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My Last Time

A smoky end to the airlines gig

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I'm here in England trying to get excited about it being my last time, seeing as how my job for the airlines has taken a total toilet spin. It was a great job while it lasted, too -- kept me equipped with somewhat of a toehold in the world of reality. Or it did up until that total toilet spin, at least, and even then I clung to it longer than I should have. But it's hard to let go of a safety net, even if that safety net is suffocating you.

So here it is, my last time, and the only feeling I have is the vague sense that I'll miss those British prawn-flavored potato chips. That's it. I keep looking around, expecting to be overcome with melancholy, starving myself in case I'm suddenly fraught with despair over a future without Spotted Dick and kidney pie (whatever that is), waiting for it to hit me that this is the last time. But it doesn't.

This is a big change from my last last time in England. That was in the 80s when I was all young, hair-permed and pretty much oozing sentimentality like an untreated wound. I was a different person then, but England was different, too. It was a hell of a lot smellier, for one, and there were no automated teller machines that could suck money out of my American bank account -- if I'd had one with money in it. I had my mother's American Express card, though, which was supposed to be used for emergencies, and I remember calling her once to say I'd used it to buy beer during finals, and she'd said that sounded like a good emergency to her.

By that time I'd been in Oxford for almost a year, studying at a college that was separate from the actual famous university, but that shared the same territory as well as a few of its professors just the same. One such professor was a local magistrate, and I reliably coughed as loud as a lawnmower throughout her tutorials. I cannot for the life of me remember what she taught us. All I remember is that it would have helped my learning process if only she'd have once bothered to put out her cigarette.

By then my lungs were hardly more than two used teabags, anyway, considering the pair of total tar pits I had for parents. They both smoked so much that over time streaks of nicotine would stain our ceiling like the spatter pattern at the scene of a slaughter. You'd think I'd have been prepared for England, but no.

I tell you, the British must toughen themselves by eating cancer tumors on toast every morning, because their collective second-hand cloud is so thick I'm surprised the whole country doesn't develop its own atmospheric ring like the planet Saturn or something. I was there barely a week before I got hit with a bout of bronchitis that nearly ripped the ribs right out of my chest. The doctor told me to stay out of the pubs, because that's where most of the smoke was. Stay out of the pubs? He may as well have told me to stop breathing -- which, come to think of it, I almost did.

Years before I'd stopped smoking myself, at 13. It was one of the last times I ever acted with complete conviction. I remember that last cigarette perfectly. By then I'd been smoking four years and had -- I swear to God -- developed a pack-a-day habit. That night I sat on my friend's front steps inhaling this last cigarette like it could save my life, rather than prematurely snuff it out. My older sister and I had both picked up our parents' habit as though it were the family vocation, though my brother had bypassed the temptation: As a toddler, he'd accidentally eaten an actual cigarette ash and, to get the taste out of his mouth, spent the afternoon rubbing his tongue on the carpet around the coffee table in the living room.

After that my mother fired the babysitter, and my brother wouldn't enter a room unless one of us was dispatched to empty all the ashtrays first. Eventually his disgust rubbed off on me and, thankfully, led to my last cigarette before my lungs began to grow lumps like kernels on a cob of corn. It was something, my last time smoking.

In fact, it seems that all my past last times were better than these recent ones. Now here I am in England, with a fist full of prawn-flavored potato chips, trying to appreciate it being my last time here, wondering when I'll get all awash in sentiment and start worrying about losing my job along with my toehold in the world of reality. Then I remember what Grant told me not long ago.

"Hollis, you don't live in the world of reality, anyway," he said. "You live in the world of possibility." He's right, I guess, so what the hell -- why not make this the last time I think in terms of last times? Yes, that's right. You heard me. Mark the occasion. No more last times. It's all first times from now on. Yippee. Cough.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Slut, and Other Love Stories and Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales From a Bad Neighborhood. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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