(Begun last week ...)
The last time I smoked a cigarette, it was New Years of the millennium. Earlier in the evening, Rachel and I had ordered in sushi, which we consumed, along with a bottle of really good champagne, in the bathtub of our Queen West-ish apartment in downtown Toronto. Eventually, we dragged ourselves out of the bath and got pretty and went to a party at our friend Caitlin’s downtown loft, where there was more champagne and more food and where there were beautiful and very drunk and very giddy people.
Just before midnight, we headed up to the roof of her building at King and Bathurst and watched the sky explode in bursts of the most beautiful fireworks I’d ever seen: stars and wheels of colour lighting up the world around us for what seemed like hours.
And even though the sky exploded, the world didn’t end.
Do you remember Y2K? And how we all thought that we might die when the collective speedometers of all the world’s technology flipped over to 2000? I had just turned 29. We’d visited an ATM. We had filled some jugs with water and bought a few cans of soup, and had then switched over to sushi and champagne and decided to see what happened. Which was, of course, nothing. Which is kind of what we thought might happen, but who could know for sure?
And on that night I smoked my final cigarette.
I wasn’t a heavy smoker; I never had been. I had smoked, on and off, casually, since at least high school. I smoked the way you could back then, in shopping malls and on subway platforms and on airplanes, in restaurants and bars and on my high school and university campuses. I smoked between classes, at rehearsal breaks, while playing pool at bars, at parties. My friend Peter and I used to go to late-night movies at Cinema du Parc in Montreal, and smoke in the balcony while we watched movies like Until the End of the World (Best. Soundtrack. Ever.). Sometimes I bought my own cigarettes; often, too often, I bummed them off other people.
It was never about the nicotine, but about the ritual, the camaraderie, the habit, the giving in to craving, the pleasure, the perverse thrill of being young and bad and immortal.
But by midnight on December 31, 1999, I was ready to quit. I had decided that it was silly to smoke casually. Which, of course, it was. It was silly to smoke at all, in fact. We all knew that; we all still know it. A friend of mine had put it this way: “Smokers don’t smoke. Not even when they’re stressed. Not just when they’re drinking. Not after they’ve had sex. If you don’t smoke, you don’t smoke – ever.”
Her words stuck with me. Was I a smoker, or wasn’t I? The absoluteness of it, the black-and-white of it, appealed to me. I don’t have an addictive personality, but I do have a bit of an obsessive one: I like lists, and goals, and absolutes. I like things to be tidy. I have a weak spot for self-improvement initiatives. I have a bit of a perfectionist streak. And so I decided that, if the world didn’t end, the new millennium would see me as a non-smoker.
Which it did. I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but that one stuck.
Until last night.
Last night, I went out with an old friend from those university days in Montreal, someone who smoked and drank with me at so many of those parties and bars and movies and breaks. She’s one of those friends where there aren’t any holds barred, where the conversation is as honest and bare-bones as it is infrequent — we go for months in our separate cities without talking and then we get together and it’s like nothing has happened.
And so we shared a bottle of wine and we talked for hours about where we were at and what’s been going on in our lives. I told her — already amped up on the heels of this conference — about how so much of the past year has been intense, how I’m starting to feel as though some narrative of my life has cracked wide open, shattered into so many pieces that gluing them together again is pointless — and, more to the point, unhealthy. Whatever that broken narrative was, is, it had long since served its purpose, built on assumptions and beliefs that perhaps had served me well once but now bore some kind of re-examination.
We talked about all the intense experiences of youth, all those parties and bars and classes and rehearsals and affairs and late-night movies, all the dramas and how simultaneously exhausting and invigorating they were. We talked about what it was like to feel so deeply, so much of the time, and how different it is in our day-to-day lives as grown-ups, professionals, spouses, parents. And I told her that even when things were difficult this year, even when they were most uncomfortable, a part of me was just so relieved to feel deeply and strongly and fully again — to “feel all the feels” as a different friend recently said. We talked about how I am so dedicated to order and predictability and routine and working out and being good. I said that I might be ready to slaughter some sacred cows (I’m cringing, vaguely, that that metaphor, but it’s good and bloody and true).
And then we walked out onto the street in search of Portuguese pastries and coffee, and she pulled out that two-month-old pack of cigarettes that she keeps in her bag for precisely this kind of occasion, and she asked me if I wanted one, and I took a deep breath and said, “Yes. Yes I do.”
And I had a few drags of a cigarette. And in those few, contraband, lungsfull of smoke I inhaled, paradoxically, a bit more life. It wasn’t the nicotine — it was the willingness to shatter a so-called perfect record in the name of something larger, riskier, stupider, sillier, more fun, less anxious, less caught up in the sum total and more alive to all its parts. No, I doubt very much I’ll ever take up smoking regularly again. But whether I do or don’t, it will be because of what I feel like doing at the time, not because I don’t want to break my perfect record.
It’s not like the world exploded into a million bursts of light because of a single cigarette. But it didn’t end, either.