She starts off by telling you to visualize a cigarette. You indulge her because you love her. And she loves you because you always indulge her.
“Look close. There’s one little ciggy on the table tightly wrapped in that soft white paper, a tan butt,” she says. “The tobacco is neatly packed, but there are still little juts and dimples in the wrapping. Just like in the fall, the way you recognize lawn bags filled with dried leaves. They have a leafy bulk that can’t be fully shredded or smoothed.”
You are not a real smoker. You smoke a pack a day—but only once a week. As soon as Lynn gets out of her office, that “fishbowl,” she wants to make up for lost noise. So every Friday night the two of you go out hard, usually with her friends, and smoke like fiends. You take the next six nights off, but she keeps it up all week.
That’s been your routine since you met: Lynn smoking full-time and you part-time. Now, though, you’re a wet blanket, you’re a popped water-bed, you’re a leak in the ceiling. You kind of quit, and now you want her to quit, too.
“Feel the rivets,” she says. “Also, appreciate how wonderfully cylindrical it is. Hold it to one eye and peek in like it’s a telescope.”
“A kaleidoscope. Or pretend you’re sticking your head in front of a white canon of tobacco.” Your eyes are still closed. “Put it between your lips now, loose,” she says. You hear her voice muffle as she briefly demonstrates. “Feel the weight of it, let it dangle. You look jaunty,” she says. “Isn’t smoking fun?”
You hear her light up. And you can’t help but worry about what happens next, because for you cigs have always been grounding—something to do between rounds at the bar. A stabilizing buzz for drugs recently consumed or soon to arrive. They’re chasers. What you calm yourself with while listening or waiting to speak. They’re an excuse for private conversations outside, secluded moments en route to buy another pack. On touch-deprived nights, the plume licks your face warmly as it drifts upward, having just heated your lungs.
“Now smell it, babe.”
“Yeah. Put it under your nose like a little ciggy mustache and take a healthy whiff. That’s fresh Virginia tobacco. Smells good doesn’t it? Like toasted almonds. Or casual sex. Like a girl you’ve always wanted who’s come around drunk and horny and fertile.
You give her a smirk. “You can’t sexualize the hypnosis, Lynn.”
She’s fond of quoting Mark Twain, who said, “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” But she’s never really tried. She knows she’ll struggle.
“Smoking is sexy,” she says. “I have to use that. You have to dance with the girl you showed up with.”
You fight the urge to smile. She’s serious. “That’s not how that phrase is used, babe. You say that when someone’s avoiding an issue. But never mind.” You open your eyes to see her exhaling rings. A trick her deceased brother taught her back in high school. She’s 27 now so that was a decade ago.
“Whatever,” she says. “Focus.” You re-close your eyes and imagine a cigarette hanging from your lips. Or are you holding it to your face like a cigarette Hitler mustache? You can’t remember.
“Lynn, can I just, like, light this imaginary thing now?” Your head is in her lap. She cups your chin with one palm. Your New Year’s resolution was to pick up smoking proper, for her, yet you failed. This is her last chance to convert you.
“Feel how fragile it is. Bounce it around in your palm, careful not to break it. It’s light. A Marlboro Light.”
Those were some impossibly good nights. You can’t much remember why, but you woke up on Saturday afternoons feeling this more strongly than hangover. That too was sufferable–special even–because it was yours together. You shared what was left of the glass of water on the nightstand, then showered and staggered out to brunch together, delirious. You’d take a nap and “wake and bake” together. Literally. You’d bake a cake or cookies or pie. Then smoke weed, because that was Lynn’s way.
“Now, my petit chou-fleur,” she says, “you can light that light Marlboro Light. Gently close your teeth on its filter, lean forward and point it into the flame that was sparked for you, just for you, by a buxom Latina with pink hair and a strappy top struggling to hold back—“
“The bartender from 2A!”
“That’s right. She just introduced herself to you. She has nice dimples. She reveals them as she smiles, as she holds this flame for you provocatively low, right in front of her amazing rack which, I must say, wow, in that flickering light? Why would you quit smoking,” she says. “Why?”
You can’t help worrying. Quitting—really getting her to stop—and the anxiety and crankiness that will follow, your patronizing comments that she should just chew gum, your disappointment, assuming she lights up anyway (you know she will), her guilt, and yours at asking her to change: all of it could be too much for you as a couple.
The two of you met outside a bar where she asked for a light. You remember the vivacious way she recounted once tossing a drink into some asshole’s face. She looked so pretty, you struggled to meet her eyes and not flinch.
“Just suck in the hot smoke till your tonsils start burning behind the heat. Inhale,” she says. “And, exhale.”
She massages your temples. “It’s working. You feel light. Ultra light. You are once again a social smoker. You smoke with your friends,” she combs her hands through your hair, “and with your girlfriend and the occasional stranger. What’s the point of smoking if no one is there to see how cool you look?”
She clears her throat. “You’ll start to connect it to good times, relaxed times, breaks, and fresh air. Soon you’ll want to smoke even when you really don’t, and you’ll become a real smoker. Like me. That’s what will happen.” She presses her cold hands against your cheeks. “It’s not your fault. Not a lack of will. Just an unavoidable fate.”
She smoothes this point into your laugh lines. “Just accept it.” You open your eyes.
“It didn’t work, Lynn.”
Upside-down, she pouts and reaches for her wine.
Whatever conflicts arise between you in this next phase may break you up, but so could the status quo. She needs to live healthier, exercise more, feel better. And all that, you think, will cascade from this decision like fresh water runoff suddenly hitting dry farms, distant, forgotten bathtubs.
“My turn, baby carrot. Let’s give it a listen,” you say.
She takes a long pensive swig, stares distantly, swallows and stubs out her cigarette. “Fine.” The disc is called How To Quit Smoking Without Gaining Weight. That’s one of Lynn’s favorite excuses not to quit. She needs to lose ten pounds, not gain fifteen, she says.
“Maybe if you quit smoking you’ll have more energy to go running or something,” you once said—one of those dangerous asides made quietly without eye contact in the hope it will register passively, without incident.
You push play.
The two of you lie on your living room rug, side by side, as the disc begins. There’s music. “This is how I want to be buried. Right next to you,” Lynn says. She turns her head to you. You frown. “If this doesn’t work I may be the first to go,” she says. “You’ll have to make arrangements.”
“Lynn,” you say.
“I’m OK with that,” she says. She closes her eyes. “I’d rather go first.”
She pats the floor beside you, seeking your hand, and you help her find it. Clasping fingers, you both squeeze as the narrator’s voice comes on. “Mon petit chou-fleur,” she says. That was her first term of endearment for you. You call her baby carrot because her hair lights up a fiery orange in full sunlight.
“I want you to start by taking a deep breath. Breathe in,” the voice says. “Breathe out.”
Why are you doing this? You remind yourself of the time she stomped out of your apartment drunk, in a huff, after coming home at three a.m. You chased after her, screaming for her to stop. “Whatever,” she said. “You don’t love me.” You snatched her lighter, threw it down and exploded the thing at her feet then landed a fist on the wall beside her head. “Then what the fuck am I doing chasing you down the street at three in the fucking morning?”
The narrator’s voice smoothly tells you to concentrate. “Now I want you to pick a spot, any spot, on the wall and I want you to stare at it. Keep your eyes fixated.”
Lynn walked out last weekend without looking back because you said you didn’t want a morning cocktail. You told her to stop but let her go. She texted you photos, hours later, of verdant canopies and exotic orchids. “Where are you?” you replied. She sent a picture of a cactus patch: “I’m in the desert now.”
It was the botanical gardens. She has a ferocious temper yet is quick to cool down. She has a wild sense of whimsy you love.
“Now, focusing on that spot on the wall,” the voice says, “slowly move your awareness to an imaginary spot halfway between you and the wall.” Lynn is doing it, staring intently. “Focus all your attention on this. And now, move your focus to a spot directly in front of your eyes.
She crawled on top of you two weeks ago and with your heads inches apart, her warm breath minty from the Tic Tacs she pops to mask the smell of smoke, told you, “You can’t break up with me until till I lose weight.”
You both burst out laughing, and you rolled her under you with the helpless lust of someone who knows he may already be losing.
Maybe she’ll take off that weight now.
“Close your eyes and move your focus from the spot before your eyes to the spot inside your mind where awareness is created.”
“Let’s go,” she had said that night on the sidewalk. You were amazed your fist didn’t crack the wall—a cloudy fiberglass panel outside the Korean restaurant. She hooked her arm under yours to guide you back home. And that was it: fight over.
“I’m going to address your subconscious mind,” the narrator says. “Your subconscious is a powerful tool, so powerful it can help you learn what your waking mind resists.”
This is the kind of woman who will take a guy she likes, you, to the Nat Sherman store on 42nd Street to sample artisanal cigarettes. She told you, “buy any pack you want,” because that’s what she thought you’d like. And you did. You loved her hedonistic streak, and still do.
The voice says, “At this point in life you’ve coped by using nicotine as a source of energy, a way to kill time, to kill boredom, maybe even to drive a sense of identity. But from now on the past is gone, and you’re immersed in the warm bath of a new present. You’re free and clean. It’s as if you’ve never smoked cigarettes before.”
You watch her listen. Her eyes are busy beneath her eyelids, her thoughts active, maybe drifting away but still subconsciously listening as she breathes calmly, in and out. She loves you, and you love her because she indulges you.
You hope you’ll never quit.
Dan Hernandez is a writer based in Las Vegas. His fiction has appeared in Day One and The Offing; his journalism in The New York Times, The Guardian, and others. He holds an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and was a 2012 Fiction Fellow at The Writers’ Institute.