It’s been ten years since I quit smoking but I still feel like I’m just between cigarettes. Time has a dream-like continuity when it isn’t punctuated by smoking. The past ten years have slipped by almost unnoticed, as though I’ve simply been too busy to smoke. Now I have a friend who wants to quit smoking. Watching him wrestle with his habit has reminded me of how hard it actually was to quit, and how hard it is to stay quit. What makes it particularly hard is that we call it quitting to begin with. When you quit, you give up. You stop. You take the easy way out. When you smoke, the word quit is used the wrong way around. There’s no easy way out. Stopping is worse than the thing you’re doing. What makes it particularly hard is that the reasons to stop aren’t very compelling. If you drink too much, for example, there are excellent reasons to stop—you could end up at the AA where they make you speak in public and hug drunks. If you do hard drugs, there are even better reasons to stop—you could wind up living in a box under a bridge. In comparison, smoking is tame. When you smoke, everything is more or less OK.
“Why’s this so hard?” my friend asked as he lit a cigarette in disgust.
“You can always kill yourself,” I joked.
He looked at the tip of his cigarette.
“Who wants to inhale a fire?” he asked. “Why do we do this shit?”
“I started because of a woman,” I said. “She was attractive, and so was smoking.”
“How’d you stop?”
“There was another woman.”
Jack often got invited to events at art galleries. Sometimes I went along. We’d get embroiled in lengthy agreements with the artists, but only so that we could eat a dent into the catering. The day before Q-Day—the day I planned to quit smoking—we were at a small gallery in the heart of town. It was a spring evening and the guests mingled on the deck outside. A few people stood together in the one corner, smoking. This was before the all-out bans on smoking, and smokers didn’t lurk like petty criminals, the way they do these days. They were brazen and sure of themselves. I’d left my cigarettes in the car and was on my way to bum one from these happy people when a woman cut me off.
“Don’t go there,” she said and flashed a smile. “It’s bad for you.”
She wore a strong perfume redolent of Turkish Delight.
“But I’m—” I started.
“Forget that,” she said and brushed my words aside with ring-laden fingers. “You can thank me later.”
She took my arm and steered me to a little table.
“You’re Jack’s friend, aren’t you?” she said.
She handed me a glass of sparkling wine.
“And what does Jack’s friend do?”
Jack was famous for doing nothing, so this was his fault.
“When, uh, what?” I asked and eyed the smokers.
The woman laughed and tossed her hair.
“What do you do for a living?” she clarified.
“The usual things,” I mumbled. “Eating, and sleeping, and so on.”
I wanted to say that I smoked for a living and that I needed to work.
“Jack’s friends are interesting,” she said in a tone that suggested that she’d found an exception. “And weird.”
She still had me by the arm as we stood there at a loss for words.
“I work at a secret research institute,” I lied.
“Really?” she whispered and tightened her grip on my arm. “Doing what?”
“I can’t say.”
She pulled me closer.
“Tell me,” she insisted and gave off a whiff of perfume.
“I used to smoke,” I lied again.
“Me too!” she cackled and took a sip of her sparkling wine. “I quit three months ago!”
“It’s been longer for me,” I said, unable to stop myself. “Six months tomorrow, actually.”
“Oh, wow!” she said and looked longingly at the smokers. “Half a year? I still want to smoke all the time.”
I was about to quit, and here was this woman telling me that I’d be lusting after a cigarette three months from now. It wasn’t very encouraging.
“It gets better,” I said.
One of the smokers blew a plume of smoke toward the sky.
“Hmm…” the woman said.
“Sometimes I wonder whether stopping was really worth it,” I went on.
She snapped out of her smokey reverie.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “It must be worth it! Six months!”
“Sure,” I agreed. “But it feels like there’s something missing, you know?”
She smiled wistfully. Another smoker lit a cigarette with evident satisfaction. I got a lump in my throat just looking at him.
“Wouldn’t that feel nice?” I asked.
“I guess so,” she said.
“Maybe I could go over there and bum a cigarette?” I suggested.
“And start all over again?”
“Just like that?”
“At least I know I can quit when I want to, right?”
She stared at the smokers.
“I guess so,” she said again.
“That’s it!” I declared. “I’m going to get one. Now!”
“Don’t do it!” she called out as I walked off.
When I returned with a cigarette, she intercepted me.
“You’re smoking!” she cried. “How can you?”
I took a deep drag and blew the smoke in her direction.
“Because it feels wonderful,” I said. “Soon—maybe tomorrow—I’ll quit.”
“You’ve been off cigarettes longer than me,” she snivelled.
“It sure feels like it,” I said and took another drag.
She glanced at the smokers.
“The hell with it,” she croaked. “Give me that thing!”
We bummed a few more cigarettes until I slipped guiltily away. I quit the next day.