When I finally got to Watsonville, where my mom lives, I let down. The anxiety of LA, the press of mid-life issues faded. I had time to myself. One of my rituals when I'm in California is to get alone, just me and a beach.
So my second morning at my mom's, I borrowed her old stick shift and drove to Manresa State Beach. I flipped on 1970s rock on the radio, rolled down the driver's side window, and drove like I used to when I was 16: down windy roads, steering easily, shifting confidently. It was unbelievably wonderful to drive like that. "Freebird" was playing and I laughed about it. Such an old standard that I usually would turn off. I didn't that day.
I switched stations as I swung into my parking space and Linkin Park sang: "And the shadow of the day, will embrace the world in grey... and the sun will set for you."
And because Linkin Park sang it, it was so: overcast and cold (which is just how I like the coastline sometimes when it fits my mood). I wore a brown sweater over a light blue turtleneck. I parked in the lot that overlooked the ocean. I strolled down the ramp to the wet sand below and stopped to watch the dozens of sand piper babies and their mothers scatter across the shore.
But I had come to the beach with a purpose so I set out to make it happen.
Several years ago, Claire, an online friend, gave me a pack of cigarettes as a joke sort of. Being one of the most drug resistant teens to ever have walked the face of the earth, cigarettes were never on my radar for experimentation. But midlife peer pressure exerted itself on me. Her gift became this taunt, this tease. Will you ever smoke me? the cigarettes nagged. And somehow, that invitation became a fantasy: I imagined myself smoking on the beach all alone some day in the future. Living in Ohio, that opportunity never came. And to be honest, I don't think I had the internal nerve to carry it out anyway.
But as I packed my clothes for the trip, my hand accidentally knocked against the little red and brown pack in my underwear drawer. On a whim, I tossed it into my suitcase with a book of matches... just in case.
By the time I got to Watsonville, I knew I had to, wanted to smoke, even though I wasn't quite sure why.
I can hardly express how weird it is that I would want to smoke, to light up, to put a cigarette to my mouth. I've been such a non-smoker, don't like how it smells on clothes or people's breath, always want the non-smoking section in a restaurant, saw smoking as something rebels or weak people did, etc.
But this was different.
It felt like one of those Sue Monk Kidd moments. She's the one who wrote Dance of the Dissident Daughter and is all about feminist spirituality. She cobbled together a spirituality of touch stone events and rituals that are personally meaningful to her using items like seashells, statuettes of the goddess Nike, candles and driftwood. I haven't related to that at all as I'm such a pragmatist at heart (not contemplative).
But I swear - that day - smoking on the beach was my spiritual act—a claiming of me for me—a refusal to allow conventions and fear to dictate my life. I smoked so that I could stare down the pride of non-smoking and the anxiety that goes with smoking. I smoked because it seemed like it might feel good to do it. I smoked because no one would expect me to. I smoked so I could simply have the experience and write about it authentically. I smoked because, dammit, I wanted to.
So of course, the lofty intention of smoking was immediately humbled when the first cigarette broke in two between my fingers. Six matches flared and went out before I even got them near a cigarette; my fumbling fingers knocked the book of matches to a wet sandy floor, nearly ruining their ability to ignite. It took me repeated attempts to protect the little match flame from the strong breeze that came from the north across my back before it singed the tobacco at the end. I tried to inhale but couldn't coordinate the flame, my cupped hand and my breathing over the course of the next three matches.
Persistence paid off, however, and I finally managed to draw the flame into the end of my very first cigarette and it lit—a soft orange glow. I turned around on the driftwood log to face the enormous grey-green ocean, rolling softly with waves. I sucked in the smoke; didn't inhale for a bit. I just got used to dragging smoke into my mouth, holding it, and blowing it out (like a pipe smoker might). I watched the ocean and then I'd watch my exhaled smoke float away in curlicues. My mouth felt tingly and tarry.
Exhilarating. I liked it. I crossed my arms, let the cigarette hang off my fingers like I'd been chain smoking for twenty years and took in the whole world. I could see the distant horizon as I blew smoke at it.
The next drag, I drew smoke into my lungs and that burned a bit and felt suffocating. So I went back to just sucking the smoke into my mouth, then holding it a moment and finally blowing it out. I loved to watch it float away.
My whole body unwound. The tension, drained. I rested, for the first time all week. I sat, staring, relaxing, thinking private thoughts and being unaccountably happy... while I smoked. I felt a quiet power—a secret I shared with myself... a breaking with the little legalisms of my past. I did not die.
Once I finished my cigarette, I took a really long walk and watched the sand pipers run up and down the shore. I passed two hot 20-something surfers, zipped up in wetsuits. The iceplant on the hills popped with yellow-orange and light purple flowers glowing against the green. The surf didn't roar, but raced quietly on and off the shore in a low hiss. The clouds burst into a shower so I worked my way back toward where my car was parked, not caring that I was getting wet. I lit a second cigarette, easily this time, and smoked it slowly all the way back. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale... wisps wafting away in the rain.
I have now officially smoked two cigarettes by myself on the beach. Unforgettable, matched only by the strange, emotional week. Seemed to be the right symbol of who I am about now. For the rest of the day, any time my fingers were near my face, I could smell the lingering tobacco scent and it made me smile.
Bruce Springsteen says that sometimes we need to break our own narrative to find out what would happen, to surprise ourselves. That is exactly what smoking represented for me - a break with the good girl, the predictable, transparent, orderly Julie. I don't plan to smoke as a habit. But I needed to that day, for whatever reason, to make a mess of me. And it was good. I may smoke again; I may not. Who knows?