Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Finish Line

There's a line I love in David Sedaris' book When You Are Engulfed in Flames, it is a non-English speaker trying to describe that someone has quit smoking and he says, "He is finished with the cigarettes." Sedaris notes, and I agree, that it sounds like the person was allotted a certain number of cigarettes and he had smoked them all; he was finished with the cigarettes. That sums up how I felt on the day I had the last cigarette. I was finished. If I close my eyes and allow my body to relax, I can transport myself back to that moment.

I head out the side door to the utility porch of the rambling two story clapboard house. I'm dressed in a flowing denim dress with tights and long johns underneath, a turtleneck and sweater over the top, and my heavy lace up boots. At that point the girl who never wore jeans hadn’t yet succumbed to what would be become my uniform during the Maine winters - L.L. Bean flannel lined jeans. I reach for the window ledge and feel for the pack and lighter hidden there. I stand facing out to the landscape surveying the snow and ice as I go through the familiar ritual. Tamping down the pack, finally, hitting it just right to make a single cigarette shoot out into the waiting opposing hand. Bringing it to my lips and lighting it with that first heavy drag. My warm breath is already making visible puffs as I exhale and that combines with the tendrils of cigarette smoke to obscure the scene in front of me. I savor every drag of the last cigarette.

The first cigarette came years earlier at an age much too young. The summer I was preparing to turn 13, my family moved due to a transfer in my father's work. I left seventh grade at middle school expecting to go to another middle school for the all important "top of the hill" eighth grade year. But this particular town didn’t have middle schools. Here kids went to elementary school from kindergarten through seventh grade and then high school for eighth through twelfth grade. So the first day of school found me streaming into the building with an assortment of unknown and some much older students. I was a sub-freshman - the lowest form of life at the high school. All the kids from Hightower Elementary assume that I had gone to Kingslee Elementary, and the students from Kingslee thought I must be from Shallowford Elementary, and those kids from Shallowford were sure I was from Chestnut Elementary. So no one felt the need to befriend me because surely I had friends from my old elementary school. The teachers were no better, they were facing a sea of new faces all converging from the four elementary schools and everyone was new and they didn’t know their names much less their history or whether they had a need for matchmaking.

For a new student with no one to talk to the longest six minute of every hour are the change of classes. When the bell rings and you are dismissed from the safe structure of your assigned seat and the classroom's prescribed expectations, you are thrust out into the hall where everyone seems to be busy with their friends. The couples are pressing each other up against lockers for a mini make out session, the single girls are in groups at their lockers looking into mirrors, talking to each other and applying lip gloss, the jock guys are horsing around pushing and shoving in that fraternity of physical familiarity. I escaped from the halls by heading into the bathroom, pretending to go, dilly dallying as I washed hands to use up the endless minutes. And as the day passed, I ventured further and further back into the bathroom until I was at the very back of the bathroom where the other misfits hung out. The smoking girls were huddled in the last stall puffing on their cigarettes. To join this clique, all that was required was a quick lie, "I left my cigarettes at home, can I bum off you today? I'll pay you back." And I was in.

I smoked through high school and through college and through the first years of teaching as a young single woman, and through my engagement. But it was during the engagement that the fiancée, who also smoked, suggested that we quit. We would quit together before the wedding and start out married as non-smokers. I agreed and we managed it. We did not smoke through the first move, the pregnancy and birth of our baby, nor through the second move. Then when the baby turned one year old, I decided it was time to return to work. The work place I chose happened to be populated with many smokers. My boss smoked, and her boss smoked, and her boss smoked too. As the new girl, with little to do, I became everyone's favorite chum to ask outside to keep them company for their cigarette break. At first it was just that, sit with them, talk, get incredible inside scoop on office politics. Then it happened, I caved and had one, and another, and another, and before you know it I was smoking again full time.

This time smoking had a new aspect. It took me away from my family. Husband didn’t smoke. I certainly didn’t want to smoke in front of the baby. So it became a complication to find the chance to have the next cigarette. Baby fell asleep in the car seat? Pull over and stand on the side of the road and have a smoke. Husband busy on the computer? Take out the trash and while you're outside, have a smoke. Eventually, there was no need of the trash taking ruse, I just left the two of them inside to read books, play with Little People, or watch the Disney movie, and I went outside to sit in my chair and smoke. It went on like that for two maybe three years until it was time for the next move.

But the next move brought a surprise, I was pregnant with baby number two. And so I stood out on the porch the morning of the positive test looking at the blue plus sign on the pregnancy test, with the phone handset beside me, knowing it was time to call husband and tell him the news. But first, I had to have that cigarette. I was one cigarette away from the finish line. I was about to be "finished with the cigarettes" but first I needed to have those last few seconds of just being me. I stood still in the cold, surveying the snow and ice covered landscape, slowly smoking the last cigarette before I squashed that butt, made that phone call, crossed that finish line and became a non-smoker, an expectant mother - finished with the cigarettes.

This post was written for the monthly Write-Away contest hosted at Scribbit. This month's topic is The Finish Line. Head over..there's still time for you to enter too! And, just for the record, haven't had a cigarette since - baby number two is now twelve years old!

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