My first cigarette was offered to me by my father, the Christmas when I was fifteen. In the Barcelona of my childhood, all the men smoked like chimneys, but none of the women did. On holidays, though, after a celebratory meal, when brandy and coffee were on the table and people loosened their belts and their tongues, my father would offer my mother and her sisters his dark, unfiltered Camels, and they would puff away dutifully, scrunching up their eyes and coughing.
I must have coughed too that first time, but I enjoyed the feeling of yet another initiation–along with stockings, and kitten heels–into the world of sophisticated womanhood. I didn’t start smoking on my own until I was in college. Those early forays into real smoking depended on a certain daring context: sitting in the college snack bar after class listening to late Sinatra, drinking black coffee, and discussing The Myth of Sisyphus and the absurdity of human existence with, when I was lucky, some boy I liked.
I was living at home, hopelessly young for my age and staunchly Catholic and well-behaved. Too timid to try anything radical, I nevertheless longed to acquire a patina of worldliness and savoir faire. Drunkenness and pre-marital sex were mortal sins, but the Church was silent on coffee and tobacco, so I embraced both with fervor.
Although I consumed quarts of coffee, often drinking one last cup before bed, I kept my cigarette habit to four a day, but those were serious cigarettes. I scorned mild and menthol varieties, preferring Benson & Hedges 100s, those long, elegant smokes in their gold package. And I loved especially how they made me feel, modern and worldly and disillusioned.
I may have felt modern and worldly, but that is not how I appeared. I was frequently disappointed to hear some acquaintance, male or female, on first seeing me light up exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t know you smoked! You don’t look like the type….”
Nevertheless, I persevered, smoking through college and graduate school and even through my father’s death, at 53, of lung cancer. That was in the late 60s, when the relationship between tobacco and cancer was only beginning to hit the media. My husband, a non-smoker, was horrified by my four daily cigarettes, and would leave color photographs of diseased lungs next to my breakfast plate for me to find in the morning. But if my father’s death hadn’t dissuaded me, those gory photos didn’t have much chance. I was an idiot, I know.
But then I got pregnant. I don’t remember whether the dangers of smoking during pregnancy were being much talked about at the time, but I quit smoking before I was even aware of my new state. All I knew was that the sight, the smell, or even the thought of a cigarette suddenly made life itself an abomination. It did not require any willpower on my part to remain tobacco free during my pregnancies, and who can smoke while nursing a baby? (I have often wondered if a dose of progesterone, the pregnancy hormone, might be helpful in the most stubborn cases of tobacco addiction.)
After my children left my arms, I resumed my habit in a desultory way until sometime in my thirties, when the public health campaign finally got to me and I suspected that my cigarettes were to blame for the slight shortness of breath when I ran up the stairs. So I quit.
But reader, how I miss it! I’m missing it as I write. Wouldn’t a cigarette right now be wonderful? Yes, it would. It would relax me. It would inspire me. It would reward me for sitting here grinding words out of my recalcitrant brain. The flavor, the warmth, the gesture, the aroma, not to mention the weight loss….
Don’t worry, I won’t give in. I would get kicked out of the retirement community where I live, for one thing, and it would freak out the man who used to put those gory photos on the breakfast table. Instead, I’ll leave you with this old tango about a woman waiting for her lover while she smokes. It’s almost as good as a Benson & Hedges 100.