'My Husband or My Habit?': A Smoker's Dilemma
Once, he'd found her smoking sexy. But the day after the wedding, he demanded she quit. Or else.
“Mind if I smoke?” I asked Aaron on our first date.
“The first woman I ever slept with was a smoker, so I associate cigarettes with sex,” he said, sparking a match.
Good answer. It made me picture him in bed with a bohemian nymphet.
I was a 29-year-old broke, feminist poet sleeping alone in a Manhattan studio apartment. He was a six foot four, burly, shaggy-haired charmer in a cramped one-bedroom walkup. I dug that he was an aspiring TV comedy writer who’d escaped his conservative hometown in Westchester, NY, the way I’d fled my traditional Jewish family in West Bloomfield, Michigan. But I didn’t dig his proclamation that he wasn’t into partying.
“He doesn’t smoke, toke,or drink,” I complained to my shrink.
“You’re listing his assets now, right?” she asked.
Aaron’s straight, smoke-free mantra seemed a liability. By my Sweet Sixteen, I’d lost it to my first love in the backseat of his silver Camaro, tipsy on rum and Tab, singing along to a bootleg Blood on the Tracks. Post –grad school, my boyfriend and I smoked Newports—and ganja—on the beach in Negril, Jamaica. I saw myself as a rebellious counterculture femme fatale, an urban Marlboro Woman—though my brand was More Menthol Lights.
Still, Aaron was smart, sweet and accepted that I was a chain-smoking night owl who never cooked, wore pastels or left the apartment in the morning. We both knew Gregory Corso’s long poem “Marriage” by heart. Uh oh, I thought. This could get serious.
And it did. During our six-year off-and-on romance, he gallantly lit my cigarettes and joints for me, bought me vodka and Diet Cokes, never showed me nicotine-will-kill-you articles or relayed stories of addicted relatives dying of bad livers or lung cancer. He said that my habits were my own business.
The day after we moved in together, he looked at me and said, “Now you have to quit smoking and partying.”
“Very funny.” I laughed nervously.
But he wasn't joking.
“You have to take me the way I am, like you promised before the rabbi and God," I said.
“Our vows didn’t really say that,” he said.
“’In sickness and in health,’” I said.
“Not the same as ‘drunk, stoned and in a cloud of smoke,’” he said.
“You knew I was a chimney and never once complained,” I screamed.
“We weren’t living together then.”
“On our first date I asked if you mind my smoking. If you’d said yes, I wouldn’t have gone out with you.”
“That’s why I waited,” he said. “But now you need to quit.”
I felt betrayed and shell-shocked. Can your mate demand that you stop being self-destructive? Was that why married couples lived longer, or why half ended up divorcing? I could understand my friend Andrew ordering his wife into rehab after she drove their daughter to school buzzed on cocaine. But I was highly functioning, damaging mostly myself and my lungs (secondhand smoke had not yet become a big health issue). Aaron was ordering me to stop personal rituals he’d implied turned him on during our courtship. Then, the minute we’d smashed the glass on the floor and said, “Mazel tov,” he morphed into the Party Police.
I was an urban career woman, not a little wifey desperate to please my man. I couldn’t write straight without a cigarette. Did he expect me to quit working or to walk outside whenever I craved a smoke? I tried cutting down on cigarettes, smoking when he wasn’t around, exhaling out the open window, using a fan.
My resentment grew.
I’d avoided matrimony for years, afraid it would cramp my artistic style. I was right! Now I was stuck cohabitating with an amateur narcotics agent monitoring what I smoked and drank, making me feel paranoid and claustrophobic. I wanted to walk out of the marriage altogether. But we’d just pooled every cent we had in the bank and could borrow from both of our clans to buy our apartment. I couldn’t afford to move out again. Plus I deeply loved him.
Meanwhile, Aaron was a hypocrite with horrible habits. His food staples were pizza, shrimp dumplings and General Tso’s chicken. He snored like a foghorn, never exercised and hoarded stacks of baseball cards, comics and paperback thrillers everywhere.
“When you get rid of all your crazy compulsions, we’ll talk,” I said.
“I want you to be healthy and live longer,” he said.
The next week, carting in more of his belongings, Aaron left a bunch of garbage bags full in the foyer. Trying to be nurturing, I lovingly unpacked it. Returning, he flipped out that I’d touched his stuff. “You’re such a neatnik control freak, but the whole apartment reeks of smoke. Your cigarettes and joints are disgusting. They make me sick!” he screamed, punching the wall.
Who was this hairy stranger I’d mistakenly pledged my life to? I’d had enough of him trashing me for being who I always was, making me feel self-conscious in my own home. I booked a flight to Michigan to visit my parents.
For ten days that August, I hung out with old friends in my old haunts, puffing by my parents’ pool, as I’d done since I was 13. Aaron sent me flowers. He sent my mother flowers. When I finally called him back, he apologized, saying he would do anything to work things out.
“I wish I could quit smoking and drinking, but it’s too hard,” I admitted. “Every time I try, I gain weight and want to kill myself.”
“Maybe try addiction therapy?” he said. “I’ll pay for it. And come with you.”
Aaron found a brilliant addiction specialist just two blocks away. Dr. W., a former smoker, said, “Addicts rely on substances not people.” I argued with Dr. W. weekly and stopped fighting with Aaron. For six months, Aaron put the nicotine patch on me every morning and scratched my back every night when I removed it because it itched. He held me when I woke up screaming from weird patch dreams. He agreed to get healthier too. When we’d go out, he’d skip beer and order orange juice. He gave up buttered popcorn at the movies for walks around the park, drinking Evian.
It was draining, awkward, annoying. Everything became a negotiation. Could Aaron order garlic Nan at Indian restaurants when I was on Atkins? ( No.) Could I take out my mood swings on him? (New rule: all criticism of Aaron was banned.) ”You’re a pig for eating that crap” turned into “I love cooking fresh seafood together.” Like Dr. Frankenstein building a monster in his own image, we kept remodeling each other, our union, our relationship rules, even our home. In lieu of the utter destruction we expected, something odd happened: we fell madly in lust with our healthier creations.
At our recent 15th anniversary, I wouldn’t have recognized the blissful duet, both slimmer and more successful, in the same (now smoke- and drug-free) apartment, renovated and combined with the one-bedroom next door. Scripts and DVDs of Aaron’s TV episodes sat neatly on the shelves near my published books, including my chronicle of quitting cigarettes, alcohol and drugs more than a decade ago—with help from the annoying but devoted curly-haired narc roommate I’m now addicted to instead.
Susan Shapiro, a Manhattan writing teacher, is author of Lighting Up, Speed Shrinking and Five Men Who Broke My Heart, and coauthor of the upcoming Unhooked: How to Quit Anything. This is her first piece for The Fix.