Growing up, there was nothing in the world I wanted more than to smoke a cigarette. Weird? Maybe. What was yours greatest wish, wiseass? Great salary, sports car, fancy house in the ‘burbs, tickets to the opera? Really? Shut up, you too wanted a secret smoke just as much as I did.
Both my parents were fairly heavy smokers. Dad eventually quit cold turkey. In fact dad was, in many ways, a cold turkey himself, so that he could quit in such a drastic fashion didn’t come as any great surprise to anyone. Mom, on the other hand, smokes to this day. But to keep up with the new European standards of living free of second and third-hand smoke (who says we Serbians never change?!), the last few years, truth be told, she only smokes outside of the house. I believe she’s trying to outsmart the European Union which, of course, is an organization invented purely for the purposes of frightening small nations like ours into giving up old (dear old!) habits.
Now then…growing up, I badly wanted a smoke (I was born in the 20th century, before Serbia gave a shit about the EU and its rules). Mom smoked a now-extinct brand called “Beograd,” which came in a simple white pack with a picture of the Statue of the Victor (a famous Belgrade landmark) printed on the front side. She never bought more than one pack at a time. This, I suppose, was her way of checking her addiction. This pack, once opened, always somehow ended up on top of the kitchen credenza, which was a very tall piece of furniture and, more importantly, one covered in the finest dust and an intricate network of spider webs. In order to reach the smokes I had to furtively sneak into the kitchen, climb a wobbly chair, stretch my arms as far up as they would go, and then blindly feel for the pack with my fingertips. Having disturbed the age-old dirt on top of the credenza I would then proceed to sneeze violently, which invariably summoned my grandmother from her downstairs lair. Once she appeared in the kitchen, my mission was cut short.
Though grandma was a middle-aged woman in terrific shape and general health, at the time I thought she was as old as Methuselah. I had come to see her in this way due to her daily laments about the passage of yet another day in her life and her unfailing announcement each day at lunch that her death was…well, simply put, imminent. She deeply believed that she would soon drop dead either from sheer exhaustion (she had borne four children some fifty years before, an achievement, apparently, unmatched by any other woman in human history) or, more probably, from stress produced by the ever-present household worry “Do we have enough bread in the house?” In Europe, and Serbia in particular, all family problems are solved by eating; and you can’t have a decent problem-solving meal without at least two loaves of bread, per person.
One day I managed to get a hold of mom’s smokes before grandma’s daily mental breakdown in the kitchen. A friend waited for me just down the street. I met up with her, stealthily showed her the pack in my pocket, and then led her to a shed in the back of our garden.
The shed was dark and cold. I remember we locked the door behind us and cranked opened a small window. A little bit of dusty light streamed in. We sat on the floor, facing each other. Who would go first? Why, I would, of course. The cigarettes were my mother’s after all. So, I pulled one out, placed it carefully between my lips, winked at my friend, and told her to light it up. Her only job had been to bring a reliable lighter, or a box of matches. She’d failed miserably at her task. She managed to muster only a single match and a piece of crumpled paper. Apparently in her house convenient fire-starting methods hadn’t been invented yet.
I don’t know why she couldn’t simply light the cigarette using the match. Instead, she lit the piece of paper first, and then as I leaned closer to her, she pushed the paper towards the cigarette in my mouth, as if to light nothing smaller than the Olympic Torch. But just at that moment my grandmother discovered there was, after all, not enough bread in the house. As I came nearer the flame, grandma leaned out of the kitchen window and let out one of her unmelodic bellows. “Is there anybody out there?! We do not have enough bread in the house! I will have to bake some, or go to the store!”
My friend was startled by grandma’s announcement, though such exhibitions of unnecessary drama concerning petty lunchtime issues were quite common in her house as well as in mine. But already afraid of being discovered in our shed with her contraband match and paper, she threw the flame at me and jumped out through the half-opened window. The front of my shirt caught fire, as did my bangs (and thank god for that; ugly haircuts, anyone?).
I put the flame out easily enough, of course. I dunked myself into a tub of dirty water sitting, for some inconceivable but very convenient reason, in the corner of the shed. And thus ended my one childhood smoking experience.
I rejoined my family for lunch (fresh bread had been baked in time, thank heavens!), and sat gloomily at the table pondering my future. If only I were older, I thought that day. If only I were older, I would smoke a hundred cigarettes a day. If only grandma wasn’t such a drama queen. If only my friend hadn’t been such a scared idiot. If only that hadn’t been my favorite shirt.
“If only” does a neat job of summing up the principle by which I’ve lived my life since that day. As a kid I thought, if only I could grow up quickly and drop these stupid parents that are holding me back with their rules. In college, I thought, if only this would end quickly enough so that I could get out into the “real” world and get a fabulous job. In my cubicle, clock watching for the magical number 5, I thought, if only I could staple my manager’s head to the wall. At home, I thought, if only my apartment was bigger. In my car, stuck in traffic, I thought, if only I lived in the south of France where, movies tell me, everything moves faster through serene landscapes hugging the sea.
Today, I’m thinking, if only I hadn’t fucked up my morning cup of coffee with too much sugar…if only my neighbor hadn’t started to mow his lawn at the crack of dawn…if only I hadn’t forgotten to close the window last night…if only I could find a job closer to home; in my living room preferably…if only the car hadn’t broken down a few weeks ago, costing me €500…if only I could make more money…if only I could live cheaper…if only I was…if only…
If only I could stop being an “if only” person.