The Curve of the Smoke

On a Thursday night in late June, the air is sticky on my skin as I smoke a cigarette at my kitchen window and watch the smoke curl into the air. It curves like my fingers do when I hold a pen. I stand at the open window and face the butter-colored aluminum siding of the building next to mine. I smoke a cigarette because I want one even though it doesn’t provide the buzz or sensation of relief that I expect. The Marlboro Light rests just where a pen does—between the callus on my middle finger and the tip of my index finger. I look at my fingertips and then past my hand to the snail-shell-shaped circles of pigeon excrement on the paint-chipped windowsill.

My cell phone rings and I stretch to reach it on the edge of the countertop as I try unsuccessfully to keep the cigarette smoke outside of the window. “Bethie,” my friend Alan cajoles. “Let’s go out.” The final word out has several symbols, as Alan expands the three letters with significant whining. I turn him down.

“I have to write,” I say.

“Just one drink. You’ll be home by midnight.”

I think it over briefly as I consider my cigarette: Date with my friend, or date with my cigarette. “Can’t do it. How about tomorrow. After work?”

I feel guilty as I end the call. And then I think, It’s okay. I’ll get the smoking out of my system tonight and go smoke-free tomorrow. Alan thinks I have quit. I thought I had quit, too. But I switched my social smoking habit for a private one. A habit-inducing trade off. I feel guilty for lying by omission, for stinking up my apartment, and for blatantly flaunting a disregard for the Surgeon General warnings about cancer, emphysema and the eternal damnation that smoking causes.

I stand and think about the view from the front windows of my apartment, the activity of the sidewalk below: I’m not observing any of it at the moment, all I can see is the siding on the second story of the building next to mine that houses a Japanese restaurant. I close my eyes and listen to the sounds of customers talking on the restaurant’s patio, the bass line of the acid jazz music from the speakers, and the shifting of gears and acceleration of a car at the traffic light. I smell seaweed and sesame oil and exhaust and the ripeness of the summer heat.

I inhale a final drag and put out the cherry of the cigarette, like a miniature harvest moon disappearing in the horizon of chipped paint on the sill. I breathe out slowly and walk from the kitchen at the rear of my apartment to my desk, facing the street. I make my hands move across the keyboard before I can fully realize the cigarette is gone.

On Friday morning, the half-full pack sits on the kitchen counter as I head to the coffee pot. I go to throw the cigarettes away, but put them in my purse instead. I feel a slight pain behind my rib, like the corroding of my lungs has deepened a layer.

I don’t want to be a smoker, I think. I’m standing at my kitchen counter, adjacent to the smoking window. I’ve emptied the contents of my purse from the evening before: bar receipt, cigarettes, lighter, wallet, gum, and lip balm.

A month ago, I started graduate school. A month before that I stopped smoking, and I lost the everyday taste for the cigarette. I stopped salivating when I heard the sound of the lighter. I forgot the satisfaction in the motion of the first drag and the last exhalation. I gladly moved away from the dirty kitchen window speckled with feathers, pigeon poop residue and pollen particles.

So now, a month after the month I quit and relinquished my habit, I am smoking again. But why? It’s a habit that calms my racecar-speed thoughts. Smoking busies my hands that want to be near paper, tying letters together into words and creating stories. It’s much easier to stand and smoke than sit and write. I think slower—words and observations come together without the judgment I feel at the page.

I open the window and light a cigarette. I light a cigarette and my body feels lighter. I feel guilty. But I don’t relinquish my smoke. The cigarette keeps my hands busy the way a pen would. My fingers rest in a similar slope, a natural curve as if it were a pencil I lifted from the page. My fingers rest around the cigarette in a shadow of a fist just as they might perch above a keyboard when I’m in mid-thought.

Sometimes smoking tastes good, providing a sense of satisfaction the way a conversation with a good friend might. The cigarette has flavors that are smoky, like wood or the last swill of a glass of red wine. Other times I feel as if I am breathing in campfire or am coating my mouth with cured bacon. Smoking shouldn’t taste like pork.

I really want this cigarette to taste good. Sometimes, with the better smokes, I have a clear distilled thought. Today, I want just one, or if I’m lucky a series of thoughts that will flow into sentences and then build into a paragraph. I am supposed to sit down and write an essay. But for this moment, I sit on the countertop and hold my arm out the kitchen window. I am developing a scene with a cigarette between my fingers instead of a pen. I couldn’t have written this at my laptop, only standing at the window, I think.

I look at the cigarette and the fine ribbon of smoke it distills. The orange line at the base of the ash divides past and future, smoked and unsmoked, and the decision to put it out or keep on smoking. Sometimes when I smoke in the kitchen, I will finish the cig half way through or two-thirds through and put it out because I know there are more.

I have rituals for smoking and rituals for trying to forget I smoke. I think habits are more about having small traditions to build my life around. When I smoke out my window I have a full four minutes where I stand still and concentrate on 78 one task, one set of motions, or one thought. And at least in those four minutes I know what it’s like to pray, to create clear thoughts, to write easily. I hold still and thoughts float in on my breath and out on my exhalation, curling out the window with the smoke.

I think: This is it. I’m quitting. No more. I smoke this cigarette close to the filter because I have never liked saying goodbye.

 

Beth Newberry is a writer and editor living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has been published in Sojourners, Still: The Journal, and The Louisville Review. Her essay “The Center of the Compass” was named a notable essay of 2010 by Robert Atwan in the 2011 Best American Essays. She writes at thehillville.com.

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