I smoke when I hate me, I want to burn her up. I smoke when I hate you, you never give me that buzz, that dependability. A lighter flick is a stand-in, we all know that. A flame is the semblance of touch, the semblance of love. Can I borrow your lighter? I ask, but I’m really asking for more: I’m killing myself. I want to, can you help me do it?

I had my first cigarette in college. Junior year. I can’t remember if it was a friend, or a guy, or just another party where I was wearing the wrong thing, where everyone else was rich and smooth, correctly taking the right drugs and I was there with eyes too big — so big people always mention it — feelings too raw, trying to figure out what I was supposed to be looking at. Was it you? Whoever my you was had left me lonely again, so I’m at another party with my abandonment issues and a shot of, god, what, vodka?

Give me a cigarette, I said to him, outside, close to tears, but also exuberant, drunk not off the shitty Smirnoff, but the power of making a choice. He looked at me funny, I was the good girl, we all knew I didn’t smoke. You don’t smoke, he said. I try to be fierce with rich strangers, but really I just needed help. Please, just give me a fucking cigarette? He caved, smirking while I stumbled through my follow-up: Can I borrow your lighter?

That was my first one, on the front balcony in the Malibu Villas. Then, another on the back balcony, and then, many more — outside your room, on the way to the car, while driving away, looking out at the blue instead of the pale, stucco elegance. I hate Malibu, I’d trill, Valley Girl hint, California bored, externalizing my self-loathing in a plume of smoke. I thought I looked cool, aloof, cosmopolitan. Honestly, I did look cool. Hating myself, sabotaging my one sweet life, I look so good doing it.

There are things worse than smoking, you know. Those women, the ones who walk by you with poison eyes and a fake cough. Do you think hate forms wrinkles and rots your lungs, the same way smoke does? The smokers I know are good people with hearts of gold. There’s no way emotionally abusing strangers as a habit doesn’t give you cancer, too, right? When they glare at me I realize wouldn’t trade it, ever, knowing about the pain, the smoke, knowing real loss.

I didn’t know how to inhale. That’s the funniest part about college-innocent, pre-New York me. I “smoked” but I didn’t know how to inhale. I also didn’t know what cigarettes to buy, I’d always bum or get like, Marlboro because the red and white packaging seemed so iconic. I wanted to be my own cowboy. If things hurt bad enough I needed something worse. Something… cooler. I needed the next step down and I hated drugs. But I felt alive when I smoked. Finally, I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to, something my parents would hate.

I was fudging a bit, talking about those women like they were strangers. That’s what my dad would do around smokers, growing up. A loud, haughty cough like an explosion, or a thunderstorm. Purposeful. In my mind I always took the smoker’s side. I’d take anyone’s side against dad, except my own.

At this point, I was 21 and still a virgin. Never smoked pot, never tried a single drug. Barely did more than kiss, got good grades. I went to chapel on time, I went extra, I even liked it still. But, I smoked. That was mine. Cait, what the fuck? K said, genuinely angry when she saw me light up at a party. Those things kill you. I didn’t know you smoked, the water polo boys would say, encouraged. Cupping a hand around their lighter flame was as close as they got. Even virgin me knew: Smoke is better intimacy than sex. Two years smoke-free, I stand by that.

When I lived in LA during college, I didn’t smoke regularly, it was more of a way for me to gauge how bad things had been lately. I called it the big black. I didn’t really know about depression or trauma yet. Christianity isn’t great at dealing with mental health; there was just being in the light or being in sin. I never wanted them once I was back to daily life, schedule, structure, sunlight. Cigarettes were my weekend nights, they were freedom. Nothing I did while smoking seemed permanent.

After college and grad school, I moved to New York at 24, and I learned how to inhale. In Brooklyn, cigs were different. Cigarettes were currency, a lifeline, a distraction, a commute, a companion. American Spirits, yellow. I tried to say it with authority so the bodega guys wouldn’t card me, but they always did anyway. I felt like they somehow knew I wasn’t allowed, that I was breaking the rules. Here, I smoked for pleasure, joy even.

Honestly, I did look cool. Hating myself, sabotaging my one sweet life, I look so good doing it.

Everyone smoked. Z, just divorced, plowed through them, so I’d pick up a couple with him. L, dreams of Broadway bright in her eyes, smoked like a French femme fatale, glowing with the kind of elegance I’d only ever aspire to. She could be in her apron or her nightgown and still look like a movie star, smoking.

Later, when I moved to Queens, I’d smoke alone on my stoop. I smoked through the worst days of my life there; when dad became a woman and asked me to hide it from her sons, when my first love unceremoniously checked out of my heart, when I took a hacksaw to most of my other friendships. I smoked to keep away the plans that kept creeping into my head, unbidden — knives, or pills, other forms of obliteration. Smoking was not that. It was the opposite.

Cigarettes will kill me? Cigarettes kept me alive. Cigarettes are my dad now, I joked to one friend, who, horrified and frozen, refused to laugh. So I took a hacksaw to that friendship, too. What’s the point, if I’m more worried about your feelings on the situation than mine? Some advice: Pursuit of the utterly absurd is the only thing that got me through it, that is getting me through. Present tense. I think I’d kill for a friend who would make fun of it, straight-faced, unasked, who wouldn’t lightly flinch when I say trans, who asks me all the fucking ugly, messy questions because they want to know the answer. I want someone I can tell the truth to. Instead I text Z, do you think dad will try smoking pot now? She never will, he writes back.

I like to write about not being comfortable in my own body. Writing it makes it less true, not more. I like to write it so I know I’m not the only one. I like to write it because it makes me feel like I might be able to make a home here, eventually. I guess that’s just something else you got from your father. If I could get my mom to make that joke, I think everything would be fixed. The way saying what I’m mad about makes the anger disappear, the way knowing for sure you don’t love me helps with letting mine go.

Mom doesn’t joke about it, not yet. Maybe soon, maybe when my dad feels more stabilized as a her. Or maybe never. Never like I can’t find a fucking Father’s Day card. Never, like I’ll never see dad again. She said she doesn’t identify with that word anymore, so I decided to stop identifying as a daughter. So why do I still want the fucking card on this fake capitalistic holiday? I text N: What if I quit writing and start a transgender-focused greeting card company? Imagining it, we laugh so hard we cry. I don’t know how any kid would do this alone. I have my siblings, and I have cigarettes. Well, had.

I stopped smoking because I’m done self-sabotaging.

When I left New York I knew it was time to quit. I stopped cold turkey. Why did you? Asks a friend, a smoker. Writing about how much I love smoking, what it got me through, makes me love it more, not less. Since dad came out, the rest of my siblings all found their partner, their person. I’m still single. Smoking was the love of my life, I deadpan to a new friend in LA, and she laughs. I stopped smoking because I’m done self-sabotaging. I want to live. But smokers? Those are my family.