I took up the addiction, freestyle, as it were, on the balcony of a high-rise apartment building. This was over two years ago in Manila, Philippines, on a tranquil summer evening — somewhat of a rarity amid the usual racket of endless traffic jams and construction clanging. Living alone during my last two years of high school had accustomed me well to the nightly visits of tedium and idleness, leading me to the conclusion that I must have been, in a word, especially bored. The devil fancies idle hands, and to this sad and sorry excuse I have attributed why, from the shabby 7-11 around the corner — the sort of hole-in-the-wall ruin one enters mindlessly on other nights — I bought my very first cigarette pack.
Since then I’ve smoked more or less a pack a day, and only recently have I broken the threshold of a two-day timeframe. “Unless I tell you otherwise,” I used to say, “I’m always smoking another cigarette.” Not unreasonably then I’m often accosted by close friends about how much I smoke. But their attempts, both then and now, have maintained to me the the title of ‘hopelessly antique’. It is no sham when we smokers say that we’ve heard it all before. Nor is it a one-time kind of thing, as many would have us believe. It is a revision of lifestyle, not so plain and certainly not so simple.
I’d feel rather empty — naked even — without the layers of blue smoke dancing in whirls around me
Every cigarette I have ever smoked has been a good cigarette. And why not? It is the most addictive, self-administered, legal drug on the market. It wakes you up when the thought of work makes you lethargic. It gives you an appetite when you have none and takes it away when you’re hungry. It lessens the dullness of food and alcohol, not to mention remarkably helpful when, after a hazy night on Saint-Laurent, one is in the otherwise unfortunate position of being helplessly broke. It calms you when you’re anxious or afflicted, heightens the senses, renders ideas more free-flowing, and makes people in general less boring. All this from a tiny glowing stick between the joints of one’s fingers.
But perhaps the most enthusing effect gleaned from cigarette-smoking — and here I can speak only for myself — derives not from these things, nor an aesthetic ardor (no, I don’t smoke to look cool or flashy or any of the rest of that), but I daresay a transcendental one. In much the same way that the habits and proclivities of people provide vibrant fodder for conversation and time-passing, cigarette-smoking to me is a deep well of memories and experiences. The first puff of every cigarette is at once a spur to total recall, as though, with every succeeding drag, gentle whispers coddle one slowly into faint lapses of good old nostalgia.
I use the word ‘addiction’, but what I suppose it really means is ‘obsession’
My most enduring memories, for better or worse, involve a battered cigarette pack by my side: sitting on the green grass of an open-field music festival, waiting for Kanye West, well over an hour late, to arrive; or talking to an old childhood friend, reminiscing good, innocent youth on the wooden porch of the local Starbucks. Come to think of it, I’d feel rather empty — naked even — without the layers of blue smoke dancing in whirls around me. Hence the word “addiction”, so easily hurled around these days, does not quite do it. It barely grazes the surface. I use the word “addiction”, but what I suppose it really means is “obsession”.
I am quite aware of the downs of cigarette smoking and in fact perhaps more than most people, who are wont to rehearse to me the hackneyed list as if I were hearing it for the first time. I must admit that for my own sanity I have tried getting creative with my defence. A few months after I first started I told myself that smoking, much like life, was a gamble: as long as I felt like I was getting more out of the cigarette than it was getting out of me, then all was okay.
Such exercises worked for a time but lately it has become a noticeably less enjoyable experience. The taste of tobacco in my mouth, once a calming necessity, has become awry. Is it because of a fear of death? I don’t think so; after all, 100% of smokers die and 100% of non-smokers follow soon enough. No, the reason is deeper and I believe much more personal — it is what poet W.E. Henley calls, in his poem Invictus, being the “master of my [own] fate.”
There is a running joke between me and all my cigarette-smoking friends where we guess at what age we are all going to succumb to lung cancer. It is an uncomfortably stoic game, I can imagine, for a non-smoker to overhear, what with all its twilight fatalism. But all things considered, it remains a persistent, sobering dose of reality. None of us dare say a word to each other, knowing full well the horrendous struggle of quitting, of seeing a depanneur on the corner of a street, or a fellow smoker in a fairly generous-looking mood. But no words need be uttered at all, for at that moment, that momentary souring of the mouth, we know that we crave a breeze of fresh air — of freedom.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.