Smoke Signals

I meet a guy. I’m pretty sure I like him because I haven’t erased the message he left on my answering message. I call my machine from work and listen to it a time or two, smiling and blushing and feeling like a complete idiot.

His voice is soft and deep, a little awkward and exceedingly polite. In fact, it’s the formal nature of the message that thrills me somehow. When I call him back, he asks me out and offers to pick me up across town from where he lives. I suggest meeting him in the middle and he says, “What? I wouldn’t dream of not picking you up.” This, I think, is my version of phone sex.

Next thing I know, I’m sitting at a bar, he’s buying me a drink, I’m trying to be witty, a good listener, trying to arrange my limbs in a way that suggests casual confidence but also provides the most flattering angle. I’ve got a lot on my mind.

But as I’m nodding and smiling, I’m also worrying about The Big Reveal.

It’s not a criminal record or an obsessed ex-husband or a venereal disease. It’s not a personality disorder or a confession that I was a spy. But the awful truth must come out somehow. I smoke.

I’m no John Wayne, sucking down six packs a day, but I do enjoy a handful of daily cigarettes. Call them Cancer Sticks, call them Lung Buddies, call them a really bad habit. Call them what you will, but as I sit sipping my Southern Comfort on the rocks, that pack of Merits in my purse is calling me.

How do I handle the Reveal? I remember a girlfriend telling me that she quit smoking because she was madly in love with her neighbor and she knew her smoking would be a “deal breaker.” That phrase is taking over the background processing sector of my brain. Deal breaker. It echoes in my head like a cheap sound effect.

I barely know this guy, and I don’t relish the idea of introducing any deal breakers, but at the same time, I love to smoke.

I once heard a famous radio doctor report a study which found that smoking fewer than ten cigarettes a day has no proven health deficits. Just to be safe, I try to keep it under six, but I know smoking is a killer. I don’t condone it, I just love it.

Ever since my first pack, a slim gold box of Benson & Hedges Ultra Lights I bought when I was fourteen, cigarettes have accompanied me on road trips, stood by me during break ups, coated my lungs with nerve-soothing nicotine during term papers and finals and the late night composing of countless columns.

When I visit home, I would rather tell my parents I’m responsible for a string of gruesome truck stop murders than admit I smoke. I wait patiently for that peaceful, secret late night smoke on the front porch after everyone’s gone to bed.

I understand the implications of being a smoker; I’m self-destructive, stupid and on a path of ruin. I’m quite sure this is what people are thinking when they shake their heads with a sad expression and say, “You’ve got to quit.”

And I’m not one of those smokers who resents such comments. I know it’s an expression of concern and I do plan to quit when I’m ready. Sure, I see the irony when a person is chowing down a big steak while critiquing my health habits. At times, I want to yell, “Hey, I don’t eat meat, I exercise regularly, I take vitamins, I drink that stupid aloe juice. When was the last time you drank aloe juice?”

But I don’t say that. There’s no point in playing “Let’s attack each other’s vices.” We all have them and in the end, I know mine is the worst of all.

I can’t explain all of this to my date. All I know is that I’m getting an urgent memo from my central nervous system and it says, “Teresa: Please report to the smoking lounge for a Merit.”

The Reveal, I decide, will be like a Latin American political revolution, quick and bloody.

“Do you mind if we sit in the smoking lounge, so I can have a cigarette?” He agrees, without missing a beat, and my Merit and I sit staring at his face for the subtle signs of a broken deal. We see none. I’m anthropomorphisizing a cigarette now and I know that isn’t good.

“Does it totally disgust you that I smoke?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “If you didn’t smoke, you wouldn’t be you.”

I gushingly report this conversation the next day to my friend, the one who quit smoking to avoid the broken deal.

“That’s sweet,” she said. “But guess what? He’s lying.”

Teresa Strasser is a 20-something who writes for The Jewish Journal