Monday, March 15, 2004

Cigarettes: A Love Story

or, how much I love that which I cannot have.

So beautiful and slim and full of desire is a cigarette. I never had one until at age 18 I fell for a boy in an MTSU dorm named Alan who smoked Sampoerna cloves. Every time I kissed him he tasted wonderful, sweet and smoky and spicy. It was around this same time that I began to drink. I think it was Alan who gave me my first clove, but it might as well have been Tracey Grandmaison, or any of those other people whom I've lost touch with over the years. In any event, we all smoked cloves, because it was the early 90's, and we were all very alternative, and when you ran with an alternative crowd in the 90's smoking cloves was still a Very Hip Thing To Do. By the late 90's smoking cloves was a little embarrassing, because a lot of uncool teens had picked it up. By then you were hip if you knew about bendes, these flavored things you smoked that were from India. I think they're still around. I never tried them. When I do still smoke, I sneak furtive cloves, a little embarrassed because they're so out of style. But I can't help it. I love clove cigarettes.

I was hooked on regular cigarettes very briefly in the summer I had my first apartment. Tracey knew these people who were looking for a roomie, and even though I knew none of them I signed on the lease. My roomies all smoked like chimneys. Jeremy and Rodney were amateur drag queens, and I think Rodney in particular lived off of diet coke and Winston Light 100's. I did have, officially, one other roomie, an anorexic/bulimic borderline transgender lesbian named Hope. She signed the lease and slept in the apartment maybe twice, although I did come home one afternoon in June to find her binging on all my groceries. I was the token straight. Both Jeremy and I were still in our teens, and became good friends for a short time before I moved back into the dorms and Jeremy left college altogether. I heard he was in Nashville some years ago, but never managed to find him again.

Which is all too bad, because we did a killer lip-sync version of "Sunset Boulevard", with Jeremy as Norma and me as Joe. But that's another story.

Anyhow, that summer I learned to love cigarettes. I bummed them all the time, paying back the roomies with food. And then came the fateful day when I went with one of the guys to the Discount Tobacco Outlet to buy cartons, and I thought, "Hey, I might as well start picking up my own." But I didn't. Probably because right then I happened to look up and see a woman 9 months pregnant buying her family's stock of cartons to take home. Here this heavily pregnant redneck woman was, just loaded down with four or five different jumbo cartons of discount cigarettes. Her toddler son was playing with packs in a dump bin near the register, running his little hands through the multi-colored off brands. In proud Southern tradition, he was shirtless, shoeless, and a little grubby.

I put my thought of smoking regularly away. And I've managed to resist since then. Mostly. Except -

God, I love a cigarette. When I'm stressed and wound up, it's just soothing. I tend to keep a secret pack of cloves in the fridge or freezer and pull one out from time to time. I smoke them so infrequently that to keep the pack anywhere but the fridge would just mean most of them would go stale, unsmokable after the third or fourth cancer-causing stick. I'll smoke when I'm drinking sometimes too, and in grad school it wasn't unusual to see me standing with the smokers on a fine night when I was skinned again, waiting on a check, trying to figure out how to juggle 3 jobs and the education I loved so much. Some times there was nothing finer in Boston than sitting on my fire escape and blowing smoke into the wind while I wrote. Other times - the last semester times especially - I would deny myself the pleasure in order to try to keep from becoming addicted again. I'd pace my little hallway between the bathroom and the common room, sweating, *wanting* a cigarette so badly my mouth tasted like ashes anyway, but refusing to go buy a pack. Smoking stains your teeth, smoking hurts your throat, smoking is bad for your skin, but oh, just one taste. Please. But no.

When I moved back south the temptation was especially strong in the first few months. Some of my relatives smoke, and in a show of solidarity I'd join in. I was stressed and unemployed and living with my cousins. So I smoked once or twice a week, so what? It's expensive, that's what. And eventually my drive to live on my own was greater than my need to buy cigarettes. I avoided the habit again.

Now I work at a job where smoking would actually be a positive career move of sorts. My division boss is a smoker, and when she breaks she smokes with another division boss. Recently my supervisor seems to have relapsed into smoking as well, the result of family stress or as a shrewd career move I'll never ask her. But there's definitely a smoker's club where I work, and yeah, friends up north, it's all women. Sometimes my work is so stressful I want to smoke too. But I still don't. If I can make it through grad school and family crisis without becoming a habitual smoker, I can make it through anything.

But do love a cigarette. A black-wrappered clove. I love to roll the smoke around my mouth and feel the rush after a few puffs. The settling effect it has on me. I love the way cloves taste, like my first college boyfriend, like I'm still 18 and skinny and a little invincible. And I want one right now. I'll always want a cigarette just a little bit. A delicious, nerve claming cigarette. I haven't had one in months and months and oh, how I'll always love them, and hide them, and covet them from others.

But really, they're not meant for me.

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