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Zur Originalfassung: »Nikotinabusus«

April 10, 2007

Elke Schröder

Translated from the German by Michael Meyn

Nicotine Abuse

I suppose every heavy smoker has dreamed about waking up one day to find out that his cravings for nicotine have given way to a deep longing for healthy nutrition and physical activities outdoors. With exception to my chain smoking mother, of whom my uncle claims you couldn't shake her hands without having the feeling you're crumbling up a newspaper. Which is exaggerated, of course. Smoking ages the skin, it doesn't make it fall to pieces. My yearning for a nicotine-free life quickly but massively manifested itself right before surgery.

Dr. Vogt raised one hand. »How many fingers do you see?« The seven members of the surgical team stayed silent. »68, not counting the hidden ones«, I said, and immediately after that: »I warned you. The narcosis won't work. That guy...« I turned my head to the right and fixated on the anesthetist – »... didn't give me enough.« Dr. Vogt wanted to soothe me and rubbed my arm like he was trying to get rid of an annoying stain. »Don't you worry. Please count backwards from 20 now.« At ten – still counting with a firm voice – the anesthetist next to me proclaimed: »Nicotine abuse!« It wasn't difficult to recognize the gloating joy in his voice. He just as well could have pointed at me saying; »Scum! You're scum, hear me?«

He and I had collided before during the consultation. His office had smelled like lemons and old paper. He had introduced himself as Dr. Jung. His face seemed flat as if drawn on a plate and showed the expression of eternal astonishment. I thought of my mother who used to say in such cases: »His facial features haven't settled yet. He'll grow into his face in time.« She would say that about newborns. Dr. Jung was middle-aged and he was fumbling for a certain form on his desk. He then turned his astonished facial features towards me and began the inquiry. It's possible that my answers sounded a little arrogant. But it was hard for me to show respect for someone who could have easily stuffed the pillows of a six bedroom house with his hair. It started to get uncomfortable when Dr. Jung found out about my cigarette consumption. He lifted his hair away from his forehead and scribbled scores of exclamation points on the form.
»You are exploiting your body«, he said coldly.
»Stick to knocking people out and we have a deal«, I replied unmoved and got up.
»Wait, not so fast!«, he shouted and looked at me in astonished contempt. »Tilt your head back as far as you can and open up wide.«
»You're not serious!«
»Am too!«
»Are not!«
»Am too!«
»But why? This is highly unusual!« My arrogance faded away. Dr. Jung triumphed. »I need to know if the tube can be inserted without any problems.«
»Do not!«
»Do too!«
»Do not!«

I slammed the door when I left, contemplating whether or not I should sue Plate-Face for duress.

When I reached the number five in my short countdown Dr. Vogt glanced at one of the monitors and whistled through his teeth appreciatively. "Considering you're a smoker you have a lot of oxygen in your blood." I didn't have time to feel happy about that. At three I lost consciousness and hours later I woke up intact in my hospital room.

»I have a lot of oxygen in my blood«, I told my mother on the phone.
»Oh, really?«
»Hm, I'm thinking about quitting smoking to make sure it will stay this way.«
»You better leave it, child. If you kick one bad habit, you will take up others.«

»You have lots of oxygen in your blood«, I thought weeks later when I was sitting at the promenades along the Rhine River looking at my watch. It must have been new. I had discovered it around my wrist a few days ago and I didn't know where it came from. It was the same day I had become aware of the Cologne Cathedral. It was towering in front of me so enormously and dark that I lowered my head in shock. That's when I discovered the watch. Cathedral and watch – neither was familiar to me. Things like that happened to me ever since I had quit smoking. I perceived everything more intensely, often as if for the first time and I constantly wrecked my brains over it. Some mysteries I never solved. For instance I couldn't ask anybody why my mother all of a sudden looked so old or who had built all those houses and stores in my neighborhood in just one single night. The only streets really known to me were those which had cigarette machines and little kiosks. They had served me as helpful landmarks during the first two weeks of my non-addicted existence like a cane for the blind whenever I would shimmy through the unknown parts of town.

I got used to the watch quickly. Soon I was unable to let it out of my sight. Now I looked at the digital display fascinated and counted the seconds. »57!«, I yelled out loud and raised my right arm. And then: »58...59...60!« At »60« I dropped my arm at high speed. An old hag at the table next to me turned around and shook her head.
»What's there to shake?«, I asked and gave her the I-Have-Seen-You-Naked look.
»This is the seventh time you're doing this. Can't you just keep it down?«
»No, you better wait till the big 60 hits.«
»The big 60?«
»This time I was only counting up to a measly minute«, I explained eagerly tapping on my watch. »The big 60 is the second that starts the next hour. But there's also the really big 60 at midnight, when a new day ...«
»She's insane!«, the old hag interrupted scornfully and gave me the cold shoulder.

She was right.

I'm insane, I have a lot of oxygen in my blood and I'm calling myself in the living room from my bed. I can do that now because the big 60 has just passed and nobody is calling me at this moment.

Since I checked my last bill I don't trust my phone anymore. Is the phone really off when I'm not using it, or does it continue to use up expensive minutes? First I asked my mother to call me after 11 pm.
»Let it ring only three times«, I instructed her.
»So I know you're doing fine.«
»You're fibbing!«
»Am not!«
»Are too!«
»Am not! Alright, I just want to make sure that moment, please...59...60!... that my phone is actually off...«
»60?«, my mother asked. »Are you ok?«
»Yes, of course I am. Are you gonna call me or not?«

It's a good thing that I have a cell phone. I dialed the number of my landline and listened. The phone rang in the next room. I let it ring three times and hung up relieved. Right before I fell asleep it occurred to me that my cell could have possibly been connected with Triple-A for hours. I looked at the dim blue light of the display which showed me that the phone wasn't active. But could I really be sure? No, because even crocodiles look inactive right before they sink their teeth into the victim. Horrified I climbed out of bed hastily looking at the alarm clock and realized that I only had three quarters of a minute till the really big 60. With trembling hands I called the number of my cell from the living room. It was busy! I cried out, slammed the receiver on the hook and stormed back into the bedroom. Nothing! The cell was resting silently. I got dizzy. I decided to get a cold beer from the kitchen. Just yesterday I had watched a TV-doctor declaring with slim and seemingly dynamic sideburns that a glass of beer might have a soothing effect.

»60!«, I shouted when the alarm clock switched to midnight. I stood in front of the refrigerator in the kitchen for a brief moment and opened it swiftly. As expected, yellow light flooded the floor. Whoever was responsible for bright and dark inside – he was working fast. The phone rang. I grabbed a beer, ran into the living room and picked up. It was Kira, my friend.

»It's always busy when I call«, she complained.
»Really?« I thought of something. »Did you just call me on my cell, Kira?«
»Yea, couldn‘t get through on the landline.«
»Ha! We must have called my cell at the same time. That's why it was busy!«
»So you're calling yourself?«, Kira asked.
»Well, there's a lot to consider. Take the refrigerator, for example. Is it really dark inside when the door is shut?«
»How do you know the light isn't on all the time?«
Kira audibly sucked in air. »I can't know that because I can't look through a closed door.«
»Exactly!« I stated triumphantly.
Silence, again.
»Your mother called me. She thinks you're losing it, and to be honest I'm afraid I'm starting to think so, too.«
»Nonsense! She's exaggerating«, I said trying to open a can of beer without a sound.
»She thinks you're suffering from certain forces since you quit smoking. She noticed that you are puzzled by the weirdest things«, she continued. »Anyway, she asked me to remind you about the pack of Marlboro that she once stuck under your kitchen table.«
I got edgy. »Thanks for reminding me! I was convinced I had gotten rid of all the packs. I had totally forgotten about the one under the table. It will go into the trash right away.«

The next morning I awoke – with a lot of oxygen in my blood – on the kitchen floor. My right arm was painfully pressed against the refrigerator door. I counted five empty beer cans around me. There were two more in the living room, right next to an unplugged phone cord. My memory started to kick in. The whole night through I had called myself, counting seconds and trying to expose the little man who lights up the fridge. In the meantime I must have taken the advice of the dynamic TV-doctor to heart. I moaned when I saw my left hand. It tightly grabbed my cell which, through the pressure of my tight grip, had accidentally connected to the announcement of time. I listened. »It is nine o'clock, seven minutes and 45 seconds.« My head hurt like hell but I waited patiently. »60!«, I hollered into the phone and hung up. Then I snatched the pack of Marlboro out of the trash can, opened it and pulled out a cigarette. I looked at it for a long time and thought about what would be better: »Nicotine abuse« or possibly a long in-patient stay at a mental home with a lot of oxygen in the blood.

Years later I ran into Dr. Jung on my way to work. He got out of a cab with an astonished look on his face, rushed to a kiosk and returned with a carton of Gauloises. He had failed to grow into his face.

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Elke Schröder

Geboren 1967 in Köln. Nach langjähriger Gehirnwäsche auf einem erzbischöflichen Gymnasium für Mädchen folgte kein Studium der Literatur- und Sprachwissenschaften, Linguistik oder Theologie [..]

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