Unity in Pitchforks

By Ben Bogart. Posted in Creative Nonfiction and Issue Three. Bookmark the permalink.

I’ve quit smoking cigarettes at least fifteen times.  Quitting is easy.  Any cigarette can be your last, and I don’t mean that with any of the pessimistic “smoking can kill you” rhetoric that you might find in those buzzkilling Truth.com ads – the ones that always make my wife turn to me and offer that disapproving glare.  I mean exactly what I say:  any cigarette can be your last.  Just quit lighting them on fire, dumbass.  It’s as easy as that.  When my grandpa speaks so fondly of his own quitting experience, it’s always that easy.  He brings up the details surrounding his own realization that his life was too important, or shares the images of his younger brothers all dying from cancer.  And the phrase “cold turkey” gets thrown around a lot.  He doesn’t know I smoke – none of my family does – and so when he shares these stories, they’re all exaggerated to make himself sound like a superhero, satisfied in his own hubris that I have no clue what an ordeal quitting really is, or how full of shit I think his stories are.

I’m trying to quit right now, which makes writing this all the more difficult.  If you’ve never been a smoker, I find it almost entirely pointless to appeal to you.  Imagine that simple pleasure you love most about life, then multiply that by a sizable number and try to imagine what it would feel like to have that thing readily available to run through your veins from now until eternity (excluding, of course, time spent on public transportation, in movie theaters, at any restaurant, or spent with your family who doesn’t know you have such a filthy addiction).  You still don’t get it, and you should be happy about that.  I’ve been told that it’s harder to quit smoking cigarettes than it is to quit shooting heroin.  That’s just stupid, but I guess I believe it.  In the dozen or so times I’ve quit, I’ve fared about a week or two on average before I find myself back at the gas station counter, asking for a pack of Camel Turkish Silver and hearing, “where have you been?  We haven’t seen you in awhile.”

It is very easy to quit.  What’s hard is trying to make that resolve last. My most recent decision to quit smoking came this summer when, upon landing in England on my way back from Germany, I heard the announcement, “and do remember, there is no smoking anywhere inside London Heathrow Airport.”  My nerves, already frazzled from riding in an ancient and cramped Fokker F70 for the past two hours, shot into instant panic as the fasten seatbelts sign switched off and the sound of forty cell phones coming to life chirped throughout the cabin.  I had a choice:  I could tough it out, and spend my layover and the subsequent ten-hour flight to Dallas in foul-mouthed, jittery daze, or I could pull out my passport and enter a foreign country, alone, only for the chance to spend ten minutes polluting its atmosphere.  It really wasn’t much of a decision.  I gave my wife a kiss on the cheek, told her I’d meet her at the next plane, and dashed off towards customs with my right hand supporting the shoulder strap of my backpack and my left hand resting reassuringly on the pack of Dunhill I’d bought earlier that morning in Stuttgart.

Behind a line of some two-hundred international travelers, I filled in my landing card with all the pertinent information about my recent travels.  Under “Duration of Stay in the U.K.,” I entered “two cigarettes.”  I waited for half an hour in line, dreaming of the foul-scented smoke that would soon fill my lungs, swirl around in my bloodstream, and leave me light-headed to the point that I’d have to try really hard to navigate the terminals successfully.  It was going to be worth it.  But half an hour turned slowly into forty-five minutes, and at almost an hour into my line I had to give it up.  At that rate, I wouldn’t have enough time to enter the country, find someone to lend me a light, suck down two cigs, and then come back through security and find my way to the right plane.  I ducked past Dutch and Indian travelers, found myself scooting under blue ropes, and headed back into the heart of the smokeless beast.  As I searched the crowds in the main terminal for my wife’s head, all I could think about was how I needed to give it up.  And it would begin that instant.  I’d give myself a crash course in quitting on my long flight back to the U.S., and the fact that I’d had to surrender my only lighter in St. Louis a month earlier would, hopefully, keep me in line.  It was a foolproof plan, and one I laughed at mightily when, after one minute of standing outside the arrival gate at Lambert International, I was already using one lit cigarette to bring a second to life.

Yes, quitting sucks. I like to think I have pretty good resolve, but one of my campaigns to quit smoking was actually called to a halt because a server at the Canton Inn handed me the wrong to-go order, and I didn’t discover it until I got home.

So where does one turn in the absence of real self-control? In my case, the first step was Nicotine Polacrilex gum.  You can get it in 2mg or 4mg packets, depending on how many packs you smoke in a day, and if you can get past the abrasive texture and the way it smothers you as you chew it—like you just took in a big whiff of mace at close range—you might just be able to quit for good.  But you’re not going to be able to do it by yourself.  What you really want when you’re trying to break a rough habit is someone who is going through the same exact thing—not a coach, but a desperate soul like yourself who, when you say, “I wish I could un-clinch my fists right now,” will nod sympathetically and respond with, “yeah, this fucking sucks.”  But that wasn’t going to happen.

See, all my friends who are smokers plan on being smokers until the day they die—an event they don’t seem to fear.  Ken said he was going to quit, for his kids and his wife; he even got a prescription from his doctor for Chantix.  We were going to go through it together.  But after a month of going it alone, waiting for an angry, jumpy buddy to join in my misery, I began to realize that I had scornful exes who gave me more sympathetic looks that the one Ken paid to that box of Chantix.  He’d be more likely to open a box of spiders.  So I was going to have to find someone else—someone who couldn’t continue to smoke until death.  That’s where the vampires come in.

I don’t want to give a bad impression of myself, but I probably hate most of the things you like.  It’s just how I am.  While you’re having a good time with your friends at a bar, I’ll be that creep in the back, lit only by the glow from my ever-present cigarette (in my more fond memories), and frowning at anyone who might be too excited about that newest trend.  One habit seems to go with the other, and I’m not too proud of either.  So you can imagine my surprise when my wife, having snuck secretly onto our Netflix account in the midst of my great nicotine preoccupation, decided we were going to start watching HBO’s trendiest: True Blood.  She’d been planning it for a long time, and for every protest I gave, she had already devised a decent way to shut me down.  There was no fighting it:  giant snob though I might be, I was going to have to sit through that show that I’d often told my soul we’d never have to watch.  Then—dammit!—I liked it.  Not because this show is exceedingly well-written, or because the acting is superb by any means (if half of your cast can’t pull off a convincing Louisiana accent, it may be time to rethink your setting), but because I found my cessation buddy:  “Vampire Bill” Compton.

Bill, played by actor Stephen Moyer, is a vampire who is nearly two hundred years old, and who wants nothing but to integrate with the human society he has never stopped missing.  In the True Blood universe, this isn’t as big of a deal as you would think.  Vampires have recently allowed themselves to be known to the human population, and, in an effort to curb their appetites for human blood and help the two species get along, a Canadian company has come up with a blood-substitute called “TruBlood.”  Whether you buy it at a gas station or order it at a bar, TruBlood is best when microwaved to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and comes in every different blood-type in an effort to cater to those with discerning tastes.  Bill prefers 0-, which happens to be my blood-type.

As remarkable as TruBlood sounds, it nevertheless offers up one major flaw to the vampires who imbibe it: it’s awful.  Apparently, synthetic blood is absolutely appalling to the vampires who have decided to drink it for nourishment instead of real human blood, and so the only ones who actually purchase it are the ones who care about trying to fit in with “mainstream society.”  They’re understood to be the “good” vampires, and Bill Compton is their moody representative.

While my wife watches True Blood with careful attention to the romantic plot between Bill and protagonist Sookie Stackhouse, I watch the show for the romance between Bill and blood.  It doesn’t take a good actor to convince you that they’re in the midst of serious withdrawal when you’re jonesin’ for a cigarette, and to this end I found a comforting ally in “Vampire Bill.”  The similarities between us are endless:  angry, handsome, brooding.  We both suffer for our addictions, and are most comfortable and productive at night.  There’s an element of loneliness to each of us, and this is largely a product of the cravings we hold.  Bill, as a vampire, is still shunned by most mortals.  I can’t smoke a cigarette outside a movie theater without getting mean stares.  This falls apart a bit when you consider the gravity of the vampire life (and the athleticism that goes along with being undead) but the most comforting point of comparison for me is that, sometimes, Bill and I fall off the wagon.

Yeah, sometimes I suck at not smoking, but when I come home at night, I can take in an episode of True Blood, watch Bill Compton get pressured by his peers into sucking the life out of some jerk who had it coming (he rarely kills the good ones, again like me), and feel the sympathy well up in each of us.  He inevitably hides it from Sookie, who my wife should find more in common with than she’ll ever know, and I feel justified in having taken a relaxing smoke break to bring me back down to earth.  Then Bill goes back to his TruBlood, and I pop open another blister-pack of Polacrilex gum.

What should be a major flaw in my clever little comparison is that Bill’s commitment to TruBlood is kind of a long-term thing.  He needs blood to survive, so if he chooses to do the honorable thing, he’s pretty much stuck with the synthetic stuff forever.  My dependence on the gum should be temporary, but I worry more and more each day that it won’t be.  The more I wean myself from nicotine, the more I miss the simple pastime of the act itself, and the more I miss the oral fixation.  After my latest box of gum ran out, I knew immediately that the trick was not done.  It was either back to the gum – which, having the consistency of a shoe sole, tends to make your jaw hurt like hell – or onto something new.  Patches wouldn’t give me something to do with my mouth.  The lozenges seemed like they’d facilitate long-term use even more than the gum.  Chantix can cause suicidal thoughts, and quitting makes me depressed enough.  In an effort to make myself acceptable to the world once again, I turned to something that seemed too fun to pass up – the electronic cigarette.  Now my comparison to TruBlood was even more concrete – both Bill and I relied on synthetic shit that looked very much like what we were used to, and that was allowed anywhere without too many scornful looks from the mainstream population.  My e-cig was cheaper, greener, and far less harmful than the real thing.  Plus it had the promise of being hip—like an iPod for your lungs.

The e-cigarette is smokeless—it is in fact a small battery that heats a nicotine-heavy liquid into water vapor when air is passed through it. It is the cigarette of the future. It’s in your favorite restaurants, your local theater, and is even allowed on airplanes.  It’s what the astronauts smoke.

The problem is that it’s not like smoking—it’s like sucking on a humidifier through a straw.  You inhale, the tip of the battery glows in imitation of a real ember, and then you exhale a very convincing cloud of water vapor that can’t offend anybody.  For a week I sat at home every night, watching True Blood, and taking dainty little puffs on my fake metal cigarette.  It worked, in the sense that it put an end to my wife’s complaints.  With no smell and no adverse health effects, she told me I could smoke my e-cig for as long as I wanted.  But that was the only sense in which it worked – I spent most of my time trying to keep one of the two batteries charged, and when I realized that I was fighting the damn thing more than I was being satisfied by it, I also realized that it was making me crave the real thing all the more.  At the end of a week of frustration, I crammed my e-cig back into its shipping container and sent it back to its maker.

In a moment of tobacco-scented reflection, I came to terms with my inability to keep up with my quitting buddy.  It was an ending that seemed perfectly plausible when I was casting actual people, but the failure to keep up with a trendy fictional character had stung a bit.  I was ready to chalk the whole thing up to another flaw in True Blood’s writing, and yet this failed campaign weighed larger on my mind than any I’d experienced before.

Around this time a friend offered a line from The Shawshank Redemption as inspiration:  “Get busy living or get busy dying.”  He said it in tragic seriousness, and once I’d stifled my desire to rearrange his non-smoking face, I realized the painful inadequacy of the idea—what I wanted was to get busy doing both at one time, sort of like that bastard vampire and his gap-toothed girlfriend.  You see, once you take away the legitimate fear of death—allowing yourself to become in some way “undead”—there’s still a life to find appealing: the social life.  “Vampire Bill” had figured out a way to manage both of Andy Dufrense’s imperatives when he found a way to keep his deathly addiction from interfering with his social acceptance.  I hadn’t realized it, but that acceptance just wasn’t what I was after.  Your friends can ask you to quit as many times as they like, and they may even try to distance themselves from you when you persist, but if “living” to you isn’t living socially, then even the best intentions of your inner pop-culture opportunist (see: “screenwriter”) aren’t going to save you.

If you grant me this ridiculous analogy, what brought me into alliance with vampirism wasn’t actually the synthetic thrills at all—it was a separation from the mainstream.  “Vampire Bill” couldn’t take it.  I’m afraid that I can.  I’ll always be the guy who doesn’t mind lighting up alone in a foreign country, or watching you breath clean air through the window of any restaurant.  I can’t run faster or jump higher—quite the opposite, really—but I find comfort in the shadows, and can suck the life out of a pack of smokes with alarming efficiency.

Perhaps this is why I prefer the old vampire stories the best—the ones where an angry mob invariably ends up chasing the antagonist out of town with pitchforks and torches, or storming his solitary castle at midnight.  There’s no tweeny romance to it—just a bunch of mainstreamers running their own hard-headed legislation through the woods.  I respect that, because there’s unity in those pitchforks.  But I’ve always been the lonely-castle-type guy, and I don’t suppose I’m going to quit any time soon.

● ● ●

Ben Bogart lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife Gina and his filthy, unremorseful habit. He is currently working on a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition. His poetry can be found in The Moon City Review and Elder Mountain,and deals mostly with killing chickens and cleaning up cat vomit. None of these things are guaranteed to still be true at the time of publication.

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