I’ve been a bit grumpy over the past few days. I guess it could be early menopause setting in or the blazing heat and humidity. Perhaps the vast wasteland of summer television programming or the annoying bumper to bumper shore traffic around here. When I give this a good, long ponder, though, I realize my crankiness comes down to none of these things. It dawns on me that I am completely out of sorts because of smoke. Cigarette smoke.
I have never been a big fan of the stuff. As a kid, each Sunday morning, I was squooshed into the back seat of our family Buick like a breakfast sausage with my younger sister, Emily, for the weekly drive to my grandfather’s house. It took longer to back out of the short driveway than it did for my parents to light up. Down the treacherous curves of Sunset Drive, up past the rushing dam in Croton Falls, then miles around each of the reservoirs, up and down the hills all the way to Peekskill, which was at least 45 minutes away, my mother and father would smoke, smoke, and smoke. And then smoke. With the windows pulled up. And then, like clockwork, I would collapse out of the car once we had arrived and politely deposit a slushy pile of whatever I had eaten for breakfast slap-dab on the sidewalk. No wonder my grandfather never seemed ebullient over the Buick’s arrival.
The minute Em and I were old enough to catch on to the hazards of smoking, we would kneel and writhe at our parents’ feet, begging them to stop the nasty habit immediately. “You’ll leave us orphans!” we would cry, beating our breasts, flailing our arms, all as they sipped their gin martinis and smoked a couple of cigarettes before dinner. When that didn’t work, we tried threatening them with an even harsher guilt. “Murderers! You will kill us with your second-hand smoke! Have you no shame?!” I’m pretty sure that one only prompted them to smoke like chimneys before shooing us off to bed.
And then one day, out of the blue, my father was no longer smoking. We never watched him suffer an arduous struggle to kick the habit. He never hired a hypnotist, for example, nor checked out library books on beating the nicotine monster. We never spotted suspicious packs of gum or arm patches. One day he smoked. One day he didn’t. That was it. (Em and I didn’t ask a lot of questions in those days.)
My mother was another story. I would sweat myself to sleep picturing her lungs turning into charred hunks of roast beef as depicted in TV commercials and magazine advertisements. Thankfully this was before today’s even more graphic commercials showing actual lung surgeries, a lone orphan crying in a crowd, or a toothless man talking through a vibrating contraption held to his throat. Years after college and into our own lives and careers, Em and I would visit my parents in their new retirement home, which smelled beautifully of new lumber and paint, fresh, plush carpeting. At long last, my mother and her cigarettes seemed to have parted ways. Not wanting to smell up her new castle, we figured. And then, Em and I would sniff a trace of cigarette smoke on her blue blazer or in her frosted hair or spot a faint line of ashes on a paint can in the garage. Aha! Like two detectives, we would agonize over where she might be hiding her packs of killer sticks. Lift the toolbox lid, poke through cobwebby boxes in the garage, peek behind rows of toiletries, piles of washcloths. Nothing was beyond our prying eyes in search of the hidden cigarettes. Alas, to no avail. My mother would remain a closeted smoker, at least for a year or two longer, doing her best to mask her charade with a variety of perfumes, air freshening sprays, and breath mints.
It’s not that I don’t get the allure of cigarette smoke. As someone raised on old movies, I can’t imagine them not including heavy-duty smoking. I mean, just think about To Have and Have Not. The absolute finest scene in that movie (and most other movies ever made) is when Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart flirt over a match and cigarettes. They even went on to marry and live happily ever after in real life. Well, until Bogey died of throat cancer, that is. What about in Rear Window, when Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly peer across the courtyard into the darkened window, where only the orange glow of the killer’s cigarette is visible. And let’s not forget Gene Tierney, Cary Grant, or Bette Davis, let alone Sean Connery as 007.
Even more recent classics have been made greater thanks to cigarette smoke. Think: In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s maniacal character lighting her cigarette while luring Michael Douglas into her psychotic web. The poor schnook never knew what hit him. And what about Sharon Stone lighting up during the interrogation scene of Basic Instinct. Yes, that scene.
Not to mention television. Cigarette sales have undoubtedly skyrocketed thanks to Mad Men, the series about the advertising world of Madison Avenue during the 50s and 60s that paints smoking into one glamorous portrait. And anyone like me who has obsessed over Helen Mirren as the chain-smoking alcoholic Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect has also probably been left with a sudden overwhelming urge for not only a glass of scotch but an evening’s supply of ciggies.
In fact, I wish I were smoking right now. After all, I am writing. Shouldn’t I be smoking? (And drinking scotch, but that’s for another story.) My obsession for writers certainly helps me appreciate cigarette smoke’s allure. Look up any of the greats (Ernest Hemingway, JD Salinger, Ayn Rand, John Steinbeck, Daphne Du Maurier, Anaïs Nin, Truman Capote, you get the idea), and you will immediately spy photograph after photograph of the geniuses smoking. At a typewriter, in an armchair, on a cliff’s edge, no matter. All swarmed in swirls of smoke.
Confession: I have tried smoking cigarettes. Many times. Behind the old shed at Grandma’s house, where my mother, Em, and I would visit every summer, for example, my sister (otherwise known as my poor unfortunate sidekick) and I once rolled corn silk into toilet paper and struck it with a match—only to watch a wad of toilet paper go up in flames. During one phase of college, including a semester in England, I smoked quite regularly (if one vanilla-flavored Chelsea or clove cigarette every other weekend or so counts as regularity). And then there was a short-lived stint of smoking while I was a copy editor at a women’s magazine years ago in New York. I suppose I thought I would give off a more sophisticated air to the higher-ups, show them what a real writer looked like. My ploy halted abruptly one evening, when an after-work gathering of too many margaritas and cigarettes turned into an all-too-familiar slushy pile in my backpack on a train back home to Westchester.
No, cigarettes just aren’t for me, but it is really the smoke of these devilish things that bothers me most. A blustering summer storm the other night is what started me musing on the subject in the first place. Thunder roared and shook the walls of my apartment. Lightning crackled and lit up my bedroom, where I had just sprawled out on newly fluffed pillows with an engrossing mystery novel. Torrential gusts of rain slapped my balcony and the sidewalks below. As the storm slowed, the comforting scent of electric air and warm rain wafted through my open windows. I felt cozy and at peace, filled with gratitude for one of my favorite things about summer. I inhaled, took a deeper breath, and then…CHOKED. In streamed a long spiral of cigarette smoke from the neighbor below. What the –?! A perfectly serene moment ruined. Now instead of enjoying the scent of a summer evening, I was coughing into my pillowcase. Peace, cozy, gratitude? Puff! Poof! Gone!
Just for the record, I am the same person who sighs loudly, obnoxiously even, on the beach, should a stranger position his or her blanket near mine and proceed to smoke a cigarette. Every single time, without question, the smoke veers directly toward me, as if on a mission to obstruct my enjoyment of the sea and salty air. And just today, as I was driving excitedly toward the library, happy to be healthy on such a gorgeous summer morning, enjoying the cooler air with the windows rolled down, what happened? You guessed it. The driver in front of me decided to smoke a cigarette with her windows down too. Not only smoke it, but relish it, revel in the blasted thing. Unable to pass, I was forced to follow her as she drove about two miles an hour and exhaled the smoke, which, of course, made a beeline for my open window and nostrils. I’m not sure she noticed me yelling, “For cryin’ out loud!” out the window like a maniac, hair flying, sunglasses steaming over, but eventually she did flick the butt onto the road.
I guess I wouldn’t mind cigarette smoke if it smelled more like swirls of strawberry ice cream or autumn leaves or grape soda bubbles instead of, well, cigarette smoke. I don’t care if people want to smoke. I suppose I just wish they wouldn’t do it near me. In the meantime, this grump is going back to her bedroom to read another gripping novel long into the night—windows open wide, candles and incense standing by.