Camel Breaker

Every morning when I leave the gym, I pass through City Chow, the cafe housed in the same space. Ordinarily I don’t buy anything, but sometimes I will stop for a little cup of tea (sans crumpet) if I’m feeling particularly ladylike. But most times I just push through the turnstile from the gym area, walk several feet toward the doors, and then pause briefly by the window ledge where the cafe keeps plastic utensils and straws for its patrons. And every time I take a paper-wrapped straw for the iced coffee I will drink at home.
I try to do it when no one is looking, because I do not want the cafe employees to resent me for taking a straw if I’m not buying a drink from them. Similarly, I do not want any of the paying patrons, or the gym employees situated a few feet away at the front desk, to see because I do not want them to think I am a freeloader. I am not a cheapskate, and I do not want my reputation as an upstanding member of the gym besmirched. I do not want to compromise myself.
So when I take the straw, I immediately place one of its ends between my lips, and hold it there between my index and middle fingers, as a lady smoker does with a cigarette. (I do not grasp it between my index finger and thumb in an attempt to hide the straw under my curled palm, like a cool high school boy leaning on his Chevrolet outside the malt shop.) Sometimes I take a brief “drag” (not a girly puff, despite my ladylike handling), either furtive or pointed, depending on my mood. I may or may not feign relief at having finally been able to smoke after my two-hour workout. And then I leave, with the straw still propped in this fashion.
I do not smoke. Indeed, I consider it a loathesome habit, only a notch more distasteful than gum-chewing. I tried it once, many years ago, when I was maybe 15 or so, to see what the attraction was for my sister, who, at 14, was already a seasoned veteran smoker. I was about as convincing a smoker as Greg Brady. Greg, as you may recall, succumbed to peer pressure in order to appear groovy among the members of his band. However, he coughed and sputtered like the little engine who couldn’t. And I couldn’t either.
The only other time I tried was a couple of years later, when I wanted to impress a gaggle of impressionable girls with my sophistication by sliding a colorful Galoise from the square packet I’d pilfered from my mother’s dresser. (My mother smoked Kools. What she was doing with Galoise, je ne sais pas.) All I had to do was prop the cigarette between my fingers, my elbow glued to my hip and occasionally arc it to my lips, where I would let it linger when one of the girls happened to look my way. I would imitate inhalation and then exhale with a benign, bored expression on my face as if it was such a hassle, this smoking habit of mine.
Now, twenty-odd years later, I am more subtle. When I take my daily straw, I take it with the habitual resignation of a woman dedicated to staying “clean”. And I know that the cafe and gym employees, and any paying patrons or exiting gym members, appreciate my dedication and admire my strong will. Having them think I’m an ex-smoker just trying to get through another morning without a cigarette is better than having them think I’m a cheapskate. Or a thief. I cannot bear the thought of my cleancut image going up in smoke!