When I was 11, I had a best friend whose house I practically lived in. We were inseparable, bonded by our love for pop bands such as La Bouche (of Be My Lover fame) and Real McCoy, mystery novels and other things that almost-teenagers gravitated towards.
I adored her mother, whom I saw as a heroic role model – beautiful, and confident with a perpetually glossed bob-cut, exuding an effervescence that was contagious. She worked in Sales and I found her sharp suits glamorous and all I’m-strong-, do-not-mess-with-me woman. Plus she made the most delicious snacks with such casual efficiency.
One afternoon I walked into their home and saw Aunty sitting in a pair of shorts, chatting restlessly on the phone with a cigarette poised between her fingers with the painted nails I loved. With a distracted smile, she waved at me and continued her conversation.
I’d always assumed that the lingering scent of lavender room spray tinged with musty tobacco was an outcome of my friend’s father, not her mother.
Surprised and scandalized, I was unsure of how to interact with her after that. I felt cheated by someone I revered so much. My vision of her perfection crumbled. I saw cigarettes as vicious indulgences meant for reckless men, not nurturing women. How could she willingly choose such a despicable habit?
Fifteen years later, I smoked my first cigarette at a party. A couple of tequila shots down and plastered enough to abandon my principles on tobacco, I took a drag of a Marlboro Red. It felt like licking a chimney. Conscious of being watched by other inebriated friends at the party; I braved a few more drags and chuckled along with them.
Later that night I doused my mouth in Listerine and swore I’d never smoke again.
At the peak of a career in Finance, my life was in shambles; a messy marriage, the boss from hell whose sole purpose seemed to be to hack at my self-esteem, deteriorating health from extreme stress and neglect. The days flowed into one another as ordeals to be survived. I lost interest in the things I had always loved – music, books, conversations.
Driving back home one night at an ungodly hour, I stopped at a gas station. I was living in Dubai at the time. As I paid for a stale sandwich, the neatly stacked rows of cigarette packs stared at me, taunting me. On a tired whim, I asked for Menthols and a lighter. I waited for the cashier to say something, with words or a judgmental glare but he busied himself with sorting his register. I paid and left.
I parked at a vacant lot a few blocks away from my house and stepped out, plagued with paranoia. Peeling the wrapper, I pulled out the cigarette and lit it before I could change my mind. Halfway through, the buzz hit me, an uncomfortable twitching made worse by an empty stomach. I took slower drags after that, stubbed the butt, hopped into my car and drove home.
The after-work smoking continued and then slowly became a morning routine too. When my husband learnt of the habit, he told me to be careful, warning me about the ease of addiction. But I knew better.
Don’t we all?
Cigarettes consumed me. At work, all I could think about was when I could leave and sink myself into their relaxation. When I woke up, I waited to hop into the car, switch on my jam and light up my first cigarette. That was when I felt the day begin – the first drag of nicotine giving me a jolt of pure nonchalance. For about five minutes.
Cruising the highway with my smokes became the highlight of my days. The nagging guilt died after a while as I convinced myself that I deserved one thing that felt good. I forgot about all the times I’d lectured chain-smoking friends, how many years it had taken our family to get my father to quit. Correction – I didn’t forget, but chose not to remember.
The thing with nicotine is, it doesn’t work to a schedule. Being a secret smoker, I struggled to manage my cravings. The cravings got sharper. What was worse were the things I did in the intervals between being able to hide and smoke. I lied, pushed people’s limits till they snapped and I had a reason to vent out with a drive and a smoke. My lungs weren’t the issue anymore; the nicotine was getting to my head.
I was willing to accept the damage to my body for the relief the cigarettes gave me but realized that if I wanted to preserve my sanity, I had to be an open smoker, or quit.
I imagined evolving into a chain-smoker with stained teeth, spending hours standing around with other smokers till I reeked; and decided to quit. By then I’d been smoking for about four months. Since I’d acquired the habit as an escape and hadn’t made it to full-fledged nicotine addiction yet, I was able to wean myself off in a week. But I needed a new diversion, and turned to food. I binge ate, taking any form of internal pain to mean hunger. All the rubbish that existed when I started smoking was still there and needed to be dealt with. Unfortunately, cigarettes don’t come with free magic waste disposal for all the unmanageable shit in your life.
I’ve done some regrettable things in my life; stopping at the gas station that night definitely makes it to the list. Smoking showed me my dark side; someone capable of deception for a chance to fill herself with temporary bliss. Smoking taught me how easy it was for me to run away from myself.
I still have the occasional cigarette when out with friends for cocktails. As the nicotine floods through me, I am reminded of its power, like the clandestine lover who seeks not a lukewarm response, but a frenzied love I cannot give anymore.
Sometimes I wonder about my friend’s mother and how she’s doing. I wonder who she was talking to that day on the phone when she waved her cigarette at me. I wish I could explain to her the rationalities of my 11-year-old brain which saw the world in right and wrong, good habits and bad habits, black and white. I want to talk to her for hours about my life and the fucked-up and better decisions I’ve made and I want to listen to her own stories.
Perhaps we’d even share a cigarette and celebrate giving in to our vices.
Sangeetha is a hoarder, tea connoisseur and dog stalker.