Quitter – Part 1

Ever looked at an old photograph of yourself and seen someone you didn’t recognize?

I don’t have handy that particular photo of myself, but it’s so clear in mind it might as well be sitting on my desk now, awaiting description: there’s me, shirtless and tub-gutted, standing on rock and pointing at something — or nothing — some ways out on Lake Erie. A tanker, maybe. A lot of tankers cross that lake, so it’s as likely as anything.

When I realized it has been nearly ten years since I last smoked a cigarette, I wasn’t thinking about the picture at all. I was sitting behind the passenger seat in my father-in-law’s minivan, watching the wide white garage door growing larger on the in-dash video monitor. I was thinking about what my wife had just finished saying: if she was ever diagnosed with a terminal illness, she’d be heading to the nearest gas station for a pack of cigarettes.

Ten years.

I can still remember how calm it had been that night outside the Hilton. This long, quiet warmth had settled over the evening, replacing the afternoon’s ripping heat that had left me sweating through the shirt and into the sleeves of the suit jacket I’d worn to the ceremony.

Somewhere in Raleigh, North Carolina, is where this was. I was twenty-three years old, standing on a concrete stoop outside a door that opened from the hallway outside the ballroom onto the parking lot that curled around the hugeish boxy grey building’s north side.

Cars parked in the lot caught the white light from a thrumming lot lamp and held it. Cars passed out on the street. I already mentioned the quiet, but it’s worth repeating: it was quiet. I’m somewhat of a connoisseur of still evenings. I’m never so in tune with the world — I never feel more in tune with the world — than when a day goes still, the air stiffens, and even the birds leave the sky behind a while and just sort of cling to whatever branch of whatever tree they’ve landed in, turning their heads as if stunned.

I can’t remember a night ever hanging as quietly over me as that night outside the Hilton.

Inside, the wedding reception of my then-girlfriend’s cousin was sliding into its second post-dinner hour. I hadn’t smoked all afternoon. Earlier that morning, the day balmy and overcast, I’d gone for a run. A few days later, back in Ohio, I would go for another run, one of the longest runs I would’ve ever taken up to that point in my life. When I’d go to relieve myself I’d see the faintest cloud of red diffusing through the olive-colored water I’d let into the toilet, and I’d feel my body shudder down and become still, chilled.

But that’s getting ahead of myself. I’ll come back to that later.

First, it’s important that I tell you that, hours before or possibly after smoking that last cigarette outside the Hilton — years ago from right now, anyway; all of this is past, just to be clear — I’d stood in a dim-lit hotel room with my girlfriend’s uncle, the groom and several of his relatives, and possibly a few other men, young and old, about to take a shot of honest-to-God creole rot-gut moonshine the groom had fermented in a still he’d kept inside his garage at home.

I remember being singled out by my girlfriend’s uncle. Possibly he told me I was part of the family. Possibly he suggested he felt I very soon would be.

(I am now. A part of his family, I mean. That girlfriend? Long story short: five years ago she agreed to marry me. We were married a three-hour drive east from where I’d stood that night, in the sand on the beach at Emerald Isle.

She quit smoking a few years after the wedding. We would have broken up and gotten back together by then. I would’ve already gone away to England and come back, and she would’ve already been to Italy, seen the Sistine Chapel, drawn many of the statues and welcoming strangers she encountered while living in Florence. I would have graduated and been serving at a country club while she would have been in her final student-teaching assignment and preparing to graduate after the next semester.

New Year’s Eve.

After looking down at the cigarette in her hand, she said, “I don’t think I want to finish this.”

I said, “Then don’t.”

And that was that.)


Check out Part Two of the series here.


Image Credit: “Solitude” by Leo Hidalgo. Flicker. Fair use approved through the CC.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Miriam says:

    Awesome story Patrick. Thanks for taking us into your life. And good for you. My husband quit 25 years ago.

    1. You’re awfully generous, Miriam. And how awesome to hear about your husband’s success keeping the habit kicked for such a long time! That’s dedication and a strong will in action! I’ll be sharing in a later post some of the advice my mother offered me after she found out I was smoking; some of her most powerful advice was to share with me the tricks men and women she worked with had used to keep the habit kicked. I would be interested to know how your husband has managed it, whether he does anything special to remind himself of why he quit.

      I’m glad to have your readership, by the way. Your blog’s imagery and the stories you share with your readers about your travels both open a window for me onto your country. I’ll be looking in often to see where you’re off to next.

      1. Miriam says:

        Please do, Patrick, it’s so nice to have you along on the journey.

        As for my husband quitting, I still remember it. We were on a road trip together, coming back from Queensland and we’d stopped at a particular resort. I remember him lighting up after dinner. Then about three days later when we were home I realised he hadn’t had another smoke on the trip. When I asked him he said he’d decided to stop. Just like that. He had proposed to me and we were going to be married and he just said he’d had enough, that he didn’t want any future kids to be around someone who smoked. It absolutely floored me. He knew I didn’t like him smoking but I never asked him to stop. Today, occasionally he says he’s tempted when out socially or when workmates smoke on a break, but then he thinks about the cost, both monetary and in health, and he just puts it out of his head.

        My dad also smoked for most of his life but gave up cold turkey after a triple by-pass. So I have two men in my life who’ve shown remarkable will power. I’ll be interested to read your next post Patrick. Thanks for the kind comments on my blog by the way. I really appreciate it.

      2. You’re welcome for the comments Miriam. Absolutely.

        And — wow. That’s probably the greatest quitting story I’ve ever heard. The way he prioritized his future family’s health is pretty darned exemplary. Empathy, accountability: I coach and teach, and those are huge buzzwords in each profession. They’ve become such important concepts and standards in my own life lately that I see much to admire in your husband’s reasoning. Please offer him my thanks and gratitude.

        My grandfather also quit cold turkey just before enduring a heart procedure. For the last year or so of his life he gained much as a result of his quitting — including the respect and admiration of his family for kicking the habit.

        Thanks so much for sharing these experiences.

      3. Miriam says:

        It’s my pleasure Patrick. Thank you for your kind words about Doug, I do agree, it was an impressive and selfless thing to do. Your grandfather also sounds like an amazing man, I’m not surprised he gained so much as a result of quitting.

        Always happy to share, that’s what makes blogging so worthwhile, realising that although we might be oceans apart we’ll still all on the same journey. Look forward to more ‘chats’ in the future Patrick.

  2. hermitiancat says:

    Absolutely love the layers of introduction here. It’s a little bit confusing to keep track, but it makes me feel like I’m in your head, that sort of web is the way memories really work. Maybe a little bit like stream of consciousness, except more comprehensible. /rant

    Thanks for doing an excellent job shining some light on a string of ambiguous emotions and memories. Like, seriously, if I can’t explain myself that means it worked, right?

    1. Tried to shine a light on memory, for sure. I appreciate the feedback. I had some doubts about this striking anyone’s interest. It’s ostensibly about quitting smoking, but what I’m really up to is trying to think through that surface subject to deeper personal stuff. In so doing, I toe a fine line between navel-gazing and reflection, as frequently happens with my writing. It was good to know you found the intro compelling for its layers. I’m going to try as I move forward to focus on others’ reasons for quitting, in hopes of straightening out some of the bends and twists to find a purpose that makes sense to other readers. I’m also going to try and write a little about whether it would be better to think of of it, not as quitting, but stopping.

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