you wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death

I am trying to quit smoking again.

I’ve been a smoker off and on (mostly on) since I was 17. One summer evening when we were really bored, my best friend S taught me to smoke. And by “taught me to smoke,” I mean she literally instructed me. She bought us a pack of cigarettes (she was a grade ahead of me so she’d already turned 18), and we parked on a dead-end street in her neighborhood and sat on the hood of her mom’s car while she handed me cigarette after cigarette. She lit the first one for me and told me to just hold it to see how it felt. She lit the second one and told me to allow a little smoke to get in my mouth, but not inhale it. She lit the third one and told me to inhale the smallest amount of smoke I possibly could. We went on from there and by the end, S had taught me how to smoke, and I never even coughed once.

The last time I saw S, 8 years ago, she told me how bad she felt for having taught me to smoke, but I’ve never held her responsible. I did it willingly. Hell, I probably asked her to teach me. That summer, S had a job at a water park in Houston, and she’d made a lot of new friends. I was jealous of the time she spent with them, they really intimidated me, and I was already so insecure that I was desperate for anything that might make me seem like I fit in. S would take me to these parties where everyone was drunk or high, and I’d stand there smoking my cigarette, watching one of S’s friends hold another girl’s hair back as she threw up into the swimming pool.

I started out just smoking at these parties or when I was with S, but then I made some other friends who smoked, and we smoked whenever we hung out in the evenings or on weekends. My senior year of high school I fell in with the theater crowd, and again I’d chain-smoke at parties while my acquaintances got drunk or did drugs or whatever. Cigarettes were my way of feeling like I was “cool” at parties without having to drink or whatever else. Drunk or high people from my high school didn’t usually let people walk around vice-free without comment, either, so smoking was my way of keeping them from pressuring me.

One of many photos of me where I'm clearly smoking but I've photoshopped the cigarette out.

One of many photos of me where I’m clearly smoking but I’ve photoshopped the cigarette out. (RIP green glasses)

I spent my freshman year at UT living in a dorm where you could smoke in your room (I KNOW, I’M SO OLD), and my friends across the hall both smoked, so cigarettes turned from a party habit into an everyday habit. After the smoking dorms at UT there was waiting tables, where everyone smoked, and then there was being an English major and hanging out with a bunch of writers who smoked, and my identity as a smoker was cemented.

I’ve always attributed a sort of romance to smoking. I did confine my smoking time to parties at first, but the majority of my smoking time in high school was spent with friends in little poorly-lit corners of parks in our neighborhood at night. We’d stop at the Circle K for cigarettes and sodas, and sit in the park for hours, smoking and talking about boys or our friends or what we thought college would be like. There was a newer subdivision next to mine that had a few little man-made lakes in it, and one of those lakes had a dock with a gazebo at the end of it. My two closest friends and I would spend hours in that gazebo, talking and laughing, singing whatever new radio hit we were obsessed with, and smoking.

Then there’s standing outside in the snow at night sharing a cigarette with your boyfriend. There’s you and a friend driving down the highway, smoking, singing an angry Ani DiFranco song at the top of your lungs. There’s going camping with friends and two of you waking up earlier than everyone else, sitting by the river as the sun comes up, each of you with your first cigarette of the day. There’s lighting a cigarette in your apartment building’s hallway and then running outside to stand in the wind as a cold front comes in and leaves whip around you.

There’s sitting on your patio with a glass of wine and a cigarette and your laptop, writing.

This is the first personal thing I’ve written in years without a half-full ashtray next to me. It’s weird and I don’t like it. I haven’t had a cigarette since 1:00 yesterday afternoon.

I’ve quit smoking once before. Throughout most of my twenties, I told myself that I would stop smoking when I turned thirty. In March 2008, two months before my 30th birthday, I came down with a terrible flu-like illness that left me weak and lifeless and uninterested in smoking. A week later, once I was well again, I decided to continue not smoking. Since I’d already gotten over the nicotine withdrawals, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to just go ahead and quit, right?

It was difficult, but not terrible. I kept half a pack of cigarettes in my glove compartment just in case, and somehow knowing they were there calmed me, made it easier not to smoke. I started listening to NPR on my commute instead of music, just to change up my routine. When I went out to bars I brought knitting with me to keep my hands busy. Things were okay.

I’d stopped smoking for three months when I went through the breakup of a bad relationship I’d had no business being in in the first place. The stress and general horribleness of the whole thing broke me, and I thought, fuck it, why bother with this quitting? I bought a pack of cigarettes on my way to a friend’s wedding in Fort Worth, and I’ve been smoking ever since.

Until yesterday.

I don’t think I really smoked that much. Maybe half a pack on a normal day? More when I went out or was stressed or traveling or it was nice out or I was doing yardwork or woodworking projects?

I liked smoking.

But I started to feel dirty inside. And I don’t mean literally, though I wouldn’t want to look at any pictures of my lungs at this point. I mean figuratively dirty, like there was something wrong with me. As I get older, fewer and fewer of my friends are smokers—they quit for health reasons or because they’re going to be parents or because dude, they’re not in fucking college anymore—and sneaking off to have a cigarette by myself lacked the aforementioned romance. When I met new people I tried not to tell them I smoked unless I had to, for fear of being judged.

And trapeze. When I do trapeze routines, I get tired and winded before everyone else. When I go to strength training class in the mornings, I have to take more breaks than anyone else. Sometimes my instructor sniffs the air near me and says, “Did you SMOKE TODAY?” Which is annoying, but also kind of adorable (I’m a smoker! Why wouldn’t I have smoked today?). Anyway, if I want to be able to do actual trapeze performance routines, I can’t also be a smoker.

Everything I hear about quitting smoking says that your life should be otherwise stable when you quit, so that quitting is the only stressful thing going on in your life. That obviously isn’t true for me right now, as I’ve got a breakup and a move to another state and my dad’s health problems to contend with.

But first of all, I got the quitting feeling (you former smokers will know about the quitting feeling), and it’s always easier to quit when I have the quitting feeling, so I’m going to do what the feeling says. Second of all, why the hell not add one more change to my already evolving life? If I can move to St. Louis and start my life there without smoking as part of my identity, more’s the better.

But holy hell is that 14-hour drive to StL going to be boring without any cigarettes.

what counts as being alone

I was talking to a friend awhile back about the concept of being alone. I’ve lived with two different boyfriends over the past ten years, and I never felt like I could be alone if one of them was in the house with me.

“Wait, even if you’re not in the same room as them?” my friend said.

“Nope,” I said. “Not even then. I can be alone if they’re asleep in another room, but then when they wake up I’m not alone again.”

I like to be alone. In fact, I need to spend a decent amount of time alone in order to function. I’ve never really looked into why this is, and it doesn’t much matter, because I’ve always been this way.

I have fond memories of the weeks-long Christmas breaks we had in high school. With no place to be every morning, I’d start staying up later and waking up later, and eventually I’d be up until 4 or 5 in the morning. My parents and sister would go to bed between 10 and midnight, and after they were asleep the house was mine for the night. I loved it. I never did anything I’d get in trouble for like leave the house or take the car somewhere without asking. Mostly I stayed in my room listening to music and reading. It was the knowing that everyone else was asleep that was important.

But why would anyone want to be alone? Try it for a moment. Lock yourself in another room, one entirely without the presence of other people, other voices. Disconnect your internet, turn off your phone. Allow yourself, for just a few minutes, to let the poses fall away. The angles. Let your public persona, so exhausting to maintain, disappear.

Breathe. There is your throat. There is the fly, buzzing in the ceiling corner. There is, also, something else: the silence. A silent room has its own timbre, its own weight. Breathe again; keep breathing. Allow life, with its heaviness, its dust, to slip away, unimpeded.

I’ve had this discussion with a lot of my couple friends. “Can you be alone if your boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband/partner is at home?” I ask them. They always say yes. Sometimes I think I’ll eventually meet the person I can be with and be alone at the same time, but other times I assume it’s impossible.

A few weeks ago I was at the MoMA in New York with two friends, and each of us were kind of going through the rooms at our own pace. My friends stopped to watch a video, and since I’d already seen it, I continued on into the next room. I sat down on a bench in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and realized that I felt like I was alone. I pulled out my notebook and wrote this:

what counts as being alone what counts as being alone

These are the alone rules, and they match up with this part of the quote above: “Let your public persona, so exhausting to maintain, disappear.”

When I first got Maude, I was living alone in Houston. During our first few days together, I felt like I couldn’t be alone with her there. A dog can’t go out for coffee so you can have some alone time, so I was afraid that owning a dog meant that I’d never be by myself again. But that feeling went away very quickly and was replaced with the feeling that I didn’t know what I’d done without Maude for so long.

This is my hope for my eventual future relationship with a male human.

But is my “public persona,” as the quote says, really that much of a front? I wouldn’t have thought so, since who I am in front of people feels the same to me as who I am when I’m alone. But it’s sort of how the rules stack up, isn’t it? That I find it exhausting to be the me that other people see? Which of the mes is real? If it’s the alone me, does that mean I’ve never been real with anyone, ever?

I work from home now, so outside of seeing friends or family, my human interactions are limited to my time at the aerial studio and my time on the internet. Generally this is enough for me, but lately I’ve felt desperate for someone to talk to. In the evenings I find myself visiting Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, etc. ad nauseam. Has someone replied to my tweet? Sent me an email? Liked one of my photos?

This doesn’t bode well for my sanity, but it’s what is happening now. Sometimes people do reply to my tweets or like my photos or send me emails, and it helps, but it isn’t really enough. I want someone to talk to me.

I have a text file saved on my desktop with ideas for blog posts. It’s a fairly long file, filled with thoughts I might get to sometime, or thoughts I never will. The line of text at the very top of the file, the oldest line, says this:

a word that means lonely for talking about important things

Underneath that is some slapdash research I did for the post, mostly in the form of links to articles about untranslatable words from other cultures that I dug up in the hope that I could find my sentiment in a foreign language. The nonexistent word I feel like I’d use the most is just that: a word that means lonely for talking about important things.

I don’t know any other way to describe it, nor could I define “important things” without making an epic list that could be taken the wrong way. And I don’t mean “important things” like talking about them would have to be serious all the time. I guess I just mean that the way I get close to people, friends or family or otherwise, is in having open, honest conversation about the way we really feel about things. Without that, I get lonely.

The two states that make me feel the most fulfilled are being alone and talking about important things.

I haven’t worked out a way to balance both, especially in the context of a relationship. During the San Francisco part of my road trip, I was feeling super lonely, and I told a friend that while I enjoyed spending as much time alone as I was, I wanted there to be someone I could call. If I hiked up to the top of a hill by myself, and stood there looking at the view, I’d want to be able to pull out my phone, call that person and say, “I’m on top of a hill and you won’t believe how beautiful it is here.”

“You can call me,” he said. And I did, but it turned into a dumb mess and now I haven’t talked to that guy in years.

Because who is that person you can call? It’s a fairly romantic call to make, which implies some sort of relationship, and people in a relationship don’t normally quit their jobs and spend two months driving around the country by themselves. I can have someone to call, or I can have looking at the beautiful view by myself, but having both is a long shot.

For this reason I am worried about the initial months of my move to St. Louis. With no local friends to talk to, without a Person To Call, what will I do?

What would compel a person to do this, to run into the desert and wander, unabashed, until either her soul was scrubbed clean or she died? To love, sometimes, is to peel back the skin, and watch the bone bleach white beneath the sun.

(I don’t often want advice on the things I write about here, and I don’t want you to tell me you think I should join clubs in St. Louis or whatever, because I plan to. But I would like to hear about your experiences balancing relationships with loner-dom if you feel like you might have some insight. Thanks.)

so you roll on with the best you can

It’s Valentine’s Day in Austin and good god is it fucking gorgeous outside tonight. I’m at my sister’s house, doing my laundry and sitting on the patio watching through a baby monitor as my nephew sleeps. My sister and her husband went out to dinner, and in return for baby monitor-sitting I was promised a slice of cake from the restaurant.

I’m single now.

I never thought much of Valentine’s Day to begin with, but that was easier to say when I was in a relationship. It’s a dumb made-up holiday! Why can’t we show love whenever we want? Why go out when everything’s so crowded? Cards are stupid! and so forth. And I still think all of that is true, but this year it’s hard to see my coupled friends’ smiling faces in pictures from their dates. I talk to these coupled friends about my breakup, and I imagine that after I leave their houses and head home, they look at each other and say, “I love you so much! Thank god we have each other!”

Well, thank god you do.

I tried to reserve a houseboat on Lake Travis for myself for tonight. I thought, what better way to spend Valentine’s Day this year than alone with myself and the lake and some wine and good snacks and, I don’t know, sleeping in a berth or something? The houseboat turned out to be booked for tonight, but I got so attached to the idea that I claimed it for tomorrow night instead. I’ll still have the wine and snacks and berth, and it’ll be a nice thing to do for myself.

I can’t talk about the breakup here, of course, but I will tell you this: I’m moving to St. Louis. My dad’s condition never improved much after his brain surgery last July (I have a half-finished part 2 post on that I’ll revisit sometime), and my mother is now his full-time caregiver. When I told my trapeze instructor that I was considering moving closer to my parents, she said, “Well, you have to lead your own life, right? But I guess that’d be hard to do if you just sit around Austin worrying about them and feeling helpless.”

And that’s pretty much it. They’re too young and able to start thinking about assisted living, but the house and my dad are too much for my mom to take care of by herself. She puts on a very game, very capable face, but I can see the cracks forming in it, both figurative and literal, and I know she can’t go on much longer without my help.

My sister and I tried to get our parents to move to Austin, since she and I both live here and could share the workload, but my mother won’t hear it. When we brought it up she revealed that she hated all thirty years she spent living in Houston, and now that she finally got out of Texas she doesn’t want to go back, even to a different city. I’ll admit it hurt me a little to hear that since I was raised here, but I understand. In any major life decision involving multiple people there is always a stubborn one, and this time my mom has earned it.

There are other factors. I’ve lived in Texas my whole life, and I’ve always said I would like to live somewhere else eventually. I work remotely now, so I can move without having to find a new job. The Texas summer heat is getting to me, the cost of living in Austin is skyrocketing, I’m tired of the politics here. St. Louis isn’t exactly what I pictured, and it isn’t perfect, but it’ll do. In my mid-thirties I’ve found myself desperate to own a house in a way I never was before, and St. Louis has lots of beautiful, affordable old houses I’d be comfortable and happy living in.

Alone. Which is fine. It’s fine.

I cry a lot these days. It’s triggered by random, mundane things, and then when it starts I don’t even know why or what it’s for. Is it the end of my six-year relationship? Is it leaving the town and friends I’ve known for ten years? Is it not being near my baby nephew to spend time with him and watch him grow up? Is it leaving Texas, the only state I’ve ever known? Or is it the fact that my father, my constant, my rock, the person who always understood me even when nobody else did, isn’t really there anymore?

I mean, he’s there. But he doesn’t know what day it is.

I think about how excited the pre-surgery Dad would be to help me with buying a house. He’d have all sorts of advice about it, which he’d only give me if I asked, but I would ask. He’d know what to do about the financial aspects, the inspection process, the weird little problems and quirks that come with owning an old home. He’d help me knock out walls and install and fix things and we’d have a great time doing it.

But if he wasn’t in this condition, I wouldn’t be moving to St. Louis, and I wouldn’t be buying a house, so none of that would ever happen anyway.

My active imagination allows me to think about all sorts of things that might happen to me, and live them out in my head as if they were real. Last year I wrote that applying and interviewing for jobs was like living a thousand different imaginary lives. With each application, with each interview, I’d picture myself driving to that job, working in that office, traveling for business meetings, moving to a different area of town to live closer to work. And with each rejection, that little life in my head would die, and I’d have to start all over again.

I do that with everything. When I make new friends I invent road trips we should take together. When I used to go on dates I would think about what my life would be like with that person. When my nephew was born I pictured all the time he would spend with his grandfather, learning about sports and woodworking and music and farming and history and all the things my Dad knows and taught me about.

But that won’t happen either. My father is not able to care for his only grandchild.

Okay, maybe I do know what I’m crying about.

I’ll be all right eventually, I guess. I’ll move to St. Louis in a few months and live in an apartment until I can buy a house. I’ll take little weekend trips to places in the Midwest I’ve never been, or to visit old friends who live nearby. I’ll restart my jewelry business. I’ll learn trapeze at a different aerial studio with a different instructor. I’ll make new friends. I’ll meet someone? Maybe? I suppose it’s not impossible to imagine that someday my life won’t be a hot garbage fire, and someone new will come along and say, hey, I want in on that.

But then while I’m on the date with the someone new I’ll get a call from my mom saying that my dad fell down the stairs again, and I’ll have to leave the date to go help him, and then I’ll never hear from that guy again.

Which is fine. It’s fine. That guy sucks anyway.

In the past four years I’ve lost two jobs, my beloved dog died, my nephew was born, my father had brain surgery that didn’t work, I ended a long-term relationship, and now I’m going to move to a different state to help care for my father. When does it ever stop?

It doesn’t, does it? I keep waiting for things to calm down and they never do. I’ll get my heart broken again or I’ll lose this job or my other dog will die or I’ll fall off the trapeze or my new house will burn down or my mother will get sick.

I was talking to my sister earlier about everything I’m going through. I was telling her about some unexpected feelings I’m having, and how I think they’re maybe just my grief over what’s happening to Dad and the end of my relationship and moving away from my friends, but my brain is manifesting them in a different way so I can handle them better.

“Does that sound right to you?” I said. “How’s my armchair psychology?”

She paused. “It sounds fine, I guess.”

“What?”

“Well, why can’t you just feel your feelings? Do they have to be manifestations? Can they just be what they are?”

“I… I guess they can.”

“I mean, they are what they are, and you’re going to go through them no matter what shape they take.”

This had never occurred to me.

Every few years I get the overwhelming desire to blow my life up and start over. I’ve only done it once, when I left Houston and moved to Austin in 2005, but the compulsion is often there. What I learned in 2005 is that when I feel this compulsion, it always means that what I’m not happy with isn’t my life, it’s myself. I blew up my life when I moved to Austin, but it didn’t work, because when I got there I was still me.

But I’m not the same me now that I was in 2005. I’m still a little weird and self-centered and abrasive. I dramatize things to cope with them, I’m plagued by insecurity and anxiety, I’m oversensitive and over-serious and over-analytical. But I’ve learned how to take care of myself in a way that minimizes these things. I’ve learned how to be a better friend and a better family member. I’m stronger now.

When I move to St. Louis, I can take me with me, and that’ll be okay.