I hate smoking. I also find it really difficult to hate smoking. The reasons to abjure from it are well known; whereas, there is hardly a single benefit to the activity. Therefore, the fact that so many people smoke requires some explanation.
My grandmother was a smoker. At her peak she probably smoked about two packs a day, and though the cancer that killed her wasn’t in her lungs, there is every reason to suppose that her half-century habit was a contributing factor to her ultimate decline. Naturally, her daughter was a rabid anti-smoker. My mother would often say ridiculous things about how she would prefer her children become heroin addicts than smokers and would force us through miserable deodorizing rituals whenever we came home from grandma’s (which, since we all lived in the same town, was as often as several times a week).
Out of some misguided deference to my mother’s mania, I vowed early in life that I would never so much as attempt to smoke. My long, healthy life would end in death from natural causes, and any mortician who peeked at my remains would remark with delighted surprise at the unsullied state of my lungs. In my head, I took the anti-smoking version of a purity pledge (motto: True Lungs Wait!), and my anti-smoking ethos was characterized by the kind of fiery zeal that only comes from convincing yourself to hold on to desires that aren’t actually yours.
During my teenage years, when the pursuit of rebellion led other kids to light up a Marlboro Red, I was absolutely horrified. And then, gradually, I was deeply fascinated. Smoking was still gross, still bad for you, and still unappealing. But, for precisely these reasons, it slowly began to possess a strange power as well.
Some of that power had to do with the fact that cigarettes were the most beyond-the-pale thing, yet were also everywhere. It’s easy to forget that twenty years ago, the war on second-hand smoke was only beginning, and you could still buy cigarettes from vending machines, using quarters. In contrast to alcohol and other drugs, cigarettes were available above the counter every time I went to the gas station. Temptation lurked everywhere in neat, cellophane wrapped stacks. For months I stayed strong. (And indeed for years after I failed to notice that the need to stay strong meant that one was losing resolve.)
Then a most unexpected thing happened. After Thanksgiving dinner in what must have been 1994, I came into the kitchen of my parents’ house via the backdoor after taking out the garbage. The grown ups were in some other room, but there on the counter was pack of Benson & Hedges. It belonged no doubt to a particular friend of my mother’s, whose commitment to smoking was such that she simply would not demur while at my mother’s house (though she was forced to smoke outside), and indeed, did not quit even during pregnancy. Such a prolific smoker did not keep count of her cigarettes, and the pack on the counter was both already opened and nearly full. I looked down at them, and they looked back at me. It was as if we were keeping an appointment.
In a swift movement, carried out with less caution than purpose, I removed a single cigarette from the pack, rushed to my bedroom, and deposited it in the wooden box, stored in a drawer, where I also kept money and objects of sentimental value. In this most overdetermined receptacle of adolescent privacy, that cigarette lived for a night or two.
On another trip to take out the garbage, I smoked that cigarette. Sort of. I lit it, but I didn’t know how to inhale. I put it out, half unused. The whole adventure took probably less than 120 seconds. I rushed inside, stripped my clothes directly into the running washing machine, took a shower, washed my hair, and brushed my teeth. Adolescent rebellion was for me always a qualified affair, and with this most egregious violation of maternal law, my desire not to get caught was rather strong.
Yet traces of particulate matter were not all that washed down that shower drain. I had crossed a threshold. Having committed this heinous act, I could think of nothing but repeating the feat. I would buy a whole pack of cigarettes. I would continue to “take out the garbage.” I would devise hiding places and search for opportunities to sneak off. Like killing, smoking was only hard the first time.
As it turned out, my story would be like murder only in that it had a quick and painless end. I smoked regularly for about a year and a half, and by the time I was old enough to buy cigarettes, I had already quit. Early quitting may be the only unusual thing about my experience. Many a teenager shifts rapidly from “never ever” to “yes, please!” to “who cares?” Many do so with things other than smoking. Cigarettes were not a necessary condition for my adolescent rebellion, though they proved to be a sufficient one.
The experience didn’t leave me with a single good reason why anyone smokes. But it did make me realize that it’s possible to be filled with desire for something you don’t have any reason to love. Cigarettes were never a love object for me. They did not delight me, and they offered no giddy refuge for my adolescent ego. Cigarettes didn’t allow me to feel wonderful or expansive or good. Nevertheless, they did me a great service by allowing me to keep secrets, to hide things, to stalk off and steal moments and be alone. Cigarette smoking was one of the very few things I had during my teenage years that felt entirely and irrevocably mine.
There are all kinds of ways that poets and actors and scholars have found to identify this particular nuance of pleasure, the personal and anti-social joy we might take in a small and slow act of voluntary annihilation. The extraordinary self-indulgence of such a pleasure is a formidable counter to the paucity of practical reasons why anyone smokes. Not all our motives, it turns out, can be rational ones.
I had not put a cigarette to my lips in at least a dozen years before I wrote the above. But consumed with both nostalgia and responsible research protocols, I went and bought a pack of cigarettes. My manner during the transaction must have been suitably timid, however, because the woman behind the counter asked me if I was over eighteen. And when I lit up my first cigarette of this millennium, I found right away that it was utterly and absolutely disgusting. I loved it.