Three summers ago, I did nothing but drive around Middlebury, Vermont, blasting Lana Del Rey and chain-smoking cigarettes. It was—and I will be dramatic, because that is how it felt—an act of survival. That summer I was in an academic program where we were only allowed to speak or be spoken to in French. But I was in love with Lana. After an instructor yanked one of my headphones out and asked if I was listening to non-French music (I was; I was listening to Lana; it was the Lana summer, but he did not care that it was the Lana summer), I took to the road, making sure to only turn the music up after I left Middlebury city limits. Nearly every day, I took off after class, running like hell from a series of sounds I couldn’t get my mouth to make and a bunch of younger students who made them easily. Keys, cigarettes, lighter, go to the parking lot, and drive till you forget what you’re driving from—that was my 3 p.m. to-do list.
I drove through dilapidated Brandon, home to a very sad, now-shuttered diner. I drove to quaint Bristol, and stopped into the studio of an unbearably attractive painter, later convincing myself based on a few very small clues that there’d been a spark between us. I was lonely, you see. I’d recently ended a long relationship, though it wasn’t a bad end. There was just now space in my life. I drove through lots of towns I would never learn the names of, and watched the cows and the very green hills. I smoked, and sang at the top of my smoke-filled lungs.
The guilt made it worse. I was at the program on a free ride. But I couldn’t do five hours of French class and go do my French homework and then eat dinner while speaking French without losing it. I was twenty-seven years old (I thought that was old then). I should have already learned French; I’d been working in Africa for years. I was privileged as hell, and I was squandering it.
But when I blasted Lana, I forgot the fool I was. How good the sun felt pounding through the sunroof onto my already too-freckled forehead. I could see the small wrinkles forming on my face in my dorm room mirror, and in our hall bathroom. (My mother had put me on a daily eye cream regimen at age twelve. Still, they arrived.) But I couldn’t see the wrinkles in my rearview mirror. The light was better; I was ageless, beautiful even, like Lana. “You said I was the most exotic flower,” she growled in the intro to my favorite track, and, buoyed by her cigarette-rasped voice, I momentarily felt like one.
Two years later, a friend got in my car and asked if I’d been smoking in it. “Of course not,” I responded. “What do you think, I’m an animal?” But I’d already forgotten about the Lana summer. And anyhow, I’m back at it again now.
There are few pleasures trashier or less explicable to the abstainer than smoking while driving. I can’t remember the first time I did it, just that my long-held rule dissolved without much introspection. Until then, I would look at the person stopped next to me with their left hand hanging out the window, or boxed in a cloud of smoke and think, “Man, that person’s having a bad day.” Even as I’ve smoked—on and off, let me qualify, to appease myself—for the better part of ten years, there were many lines I would not cross.
I would not smoke inside, unless I was at some chic European person’s huge house and everyone else was doing it, which only happened twice.
I would not smoke if it was raining and I did not have an umbrella, because that is addict behavior. (Also, it’s impossible to smoke a wet cigarette, as I had long suspected and recently confirmed. The other weekend, while I was partaking of some extraordinarily pleasurable behavior—smoking nude in a hot tub, before breakfast—a huge drop of water snuck through the roof and wetted my cigarette causing it to immediately fell apart.)
I would not smoke around my parents, or when I was within the limits of my hometown. It would break their hearts, I told myself, and they would never recover. I did exempt myself from this rule thrice: 1) outside our town’s only bar (the first snow of winter), 2) in a friend’s driveway (a death in her family), and 3) under the now-dead beech tree in my parents’ backyard (I buried the stub under a pile of duff). When my father gently asked me if I’d thought about quitting, I was astonished—how did he know?
I would never buy more than one pack at a time—forget the savings; duty-free cartons were out of the question. Cartons were for smokers, and I was only ever passing through. For ten years.
But life is tedious, brief, and full of mundane rules. The exchange you make if you smoke while driving is that life gets less tedious, but briefer. The Lana album is still in my car’s CD player, but I haven’t listened to it in years; it’s too sad, and I’m less sad than I was then, and I prefer the radio. But several months ago, I drove to campus and back—ten minutes each way—and Lana came on the radio twice. She hadn’t put out an album in years. How serendipitous, and how strange, to be with her again. I was smoking. I was driving. It was sunny, and all my windows were down except for the passenger seat window, which has been broken ever since the Lana summer. I felt that full-bodied joy I hadn’t felt for a long time: the joy of doing the wrong thing, on purpose.