The Best Cigarette I Never Had

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  08.02.2022

The best cigarette I ever had was one I never smoked. Actually, I don’t smoke but I recently enjoyed one anyway. I loved it. It was in someone else’s hands 3,000 miles away. I didn’t light it and I didn’t inhale it. I didn’t smell it or look for an ashtray. I didn’t judge my friend for smoking it and I didn’t try to tell him to quit. But sitting in my home, in the state of New Mexico, surrounded by the Sangro de Cristo mountains, I watched one of the best friends I’ve ever known walk out of a high school class reunion in the commonwealth of Virginia, surrounded by the Alleghany mountains, and sit down with his phone (and me) in one hand and light a well-deserved cigarette. As he visibly relaxed and enjoyed that moment of what he had just accomplished, I thought to myself if I were there, I would have smoked one too.

He had just pulled off the rather impossible, having kept a secret for months. My plan to attend our high school reunion – my first return to a town I had not seen in 40 years. A return to the town where I (mostly) grew up. A return to the memories. Those memories. The ones of the two-sided family that I had run from for decades, where nothing that happened inside the house matched what happened on the outside.

I grew up in the south where, in my immediate family, Basketball and Jesus were a Duo of Kings. I never particularly warmed to either. The former was a sweaty, pushy team sport that wasn’t my style and the latter was filled with judgment and fear for anyone who didn’t fit into the safe box of rules written decades, arguably centuries after the actual dark-skinned, born-in-July man had walked the Earth. It all seemed ridiculous and full of contradictions. The ridicule and derision inside the house didn’t seem very Jesus-like to me but sadly was something I absorbed and grew to believe. Told I was fat and ugly and dismissed for being sensitive because I didn’t want to play the push-shove sweaty game of Basketball, I grew to believe Jesus People were full of shit for telling a young, impressionable girl things like that.

As a kid and a budding adult, my temporal lobe wasn’t developed fully enough to understand that the unacceptance I experienced inside my childhood home was not necessarily happening outside of it. I graduated from high school in a small town I thought was idyllic and beautiful yet never returned. For a while I stayed in touch with friends. I attended their weddings and they attended mine. But as I grew, I wanted to separate myself from the toxicity of that upbringing and I moved further, and farther, away. I lost touch with friends who were no more at fault than I was.

Kent had always been one of my closest friends. He made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt. He still does. There’s something about his delivery and his insight and the absolute humor he sees in this fucked up, inside-out, upside-down world. We went to football games and snuck Virginia Gentlemen into the stadium to add to our soft drinks. We went to concerts. We grew up. We grew apart.

Then a number of months ago, I received an email. He found me because he looked. I’m not that difficult to find, I’m a published author and writer and I have a website but still, you have to make the effort. Kent never gave up on me, or us, or anything. Tucked away, whole and healed, living a life of contentment in northern New Mexico I sat and read the message from my long-lost, but never forgotten, friend. Our 40th high school reunion was approaching and he wanted to see if on the off chance I would come.

I made a pot of tea and sat in the same chair where I am sitting now, looking west toward the mesa just as I am now, watching a hot air balloon float on the horizon. I emailed my friend in a way I had never done before. With the unabashed, unabridged, unprotected truth. With a realization that I was no longer protecting emotionally abusive parents and the knowledge that I am neither fat nor ugly (and so what if I were?) and worthy despite the fact that I still don’t particularly care about Basketball or Jesus. I am beautiful on the inside and that is all that matters for me, it’s all that matters for anyone. I wrote Kent with a heart full of gratitude and love for the gifts I was given knowing my parents did the best they could and so had I.

As the hot air balloon floated out of sight and I steeped another pot of dark, black tea, I wrote more. I shared how my father wrote a letter to me a few months before he died and how he apologized and wrote all the things every daughter should grow up hearing. Things he never said, regrets he had to get off his chest before he took his final breath. The letter was never mailed (he likely died not knowing that fact) yet discovered nearly a decade later and forwarded to me. I wrote to Kent about my divorce after nearly 20 years of marriage and how the last words my mother said before she hung up on me were, “we don’t divorce in this family, you embarrass the hell out of me.”

I wrote Kent from a place of burgeoning wisdom. A place that understands, and accepts, that time will heal most wounds and expose most truths. Years later I learned the mother who wanted nothing to do with me because I had divorced, had carried her secret of an apparently shameful divorce for my entire life. Dots were connected and I felt, as I opened up to Kent, that I was done hiding pathology that was never mine.

The email led to a phone call filled with laughter and tears and the strength of vulnerability of kids who didn’t know and didn’t understand yet who evolved into successful adults filled with love. The call with Kent, a loving husband, dedicated father, and loyal friend opened my heart even more. I knew I wanted to go back. I was ready to go back. I needed to go back.

Plans in place, months later I found myself helplessly reading alerts from American Airlines. Flights delayed and delayed and delayed some more. It became apparent that I would not make it to Virginia to do all the things, see all the people, and share all the hugs that every single one of us deserved. I walked back to my car and before driving the three hours back home from the airport, I sat and cried. I cried tears of disappointment. Of sadness. Of growth. Of the recognition that sitting there in my car, I knew I had overcome the bullshit Basketball, Jesus, fat, ugly upbringing. I cried tears of empathy. I cried tears of love.

“We’re gonna FaceTime this bitch,” Kent said, as he learned that I would not be able to come. And once again, like all the times before, as I sat deflated and defeated in my car, he made me laugh. I felt love and acceptance and I knew at that moment no one would ever again hold me back from who I am.

The reunion happened. Kent orchestrated, with help from his wife’s Hot Spot, the ability for me to talk with classmates I had not laid eyes on in more than 40 years. We joked about all the things people our age laugh about. Hair and age and jobs and families yet there was an underlying, pervasive message that 3,000 miles away was clear and palpable. Love abides. We all have challenges. We all experience bumps. And despite all those things, we have each other.

When Kent walked out of that room, having facilitated conversations between old friends, he sat down and pulled out a cigarette. He lit it and inhaled. And at that moment, there was nothing more important to me than watching my friend sit and relax knowing what he had just accomplished for me, for us, and for everyone.

It was the best cigarette I never had.