The Surgeon General’s Report linking smoking with lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease was released in 1964. But for quite some time before that, I had already realized that smoking was gradually becoming more a burden than a blessing. Even without actually trying to stop, I was aware that I couldn’t not smoke. If I sat downstairs at the movies, where smoking was not allowed, I could hardly wait for the picture to end so as to rush out and light up. I couldn’t sit for very long in the stacks at the library where I was doing research for my master’s thesis without stopping work to go down and through the library doors for a cigarette.
I couldn’t lock the door when I came home in the evening without making sure there were enough cigarettes in the house to get me through to the next morning. I didn’t ever wake up at night to smoke, but if I woke up for some other reason — loud noise in the street, for instance — I was unable to get to sleep again without smoking at least part of a cigarette. And first thing in the morning, even before brushing my teeth, I had to rush to the kitchen, make a cup of coffee and take a sip so I could light a cigarette without feeling guilty about smoking “first thing in the morning.” I needed to light a cigarette before getting into the shower, before putting a piece of paper into the typewriter, before picking up the telephone, either to make a call or answer one. If going into some one else’s office for a meeting, I went with pen, pad of paper, and package of cigarettes — glasses on top of my head.
My wooden furniture at home had cigarette burns where cigarettes left in ashtrays had fallen from ashtray to table surface. A white synthetic leather pullout sofa bed in the studio apartment I rented after the end of my first marriage featured a burn mark on one cushion, where a flying spark had melted the synthetic leather. (And no, I couldn’t turn the cushion over. There was no synthetic leather on the other side.)
I was also realizing I didn’t really enjoy smoking. I knew people who professed to love it. What I experienced from the first deeply inhaled draw of a fresh cigarette was not pleasure, but immediate release from extreme discomfort. I was smoking to relieve feeling not good. When I smoked I felt normal. Not anything special. Just normal. When I didn’t smoke, I felt more and more uncomfortable, edgy, in need of my fix — until I could barely stand it. I remember asking myself what my life was really about. It seemed I was existing to smoke — all the time I was awake — and was smoking in order to exist without misery.
Now and then I would discuss these feelings with the Hungarian — the entirely supportive shrink who was helping me put my life back together. We talked about the addictive properties of cigarettes (using the word “addictive” in the non-legal sense, of course, as neither of us were then lawyers). The Hungarian said he stopped for two weeks every year, to prove to himself cigarettes were not his master, and that he was in control. [Today, forty-five years after I was finally able to stop, I would maintain two weeks wasn’t really “stopping.” But at that time two weeks without cigarettes sounded like eternity to me.] He told me a story about hiding in a bomb shelter in Hungary during the war. Next to him was an older man who had managed to stop smoking twenty years before. As the Hungarian extracted a cigarette from its package and lit it, the older man asked for one, too. “If this is the end for us,” he said, “I want one last cigarette before I die.” We both puffed companionably together during these conversations.
Then came the Report. Well, everyone knew, in a general way, that smoking wasn’t exactly good for you. But lung cancer, emphysema (whatever that was), heart disease? How long could you smoke with impunity before those kicked in? The Hungarian kept encouraging me to stop if I was so concerned. Just to make sure that I could, if I really wanted to.
“I can’t stop,” I said.
“Of course you can stop,” he said. “We will stop together. Starting at midnight tonight!”
It was a Thursday in May or June of 1965 that he made this entirely unforeseen offer. I was paying him for this? Yes I was. So how could I say no? Having taken me by surprise, he outlined the deal: Beginning at midnight, neither of us would take a single puff until we met again on Tuesday evening. After that, we could each do what we wanted. But for nearly five days, we would hang in there. There were also some guidelines, supposedly to make it somewhat less difficult:
- Avoid coffee and tea — because caffeine would intensify the craving for nicotine. (It perked you up, whereas nicotine calmed you down — both by shrinking the capillaries and thus reducing blood flow, and also by depriving you of oxygen with every puff.)
- Drink lots of water, to flush nicotine out of your system.
- Chew gum, if you have to do something with your mouth.
- Take walks, inhaling deeply for healthful infusions of oxygen.
- Distract yourself with activities during which you normally don’t smoke. (I had no such activities, but didn’t argue the point.)
I was fearful and unwilling, but the transference was too strong. I walked out of his office at eight in the evening, managed to smoke ten more cigarettes (making myself nauseous) before the appointed hour, stumbled to the incinerator in the hall at three minutes before midnight to throw all my remaining packs down the chute so I couldn’t retrieve them from the garbage pail in my apartment — and then gulped down a glass of water and slid between the sheets of the pullout sofa bed with the cigarette burn on one cushion as if I were climbing into my coffin.
I don’t know how I survived Friday at the office; I could not possibly have got anything done. I spent Saturday and Sunday mainly in the sofa bed, reading trashy magazines and sucking Life Savers like crazy in between long headachy naps and frequent trips to the bathroom to evacuate the quarts of water I was drinking. I may have called in sick on Monday in order to put away several pints of ice cream. (Ice cream is supposed to help everything. Wrong.) But Tuesday was coming. Blessed Tuesday, when at last I would be able to light up! Mainly what got me through all this were thoughts of the Hungarian’s similar suffering.
Tuesday evening, he congratulated me, declared he felt fine, and lit a meerschaum pipe. “That’s not fair!” I cried. I hadn’t even brought a fresh pack of cigarettes with me. Somehow I thought he would offer me one and we would light up together.
“You can smoke too, if you want.” He smiled. “And you can continue to not smoke, if you want. It will get easier, because you’ve done the hardest part. It’s up to you.”
When I left him after the session, I paused in front of the drugstore near the subway stop. Should I? Shouldn’t I? I went in, still uncertain — and bought three candy bars to carry me over until I got home to my cigarette-free studio apartment.
We were approaching the summer before my second wedding. I munched my way through it — wearing one of three drop-waisted Pucci-type-print “sack” dresses that managed to look chic while also disguising the fact that I was rapidly losing my waistline and gaining about two pounds a week. All foods were wonderful, all the time — and the more fattening the more satisfying. I also discovered packages of little cigarillos in the drugstore: they tasted terrible but you didn’t inhale them, so you got the awful (but now also wonderful) taste of tobacco without injury to the lungs. Also they looked rather sophisticated, if you were well dressed and coiffed when you put one between your lips. A trans-gender activity by a feminine-looking woman! Why hadn’t I thought of it before?
I was virtuous, and plump. And then plumper. And then had to buy a wedding dress. The Big Day was September 12. There was a store on Broadway in the 80’s, the name of which I no longer remember, that would make up your choice of dress style in the fabric of your choice. That seemed the place to go, as I wasn’t sure what size I was anymore, and didn’t want to know. They could measure me and do what had to be done. I chose a slenderizing dress and jacket combination, to be made up in ivory colored silk. (Such a purist! I considered white inappropriate for a non-virginal bride.) The seamstress who was measuring me said I was a perfect size 14. What was so perfect about that? I also needed a dinner dress and a couple of sportive outfits for the Bermuda honeymoon. In size 14?
No, no, no. This was my fresh start in life. This time I was going to get it right with a brand-new husband. Fat had no part to play in such a future. Three weeks before the wedding, I smoked a cigarette. Before the week was up, I was back to smoking thirty. After two weeks, when I returned for the final fitting of the ivory silk dress, they had to take it in quite a lot. The taken-in dress was even somewhat loose on September 12, but I was a happy bride. Everyone said I looked beautiful. Stopping smoking would have to wait.