I bought my first pack of cigarettes when I was twenty. I realized I had turned eighteen and hadn’t exercised my god-given right to do so.
Off to the local convenience mart to buy my first pack. I stood at the counter, gazing at the shiny boxes, all saying, “pick me! pick me!”
“I’d like a pack of cigarettes, please,” I said to the clerk.
“What kind?” she asked, staring at me with expressionless eyes.
I was clueless, and froze in terror. What did she mean “what kind?” I gazed wildly around the display behind her, began clenching a fist around the wad of dollars I had in my hand, and asked for what I thought was the easiest brand. “Marlboro Reds.”
“Filtered or unfiltered?”
“Um … unfiltered.”
Now, I know that’s like saying you’re taking up rock climbing and you attempt The Matterhorn on your first day. But then …
She must have thought the same thing, because her dull look turned as she raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Box or soft-pack?”
So many questions ...
“Box,” I replied, my voice cracking.
The nice lady grabbed the pack, gave me the “you’re fucking stupid, kid” look, and rang up my purchase.
“You got ID?”
I was clutching the ID in the same hand as the now damp-with-sweat dollars, and stiffly held my arm out for her to see my licence.
She glanced at the birth date, at me, and back at the ID. I’m sure she was thinking I was much younger than my age since I seemed so wet behind the ears buying cigarettes, or that I was buying for my under-aged friends and was nervous I’d get caught procuring for minors.
She took my soggy money anyway.
“Need a lighter?”
Duh. A lighter. How the hell was I going to light these damn things? Pull a caveman in my car with sticks and a bit of flint? I looked around the counter at the lighters, and could feel her eyes on me. So many colors…
I spied a box of matches. “How much are these?”
“Those are free, sweetheart.”
“Okay, cool. I’ll take the matches.” I gave her a sheepish smile, trying to win her over and mask my naiveté.
The nice lady handed me my matches, gave me another “you’re a fucking dipwad” look, and said, “Have a good time.” I believe the grin on her face could be described as shit-eating.
I took my smokes, my FREE matches, and my new-found sense of pride and walked out the door to my car.
And sat wondering what to do next. My older brother smoked, and I saw him smack his pack of cigarettes against his hand for whatever reason, and decided to try that as well. I should have paid closer attention as I had no idea what he did it for, so instead of hitting the top of the pack in an effort to pack the tobacco down, I was just slapping the shit out of the front of the cigarettes with my hand like a dominatrix slapping the ass of her submissive.
Once I’d accomplished the right degree of whatever-the-fuck, I ripped the cellophane off, flipped the top, and stared down at the twenty sticks of death lined up inside. I could now see why the nice lady looked at me funny when I asked for unfiltered cigarettes. I took a cigarette out and turned it around in my hands, looking for the missing filter. Maybe I had to insert it myself. I shoved one between my lips, and struck a match, carefully bringing the flame up to the smoke dangling precariously from my mouth.
I didn’t realize you inhaled as you lit the goddamn thing, so the match just charred the end of the cigarette and burned my fingers. I wagged the flame out with a “sonofabitch!” and tried again. Soon, the end of the cigarette glowed angry orange, smoke filled the car, and I started coughing. Little bits of tobacco stuck to my tongue, so I’m hacking, sputtering and trying to wipe loose tobacco from my mouth. The car is still filling with smoke, and it dawns on me to roll down the window. Smoke billowed out.
But how to hold the god-forsaken thing? I was pinching it between my thumb and forefinger, but I associated that with pot smoking, so I went for the more elegant jammed between my middle and forefinger approach.
I stopped coughing / retching / fiddling with the cigarette, and after about five minutes, feeling comfortable enough to drive without dropping it on my lap and igniting myself, I took off down the road, window down, wind in my hair, smoke blowing in my face. I’d “smoke,” or puff my cheeks full of smoke and awkwardly exhale a huge plume out the window. This went on for an hour, me driving up and down the main street, pretend smoking. My eyes were burning, and I had gone through about six unfiltered devils before I called it quits, so I stuck the pack in my glove box and drove the rest of the way home, window still down because I didn’t want to smell like an ashtray.
Which brought my next quandary: what to do with the cigarettes? I am well past the legal age to buy cigarettes, but I feared my parents finding out I smoked, even though I’d moved out of the house six months prior.
I took them up to my apartment and was met with the same “what the fuck, kid?” look from my roommate.
“You. Bought. Cigarettes.” she said as I held up the pack, like a little kid showing her mom a pretty rock she found outside.
“How’d that go for you?”
“Fine,” I lied, and started coughing.
“Yeah, sounds like it. If you’re going to smoke inside, open up a window. I don’t want the place to reek.”
This is my next recollection of smoking – standing in my bedroom, window open, screen off and laying across my bed, and me hanging halfway out the window, fucking CHAIN SMOKING these sonsabitches, because I didn’t want them anymore, but didn’t want to throw them away, either. I paid good money for this shit, damn it. I wasn’t going to waste my money!
I didn’t smoke much after my first experience. I would pick up occasionally over the years, mainly when I was drunk.
Stress is what brought me back into the arms of this cancerous mistress; I started smoking full-time when my marriage went south. I came home with a pack of cigarettes and stood on the front porch, puffing away. My husband looked at me with the all-too familiar “what the fuck, kid?” look.
“You’re smoking?” he asked with a hint of attitude.
“Yep,” I replied as I flicked ash off the end of the cigarette and blew smoke out my nostrils.
“Why not? You smoke.”
And that was that. He left me on the porch, sucking my life away.
published 23 April 2011