Her Old Flame

(by Smokediva@aol.com, 16 January 1999)


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Her Old Flame

Raima sorted through the mail as she walked up her driveway.  Her 8-month old
son, in the carrier on her back, began his familiar staccato cries, signaling
his readiness for another feeding.  "Hush, Pati, soon," she soothed him, as
she opened the front door and put the mail on the front hall table.  One
small package in a manila envelope caught her eye.  It was addressed to
"Lorna Hardwick or Resident."   Assuming it was junk mail for the prior
owner, she tore the envelope open, and revealed a pack of Virginia Slims
Light Menthol 120s, along with some advertisement material and coupons.
Raima's heart skipped a beat, and guilt flooded over her before she caught
herself.  "It's silly to feel that way," she smiled.  "It's not like I bought
them!  I haven't had a cigarette in over 3 years!"

As she settled down to breast-feed the baby, she reflected that, in fact, her
last cigarette had been on the evening before her 22nd birthday, 3 years and
a bit over 3 months ago.  Her husband Steve, her then-boyfriend, had been
campaigning hard for months - from the day they had met, in fact - to get her
to quit smoking.  He had presented her with her beautiful engagement ring on
the evening before her birthday, saying, "If you take this ring, it is also
your promise that you will never smoke again."  Raima's eyes had filled with
tears of happiness at her engagement, mingled with tears of apprehension for
the promise she was making as Steve slipped the ring on her finger.

The phone rang and startled her out of her reverie.  It was Steve, calling
from Accuratus, the software company that had recruited him, and the reason
for their move to this smallish town in Colorado.  "Hi honey.  How's Paul?"
he asked.  "He's full and sleepy, " she told him, as she burped her son.  "I
suppose you know why I'm calling," he said gently.  "Yes, I probably do," she
sighed.  Steve had been working long hours since their move, first to learn
his new company's products, and then to take over the final testing phase of
an important new software product that was soon to be released.  "Maybe you
could invite Samara and her husband over," suggested Steve, referring to the
only friend Raima had managed to make in the almost two months since they had
moved.  "I might, or I might just go to bed," she sighed.  "I'll try to be
quiet when I come in," he said, and rang off.

Raima stared off into space, and her eyes settled on the package of
cigarettes she had left on the table.  Her eyes caressed the familiar striped
box.  She felt a bit guilty and excited, like an old lover had somehow found
her name in the phone book and called her up!  Memories of smoking in her
youth began to flood through her mind as the baby slept in her arms.  Raima
remembered her best friend through her late childhood and adolescence in
Detroit, Michigan - a girl named Ana (short for Anastasia) Netolis.  Ana's
family owned a Greek restaurant, where all of the Netolis family worked.  Ana
had gotten Raima a job waiting tables at the restaurant the summer she turned
14.  "You are too young for payroll, so you work for tips only," Mr. Netolis
had told her, although he occasionally slipped her $20 on the side.

One day Ana took Raima aside in the break room in the back of the restaurant.
"Raima, I don't want to hide from you any more.  I want you to know I smoke,"
Ana confessed to her, as she took a pack of Marlboro light 100s cigarettes
out of her jacket pocket.  "Ana! How long have you been smoking?" Raima
gasped, feeling betrayed and left out.  "Off and on since, like February or
March," Ana said, putting a cigarette between her lips and lighting it with a
red plastic Bic lighter.  She inhaled and blew out the smoke.  "It's a
relief," she said, "not just to tell you, finally, but," she paused to inhale
again, "to have a cig!"  She smiled through her exhale.  "God, Ana, do your
parents know?" said Raima, nervously running her fingers through her dark,
wavy hair.  "Yeah, Stef ratted me out," she said, referring to her older
sister Stefania, also a smoker, who was the restaurant's cashier.  "They
said, as long as I don't get caught at school, they don't mind."

Raima remembered her own initiation to smoking, a few days later.  A
restaurant customer had left an almost full pack of Virginia Slims menthol
lights on the table and, as she bused the table, she pocketed the cigarettes.
Later during her shift she had put one of the long, slim cigarettes in her
mouth and lit up for the first in the break room with Ana, tasting the
strange smoke taste in her mouth.  She didn't dare try to smoke like Ana -
what if she should start coughing?  But she wanted to keep up with her
friend.  So she took smoke into her mouth, held it in, and blew it out.  She
"had a cigarette" with Ana every night for about a week, "smoking" one or two
cigarettes a night, until the night Stefania came back to the break room and
saw her.  "Raima, you don't know how to smoke!  Here, you have to go like
this" - and she demonstrated an open-mouthed inhale.  Embarrassed, Raima had
vowed to learn to inhale from that night, and learn she did, with shallow
inhales at first, mixing in a lot of air, then gradually taking deeper,
experienced drags as she grew to need the nicotine fix.  By the end of the
summer she was inhaling almost half a pack of cigarettes a day, buying them
with her tip change from the restaurant's vending machine.  Her parents were
none the wiser, because she only smoked before, during, and just after work,
and would immediately take a shower when she got home.

The baby stirred in his sleep, and Raima was jolted out of her reverie.  She
put Pati (his given name was Paul, after Steve's father, but she called him
Pati, after her father's name, Patel) in his crib in his room upstairs,
singing him a lullaby in Arabic that her grandmother used to sing to her.
She turned on the baby monitor on the way out of her son's room, absently
trying to think how she was going to pass yet another lonely night in their
new house in their new town.  On the way down the stairs she again caught
sight of the pack of VS 120s on the hall table, and she found herself drawn
irresistibly toward it.  As if in a trance she peeled off the cellophane and
flipped up the lid, then peeled back the foil to expose the long white
beauties that she had promised to forsake forever.  "These 120s are so long,"
she thought, as she slid one slowly out of the box.  Her memory jumped back
to the restaurant, to the time Nick, one of the restaurant's cooks and a
cousin of Ana and Stef, had come upon Raima smoking in the break room.  "You
look so sexy smoking those long cigarettes," he had told her.  No one had
ever told her she looked sexy before, and she blushed as she exhaled.  She
vowed that Virginia Slims 100s would always be her brand.  Here she was,
looking down the length of a VS 120, and before she knew it, putting it in
her mouth!

Raima hesitated.  It had been very difficult for her to quit, and she didn't
want to go through that hell again.  Still, her husband was likely gone for
several more hours, and she was completely on her own, and completely bored!
"If I don't inhale," she reasoned, "I'll be fine."  She walked over to the
kitchen stove, turned on the gas burner, held back her long black hair, and
touched the tip of the long cigarette to the blue flame.  Raima pulled smoke
into her mouth, and the memories flooded over her again, as the light,
mentholated smoke teased her palate and nose.   She remembered going back to
school in the fall of her sophomore year, having "nic fits," and sneaking off
to smoke with Ana, covering up the smell with perfume so her teachers and
parents wouldn't catch on.  Her habit had continued for two more years of
high school, increasing during the summers when she worked at the restaurant,
decreasing during the school year.  Smoking was never far from Raima's mind.
She had made up her mind to go to an out-of-state college primarily so she
could smoke all of the time, whenever she wanted to!

Raima took another puff of smoke into her mouth, wanting more than anything
to inhale a deep lungful, but stopping herself.  She remembered how difficult
it had been to get through that first month of her engagement, after her
promise to never smoke again.  She remembered the weekend she had spent at
Steve's parents' house, in the throes of quitting.  Raima was so edgy and
fidgety, she worried how she could be making any kind of good impression on
her future in-laws!  Gradually as the weeks and months passed, her desire to
smoke had dimmed, but scarcely a day would go by when she didn't think about
smoking.  Particularly after she had eaten a delicious meal, or during finals
week at college, or the week of her wedding, it had been a real struggle for
Raima not to buy a pack of Slims and light up.  Since her pregnancy, though,
she hadn't thought about it as much, and she had also given up coffee and
wine, two of her other pleasures in life, while carrying and nursing her son.

Suddenly the phone rang, startling Raima, who had just taken a mouthful of
smoke, into inhaling smoke by mistake.  She coughed so hard that she had to
wait a couple of rings before she picked up the phone.  "Hey honey, just
called to say I love you.  What's going on?" asked Steve.  "Oh, I'm . ."  She
hesitated, knowing Steve would be able to smell the smoke in the house when
he came home, and she quickly thought of an excuse.   "I'm waiting for Samara
and Vadim to come over," she lied.  Vadim, Samara's husband, smoked, and she
thought she might be able to blame the smoke smell on him.  "Great.  Are you
cooking something?"  "No, they already ate.  We're just going to watch a
video," she lied.  How strange that smoking was already driving a wedge
between her and her husband!  "OK, I'll probably be home after midnight,"
Steve said.  "OK, bye honey," she replied, and hung up.  

She stared at the half-finished cigarette in her hand.  The surprise inhale
of a moment ago had pushed her to the edge, and her craving for a deep puff
was as intense as she ever remembered.  "I might as well give in," she
sighed, and put her lips around the filter and drew in her first deliberate
inhale of smoke in over three years.  Raima began to tingle from her head to
her toes with pleasure as she exhaled a long, steady stream of smoke.  "God,
this is good!" she thought, as she took another puff, and another.  She
walked over to the table, took another cigarette out of the pack and lit it
from the first, and stood in the kitchen, smoking like someone starved for
smoke, flicking her ashes into the sink.  She heard baby Paul's cry over the
monitor, and she went to him, her cigarette dangling from her mouth.  "I
don't want to put my cigarette down," she thought, as she rocked the baby and
smoked, her cigarette glowing in the dark of his room.

As the evening wore on Raima she smoked 4 more cigarettes.  She felt guilty,
but she couldn't remember the last time she had experienced so much pleasure
for herself.  Everything the past few years had been about giving pleasure to
others - her new husband, then her new baby, then moving to a new place for
her husband's job- and somehow, her own pleasure had gotten pushed to the
side.  She began to feel it was unfair of her husband and her baby to deprive
her of such pleasure, and vowed to continue taking pleasure whenever she
could.  

The baby cried for a late-night feeding around 11:00, and as Raima fed him,
she thought about the nicotine in her system that the baby was now ingesting
through her milk.  "Oh well, he'll survive," she rationalized, as she put him
to bed, spraying a bit of air freshener in his room to mask the smoke smell.
Downstairs she spotted the cigarette pack, now on the coffee table in the
living room, and slid it into a kitchen drawer just as Steve walked in.

"Ugh!  Smells like a bar in here," Steve said, taking off his coat and
hanging it on a hook.   "Who was smoking in here?" he demanded.  "Vadim," she
answered calmly.  "Why didn't you ask him to smoke outside?  People are used
to that in the '90s," he accused her.  "I - I didn't feel comfortable - he's
not from our culture," she lied, defending the innocent Vadim, a Russian
émigré.  "I closed the door to the baby's room," she added.   "Next time, he
smokes outside," stated Steve grumpily, looking in the refrigerator.  "Sure,
honey.  I'm sorry," said Raima.   "I'm going to take a bath," she added.
"See you in bed."  Raima hurriedly brushed her teeth and drew a bath to
banish all smell of smoke from her person.

Raima woke up Saturday morning with a craving for a cigarette.  Steve, after
reading the paper and playing with the baby for awhile, told Raima he was
going in to work.  She pursed her lips with disapproval, but then thought how
the freedom could work to her advantage.  "No problem, hon," she assured him
with a kiss.  She just about couldn't wait for him to get out the door and
safely away before she stepped into the garage and lit up a VS120.  "Some
coffee would be mighty good about now," she thought, exhaling her first
lungful of the day, and vowed to go into town and get some.  She had left the
back door ajar to keep an eye on the baby, who had now crawled all the way
across the kitchen floor to the back door in search of his mother.  Baby Pati
stared in surprise at his mother with a long white cigarette in her mouth.
"Just stay there, little one," she cooed, puffing frantically on her
cigarette.  He stared at the cloud of smoke that wreathed his mother's dark
curly hair.  "OK, here comes Mama," she sighed, and scooped him up, cigarette
planted firmly between her lips, taking him back into the garage with her and
closing the door to the kitchen.  She finished the last few puffs, trying to
keep the cigarette (and the smoke) away from the baby.  

"OK, Pati, we're going for a walk now," she said, a bit later, dressing him
warmly for a late fall day, and putting him in his stroller, grabbing her
cigarettes and a couple of kitchen matches on the way out the door.  Eagerly
Raima lit a match on the heel of her boot and touched it to the end of her
long cigarette, noticing on her inhale how good it tasted in the fresh fall
air.  The one-mile walk into town took about 20 minutes, during which she
smoked another cigarette.  It was delicious, smoking out in the open in a
town where only a few people knew her.  Raima paused in front of the coffee
shop where she occasionally stopped for pastries and a cup of herbal tea.  A
"smoking prohibited" sign hung prominently on an inside wall, and she kept
walking down the main street until she got to a second coffee shop, where she
had seen college students sitting around tables, smoking and drinking coffee,
a few weeks before.  How different things were today:  now she was actively
seeking out an environment where she could smoke!  Raima went inside, parked
the baby's stroller at a table, and ordered a cup of coffee.  She brought the
steaming mug back to her table, and took the first sip of her beloved coffee
- a pleasure she had given up for over 2 years!  Immediately she craved a
  cigarette, and pulled one out of the box.  She remembered she had no
lighter and no more kitchen matches, and had to go to the counter to ask for
matches.  Gratefully she lit up, taking deep, long drags, alternating with
sips of strong, black coffee.  The baby fussed, and Raima fed him right in
the coffee shop, with a blanket over him.  No one stared or seemed to mind.
She felt such wicked abandon, smoking and drinking coffee while nursing her
baby.  Steve would be so angry if he knew Raima was jeopardizing the baby's
health, not to mention her own.  Pati, though he took quite a bit of milk,
seemed unsettled, and Raima knew it was probably the caffeine and nicotine in
her milk that was making him fussy.  Soon, she reasoned, she would stop this
foolishness, and life would return to normal.  

But not today.  Raima needed to give herself some of the pleasure that had
been missing from her life for so long.  Today, and maybe tomorrow, and maybe
for longer, she had to indulge this "old flame" that had suddenly reappeared
in her life - via her mailbox - and acknowledge what it had once meant to
her.  She knew the time with this forbidden pleasure would be short - but she
was determined to enjoy it, every minute of every day of it - until she was
ready to say goodbye again.


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