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 thoughts on “La fumée

  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.

Leave a Reply