I have not smoked a cigarette in twenty-five years, but I still miss smoking, every day. I will confess that I loved to smoke, loved having that first cigarette with coffee in the morning, loved having a cigarette with my first Martini of the evening. I loved smoking as I worked at my typewriter, loved smoking as I chatted with a friend on the phone. I loved a cigarette after sex.
The astute reader will notice that I did not say I have quit smoking. I have not quit. I have made no such bold, unequivocal commitment. That I have not smoked a cigarette in twenty-five years does not mean that I will never smoke another one. It is more accurate to call me a non-smoker, but not an anti-smoker. Nor do I consider myself a reformed smoker. I am simply a smoker who has not smoked for twenty-five years. I may smoke again when I am too old to worry about health consequences, or if Brian Williams reports on the NBC Evening News, in that reassuring way he has, that an asteroid the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago will impact Earth in a matter of months. With the end of civilization in sight, I’ll buy a pack of Marlboros and light up.
In his treatise on smoking of two decades ago, Cigarettes are Sublime, Richard Klein called the cigarette “the wand of dreams” and “a great and beautiful civilizing tool.” Bysublime, Klein did not intend the bland and diminished modern use of the word, which can describe everything from chocolate cake to a pretty sunset. Klein was referring to an 18th-century Romantic conception of the word, the experience of beholding something so immense and powerful it could cause your death. Like getting a glimpse of God, perhaps, as Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of Christians, did on the road to Damascus, transforming him into the apostle Paul, or falling madly in love with a vampire. Klein wrote that cigarettes “are sublime by virtue of their charming power to propose what Kant would call ‘a negative pleasure’: a darkly beautiful, inevitably painful pleasure that arises from some intimation of eternity.” Klein proposed that the smoking of a cigarette combined both the allure of danger and extreme satisfaction, literally rolled into one slim, ephemeral object – the cigarette.
Jean-Paul Sartre, when asked by an interviewer to name the most important thing in his life, replied, “I don’t know. Everything. Living. Smoking.”
“Smoking,” Sartre wrote on another occasion, is “the symbolic equivalent of destructively appropriating the entire world.”
Paris Fumeur, a mid-19th century French magazine devoted to smoking, had as its motto, “Qui fume priere” – “Smoking is praying”
Could millions of the French, including most intellectuals and artists, be wrong?
Flunking French and struggling with Shakespeare as a college freshman, perhaps I thought myself ready to destructively appropriate the world. I smoked my first cigarette.
I’d grown up in a home that considered smoking, along with drinking alcoholic beverages, playing cards, dancing, and going to the movies, sinful: Satanic bait for the unwary, the innocent. But now I was away from that world, in another world called Ann Arbor, standing at the edge of an abyss called adulthood, an abyss also called the rest of my life, and I was ready, eager, to jump.
Was it a considered decision or on an impulse that I bought that first pack? Simply making that initial purchase, unfiltered extra-length Pall Malls as I remember – yes, merely walking into the drugstore with that very purpose in mind, and speaking the words I probably practiced out loud – “A pack of Pall Malls, please” – was itself close to a sublime experience in the Kantian sense: a darkly beautiful negative pleasure. As I walked back to the dorm, my mind completely occupied by the image of that shiny red pack of twenty in my jacket pocket, I felt that I had stepped into the abyss. I can imagine what smoking that first cigarette must have been like. I am alone, experiencing the initial sublime moment in solitude. I pull the plastic zip around the top of the pack, remove with shaking hands the top, crackling cellophane, fumble with a bit of the shiny silver foil and carefully tear it off revealing the ends of three or four cigarettes. A small puff of warm and tangy tobacco aroma escapes the pack and drifts to my nose. I tap the open pack on my hand, as I’ve seen experienced smokers do, to loosen one or two from the tight grip of the twenty, and carefully slide one out, feeling it between my fingers, rolling it this way and that for a few moments before putting it between my lips. I strike a match from the book that had been slid across the counter to me along with the cigarettes. Maybe it takes two or three strikes, two or three matches before I get one lit. I hold the flame to the tip. I do not inhale the first couple of mouthfuls. My first tentative inhale results in a convulsive fit of coughing, and watery eyes. But by the end of the first Pall Mall, I am able to control the cough. I am dizzy of brain and dizzy with pleasure. I am hooked.
I smoked for the next forty years. At a pack a day, that comes to over 14,000 cigarettes. With a few exceptions, like when I’d smoked too much on a particularly stressful day at the office, and my throat was feeling raw, my chest a bit tight, I can honestly say that I enjoyed every one of those 14,000-plus cigarettes.
Smoking a cigarette is a ritual, and lighting the cigarette is an important part of that ritual. The feel of the cigarette between the fingers, the aroma of the tobacco, the striking the light, watching the flame at the cigarette’s tip – this is all like foreplay leading up to the big moment, the first deep, satisfying drag. It can be absolutely ecstatic.
The book of matches is the basic, minimalist light that a few smokers stay with their whole life. For the rustic, there is the blue-tip wooden match, struck with the thumb nail, or the nearest rough surface – a stone, a denim pant leg – then brought to the cigarette in cupped hands.
For me, there was soon a desire to formalize the habit with a lighter. Being a traditionalist by nature, even at that age recognizing that there was a historically right way and a wrong way to do everything, a plain, brushed aluminum Zippo was my choice. The Zippo is decidedly low-tech. But like the low-tech Roman Catholic Holy Communion, with its arcane paraphernalia – the ciborium, the chalice, the veil – the use of a Zippo requires its own reverence, and its own accessories; the can of lighter fluid, the pack of extra flints, extra wicks. The sound of a Zippo is unmistakable and, for the Zippo user, a powerful audible prelude to the first inhalation itself; the snap of the hinged lid opening, then the rough whisper of the wheel on flint, the hollow clink of the lid slammed shut with the thumb. That’s the way Gregory Peck did it in Pork Chop Hill. That’s the way I did it, sitting in a booth at Drake’s in Ann Arbor, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee when I should have been in my dorm room memorizing French conjugations. I wasn’t old enough to drink, but I was old enough to smoke.
My college experience was divided into two long pieces, broken by a self-imposed three year exile in the United States Army. During my basic training in the wilds of Missouri, and the relatively easy duty for two years in Germany that followed, cigarettes were a way of life. My service came less than fifteen years after the end of World War II. The American GIs in Europe and Asia may have traveled on their stomachs, as the old adage goes, but their morale traveled on their cigarettes. Packs of smokes were even included in C-Rations. As it was in World War II, it continued to be for soldiers in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, a battlefield social event with your comrades-in-arms, like a beer after work in civilian life.
In his book, Klein proposes the idea that smoking in the face of war keeps up “courage and endurance in the face of intolerably stressful circumstances,” not only because of its physiological effects – a burst of discomfort followed by a marked feeling of release and relief – but because, Klein argues, cigarettes are a palpable trace of the ordinary life that has vanished under arms: “they are the most important thing to a soldier … all that remains of civility when war has blasted away the imprints of a liberal education.”
In my training for war, training which was never tested on a real battlefield, “Smoke ’em if you got ’em” were the words that made that miserable life liveable. And we could buy a carton at the PX for about two bucks.
Following the Army and college, when I began wearing suits to work and drinking Martinis in the evening, I abandoned the utilitarian Zippo for something a little more glamorous. Carrying a sleek silver Colibri or richly lacquered Dunhill in your pocket was like wearing a Rolex on your wrist. And lighting a lady’s Virginia Slim with one of these beautifully engineered fire-lighting gadgets was a statement that all was right with the world.
There are few things as sexy as a beautiful woman holding a cigarette just so, and a good part of the sexiness is the iconic pose – the head tilted slightly back, the lips parted, possibly even a curl of smoke escaping that lovely mouth; or the cigarette planted firmly, aggressively between the lips, eyes assertively set in what they used to call, in more chaste times, a come hither look.
If you doubt that a woman with a cigarette can be sexy, picture Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, bringing the flaring tip of a match held in her long, slender fingers to the end of the cigarette held firmly between those lovely lips. And look at her eyes. They aren’t focused on the cigarette end. They are focused on you.
Picture Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, or Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, dressed to kill in white tie and tails, and black top hat, and cigarette in hand, singing, in French, “Give me a man who does things.” Tough Legionnaire Gary Cooper, poor sap, didn’t stand a chance.
And what could have replaced Holly Golightly’s foot-long cigarette holder in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Perchance a Land’s End Eco-Gripper water bottle?
But it is more than just the pose that makes the beautiful woman with the cigarette so sexually appealing. It is the idea, the belief that the woman in question is engaging in Kant’s “negative pleasure”, or even in Sartre’s destructive appropriation of the entire world; the spit in the world’s eye, so to speak; the delivering of the message, not so subliminally, that this beautiful woman is ready for anything, and not only ready, but inviting it. “I am dangerous,” is the message. “I live recklessly, and love it.” And then the invitation to join her in the danger zone.
Do women find men who smoke sexy, too? It might be hard to find a woman who would admit such a thing today, but there must have been some reason they posed Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, James Dean, Gary Cooper – the whole pantheon stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age – with cigarettes. And could the cigarette be one reason so many modern women find Johnny Depp hugely sexy. I am sure that desire to look sexy was one of the reasons I smoked my first cigarette.
I admit to having been a rude and thoughtless smoker. Like most other smokers, I smoked everywhere and anywhere I chose. I smoked in airplanes. I smoked in movie theaters and restaurants. I smoked in class in college. I smoked in grocery stores. My indifference to the discomfort of others knew no bounds. I was once offended when a co-worker asked me not smoke in his brand new Honda Accord as we drove to lunch. He wanted to keep the car cigarette-smell free. What nerve, I thought, to inconvenience me that way. I smoked in my parents’ home; a good, non-smoking Baptist home, forcing my mother to fetch me a saucer to use as an ashtray. She died knowing her son was a thoughtless boor, and I still cringe inside when I consider my monstrously insensitive behavior. I even lit up in adult confirmation class at the Episcopal church. After all, the priest leading the class was puffing away, too. If I do smoke again, I promise to be a more polite, more considerate smoker.
I would like a cigarette now.
I have never been a proselytizing non-smoker, an obnoxious Carrie Nation-style anti-smoker. I have seen reformed smokers snatch cigarettes from the mouths of smokers and grind them into the ground with the sole of their shoe. I have seen people twist up their noses and flap the air with their hands if they are within sight of a distant smoker. I am the opposite. Live and let live is my motto, even if it does ignore the medical evidence. For a year or so, I was a professional casino black jack dealer. Casinos are one of the last refuges of smokers, and although I could not encourage people playing at my black jack table to smoke, I always had ashtrays handy for those who did. Light ’em up and place your bets, was my philosophy. When I come upon a smoker, banished to the sidewalk in front of a restaurant, I will get close and flap my hand in a way that will bring the smoke to me.
“Please. Blow a bit my way.”
I have a smoking dream about once a month. They are all essentially the same. I am at work, usually at a job similar to those I held for forty-plus years in the advertising business. A high stress job. I am smoking. Smoking a lot. Smoking like the proverbial chimney, one furious cigarette after another. And I am thinking to myself – my dreaming self – that I am so stupid to have resumed smoking, and that now I will have to go through the agony of stopping all over again. Dreams can be complicated, multi-layered. My smoking dreams are so real, and the smoking so satisfying, that I convince my dreaming self that I am not dreaming at all, that I am wide awake and smoking, and that this time I will not awaken and discover it was all a dream. And then, of course, I do awaken and discover, to my great relief, that it was all a dream.
It is fair to ask why I do not smoke now, if I found it such a sublime activity?
My children wanted me to stop. They were growing up at a time when the anti-smoking furor was at its highest. They were taught every day that smoking was bad for you. They were concerned about their daddy, or to be more cynical about it, concerned for themselves that their daddy might not be around to take care of them. I don’t hold that selfish thought against them one bit.
I had subjected my wife to my smoking for twenty-five years, thoughtlessly. That had to end.
But what had the greatest effect on me was watching gray, sagging people dragging oxygen canisters around on wheels, being fed pure O2 into their nostrils from those tanks through plastic tubes. I would never be one of those sad people, I promised myself. I never wanted to be seen like that, in that weakened, sexless state. I never wanted to have to talk through a hole in my throat. I never want to look into a mirror and see only a partial face, a hunk of my jaw surgically removed along with a smoking-caused cancer.
It is ironic. If it was vanity, even at seventeen, that led me to smoke in the first place, the desire to be more desirable, the wish to be sexier, more free, more dangerous, more like Humphrey Bogart, then it was vanity that led me to stop smoking forty years later, imagining my pitiful self pulling that canister of oxygen along behind me like an anchor. If it was the vain idea that I was ready to destructively appropriate the entire world that led me to light that first Pall Mall, it was the fear that I would give up that world with a whimper, rather than a bang, with a hollow cough rather than a bellow of victory, that made me stop. I am a vain man.
But under the right circumstances, I could smoke again, again take up that wand of dreams and bring it to my lips, and inhale, deeply, reverently.
Possibly, in an attitude of prayer.
George Dila short stories and personal essays have appeared in numerous journals and earned several literary awards. His short story collection “Nothing More to Tell” was published by Mayapple Press in 2011. His short story chapbook “Working Stiffs” was published by One Wet Shoe Press in 2014. A native Detroit, he now lives with his wife Judith in the Lake Michigan shore town of Ludington. His personal website is www.georgedila.com.