Smoke Signals


I meet a guy. I'm pretty sure I like him because I haven't erased the message he left on my answering message. I call my machine from work and listen to it a time or two, smiling and blushing and feeling like a complete idiot.

His voice is soft and deep, a little awkward and exceedingly polite. In fact, it's the formal nature of the message that thrills me somehow. When I call him back, he asks me out and offers to pick me up across town from where he lives. I suggest meeting him in the middle and he says, "What? I wouldn't dream of not picking you up." This, I think, is my version of phone sex.

Next thing I know, I'm sitting at a bar, he's buying me a drink, I'm trying to be witty, a good listener, trying to arrange my limbs in a way that suggests casual confidence but also provides the most flattering angle. I've got a lot on my mind.

But as I'm nodding and smiling, I'm also worrying about The Big Reveal.

It's not a criminal record or an obsessed ex-husband or a venereal disease. It's not a personality disorder or a prosthetic limb. But the awful truth must come out somehow. I smoke.

I'm no John Wayne, sucking down six packs a day, but I do enjoy a handful of daily cigarettes. Call them Cancer Sticks, call them Puffy Treats, call them Lung Buddies, call them a really bad habit. Call them what you will, but as I sit sipping my Southern Comfort on the rocks, that pack of Merits in my purse is calling me.

How do I handle the Reveal? I remember a girlfriend telling me that she quit smoking because she was madly in love with her neighbor and she knew her smoking would be a "deal breaker." That phrase is taking over the background processing sector of my brain. Deal breaker. It echoes in my head like a cheap sound effect.

I barely know this guy, and I don't relish the idea of introducing any deal breakers, but at the same time, I love to smoke. I once heard a famous radio doctor report a study which found that smoking fewer than ten cigarettes a day has no proven health deficits. Just to be safe, I try to keep it under six, but I know smoking is a killer. I don't condone it, I just love it.

Ever since my first pack, a slim gold box of Benson & Hedges Ultra Lights I bought when I was fourteen, cigarettes have accompanied me on road trips, stood by me during break ups, coated my lungs with nerve-soothing nicotine during term papers and finals and the late night composing of countless columns.

When I visit home, I would rather tell my parents I'm responsible for a string of gruesome truck stop murders than admit I smoke. I wait patiently for that peaceful, secret late night smoke on the front porch after everyone's gone to bed.

I understand the implications of being a smoker; I'm self-destructive, stupid, stinky, on a path of ruin, trashy, lost, fallen and very likely an instrument of Satan. I'm quite sure this is what people are thinking when they shake their heads with a sad expression and say, "You've got to quit."

And I'm not one of those smokers who resents such comments. I know it's an expression of concern and I do plan to quit when I'm ready. Sure, I see the irony when a person is chowing down a big steak while critiquing my health habits. At times, I want to yell, "Hey, I don't eat meat, I exercise regularly, I take vitamins, I drink that stupid aloe juice. When was the last time you drank aloe juice?"

I don't. There's no point in playing "Let's attack each other's vices." We all have them and in the end, I know mine is the worst of all.

I can't explain all of this to my date. All I know is that I'm getting an urgent memo from my central nervous system and it says, "Teresa: Please report to the smoking lounge for a Merit."

The Reveal, I decide, will be like a Latin American political revolution, quick and bloody.

"Do you mind if we sit in the smoking lounge, so I can have a cigarette?" He agrees, without missing a beat, and my Merit and I sit staring at his face for the subtle signs of a broken deal. We see none. I'm anthropomorphisizing a cigarette and I know that isn't good.

"Does it totally disgust you that I smoke?"

"No," he says. "If you didn't smoke, you wouldn't be you."

I gushingly report this conversation the next day to my friend, who quit smoking to avoid the broken deal.

"That's sweet," she said. "But guess what? He's lying."