That night I thought a lot of things about writing and myself and who I’d become and as I wrote my upper chest burned, there was a ringing in my ears and I could feel my throat, breathing, mouth agape, lips dry, tongue too, head present and clenched. I was hurting myself in a really bad way and most days I didn’t really think about it. I mean, I did feel bad about it for sure everyday and I’d like to say and can’t because it would stretch the truth too much that it felt bad every cigarette and I know it didn’t. A good many of them were perfect and shared with perfect people and puffed in perfect places. Smoking was sexy and it did fit quite nicely into my new lifestyle and match my cool-dude, movie-star, actor-type, badass air about me — all descriptions I’d been told by various people of late. I think it had a lot to do with all the layers.
Physically, I wore a lot of clothes without much regard for their arrangement, clasping mechanisms, or visual harmony which quite frankly appeared to me to come off as cool and I could see how that was the case when I saw pictures of myself. (When I looked in the mirror, I was never fooled, it seemed at the time, and I think I could always tell I was acting and I really think we all are and it can’t be any other way, and Cynthia did tell me to show more sides of the narrator and he was coming off as pretentious and she knew he wasn’t and I said I thought it rested in how he was perceived and how could I make it otherwise and I did know I needed to try. She was right: Michael wasn’t pretentious, he just tended to come off that way and I wasn’t convinced that didn’t mean he was and maybe it was ok for the narrator to be pretentious in the end and he already was in the beginning and I reckoned I would have a hard time changing it at that point and I thought I could try and see how it felt. Michael was a pretty good guy, all things considered.)
Mentally I also had a lot of layers and wore them in much the same way and let people see them all just a bit and more or less of them depending on the temperature of the atmosphere and all of my best friends and a number of women had seen me nude in both regards and it was only after I learned to look in the mirror at myself did I see myself layerless or start to at least and it was in those times which I realized how much more there was to see buried on the inside under decades of incomplete lessons taught and learned in a world which didn’t sum to its partsum yet and really did have it all figured out.
It just had a lot of dirt and grime and fear and loathing surrounding it is all and I didn’t ever mind and became accustomed to continual housekeeping. I liked to have everything in its place and I guess it had come to the point in my life to actually quit smoking and it all seemed really romantic that night as I made the decision for another time in my life. Now I would hold myself accountable to the page and leave a record of the struggle and try to observe and note the thoughts and externals which are the hardest triggers to resist pulling.
That morning I awoke to a pain in my chest, less local than the tightness palpitating the previous night, slowly with a frequency much less than a Hertz over my perceived heart in my left pectoral, too close to home. As I thought through the anxiety of that morning I knew cigarette twelve was to meet its poetic end within the hour and as I stood I knew it would be a tough day and I was sorry I had chosen a seven-dollar, eco-friendly, artisanal notebook to hold the work and now I had begun and was consciously quite sorry that I had. When Cynthia thanked me for only smoking one cigarette in her house it impressed me and I thanked her in response. I really didn’t know why I had taken to smoking and it was quite easy to keep transgressing and if I think about how many breathes I’ve tainted I feel a deep sadness and I will fight it and turn it into lightness as I had tried to do in many other aspects of my life in those days. By staring every facet of my vice-addiction I could learn more universal truths and the hope was that you would too.
And maybe it was fitting how I smoked cigarettes sixthrough-twelve. It had been a bad day for many specific and great reasons and because I had decided to look at twelve remaining cigarettes as my last and that’s just the way it had been for me with cigarettes. They helped you embrace and inhale the darkness in you. Holding a piece of hell off the tips of your fingers, bringing it centimeters from your face and breathing the devil’s exhale into your blood. Cigarettes brought you there and were always willing to light your darkness and maybe this time would stick because I had already run into my darkness and let it overwhelm me and I still felt my eyes were adjusting and I was no longer afraid because nothing had eaten me yet. I was still alive and breathing in and out periodically throughout the day and night times and that qualified as being alive in some perspective and I don’t want to make it seem like I was close to that bare a view on alive; I was much much more so in those days than any other periods in my life. I lived longer days, made much more touching connections, was impressed more, and made more beautiful memories for myself and I wasn’t as happy for certain. Not yet. There was an awful lot of turbulence and it always felt good to smoke when things looked grim. Vices had that today-could-very-well-be-my-last atmosphere to bring to the table and as I transitioned to a more momentary existence it did become easy to feed the addiction.
The beast did change for sure many times since my first puff, as did I, making it a most excellent vice. I had always known where I stood with alcohol; it always occupied the same space, that was until later when I was learning to write and alcohol changed how it looked at me and for the time before that buzzed was just like first gear: You didn’t drive in it for long. And the night after I had good and bad moments with six-through-twelve I had a twoweek-old growler of Fisherman’s Brew which was pleasantly still keg-fresh and I wouldn’t have to leave the house and be in the cold rain and some time before eight PM I realized I hadn’t consumed anything besides my friends, six-through-twelve, a half gram of tea, an espresso, and twenty ounces of brew and I thought it risible how I attributed in my thoughts earlier my shitty feelings to the cigarettes. Truth was I’d been treating myself body and mind like garbage, making myself ache because I ached and needed to feel it ache all over and at the moment I first thought that I made a date with five and drank another ounce of beer, courage to continue and get to the end quickly which could also been see as impetuous, was always at the bottom of a pint.
Five gave me the clarity to see that food was in my future and in the state I was in there was too much between then and now to bear. It got like that at times for many different reasons and when Alba was around we did argue about how much I ate and how I should eat less of the things I did and more of others and maybe still less than I had been. I agreed and there were a dozen times or so I cooked really well in the months that followed our break-up. And it always felt amazing to cook for myself and others and I do think there was something about being consumed that made it too much to bear at the time.
My depression the morning after I decided to quit helped me see how there was no one in my life who needed me. Sure there were a good number, relatively, of people who valued my perspective and time spent together and thoughts devoted to, and there wasn’t anyone who wouldn’t know what to do without me and I guessed, after I had thought about it, it’s the way it should be and I think that just meant I got hung up in semantics. There was a way a lover needed, there, love to be present and for the time I didn’t have anyone who needed me or gave a shit I was smoking. Sure there were comments and small efforts by some and the fact I kept my family out of it and I never told Alba and I knew I only had myself to blame and only I could beat this and when I did I would learn a lot and if I didn’t I would learn other lessons and I was ready to be done and I would build myself a castle to stand on, one without walls or ceilings or doors or locks and I would feel like I was flying with the certainty of feeling my feet on the floor and then I could stop feeling the fall I was feeling. I knew well just how far I’d fallen from where I was ostensibly, at least in the terms everyone else did and in terms of my soul the matter was entirely different; I wasn’t even sure it had fallen anywhere unnecessary or at all even, and in both regards, externally and internally, I had no idea when it would all stop either by hitting the ground, learning to fly, or being caught by angels. I didn’t know the end, so I couldn’t know anything about the magnitude of the fall and I just had to become comfortable with that aspect of life and surrender more to the journey and to be ok walking without the devil’s breathe filling my lungs.
An hour passed and I wanted to enjoy four completely, have some tea, maybe shower and see if Katherine would ask me if I was hungry at The Pub at Cape Ann Brewing Company and I wouldn’t shower, I’d play a concert for myself, find the pub empty, kitchen closed at nine, find music and a pint of PBR at The Rhumb Line and the kitchen closed at ten. The day had been spent solely in vice, no nourishment, only poison and that was just the way it was the day I quit smoking and it had been like that at too many other points in those days and I still had three more luxurious dances with the devil and I looked forward to just spending those moments remembering many others which would become so fleeting when I was no longer inhaling the connection-stimulus and I knew that was a big part of it.
Many of my favorite memories had cigarettes linked to them and I wasn’t scared of not having those memories again. I would have many new ones. It was more the lost connection to the sensation. Inhaling a cigarette’s smoke connected you to each of those breaths which felt the same and I would have to rely on less powerful aspects to get back to that place and maybe I never could and it was probably worth it in the end. And if it wasn’t, I guess I could smoke a cigarette, later, much later. For a good long time I would substitute and breath one-through-three in the same way I breathed Alba the three days I spent with her the last time I saw her in Italy and for a while, at times breathing slowly and purposefully to cement the memories in ways eternal and at times unexamined and perfect as it had been in life it would be in dying and in death the memory would always fade if it wasn’t shared and if it was shared it would always change, so it was important to reach your hand and heart out and touch something, especially at times you were saying goodbye. This way you both could share it again later in some other time and place, always, and I did know what that meant and I hoped I had done a good enough job expressing it so you believe it something real and beautiful, someday when you find it or maybe today if you already had and maybe one day I would describe my final three cigarettes when I was ready and maybe one day I would describe my final three days with Alba and I wasn’t ready for those memories to change yet. It was the time to let them fade away a bit and no longer ventilate the ember. We could never go back and that reality had not really sunk in.
When you write your own story it’s hard to remember that you could only write about what happened and make it seem how you want or you could write about the future or a fictional time and place and you could never make these things, all of them, more real than a memory and nothing ever was save for the moment itself, and my chest began to tighten over my heart where it does at times and some baked clams, a pint of scottish ale and a double espresso took the place of a few cigarettes and a shower felt cleansing for more than a few moments and I felt good, strong, clear, and unfocused.
I had told myself and some people in my life I would take until the new year before I made decisions about my life and it felt good to quit smoking before the new year so I didn’t have to worry about it at that time and especially during New Year’s Eve partying. I needed momentum to resist smoking then and was glad to not have to give cigarettes their special goodbye while I was trying to make so many other types of memories. It didn’t make much sense to try and multitask. New Year’s Eve was for drinking and debauchery. It wasn’t a time to be saying goodbye to anything you wanted to remember and it felt more like a time to say hello to new things and I never made resolutions at New Year’s or otherwise. I was committed to certain things and this was built gradually and with a degree of flexibility as were most things in my life and as is was with cigarettes then. I could force the system to adapt and now that I had built up commitment and found a way to make myself accountable and moreover, a way to channel the surrounding energy expended in thinking about that time in my life into the true expression of self onto the page and into words. I couldn’t yet tell if they were exercises or work for release and I’m not certain I was supposed to know.
I also had this nagging feeling like I was faking it and everyone was starting to notice. I was smart enough to hack my way into and a good chuck of the way through the Harvard PhD program in engineering sciences and to be a writer now would be fake and I couldn’t possibly be that well, it would just be silly. So gossip and drama spread and I hear the most harsh criticisms of myself from the people who know me best when I claim to let it all out, and I let a relatively large part out and if I had let it all out quickly or not I would be just about breathing in and out and I’d still be smoking cigarettes and things happened the way they did and I was sad to close that chapter of my life and start a list of things I wouldn’t do anymore and I guess that’s how life progressed and it was a choice between making certain memories, returning to certain memories more vividly, and trying to maintain your health and extending the only thing worth anything in this world — moments, and cigarettes always did felt like the thing to go.
If I really thought about it they were really only there to connect those moments to this one via meditating on the breath and I had done similar things with the afternoon sun, which I often spent with people from my past, and the sun always did burn brighter than the ember, even if it was so far away and sometimes it was night.