When I lit up my first cigarette at 14 at my best friend's house, I discovered that smoking wasn't as sexy as Hollywood made it seem. My throat burned as if I had gargled with Draino.
"You'll get used to it," said Ginny between coughing spasms, her eyes tearing up, sending streams of mascara down her cheeks.
Ginny and I were desperate to be grown up. I went along with the padded bras, blond streaks in my hair and make-out sessions that felt like science projects. But I refused to "get used to" the pain of filling my lungs with nicotine.
Fortunately, by the time I entered college, smoking tobacco wasn't a necessary rite of passage. Everyone was smoking weed, which, for mysterious reasons, I could inhale without feeling as if a boa constrictor was tightening around my chest.
Then came Tom, my first True Love: movie-star handsome, charismatic, funny. Even my mother loved him. Just one problem. Tom smoked cigarettes, not pot. When we kissed, I swapped spit with the Marlborough Man. Yuck!
I didn't give Tom an ultimatum. Instead, I surreptitiously wrote my name on all of his cigarettes and slipped them back into the pack. Whenever he lit up, he'd remember that I didn't approve. It didn't take long. Tom quit smoking. Hey, we were 19, an age at which habits—good and bad—are quickly picked up and discarded.
As years passed, I developed an extreme sensitivity to cigarette smoke. Back in the day when smoking was allowed everywhere but inside the confessional, I changed my seat in restaurants to avoid smokers. The merest whiff sent me running. At the beach, I shot hostile glances at cigarettes dangling from tanned hands. How dare they pollute the fresh ocean air!
So why then did I fall for a guy with such a heavy smoking habit that his apartment looked as if he had rented a fog machine? There are many theories. Most of them are hormonal. Everything about Frank was sexy: his work (filmmaker), his accent (Queens), his ethnicity (half-Italian, half-Jewish), his body (don't ask). I remember entering his smoke-infused bedroom as if it was the Holy of Holies. I never got high on marijuana or drank wine there and, yet, I transcended the space-time continuum every time. "They said someday you'll find, all who love are blind" ... I didn't say a word to Frank about his smoking. It would've been like complaining to Santa Claus about his weight.
Which brings me to my current work-in-progress. Lenny and I are "just friends" to the extent that I volunteered to play matchmaker. A divorced carpenter in his late 50s, Lenny is talented, bright and easy on the eyes. Most women would consider him a catch, except for two liabilities. He made some bad investments that left him in genteel poverty. And he smokes. Never inside my home. But if we go for a walk or a drive, there's always that moment when Lenny lights up with the guilty demeanor of a repeat offender.
"I'm quitting at the end of this year," he says, snubbing out a cigarette.
Meanwhile, Lenny's car smells like a bar, circa 1969. So do his clothes. When he coughs, I hear the gurgle of early-stage emphysema. But, surely, some woman will see beyond these flaws to Lenny's good heart and kind soul.
I scroll through my mental Rolodex and come up with the perfect match: Sarah is an attractive widow who is actively engaged in her community. She's a rower, contra dancer and a lethal Scrabble player. But is she looking? We're more acquaintances than friends, but I don't let that get in my way. I shoot her an email:
"Hey, Sarah, would you be interested in meeting a friend of mine? He's divorced, tall, handsome and very sweet."
Sarah asks for more details, but, basically, she's interested! There's an exchange of photos and all parties are excited. Then, somehow, I let it slip. I tell Sarah that Lenny is trying to quit smoking. You would've thought I had said he has a heroin habit.
"I can't be around anyone who smokes," she said. "Even if they do it outside, the smell on their clothes makes me sick."
I felt awful delivering the bad news to Lenny. However, he took it as a challenge.
"There's this new stuff that helps you quit," he said. "I just ordered it. I'm going to do this!"
My feelings are mixed. I remember being as rigid as Sarah. I also recall not letting someone else's bad habits get in the way of my own.