I smoked my first cigarette in Vietnam, in July 2009. Having just endured the Gotterdammerung of my first real college romance, and in the first flush of my second “study abroad” experience, the pack of White Horse smokes seemed like a good idea. They went for around 12,000 dong (the equivalent of about seventy-five cents USD) and, more importantly, they gave me something to do other than brooding and writing embarrassing Facebook messages to the guy whose absence I then considered a close second to waterboarding.
That summer, amidst day trips to Danang and My Son and attempts to write a senior thesis on French colonial architecture in Central Vietnam (never to be finished), amidst a thousand last-ditch attempts to “find myself” and another thousand attempts to bungle through elementary Vietnamese while half-loaded on all-too-affordable Black Label, I acquired a decent pack-a-day habit.
Starting with the grit-cheap, grit-harsh packs of White Horse I purchased from the wizened elderly women who sold them to tourists and locals alike from bicycle-drawn carts on street corners, I advanced to the blue-boxed, smooth-drawing Dunhills that went for $3 at corner shops. Smoking and writing. Smoking and drinking aluminum-filtered Vietnamese coffee at sidewalk cafes where it was usually coupled with pumpkin seeds. Smoking and walking through ruins left over from the Tet Offensive and the countless offensives than preceded and succeeded it. It had an obvious romance to it, at least in the immature mind of the then 20 year old me, puffing and sweating and marveling and agonizing through food poisoning as I was that summer.
Vices seldom have such story-book beginnings. First drinks seem to always end in some kind of discomfort or dishonor. First sexual experiences seem to always end in some kind of dismay and disappointment. At the beginning, though, cigarettes seemed, as Oscar Wilde said, “the perfect type of the perfect pleasure.”
Back home, as I advanced through graduate school and my first years of teaching, cigarettes advanced to become essential to my life, to the smooth progress of my days and the easy descent of my nights. They got me up and put me to sleep. They made me hungry when I was nauseated or ill and they made me full when I hadn’t had anything to eat. They were my calm at the end of difficult days, my respite from the deafening pulse of West Hollywood clubs, my stimulant for reading and for writing, lubricating every conversation, providing a pause in the drone of real-life, whether I was parked over a novel at Starbucks or speeding down the road at 80 miles an hour on the way to Vegas. I could smoke serendipitously or by appointment, in accompaniment to some other activity or as the main event. On the least eventful days of my life, alone, unoccupied, loafing around the house, I could honestly tell myself that I had done something productive if I’d gone through half a pack of Benson and Hedges Menthol Lights (my cigarettes of choice) in the course of the preceding 12 hours.
Today marks the 1st anniversary of the day that I smoked my last pack of cigarettes. Last January 8, having delayed by a week the fulfillment of a New Year’s resolution to finally give them up, I ordered my usual large black coffee at a neighborhood café and, in the course of 2 hours, smoked my last remaining 8 or 9 B&H Menthols. Finishing the last of those, I remember barely managing to let go of the empty seafoam-green pack before walking over the CVS in the same shopping center and forking over $40 for a box of Nicorette gum.
The rhythms and concerns of my life have changed as a result. I don’t spend the first 10 minutes of my time on arriving home fully sanitizing and bathing myself in cologne anymore. I don’t have to stop every half-mile during a run to catch my breath anymore. I don’t have to worry about my boyfriend recoiling from kissing me because I smell like a casino anymore. I don’t have to hear my doctor scold me for the early onset high blood pressure and nosebleeds my smokes were contributing to anymore. And, most importantly, I don’t have to feel a sense of deja-vu thinking about my grandfather, who, after 50 years of a pack a day Benson and Hedges habit of his own (a coincidence I only learned about a few months ago), ended his life with the lung cancer they always warn you about but you never feel as an imminent, relevant concern.
I’m still not a “nicotine nazi”. I don’t withdraw in horror at friends who continue puffing away at their Marlboro Reds or Camel Crushes. My father and my older sister are still cigarette smokers and, though I look at them with the obligatory concern, I don’t make it an issue. The world seems complicated enough without worrying about the crisis going on in someone’s lungs. At this point, though, 12 months on, I’m just glad it’s no longer going on in mine.