“That’s where we take smoke breaks,” Anna pointed toward an E-Z Up under the Eucalyptus, several yards from the facility’s cafeteria. The dust was high on the dirt roads, the decrepit blue van billowing trails behind us as we carted around various brooms, mops, buckets, rags and cleansers. That was our job, to clean. Housekeeping, they called us, as if we serviced an upscale hotel instead of rehab.
“I don’t smoke,” I said.
“Good, that’s good. I should quit. These things will kill you.” After a few hours at the Ranch, I had anticipated her response to my smoke-free existence. Everyone reiterated the same sentiment in their own words, different summaries of the same book.
During breaks the girls would high-tail it back to the benches for the chance to light their various brands. Camel 100s. Marlboro Lights. Marlboro Reds. Newports. Our apartment’s back porch went up in a dirty cloud after work, thirteen women crowding a space the size of a postage stamp.
I avoided the hovering cloud by remaining in the kitchen, preparing and drinking cup after cup of coffee. I brought my own contraband, remaindered one-pound soldiers from my tour of duty at the coffee shop. By about the seventh cup, my hands shook.
After a handful of days, my private stock was dwindling. I knew I needed to cut down, but what could I possibly drink — I mean, do — instead? Doing nothing was not an option.
So the first one was a half-smoked discard from an ash tray on the back porch. I swiped a forgotten lighter, and when I was sure everyone had left for dinner, I lit up. Inhaled. Though this was my first cigarette ever, no cough. Just slight dizziness, and relief. Not the same relief as, say, a freshly poured glass of Cabernet, but something. I washed the tar-smell off of my hands, doused myself in body spray, and walked to the cafeteria.
This went on for a few days, the surreptitious puffs from half-smoked butts, until I finally asked for a cigarette during the only meeting at which you could smoke. It was an outdoor Bible study, always crowded because it was a softball half-hour of sitting on a bench.
“You don’t want to start smoking,” Jennifer told me.
“Yeah, don’t give her one!” Colleen chimed in. “It’ll just be something else you have to quit.”
I held my face firm, and Debra recognized the set of my jaw. “If she wants to smoke, she wants to smoke. She’s a big girl.”
What I didn’t say was that I didn’t want to smoke. I needed to smoke. I needed something to put into my body, to soothe and silence. My alcoholism was immeasurable, deafening, raging, and I didn’t want to die. I wanted to drink, but I didn’t want to die.
They passed one down. The next day, I bummed a few more. Finally, I asked Anna, who was no longer restricted to the campus like I was, to buy me a pack from the Mobil Station. Newports, because the menthol distracted me from the taste of death.
“Are you sure?” Anna asked.
I was a smoker for a few days.
While I don’t want to say it was fortunate that I got pneumonia, that’s what it was: fortunate. I didn’t have to quit something else. I didn’t even get to finish my first pack. The pneumonia had made it impossible.
“Take them,” I told Anna, also a Newport smoker. “I can’t smoke anymore.”
“Good. These things will kill you,” she said, transferring them to her pocket.