From Awkward Teen to Cigar Lounge Queen, How Cigarettes Brought Me to Life

At 16, I didn't understand why I smoked, or why I would continue for the next 20 years

Jules Barrueco - smoker

The author (right) in the cigar lounge at the Hartford Club in 2008.

Two dollars—two ten—two fifteen—

We were out of cigarettes. Again. I scooped a handful of coins from the Halloween candy bucket we kept in my Honda and scrounged for $2.40. My friends and I pooled our change for gas and Marlboros, a church collection plate to fund carcinogens for teenagers. As I rummaged through the pennies, searching for a quarter, I didn’t notice how much the lined, toothless jack-o-lantern face resembled a chronic smoker. Nor did I understand yet why I smoked, or why I would continue for the next 20 years. I only knew I wanted to light another, turn up the Snoop Dogg, and let both pour out the open sunroof as we drove. Look at me, look at me!—a proud cool-girl smoker.

I started at 16 because Jen and Muffy did it, because my humdrum town suppressed my IQ, because smoking occupied my gangly, unmanicured hands. Soon I was hooked, and not just on the nicotine. I had never been a cool girl with a Look at me! persona. I was out of focus, the girl in the background. If boys were around I was practically mute, my only contribution a loud, uncute laugh at my funnier friends’ jokes. When I smoked my first cigarette in the woods behind a house party, I found salvation. With each drag I breathed in confidence and breathed out a fog concealing all that plagued me. And that, it turned out, was even more addictive than the drug.

In the beginning we drove to Jay’s Tobacco Road after school to save 30¢ a pack on Newport Lights. That was before I switched to Marlboros, a more popular brand, even though the menthol taste of Newports blended nicely with my Aquafresh. It was also before I hoarded change and desperation in a bucket, before I needed cigarettes always and everywhere and had no time for smart shopping.

From Jay’s we drove to the boat launch, a big empty lot where we parked side by side, windows down, elbows out, cigarettes fused to our hands. Smoking was the main event, but our communal pile of cigarette butts created something much bigger than the sum of its parts. We didn’t wear black nail polish or nose rings; we weren’t those smokers. If we were rebelling against something, I didn’t even know it.

I quit smoking, but with a loophole: if alcohol was in my blood, I had an unlimited smoking pass.

Smokers came and went. I made friends easier now, and the group grew and changed. Cute boys stopped by in old sports cars and on motorcycles. I sometimes dated them. I always adored them. Conversation flowed now, and when it didn’t, it was fine. Exchanging secondhand smoke was mandatory but words were optional, and awkward silences weren’t so awkward with inhaling and exhaling to focus on. When the really cute boys came and I lost my voice, I lit up and waved my little magic wand. I transformed from silent lurker into goddess of cool, Joan Didion in front of her white corvette. “Your new name is ‘Chain,’” said the cutest boy, Dana Jay, as he flashed me a collusive grin while leaning against his Fiero. With him I lit the fresh tip of one off the cherry of another, back to back to back. I dated him for four whole weeks, the best yet in my 16 years. I went from star athlete to star smoker, and it was bliss.

I thrived socially as a born-again smoker until I left for Syracuse University. There I was a menthol cigarette in a box of Marlboros, out of place and surrounded by a trendier brand. I gazed with wonderment at the girls in my dorm, all dressed in tight black outfits, all sporting frosted highlights blown out like Rachel on Friends. I had a perm and flannel shirts like a farmer. Gone was the confidence I acquired with my Marlboro miles. So I smoked as I cut off my curls and got highlights in a strip mall. I smoked as I bought tight black pants and pledged a sorority. I smoked as I changed everything about myself, all but the smoking—because ’Cuse party girls smoked and thank God I got that right. I danced around the bar like a fool, cigarette in hand—Look at me, look at me!—a cookie-cutter college girl trying to look the part, yet grateful for a taste of home.

Sometime between parties on fraternity row I made a seemingly sensible change. I quit smoking, but with a loophole: if alcohol was in my blood, I had an unlimited smoking pass. At face value it was my smartest collegiate decision. In reality, it wasn’t, because I drank seven nights a week. I was still a full-time smoker from dusk until dawn, and when I wanted one during the day, I splashed some vodka in my orange juice and sparked one up with breakfast. But never mind those details; I was a “social smoker” now. Everything was under control.

If I had no one to talk to, I walked into the open arms of the smokers, an unspoken pact of acceptance among us.

For the next 15 years my “social smoking” rules stayed the same but little else did. I went to law school in Connecticut where sorority sisters didn’t blend well with the constitutional law crowd. I feared I’d feel alone, but smoking came through for me, separating the tolerables from the intolerables and pointing me toward my new friends. I worked hard all day, but my nights resembled a more intellectual version of college with Latin legal terms dropped into conversation where Greek fraternity letters used to be. If I had no one to talk to at an event, I walked into the open arms of the smokers, an unspoken pact of acceptance among us. When I needed courage to meet a man, I asked him for a light and did my best with the next seven minutes as our cigarettes burned like an hourglass. When I questioned whether I belonged, smoking eased my discomfort as I evolved into someone who did.

Sometime between the Socratic Method hot seat and life as a real attorney, a gradual transition began from self-conscious to something else—self-confident? Self-important? My tiny torch lit the way, but it wasn’t always clear which direction we were headed. As a baby lawyer, I ended long days at the corner bar that let regulars light up after last call. “Smoking lantern is on!” the bartender would say as he slid a rocks glass toward me to ash in. The smoking ban was in place, but there I sat with a cigarette between my lips, feeling important. This became habit, befriending bartenders and becoming a literal insider while ordinary smokers were shunned to the curb. I was a proper lawyer now; it seemed fitting that I found a way to be above the law.

My mother had just died, my boyfriend had just leveled me, and in this smoky little room, I felt like I could breathe.

In my late 20s I met a partner from a bigger, more prestigious law firm as he smoked a cigarette by a dumpster. We became fast friends despite our 30-year age difference and soon I took a job with his firm. I used my new paycheck to join the Hartford Club with my friend Trip, a private club with a cigar lounge, because it provided a way around the smoking ban for rich people, and I liked the exclusivity of drinking Macallan with a select few. We rented a cigar locker, our names engraved in gold—in gold!—to store my Parliament Ultra Lights, the chosen brand among young-lawyers. A half dozen men and I met there regularly, gathering in leather club chairs in front of the fire as mounted animal heads looked on with envy. One scotch turned into four, one cigarette turned into 40. We were so sleek, them in Vineyard Vines ties, me in black outfits slightly too sexy for a law firm. Though my monthly bar tab sometimes exceeded my mortgage payment, it seemed a reasonable sum for a time machine that transported us to a Mad Men era when smoking was this glamorous. “We call you the ‘Queen Bee’,” a couple from the Club said one night, as I beamed. “You’re in complete control of everything and everyone around you.” Look at me, the Queen Bee!! After all those years of not fitting quite right, I finally appeared to be in charge, waving my Parliament like a little baton, leading my very own orchestra. Some might say my life was as shallow as my tumbler of overpriced scotch, and maybe they’re right. But my mother had just died, my boyfriend had just leveled me, and in this smoky little room, I felt like I could breathe.

Shortly before I turned 31, I met Al in the parking lot of a bar. He did not belong to a social club, did not want for a fine, single malt scotch, and had never touched a cigarette. His biggest vice was Dulce de Leche ice cream. Although we were both lawyers, he was different than anyone I had ever known on purpose. Yet he looked through my plume of smoke and saw more than a career-obsessed girl trying so hard to fit in a man’s world that she nearly forgot she was a woman. I looked into our future and saw frightening evenings that would not begin with a cocktail and end with a cigarette. How would we talk to each other? Within a year I said “Let’s move to New York City,” and a year after that he said “Will you marry me?”, and a year after that we both said “I do.” Somehow we found all the words.

He chose his words carefully and never tried to shame me, but the look on his face made me want to crawl inside my pack and hide there.

Moving to New York meant making new friends. My new crowd of women didn’t smoke, ordered Earl Grey tea at happy hour, and apportioned dinner checks precisely with a calculator. “See you by 8:30,” Al would say, laughing, as I left for a night with the girls. Gone were the days of credit card roulette and the nights that ended at sunrise. But was that so bad? Nonsmokers were people too; it was time I stopped discriminating. Besides, they were kind and elegant and would never bum my last cigarette. When we walked out of a restaurant and I lit up in front of them, it wasn’t their fault I felt like that college girl with permed hair in a crowd of frosted highlights. While I was walled off from the common folk inside the Hartford Club, I didn’t notice that everyone else stopped smoking.

But I didn’t stop; I just stopped smoking in front of non-smokers. I saved it for home, sneaking up to our roof any time alcohol grazed my lips. Alone with my iTunes I sat there for hours, and as I packed a fresh box against my palm I traveled to another place, Dorothy clicking her heels together and returning to the Hartford Club. It still felt classy, enjoying a smoke on an Upper East Side roof deck overlooking the lights of New York. Never mind that I couldn’t be a “social smoker” when there was no one around to socialize with.

As the temperature dropped, my rooftop exploits felt much less luxurious. I bundled up, shivered, and woke up with swollen glands and a sore throat. Still I kept at it, moving my party of one inside. I turned our tiny Manhattan bathroom into a makeshift smoking lounge, sitting on a lime green bath mat on the floor instead of a big leather club chair. I opened the window and sat there for hours, quietly singing along with Taylor Swift. “I don’t know about you… But I’m feeling twenty-twooooo…” we sang in unison, and though we both felt it, Taylor was the only one who looked it.

“Were you smoking?” Al asked in the mornings, disappointed by my lowbrow habit that stained our ceiling and made our home smell. He chose his words carefully and never tried to shame me, but the look on his face made me want to crawl inside my pack and hide there.

And still I didn’t stop. I simply become more stealthy, sneaking out everything absorbent to conceal my uncouth habit. Towels—gone. Washcloths—gone. Bath mat—What will I sit on?!—gone. I slid the window up a few inches higher and exhaled strategically as I kneeled on the toilet, a former queen on a very different throne. The hours ticked by and I couldn’t stop, an addict who could control the terms until the switch flipped and control was lost. Just one more cigarette. Just one more song. Song’s not over, better light another cigarette. Cigarette’s not done, better play another song. The smell often seeped so deep into my fingers that it took two days to erase it.

I stood alone by the curb in front of a bar, smoking near the place where they leave the trash. I stood next to curbs just like they did. And inside our lungs, surely the “real” smokers and I looked exactly the same.

Finally, belatedly, thankfully, I began to wonder, WHY AM I STILL DOING THIS?

My lawyerly brain, trained to argue both sides of a case, came up short. Smoking out a window, spending $30 a night on two packs of Parliaments, was not helping me fit in, find my voice, or talk to a man. I had learned to do those things ages ago. During our first years in New York I found the balance I needed. I worked hard at a conservative corporate day job and utilized my real voice writing essays at night. I sipped tea with certain girlfriends and guzzled bourbon with others. I watched Gossip Girl with my 18-year-old sister-in-law and attended private parties at MoMA with my 60-year-old confidant. I married the best man I know, who makes me better, but not because I became a chameleon conforming to him or anyone else. To the contrary, I found the confidence to be exactly what I am—and all that that entails—and can’t be changed now, no matter how many prayers his mother might say.

There was only one reason left to explain my continued smoking. I loved it. I loved the feel of a cigarette between my fingers, a natural extension of my body, an eleventh extremity that belonged there. I loved how stress disintegrated and joy took its place as smoke filled my lungs. I loved how smoking made me feel, in each present moment and in all the moments since I turned 16, and how it helped me evolve between then and now. I loved it like the boyfriends I knew were bad for me, like I loved riding on their motorcycles in high school. Reckless. Dangerous. But way too good to quit.

As I contemplated my future as a smoker, I no longer knew which was scarier: quitting, or not quitting. Quitting might mean growing up, admitting I was no longer young and invincible, acknowledging that something was wrong with my actions all those years as a “social smoker” in denial. Not quitting meant pretending I didn’t already know that there was. I knew it when I had a few drinks and smoked a pack or two, not a cigarette or two. I knew it each time I buried a relative to heart disease or cancer, and when my doctor said I had the worst family history he’d ever heard, and when I sheepishly told him I was a “social smoker” knowing that his definition and mine weren’t the same. I knew it when former classmates got cancer in their 30s, and when some of them died. I won’t be above the law when it comes to death, and I knew that, too. I tried to stay in comfortable denial but fear was seeping out with each exhale. A bad habit picked up at a party in ‘94 shouldn’t have still been with me at a party in ‘14. But that New Year’s Eve, I stood alone by the curb in front of a bar, smoking near the place where they leave the trash. I could turn up my nose at the “real” smokers outside my office as I rushed past each day, trying not to absorb their smoke in my Hugo Boss suit, but that wouldn’t save me. I stood next to curbs just like they did. And inside our lungs, surely the “real” smokers and I looked exactly the same.

For all the money in Manhattan I couldn’t sit an hour in my old beloved cigar lounge and not put a Parliament to my lips, so I know I’ll never go back. Some things I simply can’t do anymore. And so, I don’t.

I smoked my last cigarette as the sun rose that New Year’s morning while I walked our dog Tuck Noodle and forgot to enjoy it. There was no fanfare, no declared resolution, no dramatic crushing of the pack. I just never did it again. A year later I still get a knot in my stomach after my second bourbon as the hungry monster in my gut awakes and demands to be fed. For all the money in Manhattan I couldn’t sit an hour in my old beloved cigar lounge and not put a Parliament to my lips, so I know I’ll never go back. Some things I simply can’t do anymore. And so, I don’t.

Last week I returned to my hometown for my dad’s 76th birthday, a milestone he perhaps achieved because, three decades ago, I convinced him to quit smoking ten years before I started. I wandered into an old-fashioned candy shop and asked the owner what the store used to be. “It’s the old tobacco shop,” he said, “Jay’s?” He said it like a question, perhaps unsure whether I would have known such a place.

Along the wall where the cash register once sat, where I used to pay $2.10 for a green and white box of Newports the same color as my Aquafresh, now sit packs of bubble gum cigarettes. I wanted to reach for one, to put the candy to my lips and feel that eleventh extremity between my fingers. I wanted to recreate the afternoons at the boat launch, the evenings at the Hartford Club, the nights on my roof before I knew I had to stop. I wanted to relive all those phases, as different as they were the same, even if just for one sweet, bubblegum moment.

But I didn’t. It would have felt too good—way too good to quit—and I already did.

Jules Barrueco is a lawyer and a writer in New York City. She lives in the Upper-East Side with her husband and their rescue dog Tuck Noodle. Her writing has been published by Cosmopolitan.com. 

From Awkward Teen to Cigar Lounge Queen, How Cigarettes Brought Me to Life