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Smoking for the Hell of It

My Dad quit smoking, I quit smoking, but then my teenage son came home with smoke on his breath and rekindled my love affair with smokes.

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By Lisa Kaplan Gordon

04/09/14

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I smelled Ben’s breath two seconds before he walked into the family room, the stench of cigarettes smacked my nose like smelling salts. 

It was a familiar stink. My father was a heavy smoker throughout my childhood, and I’d smell stale cigarettes when he kissed me goodnight. And even though I couldn’t smell my own breath during the 10 years I smoked as an adolescent, I’d swallow a spritz of Binaca before I kissed a boy, just in case. 

So, when cigarette smoke preceded my 15-year-old into the room, I took that moment to thumb through my options.

Ben’s an oppositional kid whom I can’t strong-arm, so forbidding him to smoke would only guarantee a pack-a-day habit before he was 16. He’s been able to out-talk me since he was 10, so a reasoned discussion seemed fruitless and exhausting. And trying to manipulate him with, “I’ll never recover if anything happens to you,” would only provoke, “Don’t guilt trip me, Mom.”

So, when Ben walked into the room that Friday evening, I decided my best response was, “How was the movie?”

These days, it’s unusual, maybe unwise, to shrug off cigarettes—the leading cause of preventable death, illegal before age 18, arguably a gateway to other drugs. My friends threaten to ship their kids off to rehab when they find butts in their bushes.

But cigarettes connect so many parts of—and people in—my life, that I couldn’t manufacture a panic over Ben doing what I did, and what his beloved grandfather did, at the same age.

Actually, I was 11 when my father first gave me a puff off his cigarette.

It was 1964, and Dad had been smoking four packs a day ever since he was an Army private at the tail end of World War II. Stationed in the Philippines, Dad smoked whatever he could bum or buy at the base canteen—Camels, Lucky Strikes, Parliaments—he wasn’t picky. 

But when I was a kid, Dad was a Kent man. After every dinner, he’d push away from the dining room table, tap the white and grey-striped Kent box against his palm, then squint as he dragged deeply, satisfyingly on his cigarette. 

I loved watching Dad smoke, smelling the first toasty scent, listening to each inhale punctuate tales about his workday downtown. And after years of begging, he finally let me try.

Until I inhaled my first cigarette, I thought “green around the gills” was merely an expression. But when I stopped choking, I looked in the mirror and noticed the skin between the sides of my mouth and chin was blue-green. I gawked fascinated, my mother shot Dad a dirty look, and my father figured he had taught me a life lesson.

He had—just not the one he thought. By 15, I was smoking a ½ pack a day, often alone in my New Rochelle backyard, sometimes with my mother in our wood-paneled den.

Ironically, my father had quit by then. One morning when he was almost 40, Dad awoke with a dime-sized black spot centered on his tongue, and announced he had nicotine poisoning. My mother, who never said boo to Dad about his habit, narrowed her eyes and spat, “Fred, if I ever see a cigarette in your hand again, I’ll smack it out!” 

He quit that morning cold turkey. 

The day Dad’s tongue turned black became part of our family lore, along with the catfish that survived in our trashcan for three days, and the Cub Scout meeting when Dad suddenly appeared in full Indian headdress as the troop leader Akela, an honor no other father would accept.

A doctor probably would have told Dad that black tongue is not typically a sign of nicotine poisoning, and that the spot probably was a reaction to the Pepto Bismol he gulped to quiet his churning stomach. But, Dad was too spooked to confirm his diagnosis with an actual doctor, so he stopped smoking, and the spot gradually disappeared. 

Dad’s now 86. He had a triple bypass a decade go, which may or may not have been caused by the 10,000 cigarettes he smoked during his life. But, today he’s in good health. He still works, still plays tennis and golf, and still wants to smoke. When we recently talked about cigarettes, he said, “I loved smoking from the first puff, and could light up at the end of this conversation and smoke four packs today.” 

I know how he feels. 

I gave up cigarettes 35 years ago during my first newspaper job on a Connecticut weekly. By then, I was an anxiety smoker. I’d light up whenever someone looked at me cockeyed, throughout deadline days, and during a date with yet another guy who was all wrong for me.

Smoking calmed me down. I loved the unique sensation of drawing smoke deep into my lungs and blowing it out my pursed lips in a steady stream. Plus, I thought holding a cigarette with my wrist cocked gracefully, like a ballerina, was sexy.

But I quit, cold turkey, the day my analyst said, “You’ll stop eventually, so why not before smoking wrecks your health?” I don’t know if it was the irrefutable logic, or the fact that my analyst finally spoke, but I threw away a full pack and haven’t smoked a cigarette since.

Now, I occasionally smoke an e-Cig, an electronic inhaler that looks like a cigarette and vaporizes a liquid solution into an aerosol mist. The solution comes in cartridges with various amounts—or no—nicotine. When you suck on an e-Cig, its plastic tip glows blue; you can feel the vapor touching your lungs and blow it out your mouth in a steady stream. 

Oddly, Ben introduced me to e-Cigs. My husband and I decided the best way to get Ben to stop smoking was indirectly; when we’d smell him coming, we’d grimace and gag and say no girl will ever kiss you with smoke on your breath. It seemed to work—you never really know what works with teenagers—because one day he offered to stop smoking tobacco if we’d shell out $100 for a pack of e-Cigs.

The scientific jury is out on the health effects of e-Cigs; they’re just too new. Call me crazy, or worse, but I figured e-Cigs are better for Ben than tobacco, and they’re one step closer to smoking nothing at all. I bought him a pack with zero nicotine cartriges; he smoked them for about a week, then lost interest in smoking altogether.

I, on the other hand, enjoy my e-Cigs. Maybe once a week, I’ll toke on one, blow smoke rings just for fun, and flick my wrist in a pose I still think is seductive. If some scientist decides e-Cigs are bad for me, I’ll quit. I’ve done it before. 

But until then, I love every moment I’m pretending to smoke. 

Lisa Kaplan Gordon is a Virginia based writer and editor who has published articles in USA Today, Redbook, The Washingtonian and AARP.org.

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