I know smoking is bad for me, but it’s a little habit I picked up when I was fifteen. I was a pretty emo teenager. Contended with lots of inner tumult and I thought that smoking would make me seem tough.

The act of smoking is, in fact, tough behavior. Beginning to smoke requires a fierce commitment of pushing past the lung’s resistance to the searing heat, against their deep insistence that such scalding pollution does not jibe with what they are trying to do – working at the helm of the circulatory system to oxygenate our blood, keeping us alive and well. Breathing.

I know this, but I have continued to smoke on and off for many years.

It serves me in many ways – it allows me a nice break from the routine of my day. In social settings where I can easily find myself overwhelmed, it gives me reason to step away for a bit. During stressful situations where adrenaline threatens to overload my very sensitive central nervous system, a cigarette calms me; ironic how I introduce one poison in order to offset another. But it works.

And since I don’t drink, and haven’t in over five years because it had become a real bona fide problem, I feel like this particular vice, this particular poison, is okay. For now at least. I suppose at some point I will need to consider more deeply its long-term effects, but for now the short-term effects offer enough of a personal payoff that I continue to smoke, at times more regularly than others.

Sometimes our little habits pay off in ways we might never have for seen. Like the time I met a young man on OK CUPID who was living in Houston. I became friends with him on Facebook – you know, where all your true friends live – and decided to honor his request for me to pick him up at the Greyhound Bus Station. He was coming back to Austin to sell the townhouse he and his fiancé had bought together, his fiance whom had been his high school sweetheart, and who he had discovered 6 months prior, had been cheating on him with his best friend. He had returned home to Houston to heal his heart, which was still heavy with the weight of her betrayal.

Betrayal. It is what we do to others sometimes. It is something we often do to ourselves too, isn’t it? Smoking betrays our body. Those of us who do it know that it isn’t right, but we do it anyway.

He was young and beautiful, and those things don’t necessarily matter, but he was a tangible representation of how youth and beauty can mask the true essence of who we are – he was a tough dude – his spirit had taken a beating. But he sure didn’t look it. Just like I didn’t look tough at 15 holding a stick of orange embers between my fingers.

After I picked him up at the bus station (which was, interestingly not at all weird, because as soon as he was in my car it was as if we’d known each other for many years) we went on a date. We had dinner and we laughed. It was perhaps the easiest date that I had ever been on with someone I barely knew. It didn’t matter that I was twice his age. Or that he was inherently sad. I was recovering from my own heartbreak, the recent disintegration of my 15 year marriage had left me hollow. My sadness matched his. So, when after dinner he suggested we go back to my place … the easy answer was yes.

After he had showered, because bus germs are icky, y’all, we lie in bed playing with each other for a while. I stroked him gently, tenderly, the sadness in my bones transferring from my fingers onto him, coalescing with his grief as it ascended him and ventured out through his kisses, back to me. A circle of sorrow. For hours it seemed we played this way, taking turns with our mouths, with no need for resolution of any kind, only the need for a certain mutual sympathy.

Only the need to not have to be tough for just a little while.

Until … he spoke.

Sadie, you smoke, don’t you?

Yes, I sure do.

Do you want a cigarette?

Yes, I could go for a cig. Do you want one?

No, I want you to smoke one.

Okay, let’s go outside.

No, right here, in bed. Please?

I had never once smoked a cigarette in my house, but I obliged him for no other reason except that, somehow, I knew he needed me to.

I pulled my pack of cigarettes and a lighter from my purse and leaned back on my bed. I pulled one from the pack and perched it between my lips, my eyes trailed his as he watched each movement with a voracious intensity. I rolled the lighter between my fingers, up and down, gently. He set his gaze upon the cigarette. I opened my legs just ever so slightly and placed two fingers from my free hand upon my clit and circled it with a gentle urgency. I lit the cigarette. His face softened as his eyes met mine. He smiled.

I had already been informed that he had something of a smoking fetish, we’d covered that in our Facebook chats. It was a recent development, born of a correlation to his fiancé, who had, when they were together, smoked only sometimes – whenever she wanted to, in her words, “be bad”. Her infidelity inside of their relationship was, in his mind, as bad as she could possibly be, and so he distilled this down to a manageable, tangible essence and created a space where he could eroticize it. Where he could derive pleasure, instead of pain, from the infinite sadness of his loss.

My own loss had flattened me. All around me people were continuing on with their happy lives, and while I was pretending quite well to do so, because I am tough, dammit, I felt broken. The grief that gripped at the center of my very soul seemed ceaseless. Interminable. Eternal. But in that room, anchored by someone else’s sorrow I felt for the first time in what seemed like forever a quiet hint of peace. It didn’t much matter that he didn’t quite see me. His eyes filmed a hazy blue as he watched me blow the smoke out of the side of my mouth, caring not one bit if it clung to the sheets. He stood next to the bed and hovered above me, stroking his cock; the light from the lamp outside the long window, the window that perfectly framed his body, cast his silhouette a deep, smoky yellow.

Are you a bad girl? He asked me. He asked me but not me. He was asking her.

I am, I am a VERY bad girl.

Yes, you are bad. So so so bad.

He stroked himself with more urgency then, his eyes narrowed to angry slits. I inhaled again, this time more deeply, and pushed the smoke out with a moan. The embers began to threaten the sides of my fingers, so with my left thumb and forefinger I pulled the cigarette out of my mouth and dropped it in the water glass resting on the table beside me … and watched him. He appeared to be in a trance – a peaceful, meditative place where in this, his own, inner world, he was safe. Protected from harm. I watched as tears began to grasp for purchase on the sides of his cheeks, I watched as they failed to do so, and I watched as now both of his hands worked intently upon his shaft, and I watched as he hunched over, ever so slightly as he came quietly but forcefully standing right there, his come finding silent refuge in the folds of the sheets, and I watched … as relief swept across his face.

And then I saw myself… a woman smiling at a young man. A woman whose desire to connect (because isn’t that all any of us want?) had brought her to that very moment in time, A woman wiping away her own tears with the back of her hand, tears she didn’t even know were spilled. A woman who still harbored an enduring need to appear tough even while experiencing the toughest event of her life to date.

There is comfort in appearing strong, isn’t there? We talk ourselves into our toughness, as if our bodies will comply. And they might, for a while. But it’s not sustainable. We need to be vulnerable, to acknowledge our vulnerability so that we can then heal the sadness when it presents itself.

Because it will.

After we showered and slept soundly overnight, I dropped him off at his townhouse, which he sold a month later. I never saw him again, but last I heard from him (on Facebook) he had moved to Colorado. He seems happy.

And these days I am pretty happy too. Sadness doesn’t last forever, that’s something I learned along the way. Another thing I learned was that trying to appear tough? That’s just a control mechanism. It served me well for a very long time … until I didn’t need it any longer. Much in the same way I suspect my friend’s smoking fetish serves him (and perhaps my smoking serves me); as an extra bit of padding around the edges of our aching hearts … until they can heal.