Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic?

I smoked an average of twenty cigarettes a day from October 1994 to May 2007. I was not a person who smoked, I was a smoker. And I was all in. I’d had a total of three Zippos in my life, and I had a hip pocket devoted to pack and lighter (currently for the cell phone). I followed the lead of top intellectuals like Denis Leary and sang the praises of smoking. And while I became much less of an evangelical about tobacco after cancer took a beloved aunt, I still enjoyed it.

I tried quitting, but I never wanted to, so every attempt was a failure. Sure, they made you cough, and sure, if enough time passes without having one, you turn into the Incredible Hulk. Sure they turned my fingers and teeth yellow, and sure they were just pumping carcinogens into my lungs, I wanted to keep doing this. I was young. I was immortal.

I enjoyed the taste of the filter on my lips. I enjoyed the pageantry of lighting a cigarette. When I was in college, anybody I knew who had a Zippo pulled elaborate stunts with them to light a cigarette. Not me—I flicked open the lighter, ignited it, lit the cigarette, and flicked the lighter closed. It was out and back into my pocket in less than five seconds. According to some, my technique wasn’t necessarily the coolest, but it was up there. I enjoyed a cigarette in my hand. I wasn’t so much holding a cigarette, as much as the cigarette was an extension of my fingers.

I was the kind of person who would say things like, “You want a cautionary tale about smoking? I bring you George Burns.” (To my Hastings College contemporaries, substitute “Darryl Lloyd” for “George Burns.”) At the time of my being the most militant about smoking, I was no better than any Trump fan. Give me irrefutable proof that the tobacco corporations were breeding and cultivating the perfect piece of toxic waste to make you keep sticking toxic waste in your mouth until you died, and I’d make up excuses. I can’t remember any of the excuses because when I had my epiphany about them (several years after I quit), I purged every single positive thing I could say about big tobacco.

I didn’t quit smoking because of the horrible things it did to me. I found out about the horrible things it did to me because I quit. For example, I’ve never had a masculine musk, and I do sweat a lot, but in the middle of August with the A/C broken was Drakkar Noir compared to how I smelled as a smoker. You can’t smell yourself when you’ve caused permanent damage to the inside of your nose. When it grows back, and a smoker is nearby, you know it. You know it before the get within ten feet. It was a Doppler effect with smell. I smelled like that. All. The. Time. How could anyone stand to be around me? How were women ever attracted to me?

I have been a non-smoker for fifteen years. I can’t say I haven’t smoked in fifteen years because I’d had two cigarettes since, a little over ten years ago. They were both really horrible, and I have not wanted to go near one in the past twelve years. One of the cigarettes was a blatant attempt to start a conversation. It worked. Cigarettes used to be really good for that. I had a lot of friends whose relationship with me could withstand five-to-ten-minute bursts every hour, and that was about it. Smoking was a solitary or a social activity, depending on how you were feeling that day. There was something magical about that. I wanted to capture that.

I was full-on smoker when I created a number of my enduring characters, and as a result, many of them were full-on smokers—in the stories I wrote during that thirteen-year period of my life. In stories I’ve written about them since, they’d either quit, or I’d completely forgotten about the smoking thing. I wrote one story last year where I paid lip service to tobacco for continuity’s sake, but otherwise ignored it.

Smoking is intertwined through much of my early oeuvre, but it’s not crucial to the story. I only call attention to it as a set piece of something cool happening. (Girl puts a cigarette out in boy’s coffee. Boy, eyes on the girl, drinks the coffee.) I’ve started writing scripts set in the time period where most of these characters would have been smokers, and I’m choosing not to write the smoking. The way I see it, I have three choices.

One: I can add tobacco to the contemporary stories. It wouldn’t be hard because I’m still in the draft phase, and I’ll be going over them several more times.

Two: I can go back into the classic stories, some of which have been quasi-published, and strip the smoking out. That would mean removing non-essential but still fun scenes and exchanges. The boy meets the girl when he creeps out while bumming a cigarette from her. This is the most important relationship in this series of stories. So I’d have to completely rewrite it.

Three: Or, I could leave the smoking in the classic stories and not include it in the contemporaries. I don’t have to explain it. Let the smoking and non-smoking characters be alternate universes. Whatever. The important thing is, this requires the least effort. Why do I want to be giving this vile habit anymore thought than I’d already put into it?

The world is evolving, and I am there for it. Popular opinion has turned against tobacco, Homosexuals have the same marriage rights as the rest of us. You cannot function without a cell phone now. The creator of the most beloved contemporary series of children’s novels is currently on blast for being anti-trans. Dr. Oz is not Senator Oz. The legalization of cannabis in New Mexico kind of ruined the screenplay Shane and I wrote about the hunt for a vicious pot dealer on the Navajo Reservation. It took us days to figure out how to fix that.

There was a time, not that long ago, when public opinion was generally cool with cigarettes. I used to smoke in my dorm room. You could smoke while you were eating at restaurants. There were ashtrays in hospital waiting rooms. Can you imagine? That’s when these characters were born. And while some of these stories have been rewritten from the ground up (one twice), they are still a product of their time.

I am definitely going with option three, for nostalgia’s sake.

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Totally Sketch

When I was 22, I decided to learn how to draw. I started with stick figures, then I started fleshing them out. I learned to ink, and eventually I even learned to color, first with markers, then with watercolors (with pastels when I was feeling it. It took years for me to draw a decent person, but at the time, I was so excited with every breakthrough I made. I illustrated two comics of my own and two comics for a pair of untalented writers. I gave up on drawing comics, but I illustrated 56 pages of Three Stories in One.

But in 2015, a few months after we got back from Doha, after all the excitement of finally being home after so long, I crashed, and I stopped writing and drawing. When I got my mojo back, I tried drawing again, and I got frustrated. I went through looking at the stick blobs I would get so excited about to every imperfection completely ruining the art.

The joy I found in the act of drawing and painting was gone. I created for the destination, not the journey. I also ran into the problem of what I want to draw. I had no inspiration. I still did my yearly self-portrait, and maybe for about a week or so, I’d get a wild hair and make some stuff. It’s been 2 years since I’ve drawn for fun.

I just treated it as a thing I don’t do anymore,’like drinking too much or watching rock concerts at crowded bars. I’ve been encouraged to pick it up again—my parents ask after the art nearly every time we chat.

Slowly, over the course of weeks, I thought about what I could do to jumpstart that again. I found references, I bought a sketchbook that I could live with if the paper was being torn by an eraser.

I thought, if I learned how to draw with a pencil and eraser, then by God, that’s what I was going to use. I had sacrificed precision for speed, and I was going to use that. If I wanted to skip to the completed drawing, then I was going to take my time, erase some things.

Saturday, I said, “It’s time.” I sat with my sketchbook for an hour, learning to draw faces and figures from the ground up. I repeated it on Sunday, same thing with the eraser.

I feel like the old prizefighter training to get back into the ring.

Blackjack Anniversary

My neighbors are all women in their late twenties, and they have the priorities people their age have, like dating and FWBs. We have a picnic table in our backyard, and they like to hang out there when the weather is good, sometimes with the company of gentlemen callers. A handful of times, when I’m taking out the trash, they will invite me to sit with them. A handful of those times, I’ve taken them up on it. I never say anything, I just listen.

On one occasion, the subject of September 11 came up. They weren’t kind. They treated it as an overrated, overhyped spectacle that people needed to get over. If I really wanted to make them awkward, I could have told them where I was that day, but I’d probably no longer get invites to enjoy their show. Plus they’re kids. When I was twenty-seven, I wasn’t a kid, but twenty-seven-year-olds now are kids. Prior to September 11, 2001, I was pretty flippant about Vietnam and the people affected by it.  

I wasn’t offended, and that’s because I’ve been writing a novel where two twenty-six-year-old women fall in love. They’re in Battery Park, New York City, and the subject of the 9/11 Memorial comes up, and it occurred to me as I was writing that the Twin Towers on fire looked just like a movie. If you were a kid, say five years old, when this happened, how would you be able to tell the difference? Maybe I should ask a Baby Millennial/Geriatric Zoomer.

My main character: “September 11 is Generation X’s defining moment, like Vietnam was for Boomers.”

Love Interest: “What’s the Millennials’ defining moment?”

Main Character. “Look around. Take your pick.”

If disaster and disaster came my way just as I’m becoming an adult or trying to settle down with my young family, and if the people in power don’t represent your viewpoint anymore and are legislating hard against people like you, somehow two buildings falling down doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

September 11 is old enough to drink or, in select states, purchase cannabis. What’s happened is that it, like every memory, grew hazy with time. September 11 was bad, but twice as many Americans died in Iraq fighting a war that was proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be manufactured by people who profited immensely from it and were never punished. Almost that amount died in New Orleans when a hurricane they should have been prepared for ravaged a US state, and many more died because relief efforts were so poorly planned. And so on, to this decade, when a virus spread through the country, killing almost a million people, which could have been contained if leadership wasn’t incompetent. Now we have mega-billionaires bending the country to their will and a reactionary minority preparing to take rights away from all of us.

All that in mind, what does 9/11 mean to me? It’s not the worst thing to happen to this country in the past thirty years. Why do I feel something heavy in the pit of my stomach every time I see the date on a calendar? Is it because I was there? Because everybody’s memory of September 11 is one tower burning while a plane crashes into the second, while mine is from a different angle, on the ground, looking up buildings so tall, you couldn’t see the top, now covered in flames and smoke.

My experience with COVID was disappointing, to say the least. I was hoping to be bedridden for a few days, but all I got was a headache. But twenty-one years ago, for about four hours in the morning, the world was on fire. Strangers would grab you and yell in your face that they destroyed the Pentagon! They’re taking out the bridges! And the guilt. I actually believed I could run in there and help people. I didn’t care how or what I did, I thought I could help. Instead, I ran. I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life, but that was probably the smartest.

This essay doesn’t have a clear thesis. Like September 11, there’s no lesson to be learned here. It reveals nothing about our humanity. My generation likes to think they’re jaded, latchkey kids who’ve seen it all. But we were spoiled. America won the Cold War and was riding high when we were young. We were the punching bags of the Boomers until Millennials came along with their avocado toast, and that’s really as bad as it got for us collectively. (Individually, I know a lot of Gen-Xers who’ve suffered unfairly in life, but as a whole, we’ve done pretty well.) Our innocence died on September 11, and as a result, the subsequent generations never really had any. Maybe that’s why I go back to that day, again and again, starting in August every year. It was the morning that changed everything, even for the Millennials and Zoomers who don’t realize it.It was the morning America got so scared that it went completely mad and hasn’t recovered since.

Imagine growing up in that.

A Groovy Kind Of

I am very loose with the work “love.” I can say I loved my ex-wife, or that I love my family, or that I love The One That Got Away, and they all mean different things. There’s friendship love, either squealed at each other at bachelorette parties, often accompanied by the word “bitch.” There’s the “I love you, man,” accompanied by the most distant hugs imaginable, because God forbid anyone thinks you’re a homo.  

From the way we differentiate between loving someone and being in love with someone, the word love has many different meanings, like “aloha.” I am in love with a number of people, and it’s not because I want to marry them. I have my friend, the princess, who I will love until the day I die, and all I want to do is cuddle with her. I’m in love with The One That Got Away, and her I want to marry. I’m in love with my Best Man, Shane, my brother. I’m in love with the one who brought me out from party to party in New York and made me feel cool, and that’s mom love. I’m in love with my best friend in 1999 and 2000, and the only thing I want from her is to lie in bed together with a dictionary, spending the entire evening looking up the dumbest word.  

Same word, completely different meanings. So when I tell you I was in love with her from the moment she forced herself into my conversation, it wasn’t because I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen (though, to be fair, she was), but because she radiated artistry, sensitivity, and mischief. She was a very tactile person, holding hands, stroking forearms, using one another as chairs, and it was easy to confuse a guy who’d never had a girlfriend in high school. However, expectations were set and revisited, and things were great until I started to run with a crew that viewed sincerity as a character flaw, and she was sent into exile, which wasn’t the punishment it was supposed to be because she had many friends across all disciplines, and I don’t think she missed us.  

She wasn’t gone from my life, though, and we kept bumping into her, and I wanted to keep bumping into her, but there was still a part of me that saw her as the enemy. I was awful to her. She continued to extend the hand of friendship, and I repeatedly slapped it away.  

That was college. After college, we became closer. During a celebration of a relative’s accomplishments, I told her that I was married, and I loved my wife, but I loved her too, for different reasons, and I didn’t have the language to explain, but she understood. That’s probably why I fought so hard against her. She understood me, and I didn’t want anyone to. But ten years after graduating, I wanted it more than anything in the world. 

We talked to each other rarely over the next several years, but any doubt I had about our relationship was dispelled when I visited her at her home a couple of years later, and we spent a couple of days having the kind of drama-free relationship we’d always wanted. We went back to communicating rarely, and I saw her one more time before we went back to communicating rarely.  

In May of this year, while “suffering” from COVID, I wrote my memoirs. I have known a lot of people, and I have done a great many things, so I wrote it down. I broke the book down into nineteen particularly influential individuals (my ex-wife gets two chapters). I sent her her chapter. I wanted her to see what she meant to me. I wanted to tell her how in love with her I was, but not in that way. I wanted her to understand me, more than I wanted anybody to understand me. So she read it. She had no notes. She read the rest of the memoirs because I wanted her to know everything about me.  

Now we text every day.  

For reasons I won’t go into, I’m taking what is probably my last vacation. I stopped by to see my sister in Colorado, and then I retreated to my cabin in the woods, where I was visited by the friend I was in love with. With a brief exception, we sat on the cabin couch and talked about ourselves, our past lives, our present lives, not very much about our futures, our impending disasters we had no control over, our regrets, our mistakes, our triumphs. We also talked about TV and movies. We talked a lot, is what I’m saying. I’ve become touch averse in my old age, but she got through my shields like she always belonged there, holding my hand, playing with my hair. This was our entire relationship in a nutshell. I had no idea how much I needed this. 

I live-blogged to her the rest of my vacation, the writer’s retreat with my old friend Shane, running into those people from my past who crossed social boundaries to be my friend, how I’m feeling, etc. I’d rather be sprawled out on the couch, my head on her lap, recounting the events of the day rather than sending her a text. When I think of her, I think of warmth and companionship, and never romance. It’s the perfect relationship for someone ace.  

Now that we’ve so clearly spelled out what we mean to each other, what does our future look like? I don’t know, but we have the rest of our lives to figure it out. She’s not going anywhere. 

Home Again Jiggety-Jig

When I arrived in Albuquerque, I had a few hours to kill, and I explored a neighborhood called Nob Hill, close to the university campus. I breathed in the mountain plants and beheld the adobe houses everywhere, and it had been twenty-four years since I’d spent more than a few days here, but it still felt like home.

As I approached Gallup from the east, the shapes of the buildings—the gas stations and auto parts stores and restaurants—were all the same, even though they are all different businesses than they were in the twentieth century. I drove in a car I thought of as invisible i.e. it’s so generic that it can follow you for miles and you’d never notice, and I coasted down Coal Avenue, my favorite place to go when I’m downtown. An entire block of the street was gone. Aside from that, it looked great. The coffee house that had opened up after I started college has been renamed and expanded, and the ratty, crumbling apartments that had housed several of my friends have been given a fresh coat of paint. On the other hand, the department store across the street is exactly the same, and so is the Crashing Thunder Art Gallery a few businesses down. The New Mexico souvenirs store now sells CBD products.

On day two of my return to Gallup, I started to entertain fantasies about quitting my job and settling down there. The dating scene is terrible, but I have no interest in that kind of thing. I have three friends there already, which is more than I have in DC. This would be a good place to retire.

By day five, I’d had a chance to look around. The elementary school my dad taught at is gone. There’s not a molecule of it remaining. My middle school had been expanded by erecting these Borg-cube-like buildings. My high school has been completely rebuilt, though the roof is still that familiar zigzag shape, making me suspect they built on top of the original. Lots of familiar buildings have unfamiliar storefronts, Comics, Cards & Games, for example, had been replaced by a sign that simply says “Waxing.” However, from a distance, Gallup looks the same as it did when I grew up here. The Gal-A-Bowl hasn’t changed its cheesy sign, El Sombrero is still there, the courthouse is a masterpiece of Southwestern architecture (just don’t look at the modern office buildings springing up around it).

If I look closer, the stucco on the house I grew up in has been replaced with aluminum siding, the Pic-A-Flic video store I once relied on is now a payday loan place. The theater where I went to the movies by myself for the first time at age nine (Godzilla 1985) is now boarded up. A lot of businesses are boarded up, actually, while other businesses, mostly the ones downtown, have been given facelifts. Gallup in 2022 looks like the Gallup of 1994, but it’s not. It can’t be.

Even the people I’m seeing are the same, but not really. My friend from high school kept up her enthusiasm and her bright smile, but she’s an accomplished professional now, not a giggling cheerleader. And then there’s Shane. Shane is a special case because we’ve led parallel lives that occasionally intersect. When I met him in Gallup, he was an artist and fixture in town who went to bed in the same studio where he created his paintings. When I pulled up to his place in Gallup last week, I found an artist and fixture in town who went to bed in the same studio where he created his paintings. But when I looked closer, I could see many differences. He has two children now, one of whom is twenty-four and living in New York, like I once did. He has less hair. Money is no longer the precious commodity it once was. There are hundreds, as opposed to dozens, of paintings leaning against the walls. If I moved down here, I’d have to navigate a Frankenstein recreation of the city I grew up in, and I don’t think I’m ready to do that. On my way to my hotel, there is a sign for a diner that was once a Gallup landmark. The diner itself is gone, now a weed-infested parking lot. The ghost diner speaks to me. It says, “Don’t look back.”

The More They Stay the Same

May through August of 1998 is known to me as My Summer in Purgatory. My plans for my post-collegiate future were pulled out from under me, and I was so tied up in graduating and working almost full-time that I didn’t make alternate plans, so I moved in with my parents. And my two sisters, who had been doing fine without me there, thank you very much for asking. I spent most of the time being drunk and stoned, being needlessly … well, me … to a wonderful young woman who has moved onto bigger things and beyond. I was offered a hand out, and I took it, and decades later, here I am. I’ve visited Gallup a few times since then, but over the years the city has been completely rebuilt and redesigned while also remaining the exact same. Here I am, twenty-four years since the last time I’d spent more than a couple of days here, crammed into a coffin of a hotel room ten miles from town, and it still feels like home.

I’m here on a writing retreat with Shane. We want to take a 156-page screenplay and expand it out into a four-to-six-episode TV series, and thanks to his networking from being a successful painter and having once been married to literary intelligentsia, he has contacts, and he might be able to get it in front of people. If he doesn’t, that doesn’t bother me. The whole goal of this trip was to work with one of my oldest and best friends on an art project together like we used to do. We have met that goal. We have written a solid first draft of the pilot, and we’ve finished more episodes. What it needs is a fine polish, and then we’re ready to send this butterfly out in the world and see where it lands.

It’s about a hitman and his sidekick and the people they pick up along the way searching for a ruthless drug dealer in Gallup, New Mexico, in 1995, a time and place Shane and I know very well. And the thing about Gallup is, it’s weird. I know, I know, you think your hometown is weird. You’ve never lived in Gallup. It’s a curious cocktail of mixing cultures that don’t mix well, but can get along to get along. The characters, who have impressed some of the contest readers who’ve seen it, are what we’re focused on. The hitman is a professional, but he’s emotionally unstable, and pops antidepressants and anxiety meds like Pez. The sidekick is a hitman in training who doesn’t want to kill people and dresses like a 1995 rapper. The point man is a Reservation resident who acts chill but is shifty. The victim is a cute redneck girl once kidnapped by the drug dealer, and who hangs around the hitman so she can get her bloody revenge. The waitress is a high-class girl in search of adventure. Nobody knows what’s up with the drug dealer. That’s something we have to work on.

Sorry, didn’t mean to bore you. I’m proud of what we’ve done together.

Shane has been a resident of Gallup for years, after living around the country and even outside our country. The town has a certain gravity. It draws people back, like a few of my friends from high school (and me) in the years following. They all scattered to the wind, but a few more came back as adults. And I don’t mean adult like me, where I have a job and failing eyesight, but otherwise I haven’t changed. I mean adult as in married, with children, and buying houses. This was where they wanted to raise their families. Shane knows more of them than he can count. I know two of them.

The first was the cute cheerleader turned cute mom and high-ranking school administrator from my last post. She’s the one who informed me that the narrative I had where I survived high school by being invisible was not remotely true. I’d been seen.

I knew she was in town, and I had expected to see her, so that didn’t blow my mind as much as the next guy. Shane called for a break during a particularly unproductive stretch of hours, and he drove me to the UPS Store to see someone who really wanted to see me. I’m terrible with faces, so I knew that, unless he told me who it was, I wasn’t going to guess. And he took me up to the pass-through and pointed his chin at a guy wearing a COVID mask. I shrugged, and someone called his name, and I remembered everything I talked about in this entry:

tl;dr: If 1998 was My Summer in Purgatory, 1992 was My Summer of Adventure. The Lost Boy was a really good friend when his crew was away, but as soon as the crew returned, he ghosted us. I was heartbroken at the time, but as I got older and met more people who were popular when they were young, the more I understood why.

On the other hand, a member of the crew I ran with that summer was an easily offended, vindictive bitch, and he very well could have unilaterally exiled the Lost Boy.

Either way, the last time I saw him up close was when he tried to explain to me without explaining to me why he had to leave us behind. But once I heard that name, those sharp, manicured eyebrows could belong to no one else. Shane got his attention, and he came over, and they chatted. Then Shane said, “Look who I brought!” The man I used to know as the Lost Boy called out my name and ran out from behind the counter to tackle me with a hug. He looked the same—compact, in shape, no wrinkles, not a single gray hair. The only change was his mullet. He used to have the kind of mullet that would make Billy Ray Cyrus look like Sinead O’Connor. It was business in the front, very long party in the back. And now he had a respectable middle-aged-man haircut. He asked me where I was and what I was doing, and he was excited to hear I was still writing. He reminded me that it didn’t matter if I wasn’t a New York Times Bestseller, I was writing.

Beyond his sexy cool, he was one of my most enthusiastic cheerleaders. When we were hanging out alone, he was always encouraging me to write. At the time I believed that I could tell the story, but I couldn’t think of what the story should be. That’s why I was working on an idea with the vindictive bitch as opposed to my own, which I wasn’t sure I had. But my friend believed that I could come up with my own. He also had a female friend he thought would be a good match for me when the school year began (but that went away when he did). He knew I was bound for bigger things. That hadn’t changed in the slightest, even though it is literally thirty years, summer-to-summer, since we had known each other.

He gave me his number. I’m going to shoot him a text.

Gallup, New Mexico is a weirder-than-average town close to Arizona and three Indian Reservations. It’s a place where magic happens. I’ve set two novels and a screenplay here. It will always be home.

Social Influencers

I didn’t enjoy high school, but my senior year in high school was kind of nice, actually. People stopped bullying me, Severian wasn’t around to bring down my mood, I made new friends, a new comic book shop opened, and this cute cheerleader started following me around. She hung on my every word and often arranged to be where I was going to be. She manipulated events so we could be coeditors of the school paper. I had enough presence of mind to recognize that these weren’t romantic overtures, just someone who was fascinated with me for some reason, like Jimmy, who had a man-crush on me.

She also met Shane separately from me and followed him around too. It wasn’t until I was telling him about my new cheerleading friend in school that he told me he also had a new friend, and our descriptions of her matched up, and when one of us said her name, we knew.

I lost track of her after graduation, and I found out, like, 12 or 13 years ago, that she was back in Gallup. When I saw her then, I was really depressed and feeling gross, so it didn’t make much of an impression. This time, I was alert and content and feeling confident, like I have been during this long vacation I’ve been on, so we went out to drinks and caught up with each other’s lives.

She told us that, even though she was a cheerleader in a popular crowd, she felt miserable and like a fraud. She had admired me through most of school, and she wanted to soak up some of my mojo, whatever it was. She told me that I was a goth back when goths still wore colors (I don’t agree with that assessment), and she had to learn to be like me.

When she met Shane, she was enamored of him, as many women are. According to Shane, she made a move on him, but I never trusted his interpretation of events when it came to women (because his interpretations tend to consistently fall under the category “She Wants Me”).

It’s weird for me to hear I was a formative influence in someone’s life. I don’t think of myself as making much of an impact on this world. She told Shane and me that if she hadn’t met us, she would have been shallow and unhappy. Now she is relaxed and herself and successful and in a good place. I guess I did have an impact.

Momma Raised a Quitter

I used to have a drinking problem. I’d say I was an alcoholic, but I wasn’t addicted. My problem was that I started out with one drink, and I’d keep drinking until I ran out of alcohol. This was a real problem whenever I cracked open a bottle of wine. It wasn’t that I set out to be a binge drinker, but I was on a medication that kept alcohol from affecting me until I was about five or six drinks in, then I would go from sober to drunk in seconds. I loved drinking, though, so I kept doing it.

I loved how numb it made me while being simultaneously awesome (or so I thought). It turned off the part of me that should know better, so I was a free man. In that way, drinking was like having a manic episode. And I loved the taste of a good beer or wine. And I can’t stress this enough, I didn’t need it every day. I just needed it whenever. Whenever turned out to be most days.

Say what you will about my ex-wife, she made a lot of really positive changes to me. She found me the psychiatric help I needed to be better, she researched Chantix, the quitting smoking drug that makes you want to commit suicide, and she encouraged me to quit drinking, at the beginning of July 2007, after I fell flat on my face at a party and almost hit my head against something. I didn’t go to AA or to a doctor for help, I was just determined to do it. I half-assed it, though. I used to sneak drinks here and there and kept a bottle of mouthwash in the car (that I shared with Kate, so I had to really hide it) to shake suspicion.

This was bad, and I’m honestly not sure how I got away with it as long as I did. I mean, this is the kind of thing people who were addicted did. I didn’t need it every day, just once or twice a week—whenever I could, basically. So for the month of July, I snuck around with drinking. Finally, at the end of the month, Kate was going to be out of town for the weekend, so I could have a whole bottle of wine to myself in privacy, as long as I could get rid of the evidence.

I’ve told this story before, but something clicked in me as I took that bottle off the shelf and placed it gently in my shopping cart. It reminded me of all the times I quit smoking where I’d have one or two, just to take the edge off, then I was a pack-a-day smoker again. It asked me who’s really losing in this situation, me who definitely wasn’t quitting, or Kate, who thought the man she trusted and loved was being honest with her. It asked me how long I intended to keep this up. And mostly it asked me what kind of a man couldn’t keep promises to the woman he loved. So I put the wine back. As I’m fond of saying, I don’t remember the last drink I took, but I clearly remember the first drink I didn’t have.

Fifteen years later, the only drink I’ve had was when a bartender in London didn’t understand my order of club soda and got me a vodka and soda. It took one sip to figure out the mistake (the bartender didn’t apologize, she just doubled down on her logic, which is who goes to a bar to get a club soda?). Do I miss it? I wish I could have a glass of wine, I love a good red. I hadn’t experimented in whites before August 2007, but I’m sure I would have loved them too. I liked beer. I liked standing around with a glass of scotch, not really enjoying it, but feeling classy. I don’t miss being drunk, and I definitely don’t miss hangovers.

I don’t really pride myself on my impulse control and willpower, but in the same year, I quit smoking and drinking, both of which I was dependent upon. Maybe I do have it in me.

Stepping into the Same River Twice

I’m doing something a little presumptuous. I’m writing my memoirs. I’m doing it in an unusual format, which is I picked twenty people who influenced my life, from high school friends to more recent individuals, to my ex-wife, and I’m writing a chapter about each of them. Sometimes, I’ll take a page or so of someone else’s chapter and remember another important figure who I don’t have enough to write a full chapter on.

There was this young woman in college who I very consciously set out to befriend. It was a success. However, it was approaching the end of the school year, so we became pen-pals. Every other week, I received a letter from her, long and a little stream-of-consciousness, and just all kinds of wonderful. When asked by her therapist about journaling, she said, “I do journal. I write Jeremiah.” She had lost her father recently to cancer, so she pleaded with me to quit smoking, which I didn’t do. We cared for each other, we supported each other, we loved each other, and we didn’t have sex, so I called her my wife. Corresponding, we had no one else in our lives, but in person, not so much. When we reunited that fall, we didn’t click, and we drifted apart.

At some point, I think she started a cult. It was some kind of internal spirituality thing, and it sounded like a cult. Later, after she found me on Facebook, I discovered that she was a pre-COVID anti-vaxxer, and after she posted some really objectionable science, I hid her posts. The last thing she said to me was a comment on a post I made debunking the Mandela Effect, saying that I was wrong, there’s more to the Mandela Effect than just faulty memory. If you know anything about the Mandela Effect, you know she means alternate universes and apocalypses. That’s when I muted her feed.

While writing this chapter, I realized that I still had all of her letters. I dug them out and reread all of them, which took some time because each of those letters was a tome. What I found was a young woman desperately trying to find her identity and make sense of this world. She struggled to get over her last boyfriend, she tried dating back in her small, South Dakota town to disappointing results. She signed her letters with “Love” but would sometimes cross that out and write “Always” instead. She read a story I wrote inspired by her hostile first meeting with me, starring a thinly veiled me and a thinly veiled her, and she informed me that these two characters would make great friends but there would be no romance (I recognized the subtext, even at the time).

Reading pages and pages of her careening trains of thought reminded me of how it felt to open up my mail and get one of these oversized envelopes. I wrote about three double-spaced pages about our relationship, and I wondered if maybe she would like a nostalgia bump, so I searched her out on my friend list, but she wasn’t there anymore. I searched her out anyway and discovered that her feed is public.

She isn’t just a little anti-vax now. She has gone full-throttle. She’s posting news stories about people dying from the vaccine, and about people applying for jobs at concentration camps that they’re going to create for the unvaccinated so they can force them to take a shot. She is not coming from a Republican place with this, this is all conspiracy from the Left. It was in college that she started down the New Age rabbit hole and got stuck.

How I feel about this is the same as when you have to sneeze, but can’t. I’m seeing this lovely, confused, hopeful young woman on paper, but in reality, she’s kind of insane. I go through nostalgia kicks and can’t or won’t contact the person I’m feeling it for, but I’ve never run across so many red flags screaming “Don’t!” What am I supposed to do with this warm, lovely feeling reading her letters has given me when this person isn’t the same person I remember (all the while being unquestionably the same person)? This is so frustrating to me because the two things I got from this experience that I want to hold onto forever is this woman as I remembered her and the feeling of writing actual, physical letters to someone and getting one back. I can’t have either anymore.

I miss her. I had no idea how much.

Little Sticks of Death

I remember how and why I started smoking. It was the first time Kate and I got together, and she’d left a note in my mailbox that said we had to talk. No time has that phrase meant anything good, so I was stressed. I thought about what all the peers I looked up to did when they were stressed, which inspired me to locate a cigarette from a man whose name is lost to history, and the first time I smoked a cigarette, it was horrible. It was physically gross, and it made me dizzy. Why would people money for that? How was this calming me down? The next day, I wanted to do it again. Gradually, I grew to enjoy the high, even as I craved it the whole time.

One day, you realize that you’re not even getting the high anymore. All you know is that your brain doesn’t work right, and you get the tremors when you’re not smoking. This isn’t like heroin, where not getting high off of it was a process that took months, even years. With cigarettes, you take a quick hop to dependency. You can go through a lot of cigarettes in a day, especially if you’re sitting a bar from before 2003, when smoking was kicked out of the indoors, because it’s so easy to put one to your lips and light them. Besides, if you do it right, lighting a cigarette can look insanely cool, just ask John Constantine.

Think about a time when everyone’s desk at work came with an ashtray. I used to think it was fascist to kick smokers out of all buildings, but I’ve reconsidered because smoking is really fucking bad for you, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re the one with the cigarette. Smoking contributes nothing to society except for death, and I’m willing to overlook my stance on banning things when it comes to that.

After I got addicted, I quit smoking about three times. The first time, I kept one or two around, just in case, to prove to myself that I could resist temptation. I couldn’t. The second time I quit smoking, I removed all cigarettes from my apartment, so I just went out and bought a pack. At the same time, Kate was supposed to be quitting, but she was also sneaking cigarettes behind my back. We gave up on giving up.

Finally, our doctor put me on Chantix, which was later pulled off the shelves because some users tried to kill themselves and then put back on the shelves because I don’t know. Maybe less users tried to kill themselves. Before the whole suicidal ideation thing, I went on the drug. It made me constipated. But the thing that it did best was block me from getting off on the nicotine. And without the nicotine rush and relief, a cigarette is just a burnt, soggy, rolled-up piece of paper. And I let this control my life for thirteen years? I very quickly settled in on the side effects of quitting because Chantix didn’t take away the side effects. Somehow my quitting smoking turned everyone around me into a fucking asshole, and once I was away from it for a while, I came to appreciate just how horribly I smelled.

And so, while I craved cigarettes, I didn’t want to go anywhere near them because a) they were disgusting, and b) I didn’t want to be their slave again. However, I did have two cigarettes since then.

The first was on the day when my beloved friend Jenni got married. I bummed a smoke as a way of starting a conversation with her maid of honor’s boyfriend, which was how we used to do things in college and at parties. I remember how awful everything about it was. It was like my first time all over again, only this time, I wasn’t tempted back.

The second was at my sister’s apartment in Ventura, California. Watching her smoke cigarettes made me feel nostalgic, so I bummed one and kind of hated it. I thought how casually I used to smoke, the cigarette dangling from my first two fingers, leaning rakishly up against the closest wall or streetlight. All I wanted to do that time was sit down until the dizziness passed.

Since then, I occasionally dream about smoking again, but when I realize I didn’t fall off the wagon, I am so relieved. Once a very important part of my life, I’ve completely forgotten about smoking, so that people who used to be badass smokers in my novels and short stories just don’t smoke anymore. I gave no explanation. If I wanted to have fun, I could write a short story about any of them quitting.

I smoked my last cigarette as an addict on May 15, 2007, so I have been an ex-smoker two years longer than I’ve been a smoker. I don’t regret smoking for thirteen years, but I don’t miss it at all. After all this time, though, I still don’t recall what Kate wanted to talk to me about.