Would you date a smoker? I did

I'd been doing a lot of dating, in bursts and for a few weeks or months at a time, when I met Johnny. There are many stories to tell about him, about hiding away in the suburbs with him and how he led me to music I'd never heard or long forgotten and the many habits he tucked away from me that I tried to hard to pretend not to see. But this story is about smoking, and about how he tried to quit, about what I learned about smokers by being with him.

Johnny was a news editor - I imagine he still is - and we got each other's talents. He was funny and still could club like I did decades earlier. I loved his style and I bit my tongue from correcting his grammar. He was a single father who adored his girls, who wanted very much to be in love and grow a family. I got that. But still, there was too much from his life, too many half-told stories, too many skips in the record for me to trust him completely. 

He was a bad boy, complete with wallet chain, tattoos, precisely pomaded hair, expensive jeans, a short and unpredictable temper, and one glass lined up on the bar before the last drink was finished. He was 85% attitude. He could certainly be professional, polite, romantic, quiet, even somewhat settled. But he was also restless, anxious and sometimes tried too hard. He was not all bad. He was not perfect. And for a time, he was who I wanted to be with, even when it wasn't the best for me. 

It was good that Johnny made me laugh, that he asked me lots of questions, that he was fumbling and nervous on our first date. It was good he was put-together and told me I was sexy and blocked me from the bitter winter wind while we stood in line for a speakeasy bar. It was good he was all of this before I realized he was a smoker.

Halfway through that first meeting, he told me he had to make a quick call to check in on his daughters, leaving me at the bar and grabbing his coat to head out into the cold for some quiet. And since I make practice of calling to say a prayer and a goodnight with my boy every time he is with his dad, I appreciated his efforts. But when he got back inside, he fidgeted around his bar stool for a moment and then admitted to me that he did call his daughters but he also really needed a smoke. He was a smoker. He was sorry. He'd left that out of his dating site profile. He'd debated mentioning it in our introductory emails, then again when he rushed up a few minutes late that night, and once again while we sat and talked at the bar. But each time, it seemed better to leave the detail out. I wouldn't like it. He could tell. He didn't want me to not like him just because he was a smoker.

That night, I said it was OK. And for months and months, I pretended it was. Every other weekend, I sat at bars and in restaurants and on his couch alone while he ducked out for a cigarette every hour, sometimes half-hour.

I lived with the smell and the taste that lingered, that rubbed into the fabric of my own clothes, that settled into my hair. I didn't stand beside him while he lit up, but the smoke followed me anyway.

That summer, he told me he wanted to meet my son, he wanted me to meet his daughters. My reaction was "Oh, hell no" for many reasons, and one of them was exactly what he feared - the smoking. 

I can't bring someone around my son who is a smoker, I told him, recalling how my little boy covered his mouth with a hand like a mask whenever we passed people smoking on the street. That would be irresponsible and unhealthy.

I was definitive, confident, clear as I said the words. And still, I was shaky inside. Why couldn't I take that stance for myself? Why hadn't I said something sooner?

A few weeks later, again for many reasons, I ended our relationship. But that didn't stop Johnny. He began a campaign for us to get back together, and it began by quitting smoking. After that, he started swimming, something he loved and couldn't do when his lungs were filled with so much stuff other than clean air. He tried therapy. He cut back on the clubbing. He brought a picnic lunch to my door. 

While we at lunch out of Whole Foods containers that day, he told me he'd read about the isolation that smokers seek, that fleeing for a cigarette offers them relief and escape. It is about more than be addicted, he told me. It is about pain and fear and needing to be alone.

It was an insight I hadn't expected.  Every time he lit up a cigarette, he understood he was opting out. And that was hurtful to the people who loved him. That meant he was missing out on moments with people he loved. 

It didn't stick - the quitting smoking or the relationship. And just before he hung up on me during our last call, I could hear the long exhale of cigarette smoke blowing across the phone. Once more, there were many reasons that would be the final conversation I had with Johnny, and no surprise he needed to take a drag before that farewell.

A few years later, my son and I were deep in our own conversation about second grade and Percy Jackson and the school peace march when he told me about a class project on pollutants that included cigarette smoke. 

WHY DO PEOPLE STILL SMOKE? IT'S SO TERRIBLE. He was definitive, confident, clear. I recognized the indignation and confusion. 

And then he asked the critical question. HAVE YOU EVER KNOWN SOMEONE WHO SMOKED?

I had to say yes, of course. I told him about how Grandpa smoked when he was young and so did his uncle and so had some of my friends. But then I told him how, a long time ago, I'd dated someone who smoked and how that made me feel.

WHY IN THE WORLD WOULD YOU DATE SOMEONE WHO SMOKED? HOW COULD YOU LIKE THEM?  His feelings were all out there in those questions, in all caps. 

The answer is complicated, just like people. Just like the situation where I found myself involved with someone who had a lot of pluses and a lot of minuses. Being a smoker was not a plus by any means, but I was the one who let it dangle in the neutral ground zero for months. I was the one who overlooked that tiny fire that grew and grew. But I was also the one who finally said that the relationship couldn't go any further with a pack-a-day habit.

My boy nodded, reassured, but in the years that have followed, he will bring up an all-caps question about the smoker I once dated, still just as confounded about letting someone in my life who lit up.

I didn't make the mistake again of being OK with being in a relationship with a smoker or with someone who flees the room to grab a cigarette rather than tough out the tense moments or awkward silences or growing feelings. 

Of course, it is OK to love a smoker. Most of have, some of us still do. And quitting is more complicated than tossing the soft pack. While we encourage the good people in our lives to let go of their cigarettes, and whatever depth of emotions and addiction go along with them, we can also quit the bad habit ourselves - of pretending it is OK, of not standing up for ourselves, for forsaking our own health for someone else's choice. 

We can quit isolating our own needs, quit sitting silently on the couch, quit protecting only the kids, quit shutting our mouths when we want to say ENOUGH in all caps.

Would I ever date a smoker again? No. Not again. I quit other people's cigarette habit. Maybe it is less complicated than I rationalized. Sure, Johnny was the wrong person for too many reasons. But the right person would hear me, would not want to put the kids or me in that position. The right person understands that quitting together means we are all taking care together. 

Today, I am healthier because I quit dating a smoker. The air - and my concerns - are cleared. And I hope for Johnny, wherever he is today and whomever he loves most, that he has quit - for good, for them, for himself. 

Quit Together. Win Together. November 20th marks the American Cancer Society’s 38th year of the Great American Smokeout (GASO), an initiative to encourage smokers to commit to quit or make a plan to quit on that day. By quitting, even for one day, smokers will take a critical step to a healthier life that can reduce the risk of cancer.

Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the US, yet about 42 million Americans still smoke cigarettes — a bit under 1 in every 5 adults. As of 2012, there were also 13.4 million cigar smokers in the US, and 2.3 million who smoke tobacco in pipes — other dangerous and addictive forms of tobacco.

Join the Great American Smokeout by clicking here, calling GASO toll-free at 1-800-227-2345 and visiting the Quit for Life on Facebook.

This post represents a sponsored editorial partnership with the American Cancer Society. All storytelling and opinions are, of course, my own.