I’m smoking again. The concrete steps outside my building are always dirty, covered in glass shards and gravel that embeds in my heels. The smell of piss from both my neighbor’s dog and mine in the grass mingles with smoke on the inhale. There’s no privacy here: Neighbors pass in and out, hairy toes in flip-flops inches from my thighs; boys skateboard, crashing, screaming in the street; dog collars jangle. It’s my favorite place to smoke.
This is my second pack this week. I should stop lying to my doctors and answer yes next time on a survey of my medical history. Used to be I was a nonsmoker, otherwise known as an only-with-a-drink smoker, then a social smoker, and now, the one that’s stuck: grief smoker. It’s the smell I love most, the way it lingers on fingers when I’m finished. I can smell the nicotine on my nails for hours afterwards, secret sniffs in class, when I put a hand to my cheek, curl my hair round my ears. It reminds me of taking a taxi in Paris after midnight, when the cab driver rolls the window down a crack and the sultry smell of smoke and sex swims over me for the first time. It makes me think of a man with Mr. Fantastic hair and soft feet. Of being in love.
I had my first cigarette in college, at a house party hosted by a boy I didn’t love, who loved me. This made me powerful. A friend offered me a drag and I took it, to seem grown up. I coughed. Gave it back. Back then I had feathers in my hair and danced like a wild thing in his front yard, orange pinpricks from everyone else’s lit cigarettes like a dozen burning suns surrounding me. I could always get what I wanted without a nicotine high.
I didn’t develop a taste for smoking until graduate school, but not for the reason you think. While a half-moon of smoking student artists sounds romantic, most of my colleagues say, Nah, that shit’s so bad for you. By then I was dating someone else. Being with him wasn’t unlike smoking itself—that is to say, he was dangerous enough for me to think Please be different but never enough to think Please go away. Loving him was the ache in your knuckles after a pop. He didn’t know how he felt—love or not love—so I went through a dozen packs of Turkish Royals in a month waiting for him to figure it out.
I smoked even more when he left me. Behind sticky brown dumpsters out of my students’ sight; outside restaurants while my friends waited; in the gravel and dirt next to the coffee shop, my things inside unattended. There was comfort in the ritual: smack of pack in palm, click of lighter, inhale. Hold. Hold. Hold. Exhale. I had gone from an occasional-Can-I-bum-a-cigarette nonsmoker to a being-recognized-You-are-always-in-a-hurry!-at-the-gas-station chain smoker. My favorite place to have a cigarette, though, remained my front porch steps, barefoot, broken glass, dog shit, skateboarders. My therapist approved the habit. She said the cigarettes promoted mindfulness. Got me outside. Reminded me to take a break. Sounds healthy, she said, even if the tobacco isn’t.
Next to me, my dog chews cigarette butts and I snap my fingers, command him Camel between my own teeth to drop it. He does. Power rests with the one least in love. I can’t control most of the things killing me, so I have in my lips the one thing I can. It never lasts. I have timed it: three minutes and forty-seven seconds. Light one up for the heart I can’t heal. Light one for the mystery spot on my dad’s arm. Light one for the mother I make cry. For the job I didn’t get, for the friends I’ve lost, for the pain in my feet the doctors can’t stop. For the man who left. Three minutes, forty-seven seconds. After this: papers to grade, dishes to wash, a life to return to and survive. For now, a cigarette’s length only away from glory, collapse, exhale.
Samantha Edmonds‘ works appears in Literary Hub, Mississippi Review, Pleiades, Black Warrior Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. An MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee, she currently lives in Knoxville.