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The Rocky Landscape of My Mind

I like to watch wild weather from under a down quilt, pretending I am Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Kiva, a true malamute, nudges me to take her for a walk even though thin white needles and fat cotton balls pile together outside in the crazy disorder of a Martian landscape, or the rocky landscape of my mind. Her eagerness to play in the snow rarely arouses in me a similar enthusiasm, even when my lungs are functional, which today they are not. They need sun and warm white sands to revive them, and such amenities would not suit Kiva. She despises my centrally heated ways and starts to mope on the first fine spring morning that pulls me from my winter sloth. Our short hot Wisconsin summer makes her positively sullen. I do not apologize to her about how different we are. She needs only to know I love her.

Should I make myself realize Wisconsin is killing me faster than necessary and take myself to the palm trees where the air is soft, I would have to leave Kiva behind. A malamute would wilt down south and probably catch heartworm. Loneliness would have to take its toll, while I searched for a new companion. I have in mind a prancing toy poodle, one of those ivory colored ones who pick at their food, will go out in the rain only under an umbrella, and only to do business as quickly as possible. But most southern days are fine, and I try to imagine myself, strolling along the beach for hours with my new companion, stopping for a rest and a drink every now and again. The substitute would answer to Sparky, and know lots of tricks. But I could not love her as I do Kiva, my fellow outcast, and I would be smoking myself speechless.

Smoking around here is next to impossible. The house gives me no refuge, not even my own study. My home has become as unforgiving as the job I lost when my health fell apart. Outside is now the only place I can grab a puff or two. No matter what the weather. My family punishes me, for my own good, by forcing me out in the cold-the way my mother used to spank me with a hairbrush for my own good.

They insist that cigarettes, not these new house rules, are what will kill me if I start smoking again. Their self-righteous pestering, and nothing else, made me assure them I no longer felt even the desire to smoke. Like when I was young and had to give up Rory, for some reason I don't remember, but I still sneaked around to see him once in awhile. Tobacco has been my most faithful lover, and if I grow desperate enough, I can figure a way to enjoy it without anyone finding out.

My sweetest Kiva used to give me an excuse for a few private puffs during previous attempts to stop smoking. This Eskimo dog requires regular exercise, but no one else in the house will give it to her, particularly in the dead of winter. Getting a malamute was my idea, they say, and they insist I am the only one who can make her more-or-less behave, even in nice weather. Malamutes weigh eighty-five pounds or more, rarely win obedience titles, and a walk with Kiva is a clash between human ingenuity and brute strength.

Nobody in the old days suspected I often walked Kiva only as far as the bus shelter and sat smoking in it while she played on the university's (forbidden-to-dogs) arboretum behind it. On the most bitter days I drove slowly through empty (forbidden-to-cars-as-well-as-dogs) arboretum lanes, cigarette in hand while Kiva chased the car. It stopped as necessary to let her catch up. Malamutes are sled dogs, bred for speed and endurance, and car-runs were a blast for her. But dangerous for both of us. The fine, if I were caught, would have been hefty.

I watch now in idiot fascination as snow bangs floats nuzzles taps against my window. Horrible weather for walking, this afternoon might even become too nasty to take the car out of the garage. This must be the nuclear winter those brisk young men with straight white teeth are always threatening. The weather update man, the one with the sepulchral voice, says this blizzard will go on and on and on, world without end, and how can I plow through its rage in my tiny yellow Toyota whose brakes I have not trusted in years? I hope Kiva does not yearn for a car-run in this storm. I have lost, along with my girlish laughter, the courage to put myself at such risk.

I have kept (so far) my serious promises to family, friends, and medical authorities, who threaten to drop me if my vice continues. It has been better than two months, by now, almost three. I intend to stay clean for the next million months, and as proof, I have cleared all smokables from the house. I really have stopped smoking this time. Or at least...only a deep desperate search of pockets and purses could deliver up a flat forgotten fag if my sanity should one day depend on finding one.

Most sensible people of my age stopped smoking long ago without any great fuss. My husband one day threw out pipes, tobaccos, lighters, plungers, tampers, and all the bits and pieces which used to poke holes in his pockets. His temper did not sour more than usual. His nerves did not fray. He did not gain weight at a rapid rate. He broke a bad habit through force of will, and moved with dignity into the orchard of plum trees waiting to reward him.

He also commanded me to follow his example by using my will-power in the proper fashion. I did try which threw me up against the unshakable fact that my will-power has no control over my favored substance. I did not have a bad habit, as I told my husband. I was an addict, and if he wanted to help me stop smoking he had to learn more about addiction. Recovering nicotine addicts, like all addicts, never recover despite appearances. The physical craving may disappear in a few days, but addicts play head games with themselves forever. Winner gets to smoke.

I acted, all last summer, like smoking was the last thing on my mind. I helped Kiva through her weather depression by taking her into the heart of cool forests where I could have smoked without argument, but never did. Kiva improved with chillier weather and gave me time out to plant some bulbs. I found a crushed old pack among my gardening tools. Not a big surprise. I at least half-knew it was there. Quickly finishing my bulb planting, I hid behind the compost heap to celebrate my successful gardening with a small smoke. Kiva lay at my feet sniffing the air for snow and coughing only slightly. She dislikes my smoking, but she never yells at me like my family, and friends. She looks at me sad-eyed and buries her nose in her paws, unlike my husband who almost had a stroke when he caught Kiva and me behind the compost. I had gone through a spell of acute bronchitis not long before, and he asked, with scorn, if I had liked bronchitis enough to want another bout. I said acute bronchitis was better than an ugly one, and he slammed into the house.

He would not talk to me for a week or more after the compost incident. I smoked, during that time, the rest of my nasty tasting old pack. I hated myself, but I could no more stop puffing than I can stop today's storm.

I apologize for my frailty to strangers in airports and check-out lines: "Hi, my name is Lola, and I'm a nicotine addict." They turn away, their eyes hardened into eggs, their day grown dizzy and sad. My lover can laugh at such scenes, a laugh of self-knowledge. He had not smoked in six months, and to flout his snarling wife and fat sisters, he smoked a single pipe after their Thanksgiving feast. "One smoke is not a relapse," he said, but he could not stop with one smoke, anymore than I could. There is, for an addict, no such thing as one smoke. The next day my lover bought a pound of tobacco and puffed on it openly, in spite of his keening family. He smoked in car, kitchen, bathroom, every time we met, until every shred of it was gone. He claims he has bought no more, but his clothes smell of tobacco like they did in calmer days.

I also had a Thanksgiving relapse, but a secret one. Three pure weeks did follow my bulb fiasco, but I smuggled in a pack with the turkey. I smoked one and threw the rest of the pack from my car window later, and later still I went out and found a few on the road. I smuggled and threw so often in the next month, that severe illness gathered loved ones around my bed by Christmas.

They told me my pulmonary condition enraged and frightened them. I apologized and swore to mend my ways. Carting around a ton of medical paraphernalia, as my doctor demands, frightens me too, but the fear does not cure addiction. Fear never cures anything. As my health improved, my doctor told me I could go about without oxygen in my purse, but I should stay home in this beastly weather.

This blizzard can justify a relapse if anything does.

Not-smoking grows easier as the days and weeks roll by, according to brochures I read as I wait endless minutes to see my pulmonary specialist. This may be true for pulmonary specialists who smoked in their wayward youth, but for an addict like me, deprived of nicotine, those plastic pulmonary-pamphlet promises could, on a bad day, be the very thing to drive me into the abyss.

I have lasted since Christmas because when I feel a relapse coming on, when one of those gasping grasping needs for smoke grabs me, I go to a smoke-free place where they would arrest me if I lit up. Museums and libraries usually work. I go to such places and concentrate on reading books or admiring pictures, unlike this guy in my Smokers' Anonymous group, who uses these towers of learning and beauty to fish butts out of the sand ash trays at the entrances. This guy scurries home with the butts and puts tape around their tops to make them more hygienic when he smokes them. He cringes at smoking butts, but he does it to prevent a relapse. He tells himself, while he smokes these butts, he is not having a relapse when he has bought no cigarettes. The head games addicts play stretch beyond belief..

Kiva puts her paws in my lap, wanting me to pack myself into my little yellow car and push out into the blizzard. I explain to her that if I end up with a pulmonary collapse, she will have to walk with two or three irritable people at a time, and they will never let her have any fun. I will be unable to protect her because I will need my remaining energy to keep my various prescriptions filled, and to take the right puff from the right inhaler at the right time.

My trumpeting cough has melted into a gray harrumph by now, but it has left me feeble, and I do not even have the vigor, although I am out of milk, to plod on foot as far as the nearby overpriced Stop-and-Go. A five-minute hike, even on a howling day, will not injure me, and although the shop sells cigarettes, I can hardly avoid every shop that does.

I try not to think about a guy at this particular shop, so I've heard, who will sell one cigarette for a quarter. A recovering addict feels unpleasantly prodigal buying a whole pack and then throwing it away after smoking only one. Some new machines I read about allow you to buy one cigarette at a time, but they haven't turned up around here. This guy at the Stop-and-Go, who is short and dark, and whose name is Gus, is the only show in town. Hardly a relapse to smoke just one fag by the railroad tracks while Kiva is playing off-leash. She needs space to play as she likes.

Forget Gus. I should write that speech I have been promising Judge Hallows. He plans to give it this next Wednesday, or some Wednesday soon, and the draft of it on my desk demands a total rewrite. I knew I was in trouble when I found myself having the dear old judge tell his fellow Rotarians to go take a flying fuck at the moon.

My mind no longer functions as it should. Nothing functions properly in a smoke-free world . Smoke can help me struggle through sorrow, can put the candied cherry on top of joy. No way can I get into eating or drinking or writing or driving or talking on the phone or moving my bowels or even fucking without my smokes close by. I have never felt the absence of husband, lover or child as deeply as I miss this nearest dearest friend.

I knew giving up tobacco would be the hardest thing I ever did, and I was ready for hard, but I had no idea I would be sitting around during a blizzard thinking about Gus at the Stop-and-Go. Unable to concentrate on work, I have eaten everything in sight, and I am almost ready to start in on Kiva's dog treats.

I tell myself: Honey, if you lit up once, took just one deep drag, you could go on with life, do your work, and your jumpy crashing sense would go away. Telling myself such lies, I know, is like telling myself that if I could just see Rory again we would fall into each others' arms in harmony and walk off into the sunset together with no wrangling about who did what to whom all those years ago.

I scarcely listen when they start lecturing me about nicotine. My one addiction, will only kill me if I go on using it. It will not disgrace me or my family. I will not find myself homeless in the gutter, or driving my loved ones into poverty and despair. Sneaking a few puffs will not upset the divine economy. Not even a few puffs. Just one. One good long puff is all I crave after almost three, almost smokeless, months, and one puff will not have any effect on anybody.

Could that story about Gus be true? I would hardly stoop to buying one cigarette under the counter from some slimy character who preys on the addictions of weak people.

Will it ever stop snowing? I need, right now, a short walk to clear my head. Kiva needs it more than I do. Surely I can handle the distance to the Stop-and-Go, on foot, even in this weather. A slam-dunk. The patrons of the Stop-and-Go usually make a fuss over Kiva, and that can keep her quiet the whole evening.

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