanted a real cigarette. For twenty years I was given morphine for migraines. After dawn-to-midnight agony, morphine is bliss. But I never got hooked. Morphine is for agony, nothing less.
The second time I tried to quit, I added prayer to all the prescribed. I do not believe in prayer. But by then I was willing to try anything.
The third time I tried bourbon. (This was after Alden quit drinking.) Normally I have a drink only while cooking — a dash of this, a zest of that, a spur-of-the-moment sauce with flair. That week I drank nearly a gallon of bourbon. I drank until I went to sleep. I woke, did a few things, drank, went to sleep.
I should have spared myself; I had scheduled a party for a friend that weekend. But the passion to quit smoking can strike at any time; it does not heed reason.
At the party, my best friend was trying to quit drinking; she was smoking like a lunatic. I was trying to quit smoking; I drank like I meant it. Around midnight, I said, “Drinking is so damned boring!” She promptly ground out her cigarette and grabbed a bottle. I poured my drink down the sink and grabbed a cigarette.
“This is it,” she said, gulping.
“This is it,” I said, inhaling deeply.
We stood facing each other, tears in our eyes.
You can’t shame smokers by telling them their hair and clothing reek. Smokers can’t smell. Or by reminding them that they burn holes in sofas and bedspreads. Those “Thank You For Not Smoking” signs only infuriate a smoker. I carry my own ashtray in my purse. Segregation in restaurants or airplanes does not bother me. If I could quit, I would still prefer to sit with the sinners.
To those health fanatics who fan the air, give us dirty looks, and would like to beat up on us, incarcerate us — with their self-righteous slogans and sermons about what we are doing to our bodies and their air — I would like to say, “We know all that!” There’s a Zen saying that a fish swimming free has no concept of what is happening to a hooked fish, thrashing wildly, fighting for its life. We need help. A cure. An exorcism. For many, I fear there is none. Smoking to us is as natural as breathing. The next time you get the urge to lecture a smoker, try holding your breath for five minutes.
Slaughtered whales. Dolphins drowned for tuna. Elephants murdered for ivory. Wolves gunned down from helicopters. Wild mustangs ground up for dog food. Baby seals bludgeoned to death in the snow. Foxes and minks with their hides ripped off. As a smoker, I identify with all of the above. All endangered species.
Meanwhile, let me confess — how do I love them. I think I would admit to any crime for a cigarette, no matter how atrocious. When trapped on the telephone with someone who won’t hush, a cigarette. When late for an appointment, snarled in traffic, a cigarette. Waiting in long lines, in every caged frustration of so-called civilized life, I want a cigarette. Waking from nightmares, I reach for a cigarette. Worse still, with every peak of happiness, or excitement — I want a cigarette.
Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote of her ashes, “I’ll be a bitter in your cup of tea till yet.” Oh, but when I am cremated let me rise in the air as smoke; let someone enjoy the floating wisps of me.
Once I had a funeral for a cigarette. Ceremoniously laid it in a clean black ashtray. Spoke to it. It’s you or me. It’s down to that. Got a pearl-tipped hatpin which belonged to my Grandmother Smoke. Carefully stuck the hatpin through the center of the cigarette. Dead. Dead. Dead. Wrapped the cigarette in pink tissue. Then I put it in a little coffin. Not just any old matchbox, as I might use for a dead turtle or canary or mouse; no, it was an ornate box of turquoise, hand-painted with peach roses. Probably an antique worth money. Good. Part of my penance. In the back yard I buried it under a lavender rosebush between Ashley and Harriet, two favorite deceased cats. A stone for a marker. Out of every back window every day, I would remind myself that It was dead. Dumb with grief, I stumbled into the house. Threw all my cigarettes in the garbage. I had just buried my best friend. Cried until my blouse was wet. Cried and cried . . . until I was smoking one of Alden’s cigarettes. Then I cried and laughed and smoked and cried.
You can’t threaten a smoker. You can’t scare a smoker.
My father died of lung cancer at age fifty-two. It was a year-long nightmare. He suffered horribly. He was a builder. He never simply touched wood, he caressed it. He was French, a dreamer, easily excited. Between us, there was an intuitive communication deeper than words. He fought death every step of the way. Until the last few weeks he was still making plans for all he wanted to build.
He was also an incurable, compulsive, and consummate gambler.
I haven’t thought of his whistle in years. Never did he enter the house without that optimistic whistle: two notes, one high, one low. Last night I dreamed of him. Alden said I whistled in my sleep. Awake, I can’t whistle.
Each time I’ve tried to quit, I’ve failed. Yet each time I’ve become more resourceful in trying to outwit the addiction. This time not one word to a living soul, not even Alden.
We usually wake early, 3 or 4 am. Alden brings my coffee to the bed. I so love that early silence, darkness, two cats and the dog cuddled near me on the bed; smoking, drinking coffee, planning work, pondering dreams. Perhaps it’s that inspiring red glow in the dark, I thought, that I’m hooked on. So for ten days I prepared: I drank tea, lit a candle, and stared at the flame.
When the time to quit arrived, I started by counting minutes, and progressed to an hour.
That was such an accomplishment I thought I deserved a whole gluttonous pack, but primly limited myself to two. In sheer blind fanaticism I made it to three hours. I drove to the mall (the weather was freezing) and walked inside. Four hours without a cigarette! A landmark!
I went to bed without a cigarette. It felt like some sort of adultery. The next morning, I had to have one. Instead, I got up, wrapped my wrists — both have been broken skating — and drove in the dark to the park to skate. The sun came up. Breathing, breathing. Clear, cold, clean, raw morning air. Exuberant, manic in triumph, I fell down. Rocking back and forth, both wrists hurt like living hell. A man in a truck stopped.
“Lady, are you okay?”
“Go on, go on, leave me alone. I’m trying not to smoke.”
“Well, I think I’d rather smoke than have a bunch of broken bones.”
“You don’t know anything!”
He left. I got to my feet and skated.
I came home. I gleefully mutilated some cigarettes. I cut them open with manicure scissors and watched their grainy, weedy, grassy, little brown guts spill out. Ha. You’re only plants, not demons. I experienced an hour, then two, without acute craving. Reaching the peak of Mount Everest could not have so thrilled me. Freedom in sight!
Then it hit: an intense craving, a physical sensation deep inside my body, thrashing frantically. I thought I had been invaded by some alien entity. I thought I was going crazy. It scared me. It lasted maybe two minutes. I withstood it. Gradually, it subsided, An icy chill went through me. But that, I thought, was my last battle. I thought I had won.
A complete day, O Lord, O Lord, twenty-four hours without a cigarette. Listen, not an easy day either. Alden and I got into a terrible fight. Terrible. Alden in a rage is not someone anyone sane would want to mess with. But I was not sane. I grabbed my longest, most vicious kitchen knife, pointed it at his throat. “One more word, Alden, I’ll kill you.”
“You don’t have to warn me,” he said. “I know you’re French. Gentlest people in the world, the French, up till the moment they cut your throat.”
Then he hushed.
Sunday morning. Before I was fully awake that thrashing again, spirit, soul, whatever, trying to tear out of my body. I put both hands to my center, held it down. The only thing on earth which would pacify it, make it stay in there and be quiet, was a cigarette. I turned on my stomach, held desperately to the bed. “If you get out,” I whispered to whatever it was struggling deep inside me, “there’s nowhere to go. You’ll only get trapped in the bedsprings.”
It got quiet.
I got up, dressed, got in the car, and drove without knowing where. I came to houses I had not seen since childhood. I found an old school, the low stone wall where once, when I was seven, a boy kissed me. I found the house where Rowan grew up. That ugly little shotgun shack still standing. Amazing. The swing on the front porch where we used to sit. I drove to St. Mary’s, where we danced in the basement when I was fourteen. I got the guard to unlock it, let me go in, look around. It is now a day nursery. Back in the car, stinging tears blurred my vision. It was bitterly cold.
Alone the next day I caught myself drifting into thoughts of suicide, quietly wondering the best way to go about it. I wished I knew a kindly vet who would give me a shot, put me out of misery. I say misery, but it was the serene, spaced-out simplicity of not wanting to live through that day. It was the worst fear I’ve ever experienced. Something collapsed. Something awoke.
I reached for a cigarette.
I’d never gotten that far before, far enough to realize that I smoke in order to live. And smoking will surely kill me. If I’m dead, I can’t smoke.
I’m down now to the lowest in tar and nicotine, and still in physical distress. Cigarette manufacturers, Alden says, have to put something in cigarettes to replace the tar and nicotine and they don’t have to tell the government what it is. For all I know, it could be arsenic.
But that first cigarette — after nearly two days without one — I lit it, and every doomed cell in my body relaxed, expanded, glowed. Every doomed cell sang heavenly hosannas. I passed out from sheer ecstasy. Fell over on the sofa and slept for hours, a dreamless, depthless bliss.
So I smoke and shrug and suffer and sometimes feel wonderful and try to go on about my business.
And I say to myself . . . well, she burned to death. Moment by moment. One by one.