This morning I saw two people smoking on a back patio. The image startled me. Of course millions of people smoke old-fashioned cigarettes, I know this. But the ritual of the stolen smoke, the camaraderie of the picnic table — at 9:30am, no less — was like a frame lifted from an earlier era. As I walked to my car, a phrase lingered in my mind. Burn cigarettes.
I first heard the term “burn cigarettes” on an NPR segment about vaping. Maybe five years ago. The interview subject was trying to distinguish between traditional tobacco- and tar-based cigarettes and the next-gen vapor pens that were dominating the market and being promoted (perhaps incorrectly?) as safer. I liked the term. It sounded correct. Burn was the verb I associated most with that activity — the flinty scratch of the lighter, the crinkle of thin white paper at the end as I took a sharp inhale, the sensation of the smoke traveling into me, then back out of me in a tamed white line. It burned.
And I liked that burn, the flick of masochism, a scab tugged and pulled. I smoked on and off for twenty-five years, and when I was drinking, I loved it uncommonly, and when I wasn’t drinking, I hated it. Loathed the smell. Felt nauseated by the plume that erupted from my purse after a long night, shamed by the stink that hung in my clothes.
I had a habit of falling for men who lit up as soon as their feet hit the ground in the morning. I would see them on the back patio, boxers and bedhead as they sucked down that toxic cocktail, squinting as they stared into the sun, and I would think: No way. You could not pay me enough to smoke that early. But I liked how they did. Isn’t that weird? Maybe it made me feel superior. Not addicted. But I also thought they looked … cool? Those slouchy, grimacing men sucking down their Camel Light at 9am were an echo of the hot, smoking men whose images I’d absorbed into my bloodstream over decades, the kind of men I always wanted to wake up beside, the kind of men the men I was dating always wanted to be.
I quit drinking the same day I quit smoking. June 13, 2010. It will tell you something about the difference between those relationships that I wrote an entire book trying to release myself from the grip of one drug and I barely mentioned quitting the other drug to friends. People did a double take. You quit smoking, too? Eh, yeah, but I didn’t care. Without the booze, I never wanted the cigarettes. They were useless to me, a bunch of lousy match sticks. But I howled and howled about giving up the booze. I didn’t know how I’d carry on, I felt lost without it — all the heartbroken torch song cliches, that was me without my tumbler, without my pint glass, without my wine glass. The pack of Parliament Lights? Here, you can have it.
Cigarettes had become a pain by then. Expensive. A nuisance after the New York laws that outlawed them in bars. I’d find myself huddled on a fire escape with three strangers as snow pounded the pavement. Maybe it sounds exciting and reckless, but it felt stupid and pointless. I rarely think of cigarettes anymore. Every once in a while, I hear a woman with that delicious cigarette alto, the flinty scratch in her voice. Every once in a while, I miss the ritual. Not the high of nicotine so much as the meditation. The taking in, the breathing out, the invisible trajectory of oxygen given a splash of white. It’s too bad that cigarettes look so cool, because the act of smoking is quite stupid. Everyone knows this. Probably the best argument for smoking is that humans deserve to do stupid things. They will do stupid things in the face of all facts, they will do something simply because it is stupid.
A few years ago, I bought a vape pen. I brought it to dinner with friends as a novelty. I thought it would be funny. And then my friend, who hadn’t smoked in about a decade, proceeded to vape for the next several years. Whoops. I did not. Why did my friend start smoking again, and not me? How come nicotine is hellishly addictive, and yet I smoked for twenty-five years, and quit in a finger snap? It doesn’t make sense. It’s not fair. This is true of most of life, by the way: It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t fair.
About two years ago, an old college friend showed up to a book event in Chicago. At the after-party, he tapped out a cigarette from his pack as we stood outside an art gallery. “I still smoke, I know it’s stupid,” he said, and I didn’t say anything. He’s married now, with kids. What am I going to tell him he doesn’t already know?
“Give me one,” I said, and he cut me a skeptical glance, but he handed one over, and the two of us stood on the curb, flicking our ashes in the empty street, the throb of the party inside making our cocoon feel even cozier. The camaraderie of the shared smoke — that might be what I miss most.
“Give me another,” I said, when I went outside with him an hour later.
“No way,” he said. One cigarette was forgivable, but two was tempting fate.
“Come on,” I said. “Just one more.” Why? I hadn’t even liked the first one that much, but I felt the tug inside me. He tapped out the cigarette in a way that I would have to be the one to pluck it myself, and I smiled as I placed it in my mouth, and I felt the cinch of the white paper against my lip. I remember this, I thought, as I took the smoke down into my lungs and released it again, which always felt like a flirtation with the dark side, a do-si-do with the devil. I thought about the way, whenever I bought a new pack, I flipped over one cigarette. The lucky. Where did that ritual start? What was the point? I think the idea was that a cute boy might pluck that cigarette — and then, and then …
“You have to promise me you’re not gonna start smoking after this,” my friend said.
“I won’t smoke for like two years after this,” I said, exhaling a white line of smoke, and that night was two years ago, so I kept my promise. I am not so reckless anymore. I don’t even like cigarettes. But every once in a while, I miss it. Burn cigarettes. Even the words crinkle like paper set to flame.