January 29, 2016 | by Christopher Urban
I smoked my first cigarette with three or four friends near the pond behind our middle school. We obeyed all the stereotypes, puffing and passing, accusing one another of not inhaling, taking turns as lookouts until there was nothing left but the filter. We were fourteen.
I come from a long line of smokers—my grandfather smoked cigars; my dad and older brothers, cigarettes—so smoking seemed preordained for me. It was just a matter of time. My parents forbade my brothers and me from smoking on principle, even as my father smoked his Viceroys in front of us. Eventually, after shouting matches with mom and in order to make room for dad’s contradiction (which wasn’t lost on my brothers), the no-smoking ban became simply, desperately, “not around the house.”
It wasn’t until a few years after that first cigarette that I began to smoke with something like enjoyment. Nothing went better with an ice-cold beer, I discovered, than a Camel Light. My girlfriend at the time was a year older, which meant she could purchase cigarettes legally—a favor she bestowed on special occasions, though she herself hated smoking. Call it love, or small-town boredom, or just the thrill of doing something previously illegal as a “real” adult—whichever way you cut it, she scored my first few packs.
Once, on a road trip, sitting in the car outside a convenient store parking lot, I gave her cash to buy me a pack of “Supersonics,” knowing full well that she, a nonsmoker, would find it a plausible brand. She returned to the car empty-handed and deeply embarrassed, the clerk having told her that he’d never heard of such a brand. It was a mean thing to do. I was probably envious of her age and what that meant—mainly, the freedom to buy cigarettes. I never did get a pack that day. And I have to wonder if there wasn’t something in me that secretly feared this suddenly easy access to cigarettes. By then both my brothers were pack-a-day smokers and the thought that I, too, would let my parents down must have weighed heavily on me.
My sophomore year of college, still an occasional smoker, I couldn’t believe you had to stand a hundred feet away from campus buildings in order to light up. In an act of some kind of rebellion, I used one of those core-fulfilling Communication 101 courses to give a persuasive speech on cigarettes. Most students had elected to take the easy way out, with informative speeches on charter schools, Manchester United, Lee Iacocca—but I knew I wanted to do something different, something convincing. At the front of the class on the day of my presentation, I gave what I thought of as a bold opening:
Fact or Fiction: Smoking cigarettes makes you look cool?
After waiting a few beats, I placed a one-word slide on the projector:
My audience, half asleep, came alive with bemusement and skepticism. That flimsy transparent slide, the preparation of which was by far the most work I had done for the entire project, had been a success.
“It’s actually true,” I said with a shrug. I proceeded to back up my claim by showing them blown-up photographs of inarguably cool and iconic (not to mention clichéd) images of famous people smoking. Jack Kerouac leaning up against the wall of an empty alleyway. Miles Davis on stage with a cigarette in one hand and a trumpet in the other; Audrey Hepburn with that thin, super-long cigarette holder in her evening gloves. The professor, whose eyes I had carefully averted throughout my speech, asked the only question that day, and it was more of complaint.
“All the examples you’ve given us are of dead people?” she said.
Most of the class applauded the logic of her protest. They looked at me like I was trapped. Smoking isn’t cool. It kills, duh! But I wasn’t trapped. I had anticipated this very objection. Having seen a couple of the students smoking outside the previous week, I’d approached them and asked to take their pictures for my presentation. They agreed. Now it was time to reveal those photographs.
See, doesn’t Alex look cool here smoking next to a big tree? And couldn’t the same be said for Jovi? The way she’s smoking and not even looking at the camera? Regardless of whether my critics agreed with me, surely they wouldn’t dare offend their fellow students to their faces!
For my conclusion, which coincided with the end of class, I stood beside the door and handed out twenty cigarettes from a fresh pack of Parliament Lights on the pretense that it was just another visual aid. Only one person, Stan—a bit of a teacher’s pet—took me up on the offer. We headed outside together to smoke, standing not quite a hundred feet away from the building, but far enough. He hesitated to use the lighter I had just handed him. He confessed that it was his first time. I smiled, mostly to myself. I felt, with his lighting up, that I’d accomplished something great that day—a real persuasion speech—even if in the end I earned a poor grade. I told myself the C stood for “Cigarettes.”
I don’t smoke now. I can’t remember my last cigarette, and something tells me it’s because I haven’t had it yet. I once heard someone refer to his cigarette breaks as the parenthesis of his days, a way to carve out time and space from the busyness of life. I’ve told that to many smokers over the years, usually after I’ve bummed one from them, as a kind of token thanks for their generosity.
In a perfect world, anyone who wanted to could smoke without doing harm to the body. This is the promise of the e-cigarette. Lately I’ve been buying them for loved ones as birthday and Christmas gifts, in the hopes of getting them to quit. But I don’t think it’s working. I’ve tried an e-cig myself and—as the smokers in your life may have told you—though it’s not bad, it’s just not the same. Nothing is. That’s the problem. Chewing gum, body patches, cold turkey, none of it comes close to substituting for a cigarette. There are many explanations for this, perhaps as numerous and mysterious as the reasons for smoking in the first place. But e-cigs lack the flame and smoke of a real cigarette, a chance to be in touch and gain control over those ancient, primordial elements. There’s no lighting-up ritual, no flickering flame of the lighter or strike of the match. Perhaps just knowing that it’s supposedly less bad for you is a bit of a buzzkill, too. A professor of mine once said she managed to quit smoking only by promising herself that it was merely a hiatus. She would take it up again, decades later, in her eighties.
In the Little Italy neighborhood up the road from my college, there was a small cigar shop that sold a seemingly infinite variety of cigarettes. The first time I went, I half expected to see Supersonics on the shelves. I settled for a pack of Fantasias instead, not realizing that inside its golden box was a rainbow of crayon-bright colors: reds, blues, greens, yellows, and pinks. Still, buying them was the best decision I made in those early weeks of my freshman year. It turns out nobody perceives you as a threat or an asshole when you’re smoking a pink cigarette, even if you tend toward shyness. They’re not worried about embarrassing themselves in front of you—what could they possibly do or say that would be worse than smoking such a ridiculous-looking thing? Sitting on a bench and smoking those multicolored cigarettes, I met two of my best friends and a woman I’d later fall in love with.
At his famous weekly salon held at his tiny, no doubt smoke-filled apartment, Mallarmé had said he used cigarettes as a way “to put some smoke between the world and himself.” One imagines him smoking as he said it, of course. With my smoking days all but behind me, I couldn’t agree more. And while that veiled remark, according to critics, further proves the untranslatability of his poetry, with its obscure, symbolist imagery, it also speaks to me of the act of creation and contemplation that I associate with cigarettes, despite their destructive nature. To smoke meant creating space and time away from the classroom or the office, and other demands of life. It meant the promise of a new thought created in solitude. Was that why I smoked? What that what I was thinking when I lit up? I don’t remember. I know it helped me project an image of myself back to me, and at times to others, as to the person I wanted to be—or just as often, not be—even if it was an illusion, even if it was just smoke.
Christopher Urban is a writer living in New York. He’s written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and elsewhere.