Love, and do as you please
Photo by NEOM / Unsplash

Love, and do as you please

These words have been present in me today. Over and over again they arise, a gentle repetitive rhythm … love, and do as you please.

Love, and do as you please. Love, and do as you please. Love, and …

These words have been present in me today. Over and over again they arise, a gentle repetitive rhythm … love, and do as you please. They’re from St. Augustine, I think. What do they mean? What are they trying to say?

Naturally, I don’t know. But somehow it feels like the words are telling me to tell you a story about love, so here we are.

I used to smoke. A lot. Around 30-40 cigarettes on a normal day, by the end, and if I was drinking, at least 60. The first thing I did on waking up was smoke 2 cigarettes. The last thing I did before going to bed was smoke 2 cigarettes. And in the rest of the day I tried to smoke the remaining 30-35.

I didn’t enjoy this, really. Maybe 1 or 2 cigarettes a day were enjoyable. But the rest weren’t. Many were actively painful, actually, both physically and emotionally. But I just kept going.

I tried to give up, of course. I was the living embodiment of Mark Twain’s witticism - “Giving up smoking is easy, I’ve done it thousands of times.” Some of my attempts lasted a few hours, some (with nicotine chewing gum) a few days. They always ended in me smoking, sometimes furtively, sometimes not, sometimes telling myself “just this one and then I’m done”, sometimes smoking 10 in row … however they ended, they ended with smoking and shame.

In the summer of 2019, Annika and I went to the little island of Susak for two weeks. We’d never spent so much time together before. It was beautiful, a magical time in reality and in my memory of it.

But there are mosquitoes in Paradise too. The amount of time we spent together made it apparent to Annika just how much I smoked. After we talked about it, awkwardly, emotionally, it was also clear that it wasn’t something I wanted to keep doing. I kept trying to give up.

I tried a few times to quit in Susak. Didn’t work. On the bus back, Annika was sleeping, and we stopped somewhere in Slovenia. I jumped out immediately to smoke. Annika woke, and in her sleep saw me, and there was some kind of horror or disgust in her face.

Back in Graz, the next day, I gave up again. We weren’t living together, so Annika went back to her place. I tried for a couple of days, but then I failed again. I started smoking. I kept it secret from Annika though. I can’t now remember exactly how I hid it, but I hid it.

Annika stayed over on a Thursday night, and on the Friday morning we said goodbye. I went out early, to my favourite cafe. I went to “my” table, the bigger one at the back. I started writing in my notebook. I also started smoking. I smoked continually. The ashtray filled up, the cigarette packet emptied.

Something made me look up. Annika had just walked in the door. I had a half-smoked cigarette in my hand, the ashtray was overflowing. Fuck. Oh fuck. I looked at her. Fuck. Something in me crumpled, went very small, bracing itself for impact. I was scared, defiant, guilty … fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

But …

It makes my breath catch just remembering it now.

Annika didn’t shout at me.

Annika wasn’t angry with me.

Annika wasn’t disappointed in me.

Instead, Annika loved me.

She looked at me with eyes of love. She held me, metaphorically, literally. She heard me, the words I said and the words I couldn’t say. She wrapped her love around me, she gave me softness and warmth. She felt with me, she felt for me.

She loved me.

Despite the full ashtray, the half-smoked cigarette … she loved me.

Later, she told me that for one moment there had been something hard and angry in her. But for just this moment, and then came all this love.

I don’t remember what she said, what I said. I just remember the love. I remember standing there outside the cafe, in her arms, and I remember and can feel her love.

You’ll want to hear the punchline, if you’ve read this far: I stopped smoking that day. It’s now over two years since my last cigarette.

Love, and do as you please …