When I tell my sisters I want to write about smoking, their memories arrive clothed in nostalgia, as if our childhood spent breathing secondhand smoke in a stuffy station wagon was somehow enchanted. Patty fondly recalls her own first cigarette, an illicit Viceroy she puffed while crouched behind a sand dune at Good Harbor Beach with her best friend Allison. Susie reminds us how much fun smoking was, and suggests we all take up the habit again. Nancy remembers the brands my grandparents smoked—soft packs of Salems and Kents—and I am drawn in, transported to my grandparents’ Ohio living room. My grandfather’s silver lighter lies flat in the palm of my hand, cool and heavy. I run my fingertips over the names of his eleven grandchildren, engraved in small cursive script on its face. How many times had I watched him tilt his wrist to flip open the top? And then, with an expert flick of his thumb, produce the heady scent of lighter fluid, and as if by magic, a tall yellow flame.
All of my first impressions appear in soft focus; our home a foggy haze, the faces of my parents separated from me by a veil of exhaled smoke. The scent of it permeates the wallpaper, the nubby plaid upholstery of the family room couch, the window curtains, my hair, and all of my little-girl clothes. But if you ask me what my childhood smelled like, I will tell you it smelled of percolated Maxwell House, my mother’s Jean Nate After Bath Splash, the rubbery scent of Barbie doll skin, of Breck shampoo and Ivory soap. The smoke was background, constant. I grew up on it, just like I grew up on Cheerios and Gilligan’s Island reruns, concentrated orange juice and am radio stations. I knew no different. Every place I went, I was cloaked in the invisible evidence of my parents’ vice, and all the while, I had no idea.
When I am young, I am fascinated by things that exist but cannot be seen. God is one such thing, a lurking presence in my Catholic upbringing that takes most of the fun out of filling Eddie Doughty’s baseball cap with sand and putting it back on his head, or coveting my sisters’ red-haired trolls. I am convinced a crocodile lives under my bed, arriving only in the dark. Every night, I execute a running leap into bed from halfway across the room. I am certain a previous resident died in our home and continues to visit us, as evidenced by creaks in the old staircase just outside my door, or a sudden sense that someone is sitting at the end of my bed after the house becomes dark and still.
I am also intrigued by air. I can breathe it, but not touch it. I know what it’s like to be without it, having practiced holding my breath in a swimming pool. I’ve felt the panic associated with an older sister pressing a couch cushion over my face, for fun. For a while I am sure I can see air. Lying in bed in the early morning half-light, do I just imagine tiny dots of black and white surrounding me?
My younger sister and I share a room, our twin beds placed foot to foot against the far wall. She does not worry about reptiles under the bed. She does not clutch her Raggedy Ann tight to her chest in fear of ghostly visitors. And when I ask if she too can see the air the way I do, in tiny dotted patterns that float in front of my eyes and flow from my chest, she sighs and tells me to go back to sleep.
The accoutrements of smoking litter our home. Packages of cigarettes, books of matches, and disposable lighters in primary colors are strewn about dressers and countertops. Ashtrays can be found on bathroom sinks, end tables, windowsills, the clothes dryer, and on each end of the dining room table. My father’s favorite is a round silver ashtray with the open beaks of two birds rising up from the center to hold a lit cigarette. The ashtrays my mother favors are easy to identify by the snuffed-out snub of white filter etched with a ring of red lipstick.
In the “good” living room, there is a polished silver cigarette case lined with soft green felt. I love to open its lid, enjoy the thunk it makes when dropped shut. The case is filled occasionally when company is expected, and the long white cigarettes look elegant nestled in that fancy box. Even though my sisters and I witness my mother regularly taking food off the belt at Purity Supreme when her subtotal climbs too high, the filled cigarette case gives our home an aura of sophistication and excess. Help yourself, it seems to say. We have plenty.
I am four years old in 1964 when the surgeon general officially declares smoking unhealthy and linked to lung cancer, but my parents are already career smokers. They smoke in the morning with their coffee. They smoke while driving in the car, talking on the telephone, while drinking Manhattans in the evening before dinner. They smoke after meals and at work. My father is able to hold full conversations, hands free, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, while he carves a roast with an electric knife. My mother smokes while folding laundry and cooking dinner and driving to pick my father up from the train. Parliaments. All white with a thin double black line where the tobacco meets the filter.
By the time I reach elementary school, the teachers are in on the act, showing us pictures of happy pink lungs, and comparing them to pictures of the black crusty lungs of smokers. I’m sure it’s their attempt to prevent another generation of nicotine addiction but instead this information leaves me terrified. All of the adults I love the best: my mother, father, grandparents, and aunts—all smoke. I wonder: Are their lungs coal-colored, rotting in their chests? Will their next, damaged breath be their last?
One night, while my parents sit at either end of the dining room table, drinking their after-dinner coffee and smoking their after-dinner cigarettes, my sister Nancy reproduces an experiment suggested by her third-grade teacher. She has my father exhale his cigarette through a clean white tissue, and when he does, it leaves behind a brown smudge. She holds the Kleenex up by its corners for all to see.
“See this spot? This is what all that smoke is doing to your lungs,” she says.
Well, I think, hugely relieved, assuming my parents are also picturing their lungs covered in splotches of small dark circles. That will be that.
My mother gently taps the end of her cigarette into the glass ashtray in front of her and sips her coffee. “Is that so?” my father says. He leans back in his chair and takes a long drag, exhaling in perfect rings, the O’s elongating as they float up toward the ceiling, then disappear. My mother and father exchange small smiles from each end of the dining room table, as if they have a secret. I shake my head, push back my chair, and clear my plate in silence.
New England winters are not kind. One of my chores is to pour water from a pitcher into metal cups attached to the end of the radiator in each room, in an attempt to add some moisture to the dry winter air. Still, we all get sick. Colds, fevers, and coughs that lodge deep inside our chests. If you have a fever, you get to stay home from school. My mother will crack ice cubes into chips with a claw-like metal press and leave them at your bedside in a cereal bowl with a spoon. If a cough keeps you up at night, she’ll haul the vaporizer out of the hall closet and set it up on a chair next to your bed so the steam will blow toward your head. When every breath leads to a barking cough, the hiss of steam scented with Vicks VapoRub is the only chance for relief. On frigid nights, while icicle spikes frame the roof of our house, I burrow under my Flower Power comforter, position my head so the mist is aimed at my open mouth, and wait for sleep to come.
Susie, the oldest, starts smoking at fourteen. She and her friend Pam get by for a while stealing occasional cigarettes from unsupervised packs left around their respective homes. But soon, this approach becomes too risky. You can only steal when the pack is mostly full, otherwise the missing cigarette may be noticed. To perfect the art of inhaling, of resting the cigarette casually between the first and second fingers, of flicking the ash at just the right time, all the while looking bored, as if they they’ve done this for years, Susie and Pam need their own supply. The two closest stores are out of the question. Mac, the old and wizened proprietor of Mac’s, is scary enough when we go in to buy our penny candy. O’Neil’s Pharmacy is dismissed since the owners know us. But the Winchester Hospital is only one block away and the lobby coffee shop sells cigarettes. Best of all, it’s not manned by savvy store owners. The hospital coffee shop is run by volunteers, elderly ladies in dark pink uniform jackets, heavy hairspray, and eyeglasses that hang from chains around their necks. They are eager to please. Susie and Pam scrounge together all of their spare change, forge a note from an adult requesting a pack of Winstons, and elect me to go in.
I agree without hesitation. Susie has breasts and boyfriends. She and her friends do things like straighten their hair on the ironing board and brush blue shadow on their eyelids. They’ve memorized the phone number to the Boston Top 40 radio station and call continually to request “Knights in White Satin” and “I Can See Clearly Now.” I have so much to learn, and I seize any opportunity to be in the older girls’ presence.
But first, Susie and Pam decide I need to be transformed. My own attempts at cool include frayed jeans and old football jerseys, my hair unkempt and parted in the middle like Carole King. They think I should look like a different kind of girl, and use the neighborhood Goody Two-shoes, Sally Hunter, as a template. They comb my stringy hair and part in on the side, clipping it to my head with a plastic barrette. They change me into a plain t-shirt and top it with a white cardigan, top button buttoned, and corduroy pants they instruct me to pull up high, so the hem looks slightly too short. But the pièce de résistance is a baby. Somehow the older girls have procured a toddler in a stroller, a neighborhood child they babysit, and the picture is complete. I am an innocent, dorky girl taking care of her younger brother while running an errand for her mother.
And where is my mother while all of these preparations are underway? Why do we have so much unsupervised free time? Why aren’t we playing soccer? My mother is recovering from birthing and raising four girls born a year apart; girls she believes can finally be safely left alone for a few hours. She may be playing tennis, but if the weather is nice, she is most likely driving her red Cougar aimlessly around the west side of town, slightly faster than the speed limit allows, convertible top down, with a lit Parliament resting between the first two fingers of her right hand. She may be imagining what it would be like to keep driving west, farther and farther away from her husband and daughters, the dinner she is expected to execute, the load of unfolded laundry still in the dryer, away from the never-ending dust that swirls and settles on every surface no matter how many times she wipes it away. Perhaps as she drives, she alternately breathes in gulps of spring-scented air and long drags of smoke in an attempt to fill herself up after all we have emptied from her. She comes home when she’s ready.
The purchase goes off without incident. The volunteer at the cash register is so taken with the baby she hardly glances at my note. I wheel the stroller out of the hospital lobby triumphant, a fresh pack of Winstons tucked in my front pocket. Back home in Susie’s tiny bedroom, I receive my reward: a cigarette and a lesson from Pam on how to inhale, both of which I accept immediately. I pinch the filter awkwardly, take tentative puffs, choke and cough, still dressed as Sally Hunter. I am eleven years old.
To break into your father’s hard pack of Parliaments, you will need a butter knife, a bottle of clear drying Elmer’s Glue, and a steady hand. Slide a fresh pack of cigarettes out of the carton that lives near the toaster on the kitchen counter. Turn the pack upside down. Slip the butter knife under one end of the cellophane where it is folded neatly like a Christmas present. Lift gently until the folds release and repeat on the other side. Do not rip the cellophane, or you will have to abort the mission and may be suspected of tampering with your father’s hard pack of Parliaments.
Once the cellophane is opened, ease the box out of its wrapper, without tearing the cellophane! When the box is free, flip over and unhinge the top. You will now encounter a foil covering, also neatly folded like a Christmas gift. Unfold. Do not tear the foil! It’s too late to abort the mission now, and if you tear the foil, you are screwed. Choose a cigarette from the top right-hand corner, and remove it from the box with a light pinch on the filter. At this point, you may have the urge to declare success, to sneak into the basement and light up, but you are not yet out of the woods! You may also be tempted to pinch a second cigarette, having gone through so much work to open the pack in the first place. Resist! A pack of cigarettes with one missing will go unnoticed. A pack with two missing will get you caught. Don’t be greedy. Greed is the potential downfall of every good thief.
You must now work backward to cover up your crime. Shake the box so the remaining cigarettes settle and the empty spot in the upper right-hand corner disappears. Refold the foil over the filters. Close the top. Slide the cellophane back over the box. Turn the pack over. Refold half the cellophane like a Christmas present. Squeeze one drop of Elmer’s Glue onto the tip of your first finger. Place the tiniest dots of glue along the bottom edge. Extra glue that seeps out of the wrapper and makes a mess is the work of an amateur. Press the top folds down over glue to seal. Apply light pressure for sixty seconds. Place the newly sealed pack of cigarettes back into the carton. Now you can sneak down to the basement and spark up that hard-earned cigarette.
It’s Margie’s fault my mother catches us smoking in the sixth grade. Sixth grade, still part of elementary school, means we all go home for lunch. Margie has come home with me, and after we finish our grilled cheese sandwiches and potato chips, we sneak outside to share a pilfered cigarette. Our house came with a nonworking built-in swimming pool. Instead of fixing it, my father uses the empty deep end to burn leaves. It’s surrounded by a sagging wood fence and behind it sits another fence that separates the neighbor’s yard from ours. It makes a perfect, protected alleyway for prohibited activity.
Margie is Olive Oyl-tall and skinny with a head full of curly red hair. We crouch amid the fallen pine needles and pass the cigarette back and forth, exaggerating the sound of our exhales. We could have lingered around the kitchen table and studied our spelling words for the weekly quiz in Miss Roberts’ class. But school this year has left me dead with boredom. I am restless with intense feelings that both surprise and confuse me, mostly related to my classmate Kenny Carlson. Sneaking a cigarette outside is much more interesting than memorizing words like inconvenient and ascent.
Maybe we shouldn’t have chosen a spot in such close proximity to the kitchen window—the one above the sink, where I suspect my mother lingers to smoke herself and admire the pink dogwood tree and fantasize about a different life—because suddenly my mother appears as if out of nowhere. And she is mad. She marches toward us in her gym teacher outfit: navy culottes and a sweater vest, white sneakers and socks with pom-poms on the back. She has spotted Margie’s red head above the fence, surrounded by smoke.
Put that out! Get inside and brush your teeth, she yells, you smell like an ashtray!
We are petrified. Although mildly dissatisfied, my mom is usually not a yell-y kind of mother. We do as we are told and leave quickly to walk back to school. All afternoon I wonder if there will be further consequences once I get home. If my mother will still be angry, if she’ll tell my father. I’m generally a rule-follower, and not used to being in trouble. But along with the fear and worry, there’s another feeling, one I experienced when buying cigarettes for Susie and Pam, or breaking into my Dad’s carton. It’s a rush of adrenaline that flushes through my body. It makes my heart race a little, and the thrill of it lingers all afternoon. I’m more alert, alive. It’s not an entirely bad sensation, and if I am honest, it’s a feeling I’m starting to enjoy.
My mother wants to quit. She wants to be free of the urge to light up every hour, the expense, the need. It’s not so easy when the cigarette goes with the cocktails and the telephone and the pause at the traffic light. The cigarette is there during those frequent difficult moments now that all the girls are teenagers. She is afraid she will feel as if something is being ripped away from her. And there is the creeping panic of possible weight gain. She’s always relied on her thinness, body fat a fate worse than lung cancer.
She tries a special cigarette holder. Long and black, it gives her the air of a 1940’s movie star, while at the same time decreasing the amount of nicotine she receives. She tries acupuncture. She takes a “Stop Smoking” class at the town hall. Nothing works. One morning, I come downstairs before school and find my mother groggy, slumped in the kitchen chair. This is completely out of character for her, an early riser who by this time is usually dressed and lipsticked and frying up her second round of eggs.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
The day before she had seen a hypnotist. He told her whenever she wanted a cigarette, she was to take three deep breaths and the craving would disappear. He also proposed she would not substitute food for smoking. She left his office feeling hopeful.
“I don’t think he brought me all the way out,” she says.
“You need to go back,” I say.
Later, I realize I have missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My mother was in a hypnotic state. I could have suggested any number of things, from a later curfew to being the favorite daughter. But seeing my mother in this zombie-like condition left me uncomfortable. I wanted my mother back, the commander in chief of our household, the glue that held us all together.
My mother calls the hypnotist on the phone. He counts backwards and brings her out of her hypnosis. For the next few weeks I catch her pausing frequently to breathe deeply, three times. Eventually, as with all the other interventions, the Parliaments reappear. I suspect this has something to do with her bathroom scale.
By ninth grade we have no trouble buying cigarettes at One or Two Things. My friends and I stop in before school. We smoke Marlboros because they are cool. We thwack the top of the cigarette box against the knuckles of our left hands several times before we open the pack, to tamp down the tobacco. After school we all hang out behind the library near the duck pond. I have shed Margie for Marla and Cheryl and the boys who come with them—Mike and Stick and Wayne. For hours after school and in all weather we smoke and make out with our boyfriends. We torment the library maintenance man, Louie, who periodically chases us off the back steps. We always come back.
At home after dinner, Nancy slips upstairs to our bathroom. She lights a cigarette and blows the smoke out of the window next to the toilet. An unspoken code exists between us, and two minutes later, I climb the stairs. When she’s halfway done, Nancy leaves the lit cigarette on the windowsill for me to finish.
We think we are being sneaky, but in retrospect I realize we were fooling exactly no one. I picture our neighbors, Pat and Jack Waite, parents to five well-behaved, redheaded, nonsmoking Catholic boys.
“Must be seven o’clock,” I imagine Pat saying, looking up from the evening news to see a stream of smoke snaking out of the second story of our house.
“Yes indeed,” Jack might reply. “Hope those Hicks girls don’t burn down the whole neighborhood.”
We certainly weren’t fooling our parents, lingering at the table with their own cigarettes. My guess is they knew precisely what we were up to and were simply too tired to care.
The Christmas after Nancy turns sixteen, the magical age when we are given “permission” to smoke openly, we all get a carton of cigarettes in our Christmas stockings. I’m now up to a pack a day. Marlboros for me. Newports poke out of Susie and Patty’s stockings, Tareytons in Nancy’s. We are thrilled. But certainly not every teenage girl in our community woke up to ten fresh packs of cigarettes on Christmas morning. What did the high school girls who actually participated in things, like field hockey, Youth Group, or the school plays get in their stockings? Ski goggles most likely. Candy canes. A book of Life Savers. A milk chocolate Santa. A healthy set of lungs, maybe. A life-long addiction? No, definitely not. Not for Christmas.
If you walk down any hallway in Quinnipiac College’s Dorm A on a weekday between three and four o’clock, you will hear all the TV’s tuned into the same show: General Hospital. It’s the days of Luke and Laura and no one wants to miss even one episode. Luke is the brother of the evil nurse Bobbie Spencer, who is brought into town to break up Laura and Scottie so Bobbie can have Scottie for herself. But Luke falls in love with Laura, and eventually, Laura finds herself falling for Luke. And when she does, all of Dorm A falls a little in love with Luke, too.
My friends and I usually gather in Kathleen and Mary Jo’s room. I am the only smoker. It embarrasses me now to think of how I filled their room with smoke every afternoon without ever asking if anyone minded. But in my defense, this is how I was raised.
On college break, on a beautiful New England day, I decide to take up jogging. Back at school several of my friends go out for runs in the morning or after class and upon their return I envy their pink faces and sweat-stained t-shirts. I want to feel fit and athletic. I want to feel accomplished and sweaty. I choose a route that takes me three blocks away from my front door, down a shaded flat road, then a downhill run next to the woods to home. Easy. But by the end of the three short blocks my breath is hard in my chest, as if instead of air I am inhaling small pebbles into my lungs. The enthusiasm I felt, picturing myself walking through the front door triumphant, winded, wiping my forehead on the sleeve of my shirt, drains away. My chest rips with pain as I walk down the shaded road, gasping. I try again on the downhill stretch, but my body isn’t having it. I am three months away from my twentieth birthday and feel like I’m one-hundred years old.
Back at school I become sick enough to visit the Creepy Infirmary Doctor. I can’t stop coughing, a cough like a volcano erupting deep inside of me. I smoke True now. A low tar and nicotine cigarette with a strange hollowed out filter fitted with a plastic triangle.
“You smoke.” It’s a statement.
“You should stop. You have bronchitis and this could become chronic. Your cough my never fully go away.”
My sisters have all quit smoking for the moment and they occasionally ask me why I haven’t. My answer is simple. “I can’t,” I tell them. They think my answer is funny, but I’ve tried. I cannot seem to go for more than two hours without craving a cigarette with my entire being. The cigarette between my fingers has become a part of me, an extension of my hand, and I can’t imagine being without it.
I don’t tell the Creepy Infirmary Doctor any of this. I take my prescription for antibiotics and trudge up the three flights of stairs to my dorm room.
That night, in my extra-long twin bed, I dream one of my lungs is being removed. I am awake, and watching the procedure as if I am floating above myself. The reality, the ramifications of having only one lung are not a part of this dream. Just the surgery, the cutting, the white sheets and the blood. In the morning I reach, as I always do before I get out of bed, for my Trues. Instead of lighting one up, I pitch them to my roommate.
“Take these,” I say, “and don’t let me have them back.”
Why do we think the infirmary doctor is so creepy? Because he’s old? Because we can’t understand why he would want to treat our mono, our STD’s, our urinary tract infections? The unlikely Creepy Infirmary Doctor never knew the gift inside his words on that visit so many years ago.
Outside my window the sun rises slow and steady above The Sleeping Giant Mountain like it does every day, but today is different. Today is the day I stop smoking.
My daughter Alice has asthma. When she is six months old, her breathing can quickly deteriorate into a wheeze, a high-pitched whistle, as if the sides of her lungs are rubbing against her chest wall and the noise of it escapes through her mouth.
Breathing. Breath. That automatic in and out we rarely think about looks like work for this baby. She hates the nebulizer, a mask attached to a compressor that turns albuterol liquid into a vapor that opens her airways. How can she possibly know this loud and scary machine is meant to help her? I wait for her to fall asleep and sneak into her bedroom. I hold my own breath when I turn the nebulizer on. Don’t wake up, don’t wake up, don’t wake up! I lean over her crib and hold the tiny mask over her mouth and nose. As I watch her inhale the medicine, I imagine the miniature anatomy of her chest cavity. I picture her lungs like stalks of cauliflower, intricate branches of airflow. I imagine them opening, easing. And sure enough, by the time the treatment is finished her rasping breath settles into a quiet rhythm.
The ritual is strangely satisfying. I must know, intuitively, that there will be a million things in the ensuing years over which I will have no control. Illness, sadness, disappointment, heartbreak. Here is something concrete. Here is something I can do for Alice right now. I can tiptoe into her dark room without her knowing. I can help her breathe.
My father is eighty when he moves from Boston to an assisted living facility in Florida near me. He has smoked all of his adult life. It is my job to accompany him to his doctor visits. His doctor is young and friendly and doesn’t rush. My father is complaining of being tired all the time. He becomes short of breath climbing in and out of the car. We all know he has the beginning stages of emphysema, that there is not enough oxygen flowing through his body, but he seems genuinely bewildered by his symptoms. The doctor points to the pack of cigarettes in my father’s shirt pocket and says, “Are you ready yet to give those up?”
My father’s hand lifts protectively to his chest. He taps the box of Marlboros. “You tell me how to give up a sixty-year habit,” he says. His tone is challenging but I also detect pride, as if by smoking for sixty years he has accomplished a great feat.
I remember quitting all those years ago, how I missed not only the smoking but having the package of cigarettes with me, like an old friend. How I missed the strike of the match, the arc of movement from hand to mouth, the busyness of it. How it took every ounce of willpower I possessed not to give in to the hunger. But I was twenty, not eighty. I had my whole life ahead of me.
Not one of us in that exam room expects my father to stop smoking.
We are technically not even out of the lobby before my dad lights up. I leave him to smoke while I fetch the car.
A year later, in the trauma ICU after a fall and a brain injury, a respirator does the breathing for my dad. His condition is devastating, but there is something peaceful about the way the machine breathes for him, making a task once so difficult, at least for this moment, easy.
The sisters and I manage to break our smoking addiction, but my mother never knows that freedom. She often goes months or years without picking up a cigarette, but they always find a way back to her. By the time she reaches her sixties, she no longer makes grand pronouncements about her smoking status. Instead, she pretends to have quit, and hides her smoking from us. She stops smoking in her apartment and steps out on her balcony in all kinds of New England weather to take two or three puffs at a time, pecking at a cigarette in much the same way she picks at food. A bite here and there. Then it doesn’t really count. Except in her seventh decade her memory becomes slippery, and she forgets who she is hiding from. She hides half-empty packs of cigarettes from herself all over her apartment, tucked beside pillows on closet shelves, and in her pantry behind the Progresso minestrone soup. She forgets to conceal her porch ashtray, leaving it out on her balcony table for my sisters and me to see. Her furtive porch-puffing reminds Nancy and me of our teenage bathroom window ritual. We have come full circle. Eventually she does as she pleases, slipping out to smoke no matter who is around.
We handle it by not mentioning it. My sisters and I feel empathy for the struggle in a way only former smokers understand. We know the agony of both smoking and of trying to stop.
My friend Mary once went into a convenience store to buy cigarettes. She was bald from chemo, a scarf wound around her head. When I picture this scene, it’s raining. A cold and hopelessly long Pennsylvania rain.
“I know,” she said to the cashier, expecting judgment. But the woman simply slid Mary her Marlboro Menthol Ultra Lights, then came out from the behind the counter and pulled her into a hug.
For years after I quit, I smoke in my sleep. Long, luxurious, delicious cigarettes. The sharp scent, the soft crackle of paper as they burn. I wake up in a panic, disappointed in myself, until I realize it is only a dream.
There are those who can pick up a cigarette now and again. They say things like, “I only smoke on vacation,” or “I only smoke when I drink.” I’m not one of these people. I take my addictions seriously. From almost the very beginning, smoking was a full-time job for me. I don’t trust the part-timers in the same way I distrust writers who say, “I’m just a conduit for my characters. I sit at my computer and the characters write the story.” I call bullshit.
I don’t dream of smoking anymore. I am a mother now, and all of my nightmares involve my teenage daughters.
How much does the body remember? How much does the body forgive? Does my body recall how heavily I smoked during a time when my lungs were still developing?
At yoga we are instructed to inhale what nourishes us and exhale that which no longer serves us. My yoga teacher says where our breath goes, our prana, or energy, follows. She has us set an intention at the beginning of each class. The words that come to my mind are often, I’m sorry. Sometimes my entire yoga practice is an apology to my body.
I’m sorry about the tattoo.
“Pay attention to your breath. Your breath will never lie to you.”
I’m sorry for the step-aerobics phase.
“Notice the length of the inhale and exhale.”
I’m sorry for all the tequila shots.
“Notice the texture, notice the color.”
I’m sorry for the days I thought I’d look better if I didn’t feed you.
“Picture your breath as the door of a cathedral.”
I’m sorry for the times I didn’t listen.
“Open it and find the spaciousness of this present moment.”
I’m sorry for all those inhales filled with toxic smoke.
Then I picture my breath filling my heart space, the place of forgiveness. I visualize that forgiveness coursing through my bloodstream into every cell of my body.
I forgive you, I hear my heart whisper.
And the heart, like the breath, doesn’t lie.
Betty Jo Buro holds an MFA from Florida International University. Her work has appeared in Cherry Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Hunger Mountain, The Lindenwood Review, The Manifest-Station, Compose Journal, and Sliver of Stone. She was a 2016 finalist for Southern Indiana Review’s Thomas A. Wilhelmus Award, and a 2016 semi-finalist for American Literary Review’s Annual Creative Writing Awards. Her collection of essays, The Road from Emmaus, was a finalist in the 2017 Autumn House Press Creative Nonfiction Contest. She lives and writes in Stuart, Florida.