Published on February 19th, 2015 | by Melissa Chandler1
IN MY THIRTY-FOURTH YEAR, I DISCOVER FOOD: Melissa Chandler on Quitting and Craving
In my twenties and early thirties, given a choice, I preferred cigarettes over food. Not because I wanted to stay slim, or look cool. I’m a Californian; I knew I looked idiotic and, worse, was committing the ultimate faux pas: being grossly unhealthy. I just really loved the way smoking felt. I loved the consistency, the way a cigarette break was always there when I needed it, always presented itself in the same way. I could be sitting on my back steps with a glass of wine after work, or sneaking out a patio door at someone’s stressful party, or sipping a café au lait in Paris made by a guy who looked at me like I was a millipede because I only knew a handful of French, and the ritual would be the same. The snap of the lighter. The inhale, the exhale, the press of smoke against the lungs. A small pocket of time during which I knew the precise purpose of my hands and mouth. Simple. Heavenly.
But nothing lasts forever. After years of pent up smoker’s guilt, I finally bought an e-cigarette. I was amazed to find that it felt just like smoking. “If I’d known switching was so easy, I’d have done it years ago!” I marveled to my friends, my family, the guy ringing me up at my neighborhood market. No more smoke! Just vapor, fresh and pure as Icelandic glacier water. It evaporated so fast, it might as well not have existed (made from what, I wasn’t sure, yet it must be infinitely healthier than cigarettes, because what isn’t?)
Then I got pregnant.
For a time, I actively mourned the freedom to smoke. Then came a dense, roiling nausea settling into my gut like a houseguest that you gradually come to realize has moved in with you. The thought of cigarettes, e or otherwise, along with alcohol, along with (strangely) all things pumpkin spice, which I formerly loved, brought dry heaves. I was cured of being a smoker, a lush, and a basic bitch all in one go. Walking to work was torture. The smell of garbage trucks and the tar at construction sites made me want to lie down in the street and wait for death. Even innocuous things like the scent of my boyfriend’s shampoo or orange juice on his breath could have me questioning our whole relationship.
But in the fourth month, nausea packed its bags and stole away in the night as abruptly as it had come. I woke up one morning feeling alarmingly normal. And so it came to pass that in my thirty-fourth year I discovered food.
Every apple I eat is Neruda-ode-worthy, and a piece of string cheese in my purse can feel like a million bucks. I wake up every morning feeling intense urgencies. Strawberry pancake urgencies. Peanut butter and banana urgencies. I’m not ashamed to say that I spent an entire week scouring San Francisco for Samoa Girl Scout Cookie flavored coffee creamer. Most places only had Thin Mint, but my boyfriend and I finally found the superior flavor at the Daly City Target, tripping over each other and making loud triumphant noises when we caught a glimpse of it in the refrigerated display.
It’s strange to care so much about eating. Strange and new and delicious, and I wish I had a way to go back and tell my past smoker self about all the things I failed to appreciate. A raw red bell pepper tastes like everything good about the earth. Biting into a cherry popsicle is the perfect way to end a long day.
Sometimes I worry over whether I’ll be a good mother. Sometimes I completely forget we have a baby coming in three months, because it’s much more immediate and important to reminisce about a sandwich that I ate last week (bacon and tomato with avocado aioli) and dream about what I might have for lunch (at nine in the morning). My baby still seems abstract, in a sense. Though I can feel her moving inside of me, for her to be one hundred percent real, I need to be holding her, the way I’m holding this one hundred percent real bowl of orzo salad with lovely, sharp feta, in between bouts of typing.
I may have to reprioritize once she arrives, and I’m certainly willing to do that, but for now I thank her for waking me up to what is surely the most meaningful endeavor a person can aspire to in life: eating everything that will stand still.
Photos by Paul Hudson