Phantom Cigarette

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After sharing an account of a particularly intense situation, my friend Lisa will sometimes punctuate the last sentence by taking a long drag off a phantom cigarette.

Mind you, neither of us have smoked in decades, but for anyone who has ever smoked, the image reflexively brings you back to that pre-cigarette stress followed by the release that comes post-first-drag.

This morning, I realized that the sound of my three teenagers getting out of the minivan is my responsible, middle-aged mom’s version of first-drag-euphoria.

My response got me thinking about my smoking history, which through today’s lens is beyond absurd, cultivated by a permissive smoking attitude that is almost impossible to believe ever existed.

I know I’m taking a great social risk by talking about cigarettes and it goes without saying that I do not condone smoking. But I grew up in the last generation when smoking was no big deal.

When I was a child, most of the adults in my life smoked. I inhaled enough second-hand smoke to qualify as an infant, toddler, and elementary school smoker.

My first actual cigarette was given to me by the popular teenage babysitter from our neighborhood. She convinced me to steal a pack from my parents. After my little brother went to bed, she called her best friend, from our rotary phone, and invited her over to smoke the stolen cigarettes in the garage.

Although light-headed and nauseated, I was hooked on the group intrigue. I was either twelve or thirteen.

The public high school where I attended my first two years had a smoking area for teachers and students out in back of the cafeteria. Half my cross-country team and I would meet there to smoke before practice. Sometimes our coach would join us.

When I went to boarding school for junior and senior year, the smoking accommodations were upgraded. Each dorm had a smoking room in the basement so we could exercise our right to smoke Marlboro Lights and the pretentious clove cigarettes that we bought when we hitchhiked to Amherst.

In the winter, when the weather was bad, a teacher would organize a cigarette/junk food run into Greenfield – again, this was teacher sanctioned and organized.

I loved the smoke rooms. They were the most egalitarian places on campus. People freely shared cigarettes and conversation. Your social label didn’t matter. We passed around the well-used face book – that’s what it was actually called – that included each student’s ID picture along with grade and dorm information when the discussion needed a visual.

Today, Northfields Mount Hermon’s official policy on smoking reads as follows:  The use or possession of any tobacco/nicotine product by students is prohibited. Violations may result in disciplinary action and mandatory consultation with health services. Repeated use of tobacco will result in major disciplinary action.

Things have changed.

I went to college in New York City and all my friends smoked. Even non-smokers would light-up when they went out and during finals, the Olympics of Self Abuse. It was a badge of honor to log sleepless nights fueled by coffee, cigarettes, and Entenmann’s chocolate-covered donuts.

In the mid 80’s, personal computers were just beginning to be a thing but everyone still typed their own papers on typewriters. I have mild dyslexia and typing before spell check was a nightmare. I would pay my friend’s eccentric roommate, Delores, to type my papers. Along with cash, she required cigarettes, a couple of six-packs, and a listening ear to her monologues on life as payment, which meant long hours holed up in her dorm room smoking.

Unlike today, smoking was more social and every venue had a smoking area, even planes. We used to go to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam and 110th street, smoke too many cigarettes and drink too much coffee, spinning us off into manic laughing fits and rapid fire conversation.

There is none of that in today’s coffee tech-caves. My favorite coffee shop in Austin is chocked full of hipster guys with beards and earbudded women slumped over computers.  They all look so serious and worried.

Nobody talks.

I apologize for sounding nostalgic about smoking, but it’s less about the act and more about remembering the camaraderie of long ago and friendships lost to time and distance.

I never was a consistent smoker. My habit would rise and fall.  By the time I graduated and moved to Austin, smoking was not cool anymore and the health risks were well understood. I was fortunate to be able to quit without a struggle, which is not usually the case.

My last cigarette was at twenty-six and I’ve never picked up another.

So this morning’s surprise smoking connection had me shaking my head. As I pulled away from the school, I thought of Lisa, took a long drag off my phantom cigarette, and drove off into my day.

Twenty-four Years


My husband, Matthew, and I married exactly two weeks after we met.

I was twenty-seven. A graduate student at the end of my degree plan. The year prior, I had purchased my first Rottweiler, Toby, after jumping on the back of my drug-dealing neighbor to prevent him from killing his wife on our shared porch. The neighbors were evicted. Toby and I stay on at the duplex near the dog park.

Toby was the man in my life. He slept on my bed, on his back, with his head on a pillow, and that was just fine with me. I didn’t want anything to do with men.

I was a year and half out from a break-up that crushed me. It drove me to cut my long bleach blonde hair short for the first time in my life. Think of a cross between Peter Pan and a Marine – it wasn’t pretty and neither was my mood. I renounced all things feminine and started lifting weights. It was the angriest, least attractive phase of my life.

My husband fondly remembers me as looking like a Russian swimmer, circa the Soviet Block era.

I was planning a move to Alaska after I earned my MSSW. When Matthew met me I was saving to buy the protective undercoating for my old-school station wagon to make it over the Alaskan Highway. I wasn’t looking for anybody to date, much less marry. I was going into the wilderness and never coming back.

Matthew was twenty-four and experiencing his quarter-life crisis. He had been one of those overachieving types in high school earning straight A’s while placing out of two years of college through correspondence courses. When he got to UT he was a business major, athletic, motivated, and pledging a fraternity.

Then he snapped.

He dropped out of school and became a waiter/massage therapist. This was back when being a massage therapist was out there, particularly for a guy. The economics of his new path tilted more toward the waiter side of the equation. When I think of this time, I remember him in a white shirt, black pants, and odd old man shoes. He had black curly hair, dark eyes, an easy laugh, and an enormous smile.

He had the sweetest little German Shepherd, Maude, and the meanest Maine Coon Cat, Echo.

We met on the stairs at the 10th street dog park as the sun was coming up. I had to get Toby exercised early so I could get to class. Matthew was taking Maude on a quick walk before the breakfast shift. Toby and I were usually the only people in the park. I remember Toby watching Matthew and Maude walk by on the sidewalk.

Matthew was in a hurry and wasn’t planning on going into the park. Maude had other plans. She ran down to where Toby was sitting. It was love at first sight.

My Rottwieller was aloof by nature. He was loyal to me and ignored all other living beings. Maude was a worrier, a bit high strung and kept to herself. This unlikely canine couple were head over heels. Matthew and I introduced ourselves and sat together on the steps watching their love affair unfold.

We decided that that we had to get them together again soon. Matthew called later that afternoon for a dog walk. We didn’t know it yet but somewhere along the Barton Creek Greenbelt all four of our fates were sealed. Mathew and Maude moved into my duplex after a couple of days. There were no dinner dates, or meet the parents. There was no fan-fare or announcements.

We were married two weeks later by a Justice of the Peace in the gazebo next to the court house.

I wore a black dress I bought at a second hand store and Matthew wore a purple and black shirt with jeans. My best friend at the time attended but Matthew’s best friend was not able to make it on such short notice. We went to dinner and then started our lives.

We grew up together, rooted and bloomed. We earned degrees, moved to Minnesota and back to Austin, started careers and businesses, bought houses and added four kids to the mix.

Every couple has a creation story. I once read that psychologists can predict the state of a couple’s marriage by the way they each describe their beginning. It’s all in the telling – changes in either partner’s tone or word choices across the years are the keys.

As any couple with a few decades under their belts will tell you, it’s not always easy. I truly believe that our story actually saved our marriage several times over the years.

Who could walk away from that kind of luck, that story.

We both still light up when we tell people we married after two weeks. The story is always the same, every telling – even during times when harsher words were spoken behind closed doors.

To this day, I cannot fully explain our beginning. Our whirlwind was not a romance with its usually giddiness. There was a seriousness about it – an earnestness. I choose to think of it as serendipity. We were two sidelined players that decided to get back in the game. We were what each other needed. Nothing more, nothing less.

Besides, the dogs loved each other.