Right now I’m in the third stage of quitting, the one where I’m grouchy. Did I type grouchy? Stupid me. How about irritable and mean? I might commit murder for a cigarette. Best if I were in a straitjacket. And you can bet your sweet you-know-what that I’m sure as hell not looking forward to the Sisyphean futility of Stages IV and V.

I know the stages well. I go through them every time I quit smoking. My mood swings range from a defeated man one day to a supreme god the next. But right now I’m pacing my Mission Valley apartment, snapping my lighter open and closed, cursing, looking in empty ashtrays for butts.

Okay. From the top. Stage I through V.

Stage I. Yours truly gets a wild hair up his you-know-where and decides to quit smoking. Out of the blue I become Mr. Self Improvement, Mr. Common Sense, Mr. I’m-the-Boss-of-Me. I up and kick the habit. Just like that. Cold turkey. No ifs, ands or buts. Lock, stock and barrel. Cut and dried. A done deal. This time for good. That’s all, folks. Fini. Period.

Congratulations pour in from all the corners of my ego. “Gee whiz, Mister. You are all right. A real together guy.” “Yeah, a real master of yourself. Your own man again.” “Guess a guy like you is capable of anything he puts his mind to.” “Smart, smart, smart, O Owner of that soon-to-be-pearly-white smile. Strong, strong, strong, O Spirit that rules the flesh.”

Got the picture?

Stage II. I've gone a day without a smoke. Self praise has evolved into excessive confidence, and that into the power-of-will. This born-again Walter Mitty makes a list of resolutions for a lifestyle of health and personal achievement, and even comes up with a few new commitments. From this point forward, it will be morning meditation, daily walks along the river, Spanish lessons and foreign-language movies, museums on Saturdays, finishing Gravity’s Rainbow…..etc., etc., etc. New resolutions not unlike old resolutions. But this time for keeps! I promise.

As usual, I make a deal with the fellow at the am/pm near my apartment. If I come in for cigarettes, I tell him, just say no. And if I beg, tell me to get out. Call the police if I won’t leave.

“Yeah, right,” he laughs.

I'll show him. He'll never see me again. Because this time I have finally quit for good!

Stage III. The one I’m in right now, three days without a smoke. The one where I become somewhat testy. Testy? Did I write testy? Wrong!!! Full of piss and vinegar. Buckets of it. Can’t stand the world or my living in it. We make each other sick. I yell at noisy kids, curse other drivers, kick sleeping dogs. I slug walls, slam doors and throw things around the room. My friends suddenly become dorks, and I vow to get a new set. But I’m sick of people anyway, so why bother.

With me so far? Good. Now hang on.

Stage IV. The Great Debate. My resolve has frayed and my vituperation weakened from nicotine deprivation. I’m a man over a cliff, hanging on by his fingernails. I get to thinking that it really wouldn’t hurt to have one harmless, little ol’ cigarette. I’ll just mosey on down to the am/pm. Then I’ll light up and take a couple of deep, delicious drags from that white wand of rich, brown tobacco. For one thing, my edginess would vanish, making the world a better place. I owe this beautiful world that, don’t I? Just one puff. One eensy-weensy, itty-bitty wonderful puff? Pretty please?

My shoulders are crowded with little white and dark angels who coach me from both sides.

Here’s Will Power, a white angel: “Let’s not be foolhardy, Champ. You know if you give in you’ll lose two ways: halfway through the foul-tasting cancer-ette you’ll begin to hate it for its power over you. then hate yourself for your lily-liveredness. So pull your self together, Boss. Stay the course.”

Enter Caspar Milquetoast, a dark angel: “Well, look at it this way, Fella. Since you’ve already quit and proven to yourself that you can, it won’t hurt to have just one. You’ll never really start again anyway. You know that.”

Re-enter Will Power: “Come on! Ignore that creep. Be smart. Be your own man. Smoking is a filthy, harmful and disgusting habit. You’ve licked it now. So for God’s sake don’t start again!”

Re-enter Caspar Milquetoast: “Listen. Please be reasonable. Maybe this isn’t the best way for you to quit. Maybe you should gradually cut back; smoke one less cigarette each day until you’re down to zero. Or perhaps the graduated-filter method is best for you. Or maybe you should wait and try to quit during a vacation; a new setting without old temptations. It’d be so much easier, don’t you think?”

Stage V, the one where I fall back to earth. I’ve held off the urge long enough to enjoy the first rewards of a smoke-free life. I re-discover smells: hot water, shampoo, clothes, the dog, newsprint, the Channel No. 5 next to me on the bus. Wow. Have I been missing all this?

I’m now going full hours without thinking about cigarettes. Self praise returns. So do the voices from my ego: “Gee whiz, Sport, you sure are doing the right thing this time. And doing it well, too.” “Looks like you’ve finally kicked the habit. A pity you ever started, but thank the good Lord you had enough brains to quit.” “Actually, you know, you got more on the ball than you give yourself credit for.”

I smile smugly, amused by my own superiority. I’ve successfully quit smoking. Whipped the addiction. I’m one of the chosen few. But I knew that.

I see other schmucks light up and I feel sorry for the poor, hooked suckers. Nicotine junkies whose lives are dependent on the next puff. People for whom the sight of an empty pack is panic. I shake my head in disbelief. I’ve been there. I, too, was once a smoker.

I bask in self praise. And not content with unsung heroism, I open my mouth to brag of my accomplishment.

At Hazard Center movie theater I attend “Voy a Explotar.” And although I don’t understand a word, I come out believing I have mastered Spanish. I spot a man on a bench, cigarette in hand.

“I see you are unable to quit,” my voice full of compassion. “Too bad. I quit, you know.”

I take deep breaths, and my nostrils inhale the smoke around him. “Health is wonderful,” I say loudly. “God, but I’m strong,” I boast into the chilly darkness of night, opening my mouth wide enough to make sure both feet are in as I head for the am/pm.

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