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.
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.