Like the northern star, it seems as if they had always been there. The era before they entered my life comes as a blur, a nostalgic ghost murmuring in memories. Whether it was giddily sneaking around corners, or burning through solitary long road trips, they have managed to come along on my journey. My logical enemy, my natural friend, my constant companion. Cigarettes have been an inescapable part of my life, my routine. I don’t know how I’d really ever get along without them, even though it’s getting time that I should.
Out of all the things they warned us not to do in elementary school, cigarettes always seemed like the least harmless. My mother smoked. My grandmother smoked. My aunts smoked. They never looked like the posters of cancer-ridden faces missing jaws, having holes in their necks, desperation and loneliness singed into their eyes. When my family smoked they were usually happy, cracking jokes, even singing karaoke in-between and during cigarettes. I even once witnessed my cousin play an intense game of tennis, all while having a lit cigarette tucked firmly between his lips. I didn’t know drug addicts, or at least none that I was aware of, so that always seemed like a bad route to go down. But cigarettes? Hell, those looked like they were harmless.
My first cigarette came when I was 14. I was at a friend’s house, someone pulled out a pack they had swiped from their family, and the cigarettes were passed out. Despite me being surrounded by smokers, I didn’t know how to smoke. I lit, sucked on the Marlboro Red, and held the smoke in my mouth, trying to blow it out as all the other smokers did. I knew how it was supposed to look, but getting to that look turned out to have a step that wasn’t readily visible. Then my friend, in a typically cruel teenage voice, told me, “What are you doing?! You have to inhale! Like this!” He then took a drag off the cigarette, took a quick and loud breath in, and held that breath, exhaling the familiar thickness of smoke I had seen before. When I tried it, I took a gigantic drag, took my quick breath in, held, and slowly exhaled. I didn’t cough, which I felt very proud of, but my head spinning turned out to be an unexpected side effect. Suddenly the world was a swirl and I found myself clumsily guiding myself down to the ground. I loved it. I loved how it made me feel at that moment. Light-headed, thick-chested, rebellious
The years went on and I would steal a cigarette here and there from my family. Even being so bold as to take packs from cartons that were left deliciously open. There was just so much that I found myself loving about cigarettes. As a teenager not being able to drink, or drive, or drive drunk, walking around and hanging out took up large chunks of free time. Those aren’t particularly thrilling things, but they’re made more sensible if you’re smoking. You don’t want to be home if your parents are bugging you, stepping out and having a cigarette while you were out was the kind of meaningless victory that made smoking worthwhile. But above all else, it felt extremely cool as a teenager. All the coolest people smoked. Mel Gibson smoked after boning some lady. Arnold Schwarzenegger always had some bad ass cigar. Denzel, Johnny, and on and on and on.
As I grew up, and cigarettes came to me much easier by the simple virtue of being over 18, it became less (though not much) about being cool and more about the function and opportunity they provided. Quick successive puffs on a cigarette helped to wake me up in ways that coffee couldn’t. Slow, deliberate drags allowed me to relax, focus on the task ahead of me. It was something to do while waiting for friends to show up. It helped my anxiety, giving me something to do with my hands, granting what I thought was the appearance of someone deep in thought. During what I deemed to be great tragedies, cigarettes afforded me the opportunity to excuse myself to be alone in the open air without suffocating noise. They were an excellent icebreaker, providing an instant in with an individual or two who happened to be smoking, isolated from the larger non-smoking group. And of course, they went brilliantly with alcohol.
While alcohol provides that extra “oomph” that so many people find desirable, it is the cigarette that completes the entire affair. There are few things that are as satisfying to do alone as sitting with whiskeys on a patio, or porch, while decimating a pack of cigarettes. Your thoughts manifest themselves in quasi-physical form after you exhale at the end of a musing or two. Your contemplation is granted that extra pause as you take a long puff on your cigarette. Whether they be Parliaments, Marlboros, Camels, or even Kamels, the cigarette accentuated drinks on a level that’s rarely repeated. The cigarette at the bar also provides endless opportunities of talking with strangers you most likely wouldn’t run into elsewhere. The hot drunk girl will sit with you for a spell as she bums a cigarette and spills her drunken woes. The quiet guy in the corner can reveal stories that would shock you in sober circumstances, but sharing cigarettes in those hazy moments gives these tales a humanity you wouldn’t accept otherwise. They provide you an entrance into a club that is continually shrinking, yet feels no less powerful in spite of the actual areas you’re allowed to smoke disappearing.
Which makes me think it may be time to seriously consider quitting. The law’s making it so a man can’t live in this world with a cigarette in his mouth. Thanks, Obama. But aside from the physical restraints being placed by big government, there’s also the rising tide of cigarette taxes flying across the country. $10 or more for a pack of smokes in New York! There was a time when I could go to the corner store for my mother and buy a pack of Marlboro Lights and a bag of Funyuns for $2.60. But while price and allowable area have yet to stop me, the isolation I once found so desirable is quickly becoming more . . . isolating. I miss out on conversations that take place in living rooms. I have to excuse myself from dinner tables to grab a few puffs to give me the jolt coffee will not. Each year there are less and less people smoking at work, making the smoke break increasingly lonelier. Should something horrible happen and I find myself in the dating pool again, I hear smoking is no longer brushed off as a harmless vice.
However, I know that at 10:00 AM I will walk into an elevator, head out of my building, and round the corner for a cigarette. Perhaps a homeless person will ask me for one, which will be met with a shrug and a lie consisting of, “Sorry, it’s the only one I brought down.” We’ll look at each other suspiciously and move on with our days. Hopefully, in the future, that day won’t have a cigarette in it. But until then, I’ll be creeping on a corner, puffing away my moments in the outside world, clouding everything directly in front of me.
p.s “Forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes outlined unintelligible gestures inside.”