There’s No In-Between

Describing how Robin Williams was a part of the landscape of your life is almost impossible, isn’t it? He was everywhere. Hilarious, heartbreaking, so talented it’s a fucking tragedy we ever spent any time not appreciating him. It’s strange to say, but I’m looking forward to seeing what other people remember him for, for the things I never considered and finding work I somehow missed. It sucks it’s going to be for this reason. I’m so sorry for him and for his family and friends that it’s going to be for this reason.

I stopped killing myself with tobacco years ago. Not long enough ago. It’s not the only way I tried killing myself, in the way of many young and stupid people. It wasn’t the hardest to quit but it sure wasn’t easy. The decision was mine, freely made and probably far too late. It was just another half-thought-out attempt. “This is it, no more!” and already thinking about what gas stations would be open in the middle of the night when I couldn’t take it anymore. But that time it stuck and I know exactly why:

Robin Williams played a psychiatrist in Dead Again. I had to look up which movie it was. For years I remembered that it was in Good Will Hunting, and I wish it were so I could use that title instead. The movie is mostly Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson neo-noir nonsense, with murder mysteries and secret identities and repressed past-life memories. The part I always remember has nothing to do with any of that, though. The part I always remember is Robin Williams sharing the trick he knows for quitting smoking.

The trick is, there isn’t really a trick. There’s figuring out whether you’re a smoker or a non-smoker, and being that.

On my sixth try at quitting smoking, after years of failing with patches and gums and pills, I lit up the very last cigarette in the pack. All the usual delusions set in; I could totally do it, I wasn’t addicted, I was definitely addicted but I could beat it. And all of a sudden that scene popped in my head. I couldn’t even tell you the last time I watched the movie. But I could see Robin Williams, as clear as I was there with him, in a dirty freezer, sitting on a crate in a heavy jacket with his pack of cigarettes, telling another character that bit of wisdom.

I’ve honestly thought of it every single day since then. Every time I smell smoke from a passing car, every time I see a pack of cigarettes or a lighter, or think how good it was, how it burned, how it tasted, how it masked the things I couldn’t stomach, how it got me away from a desk, out of the office, out of the house, aimlessly driving in the middle of the night, laughing outside of bars, stamping numb feet in the snow, shivering in the rain. I think of Robin Williams as this bitter man who couldn’t stop himself from helping. I think of him saying you have to figure out which one you are and be that. It was so immediate, that scene. I forgot that was Mork, the guy from Jumanji, the guy racing around a stage covered in sweat frantically switching from one voice to the next and opening himself up to a crowd that never laughs as much as he deserved to hear. He was just this guy, in a sweater and a beard, telling me to pick.

It seems so stupid. It was words in a movie, written by somebody trying to be clever, meant to underscore the uncertainty of resolve or whatever, a neat little punctuation for a great little character. But I’m so grateful to him for being that character, and for being that character so fully that he stuck in my head for years and years and keeps hundreds of thousands of cigarettes out of my hands and lips and lungs.

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