|Where There's Smoke|
by Sean Garcia  /  non-fiction  /  11 Aug 2007
I woke up burning. My body ached, and my bones felt frail and brittle as though I were a hundred-year-old matchstick man, an elaborate rotting wood fossil lit at the joints. My lungs felt like two crumpled paper bags. The first thing I did, feeling my head swoon and bile shoot upward from my belly, was run to the toilet. The next was to wipe my mouth. Then I was seized by a powerful hacking cough.
I spat rusty blood into the white basin of the sink.
This had happened before: a few months ago I had been spitting blood at odd intervals. For days I had done nothing but spit, and wait for my mouth to generate enough saliva so that I could spit again. Sometimes it was clear; sometimes it came out pink. On rare occasions veins of red were marbled in the froth. Since I hadn't been brushing my teeth very often at the time, I came to the conclusion my gums were at fault—and they were. Even the slightest pressure of my tongue against the jagged chips of my teeth, could set my gums to bleeding.
The blood would come, and I would open my mouth and find no blood. So I would push my tongue against my gums and shove them against the ferocious enamels, watch the red begin to flow, and spit. Then I would tell myself my gums were to blame; that if I brushed more, the white would not be stained and I would have no reason to be afraid ever again.
I brush my teeth less, the more I tell myself to brush. The truth is I've never cared enough about my teeth to bother. I've had only one cavity. After dropping a baby tooth in a glass of coke, and forty-eight hours later finding no trace of it whatever, I stopped drinking soda. Since then not a day has gone by, in which I have either consumed more than a few sips of coke, or brushed my teeth twice. I still wonder, for hypothesis' sake, if it wasn't my mother made the tiny stone at the bottom of that glass disappear.
All this is a long-winded way of saying: I am a smoker. It is killing me with smug assurance, and much quicker than I think. I know the habit is tantamount to suicide; and that, of infinite possible ways to die smoking is the slowest painful decay, the most debilitating black agony of all.
I woke up on my twenty-third birthday sick as a backalley cur, coughing blood and unable to breathe without pain, and swore on the feeling of hellish charred ravages never to smoke a cigarette again. I told myself, as I do every single time I get sick and see the utter plain necessity of stopping, to remember how much pain I was in those moments, that whole day of nothing but moments stretched to infinity, the seconds days and nothing to do but stumble and count my strained breaths to pass the time and pray to a God I'm not sure I believe in that I'll do anything He says, anything, if He will make me better and help me along the path to wellness. Whenever I fall ill, and the blood comes out for days, months even—it has never really gone away—the feeling of being a pathetic lost lamb who doesn't even know well enough not to butcher itself, rises in me; and next to it, pitiless images of remorseless suffering animals in the wild. Wolves tearing sheep apart.
I am terrified of dying. So frightened am I, of whatever happens then, that no death throes could be worse.
This might help explain why I was smoking the next morning.
I don't understand why, myself. There seem to me to be only a multitude of partial solutions, instead of a coherent total one. Genetics, Madison Avenue, my parents, Eros and the Death Instinct, physical addiction, my personality, human haplessness in the inexorable causal maw some call fate: these influences run together like wavelets on a vast ocean, and collide, and fall away.
Shaw once famously asked how a smoker and a non-smoker can be equally free on the same railway car. Perhaps there is something dual in human nature: a holistic, broader view of the relation between mind and body would suggest we are essentially railway cars, with both people inside. I have no idea—nothing definitive, at any rate, nothing I would offer as a solution to this seemingly insoluble problem. Nor have I been able to capture personally, emotionally, or aesthetically, what it feels like to be placed on this rack, or what it looks like to watch. I am the type of person that derives an intensely detached pleasure from such things. Perhaps thinking and smoking have the same root impulse.
To save my life, I can't stop doing either.
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