Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Aside from the first and last, there are three quintessential cigarettes in a smoker’s life. I remember my first cigarette clearly. I was sixteen. It was an Yves St. Laurent designer menthol cigarette. My god, what was I thinking. I guess I was just a cheap bastard and, more importantly, because I found a coupon to get 3 for 1 in a copy of Playboy magazine featuring Joan Bennett that I bought in the next town over. Well, that and I knew I didn’t like the smell of regular cigarettes and menthol seemed more like candy… but Vicks Vapor rub was more like it. The fact that this brand no longer exists is a testament to how good they were.
So there I was, there I was, there I was… in the park, with my best friends Brian and Chris. We stood near the woods on the edge of the playing field, divvying up our packs and posing with the cigarettes to find the coolest look we could.
Snap, crackle, goes the lighter. The fuel ignites and burns. Snap, crackle goes the cigarette. The cherry red ash glows hot. Snap crackle goes the air. The blue-gray smoke wisps and whirls. Snap crackle goes my lungs as they expand and contract. Snap crackle goes my brain as the nicotine rushes and stress releases. Snap crackle goes the cigarette and all is well with the world… until I begin coughing, hacking, and wheezing, tossing the cigarette down, never to try again until I was twenty-one.
I was in college. I was having a bad day: the kind of bad day that makes you want to do something dangerous and stupid and self-destructive. Cutting was out, so I decided to buy a pack of clove cigarettes. I liked the way they smelled to me at The Cure and Smiths concerts I went to, and if I was going to smoke something, it sure damn well was going to be something I thought might taste good. So I bought my first pack of Djarum Specials, sometimes pronounced, “charms.”
I brought them back to my house in Willimantic where I lived while going to UCONN (go Huskys!) climbed out the window of my room up onto the pinnacle of the roof and sat on the chimney, and after unsuccessfully trying to light my cigarette seven times, the 8th match finally did the trick. I took a drag and relished in the spicy sweetness, got a head rush and almost fell off the roof. It was my first cigarette and they were already trying to kill me. This was just what I was looking for.
Now I am in New York City, the center of the universe and birth mother of vice that has abandoned its nasty habits for cleaner living. The smoking ban has taking its toll, while at the same time creating camaraderie among smokers stronger.
Friendships are forged over a bummed smoke, a light, being the only two outcasts at a wedding. Immediately there is a bond among the outcasts as they share their social shameful stigma and recall the greatest cigarettes of their life.
Sunday morning waking to the sound of heavy rain outside tapping against the window and thundering down the gutter. Make drowsy love to the bed for a while, wrapping the covers tight while hugging the pillows and writhing in the fresh sheets till ready to rise. Sliding out of bed, slipping into a bathrobe and shuffling into the kitchen. The ritual is automatic as many are after years of recital. Set a pot of water to boil, then pour and grind the proper amount of fresh beans. Clean out the French press and wash whatever is left in the sink from the night or days before. The rain is letting up. The water starts to boil. Fresh grounds avalanche into the French press followed by the boiling water. As the dark brew rises in the press, a creamy foam develops on top and the aroma arrests the senses for a moment.
Mug, spoon, sugar, half and half, plunge, pour. Take the mug of java to the living room. The clouds are parting, water drip drip drops from the leaves of the trees, a bird cries and the first rays of the days sunshine pour into the room. Take the cup to mouth, steam rising into the cool spring air and taste the sweetened bitter brew. Setting down the hot chalice, pick up a lighter, flint meets steel and sparks ignite the wick. Put flame to cigarette and inhale the first of the day. The smoke rises, making invisible eddies apparent and the gray serpentine patterns slowly diffuse throughout the room revealing all that has been hidden: the sunlight, the air currents, the day which has just begun.
The appetizer consists of smoked salmon, tuna tartar, and topped with crème fresh and caviar. The entrée: filet mignon slathered in herbed butter and the tender medium rare steak melts in the mouth just the same with a modicum of mastication. The lights dim, the night wares on. And for desert: molten chocolate cake with a 15 yr old tawny port. The fork’s first cut into the dense cake releases the molten chocolate decadence from its prison. Never has a port been more perfectly paired. Check. Tip. Step outside into the cool evening, rummage through jacket pockets for the tell tale cellophane wrapped box of smokes and smooth metal of the Zippo lighter. It’s a fresh pack. Spank it against the palm of your hand in a rhythmic manner almost hard enough to sting. Gently undress the lid. The palm is rosy. With an expert flick of the wrist a smoke jump out of the pack and is grabbed between lips and pulled out the rest of the way. In another deft movement run the Zippo head once across a jean clad thigh to open it, then back again to spark it. Pausing to smoke and reflect on the evening and enjoy the memory as the food, the night, and the company all come to great you again.
Swaying with an euphoria attributed to a combination of post coital bliss, too much whisky, and thighs weak from thrusting, head back to the bedroom. Find her, laying on the bed, hair fanned out across the pillow like the fingers of the Mississippi delta, eyes closed, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth, and a sheen of sweat reflecting the flickering candlelight. Set down the cigarettes, ashtray and lighter on the bedside table, light a cigarette and take a long drag. Hear the covers rustle behind you as she shifts and rises, wrapping her legs behind you and hugging from behind, breasts pressing against your back. Pick up another cigarette, light it and hand it back to her. Hear the crackle of tobacco turning to ash in your right ear as she takes her first drag and let your left hand brush against her smooth round calf. Not a word needs to be shared while relishing in intimacy.
These are quintessential cigarettes in a smoker’s life and all others are just an attempt to reclaim those perfect ephemeral moments that right after they’re experienced, go up in smoke that is born upon the wind and carried up to the heavens only to be remembered with a longing that borders on nostalgia. And here I am at 39. I told myself I’d quit when I turned 30, and was about to but then I got a beautiful cigarette case and a pack of smokes as a present. 40 sounds like a good time to quit, to have my last cigarette, and from that time forward remember they way they marked occasions only to never reclaim them again.