When we’re faced with an ending, I think most of us instinctively recoil. At least initially, there’s some sort of pause before the plunge. We inhale deeply. Then we dive.
A lot of the talk about quitting smoking surrounded the need for a lifestyle change. A few more of my mother’s tips included taking different routes to school or work to establish a new rhythm, a new routine. Find new ways to approach familiar, smoking-related activities. If you smoked while drinking, drink less; if you smoked after eating, try eating less, or leaving some of your meal on your plate, or eating out with friends in non-smoking restaurants. If you smoked before bed or first thing in the morning, try doing push-ups, drinking water, stretching. Meditation.
Each of these suggest that quitting smoking means trading one’s old lifestyle for a new one. Ending the way you used to live in order to begin anew.
Taken to an extreme, one might see the logic this way: in order to become smoke-free, you had to let the smoker in you die.
I don’t think you could rightly call the three or so years between my mother’s first serious push to get me to quit smoking and the night outside the Hilton when I actually quit a pause. I changed so frequently the way I looked, felt and acted during this three-year span that I might have endured dozens of such pauses.
All those little pauses might have added up to one major pause, I suppose.
This is where that photograph I described in the second paragraph in Part One comes into play.
What you need to know is the image was taken on a camping trip. I was dating the woman I would marry. My wife. We’d been together two years, and our relationship was strained. We would soon break up and go our separate ways and I think we both knew it. Somehow it occurred to me that we ought to take a trip. Make a night of it. Try and get away, gain some perspective. Distance might save us, give us chance to pause.
It was warm, either late spring or early summer. The previous summer, my family had come up and stayed in one of the park’s cabins. It seemed like a good idea to me then that my girlfriend and I do the same. Why, I don’t know; I mentioned we may have both known the end was coming. I likely believed such a trip might save us. I would take charge, suggest some bold excursion, give her reason to see me in a different light. She might see me from another perspective, and I her. Our relationship might seem salvageable. We’d take my tent and rent space on the campground, roast marshmallows, eat hot dogs, drink a little, maybe make love. It’d be just what we’d need.
After we got settled, we drove down from our campsite to a parking lot near the lakeshore and went for a walk out along the beach. We kicked sand, watched a few other guests to the park walking, talking. A young girl, possibly a senior in high school, was posing for photographs in dressy summery clothes. Three boys tossed a Frisbee between them, trying to coax one another toward the water’s edge with far-flung throws. There weren’t many others around. It was hot. I went out to stand on some rocks and posed. Then we left the beach, found seats on one of several benches set on one side of a pond, and tried making conversation.
I love her now, and I loved her then, too. But as I mentioned back in Part Two of this series, I was insecure, and my insecurities made things difficult for us.
I think sometimes–not often–about the image of me she’d captured, and I see what feeling that way had done to me physically, how it had transformed me into a kid with a paunch and a bad hair cut, wearing baggy green shorts and glasses that didn’t fit.
We walked to the top of a hill that was much steeper than it looked and took more photos of the lake and possibly a container ship or two. Later, after figuring out we were grossly underprepared for a night under the stars, we got back into my car and drove out of the park ten minutes to a Wal-Mart because we didn’t have a lantern, it was dusk and already dark enough we could barely see to arrange firewood for a dinner blaze, and we both were a little on edge and bored and needed to move.
The next morning, we posed for a couple’s selfie outside the tent. I remember my wife taking a few other photographs of our neighbors’ camper, which they’d surrounded with all sorts of lawn decorations and from which they’d hung strands of those big bulb lights you can’t buy in stores anymore.
We stayed together a while afterward, another few months. But something had changed. The camping trip hadn’t saved us, as I’d hoped it would. Over the following weeks, while I drifted back home and carried on a by-phone long-distance relationship with her, I kept thinking about that picture I posed for on those damned rocks, how vulnerable I’d made myself while posing. How good a look I actually took at the person I’d let myself become.
Jealousy formed part of the reason she and I had been having such a tough time together. I couldn’t stand to let her go out alone. She was such a carefree person then. I could lie to you and tell you I wasn’t aware that she’d spent three years of her high school career in a relationship with a young man who’d placed her inside of a room in which she was to look and think and act like a fraternity brother’s sweetheart. I could tell you I had little sense of how it felt to her to be free of him; that she’d freed herself to be herself after breaking up with him; and that in me she saw a boy she could allow herself to like–even love–without fearing she’d be judged or changed.
She was outgoing, interested in others, hopeful of finding a good time. I wasn’t. But I wished I was, wished I could be. I could tell you I hadn’t known how constricted and judged and alone she’d felt with her ex-boyfriend, and how loose and excited and alive she felt to be dating me.
But I’d be lying to you.
She’d told me explicitly what it had been like to be relegated to the kitchen to help his mother clean the dishes after dinner. She’d told me how it had felt to visit him at college (he’d been a few years older than she was) and know that his frat brothers were judging her harshly for being too young, too withholding.
I knew all these things. I just hadn’t been attentive to her needs or feelings; I’d gotten sucked inside myself; I’d inhaled myself along with all the smoke I’d taken into my lungs since the overcast afternoon my eighth grade year, when I shared my first cigarette with two of my buddies behind my parents’ garage. I’d let smoking turn me into a nervous wreck. I was physically a mess, and emotionally I’d become addicted to the idea of us, she and me together, a couple, in love forever.
It would take me nearly two years to grow capable of loving her in a sustainable, healthy way–because she deserved it and because I wanted to, not because I needed her.
That photograph was the first good look I’d actually taken at myself. I did not like what I saw. I felt I had to change.
By the time we went to Raleigh for the wedding, I’d already started running regularly. I would get my miles in before breakfast, making my way through the neighborhood where her cousin lived. I got up the morning of the wedding and ran then, too. Beers and cigarettes, and I was running. The weather grew overcast, then stupidly sunny and swelteringly hot; still I ran.
The night of the reception, I stepped out onto that stoop and lit up for the last time to the tune of a thousand cars flushing past and the reception deejay’s bass track thrumping in my ears. The night air was wide and I felt something–I can’t say what. Promise, maybe.
On the drive back to my parents’, I passed the Speedway where I usually stopped for gas and cigarettes when travelling to and from Ashland. I drove right by the place, merged onto I-75 South, and decided that I’d let that cigarette I’d smoked outside the Hilton be my last.