A Beginner’s Guide to Quitting Smoking
The feeling of overwhelming dread that you’ve been experiencing for the past three weeks will leave you sleepless. That sleeplessness will leave you irritable. That irritability will leave you anxious. That anxiety that will lead you to happy hour at the faux-Mexican place just around the corner from the museum where you work. After your second margarita, the assemblage of tinder dates and rowdy frat boys that crowd the bar will make you feel like you’re in the galley of a ship, someplace loud, dark, unpredictable. The dread you carry with you is going to make you feel like that ship is sinking. Another margarita might help.
The man you meet outside as you are leaving the bar will not be especially attractive or interesting, but the cigarette he offers you will make you feel better, even if you have to stifle a cough with your first drag. Afterwards, when he’s asleep and you steal a cigarette from his pack, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. In the dark, you hover over him like a nightmare. Your hair is a bed of snakes. Your lipstick is a black smear. Five floors up, naked in the privacy of your balcony, the moonlight will feel electric on your skin. When you check the news on your phone, you will feel exposed and vulnerable. You’re going to remember that moment. Everyone does. People are going to ask, Where were you when you found out? In just a few weeks, it’s going to be the question you ask of everyone when you first meet them. In just a few days, it’s going to be the question you ask of everyone you know. When you open your phone and find out, you’re going to be naked and alone, falling in love with a cigarette. As you read, your dread will feel vindicated. As you read, your dread will blossom into despair. Another cigarette might help.
It’s important not to panic. Every article and cable news report and NPR Science Special Edition Bullet will be careful to remind you of this. You will be reminded not to panic at the grocery store checkout, at staff meetings by the museum’s curator and by your mother, who is now calling you twice daily. After two weeks, the term Rogue Gravitational Field has entered your vocabulary. Drowsy white men in lab coats begin to appear in the periphery of every news report. The situation is being closely monitored. There is no immediate danger at this time. The lab coats are careful with their words, but their body language is shouting, even on NPR. The beaded sweat on their male pattern foreheads is morse code, underlined by the deepening crease of their furrowed brows.
A month after the discovery of the Rogue Gravitational Field, you will buy your first pack of cigarettes. Alone in a 7-Eleven parking lot, you’re going to cough in relief for a full five minutes. You’re going to breathe deeply and forget about the stars in the sky. You’re going to smile as you stamp it out, spent and dizzy, and wonderfully out of breath. You’re going to make a habit of this.
You will sneak down the hall of the museum and take the service elevator to the dumpster and walk briskly through the employee parking lot into the backside of the sculpture park where no one ever wanders. It’s important to forget your phone. It’s important to sit still for a few minutes and be surrounded by something beautiful. It’s important to breathe, even when you’re inhaling smoke. You’re allowed to be disconnected. The world will catch up to you. The situation is being monitored closely and the world will still be ending when you get back to your desk.
That night you will be smoking a cigarette and drinking wine on your balcony and the stars will seem brighter. The slope of the hill a few blocks away from you will be pale and inviting. As you watch and smoke and pour yourself another glass, people will begin to congregate. They will lay down blankets. Longneck beer bottles will emerge from coolers. One dog will appear, and then another, making friends and chasing each other in the moonlight. As you squint to make this out, a woman your age begins to set up a telescope. You will feel impossibly ridiculous for not having thought of this first. It’s after ten pm and a fog has begun to wind its way through the corners of your neighborhood. A dozen people are on the hill now, strangers drawn out of their homes and connected to each other by the same set of questions. When the strangers on the hill point to the sky, you look up with them, craning your neck and squinting. You’re going to spend the next hour trying to make out things that are impossible for you to see. After you finish your wine, you will check the time on your phone and notice an overwhelming number of news alerts. It’s getting late and your mouth tastes like cigarettes. It’s worse than the lab coats said it would be, far worse. The stars are, in fact, shining just a little brighter tonight. You lay in bed, defeated, while brilliant and educated strangers on the radio describe to you in detail how everything you’ve ever known is going to disappear.
Your first carton of cigarettes is expensive. When you walk it back to your car, you will be impressed by the heft of it. It’s a pleasant weight that makes you feel like an adult. You have just made an investment in your future. You have just bought in bulk. For dinner that night you will have cigarettes and wine while a bag of microwave popcorn goes quietly stale as you stare into your phone. The people on the hill have begun to gather nightly and it has become your custom to watch them. A glass of wine with the sunset turns into two glasses as the sun lingers in kaleidoscope streaks of pink and orange. A few weeks ago, you had scarcely finished your first glass by nightfall. At the end of your second glass, the warmth in your belly will bloom into curiosity. You will find out later that it is not your imagination. The sunsets have, in fact, been getting longer.
Your social anxiety will be a relief. The middle school dance jitters that you feel when you walk the five blocks to the pale hill will be almost pleasant. The sky is falling, but it’s still important to get nervous about meeting new people. The water bottle full of merlot you brought should help with that. There are ten or twelve people on the hill when you approach, including a baby that feels out of place. Couples on blankets hold hands and look upward into the night. A father points out constellations to yawning children. The woman with the telescope sips a beer and smiles as you approach, taking a pull off your merlot as a kind of cheers.
There’s going to be a moment. You’re going to smile with a mouthful of wine that she will momentarily mistake for blood. When she realizes her mistake, when her horror turns to relief, she’s going to laugh out loud. When she laughs at you, your heart’s going to skip a beat and you’re not going to know why. When she laughs, it won’t matter that the sky is falling. Her name will be something common that will suddenly become beautiful again, but you will always think of her as the woman with the telescope. When you bend into the eyepiece and she whispers facts about Venus into your ear, you are both twelve years old again. You are skipping class and sneaking your first cigarette. She speaks the foreign language of astronomy with a rapid excitement while you nod and smile and understand every third word. When you put your eye to the telescope, you are witnessing the beginning of a tidal disruption. You will not understand it at the time, but you will remember this moment for the rest of your life. You don’t realize that you are watching a star die. The average sunset on earth lasts for 20-30 minutes. The day you meet the woman with the telescope, the sun will set for 72 minutes before night finally falls. After it does, the woman with the telescope will spend the rest of the night telling you why.
The days will begin to get longer. You read this at eleven am while you smoke your fourth cigarette of the day. The Rogue Gravitational Field has begun to pull heat and light from the sun. It’s autumn now and the trees have begun to shed their leaves. There’s a pleasant chill in the air and you’re wearing your favorite scarf, but as you read this, beads of sweat begin to form at your temples. Later, at that faux-Mexican place just around the corner from the museum where you still work, you will stare at yourself in the mirror behind the bar. Your co-workers will make nervous jokes and exchange the same headlines and blurbs that you’ve all read a dozen times. You have begun to tune them out. You have begun to tune everything out. The facts and figures, the headlines and the lab coats have begun to feel too much like homework. You have been studying for a test that no one is going to pass. You are no longer monitoring the situation closely. You are no longer monitoring the situation at all.
Behind you, both just over the horizon and deep in the recesses of outer space the sun will be setting. You remember as a little girl how you learned that the sunset was an optical illusion. Your place on the Earth was just moving further away from the sun. The sun wasn’t actually going anywhere. You order a third margarita. Absently, you run the lime around the rim of the glass and watch the snowfall of Kosher salt as it makes a mess on the bar. In a video you watched on your phone this afternoon, a man in a lab coat told you that the sun’s rays would be absorbed by The Rogue Gravitational Field. A man in a lab coat told you that the sun is going somewhere.
The next day as the sunset burns endlessly above you, you will wander to the hill. You will be wine drunk and heartbroken, shuffling your feet through fallen leaves. Then you will see the woman with the telescope. The excitement on her face as she waves you over is a kind of alchemy, transforming her immediately into an old friend. She will crack open a cheap beer and chatter on as night finally comes. Her optimism will baffle you. She will put her hand on your shoulder as she adjusts the position of her telescope and you will feel like that’s where her hand always should have been. For the first time, you will see the Rogue Gravitational Field and she will explain to you that the stars really are shining brighter tonight. Halos of light surround them and you will think of a Van Gogh painting. Bright, infrequent trails will snake from nowhere and disappear into nothingness. The Rogue Gravitational Field is pulling light closer to it at an alarming rate. It shines with a blackness darker than space. It is defined as an absence that you will find terrifying in its simple entirety. There is a nothingness above you and it’s hungry. Every minute it is pulling you closer. The woman with the telescope explains this to you quietly as you watch the stars in the sky burn themselves out. She puts a hand on your arm and a smile blooms on your face. Whatever’s in the sky cannot hurt you, because when she whispers in your ear, you are untouchable.
With her hand on your shoulder, she will point you again to Venus. Bright green streaks will pull away from it into nothingness and her voice will drop when she informs you that Venus is dying. Randomly, you will remember that your Venus is in Capricorn. Where will your Capricorn go when Venus isn’t there anymore? Her face is grave and smiling when you unbend yourself, stumbling away from the telescope, bleary with shock. It becomes important to take a long sip of wine. When your legs fail you and you sit on the grass, she’ll join you, slumping down and apologizing too much. She thought you knew. The woman with the telescope will not want a cigarette when you offer her one and when you look up to the disappearing stars, you’ll realize that you won’t want one either.
Joaquin Fernandez is a writer, editor, and recovering filmmaker perpetually tinkering with his first novel. His work has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and been featured in The Wigleaf Top 50. He is currently the Associate Fiction Editor for Okay Donkey Press as well as an Associate Nonfiction Editor for Pidgeonholes. He can be found on Twitter @Joaqertxranger and on his website joaquinfernandezwrites.com.
“A Beginner’s Guide for Quitting Smoking” was originally published in Chaleur Magazine, 7/26/18.