I took up smoking one cigarette per week
I have been smoking for one year. I have smoked exactly 52 cigarettes. I am bad and I am free, in moments.
One year ago: I am 32 years old. I take the packet of cigarettes out of the jacket my friend has left behind. There are still swirls and crumbs of tobacco across the desk in my room, from where my ex had rolled his cigarettes. He didn’t leave much behind and so I haven’t cleaned it up yet — a small memento. I pull out one of my friend’s cigarettes, hold it between my fingers. A deliberate thought: ‘I am going to take up smoking.’
For months, it is a secret. I don’t have many secrets as I value intimacy. My ex had secrets, and so my desire for intimacy was intimidating. I smoke these cigarettes in secret to honour a different way of being. I decide to smoke and I decide to have a secret. These are privileges born of heartbreak, disappointment, and loneliness.
My sister comes home one day and smells it on me. I explain to her that I decided to smoke one cigarette per week, and no more. I am sheepish but she shrugs and thinks it is no big deal. Like many people, she sometimes has a few when drinking.
To me it is a big deal to do something ‘wrong’. I am always early to appointments, parties and flights; I hate to let people down so much that often I do not even pursue friendships because I think I won’t be able to do what’s required; I never call in sick unless I am sick; I don’t miss deadlines; I don’t drink-drive; I apply political and ethical standards to my life and work; I write every week; I exercise at least four times a week; I don’t eat too much; I am a devoted partner.
But in my thirties, I have been doing more things ‘wrong’. Emails — I cannot possibly keep up. I have tried certain substances. I have gone outside the idea of monogamous commitment. I have drank too much and been boisterous and arrogant. And now, quite deliberately, I am smoking.
Of course I am not one thing or another: I am neither good nor bad. But when I was a child I was told I was good, and was paid attention for it. And when I was a teenager and felt bad I punished myself for it. I cut and burned myself. And when I was in my twenties I punished myself further for the parts of myself that made me large and prismed and different. I literally tried to make myself smaller. I controlled my eating and I lost 20 kilos in six months. And then in the mirror I looked like an idea of ‘good’.
So is smoking a cigarette another way of punishing myself? After another lover has gone?
I think it is healthier than that.
I am 33 years old. I have a ritual: empty stomach, a beer or a glass of wine, go to the back step (on dusk), and light the cigarette. Cough a little on the first inhale, every time. Now, in winter — mismatched pyjamas, no bra, dressing gown hanging loose over top. Beautifully comfortable, and myself. Alone, except for my greyhound, Mallory. Walk down the three steps into the overgrown courtyard, whistle for Mallory, who is inside on the lounge. Sip, inhale, exhale, sip. It’s a quiet suburb. The moon looks close. The courtyard smells of weeds and dog piss. There are overgrown vines and weeds spilling from cracks in the pavement — all small failures encroaching. And yet I am, now, calm.
Mallory finally joins me, ambles down the steps and looks for the possum that sometimes walks along the high fence. It’s very private. I pace a little in the courtyard, do some squats, feeling absurd and giddy and light. The best part of tipsiness, on the up, with nicotine added. I talk to Mallory. I sip, inhale, exhale. The leaves in the overgrown shrubs become crisp. The smoke is alive in its night-curling. I am alone and strong and whole. I am day become night. My animal and myself, we are blips. The moon. The muscles in my body go slack. Everyone I have loved comes through my head, gently. They stick around inside me. I am so large. I stretch my arms up above my head, smiling. I exhale. I can do anything. I look at the stub of the cigarette, regretfully. I take the last burning inhale. I do not cough. I stub it out in a pot plant. I sit on the step. I have shut down the day, the week. I have inhaled fire and exhaled sharpness.
The idea of fully going over into something, not being balanced and in control, has always fascinated me. In fact, ‘losing it’ seems a luxury, and actually results in such a complex array of emotions (from resentment to envy and even arousal). Some of my favourite scenes in films are when characters go on a hedonistic binge of alcohol, drugs and sex. In the most stressful, anxious and depressed episodes of my life, I desire to give in, while I also fear it terribly. Maybe if I allow a gradual ‘badness’ I will also become gradually healthier, expressing enough parts of my enjoyments, fears, and disappointments, and therefore eliminating the risk of ‘snapping’. Maybe it is to do with the physical self — more embracing of bodily sensations as a way of moving outside the mental bottling, the mental churning. But in a day-to-day, high-responsibility life, you cannot just suddenly become fully physical — a cigarette-smoking, sexed-up yogi. You need money for that.
Writing is like this badness, too. Wherein I depart from the world for a little while and live in the future or the nineteenth century, where I inhabit other bodies and watch thoughts pass through minds. While I am writing I am not walking the dog or tidying the house or writing back to a text message from a friend I haven’t seen for too long. I write once a week, on Saturday mornings. And it is just as bodily as the cigarette — the heart and breath and skin and senses like taste and smell are all involved.
During the week, there are cravings. After a high-energy meeting, looking at the impossible inbox, the to-do list, the pile of manuscripts. After hours of steady, efficient work. Around the feelings of striving to give what is required to get books in the world, sometimes quite heavy emotional and psychological labour (a skill I am proud to have developed). Around all that, looking out the window and seeing someone smoking casually on the street. A genuine physical longing, and a simultaneous mental fascination at such a sensation. One reason I do not give in is that I have experienced worse cravings. Yes, smoking is addictive, but what I have realised about myself is that the way that particular craving feels is nowhere near as unbearable as other cravings I have experienced, such as emotional and physical longing for another human being. I have desired so many things in my life, by now, that the craving for a cigarette throughout the week is just another layer, intense but bearable.
There is no message of growth or power in this admission, simply an acknowledgement of a sensation, an experience, and with it, a luxury and privilege of choice, within my own relatively healthy capacity. In life, things will get better or worse — more likely in some areas better and in some, worse, and the spirals will be different and the ways of getting out and letting go and giving in will evolve, and one day, maybe, will turn to excess — full badness — and that is a thrilling thought, and terrifying in that it is. For now, one cigarette is enough.
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My debut novel, A Superior Spectre, is published by Peter Bishop Books/Ventura.