I had my first ever cigarette on a cold winter night when I was fifteen years old. Clare and the Quebecois exchange student whose name I cannot for the life of me remember snuck out of my house after mama fell asleep and we walked to the furthest point from home possible in our little neighborhood, and Elaine! That was her name, Elaine! instructed us in the fine art of inhaling as you light the cigarette and assured us we were not going to die or fall down, as we were shortly convinced we would. I’ll never forget that first, dizzying, legless-feeling rush as long as I live.
I bought my first pack shortly thereafter, from 7-11 after the lady at Rite Aid refused to sell them to me. I got Lucky unfiltered ’cause I thought those were more poetic, somehow. The rest of my adolescence was punctuated by infrequent but really lovely moments of rebellion- skipping geometry to smoke by the river, sneaking away from parties to smoke in the bushes, smoking out of Clare’s window in that blessed two hours between school letting out and her mom coming home. Cigarettes are, in my mind, firmly linked to that exquisitely satisfying feeling of getting away with something.
In university and throughout my rather wild-child twenties, I continued to smoke, but only socially. Never in the morning, seldom unless I had a cold beer in my hands. I’d smoke like a chimney through parties, or at shows or in clubs, and then not think about cigarettes for weeks.
All that went to hell when I came to Turkey.
I started cadging cigarettes from Jim during breaks, at my first job, and he became my first friend. I came to really value those hourly ten minute breaks, standing on the steps of the school. We’d exchange advice, share lighters, bitch about students. Nothing restores a teacher’s sanity like a cigarette break. And from there it just… snowballed.
“I smoke waaaaay too much,” I said to Big B the other day, after having spent something like twenty minutes attempting to cough up a lung.
“I don’t want to.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, then. You need to cut down, anyway. I’m getting pretty sick of listening to that cough. And didn’t you just have pneumonia?”
“A mild case. I’ll cut down, but I don’t want to quit.” I don’t. At the risk of enraging my limited readership and needlessly worrying my mom, I’ll just go ahead and say that I LOVE CIGARETTES. I love the weight of a cigarette in my hand, and the way it forces you to make certain elegant gestures when you speak. I love the way the smell of fresh tobacco hits you in the face when you tear the foil off a new pack.I love taking five minutes of quiet to myself in the morning to sit on the porch, look at the birds, and smoke the first cigarette of the day. You who don’t smoke are doubtlessly shaking your heads and muttering something about how this daft old cow doesn’t know she can watch birds without smoking. You who smoke or have ever smoked surely know how the length of a cigarette is the perfect measure of brief moments of quiet. Besides, “I’d honestly be worried for my career if I gave up entirely.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Well, you know the promotion I got, and how I get to teach all these new classes and do fun stuff at work? Why do you think that is?”
“Because you’re a good teacher?”
“No. Because I was out smoking with you and Boss-man every chance I got. Every single conversation we had about my IELTS training was held outside the teachers room, with cigarettes in our hands. I’m not saying I wouldn’t’ve been promoted eventually, but certainly not that quickly if I hadn’t been smoking with you guys.”
“You could have just come out and hung out with us outside. You didn’t have to be smoking.”
“Would I have just come out and hung out with you in the winter? No I would not have. I would have stayed snug and dry inside if nicotine withdrawal hadn’t compelled me to put on my coat and stand there shivering with you guys. And that’s how Boss-man noticed me and how I got ahead. Same thing with Hannah. You know she’s going to be department head at her school? And she’s only been there a year. And yeah, most of that is because she’s terrifyingly competent, but it’s also ’cause every day she sits there and smokes with the boss-man at her school. Half the teachers in her department haven’t even met the boss-man. But she’s got a personal relationship with him, thanks to smoking.”
“When I was in my twenties, smoking was how you made friends. All of those little interactions you have when you smoke- do you have a lighter? Can I bum a cigarette? All those lead to connections with people. It’s how you start a conversation with the cute boy, or the girl who works where you want to work. Smoking is a really good networking tool. And it’s vital in an industry where everyone smokes, in a fricking country where everyone, well, smokes like a Turk.”
“Smoking as a social lubricant. Hmmm.”
Here I began coughing again.
“Yeah, I do need to cut back though.”
Next month Agent L is moving house again, this time to her very own grown-up apartment. It will be a non-smoking apartment, and she very much hopes that without a smoking roommate, she will be able to drastically reduce her tobacco consumption to a few cigarettes with Big B and Bossman, and maybe a few at the Cheap Bar with the girls, a week. Wish her luck.
In the meantime, check out this charming little ditty from Hefner: Hymn for the Cigarettes.