Narcissus Smokes

I remember my last cigarette like it was yesterday.

That's because it was yesterday.

A scrunched-up Marlboro Light with lipstick traces on the filter tip. I filched it out of an ashtray outside the supermarket. I thanked its former owner for being so generous, straightened its bent form, and sparked it up on the drive home.

The smoke tasted used and dirty going down. The rush hit after the third drag.

A tingling sensation welled up inside my head, spread down my neck and shoulders and into my fingertips and the base of my spine, then exploded in my consciousness as an intense feeling of omniscience and well-being.

I was sharp. I was on the ball. I had all the answers.

The comedown was instantaneous. Poof! Gone. If nicotine's buzz lasted a split-second longer it'd be illegal, I thought, backsliding into a more mundane realm where I clearly didn't have all the answers.

For example:

I am in the peak physical condition of my life. I pump iron, do cardio, eat six tiny meals a day, take vitamins and drink only filtered or bottled water. To top it off, I'm on the nicotine patch.

Yet, I'd just plucked a crusty cigarette butt out of a public ashtray and smoked it. What's up with that?

How can a man simultaneously pursue physical fitness and lung cancer? What causes our hero to seek both life and death at the same time?

Narcissism seems as reasonable an explanation as any. Let us recall the myth.

A handsome young man meets the passionate offers of local maidens and nymphs with studied indifference -- Narcissus only has eyes for himself. This hubris angers Nemesis, the goddess charged with curing all excess, and she places a curse on Narcissus. When he sees his reflection in a pond, he falls hopelessly in love with it. He remains rooted to the spot, where he withers away. The flower that will one day bare his name springs up next to the pond.

Cut to the present.

An older, not-quite-as-handsome man gazes at his reflection in the mirror. He has the body of a teenager, rippled and sinewy. But the face doesn't quite match. The intelligence burning behind the eyes belongs to a deviant who can spot the little camel on a filter tip from across a crowded parking lot, a sneak thief who approaches supermarket ashtrays with the stealth and cunning of a sleight-of-hand artist, a martyr who will risk untold public humiliation in the name of his cause.

In the mirror, I see the body of Adonis and the sick grin of a butt-stalker.

Strangely, I am in love with both of them.

I started working out five years ago, and quitting smoking seemed like a no-brainer at the time. The health hazards are, of course, well known. Besides the aforementioned lung cancer, there's cancer of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, bladder and pancreas to worry about, according to the American Cancer Society.

Not to mention emphysema, Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease and impotence. Lungs, mind, heart, sex. Take your pick.

There are just as many ways to quit as there are reasons to do it, and I've tried most of them. I've done nicotine patches until my skin peeled off. Chewed nicotine gum until my gums were shriveled and raw. I've spent a bundle on hypnotism, acupuncture, and meditation. I was on gum the first half of this year; I've been on the patch since September. I am supposed to go off the patch cold turkey by Dec. 31 and I am scared stiff.

I've never made it cold turkey all the way through. I made it three months without cigarettes on one occasion; six months on another. But always I return to feed the monster.

I first met it more than a dozen years ago. My fiancée at the time suggested we go cold turkey a month before our wedding date. On the twenty-third day, she stabbed me in the calf with the pointed end of an incense burner. I grabbed a sizzling hot barbecued chicken breast from out of the broiler with my bare hand, squeezed it until the juice began to flow, and shook it at her, screaming, "THIS IS YOU!!!!!!!"

We bought a pack of cigarettes and called off the marriage. In that order.

It was by no means my last meeting with the monster. One part physical agitation, one part anxiety, one part transient visual, tactile or auditory hallucination -- the monster is the three harshest symptoms of nicotine withdrawal rolled into one. When you go cold turkey, it doesn't necessarily manifest itself as the need for a cigarette.

You feel empty, so you eat. You feel nervous, so you fidget. Somebody pisses you off, so you stab them.

Researchers will eventually find a positive correlation between going cold turkey and homicide. The monster did it. I have lost jobs, lovers and roommates to it. I've learned to keep it at bay at all cost.

That's why I've never made it cold turkey all the way through. Sooner or later, the monster emerges. It will eat you and the others around you.

Either you make a stand or you feed it. I have so far always chosen to feed it.

My meeting with the monster was not inevitable. I was born in 1960, at the dawn of the anti-smoking era, and was presented with a clear choice in the matter by the age of seven.

There was the toy plastic cigarette I got out of a ten-cent gumball machine. It glowed red when I puffed on it, just like dad's real cigarette.

There was the anti-smoking TV commercial with the boy about my age playing with a pack of his father's cigarettes. His father was dying from lung cancer, and the boy would surely die, too, if he started smoking. Like father, like son.

That commercial scared the hell out of me, causing me to be rabidly anti-smoking throughout most of my youth. I mercilessly hounded my father to quit smoking right up until the day I broke up with my high-school sweetheart. I smoked my first cigarette, a Marlboro Light, in the parking lot the next morning before school.

It glowed red, just like dad's. Suddenly the breakup didn't hurt anymore. I knew all the answers.

It was the late 1970s, and smoking was cool. Forget about Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man and subliminal advertising. Think Keith Richards, cigarette perpetually dangling from lower lip. Tobacco advertising had been banned from TV, but there was no shortage of celebrity roll models to chose from. Skinny, glamorous, chain-smoking musicians, movie stars and fashion models reinforced my fledgling habit, and continue to do so for others today. According to the American Cancer Society, drinking and smoking are depicted in a positive manner in 97 percent of top movie rentals, and 27 percent of the most popular songs.

Art imitates life. I fell in love with the reflection. I couldn't turn away.

By the late 1980s, I was a solid pack-a-day smoker. Dad made it to three packs a day before the doctors cracked him open like a freshly steamed crab just shy of his fiftieth birthday. A pacemaker and a quadruple bypass later, he was literally a new man. He hasn't smoked since -- more than a dozen years without a cigarette.

If only I could say the same. But alas! I could not face the monster alone. As it so happened, though, help was on the way and for sale.

During the 1990s, a growing array of products designed to help the smoker defeat the monster became available.

Nicotine gum and patches were the mainstays of this across-the-counter arsenal. When they first came on the market, both the gum and the patch were prohibitively expensive; only those serious about quitting needed apply. But thanks to skyrocketing state tobacco taxes, it's now cheaper to chew nicotine gum or be on the patch than it is to smoke.

You're supposed to use these smoking cessation devices to quit smoking, not support your habit. But getting off them can be difficult, and common sense says it's probably healthier to chew the gum or stay on the patch than it is to start smoking again. In the past five years, I've only smoked a total of two cartons of cigarettes.

I've been strung-out on gum and patches instead.

The gum is definitely the worst. Oh, it has its advantages. If you're not a heavy smoker, you can buy the 4 mg pieces and bite them in two, cutting the price of your fix in half. Plus you can chew it anytime, anywhere--even on the airplane. But that's part of the problem, too. You start chewing it a lot. Regular, mint or orange, it doesn't matter--it tastes like shit. You get nasty sores in your mouth and they sting like hell when you chew the gum. It's super hard to kick a gum habit. I know people who've been chewing it for years.

In my opinion, the patch, or nicotine transdermal delivery system, is a better way to go. I prefer the Nicoderm brand. It begins with a 21 mg/ day patch that sends the time-released equivalent of a pack of Marlboro Lights coursing through your bloodstream over a 24-hour period. After two to four weeks on the 21 mg/day patch, you switch to a 14 mg/day patch; after two to four more weeks, you switch to a 7 mg/day patch.

It's a slow, gradual taper. Just like down at the methadone clinic.

It works, if you "stick" with the program. But each step down can prolong the inevitable agony. You feel it when you cut down from a 21 mg patch to a 14 mg patch; it's worse going from 14 mg to 7 mg. At each and every juncture, the monster lies waiting, and the final step is the worst one of all.

Seven milligrams to zero. Cold turkey. Time to make a stand. Or feed the monster.

At this point, it seems fair to ask: Why mess around with the monster at all? If you don't have the guts to face it, why not just cave in and buy a pack of cigarettes?

Glad you asked.

Back in the day when a pack of smokes cost $1.75, no problem. You smoke one and throw the other nineteen away. I've done this enough times to know that if you really don't want to smoke the whole pack, soak it in water, otherwise you'll be Dumpster diving before the night is through.

But now cigarettes have more than doubled in price. At four bucks a pop, buying a pack and throwing most of it away isn't really an option. You buy a pack, you almost feel obligated to smoke the whole thing, and when you smoke a whole pack of cigarettes after you've been on the gum or the patch for several months, you will get sick.

So you learn. The monster doesn't want a whole pack. It wants just one.

But no one sells single cigarettes anymore, and bumming a smoke has become an increasingly dubious proposition. Fewer people indulge and the ones who do aren't necessarily a generous lot. It's gotten downright rude out there, in fact.

Where to turn? For me, there has only been one direction. Toward butt-laden ashtrays.

My first attempts at butt-stalking were awkward and feeble, the nervous bumblings of a rank amateur. My approach was entirely too obvious. Fortunately, I was never detected, and my talents blossomed. I learned how to spot brand name butts from far-away distances; how to judge the amount of cigarette beneath the sand by the angle of the filter sticking out above it. I discovered where all the best ashtrays were, the ones with the longest butts, and made regular rounds of them, marveling at my finds:

The continual supply of Benson & Hedges snubbed out far short of their lengthy life span by one of the vice presidents at the place where I used to work; the half-smoked Marlboro Reds in the ashtray at the Shell station; the stale Basic Light found squashed in the parking lot at the grocery store.

I became addicted to butt-stalking's shoplifting-like rush and dedicated to its craft, devising the infamous key-drop technique for filching butts out of ashtrays situated in crowded areas.

It works like this: I stroll up to an ashtray, just like an ordinary customer. Five to ten feet out, I throw my keys down so they slide up against the ashtray. Whoops! I dropped my keys! I stoop down to pick them up, blocking everyone else's view of the ashtray, and as I stand back up, I snag the butt that I've selected in advance.

It works like a charm. I've dropped my keys in front of more stores than I care to remember.

There's only one I'd really like to forget.

It was one of the best stops on the route, a drug store ashtray loaded with prime buttage. The key-drop went according to plan. But when I stooped down to pick the keys up, I kicked them under an automatic sliding door. The key fob got caught under the door. I snagged the butt with one hand and tugged on the key with the other as the door kept opening and closing, yanking me back and forth across the rubber entrance mat. I finally freed the keys, turned around, and ran smack into a store employee.

I recognized her. She smoked Virginia Slims and often left long butts in the ashtray in front of the store, like the butt I was holding in my fingers.

I tried to palm it, but it was too late. She had seen the whole sequence. She turned away in disgust. I never went back to that store. But I still haven't stopped feeding the monster.

Sitting in the cafe with me, Lee Page was totally serious.

"You want to quit smoking? I'll tell you how to quit. I know the secret. It's expensive, though. First you get a doctor to cut your throat from here to here," he explained, tracing the horizontal scar that runs from one side of his neck to the other. "Then you have him put a hole here, so you can breath, and then you have him cut your voice box out."

It works. Page, 66 years old, hasn't smoked since being diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1985, the same year the doctor ripped his throat out and punched a hole, called a stoma, in his neck. The stoma whistles when he breathes. He started smoking as a teenager and had a two-pack-a-day habit when he quit. He smoked "the only decent cigarette in the world, non-filter Camels."

"There's not too many of us left," he said fraternally.

A moment of silence for all the dead Camel smokers.

"You, too, can use one of these," he buzzed through his electric larynx. "It's a great way to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of your beloved." He prefers not to use the device, however. It took him three years to learn to speak without it. Losing his voice was worse than losing an appendage. "I had no idea how much of my persona was invested in my voice. No idea at all."

I interviewed Page, an American Cancer Society volunteer who works with new laryngectomy patients, because I have not been doing well on the patch. I needed someone like him to provide some additional motivation, to help scare me straight.

I explained the whole butt-stalking thing to him. "You're sick," he rasped in macabre admiration.

The memory of Page's whistling stoma kept me clean for three days. On the fourth day, I ran into a friend of mine who smokes and I bummed a cigarette from him. By the next day, I was back to butt-stalking. Which pretty much brings us up to the present. I remember my last cigarette like it was yesterday. That's because it was yesterday. There are several versions of the myth of Narcissus. In the one in which I find the most hope, Narcissus does not realize he is looking at his own reflection at first. It is only when he realizes that he is looking at himself and that his amorous feelings will never be requited that his suffering begins.

He could look away. He knows it's just a reflection. Yet he chooses to suffer.

In this moment, I find hope. After I've exhausted my last nicotine patch, the monster will come, I am sure of it. I will look in the mirror and see the man who feeds the monster. I cannot loathe this reflection, for it is a part of me.

But I can look away. Toward a vision of perfection that's nearly pure as Narcissus himself. I can choose not to suffer. So I will look away. I will make a stand. I will beat the monster. I shall not smoke again.

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