Born Quitter

Well, I decided I’d quit after I’d heard about Stuart Frost’s father. I’d just turned 21, and Stuart’s father thought he had a year or two left in him. But it wasn’t to be: he died after a short battle with lung cancer a few days after my 21st birthday, aged 51. I decided there and then, on the spot, that I would never smoke a cigarette again.

Then I had a beer in Stuart’s father’s memory and said a few smokes with a beer was all right.

 

I was determined. I’d think about Stuart’s father, and I’d think about the toxins and all the horrible things smoking does to the body. I’d read up on it, you see. That book by that guy. It was all in my head. I got myself some of the gum that’s supposed to help with the cravings. This was a year after Stuart’s dad’s death, so, needless to say, I hadn’t done incredibly well in my early endeavours to quit following his passing. But, like I said, I was determined. For two weeks I chewed the gum and I only wanted a cigarette around four times a day, which wasn’t too bad.

At the time I was dating Lorraine O’Neal. Now, there was a babe. Jesus, she was wild. We’d been together a few months after I’d met her at a fair, and there was this chemistry between us right away; only a few hours after meeting we were tearing each other’s clothes off and going at it like rabbits at her friend Wendy’s apartment.

Jesus, she was wild.

And things were going well with us, I thought. I thought that that kind of physical chemistry was something unique. Hell, it was to me. But to Lorraine, well, I soon learned that she experienced it with a lot of guys, and on the night I found her in Wendy’s apartment with Ritchie Landis I must’ve smoked about two packs. I deserved them, of course. In the event of heartbreak I was entitled to allow myself some form of comfort. I never saw Lorraine again.

Jesus, she was wild.

 

So a few years passed and I hadn’t quite managed to quit. But I’m a pretty determined individual, and I found myself in the midst of a new attempt at kicking the habit. They say the years go by and, boy, do they go by. I was 28 and it felt like only yesterday that I was hanging out with Stuart Frost and smoking cigarettes on the hood of his car. Now it was seven years to the day since his old man had bit the dust and I was back in town for a special service being held for Mr. Frost and poor Stuart’s poor grandma who’d died a few days earlier.

I was feeling good at the time. I felt healthy, and fit. I looked good, too. I hadn’t smoked in three weeks. When I saw Stuart I shook his hand and we embraced.

‘Cigarette?’ he asked, holding out a pack.

‘Sure,’ I said.

 

I met Sarah Jane when I was 31 (10 years after the death of Mr. Frost). SJ was so damn beautiful. God, she blew my mind the moment I laid eyes on her. She took a bit of work, mind you. She wasn’t as keen on me as I was on her. But I got there in the end. I was cigarette-free, too. I’d been cigarette-free for seven months (apart from one before bed and a maximum of five with beers, allowing myself a maximum of three drinking nights per week). Well, SJ and me eventually got together after I’d hounded the life out of her. I’d told her. I’d said, ‘I’m going to marry you. As God is my witness I will marry you.’ And she’d rolled her eyes at me and said she wasn’t interested in getting married until she was at least 35, but two years after we met we were hitched and on a honeymoon in Italy, where I allowed myself full licence to smoke as often as I liked—you only get one honeymoon, after all.

Well, sometimes.

We had our first child, James, a year later. The kid—for the first two years of his life—was a  goddamn nightmare. Every time that little monster screamed his head off I’d have the urge to smoke a full pack there and then, right in front of the exasperating little bastard. Then I’d calm down and regret thinking like that and I’d hug him and kiss his forehead and tell him ‘daddy loves you’ and then I’d feel bad for a day or two for thinking that way. Of course those days would be filled with regular smoking intervals at the office as a way to help assuage the guilt.

 

You know, some things stick with you, and some things fade from your memory like fog on a spring morning. One thing that never seemed to leave me was poor Stuart Frost’s father. No matter how many years passed by, I’d always think of Stuart’s old man. How he’d once been so healthy, only to croak after less than a few months of being sick. If anything was gonna make me quit smoking, well, that poor man’s end was going to do it. He’d been dead twenty years when I crumpled up my last pack of cigarettes and tossed them in the trash next to the back porch. I kept one from the box to celebrate my intentions, of course: one last smoke.

Me and SJ? Well, we were great, still. Never did a day pass by without us laughing. Not one day. No matter how stressed we got, we’d always laugh, be it first thing in the morning or right before bed. We’d laugh. In between those laughs we’d argue, of course. What couple doesn’t argue? And SJ would know when she’d see a cloud of smoke on the front porch that she’d pushed me too far. She’d have to take some responsibility when she’d driven me to drive to the store to buy a fresh pack. And as for when her parents visited. Jesus, you may as well have sparked up ten at a time and stuck them in my mouth. It’s typical, isn’t it, that the mother-in-law is a nightmare? How clichéd. But, God help me, a vegetarian would work in a slaughterhouse if it would help shut that woman up. She never stops talking.

 

When my parents died within a year of each other it was a difficult period, and I told myself I’d quit once I’d allowed myself time to grieve.

 

When I was 49, coming up fast and furiously to the ‘Big Five-O,’ I decided I’d quit smoking. I really meant it this time. I was only a couple of years away from being the age Stuart Frost’s father was when he died all those years ago, and so I said ‘no more mucking about, for real this time.’

I arrived at my 50th birthday a non-smoker. We toasted the big night with whiskey and cigars and I thought, Okay, this is nice. My youngest, Sophie, had brought her boyfriend (who, if we’re being honest, was a little bit of a wiener, and I knew she could do much better – I’d even told James to do something about it but he told me he’d ‘do it later’). When I noticed The Wiener getting a little touchy-feely with Sophie, I grabbed him by the shirt collar and slapped him upside the head, and warned him to keep his hands off of my daughter and to get out of my party. I knew the little bastard smoked so before he left I told him to give me his pack and I shared a cigarette with him before I told him to take a hike.

 

I’d just turned 63. My doctor told me it’d be a good idea to quit smoking. I told him that I’m a determined man—always have been. He told me he’d been a smoker, but he’d quit seven years earlier and hadn’t smoked since.

I asked him, ‘What’s the trick?’

He said, ‘I got divorced (hahaharr)!’

Sophie’s wedding was happening a few weeks after my appointment with the doc. She was marrying The Wiener. It was a long time coming, but he was all right. Her mother wouldn’t stop encouraging James to pop the question to his girlfriend but that was about as likely as peace in the Middle East, I’d told her.

Sophie took me aside one day. She said, ‘Daddy, I want you to do something for me. For my wedding gift, I want you to promise me that you’ll quit smoking. It’s something I’ve never liked, and the thoughts of you getting sick and leaving mom and James and me. . .’ Here she got a little emotional. ‘That’s all I want. And I want you to know I’ll help you every step of the way.’ And she kissed me on the forehead like I’d kissed her and her brother when they were kids.

I said, ‘Okay, sweetie. Right after the wedding.’

 

After Sophie had her first kid I made a promise to myself. I reminded myself that I was a determined man—had been all my life. I’d worked hard, raised my kids, provided for my family. The promise I made to myself was that I would quit smoking. It was having the first grandkid, you see. Well, it tickles the heart; made me as emotional as my wife watching Titanic. So I’ve decided that I’m going to kick the habit once and for all. And I bumped into Stuart Frost, too. Yeah, a few weeks back. Good ol’ Stuart Frost. Looks well, he does. His old man, huh, I remember his old man well. Gave me my first pack of cigarettes, he did.

We All Run Out of Gas

Ben switches on the indicator. A flick of his finger: Left, then tick, tick, tick. Right, then tick, tick, tick. This action is unnecessary: the road ahead of us continues without diverging until it becomes a narrow line penetrating the mountains in the distance.

On each side of us is vast golden brown sand streaked with white, and rock and flecks of green shrubbery here and there.

It’s been over an hour since either of us spoke. For a while I pretended to sleep.

Earlier, when I packed our things, I found the crumpled receipt in his shirt pocket: whiskey again. He used to be better at remembering not to forget. I haven’t mentioned it to him, not yet. Now’s not the time.

I’ve been thinking about his father since we began driving early this morning. I remember when his dad was out on the lawnmower that summer, when the sun seemed to take residency and refused to leave when its lease was up. Ben would help his father in the garden, and would bag the grass which filled the air with that unmistakable scent. Sometimes I’d want to take the black plastic bag from Ben and lower my head and breathe it all in.

That summer Ben would wear this red and black plaid shirt every other day, along with black jeans and big, brown boots. He’d have his work gloves tucked into his back pocket so that the fingers hung down his backside.

It was his most handsome summer.

He’d just started the car wash business with Reggie Whelan and at nineteen he had, like he told me, plenty of time to make enough money to make sure we’d have a nice house in a nice neighbourhood with a nice school for our kids. Two girls and a boy, Ben had said. You three can talk boys, bake cakes, and do your make-up while I take Junior to the game and sneak him a drink like my old man did with me, he’d said.

They’d founded the business with money left to Reggie by his grandfather, savings the two boys had made from summer jobs throughout their school years, and even from a paper route Ben had run from age eleven through thirteen. His father had told him about the benefits of saving well, and sure enough, Ben had listened to Ben Sr. just like he always did.

The business started small and stayed small for the first five years, before it expanded and then became small again once the expansion didn’t work out. I took odd jobs here and there and spent my free time upholstering furniture. University never occurred to us, and it’s not like I don’t know why it didn’t. Business and family, that was the goal. That was the pattern of previous generations and that’s what we were happy to pursue.

I close my eyes again but it’s too bright to actually sleep. I reach out my hand and rest it on Ben’s lap. He doesn’t know what plays out in my mind: his father and that summer and the business. What I’m thinking about brings me closer to him, but his hand doesn’t leave the steering wheel. His grip remains firm. His tenseness hasn’t softened, and it probably won’t until we get home in a couple of days.

When his sister called during the night I could tell she’d been crying, and a few simple words was all that was needed. After taking the call I had to tell Ben that his father was gone, but it wasn’t unexpected. His facial expression didn’t give much away, as usual.

Okay, he’d said, and I’d said that I wanted him to talk to me if he felt like he needed to. And he’d told me that he didn’t need to, which reminded me of the conversation we’d had after we’d been to the specialist for the last time.

It’s me, he’d said. What else do we need to say? It’s my problem, not yours. I’d tried to explain to him that it was our problem, and he knew (of course he knew), but he would just say that it was him, and that was that. And whenever I mentioned other options he wouldn’t even entertain the suggestion with a response.

I lay my head against the headrest and tilt it to the left and I watch the highway. The yellow line passes under the vehicle like lost memories. The scenery doesn’t change, not drastically.

It never does.

I look at Ben, and down at my hand which still rests on his lap.

‘We can always turn back,’ I tell him.

‘No, we can’t,’ he says, his eyes focused on the endless road ahead of us.

‘I know,’ I say.

After a minute or two I say, ‘You know I packed?’

‘Yeah, I know. My shirt.’ He looks at me and says, ‘I know.’

As I look at him I cannot feel anger, not even if I want to.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says.

‘It’s okay,’ I tell him. ‘I don’t even know if it’s your decision anymore.’

He thinks about that for a moment before he glances at me and says, ‘I love you.’

I squeeze his thigh, and I can only whisper, ‘I know you do’.

After a long silence Ben says, ‘Things never really went how we’d planned.’

‘No, they didn’t,’ I say.

‘You could’ve left,’ he says. ‘All those times, you could’ve left.’

‘I know,’ I say. And for a few minutes I try to understand, but I never arrive at an understanding. ‘I suppose we all run out of gas at some point in our lives, but not all of us can afford to refill the tank.’

‘What does that mean?’ he asks.

I don’t respond. I bring my hands to my cheek and I rest my head against the passenger door. I close my eyes again and I’m taken back to that summer: Ben’s father mowing the lawn, and Ben Jr. wearing his check shirt. Those boots. The grass and its freshness. Ben wrapping his arms around me, and me taking his worked hands in my palms. We’d lie in the garden and he’d place his hand on my belly and we’d talk of the future. Every time I smell freshly cut grass I’m taken there, and it reminds me of hope.