Updated: May 28
[The following is a selection from Leon's new collection of comic essays Expletives Not Deleted, available May 30, 2023 in paperback & e-book.]
I’ve been with my wonderful husband Laurence for over 30 years.
And I’ve been good friends with my very first boyfriend, Erik, for 40 years.
Yet my longest-lasting relationship isn’t with a man. My most passionate, tortured, “on-again/off-again” love affair has been with a lady. Perhaps some of you have also been seduced by the evil bitch’s lethal charms and false promises of tranquility.
I’m talking about Lady Nicotine.
Now, I don’t believe in playing “blame the parents.” But in this case, I was clearly genetically predisposed. Norm and Judy both smoked while I was growing up. In those days, Dad was rarely seen without a smoke. In fact, on horseback in his cowboy hat, flannel shirt, and a cigarette in hand, he was the spitting image of the Marlboro Man.
Mom was more discreet. But she loved tobacco just as much, smoking while pregnant with both my older sister Tammy and me. (No judgments, please. It was the early 1960s, before common sense and the Surgeon General’s warnings really kicked in. Everyone smoked, everywhere. Mom is and always has been a wonderfully conscientious woman and mother.)
I wasn’t always a full-blown nicotine addict. In fact, as a child, I was an extremely militant anti-smoker. In grade school, I terrorized my parents with photos of black lungs and discussions of the “artificial lung” a teacher used to demonstrate the immediate dangers of smoking. When I checked the mail, I put any and all solicitations from the American Cancer Society or the American Lung Society right on top.
For a while, I was truly terrified that Mom and Dad would drop dead of cancer at a moment’s notice. But my non-stop harassment did not one bit of good. You truly can’t make an addict change unless/until he/she/they is/are ready.
I was just as insufferable as an early adult. In fact, my first roommate smoked. So inside the decorative ashtray Mom had given me as my first housewarming gift, I placed a card. It read: “Not for Use as a Real Ashtray.” Roommate Dee Dee knew I was deadly serious.
It all changed when I first saw the 1981 film Only When I Laugh. Actress Marsha Mason played a troubled, alcoholic, chain-smoking actress in this film version of her husband Neil Simon’s “serious” play The Gingerbread Lady. Now, I fancied myself a tortured artist back in those days – or at least I aspired to be one. And boy, Ms. Mason made smoking look so fun, so fulfilling, so fucking cool.
Within two hours, the movie erased over 17 years of militancy. After the end credits, I left the theatre, went to a drug store, and bought my very first pack of cigarettes – for 63 cents!
I started with Carlton, the brand so low in tar and nicotine that they’re practically almost good for you. In fact, writer Fran Lebowitz wrote that smoking a Carlton was less like smoking, and “more like inhaling deeply in a warm room.”
Ah, Fran! Perhaps the only person who loves smoking more than I!
Once I was able to fully inhale, I switched to Marlboro Lights (although I think I must have tried almost every brand at least once before I turned 21). Soon, I was a full-blown, foul-smelling heavy smoker. And I absolutely loved it.
What happened to the Leon who despised smoking? Why did I fall so hard, after being so humorless and judgmental just a year previously? In those days, many actors smoked in their films without a content warning. I’d grown up worshipping all things Hollywood, so it was an easier shift that one might expect.
There was also a “daredevil” aspect to it that appealed to me, especially since I never got that kind of charge from playing sports. Yes, I’m comparing smoking cigarettes to playing sports. That Lady really can twist your logic.
Additionally, I was a bit of a spazz back then (still am, some say), and smoking gave me an excuse to stop, sit back, and do nothing but just be – at least for a couple of minutes at a time.
Smokers hadn’t yet been relegated to sidewalks and alleyways, but being an open, unapologetic smoker in the early 1980s was still a bit punk, a sign of subtle rebellion. Smoking fit into the iconoclastic personality I was trying to adopt. I was just too cool to care when people complained – including co-workers, friends, and potential boyfriends.
When a disappointed date told me, “I just can’t be with a smoker. The smell makes me go limp,” I replied, “Your loss, dude.” I wasn’t about to give up on my “main squeeze” for a potential “side piece.” Occasionally I tried to muster through an entire dinner-and-movie without indulging – but I don’t think I ever made it.
Protestations, such as, “How can you smoke a stinky cigarette after such an incredible meal?” were usually answered with “Shut the fuck up,” but said with a shit-eating smile, natch!
Eventually, I made a few half-hearted attempts to stop. I vividly remember the first time I tried to quit. After work, I sat in my dark apartment, watching videos, and tried, tried, tried not to think about smoking. But it was all I could think about. After about only an hour, I was rocking back and forth on my sofa like some deranged mental patient. About thirty minutes later, I was at the corner store, buying a pack and giving up on giving them up.
Those early attempts never stood a chance. As I stated earlier, addicts never change until they want to change. I knew it would behoove me to quit, but I never truly wanted to. So I never did. Eventually, I began a hot sexual affair with a guy who didn’t say anything about my smoking, so I more or less gave up on dating for real … for a while.
By the early 1990s, smoking was considered only slightly less offensive than, oh, child molestation? And the addiction itself was only slightly more affordable than a cocaine habit.
But I still didn’t quit.
When people complained about second-hand smoke, I reminded them I didn’t drive a car1/ but they did (which creates more carcinogenic pollution than my mere ciggie), so again, words to the effect of shut the fuck up.
Then I met Laurence.
God love him, he didn’t pressure me to quit although he often encouraged me to give it up. In fact, he was one of those annoying people who could smoke one or two cigs a day without developing a full-blown addiction.
I soon fell in love with the bastard. We moved in together. I dangled out of windows to smoke. I perched over the edge of balconies. He sometimes joined me. But he never stopped his casual campaign for me to give them up.
Laurence’s subtle nudges were far more effective than the constant incessant hounding of others. As much as I loved to smoke, I realized how much easier life would be if I didn’t. I wouldn’t have to pop breath mints constantly. Or spend a fortune at the dry cleaners. Or wash my hair twice a day.
Then there was the expense. A pack no longer cost just 63 cents. Between inflation, price hikes, and ever-increasing state and federal taxes, cigarettes had more than tripled in price – and continued to climb. Consuming a pack a day was getting pricey. Now that I was a full-blown professional actor, I had expenses like classes and headshots and union dues. Since I was also now in a serious relationship, I had to at least consider the desires of my partner.
By then, both my parents had kicked the habit. They encouraged me to join them in the smoke-free world. And I couldn’t tell my parents to “Shut the fuck up.”
Okay. Let’s get serious and give quitting another try!
I gave up my beloved Marlboro Lights and switched to American Spirits. I figured, between the higher cost and the change of taste, I’d find it easier to give them up.
Ha! Within a week, I loved American Spirits, and realized that Marlboro Lights tasted like formaldehyde.2/
When I discussed quitting with my doctor, he joked that nicotine was probably in my DNA by now. At least I think he was joking. He prescribed the anti-depressant Zyban, and I tried to quit for real.
I lasted until 3:30 p.m.
Soon, I tried again. I lasted half a day.
Then again. For a full day.
Then again. Three days.
And again. For about two weeks!
Eventually I endured eight months without lighting up. I was very proud of myself. So was Laurence.
At least he was. After a heated argument – I no longer remember about what! – I was so pissed off, I wanted to lash out. I rushed out, bought a pack, and smoked them furiously – destroying eight months’ of self-discipline.
Boy, I really showed him, didn’t I?
If at first (or one-hundred-and-first) you don’t succeed, try, try again!
Ironically, stress rarely brought me back to that wicked weed. In fact, during one particularly stressful week after moving to particularly stressful Los Angeles, my cat died, I was diagnosed with pre-melanoma skin cancer, and I wrecked my car. Yet through all of that, I was never tempted to take even a single puff.
It was usually good news that unraveled my ever-increasing willpower. As soon as I nailed a sought-after audition, or landed a part I really wanted, or got a mention in a really good review, I had to celebrate with my good old friend, that vexing vixen named Lady Nicotine.
But she and I were no longer hot and heavy lovers – more like exes who meet for occasional hook-ups.
Then I’d climb back on the wagon and manage to stay there for increasingly longer periods each time. I’d abstain for about six months, smoke for about six months. Rinse and repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
Well, at least I’ve cut my smoking by half! I rationalized after a few years.
* * *
As much as I worshipped Lady Nicotine, I had nothing on my older sister Tammy. She and the Lady first became acquainted in grade school and remained life-long buds.
I worshipped my older sister, whom I called “Sissy,” in our earliest years. I followed her like a shadow; I even went with her on visits to the bathroom. I’d sit on the floor, and we’d just continue talking as though there was nothing at all peculiar about it! We played Barbies together. Watched scary movies together on late-night TV. Made up dance routines to some of Mom’s old 45 records.
Tammy was what was called a “tomboy” in those days. She still liked girly clothes and make-up when the occasion called for it, but she also wouldn’t hesitate to punch a kid if he said something nasty about her. Or about her baby brother.
Me and my Sissy
Once we were both in grade school, she became embarrassed by this delicate little sissy boy who was her brother – especially since I spent the first several days of first grade bursting into tears and wailing her name when I saw her in the lunch room.
“Sissy!! When are we going home??”
Like smoking and swearing, her hormones and blonde good looks also kicked in during grade school. Tammy didn’t have much time or purpose for a clingy baby brother. By fourth grade, she’d already developed a reputation as a boy-crazy wild cat for making out with boys during recess. She also never hesitated to throw herself into a fight in the school yard, against girls and boys. If my parents had been millionaires, her behavior would’ve been described as “madcap.”
I was more of a quiet book worm, and two and one-half years younger which, by the time we reached middle school, was a huge “generation gap.” We no longer had anything to talk about. She got into big-hair rock music. I became obsessed with TV. We drifted apart – but she’d still “have my back” if “push came to shove” with bullying classmates.
One day, Mom found Tammy’s hidden pack of Kool’s. Mom sat Tammy down on the staircase of our house and forced her to smoke every cigarette left in the pack. Perhaps Mom thought Tammy would turn green, get sick, and swear off smoking for good. Not my big sister. Tammy sat there and smoked. And smoked. And smoked.
And she never, ever stopped.
By the time she was an adult, she easily smoked at least two packs a day. She’d joke she was born with a lit cigarette in her mouth (to which I’d always reply, “How painful for Mom!”)
Whenever I flew home for a visit, Tammy and I bonded over many, many, many smokes – as well as other smoke-able weeds. Despite our many differences, our shared dark senses of humor always helped us find common ground.
I never once worried about her heavy smoking because she seemed indestructible by this point. She’d survived a number of serious car accidents, numerous spills off horses and motorbikes, four marriages to some real jerks, a stint behind bars for bounced checks, a few health scares, and more. She never met a recreational drug she didn’t like, yet she remained tougher than old shoe leather. In many ways, I think Tammy was the son Dad always wanted.
Every so often, I’d see cracks in her tough exterior. Once, in the 1990s, she was shocked – shocked! – by Nine Inch Nails’ song “Closer.” She was aghast that her teenaged daughters were listening to lyrics like “I want to fuck you like an animal.” I chuckled as I reminded her of how aghast Mom had been by some of the music Tammy listened to as a teen.
Me and Tammy in 2010
I should have seen it as a sign of things to come. Tammy’s fourth marriage was to a conservative man who eventually became a MAGA maniac.
Sadly, he seemed to change Tammy’s once-liberal nature. I found talking with Tammy was now loaded with too many potential land mines. We went years without communicating.
But when “Cindy Brady” tried to sic her Trump-loving fans on me in 2016, Tammy sent Ms. Olsen a message, threatening to fly to California and personally “kick her ass” if she didn’t “lay off my baby brother.”
She still had my back, after all these years. Despite now being polar opposites, I couldn’t swear her off for good. I loved her, and I know she loved me.
One day in late summer 2019, I got a text from my niece:
“Mom has lung cancer.”
And just 41 days later, my indestructible big sister was dead.
* * *
I got to town mere hours before she died. My niece ushered me into Tammy’s darkened, crowded hospice room. A TV mounted in the corner was displaying local news, but nobody was watching. Everyone’s attention was focused on Tammy on the bed in the middle of the room, attached to all manner of beeping medicinal machines, being propped up by her husband, her daughters, and a nurse, as she desperately gasped for air.
Her battle to breath was intense and unrelenting. Sometime later, as they lowered her back onto her bed, she glanced over and saw me sitting in a corner. She seemed surprised to see me. I waved at her. She lifted a finger, weakly wiggled it at me to wave “hello,” then collapsed with exhaustion until the next battle to get air into her diseased lungs.
She lost the battle early the next morning.
It didn’t seem possible. Tammy was always so invulnerable, so willing to jump into a fight to protect her family or its honor, with no fear or worry for her own safety. It was almost inconceivable that now, so suddenly, she was … just … no more. Who would be the scrappy protector of our family now?
I decided shortly thereafter I must escape Lady Nicotine’s ruthless grip once and for all. Not because I feared Tammy’s fate for myself – a statement that is evidence of my wildly dysfunctional relationship with smoking. I finally told Lady Nicotine to beat it because I don’t want my parents to ever lose a child again.
My life goal became Saving Private Leon.3/
A week or two after I’d returned to California, a Facebook friend (who claims to be a psychic) sent me a private message. She claimed she’d been visited by Tammy (whom she’d never met, nor had she met me) in a dream. Tammy told her that it was okay if Leon needed to smoke to get through this trying time. I wasn’t sure I believed the psychic, but it did sound like something Tammy would tell me. Tammy was a bit devotional in her love of psychics. Then the psychic mentioned she was seeing leaping frogs – and I instantly flashed back to one of my favorite memories of my sister.
We were in our late 20s. I was back in Indiana for a summer visit. We had gotten wildly stoned and a little drunk with her current boyfriend, then we tried to quietly sneak back into our parents’ house well past midnight. As we opened the sliding-glass door into the dining room, we saw Mom standing in the hallway, wide awake, arms folded, clearly annoyed. We instinctively, immediately tried to “play” sober. But just then, a gigantic frog – appearing from out of nowhere – jumped between Tammy’s legs into the dining room! Tammy and I both screamed like Fay Wray, then burst into hysterical laughter as we collapsed onto the floor trying to catch it – exposing us as obviously drunken stoners to our mother.
The story became family folklore over time. But the psychic could not have known! I hung up the phone and burst into tears.
I never invited Lady Nicotine to join my mourning, no matter how sad I became over losing my big “Sissy.”
* * *
It’s now over three years later, and I’m rather surprised by how successful I’ve been.
However, in the interest of full disclosure, there have been a handful of instances when I’ve allowed myself to indulge in a smoke – or a pack – during those years.
Once was when I was invited to submit a writer’s “sample packet” to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Like receiving good news, writing under deadline is still a huge trigger. So this was a double whammy! I had only a weekend to magically pull a monologue, a commercial parody, and a skit out of my ass and get them down on paper.
Fuck it, I decided, and allowed myself just one pack while I paced and spoke to myself (outside) trying out lines. I smoked as I sat in my car reading the show’s very specific “style manual” for its scripts. Once I emailed in my submission, I celebrated with the last cig in the pack, then went back to being a reformed nicotine addict.4/
That week in early November 2020, as we waited to learn the identity of our next President – Biden? Trump? – was also too stressful to resist the Lady’s delusional promise of solace. As we waited out the days for all votes to be counted, I succumbed. Laurence was less than pleased. But I promised to climb back on the wagon once a winner was declared – even if it was Trump – so he kept his mouth shut. And I kept my promise.
Perhaps it’s all about one’s mindset. Because when earlier attempts failed, it took me weeks or months – sometimes years – to work up the resolve to give it another shot. But now, when I’ve allowed myself to be a bad boy for a pack or two, I’ve been able to quit – just stop! – immediately after each lapse. I can walk away from the Lady without much stress or other signs of withdrawal. Like a reformed alcoholic, I will always refer to myself as a smoker, however, or as a recovering smoker. Never an “ex-smoker.” I haven’t quit smoking; I’ve stopped smoking. The urge never truly goes away for good. Every so often, after dinner, the urge still hits me like a punch to the stomach!
I just don’t want to be an active smoker any longer.
An unexpected post-script:
While driving home after writing the first draft of this essay, I thought, you are writing, and you’re writing about smoking. Buy yourself a pack!
I had no sooner lit up when I had a realization so definitive that I spoke it aloud to myself in the car.
“Leon, you just wrote maybe ten pages, including some very painful memories, without so much of a single puff. You don’t need cigarettes to write!”
May that be the last time I use that excuse.
But I know better than to make promises I might not keep.
If I make it to 80, I might just invite Lady Nicotine back into my life.
1/ I didn’t drive for over a decade, an easy feat in San Francisco.
2/Think I’m kidding? Google “ Marlboro ingredients”!
3/Just months later, COVID descended and intensified my goal!
4/I wasn’t hired, but thanks for asking.
Copyright © 2023 Leon Acord
Burgeoning curmudgeon (or is that queer-mudgeon?) Leon Acord takes on current events (MAGA, cancel culture), modern-day life (precocious parents, technology), pop culture (theatre critics, closeted actors), and more in Expletives Not Deleted, his new collection of bitchy yet bubbly essays, all written in the same acerbic voice that made his memoir SUB-LEBRITY a five-star Amazon bestseller.
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