It’s been more than 11 years now since I ground out my last cigarette beneath the heel of my boot, but I still miss smoking.
A vile habit it may be, but to me the act of smoking was always a series of small, profound pleasures: the carefully observed ceremony of drawing the smooth white cylinder from the cardboard packet, then tapping it against an available surface; the selection of a single wooden match from the box; the sharp tang of igniting sulphur; a warm jet of aromatic smoke hitting the back of the throat, then being expelled through the nose to hang, spectral in the air.
I know how awful tobacco is. I have seen the X-ray illustrations and photographs on health clinic walls. I know the way it turns healthy, fleshy, pink lungs into dark, malignant lumps that resemble mummified cat turds. I know that side-stream smoke shortens the lives of blues musicians and cocktail waitresses. Still, I miss it.
More than anything, I miss the social aspect of smoking. Sharing a cigarette with someone is an odd, shared ritual, a stepping out of the normal stream of time and activity.
Soldiers on night watch smoke cigarettes to pass the long hours before dawn, being careful to hide the match’s flare with a cupped hand in case of snipers or enemy aircraft. A prisoner in a hidden basement room is offered a cigarette from a package held by the sinister official sitting across the table; a short respite before the interrogation begins. Survivors of traumatic events?floods, hurricanes, train derailments?sit on the roofs of houses or a short distance from the wreckage, not talking, just listening to the sound of approaching sirens.
One of the first cigarettes I ever smoked came from a packet that a girl named Pam Duggan had stolen from her mother’s purse. We skipped health class and followed a muddy trail down to the river behind the school. Hidden from sight by cancerous growths of blackberry bushes, and the pilings of a long-rotten bridge, we lit up Export A’s and sat side by side on the weedy bank, my left thigh pressing against her right, watching a greasy moving highway of black water and floating garbage pass us by. I will always associate the chemical dizziness and faint nausea of that early cigarette with the first stirrings of adolescent love.
My wife quit smoking as soon as she suspected the pregnancy. I was a bit weaker, a bit slower, but still a good six months in advance of the birth of our daughter. We did not want her to have smokers as parents. It seemed to us that smoking and parenting make a poor match, like yoga and single malt scotch.
There is a part of me, though, that thinks I will take it up again someday. Perhaps it will be when my daughter is in her 30s. Then, she will be far too old and sensible to be influenced by my sad vices, and I will be too old to worry about getting cancer of the tongue or throat or lungs.
I don’t think I will smoke plain old cigarettes, though. I’m thinking a briar wood pipe, or tiny black cheroots, for maximum eccentricity quotient. I’ll carry them in a shiny silver and ebony cigarette case, and offer them to strangers, fellow survivors, as we stand on the periphery of strange and wondrous events.