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Breathing well is the best revenge

If I could have just held my breath for another few years, I would have had such sweet revenge.

It was in Palm Springs, just a scant decade or so before those with the courage and resources that I lacked finally demanded smoke-free workplaces. I will never forget sitting elbow to elbow with a mean-spirited chain smoker.

When I think that now, every single time that woman wants a smoke, she has to get up and go out into the 114-degree Palm Springs heat, a shiver of pleasure runs down my spine.  I am hard-pressed to keep from laughing aloud at the thought, and jumping up to do a little happy dance. If I were still there, I might even post a sign — a big sign — on my desk that reads, “I was right and you were so, so wrong!”

I am mature. I am in control. I do not rise to anger easily with adults these days.  But, oh boy, do I wish I could time-travel back to the newsroom where I lost the good fight, trying to get my editor to let some fresh air into the newsroom.

Instead, she made my life a double misery. Not only did I have to breathe her smoke, but she bit my head off several times over the suggestion that her ciggies might bother someone else.

How dare I suggest that she should not smoke? What kind of pushy, demanding, oversensitive weirdo was I, anyway? She was the senior copy editor. I was the lowly headline writer. Didn’t I know my place?

Those who fought long and hard to kick cigarettes out of airplanes, offices and classrooms are my true heroes, but where were they when I needed them?

I had all the instincts of a trendsetter, but none of the backbone. Back then, I was a lone voice in the wilderness, left to suck in that just-barely secondhand smoke all day long.

All the watering of my eyes and my coughing were seen as weakness. My attempts to buy the then-revolutionary “smokeless” ashtrays were laughed at.

They used them, but they generally failed to flip on the fan that made them even marginally effective. And guess who had to empty them? I don’t remember this woman’s name, and her face is all wreathed in a cloud of smoke.

There’s every chance she wouldn’t have the faintest recollection of me or my agonizing six months under her nicotine-stained fist, but I would most graciously jog her memory.

I would ask her sweetly if she is still able to find those Camel no-filters at the truck stops. Is she, I would gently query, able to catch a little suntan standing on the sidewalk in the sizzling heat? I would also be sure to inquire just how her emphysema is doing and is she on oxygen yet.

Manners aside, I might be inclined to suggest, as I did back then, that now is a really good time to consider kicking the habit. As of 2001, we had laws prohibiting smoking even outside on publicly owned property. Now, she’d have to hike off into the sand dunes to catch a smoke.

Well, of course, it’s extreme, but if you had just shown us non-smokers a pinch, a puff of courtesy back in the old days, we wouldn’t be going so far out of our way to grind you out like an old butt.

Hell hath no fury like the tobacco-sensitive scorned.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer still surprised when she discovers someone smoking a cigarette. Contact her at [email protected].