Your weird uncle Dave was smoking a pack of Marlboros that summer afternoon him and your dad took you camping for the weekend, and when your dad packed up his fishing gear and headed back to the tent, Dave broke out the deathsticks and lit one up.
“Want one?” he asked, half-jokingly, the setting sun silvering across the lake.
In startled confusion, you considered it for a second. Boy, Dave looks awfully adult with that thing hanging out of his mouth. He looks like the cowboy on the ads, you thought, and hesitantly nodded.
He seemed surprised. Glancing over his shoulder for your father (who is long gone, dissipated into the forest) he tapped out another cigarette, lit it on the end of his own, and handed it to you. You wedged it into the fork of your index finger and middle finger like people do. It was awkward and you almost dropped it, but you managed. You put the end of the deceptively delicate thing into your mouth. It should have had more weight, you think out of nowhere. Something that needful, that loaded with vice and meaning, should have made the pack feel like a brick, should have made the cigarette feel like an iron ingot, but it was as light as a toothpick.
You inhaled. The smoke shot down your throat into your lungs where it settled like a black rock of coal and erupted, itching, burning.
You coughed. Uncle Dave laughed. You pushed through the nausea and smoked that sucker right down to the filter, and made a solemn vow to yourself you’d never pick up another one.
10 years later, you’ve smoked thousands of cigarettes.
It’s how you start the day–a cigarette with your Starbucks standing outside with the other smokers, or on the weekends sitting at your kitchen table with a cup of Folger’s. It’s how you get into a car–ninety-nine times out of a hundred when you click your seatbelt you’ve got a lighter in your other hand. You light a cigarette and crack the window before you start the car, even on those frigid February mornings where the breeze coming through the crack is a razorblade across your face. The hit of dopamine whenever the nicotine hits your system is worth the blast of icy air. Sometimes when you’re reading a book you’ll realize you’re smoking and you don’t even remember lighting up. With a vague regret, you mash it out in the ashtray that Other-You conveniently put on the end table, and get ready for bed.
Your favorite brand is marked up a dollar this week. Aargh, you think casually, staring over the cashier’s shoulder. How dare they? You pick through your purse, but you’re short that villainous dollar, so you pay with your debit card.
Halfway through your term paper you realize your inkpen is tucked between your index and middle finger. You feel dim and unsettled. Time for a smoke. Time for that smooth insinuation of dopamine. You take your hands off the controls and sit back in your mental captains’ chair. Your body stands up from the desk and you watch yourself go outside to the pavilion and light one up.
You blow a stream of white against the windshield, quell the butt in the ashtray, throw it out the car window, roll the window up.
It’s too windy. The wind keeps blowing out your lighter-flame no matter how you cup it. “Goddammit,” you say to no one in particular and put the cigarettes away, craving it the entire time you’re at your son’s baseball game. You miss half the plays because you just want a fucking cigarette. Somebody down by the dugout–the coach?–he’s got one lit. He’s chugging away on it. How did he manage that? You debate going down to see if you can light yours on his. Your right leg is bouncing. The man next to you seems annoyed by it, but it’s a free country.
One day you don’t quite have the money for a pack. You’re between paychecks and you just paid the power bill. Maybe I should quit, says the voice of rationality somewhere in the depths of your mind, but there is another voice, an Exorcist-voice standing front and center, and it says, Fuck that. I haven’t had a cigarette in two days.
When is this traffic light ever going to turn green?
When you get to work, one of your coworkers is standing outside having a smoke. You vibrate like a tuning fork.
You think of bumming one off him, but maybe this is good for you. Maybe you should quit. But Christ, the cherry on the end of his Pall-Mall is the halo of an angel–inviting, welcoming, reassuring, familiar. Promising. “Hey,” says James, and you realize you’ve been standing there with your hand on the front door, staring at him.
He smiles awkwardly. “What’s up?”
“Oh. Nothing. Good morning,” you say, and head inside.
But you can’t concentrate on your work because the entire morning you just keep thinking of James and his cigarette, standing out front by the planters with one jacketed arm tucked under his ribs as if he’s about to vomit, and then he does vomit, but it’s a dragon-gush of smoke, glorious blue-white smoke into the stillness of the morning, and you can almost feel the rush of brain-dope from here.
There’s a sucker in your right-hand drawer. You put it in your mouth, but it’s not the same.
I wonder if my insurance would pay for Chantix.
You pull the staples out of a report, gently, but you experience the urge to just snatch the pages apart and indulge yourself with the careless, satisfying rip. Why is everyone talking so damned loud? It’s like a fifth-grade lunchroom in here.
James walks by. Adrenaline punches your heart as you think of asking him for a cigarette to feed the gremlin currently raking its fingernails down the eeking guitar-strings of your nervous system. You miss your chance, but you think of getting out of your chair and following him into the breakroom anyway.
The tasteless Tootsie-Pop breaks between your back teeth.
James is getting his lunch out of the fridge. “Hey, buddy,” you say.
You try to dance your way into a cigarette, but he’s on his last three and he won’t be able to get another until pay day. “Oh, okay.” Out of commiseration you leave him alone.
But in the elevator going downstairs for lunch you run into Natalie. You know Natalie. She’s a manager in Finance and you’ve seen her outside smoking before (how can she smoke? she’s so babyfaced). Man, she’s really dressed to the nines, isn’t she? Surely she can afford another pack. You ask her for a cigarette and she’s happy to do so, and how are you today, and are you going to the Christmas party too?
You stand out by the planter and light it up. It’s not your usual brand–it’s a 100, for one thing, longer, which means you’ll probably waste part of it–but it’s also oilier, a little bitter, like coffee brewed too long and with too many grounds. But the dopamine is the same as it’s always been, tasteless and skin-tingling, and if you could smoke pine needles and get the same effect you’d definitely consider hanging out at the park at the end of the month with a bag and a rake.
You’re halfway through it when your coworker and semi-friend Carol passes by on her way in. “Hey,” you greet her, and in the fleeting instant before she looks up and waves hi back you catch a glimpse of disgust on her face.
She’s wearing Lululemons. She thinks smoking is a war crime. You think the Downward Dog is an evasive maneuver fighter pilots did in World War II.
“Hi,” she says, with a pinched smile, and heads inside.
You feel dirty (maybe I should quit), but it only lasts for the few seconds it takes to finish the cigarette and drop it into this weird plastic gooseneck butt-container.
By the time you sit back down at your desk, you feel great. The world is right again. You’re raring to go, ready to take on all of these reports. For some reason the lights seem softer. Your desk feels cleaner. The roar of constant bullshit noise from the rest of the office has returned to the distant, nondescript rumble of conversation that it’s always been. You put on some headphones and start rocking out while you get back to work. Maybe you even pause for a second to air-guitar your way through this bad-ass solo.
It’s half an hour to quitting time.
You catch yourself ashing an inkpen over the edge of your desk.
If you’ve ever wondered what the male libido is like; what this “male gaze” is about; why you catch strangers checking you out in the elevator and watching you jog across the crosswalk; and why even some of the most stalwart male advocates of equality (like myself) catch themselves eyeballing women at the beach…
…go back through the passage you just read and lift that subconscious craving for dopamine, that brain-eating, life-bending need…grip the edges of that need, lift it out wholesale, and plop it right down between the man and the uncomfortable woman in the elevator. She’s smoking a cigarette and he hasn’t had one in literally a year.
It might have dialed down to a background thrum after all this time, but it’s still there, constantly pressing its sharp elbows against the inside of its enclosure, and it will be there, urging and stoking at all hours of the day and night, until the day he dies.
I’m not condoning staring, harassment, catcalling, rape, or any of that garbage. So please don’t go there. Smoke-bummers are annoying, but a terrible few of us will knock you down and steal your cigarettes, and those motherfuckers should be jettisoned into the sun with extreme prejudice.
But I just wanted to try to describe where the unwarranted attention comes from, and what it feels like from the other side.
The vast, vast majority of us–the good-natured med student, the middle-aged father, the line-cook walking his dog at the park–we don’t do it to antagonize. We don’t do it because we’re leering predators. We don’t do it to intentionally make you uncomfortable. We do it because we’ve been hardwired from puberty for the last couple of million years to crave that hit of dopamine. It’s a gremlin on our backs, pointing out every cigarette in visible radius, and when we look away it whispers in our ear, hey, that smoke smells fantastic, doesn’t it?
I know it’s a pain in the ass for you; it’s a pain in the ass for us too. Like most decent people I do my best to ignore that gremlin bastard, but sometimes I realize a few minutes too late that I’ve been listening to it.
If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some Tootsie-Pops to chew.