La fumée

I used to smoke.

A hor­ri­bly unfash­ion­able con­fes­sion on my part, espe­cial­ly these days. But for a brief era in my still-young life — from some­time in the win­ter of 1999 until the sec­ond week in Jan­u­ary 2002 — I enjoyed the occa­sion­al cig­a­rette.

And yes, I do mean occa­sion­al. At a gen­er­ous gues­ti­mate of my tobac­co-relat­ed activ­i­ties in the peri­od described, I think that it may be pos­si­ble that I was per­son­al­ly respon­si­ble for the igni­tion of as many as two hun­dred cig­a­rettes. For those of you keep­ing score at home, that trans­lates to ten packs in just three years! I was a ver­i­ta­ble smoke­stack back in my self-destruc­tive youth. (Irony Alert! Seri­ous­ly, read­ers: a lot of smok­ers go through that amount in a week. A week. That’s all.)

For much of my time as a smok­er, I was not real­ly smok­ing (although you could have fooled me). It wasn’t that I was light­ing up and then let­ting the thing just burn there between my fin­gers like a sta­tus sym­bol (though we will get that in a bit). No, the prob­lem was that I didn’t inhale. I recall friends who real­ly smoked repeat­ed­ly express­ing increduli­ty at my asser­tion that I had nev­er yet expe­ri­enced this ‘buzz’ they were always talk­ing about. Real­ly? they would ask. Not once? No. Per­haps I was immune…

I sin­cere­ly thought that my smok­ing involved inhala­tion, but as I was walk­ing home from the bus stop one night I fell to reflect­ing upon the physics of it all, and the seeds of doubt took root. With great focus and con­cen­tra­tion I made a con­scious effort to emp­ty my lungs, then filled them care­ful­ly as I puffed on my Nat Sher­man. Wow! So I hadn’t been inhal­ing all this time! The effect was imme­di­ate and, admit­ted­ly, exhil­a­rat­ing. I fin­ished that smoke and went ahead and enjoyed anoth­er in this new-found com­plete way before I went in the house.

That night I slept very lit­tle. I felt like I was being con­sumed with a fever, toss­ing this way and that, my sheets degen­er­at­ing into a sweaty tan­gle. Morn­ing found me hag­gard, grog­gy, itchy and exhaust­ed. I decid­ed I did not care much for this ‘buzz’ and — with the excep­tion of a few drunk­en indis­cre­tions — I returned to my puff­ing.

I do not specif­i­cal­ly recall my first cig­a­rette, nor which of my friends prof­fered it to me. I am rea­son­ably cer­tain it was my friend Phil, a young man who sank deep into nico­tine thrall­dom in his col­lege years, and, when last I saw him, had yet to quit, despite many var­ied attempts. I did not mind his habit, and dur­ing my Sopho­more year I became the non-smok­er who stood out­side in the cold, shiv­er­ing with the smok­ers after evening events. I enjoyed keep­ing them com­pa­ny. It was of course, only a mat­ter of time…

Once I tast­ed of the for­bid­den leaf, I found it a very enjoy­able activ­i­ty. I say activ­i­ty, for the actu­al smok­ing was by far the least sig­nif­i­cant aspect of the whole affair; at times it became almost an after­thought. It was the romance of the whole thing that I latched onto, the cachet of refine­ment and suavi­ty that cig­a­rettes held. The flat green box in my hip pock­et; the rhyth­mic smack­ing of the pack pri­or to unwrap­ping the cel­lo­phane to ‘tamp down’ the leaf (I mean, hon­est­ly…); the ele­gant extrac­tion of that first fresh cig­a­rette. All that, and not even lit yet.

And the lighters. I was in love with the Zip­po; smok­ing was in many respects an excuse to own and use one. I man­aged to lose two of them in my brief career, and the one I end­ed up with when I tossed that last half-pack of Lucky Strikes away proved more dec­o­ra­tive than func­tion­al. But the music of the thing! The bright cha-ching! as I would deft­ly deploy it, snap­ping it open against the edge of left hand on the down­stroke, then strik­ing the flint-wheel and (hope­ful­ly) ignit­ing the wick on the rebound­ing upstroke. It took a lot of clum­sy prac­tice, but when I pulled it off, I was the sex­i­est man alive — Frank Sina­tra, Humphrey Bog­a­rt and James Dean all rolled into one quixot­ic young celi­bate.

Of course, after that rap­tur­ous rit­u­al, I then had this slow-burn­ing can­cer-stick in my hand. Things were gen­er­al­ly less excit­ing from this point on. There were diver­gent opin­ions regard­ing the prop­er method of hold­ing the lit cig­a­rette. I res­olute­ly eschewed the stan­dard between-the-first-two-fin­gers. I just didn’t like it: it felt to me con­trived, awk­ward, and (yes) effem­i­nate. I instead favored what I liked to call the ‘mil­i­tary grip’, cig­a­rette held pinched between the thumb and fore­fin­ger, the remain­ing fin­gers curled over it, form­ing a canopy of sorts to shield it from rain and the watch­ful eyes of snipers (hence the name). Some scoffed at this: “You look like you’re hold­ing a joint” they would say, which may or may not be true (I real­ly wouldn’t know). But it worked for me.

We have estab­lished that I smoked remark­ably lit­tle over a two-year span, but that I did so with mag­nif­i­cent style. But if I was smok­ing so lit­tle, on what occa­sions did my younger self light up?

A great many col­lege per­sons will make the claim “I only smoke when I drink” or “I only smoke when I am out with friends” or “I only smoke when I am in a bar” (not a lot of vari­ety among col­lege stu­dents). While my enjoy­ment of gourmet tobac­co cer­tain­ly had it gen­e­sis in a con­vivial if not bac­cha­na­lian atmos­phere, once I reached the point where I was actu­al­ly mak­ing the trip to the tobac­conist and pur­chas­ing my own sup­ply of Nat Sher­man Mints, smok­ing already felt to me a soli­tary rather than a social activ­i­ty.

I do not think this was due to a feel­ing of sub­li­mat­ed shame at so endan­ger­ing my (his­tor­i­cal­ly-frag­ile) health in such a reck­less man­ner. I typ­i­cal­ly lit a cig­a­rette for my walk between class­es. Walk­ing alone, lost in thought, twid­dling the fil­ter between fin­ger and thumb, quick­ly became a pos­ture of reflec­tion, even med­i­ta­tion for me, espe­cial­ly dur­ing my Senior year, when the tan­gled choic­es of my life weighed most heav­i­ly upon my young soul. In these trou­bled days it was calm­ing to walk and smoke, or sit and smoke, while I tried to find my next step.

In the sum­mer before I final­ly quit, I would sit on the front steps of my apart­ment build­ing in the evening with pen, note­book and pack of smokes. I would jot down the con­tents of my soul, pour­ing myself out upon the page with my ink as best I could, try­ing to find and claim my voice as a writer, try­ing to find my way in a world I had nev­er planned to live in. The only time the cig­a­rette touched my lips was when I lit it; after that it burned unheed­ed between my fin­gers as I wrote, a burnt offer­ing of sorts, incense to the Muse.

Of course, despite all the roman­tic falderol that I have waft­ed in your faces, smok­ing nev­er ceased to be a vile busi­ness. I loathed the taste in my mouth, and the stink upon my hands threat­ened my san­i­ty, so obsessed did I become with oblit­er­at­ing the slight­est hint of it with hand­wash­ing upon hand­wash­ing. My brand of choice, to which I have already made ref­er­ence, was Nat Sher­man Clas­sics Mint. They were expen­sive, and there­fore more glam­ourous than mere con­ve­nience store cig­a­rettes. But they also have nat­ur­al mint flavour­ing in the fil­ter, so smok­ing them didn’t taste quite so much like, well, smok­ing.

I knew they were bad for me, and though I enjoyed doing it, the plea­sure of the act of smok­ing came to weigh less and less against the very real dis­taste I felt for the actu­al smoke in my mouth. By mid-2001 I was smok­ing rarely, and only in times of great stress. I hadn’t lit up in some time when, in ear­ly Sep­tem­ber, two planes flew into some dis­tant sky­scrap­ers I had nev­er seen in a city I had nev­er vis­it­ed, and I real­ly need­ed a smoke. I walked across the street for a pack of Camel Lights and tried to make sense of it all. One of my cowork­ers wrote a poem about that hor­ri­ble day, and the sight of inno­cent-faced me stand­ing in the bright morn­ing sun­light, smok­ing fran­ti­cal­ly to find some shred of calm in this strange new world.

Kiss­ing and smok­ing do not mix. Much more could be said on that, but not just now. I pur­chased my final pack in Jan­u­ary of 2002 as I attempt­ed to talk myself out of upset­ting the del­i­cate bal­ance of mutu­al flir­ta­tion between myself and a viva­cious and beau­ti­ful cowork­er who is now my beloved wife. Not even Lucky Strikes could hold me back from the call of my life’s true love, and as the real­i­sa­tion that this was a fight I was not going to win, indeed did not want to win, bat­tered its way into my obsti­nate head, I crum­pled the remain­der of the pack in my fist. I gazed down the snow-cov­ered street at the retreat­ing form of my new-found love, tossed the things into a waste bin, spat that foul taste from my mouth for the very last time, and got ready for a life­time of kiss­ing.

3 Comments

  1. I’ve maybe only smoked a hand­ful of cig­a­rettes in my life. It is a club to which I have not gained admit­tance. I have done the stand out­side while every­one smokes thing, and so many peo­ple smoke that the par­ty usu­al­ly fil­ters out­side and then the few non­smok­ers are left inside like out­casts. I’ll smoke an occa­sion­al cig­ar.

    Good to know you were just in it for the style.

  2. After read­ing this essay as orig­i­nal­ly post­ed, my wife expressed, well, dis­s­a­point­ment that I had giv­en no time to my actu­al quit­ting of this unhealthy hob­by. So, in this new “director’s cut” you will find the con­clu­sion that I prob­a­bly should have writ­ten to begin with (as well as far more prod­uct place­ment). Enjoy.

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