I decided to become a smoker in Paris.
Peer pressure notwithstanding (the stereotype holds incredibly true) I was bored, lonely, and more than a little depressed. The impermanence of my stay haunted me: while I was not particularly happy there, I did not want to leave. I had held this city in such high regard for so long, spending innumerable feverish hours studying the language, the culture, the history. The rapture of my arrival lasted exactly as long as the cab drive from the airport to my hostel. And then, the trials began: purchase a phone, purchase a SIM card, find a bank, withdraw money, get back to the hostel. Familiar tasks, as I’d studied abroad two years previous, but this time, each laced with a tinge of panic. I was no longer sheltered within the dubiously comforting embrace of an undergraduate program. There were not offices and advisors whose role it was to ‘look after me’. I had graduated, I was an adult, I was in the ‘real world’, so real it was in a different time zone, a different language. I would be homeless within a week. I dragged my suitcase to the basement of my hostel and burst back onto the street, located a café and slumped into a chair, trying, desperately, to shed the fear that rendered me grey in a city of sparkling color.
There was no escaping the smoke, the insouciant lounge, the ripped-jean, trench coat, red lipstick slouch. It was a display of such casual elegance, these stately women and rugged men, seemingly rolled out of bed and perched on street corners like models paid not to care. Speaking a whiplash, liquid tongue that made my textbook memorizations sound like pig latin. Despite the careful selection of clothing I’d brought, the long, straight weave I’d had sewn in, I felt ungainly, towering, freakishly awkward in my glaring Americanness. I mimicked the accents I heard, stretching and loosening my tongue, intensifying my cadence and dropping my tone. I adopted a gait that spoke quiet confidence, but forgot it often. I smiled (even) less. I drank much more.
Cigarettes, I learned, were damn expensive.
I fell half in love with a man who was plainly accustomed to being the object of affection. I suffered all of the indignities that accompany such an experience. I developed a strange obsession with dancing twins. I babysat three little boys twice a week. I had a day job and a side job and I kept getting up and leaving and coming home and staring at the darkened walls of my studio before eventually falling asleep before having to get up again. I wondered if this was what life was: an endless succession of comings and goings that felt no more consequential than a mouse, sprinting endless circles within its wheel. Within its cage. I thought I was supposed to feel older, somehow, less like I was scrambling for authenticity, for all my disparate pieces to form a coherent whole. i felt swindled by the illusion of my picking up and leaving, when in reality I was still exactly where I’d always been. Your location is not where you are, I was learning. I’d flown so many miles and walked so many streets, and yet I was the same small girl from Overbrook Road, with the skinny calves and solemn disposition.
I do not enjoy the taste or smell of smoke. I hate the way it crawls up my nasal passages and chars the wet flesh of my throat. I hate the warm burn that spreads through my chest. I hate the damp stickiness inside my lip, the lingering odor on my fingertips. I hate the white-hot flash on my thumb when I’m holding the lighter wrong, because I'm usually holding the lighter wrong, and the taunting click-click-click when the wind is blowing too hard. I hate having to make a cup of my palm. I am afraid of fire, in general. I am afraid of being burned.
I decided to become a smoker for all of the reasons adults made us sit through boring D.A.R.E. workshops. I wanted friends. I felt lonely. I hated myself. I found my life tedious. I made myself sick with my moping and my misery; I did not want to be the person I was always was, that cold, hard person who had followed me into my new life. There was no escape and I was spinning circles in my own head, running from myself and running to myself and I couldn’t stop running, couldn’t snap out of it, couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t. I would force myself outside and huddle against the sharp wind and walk to the library, browsing for books like I was auditioning in a play, hoping to get the part of Woman Browsing for Books. Every time I smoked it was against my better nature, against my will, and maybe doing things against my will was the only way that I could wrest some control from myself, from the cold hard person who sat with me on the train, who lay with me at night, staring at my walls. Maybe I could burn her out, set her on fire. Blow her away.
I did not become a smoker in Paris. I fooled people with my accent, though, and ate a baguette every day. I also ate at McDonald’s. I paid my rent on time and got to work late. I got too drunk to go home and slept on a bench. I re-taught myself how to knit. I made friends. I made curry. I lay in bed on Christmas morning and wept, watching Friends on my laptop, for all of the miles and the streets and the beautiful men and women I half-loved and fully hated and could not be or have, for the gaping darkness within that cold, hard, girl. She ached, and I ached too.