The six-month absence of my updates on the social pleasures and perils of not smoking suggests one of two things. Either I’m breezing along quite nicely in my smokeless life and, therefore, not giving it much thought or attention, and/or haven’t had anything more to say about quitting. Or maybe I’m right back at it and, therefore, I’m either too busy trying to figure out where to butt my cigarette without causing another forest fire Well, I’m pleased to say I’m still a quitter, and in still being a quitter I survived the two most dangerous obstacles known to smokers. I survived Europe and Canadian Literature.
First, an admission. I did lapse. But it was just once, a half a cigarette in May. The litigious reader is likely finger-wagging and pooh-poohing me for this, accusing me of a simple falsehood–how can a quitter still smoke a cigarette and call herself a quitter? Alcoholics Anonymous and the other twelve step programs seem to have convinced most of us that abstinence is de rigueur in these matters, and not up for debate. In the high tech culture of binary code and creeping economic polarization, the have or have-not-ism of public life, it seems reasonable to assume that any lapse in quitting is a semantic shove off the tight-rope from quitter to smoker. But I take issue with that. It’s important to lapse at least once, if not several times, in the course of quitting. Quitting, don’t forget, is a verb, and I like to pay it that respect by lapsing once in a while, or at least once last May on a pleasant Spring evening while I was in Victoria. I had just been part of a reading with several smoking-good writers and we had all retired to the Ship’s Anchor pub for beer and a chin wag. It was my privilege and my pleasure to lapse with them.
Now, this is not to say or even imply that lapsing is easy or easier than the other aspects of quitting. I watched my friends smoking and I felt that surge of anxiety when I caught myself knowing I was not only debating my abstinence, but that I was also about to have a cigarette while my brain continued debating it. The anxiety is not singular, either. There’s one anxiety, in that familiar micro-moment of consciousness when you decide a future before you act it out, knowing you may not think the better of it. Then there’s the anxiety I felt while smoking, wondering if the world has changed, and if I’m just having one cigarette, just this one, and not that next one, which sounds even better. And, finally, there’s the other anxiety, the greater of the three, dull and long in the body, itchy and muffled like a wool blanket. That anxiety covers you when you go to sleep that night feeling, like I did, as if you just cheated on your partner with the most unabandoned perversions your typically fragile and safeguarded psyche could muster. That was my frame of mind when I went to bed that night, having lapsed for just a single cigarette.
So I had a dream, or maybe it was a cure. In my REM stages I gathered all that neurosis and guilt and purged it, with smoking, in one final desperate act. During that interminable night of dreaming I dreamt that I screwed every Canadian novelist imaginable. Every novelist. I’ll spare you—and myself—both the list and the gory details. Let’s just say that when I woke up I experienced a kind of catharsis about smoking, one more intense than any I’d never experienced before. I didn’t want to light up ever again after having tried my best to sate the appetites of our national canon. Something in me had given up for good in those multiple acts, and I’m thankful I was asleep when I acted them out.
When I returned home the next day from that Victoria reading, my wife Tracy greeted me at the door, smiled and then frowned. "Did you smoke while you were away?" We were both shocked at her intuition. Later she’d say she didn’ t know why she asked that. I didn’t smell of smoke and I didn’t look like I’ d been smoking. Something just seemed different to her, or familiar but forgotten. All day I’d been prepping myself in the car on the way home, and I confessed immediately to my one indulgence and that it was my last one. I haven’t smoked since. I also told her I did it with Sinclair Ross, and all was forgiven.
Having survived that, Europe was less of a challenge than I’d anticipated. Screwing all those Canadian novelists was probably the best possible protection against Berlin, a city, like most European cities, which teases you into a belief that smoking is actually good for you. All those robust, rosy-cheeked Euro faces puffing away in the beer gardens and sidewalk cafes were a temptation. But I think the key to the European illusion is one of countenance. That is, those who smoke in the gardens and cafes do it with romantic abandon. Their faces are guiltless and relaxed. What they have done is faced smoking for what it is and accepted both its pleasure and threat. I am with them, too. I have confronted smoking for all its pleasures and black promise, and I have chosen to put it down. Like those books I now don’t have any desire to finish off.
914 w. (August 26, 2003. Editor’s note: Mr. Knighton’s pieces have been noticeably shorter since he stopped smoking, and require much more extensive editing… )