PUFFING INTO THE BIG SKY: My Last Cigarette-smoking Days by Sal Buttaci
"Cigarettes" by Anna Cervova (Public Domain Photo)
I was twenty-one when I started smoking. Prior to that I had considered it somebody else’s nasty habit and that I, a wise, independent kind of fellow, would never fall prey to puffing myself to an early grave. Then one afternoon my new brother-in-law offered me a Lucky Strike, explained how it was something men did, and I took it because I was not so wise after all. Those lectures about the evils of nicotine, about that first cigarette being all it took to enslave us for life––I watched a lot of good common-sense advice fly like smoke out the window. So that same day, back in 1962, I bought my first pack of cigarettes: unfiltered Lucky Strike, of course; after all, was I any less a man than my sister’s new husband? Puff! Puff! Puff that cigarette!
The surgeon-general’s warnings notwithstanding, I continued to smoke, though I was not one of those fancy brand-loyal folks. No, no, not I! I switched from one brand to another as though I were looking for the one with the winning number stamped inside the foil that would award me cigarettes for life. One day I tried Camels; the next day I’d see a Marlborough ad of that tall rugged cowboy puffing rings into the big sky as his horse held its breath, and I’d go buy me a pack of Marlboros so I could blow into the big sky too.
In every photo of me in my college days I am either smoking or holding a cigarette. Wherever I would go, before I opened the door into the restaurant or pub or someone’s home, I would light up as if that cigarette were part of my persona and if I entered without it, there would be a stiff penalty or worse, I would be booted out into the street, forgotten forever. So you get the picture: I and my cigarette were one.
What often happens to cigarette smokers happened to me: I never felt I was smoking enough cigarettes in the course of a day. Sometimes in the middle of the night I would awake and blindly search the night table for my cigarette pack, only to find in panic that it was empty. I would get up, dress hurriedly, and go drive in hope of finding a tavern still open so I could drop some coins and press a button for whatever cigarettes I could buy.
And there were those idiotic occasions when I would tap my shirt pocket for a smoke, only to remember I already had one burning in the ashtray, or worse, hanging from my lips!
From one pack daily to two packs to three packs to three and half packs. My sister once asked me, “You trying to kill yourself? Why don’t you eat the cigarettes instead of smoking them! It’ll be faster; you can get the old thing over with. Smoking them you might live long enough to get lung cancer and die a painful death.”
I knew I was trapped. A life without cigarettes did not appeal to me. In fact, I could not imagine myself without them. I had succeeded in allowing those little white tobacco sticks to control me. They had a mind of their own and it was pathetic that I refused for so long to seriously consider quitting once and for all. Oh, I tried superficially to quit. Once my no-smoking life lasted four days, but by then I was also living a lunatic’s life, raving and yelling about the enemies of America, the infringements of my rights, the 1984 mentality of our government leaders. Who listened! They let me rant on; finally I bought a pack of Larks and felt so much better. Calmer. Less hyper. Life was good again. I could smoke whenever I darn well pleased in this free country of ours. I could tell myself stories about how cancer-resistant my genes were, how no one in my family ever died from smoking, how an old great-uncle of mine in Sicily was over a hundred years old and still puffing away on those nasty rope cigars that could empty a house quicker than a fire. I had all the answers to put to rest any intention of quitting my cigarette-smoking habit. Something I jokingly mentioned to friends was that I would take that habit to my grave.
Twenty years later in 1982, I started feeling uncomfortable in my chest. I say “uncomfortable” in case that was the site where my smoking was taking ill effect and I would have to be confronted again with a decision to quit smoking.
My solution at the time was to change whatever brand I was smoking to something less strong. Though I would joke about those cigarettes that required so much inhaling power I feared getting ruptured, I continued to feel “uncomfortable.” One evening, watching TV, I took a slow drag on a filter-tip cigarette, and got so lightheaded I nearly passed out. Did that stop me? The following day I bought still another weaker cigarette and again that same day I experienced the woozies and had to grab hold of a chair and sit down. For several days I cut down on my smoking. It was beginning to pain me when I inhaled and though I did not want to face facts, the facts were there: when I smoked I got dizzy and breathing became labored and my fear of passing out made my breathing even more labored. Where was I heading?
Days later I lay in a hospital bed. I had passed out on my living room floor and a friend called an ambulance. When I opened my eyes, I saw the IV in my arm and the doctor standing at the side of my bed. “Hello,” he said, smiling. Ok, I told myself, it’s a hospital. He’s a doctor. I am not dead. “You had a close call,” he said. “You know you passed out at home tonight. They had to rush you here.”
“I know,” was all I could come up with. What else could I say? Oh, Doctor, those damn cigarettes are killing me! Every time I take a puff I feel like fainting.
The doctor glanced at the clipboard in his hands, then looked up at me over his bifocals resting low on the bridge of his nose. “Do you know what ‘Borderline Emphysema’ is?” he asked me. When I didn’t answer, he moved his hand in a circular motion the way a traffic cop does when you don’t move quickly enough at the green light. Almost as if he were saying in that hand movement, Come on, son, I don’t have time to waste here. I have other patients dying from cigarette smoking besides you.
“It’s a breathing disease,” I finally said so he could stop waving his hand. “From smoking,” I added because I didn’t want him to think for even a second I was some kind of idiot who could not put two and two together and come up with the correct number.
The good doctor nodded, then tilted his head and shook it. Was that a yes and a no? “People who smoke, people who don’t smoke. The air out there we breathe everyday. And smoking too. Yes.” For a moment I thought to myself, Hey, this guy smokes too! He’s not going to badmouth smoking altogether, is he?
I squirmed in the bed a little. Without thinking, I looked at the side table for my––oh, I had to be crazy back then. The needle in my arm felt cold and scary. “Do I have it, Doctor?” He knitted his eyebrows; I half-expected him to say, You wish you had it, son. You’re not borderline at all, but instead he answered, “Yes, you do but it’s not the end of the world, is it?” How the hell would I know, Doc? It might be for me, right?
“I am not going to be one of those scare-tactics medical guys who tell you to quit smoking or else.” Then he interrupted himself by coughing into the hand with which moments ago he was waving me along. I wasn’t fooled. I knew a hacking smoker’s cough when I heard one. “Not going to say to quit smoking. You could leave here when the time comes and go buy a pack of cigarettes. Or you could think this out and quit. One sure thing, you don’t quit and you’ll be dead in five years tops.” With that sentence the doctor of doom turned, nodded at the nurse, and walked out.
I quit smoking that day. It wasn’t easy. I had to buy a box of white pencils that I cut down to cigarette size and pretend they were real nicotine sticks, putting one in the corner of my mouth each time I felt like I need a smoke. “You know you’re smoking a pencil?” more than one person observed. “I know, but I do it carefully so I don’t get lead poisoning.”
Had I continued smoking after the doctor clearly laid it out for me, I would have probably died sometime in my forties. Instead, I am now nearly seventy-one and do my best to stay very far from cigarette smoke. The smell is irritating. The memories of a man so addicted to smoking he nearly killed himself are not pleasant for me. Yet, oddly enough, sometimes I have these weird dreams at night. I am walking down some old familiar street and between my lips a lit cigarette dangles. I inhale deeply––and comfortably, then flick it into the gray darkness. When I awake, it’s refreshing to tell myself, “It was just a dream.”
Salvatore Buttaci’s two collections of flash fiction 200 Shorts and Flashing My Shorts are both published by All Things That Matter Press and are available in book and Kindle editions at http://www.kindlegraph.com/authors/sambpoet
His new book If Roosters Don’t Crow, It Is Still Morning: Haiku and Other Poems http://tinyurl.com/76akl73
Buttaci lives in West Virginia with Sharon, the love of his life.
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