I don’t know what year it was. But, I remember how it happened, clearly, and how surprised I was, days after, months and years after, when I recalled it.
Heights is a film that came out in theaters in 2005. I saw it at night on DVD at home but, again, I don’t remember what year it was. It was winter, cold outside (sometimes winters in Missouri aren’t cold). Black ice, dirty slush, and hard frozen snow. Not a night for sensible, warm-blooded boys like me to be out. I was home, insulated in my one-bedroom bubble, with my pajamas on – black sweatpants and a Denver Broncos t-shit – and three space heaters on full blast, because the motor in my furnace burned out my first year in this apartment and it was never fixed or replaced.
Heights stars Glenn Close and that may be why I bought it, on sale someplace – it feels like I bought it at Barnes & Nobles (B&N), but it may have been in a bargain basin at Walmart; Heights is the kind of film someone who likes B&N would appreciate. It also stars James Marsden, an actor I have enjoyed and followed since he played Cyclops in the X-Men movies. Glenn Close plays a theater actress and director; her daughter in the film (played by Elizabeth Banks) is married to James Marsden’s character, who is closeted and in a secret relationship with a man who lives in the same apartment building.
I don’t know why I decided to watch Heights that night. I had been buying DVDs, building a personal film library, for years, because I prefer owning media to streaming it, films or music. And I was feeling good that night. I remember it. I was snug. I felt safe. I was in good shape, back in those days: I had no gut; I weighed less than 200 pounds; I hadn’t smoked in years. I had finally paid off about $7000 in debt, and my money was once again my own. So, maybe I was celebrating. But, more likely, I was trying to live the kind of quality, quiet, Saturday-night-at-home life that other people live, instead of doing what I normally did, which was spend all night on YouTube until I forced myself to go to bed or listening to old music while regretting an unchangeable past.
I know exactly when it happened.
Marsden and Banks, husband and wife, are in the kitchen, talking, not really arguing, I think. She’s leaving for work. He’s padding around in his pajama bottoms. She asks him if he has cigarettes. He says he doesn’t. He’s eating a Pop-Tart. She thinks they’re gross. They kiss, she leaves. Marsden waits a few beats, then, on the tips of his toes, reaches to the back of an open cupboard, and brings out a pack of cigarettes.
It’s not a full pack. He pulls a lighter out of the pack, shakes out a cigarette, lights it, and takes a long drag.
I want a cigarette.
I wanted to smoke again.
I want a cigarette.
I was overtaken. I was filled, I was attacked by an intense desire to smoke, to experience the unique sensation of nicotine-laden smoke clouding my lungs.
A cigarette. A cigarette.
I am going to smoke again.
I knew it, like I knew I was going to make a cup of coffee if I was alive the next morning.
A cigarette. I want a cigarette.
But, I will have to wait until tomorrow. It was winter. Cold. Icy. Snowy. Slushy. And cold. Winter is always coldest at night.
And it was night. Eight. Nine. It might have been past ten at night. That’s how I remember it. But. I can’t believe I went…
The drug stores are closed. I felt the littlest pang of despair. When I was smoking, I usually bought my cigarettes at Walgreens, but CVS would do, in a pinch, if I was already there buying something else. Walgreens out here close at eight. I think. CVS at nine. I think. CVS is open an hour later than Walgreens. So, it had to have been after nine, almost ten, or just after ten. Both drug stores were closed, and I was screwed. I was bereft, and jonesing, going through the early stages of withdrawal, until the early morning.
But, I hadn’t smoked in years. I had already been through withdrawal.
I’ll have to wait until morning. Yes, morning, hours away. I’ll just get into bed. Go to sleep. For hours. And, when I wake up, maybe this will have passed. Maybe I won’t want a cigarette this bad. Yes. This is just a passing phase.
I want a cigarette.
When I wake up, I will be better. Stronger. I’ll sleep it off.
I want a cigarette.
And, if I still feel this way, I will go to Walgreens, as soon as it opens.
I can’t wait that long.
There’s no place else I can buy cigarettes this late at night, so -.
The gas station. The BP gas station is open 24 hours. Most gas stations are.
Past ten at night. Winter. I hate winter. I hate the cold. Not that far away.
I dressed quickly: a second thermal shirt, jeans, boots, thermal sweatshirt, heavy winter coat, and thick knit cap, made sure there was money, debit, and credit card in my wallet, and left my apartment.
I have rarely been out of my house that late at night, after ten. The only other times were when some pipe or another busted on the campus, and I got a call to clean up the spill, which by that time had happened maybe twice. That night, which feels like a Saturday, because I didn’t have to work the next day; I was already looking forward to having a couple of cigarettes with my coffee before and after breakfast. That night, the streets were empty, all sounds, all echoes, were muffled or swallowed by the snow.
Criminals and other dangers were possibly up the street, on the next block, cruising up in a dark vehicle behind me, one with the shadows. I shoved my gloved hands in my coat pockets and thought of cigarettes as I trudged towards the gas station, roughly three blocks away. Marlboro only. I smoked Marlboro 100s unless I couldn’t afford to. I trudged because that’s how I walk when it’s cold, hunched and grudging, like a miserable old man.
I watched my boots as I walked, careful to step wherever it looked the least slippery, until I made it to the middle of the row of townhouses on the next block, then I looked up.
BP Gas was open. The small convenience store inside was fully lit. Open. I couldn’t force myself to walk any faster, but I didn’t feel the cold the same way. I wasn’t as miserable. I was no more than fifteen minutes away from another cigarette – and I would have at least two before I went to bed. And set the pack and lighter on the nightstand, so I could reach for them first thing in the morning.
There were no cars, so I was able to skirt the black ice patches on the road at my own pace.
The clerk/manager/guy looked up from whatever he was reading, but he wasn’t surprised to have a customer. I glanced at the snack cakes and chips, but I hadn’t come for that. I had come for cigarettes.
The…manager dropped a pack of Marlboro 100s next to the cash register. Anything else? I paused. I need another, I don’t want to be in this position next week. I signaled for another pack. And, if I have two packs, I don’t have to ration myself on the first one. I noticed the cigarette lighters as I dug my wallet out of my jeans pocket and couldn’t remember if I had one at home, or how much lighter fluid was left in it. A lighter, too, please. A Bic. I bought a discount lighter once and got three or four cigarettes out of it before the flint popped out while I was flicking it.
I don’t remember what it all cost.
I picked my way home just as carefully, elated, victorious, proud of my quick thinking and decisiveness, and I would have smoked the first one in front of my apartment building, but it was just too cold. And dark. Anyone could have been about.
Inside my apartment, I made sure the door was locked, and shed my coat at the front door. I rushed to the kitchen before the snow in my boot soles started to melt, and set them on some newspaper. I hurried to the couch, still in my winter clothes.
I started the movie again. Heights. I fast-forwarded to the kitchen scene with James Marsden and Elizabeth Banks, and paused it, as I worked the wrapper off a pack of cigarettes and tested the lighter. Then I pressed PLAY.
Elizabeth Banks kisses Marsden, grimaces at the taste of Pop-Tart, then she leaves. He waits, a beat, two, then reaches into an open cupboard, all the way to the back, and retrieves his cigarettes. He lights the cigarette, takes a drag.
I missed it, and played it again.
He flicks his lighter. I flick mine. He takes the first drag on his cigarette and I take mine, at the same time.
I left the cigarettes and lighter in the kitchen when I went to bed, right next to the coffee maker, so I could have them together, instead of smoking while I sat on the bed.
I smoked for another six and a half years before I made myself stop.
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