I started smoking when I was 12 years old. It was all due to seeing the movie Grease and being impressed with how cool they all looked with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. It was Rizzo's fault most of all. She was my favorite of the Pink Ladies. All that attitude and sass.

My cousin Beth was living with my mother and me at the time. She was from North Carolina, beautiful, and she had a convertible (the style of car that is my favorite to this day). She smoked and there was always an ashtray on the dining room table with half smoked cigarette butts in it. This is from where I got my first taste of stinkweed. Now you always see these people coughing up a lung when they try cigarettes for the first time. Not me. I took to it like a duck to water. I worked my way up from puffing to full inhaling in no time. I would sneak the cigarette butts when I was latch-keying it before my mom and Beth got home from work.

Flash forward a few years and I'm working part-time after school at the nursing home. Patients who smoked would have cartons of cigarettes that my mom, who was the Activity Director, held for them. It was nothing to sneak a pack every once in a while. I had no definite habit, just a smoke on occasion whenever I felt like it. I was into Marlboro Reds at the time (hack, hack) but would take whatever I could get my dishonest little hands on.

At 16, my dad died. While on that sabbatical week in Hawaii, I would sit on the balcony of my hotel room smoking cigarette after cigarette while contemplating the pigeons on the roof of the ABC Mart across the street. How I kept from hacking up a lung on those Reds is still a mystery to me.

A year or so later, I went on a trip to Monterey with my friend and idol, Jane. She was 20 years older than me but treated me as an equal. I looked up to her immensely. She was the funniest person I'd ever met and she took me under her wing. And yes, you're right, she smoked. Her poison was Benson and Hedges (she called them Benches and Hedges) Menthols. While on this trip, she let me smoke to my heart's content. I felt so cool and sophisticated, let me tell you. It was this trip that converted me to menthols for the rest of my smoking life.

I'd quit smoking and then take it up throughout the years. I finally fell into an actual habit when I was 22. I worked my way up to a pack a day of Marlboro Menthol 100s. I didn't like the Kings because they burned up too fast. The hard pack was also preferable since it didn't get smashed up in my purse. Marvin the Martian was a smoker too. I smoked up a storm while I was working at the 2nd nursing home. Constant smoke breaks. I don't like who I was becoming then. Not due to the smoking but due to my incredible lack of work ethic. While I may fart around here at this job, I get my work done. There is never anything lacking because of whatever time I spend goofing off. Back then, the work suffered. I was addicted to cigarettes and to really great sex with a man who was so not good for me.

The January after I turned 23 and a couple weeks after I'd ended things with the Martian, I quit smoking as a new year's resolution. I initially tried to quit smoking and stop drinking caffeine in an insane attempt at better health. HA! Worst headaches I've ever had in my life. Obviously, I took up drinking caffeine again. I stayed off the cigarettes though. Quit cold turkey and it stuck. I've smoked every once in awhile since then, primarily in times of great stress. And I admit, there are days when that need for nicotine sings along my blood. Sometimes I give in. I'll usually smoke one or two cigarettes out of a pack and end up throwing the rest of it away. Considering the cost of those little sticks of tobacco, it's not something I do very often.

There was a line in the movie Dead Again that really verbalized what I think of smokers. Robin Williams to Kenneth Branagh (paraphrasing) "You're either a smoker or you're not. Choose one and be it." I truly believe this. Some people are smokers, others aren't. I am a smoker who chooses not to smoke. Simple as that.

But even when I'm not smoking, there are times I'll be sitting in my car with the windows rolled down and I'll catch a whiff of a freshly lit cigarette and I find myself turning toward the window in order to fully enjoy that smell. I love that first drift of smoke that comes from a newly ignited cancer stick. Even before I began smoking, whenever Jane would light up, I'd turn my nose to the scent of her cigarette. I imagine that's something only a fellow smoker can appreciate
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Oh it's been fun so far this morning. Not only was it fucking 83 degrees already at 9:30 a.m., I forgot my goddamned keys this morning. Allow me to tell you the entire story....

It's 8:20 a.m. I've had my shower, gotten dressed, and now I'm putting on my shoes. {Back story fact: I'm going to have to get a new car. My car sucks donkeys and can't seem to get enough of those damned beasts of burden so it's going to have to go.} Shannon's been looking through car websites for me 'cause this kind of thing she massively kicks ass at. Anyway, she says "Hey Lil. Come look at this." So of course I do. I spend the next 20 minutes looking at beautiful PT Cruisers, seeing what's in dealer's inventories, etc. I look at the clock. SHIT! It normally takes me about 1/2 hour at the very least to get here. So off I go, running out the door. Did I remember to check to ensure I had my keys with me? You guessed it. I sure didn't.

Anyway, I didn't realize this slightly important fact until I got here. I park my car, reach into my purse to get my office keys and lo & behold they're not there. Fucking great. So I figure, ok, the sales manager goes to the church next door to this office. I'll go find him and ask him to let me in. I walk over there and all these nice church type people are milling around the coffee klatch doo-hickey before the service starts. Is the sales manager drinking coffee this morning? Of course not. It's then that I realize I'll have to do the unthinkable. I'm going to have to go into the sanctuary. AAAARRRGGGHHH!!!!! I just know I'll be struck down the minute I set foot in there but I have to risk it. I haven't been inside a church since April of last year when I went while I was in North Carolina. And that was because it meant a lot to my mother.

Ok, so I manage to get into the sanctuary area without lightning bolts from God being sent in my direction. I look around but is the dude there? Say it with me now: Of course not. My skin is crawling from all the organized religion concentrated in one area. I've got millions of religious hell-fire ants marching along my arms and in my hair. See what I endure to get to work? Am I dedicated or what? Especially considering I'm cursing to myself the entire time I'm looking for the nice sales manager.

"Shit! Fuck! Where the hell are you, dude? Oooh, that guy's hot. Dammit!"

Yes, these are the things going through my mind. Add to the mix that my body's sitting up and saying "Lil, you seriously need to get laid. You're finding church dudes hot. Oh look at that guy." Yeah. Needless to say (but I'm going to say it anyway), I high-tailed it out of there. I decided I'd rather try to break into work than stay in church.

Right. When I figured out I didn't have the proper tools for surreptitious breaking and entering, I went out to my car to see if maybe by some kind act of fate, my keys were on the floor or something equally ridiculous. Lucky for me I did because right then, one of the agents pulled into the parking garage and was kind enough to let me in.

And thus began my morning. I'm safely ensconced in this nice air-conditioned non-religious office, listening to Incubus, and answering the phone. Big collective sigh of relief.
Hope you're all having equally interesting mornings.

Edited at 10:40 a.m. to add:
A fire truck just pulled up in front of the church. See! I knew I shouldn't have gone in there. If I see any demons emerging, I'll let you all know.
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One of the people I'm very glad to have "met" through this blogging thing, Miss Paz, asked some good questions in one of her comments to me. Therefore, I am answering them in their own entry:

How do you feel about your father's alcoholism? Does/did that affect how you think about yourself?

Basically, for me, the answers to those questions are inter-related. At first, it made me terrified. I didn't want to ever drink for fear of becoming an alcoholic myself. That's not to say that I completely stopped drinking. I do drink alcohol on occasion. There was a period of a couple years where I didn't drink at all. I'd gotten really sloshed on one horrifically memorable Halloween and blacked out. That had never happened to me before. Yeah, so I was a tee-totaler there for awhile. Now alcohol really doesn't have much appeal for me. I'll drink the occasional Diet Coke with Absolut Vanilla or a Corona with lime and even that is rare.

When it comes to men, I'm skittish about them drinking. Marvin the Martian - the one man I've loved in a romantic sense - was a raging alcoholic. I understand my predisposition to becoming involved with alcoholics and I try not to. I find myself analyzing their behaviors and drinking habits. I'm hyper-sensitive to their drunken behavior.

I've read a couple books about alcoholism - is it an illness or a behavioral issue - that whole debate. Personally, I think children of alcoholics are more likely to become alcoholics themselves. Now is that genetic or is it a learned behavior? I really don't know. Honestly, it doesn't matter. Just so long as I don't become an alcoholic myself. That's what matters. His need for alcohol caused so much pain. I never want to put anyone through what he put the people who cared about him through. I'm not merely referring to the dying part. He was 49 years old when he died. I have no idea how old he was when he started drinking but suffice it to say, there were plenty of years where his drinking affected his life and those around him, including my mother. Including me.

His alcoholism is still an integral part of who I am. It always will be. I don't know if that answered your questions Paz, but I gave it a shot. (Pun intended, of course)
I've been writing this blog in my head for the past few days. These sentences that will follow aren't in the same format or even in the same order as the ones that have been swimming through the grooves of my brain. But they'll do.

Today marks 18 years since my father died. I was 16. He was an alcoholic and the years upon years of drinking had torn up his insides. He had been bleeding internally for months but hadn't done anything about it. Finally, something drastic happened and my grandparents took him to the hospital. I don't really remember what the impetus for their calling the paramedics was. They called my mother late Friday March 21, 1986, and told her that my father was in the hospital. We went to go see him Saturday morning.

He looked so small in his hospital gown with the sheets all tangled up around him. He had tubes going in everywhere but I mostly remember the large red one that went down his nose into his stomach. Obviously bandages can't be used on one's insides so they were pumping air into his stomach in an effort to stop the bleeding. He was conscious so he was able to see me break down into tears. I remember that my hair was being held back with two bobby pins, that I was wearing an old blue sweatshirt, and that I didn't say much of anything to my father. All I could do is try to keep myself from crying. (I hate that his last memory of me was of me in tears. But I didn't have much strength then, you see. I still had to earn it.) My mom is the one who spoke with him. Little did I know this was the last time I would ever see him alive.
I didn't tell him I loved him.

That haunted me for a very, very long time.

The next day I was at choir rehearsal. It was Sunday March 23, 1986 at around 6:30 p.m. or so. I was worried about my father but I hadn't gone to see him that morning. I was in Chamber Singers at school and we were due to leave the next day for a competition in Hawaii. My mom came in to the rehearsal room and with one look at her face, I knew.

I still went to Hawaii. I spent the entire week by myself. Everyone left me alone. I sat out on the balcony of the hotel room smoking Marlboro Reds and staring at the ABC Mart across the street. I took pictures of my view to commemorate the occasion. Mechanically, I did my part, I sang the songs but I wasn't really there. I could have stayed home but truly, what reason was there? So I could go to a funeral with a bunch of people who were acting like they actually gave a damn about my father but didn't really? I don't regret going to Hawaii.
I regret not having told my father I loved him.

I got back from Hawaii and went on with the business of living. It was very difficult the first few months. Those truly were the hardest. I would cry myself to sleep and wake up sad with puffy eyes and a headache. There were no happy moments. I eventually got so tired of being sad that I considered suicide. I made a half-assed attempt at it by taking a few muscle relaxers I had but it truly was the stereotypical cry for help. I wouldn't have gone through with it. I went into counseling after that.

I grieved. I screamed at the ceiling of my dining room with tears coursing down my face. Yelling at my father for dying, yelling at God for allowing this to happen.

I wrote. I wrote poetry, I wrote a letter to my father telling him how fucking angry he'd made me.

I dealt with it. I became distant, closed off, cynical. If I allowed no one into my heart, they didn't have the power to hurt me.

I realized that wasn't the answer. I'm more cautious now than I used to be when letting people in. There are really only a few people who truly know me. Whom I trust with my deepest love. This was a very hard lesson to learn. I love easily. I also let people go more easily now. I can care about you deeply but losing you won't come anywhere near to killing me. There are only two people in this world whose loss would cause me debilitating pain, whose deaths would hold the power to destroy me.

So many memories flash before my eyes as I think about the time since my father died. Locking myself into the practice room in the chorus classroom during lunch breaks so I could curl into a fetal position and cry. My grandmother (his mother) becoming ill a few months after he was gone. Seeing her in the hospital with my grandfather leaning over her bed sobbing, begging her not to leave him. The rhythmic rise and fall of her chest and the sound of her breathing as congestive heart failure stole her life. Visiting the cemetary the Christmas after they died and being thrown into a vicious rage at the stupid, inane, hideous decorations strewn about over his and my grandmother's graves. Kicking plastic santas off of his grave. Allowing only a single red rose to remain as the testament to my love.

Some years March 23rd would kick me in the gut like my father's death had just happened. Some years I don't even realize the 23rd has gone by until much later. This year I remember but I don't feel sadness. I've come to terms with his death. I've learned lessons that will be with me until I'm dead and have become a pile of so much ash.

I've learned that telling those you love how much they mean to you is one of the, if not the most important things in the world. I've realized that my life is better, that I'm a better person, because of my father's death. That lesson hurt. Can you imagine what it would be like to know that the greatest gift your parent ever gave you was their death?

He doesn't know that of course. He didn't die for me. He killed himself. It was a passive form of suicide but he knew he was dying, he knew his body was in trouble.

Yet he did nothing. Maybe somewhere in his heart he knew my life would be better without him. Maybe I didn't factor into any of it at all. Of course I'd like to think that I did but I doubt it. His greatest love in life was in the bottles of Jack Daniels I found in his room when I was helping my grandparents clean up his belongings. In fact, my primary memory of him before he and my mother divorced when I was 4 is of the six packs of Coors he'd buy. They were the cans with the wide silver band around the bottom. Vivid memories of those cans.

He was the first person I was close to who died. He hasn't been the last. Years later, I joke about being the expert at death. I can grieve with my eyes closed. So many people I care about gone forever.

Thanks to my father, I can handle it. I can suffer loss and come through fine on the other side.
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My heart aches. Not for anyone specifically but more for the absence of someone.
Each resonating heart beat echoes in the emptiness of my chest.
Lonliness folds upon itself exponentially, crushing me.
I need a sun to shine upon the inside my soul.
I feel shiftless, a piece of flotsam floating along the current.
There's some thing, some part of myself that is missing and I can almost see it. I can feel it against my fingertips but I can't grasp it.
It's there, on the tip of my tongue but I can't quite taste it.
It's there, taunting me. Leaving me wanting and incomplete.
It's there, frustrating me with its absence.
It's there, and I can't have it yet.