She was suffocating, couldn’t suck in enough air, chest imploding. Aster grabbed the L-shaped plastic inhaler off the circular shelf on the standing lamp, pulled off the cover, emptied her lungs, closed her lips around the mouthpiece, and forced the top all the way down. A bitter taste filled her mouth while she breathed in deeply. She was supposed to hold the medicine in her lungs for as long as she could, which, as it turns out, was about three interminable seconds. She exhaled, drew in, exhaled, drew in … such a relief. What she really needed now, really, really needed, was a cigarette. She’d kill for a smoke. She didn’t care what Margie said, smoking helped her emphysema. Aster wished Margie hadn’t found her last pack and taken it away before she left for the hospital this morning. More like a prison guard than a daughter. Always looking for her cigs, throwing them away, sniffing like a hound dog for smoke. And this was Aster’s own big shaker-shingled house with a wrap-around porch. The one she and Billy bought well over 50 years ago, his law firm was doing so well. All this before she had stopped teaching when Margie then Tommy were born. How did this happen, the roles reversed, sweet little Margie now a lumbering old maid — a nurse who should have at least married a doctor — still living in the room she grew up in, ordering her around?
Margie could have done better, if only she’d listened. But to this day, the girl continued to wear those dowdy denim dresses, so-called natural makeup, flats with a skirt for goodness’ sake, and worst of all she absolutely refused to get her hair done. It just didn’t seem right.
And her son — once adorable, loveable, mischievous little Tommy. Why did he have to grow up into a discontent a 50-year-old man with a drinking problem? It struck her that Tommy was now almost as old as his daddy, her darling Billy, when he died suddenly. Neither of their kids ever married. What were the odds? And neither of them would ever give her what she wanted most, which was grandchildren. She wanted to smoke and she wanted grandchildren, was that too much to ask?
She turned her attention back to the golf game on television in her little den off the formal living room.
“He’s the number one putter this morning,” the sportscaster said. Then Justin Rose hit the ball, it stopped just short of the hole, and the crowd groaned.
Aster liked having the television on all the time. The silence would be deadly without it.
She got up, went over to her beautiful green antique desk, and took a glossy photograph off the top. It was a picture of what looked like a close-up of steak with pieces of coal imbedded in it. Margie had brought it home from the hospital.
“This is what your lungs look like by now,” she’d said.
Just looking at it hurt Aster’s chest.
What was to stop her from getting in her car, driving down the hill to the 7-Eleven, and buying a pack of Kents?
Nothing, that’s what. Except … Oh, who was she kidding. Margie was right, smoking was killing her. It was getting hard for her to play golf anymore, could hardly get through a bridge game without hacking up phlegm.
And she did promise Margie she’d quit. And she would quit. She’d quit right now just as she had three times before. She just had to get through this horrible indescribable period of craving. Her whole body ached for a smoke.
The question … the real question … the question everyone had to answer for themselves was: Why keep breathing?
And the only answer she could come up with, now that the kids didn’t need her, was this: It’s the moment-to-moment pleasures, pleasures as ephemeral as air — a thick grilled filet mignon with fried green tomatoes, the thwack on the ball with her driver … But the biggest, most reliable pleasure of all, was the one she’d just given up: the wonderful taste and dizzying feeling of well-being she got from her cigs.
The doorbell rang. It chimed in every room due to devices Margie had installed because she was tired of Aster never hearing it.
Aster slipped on her heels and walked through the formal living room. She could see her neighbor Jolene through one of the long windows on either side of the front door. She was probably coming around to raise money for one of her causes. Charitable work. That’s what seemed to be her reason to keep breathing. Aster put on a big smile and swung the heavy wooden door open.
“Hey Jo, come on in,” she said with a toss of her head.
Jolene was relatively young, in her early 50s; in fact, she’d gone to school with Margie. Aster often ran into her in the beauty parlor and they’d gossip. Jolene was wearing a nice polyester polka-dot blouse and white slacks, not a wrinkle in them. She’d done well for herself. Snagged the local banker, had maids and a cook, and had a married son, also a banker, with two sweet little granddaughters.
“Oh, I wish I could,” said Jolene. “But I have to canvas the whole neighborhood. Not a lot of volunteers came out for this one, and it’s such a good cause.”
She handed Aster a brochure with a photograph of a sorry-looking beagle on it.
“It’s for the Humane Society,” Jolene went on. “We’re having a hog-and-hominy fundraiser at the club.”
The club. Just the thought cheered Aster up. She’d wear her new kelly-green suit.
“I sure would enjoy that,” she said. “Count me in.”
Jolene wrote something on her clipboard.
“Before you run off,” Aster said, “could you do me a favor?” Just this one, then she’d quit. “Could you spare a cigarette? I’m plumb out.”