My friends told me that I would never understand real human sadness unless I had smoked a cigarette. I didn’t see what sadness had to do with cigarettes. I had been sad plenty of times. “You’ll never understand what we’re talking about,” Dieter said, “until you try one.”
“Only one cigarette?” I said.
“You have to start somewhere,” Cleary said.
Garcia and I, being older, were the only non-smokers in the group. Everyone would go to the bar for happy hour, $2 domestics on draught. Garcia and I would get our drinks and stay near the bouncers. The cool breeze through the open double doors kept the smoke off our clothes.
“Imagine your free will,” Cleary said, “being taken from you with each puff. Each puff, you’re a little closer to being a robot.”
“I don’t believe in free will,” I said. Dieter unrolled the pack in his sleeve and held one out to me, unlit. He had beautiful women on both sides of him, pharmaceutical reps he hired right out of college.
“Don’t do it,” Garcia said.
I told the guys that I had more willpower than all of them combined. This made everyone in the group, including the women, holler and raise their glasses. “I thought you said you didn’t believe in free will?”
“Then how can you have willpower?” Dieter said. “Isn’t one necessary for the other?”
“Not necessarily.” I took the cigarette from him. I rolled the filtered end between my fingers, felt the tenderness, pulled the cigarette across my nostrils, as if to smell for quality. Cleary was whispering something to a woman in a baseball cap. She laughed. I told the guys, and the women around them, that I would prove how much willpower I had: I would start smoking; I would get myself nice and addicted, and then, at my very worst, I would quit cold turkey—no patches, no gum—and I would never smoke again.
Everyone seemed impressed with me, though the men had cruelty in their smiles.
“How do we know you’ll really be addicted? How do we know you won’t just pretend to be addicted so you can quit real easy?”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Garcia said. He was defending me from the other guys, vouching for my integrity.
I didn’t think of myself, in social situations, as middle-aged. Or middle anything. Middle-income. Middle of the road. Being in the middle implied neither here nor there, nowhere. Where was the middle anyway? I sometimes wondered. You couldn’t locate it, truly, a friend once told me, unless you had seen both the beginning and the end, and for this friend, only God had that luxury. In my life, I liked to believe, there were only beginnings. I drank two more beers and then used a matchbook—every ashtray on the bar had one placed inside—to light Dieter’s cigarette. Once you got past the taste, the burnt metal on your tongue, smoking wasn’t that bad.
“You have to inhale!” Dieter said. “You’re not inhaling!”
On my next puff, I took my time, as directed, and swallowed the smoke into my lungs. The pain was like a bear trap. I coughed so hard my arms locked. My very first cigarette, my beginning, dropped to the ground, only half-finished, its orange ember breaking apart on the tile. Everyone in the group, except Garcia, laughed. He stayed close to the bouncers and pretended not to know me.
Garcia walked with me for a while, on the way back to his apartment. We both lived by ourselves, in studios made for college kids. This was the sadness I was talking about before. “I don’t understand why you’re doing this,” Garcia said. “You may not be able to quit.”
I took a puff of a cigarette Cleary had given me for the road, but I didn’t inhale. “Haven’t you ever wanted to prove that you’re better than someone?” I said.
Garcia walked under the awnings to stay out of the drizzle. “I know that I’m better than Dieter and Cleary. I don’t have to prove it to myself. Or to them.”
“Don’t be so sure,” I said. “Everything requires proof. And it’s not just about them. It’s about people everywhere who can’t control themselves.”
Garcia climbed his stoop, and from a lighted window, inside, he gave me a thumbs-up.
I walked another six blocks, from there, to the nearest 24-hour mart to buy my first pack. Prices for Camels and Kools and a brand whose logo was an Indian in a warbonnet lit up the window. The man behind the register had black hair and even blacker eyes. The chiming of the bell, when I opened the door, got the attention of the only other customer, a woman, who stood at the freezers, reading the ingredients on tubes of orange juice concentrate. I walked up to the counter. The man greeted me. He was clean-shaven and pale for an Arab, but his hair was so dark you could see his beard beneath the skin. Behind him, in plastic cubby squares, hundreds of different packs were arranged—the colors of recreation and reputation. Dieter had told me to avoid menthols, but other than that, he said, the brand didn’t matter.
I looked up at the clerk, who was at least eight inches taller than I was. “What would you recommend?”
“Recommend for what?”
“Cigarettes,” I said.
The clerk leaned over the counter. His cologne was spicy and obvious. His teeth were white, but all along the gum line, on the top and bottom, was the black margin made by veneers. “I don’t smoke. They are all disgusting to me.” He turned to the hundreds of packs behind him. “What do you usually smoke? I can tell you if we have them.”
I told the man that I had never bought cigarettes before.
He didn’t understand. “So you don’t have any money?” he said angrily. It was only then that I could detect his accent. “You’re a bum? Is that what you’re telling me? You’re expecting that I will give you cigarettes for no charge?”
“No,” I said. I explained that I had never bought cigarettes because, before that night, I hadn’t been a smoker.
“You’re starting today?” he said.
I told him that it was a long story, that I had philosophical reasons.
“How old are you?” he said.
I told him that I would turn fifty-three in April, and he shook his head, his mouth slid to one side, as if he’d just heard a dirty joke. “You’re a fucking lunatic, you know?”
I asked him what brand most of his customers bought. Rather than answer me, he scanned the cubby squares until he found, near the top, the plain red packs of Marlboros. A pack, he said, was $4.10 plus tax. He slid a pack over the laser sensor in the counter and the register beeped, showing the price.
“Is there any discount,” I said, “if I buy the whole carton?”
My job, on 72nd Street, was security. I watched who came into the parking garage and who left. If a really expensive car, like a Bentley or a Maserati, pulled in, I had to write down the license plate number in my ledger, make a phone call. I was not a strong man, nor was I very big or tall, so I was glad, especially late at night, that I had my own bulletproof-glass booth in which to sit and smoke. Customers didn’t know it—but there was a small pistol in a lockbox at my feet. My goal, for as long as I could remember, was to feel as secure in real life as I did in my booth.
One night a guy from Iceland was playing violin at the Metropolitan Opera House. The garage was busy. My boss came by to check on me, and he saw that I was smoking in the booth. I had opened the sliding window a little to circulate the air. “Since when do you smoke?”
“Been about three weeks.”
He had both hands on the glass, his own cigarette hanging off his lip. “Did something happen?”
“Not really,” I said. I was speaking through the intercom in the booth. I mentioned Dieter and Cleary, that I had gone out to the bar with them to meet women, and that I wanted to prove to them that I had willpower. My boss knew Dieter and Cleary for the same reason I did: they both had important jobs and both lived in New Jersey, in places where the trains didn’t go. They both drove their cars into Manhattan every morning and parked in the garage for a monthly rate. Cleary owned a publishing house. Dieter was CFO of a Big Pharma company.
I hadn’t really liked either of them until they started giving me tips. $20, $40. I was generally a happy guy at work, more likable, and I guess they’d appreciated that. I repaid them the only way I knew how. Dieter and Cleary were both married, but they had girlfriends, too, young ones they met in bars and vacationed with under the guise of business travel. These women would come to visit them at work, sometimes for two hours or more, and I wouldn’t charge them for parking. Once, to thank me, Dieter and Cleary chipped in, on my fiftieth birthday, to buy me an escort. Her name, she said, was the Chinese equivalent of Sarah.
The only reason Garcia knew either Dieter or Cleary was because of me. He was new to the parking garage, what we called a “junior attendant.”
Every morning, before my shower, I had a cigarette. I used to eat breakfast—six pieces of white toast, one with butter, one with jelly, one with cream cheese, one with compote, one with peanut butter, and one plain—but since I’d started smoking, I’d given up breakfast and breakfast foods. I’d lost a taste for sweet things. Similarly, I found myself attracted, now, to women with tattoos and piercings. Garcia noticed, one morning at work, that I had lost some weight.
“Really?” I said. I thought he was paying me a compliment—something Garcia seldom did.
“Yeah, you look weird,” he said. “Older. But better-looking.” He touched my face. His hand trembled. It had been at least two weeks since we’d been on the same shift. Until that morning, we hadn’t seen each other, only spoken on the phone. I suggested that, after work, we go to the bar that Dieter and Cleary usually took us to, to meet women. Garcia agreed.
A strange mole, the color of bruised apple, appeared on my inner thigh. I thought it might be an ingrown hair, but it didn’t hurt very much, and it wouldn’t go away. I tried, one day in the bathroom at work, to pop it, and I made myself bleed. On a Saturday, I went to the emergency room at Mount Sinai. I didn’t have health insurance, never did, so an intern walked me to an examination room. She was young, in her thirties, I guessed. Her lips were full and dry, and the rubber cords of her stethoscope touched her bare neck, the metal instrument like a medallion.
She smiled. “So, otherwise,” she said, “how do you feel?” She was as far away from me as she could get, without standing in the hallway.
I told her that I actually felt great, that I had lost some weight, twenty-one pounds (I had since purchased a scale), and that, for the first time in at least a decade, my ankles didn’t swell up when I walked.
“You wrote down here,” she said, pointing to the words in her folder, “that you’re a smoker.”
I hadn’t been ashamed of my smoking—in fact, quite the opposite—until just then. The intern frowned playfully at my decision to be unhealthy. “Someone your age,” she said, “you should really think about quitting. Men and women over fifty, even if they only smoke half a pack a day, their chances of getting lung cancer go up by thirty percent.”
I told her that I hadn’t been smoking for very long, at that point only about six months. I thought this would return me to her good graces, but, instead, she had more questions, lots of questions, and her frowns, when they came, were exacting and full of hatred. I could have used a cigarette just then. The intern did, however, move closer to me. I could see a very faint scratch, like from a house cat, on her throat.
“I have every intention of quitting,” I said. “That’s the reason I started in the first place. Is there any chance that smoking caused the mark on my leg?”
The intern said it was unlikely considering how long I’d been a smoker. She gave me a topical cream and told me to put my pants back on. She was about to leave the room as I cinched the belt around my waist. “I need some motivation,” I said, moving with her. “I’ll quit smoking today. If I can maintain it for a month, will you come to dinner with me to celebrate?”
I could tell the question bothered her. Her posture had become rigid, her eyes more demonstrative. She said she would be right back, sliding my folder into the slot on the door as she entered the hall. I stayed in the room. I waited almost ten minutes and then decided, still alone, to drop my pants again to apply the cream. That was the last time I saw the intern.
Against Dieter’s recommendation, I tried menthols—Newports. That handsome teal hard pack with a swoosh on the front! The smoke was smoother, fuller, effervescent, like a warm bath on a cold night. Newport became my brand. I trusted the slow burn and the cork-tipped filters, how easily I could pinch one from the pack and light it. Menthol leaves a minty taste in your mouth, turns your lungs to ice. So sometimes, in the morning, I would forget whether or not I had brushed my teeth. Usually the answer, I would discover, was that I hadn’t.
Three teeth had to be pulled, the dentist said. They were in the back of my mouth, so my smile would remain, for the most part, intact. “And your gums are receding too,” he said, scraping with a metal tool. “When was the last time you were here?”
Tipped back in the chair, I joked about Jimmy Carter being president, about the mullahs in Iran.
The dentist did not. “Open your mouth,” he said, and pried my jaw open with his thumbs. According to him, the receding gums could be explained by my age. But I was a healthy-looking guy, he said, and so the three rotted teeth could only have been negligence. It didn’t occur to him (it wasn’t in my file) that I was a smoker. And I didn’t tell him. My breath must have been bad, though, because on the way out he gave me, along with my toothbrush and floss, two small bottles of Listerine. The other patients, I realized, were each given only one.
The mole on my thigh didn’t go away. Winter had come and gone, and it had gotten noticeably larger and more sensitive to the touch; it might even have changed color. I took the initiative one Tuesday and went for a biopsy.
Lying on my back, I asked the doctor about cost, told him I didn’t have insurance. He must have known this. I had written it on my paperwork. He crossed his legs, in the chair, and looked as if he’d had a long day even though it was only noon. “You can arrange a payment plan with the secretary,” he said. “I don’t handle those things.”
Garcia decided, that Thursday, that it was time for me to quit. We were watching the Mets at my apartment. “I can’t tell,” he said, looking at my thigh. “I need to see what it was like before. It looks a little purple.” He put his hand on my thigh, which was still tender from the biopsy. He looked sad. “Why don’t you just quit? You proved your point. You’re addicted. Dieter and Cleary don’t even remember why you started. To them, you’re just another smoker.”
“That’s the idea,” I said.
I stopped that night. Rather than go out to the bar (where I would be tempted to smoke) with Dieter, Cleary, and Garcia, I stayed home and disposed of my carton of Newports in the dumpster outside my apartment. The night, otherwise dark, was shot through with storefront yellow, from West Harlem to Morningside. The alley between my building and the liquor store had trapped some of the rain from a storm a week earlier. Dropping my cigarettes into the dumpster—and closing it—felt like an annulment. I had never been married though, so maybe I was overestimating the heartache.
On the way up to my apartment, I stopped on the stairs and ran back to the dumpster. I opened it. I was out of breath. The pack I’d started and the rest of the carton it belonged to sat on top of a clean black garbage bag. An old, disassembled infant swing lay next to the cigarettes. If I really wanted to, I could have reached in and removed the pack I’d started. All of the trash in the dumpster was dry and wrapped in plastic.
Also, it made sense not to quit in the middle of a pack. Quitting was a beginning. If I didn’t smoke them, those eight or nine loose cigarettes would be a tether to a life I no longer wanted. Getting rid of the cigarettes, destroying the evidence, was, I thought, a favor to my future self, a way to clear my head.
By eleven o’clock I had a tremor in my hands. I couldn’t sit down for more than a couple minutes. The harder surfaces in my apartment—the kitchen table, the bar stools, the various countertops—kept the cravings away, for a time. If I sat on my living room couch, my body would relax, and relaxing would make me want a cigarette, and not having a cigarette would agitate me, and being agitated would bring me back again to the couch.
I’d decided to leave the pack I’d started in the dumpster. To be sure I wouldn’t go back to retrieve the cigarettes, I took the garbage bag from beneath my kitchen sink; I poured an entire jar of Alfredo sauce, and the bowl of Sloppy Joe meat from the fridge, over the trash and then brought the garbage bag, which I hadn’t tied, out to the dumpster. I poured the greasy wet trash onto the cigarettes, covering them, and then threw the empty garbage bag into the dumpster, too. Some of the Sloppy Joe meat, I noticed, had gotten on the infant swing.
Back in my apartment, to keep busy, I ordered an adult movie on Pay-Per-View. $6.95. The movie didn’t help. The very first scene in which a man and a woman were together was in the jungles of some tropical country. Damp fruit trees and vines surrounded a boiling lagoon. Breasts exposed, the woman stepped barefoot through a veil of mist. She wore an animal-skin loincloth. But all I could think about was the mist and how much it looked like smoke and how I wanted to inhale it.
That night I didn’t sleep very much. Or at all. In bed, I’d had, along with my cravings, these trains of thought that went on for so long that I couldn’t tell whether or not I was dreaming.
In the morning, I had cravings which I tried to satiate with food. It had been over a year since I’d eaten breakfast. Salty food seemed the obvious choice. I ate an omelet with Spam, cheese, and lots of Tabasco, but when that didn’t help, I went to the 24-hour convenience store for sweets: a box of Entenmann’s and beer nuts. I had no appetite, but I needed to keep myself busy. My shift at the garage wasn’t until six o’clock that night. I looked at the cuckoo clock on my wall, in the kitchen, a clock for which I’d traded a pair of jeans, at the Salvation Army. It was a quarter to nine in the morning.
I knew I couldn’t stay in my apartment watching television, as I usually did before work. Being here by myself, with the transcendent smell of smoke in the walls, would send me right back to the store, for cigarettes.
I called Garcia, who was working the day shift. “You’re still alive?” he said.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“There’s nothing to do,” he said. “You’ve already done what you have to do. Now you just have to wait.”
“Can I come visit you at work?”
“You want to spend time at work when you don’t have to be here?”
“I want to spend time with you,” I said.
Garcia told me that he didn’t mind, and I told him that I would take a shower and be there before ten.
Later, as I was lathering my face with shaving cream, I heard, in the alley, the rollicking sound of a garbage truck. I went to the window, and, sure enough, its long steel arms were picking up our dumpster. Somewhere in the falling trash, I thought, were my Newports. And soon they were being driven away.
I had already showered and was brushing my teeth, in the bathroom, when the phone rang. I crossed to the kitchen. I knew it wasn’t Garcia, calling me back, because he always called my cell phone. He didn’t have my home number. I set my toothbrush bristles up on a stack of mail and spat toothpaste into the kitchen sink. The white foam rang against a plate Garcia and I had used for buffalo wings, while watching the Mets.
The voice on the phone asked if I was George Polk Jr. I said that I was.
“I’m calling from Dr. Zimbardo’s office,” the voice said. They wanted me to come in at three PM, that day, to discuss the results of my biopsy.
“Is everything okay?” I said. I had a strong craving just then for a cigarette.
“We would prefer not to give you a medical diagnosis over the phone.”
I called Garcia at the garage and told him I wouldn’t be visiting. I didn’t say why. He assumed that I’d found something more interesting to do on a Friday morning than visit the parking garage.
The doctor said nodular melanoma.
“Cancer?” I said.
He nodded. “Fairly aggressive. The cancer is Stage IIB. The biopsy showed that the cells are dividing at a mitotic rate of about four per square millimeter, which is why we’d like to get you into surgery as soon as possible.”
“I have work tonight at six o’clock,” I said. “Wednesdays and Sundays are usually good for me.”
The doctor put his hand on me and smiled. “I’m glad you’re keeping your sense of humor through all of this. I’ll have Candie call your employer and let them know that you won’t be coming in tonight.”
I had never missed a day of work at the garage; and I’d been there for almost seven years. Without my booth and the pistol at my feet, I had no control; I was no one. I asked the doctor, as I had the intern, if my smoking could possibly have caused the cancer on my leg.
“I didn’t know you were a smoker,” he said.
“Only for about a year.”
“Do you still smoke?”
“I quit yesterday.”
The doctor, like everyone else I’d told about my smoking, observed me quizzically. “Did something happen,” he said, “that made you start?”
I never knew how to answer that question. But I liked the question because free will wasn’t involved: things happened that made other things happen. “Peer pressure,” I said.
The doctor went on to explain that one year of smoking, even for a man my age, wasn’t very long. It was as if he were challenging me. “Cancer of the skin,” he said, “the kind you have, has much more to do with genetics. If it’s in your DNA, there’s not much you can do.” He asked if either my mother or my father had had skin cancer.
“I don’t know much about my parents,” I said. I’d had foster parents, in Poughkeepsie, and by sixteen I’d run away to Manhattan to become a sous-chef.
The surgery was, according to all of my doctors, “a success.” I had to stay in the hospital for a week, during which Garcia, Dieter, Cleary, and my boss came to visit. Garcia brought me lunch, once or twice, from the Jewish deli on 72nd Street. Dieter and Cleary visited together. Neither their wives nor their girlfriends were with them because both men had gone through divorces within a month of each other and needed “time to reboot.” I was happy to see them. Cleary had bought a really expensive bottle of champagne and offered to pay some of my medical bills. Dieter said he knew a trustee at the hospital, a “golf buddy,” who could waive the remaining costs.
“We’re going to drink this once you get out of here,” Cleary said, hoisting the bottle.
“I could really use a cigarette,” I said.
“How long has it been?”
“About a week.”
Dieter made a noise, slapped the television remote from my hand. “It’s easy not to smoke when you’re in a hospital bed the whole time.”
“It’s harder,” I said.
Dieter had tried to quit, but then came the divorce, and he went right back. I told Dieter and Cleary what I had already told Garcia and my boss: that, during the next year, I would be going to the doctor, once a month in the beginning, to see if the cancer came back. The stress during this time would be entirely new, and I couldn’t be expected to manage it without cigarettes. Dieter and Cleary both agreed this was a valid point. They said they wouldn’t hold it against me if I smoked.
A year later the cancer hadn’t returned, according to the doctors, and I hadn’t touched a cigarette. It wasn’t easy. I meditated now, in the mornings, made green smoothies. Dieter and his new wife had the idea to rent out our usual bar to celebrate my skin cancer being gone. I hadn’t been back to that bar since I’d quit smoking. Garcia and I had found a pub on 82nd and Amsterdam.
Before the celebration, Dieter and Cleary asked me multiple times if I wanted an escort. Sarah might have been available. “If there were ever a time…” Cleary said.
I told them no. I wished Garcia were coming, but he had had a falling out with Dieter and Cleary, over the issue of my and their friendship.
At the celebration, I noticed a woman a few years younger than I was, seated at the bar, by herself. She had a bottle of beer, half-empty, in front of her. The long wooden bar was no longer cluttered with matchbooks and ashtrays. Now, if you wanted to smoke a cigarette in Manhattan, you had to step outside. I broke away from Dieter and Cleary and approached the woman, some kind of artist, I assumed. She was dressed in a slinky black top and jeans. Her bare feet, the heels of which were black from grime, were on the bottom rung of the bar stool, her canvas sneakers kicked off to the side. “I take it you don’t like the crowd,” I said.
“Rich people tell the worst jokes.” She turned around to face me. She had a jeweled black stud in her nose and a steel ring through her bottom lip. “Are you the guy with cancer?”
“Not anymore,” I said, sipping my beer. “That’s what the party is for.”
We talked about New York, about how we knew Dieter and Cleary. “My husband works at Carmine’s on Broadway,” she said. I told her about my nineteen years in the kitchens of steakhouses and Mexican cantinas.
She knew the right questions to ask and how to keep me interested. During Cleary’s toast to my health, she touched the back of my neck and rolled her eyes. When she asked me, later that night, to join her outside while she smoked a cigarette, I had to think for a moment before I said yes.
Stephen Cicirelli received his MFA from Columbia University. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the Writing Program at Saint Peter’s University. His stories have appeared in 100 Word Story, Quick Fiction, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cardinal Sins. He is working on a novel about a young philosophy prodigy at Harvard. More of his writing can be read at http://www.stephencicirelli.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveCicirelli.