I started smoking again the week rain levels and unemployment were on the rise in Northern California. One I could handle, but not both at the same time. I saw it coming. Cubicles around me in the exchange division resembled a ghost town. The shoot-out began at the far side of the floor and then moved to my area. First it was Jonathan who had several big defunct accounts. Next it visited Sharlene who had joined the company just a few months before. Before Sharlene left, we took her to lunch and gave Jonathan a card signed by those of us who were still standing. I hoped that the Angel of Unemployment would spare me, that there already had been enough sacrificial victims to satisfy its appetite. A big part of me didn't like feeling that way. But I did.
After 15 years of working at the county, I needed to beat a pink slip home. I figured before it arrived I had enough time to buy a pack of cigarettes. You'd think after 20 years of puffing, I would've known better. My plan was to look at the Marlboros on the dash, and then I was going to throw them away to prove I was bigger than that, showing myself and the world I had power over something. Yeah, right. I turned on the radio. Came to a Stop sign and looked hard at the pack. I tried to resist. For the next few miles I managed to shut the pack away inside the glove compartment.
After being off nicotine for years, I pulled into the parking lot at home and ripped open the pack. The gods were with me because I found a book of matches beneath my car registration.
Couldn't light up in the house. Didn't want to let Cathy know that I'd started again. But after the first dozen times of going downstairs because I'd left something inside my car, I knew she was going to get suspicious. She was working swing. The best I could do was ring my habit around her schedule.
One night she came into bed. "What's that smell, Rick?"
"Don't smell anything." I rolled over and played dumb.
"I know that smell," she said, and flopped her arm over my chest.
Good thing I had a cover. The rice had burned on the stove that evening. "Maybe it's the exhaust fan from the oven," I said. I didn't even think the stove had a fan. "I'll check it in the morning."
She sniffed the side of my neck and didn't say anything. We both knew she knew. But that didn't stop me from going to the parking lot of the condo wondering about how I was going to line up a job to pay the bills. I told her how I waited for a half day at a job fair and never got through the doors. Cathy reassured me that something would come up. Yeah, right.
I sat on the curb in the condo parking lot. I was smoking and it started to rain.