I was at Steak Frites on a Friday night. I’d had the gin and tonic, the frisée salad, the glass of red wine, and now it was time for the first Parliament Light of the evening. It would also be my first cigarette in three days, and that first drag was so heavenly and guilt-free.
A woman at the bar was lighting up, too, and asked how my day had been. Not bad at all, I said. Her name was Lucy. She introduced me to her friend Leslie, who she said had had a very bad day: She’d just found she had no more than three years to live. She had lung cancer. From social smoking.
A couple of days later, I met Leslie Barnett at the clock at Grand Central. She was wearing a white ruffled long-sleeved shirt, a beige skirt and sandals. She was in her early 40’s. Blue eyes, bright smile. Her thick red hair was short. (She’d been bald three months earlier, I later learned.)
We went up the steps and sat down for lunch. She’d come in from Bedford, N.Y., where she grew up upper-middle-class (private schools, horses). Her mother runs a high-end real-estate company there. Her late father was a lawyer and in the New York Assembly.
Ms. Barnett smoked her first cigarette, bored to death one night at an all-girls college, Wheaton. She liked it. After graduating from the University of Vermont, she moved to Manhattan and sold advertising at magazines ( McCall’s , New Woman ). “My rule was no smoking while I’m at home,” she said. ” Only if I was going out.”
Which she did three to four nights a week-at black-tie benefits at the Puck Building and the U.S.S. Intrepid , and at preppie bars like the Surf Club, the Crane Club, Boom.
“It was Bright Lights, Big City ,” she said. “It was just fun. Oh, I’m so lucky, and even in those years I knew I was lucky to be living in them. I felt like I was in the 1920’s …. Of course, living in New York, you know, I went out a lot . I was very social-that was the problem-and I loved smoking. I loved it.”
I told her I’d had my first cigarette at 13 and had always smoked off and on since.
“Being a social smoker, you think you’re doing things in moderation, and everything in moderation is O.K.,” she said. “But you also forget you live in New York City and work in these buildings, and who knows what carcinogens are in them? And the chemicals in the rugs, the air pollution …. So that ups it that much more. Plus, I grew up with a smoker in the house, so you know it all adds up. And just because you quit smoking doesn’t mean you’re not going to get lung cancer, and I didn’t know that.”
I ordered a pot of tea to perk up. I had a piece of Nicorette gum handy, too.
I told her I’d planned to stop smoking after college, but now I was 34. I could still smoke a pack in one night, then abstain the rest of the week.
We bonded over the social smoker’s delusional habit of bumming smokes, not buying packs, and always noting how disgusting it was to light up first thing in the morning or walking down the street or during work.
Ms. Barnett said she smoked regular Marlboros, then switched to Marlboro Lights and cut down in her 30’s. If she was dating a guy who didn’t smoke, then she wouldn’t smoke. “I could really control it,” she said.
In January of 2001, Ms. Barnett began to think something was wrong. She was short of breath. There were pains in her left arm. She thought it was her heart. Then she felt very tired and thought it might be Lyme disease.
Doctors told her she was fine.
Last November, she started coughing. (She demonstrated; it was a bad cough). It started to hurt when she breathed in deeply. She wondered if it was pneumonia and took a trip to the Caribbean; on the plane back to New York last January, her condition got much worse. Her face and neck were all swollen up.
“I looked like a linebacker,” she said. “I had veins sticking out.”
Ms. Barnett paused, put on her dark sunglasses. “That was the most awful,” she said of what happened next. “It was so awful.”
She got a CAT scan and dropped it off for her doctor.
“I raced back out of the office because I couldn’t hear it yet,” she said. “And I walked around the block and it was Jan. 21, and I’m crying because I knew . I just knew. I remember a truck driver leaning out of his cab and going, ‘Honey, are you O.K.?’, as only in New York they will do. Then I walked back in and the doctor called me into his office; he got on his knees in front of me and told me. He just said, ‘You have cancer.'”
The cancer had risen to her esophagus. She had to start making decisions fast. Her oncologist told her she was two months away from being dead. She began to network.
“It’s godawful,” she said. “You’re thrown into this world that you know nothing about. You’ve got to do something within two weeks, in my case. And everyone’s calling you. Your family’s in a state of shock. Women are getting it more and more at a younger age. The worst part … was my mother. I kept thinking my mother would have to bury her daughter. That was the worst part.”
Ms. Barnett underwent chemotherapy from February until early August, which killed her ovaries. She had 26 sessions of radiation. They found a blood clot in her chest at one point, luckily. She was recently told she has as little as one year to live without chemo and as many as three with chemo.
“I should be on chemo now, but I’m taking a break,” she said. “When it starts to grow again, I’ll decide what I’m going to do. I’d rather die fighting on my terms, and somehow I know”-she paused-“that it doesn’t quite make sense to me.” Pause. “And yelling and screaming all the way.”
She’s been meditating and thinking about some kind of alternative cure. She recently sold her apartment on 78th and Third Avenue (“it’s killing me”) and now spends a lot of time by the fish pond in the backyard of her house in Bedford, where she lives now with her mother. She’s been enjoying picking out new wallpaper.
“I want to be surrounded by color. I want color. I think what I find most beautiful now is the outdoors, and just color. The color of the sky.” I suggested we go outside and walk around.
“I don’t know if I can. It’s 90 degrees out, and I have fluid in my lungs-that’s one of the things I have to deal with. I might have to have something done, so I’m not sure if I can.”
I pointed to all the people rushing past and around the clock. How did that make her feel?
“Are you kidding me? I love it,” she said. “I love Grand Central. I was a New York City girl born and bred. When you said meet me at the clock, I was like, ‘Oh, the clock!’
“I’m wondering, is this is going to be my last fall? But trust me, there’s a part of me that says, ‘Let’s make it 10 years.'”
We got some white wine. Did she miss smoking?
“Absolutely. I love smoking. I like how it feels in my hand.” She took a drag of an imaginary cigarette. “I like how I hold it out here, I like the attitude of it. I like lighting it. I like taking the first drag. I like it with my wine.”
She told me she wanted to be cremated and that before she died, she would write dozens of letters to people important to her. “When my father died, he was so scared of death he didn’t do that, and I think it’s important,” she said. “So I’m going to start with the letters. And then I’m going to fight like hell. The thought of death is so weird. I have no fear about what’s on the other side. None. But sometimes I’m terrified and I just lose it.
“I’m scared of how I’m going to die,” she continued. “My cancer goes through the bronchial tubes. It will choke me to death.”
How would she like to die?
“One of two ways: Either I die in my sleep, or what I would prefer is, I’m doing some experimental operation-that I’ll either make it or not, but even if I don’t, it will make a difference.”
She finished her wine. “I have mixed feelings,” she said. “I don’t want to tell people what to do. But it would have been so easy not to smoke. It would have been so easy not to smoke. But you know, people are going to get lung cancer and it’s from different things, and the most important thing is to find a cure. ”
I wanted a smoke so bad. The Nicorette wasn’t doing the job. Neither was the tea.
“Walk it off,” she said, getting up to use the ladies’ room. A few minutes later, I looked up to see Leslie walking my way. For a second, I forgot why we were there. I told her something nice, we said goodbye, and she walked back down to the clock.