| CREATIVE NON-FICTION |
by Jerrod E. Bohn
The Montréal Review, February, 2011
Quiet Smoke (2010) by John Kirby
I'm standing outside a bar with some friends, enjoying a beer while they switch back and forth between sipping and cigarettes. Colorado's fall air is just cold enough to crawl underneath my soft shell jacket and raise the hair on my neck and arms. My breath is visible, but I can't differentiate it from the smoke captive beneath the patio's tin roof. I glance at my pint glass; I'm now three-and-a-half beers in. The cold, the drink, the camaraderie-this is my danger zone, the moment when the cravings really kick in.
Just to set the record straight, I'm not one of those smokers who, while trying to quit, content themselves on inhaling what others breathe out. I don't want their sloppy seconds. I want my own, unlit, virginal until I fire up the tip into a bright, burning cherry. All of this stale smoke tainted with the tastes of others' mouths simply won't do.
The rest of my beer splashes into my stomach in a couple quick gulps. I drink faster when the cravings intensify. I look around. Everyone seems to be smoking, which isn't surprising since I'm hanging out with my writer friends. Writing and cigarettes. Of all the smoking combos that could have hooked me, that should have been the one. Although I paired smoking with many activities-drinking, conversation, after-dinner digestion-I managed to avoid that grouping. If each of my poems were a cigarette, I'd hate to see the damage done.
"Hey, Bone, you smoking tonight?" a friend asks me as he tilts a pack of American Spirits toward my mouth and nose. He has a wry grin and a boyish laugh, the kind that'll make you do anything and feel ok about it. The kind the devil surely has.
Somehow, my mind pins my body's urgings. Nothing, good nor bad, should have this kind of control. "No, man. I need another beer," I say and walk inside.
The craving follows me, gonging my brain while I order a PBR. I should stay in here, sit myself down at one of the off-balance tables, maybe zone out watching Sportscenter on the tiny television above the bar until some of my friends come back in. But that could be hours from now. Once the nicotine migration occurs, people only return for restrooms and refills.
I make small talk with Rick, the bar's owner. Then, I chat up a random older man sitting by himself. He looks scraggly, hasn't shaved in days. His lips quiver in the way that he has a story to tell, one that's probably more interesting to him than anyone who hears it. Yet, I listen to him. Anything to delay going back outside.
The man's telling me about a woman or women, and I'm wishing my girlfriend was here because I won't smoke in front of her, never have even at the start of our relationship when I hadn't yet committed myself to quitting. I've tried to quit before, but those attempts were half-assed, the kind that sound good when said out loud but have no substance behind the words. Like whatever it is this man is babbling about. I turn toward the dark, narrow hallway leading outside, and feel like I'm missing something. I need to go back and be with my friends.
I return to the patio, the hollow clank of my bootheels on the rotting wood floor just audible over the laughter, the mirth. Everyone looks like they're having so much fun, their right hands holding glassware and their left hands with lit cigarettes resting between the V of their middle and forefingers. That gesture, the smoker's V, feels appropriate for the grip cigarettes have over them, over me.
My friend, the one who offered me the Spirits, waves me over. He puts his arm around me and says something I don't hear. All five of my senses lock on the rectangular bulge of his shirt pocket.
"Can I?" I ask, and he has the pack out and open before I finish the sentence. He passes me his lighter.
The first drag puts my entire body at ease. I realize my hands had been shaking. They now find stillness around the neck of my beer bottle. My brain no longer hurts but feels alert, alive. It's not until the second drag that guilt begins to occupy the void the craving left. Nothing, good or bad, should have this kind of control.
I smoke the cigarette all the way down to the filter. Already, I'm thinking about the next one I'll bum. I've surrendered. What's the harm in one more? Another bummed from another friend. Another night gone up in smoke.
The next day, I drop by my girlfriend's apartment to cook dinner. She greets me with a hug. Because I know a kiss is next, I pull away from her mouth. Although she isn't the reason for my latest, and most earnest, attempt at quitting, she's given me enough support that I feel ashamed for letting her down.
Our mouths meet. I try to keep mine tight, but desire softens it enough that some of my breath slips through. Her nose wrinkles and twitches as it does when her cat breathes in our faces, its exhalation smelling like dead mice or stale cat food.
"You don't taste the same," she says.
I take a step back and turn my cheek away from her. I don't acknowledge last night, but I won't deny it. "Is it disgusting?" I ask.
"Well, it's not attractive."
"I'm sorry." I bring my hand to cover the lower half of my face, which is flushing.
"It's ok. You don't need to beat yourself up about it."
"But you're not going to want to kiss me." My neck cranes closer to my shoulder. I use my shirt as a filter.
With two firm fingers, she lifts my chin while her other hand tugs mine away. Her lips glide over my own like the way I held last night's final cigarette butt between my fingers. Like something held out of necessity rather than enjoyment. Done out of duty not desire.
I didn't smoke a cigarette until I turned twenty-three. Before my first drag, I smoked about two dozen cigars, mostly in high school with my "intellectual" friends. We puffed them at parties and drank whatever cheap scotch or bourbon we could acquire, pretentious indulgences to separate us from our beer-guzzling, tobacco chewing classmates. The cigars came from gas stations. El mono stinkos , we jokingly called them, stinky monkeys.
My ex-wife hated cigars, and she made me sleep on the couch if she smelled traces of what she called "a rolled up dog turd." To her, cigarette smoke was a personal offense, as if a smoker slapped her across the face with a yellowed hand reeking of ash.
The evening of the day I filed divorce papers, I went to the gas station to buy a cigar. This act wasn't any sort of fuck you waved in my ex-wife's face. After all, rebellion's about getting caught. It was more a declaration of freedom. I now only had to answer to myself regarding my indulgences.
Rows of cigarettes caught my attention, each one wrapped in a shiny, plastic sheath. I glanced at the Marlboro Blend 27's, and I remembered my single guy friends telling me how much they enjoyed these for their roasted tobacco flavor, like coffee or oaked red wine with a slight hint of toasted almonds. Not only did they sound delicious, but their gold and bronze packaging hinted at luxury. This wasn't the bloody death foreshadowed by the heavier Reds.
But the real reason I bought them is I had no one to go home to. No one to demand an explanation. I told the Korean clerk I'd like a pack, or three in this case since they were buy-two-get-one-free.
She asked for my ID. After bending it several times and scratching at the hologram with her manicured fingernails, she handed the ID back through the slit in the thick, bullet-proof glass window. "I sell you this time. Next time, you have better fake," she told me, her voice harsh as gravel under a tire.
"It's not a fake," I replied, annoyed. I'd been married, for Christ's sake. I wasn't some kid trying to haggle a loosie.
"You have such baby face," she laughed. If the glass barrier hadn't separated us, I believe she would have leaned across the counter and squeezed my cheek like some soot-mouthed grandmother.
I stepped outside and removed the plastic. At this point, I was enough of a newbie that I didn't bother with packing the cigarettes. I tore off the foil lining and pulled one out. The white cylinder was lighter than I expected, like the consolation ribbons I used to receive instead of trophies at elementary school field days. I lit it up. Thank goodness I wasn't rookie enough to forget to buy fire.
The flame swelled a bit and crackled as it met the paper. I inhaled. I thought it would be like the movies, that I would immediately throw out a rib from coughing while the carload full of cool guys laughed at me over the sound of their blaring hip-hop. Instead, my body seemed fine, even to want the toxins as I felt my tight, nervous muscles relax. The "smooth, mellow taste" the box's lettering advertised was no joke. I leaned my head back, cool under the stars.
I let the smoke expand in my mouth for a moment before I set it free. Before it floated distinct from but eventually assimilated into the air.
When I was growing up, my parents had to be selective about where we ate dinner because cigarette smoke gave me headaches. The pain would start in the center of my forehead and spread throughout my skull, feeling like dull needles pushing into my eye sockets. "I guess we'll never have to worry about our son smoking," my mom always said. I agreed with her then, fighting back tears as I winced.
I never told my parents I started smoking. When I stopped going to Mass every Sunday, I was open about it, even candid. Sure, my mom argued with me, and even my dad, himself a non-Catholic, passed judgment, but in the end they both told me they still loved me. For whatever reason, cigarettes somehow seemed a greater sin. Maybe because I had a choice over not going to church whereas smoking began to have a choice over me. Or perhaps because, as a child, I had always been so adamant that I would never become addicted to nicotine.
Currently, I'm thirty-one years old, and they still don't know, though I believe they suspect something.
Before I moved to Colorado three-and-a-half years ago, I drove twenty minutes every Sunday from my apartment in Topeka, KS to my parent's home on the outskirts of the city. My mom cooked a homestyle dinner and did my laundry while my sister and I played ping pong or shot pool.
One Sunday, not long after my marriage collapsed, I wandered into the laundry room to find my mom's nose buried in one of my shirts. "This smells terrible. I sure hope you aren't smoking," she said.
I shook my head. "We went to Terry's last night. That place is real smoky."
"This one is pretty bad, too," she said as she held up another shirt.
"Yeah, we were at old Bullfrog's that night." In the weeks following my divorce, I went out to the bars about four or five times a week. Because my family drinks a modest amount my parents found it more acceptable that I might be a borderline alcoholic than a social smoker.
"Well, I just hope you aren't smoking. It's such a waste of money." My mom said as she continued sorting my laundry. Her and my father had talked about the health risks of smoking in front of me on several occasions. Now, she was trying out a different tactic.
"I run and work out all the time, mom" I argued. "And I eat healthy, too." I'm not sure if my mom picked up on this logical fallacy. The actual existence of a nutritionally conscious, jogging smoker is highly unlikely, but to assume one doesn't exist is foolish. I am proof of that.
"You're right. You're very healthy," she said.
She never brought the subject up again, even a few months later when my sister yelled, "I can't believe I'm out of breath, and you're not even breathing hard, smoker!" during a game of tag with my little cousins.
I froze, rigid as a hardpack.
My sister gasped. "I mean, you smoke cigars," she said, a flustered attempt to cover up my secret. Somewhat ironically, my parents never objected to cigars.
"Yeah, but you don't inhale those," I told her. My parents only laughed. I believe if a box of cigars had been present, they would have passed them around as though someone birthed a new baby, as though someone got married.
* * * *
I'm what doctors and addiction behaviors specialists would term a light, casual, or social smoker. Unlike those who can't function without inhaling when they first wake up, I smoke only when I drink alcohol, especially beer or whiskey. Even during my heaviest smoking periods, those times where I am out at the bars or around other smokers and smoking drinkers about four times per week, I tend to smoke an average of 2-3 cigarettes per day. I don't feel like I smoke out of necessity. I smoke cigarettes because I like the flavor and the tickle-ache in the back of my throat like swallowing a pillow of feathers, pointy stems and all. Mentally, I take pleasure in the clarity smoke returns me to out of a semi-drunken, beer-glutted haze.
Of course, I know I should quit altogether. I often justify my habit by self-referencing athletic feats, especially those requiring a strong cardio-vascular system, which I can accomplish in better time and better prowess than many non-smokers. A few months ago, I hiked Pike's Peak with two non-smoker friends. I reached the mountain's summit a good fifteen minutes before my hiking companions, knowing full well I smoked six cigarettes the previous night in addition to the five, high-gravity beers a piece we all enjoyed. Some Tuesdays, I play basketball with a few guys at the local university where I work. After about ten minutes of two-on-two or twenty-one, the others crumple like softpacks in a sweaty pants pocket. I take a swig or two out of my water bottle and ask them if they are ready to go again.
And I also practice yoga in a room heated between 95 and 105 degrees. Go figure.
Dependency is a term I've always shied away from. My grandfather was an alcoholic; my ex-wife was co-dependent. The medical community has established a link between drinking increased amounts of beer and experiencing increased nicotine cravings. The same correlation might also occur between coffee and cigarettes. I drink coffee twice per day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon or early evening. I've never been a morning smoker, but I used to enjoy a cigarette with my second coffee.
A few years ago, I brewed myself a big pot of Ethiopian peaberry. The crisp fall air and the rustling of turning leaves lured me to my porch like an ancient poet to a myrtle grove. While the steaming black liquid dripped into the carafe, I ransacked my room for a cigarette. I tore through the clothes in my top dresser drawer, the underwear drawer where I hid my smokes when my family visited. Nothing. I patted down all of my jacket and snap shirt pockets, my pack holders for nights out at the bars. Nothing. I called my then girlfriend at work to ask if she had any smokes lying around even though smoking her Ultra Lights seemed as pointless as smoking empty rolling papers. Nothing.
My hands shook as I filled up my mug, and my throat throbbed for that familiar singe. I recalled telling my roommate that I wasn't addicted and could quit whenever I wanted to. He would roll his eyes as he reminded me that his mother, a thirty-year smoker and lung cancer survivor, used to say the same thing. Stumbling my way out the back door, I made the decision that day not to smoke and drink coffee again.
Occasionally, when sipping a four-shot Americano or strong brewed coffee, I'll think about a cigarette as a perfect compliment. One blackens your teeth while the other blackens your lungs. But to this day, I've never raised a filter to my lips after the hot, bitter coffee burns its way down into my stomach like a quick shot of whiskey or a slow drag.
Five days had passed since my third-to-last decision to stop smoking. I'd been battling a severe sore throat and sinus congestion. I woke up each day and spit out what felt like a pint of greenish goo that resembled a slimy apparition from Ghostbusters . When I swallowed, it was like someone dragged a studded two-by-four across the back of my mouth.
But one morning I didn't feel the nasal congestion and the subsequent drainage that had me breathing like Darth Vader through a foghorn. I decided to cure my cabin fever with some karaoke and drinks, but no cigarettes.
When I got to the bar, I told a friend not to let me smoke. After singing a Marilyn Manson-meets-Bright Eyes rendition of the 1960s classic "Happy Together," I found myself four beers in and jonesing for a cigarette. I bummed a Camel Wide from a friend. The friend I placed on smoke patrol argued with me for a good two minutes or so. "You're going to regret this in the morning," she said.
"I know, but I really want to smoke," I told her.
"You can smoke after you feel better. Your throat's been sore since Saturday."
"It's ok. It'll heal."
"Ok. Don't forget I tried, mister," she said.
I went outside and lit up, happy then and rueful later, that my friend folded easier than a rolling paper.
The smoke from the first of six cigarettes that night swirled around my mouth while the nicotine lit up every nerve in my body like a neon sign. My back started to hurt as did my arms, a typical occurrence as I sucked on the filter. I struck up a meaningless conversation with a tall blonde woman about her Grandma, whom she called Mrs. Pete, and her child, whom she termed Pookie. Next to dogs, cigarettes are responsible for more discussions between strangers than any other instigators. Unlike chit-chat between dog owners, which often remains focused on the canines, smoker talks run from the mundane "I can't believe we can't smoke inside anymore" to the random. If I give up smoking, I know I'll miss the social aspects as much as the alertness I first experience when the smoke seeps out of my mouth.
Naturally, my friend was correct. My throat constricted and ached the next morning as though someone raked the flesh until it became a meaty red pulp. From blowing my nose, I went through a whole roll of toilet paper by late afternoon. I'm sure I stripped of a few layers of nostril skin despite the gentleness of the tissue. I felt better. After a week.
I know I prolonged the illness at considerable expense to my comfort by smoking. Given my health and what happened last time, I didn't hit the bars until I was convinced I had fully recovered. By then, my second-to-last attempt at quitting, I had not smoked for a week or more.
The longest period of time I have gone without a cigarette during an attempt to quit is about a month. For me, smoking has gone from delighting in newfound independence whenever the end flares and crackles to a hedonistic indulgence to what I now feel may be accurately termed a habit.
Two years ago, I tried to drink without smoking. Rather than beer, I stuck to straight bourbon with an occasional splash of sour or ginger ale. Every time I had an urge to smoke, I ordered another drink. It worked. But by midnight, I had heaved the contents of my stomach into a shit-stained urinal that gave off the sickly saccharine aroma of dried and crystallized piss.
I've tried not to bring a pack with me to the bars, but this strategy always results in me bumming a smoke from my all-too-willing friends or, worse, strangers. Because my friends won't accept payment, and strangers-knowing full well what it's like to be without a much desired cigarette-rarely do as well, I end up experiencing twice the guilt as I shield the lighter flame with my left hand and use the right to guide it to the waiting tip. I'm aware that guilt over indebtedness seems silly when confronted by the fact that the generosity of these companions and unknowns may actually limit my life span. And, since most bars carry cigarettes at a considerable mark-up, I end up blowing beer and food money on smokes.
On more than one occasion, I've pondered buying loose-leaf tobacco and smoking it out of dollar bills. Or maybe just sifting through the ash cans for a half-smoked cigarette. "That's what I call a bastard, a bastard, a bastard," a homeless man in Lawrence, KS used to sing-song when he lucked upon one of those.
I would give him my bastard to celebrate my final effort at snuffing out.
Over two months have passed since my last cigarette. I can no longer pinpoint the exact date of my last smoke, which I take as proof that my latest attempt will be my last.
I've done plenty of research on nicotine addiction. I've learned that studies indicate that if a smoker can suppress a craving for about ten minutes, any impulse to smoke will suddenly disappear until the next hankering. I've also read that part of smoker's inclination to light up is based on the need for some sort of oral fixation. Yet this data doesn't help me in the moment, when my mind tries to convince my body that only one little drag will temper the dull ache in my skull. My body tells me otherwise, and I need to listen to it.
Tonight, I'm having a tough time doing that. I'm back home for a few days for family reasons, and I've decided to escape for a little while by joining some friends for some drinks. We've been playing the barroom version of shuffleboard, an activity at which I excel. I've just finished my fourth beer, and my mind is beginning to fixate on something it thinks it has to have.
My friend approaches me with a pack of Pall Mall's in his hand. He's going to be a father soon, and this is the first time I've seen him since he found out the news. He asks me if I want to smoke.
I refuse, but when he says, "I bought this pack on the way here to share. It's probably going to be my last," I don't know how to tell him no.
"Just one," I say, convincing myself that this will be like the ritual of smoking a cigar when the baby is born. I actually tell him this on our way out of the bar.
The early January night reminds me I should have stayed inside by welcoming me with its teeth-chattering embrace. I haven't lit up yet; I can still turn back. But my mind howls, "you want this. You need this."
I take my friend's lighter, and ignite it without difficulty. Two months gone by, and I haven't lost my touch. I suck in while the flame laps at the white and tan tip.
My muscles immediately contract. The worst of the tightening is in my stomach, liver, and low back. A thick mucus fills my mouth. It tastes like bile and skunky beer.
I want to run into the bathroom and vomit, but I don't want to embarrass myself in front of my friend. Using all my strength, I exhale the smoke and swallow down the foul goo. My body lurches, but I keep all of the liquid in my stomach.
"May I?" another friend asks as he joins us.
I hand him my cigarette. "Here."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, man, I can't smoke it." I look at my other friend, the one who gave me the cigarette, and expect him to chuckle. "Sorry," I tell him. "It's been a while."
He doesn't even grin. "That's a good thing," he says. "I won't offer again."
My girlfriend's picking me up at the Denver airport in two days, but I tell her about my failed indiscretion over the phone the next morning. I don't fear her spitting out my welcome home kiss-a lengthy toothbrushing and mouthwash gargling should get rid of that-rather, I want to hear what she thinks about my physical reaction. In addition to being a writer, she's a yoga instructor. She's not surprised by what I tell her and assures me my response to the cigarette is natural. "You're just becoming more aware of your body. What's good and what's bad for it," she says.
Her explanation reaffirms what I've been thinking, that my body knows the ingredients in cigarettes are unhealthy. The urges and beliefs that the nicotine is vital to my body are mental, what yogis would call the ego. I acknowledge my slip and vow to remember how my body revolted against the smoke.
To further recommit myself to this final attempt at snuffing out, I form a new plan, one that involves gum and memory. When the craving hits, I'll pop a piece of wintermint into my mouth and grind between my teeth until there's no flavor left. I'll also remind myself that it's mental, that I can, and have, resisted lighting up in the past. After all, I've never smoked in front of my girlfriend. A former smoker, she hasn't lit up in years. Because most quitters indicate that the cravings never go away, I've let respect for her put out my smoke before I even light up. She doesn't need to be reminded of the smoke hitting her tongue, the nicotine speeding through her veins.
As much time as we spend together, she isn't physically present with me every time I go out. So, I'll have to make her mentally present. I'll have to remember how much she likes my hair smelling like anything other than a scuffed carpet in an old, smoke-stained tavern. I'll have to visualize her tongue exploring my mouth without recoiling from the tarry taste. How I don't cough as we return to our bodies after making love.
Yes, this is my idea for quitting. But should my passion for my girlfriend, the Eclipse chewing gum I always carry and my fresh-breathed pals fail me, I'll have excuses-"It's ok, they're organic American Spirits!"-"I'll sweat it out tomorrow!"-ready to dispense.
And then guilt will hold its torch to my lungs. Knowing I've let my lover down will sting, but she's not the reason I chose to quit. More than her smoldering disappointment, I'll hear the hot hiss of letting myself down. Of knowing I allowed a plant, some unnamable chemicals, and a thin strip of paper to control me. Something I could so easily snap if it didn't feel so appropriate between my fingers, glowing its way to my lips.
Jerrod E. Bohn has MFA in creative writing at Colorado State University. He is currently teaching writing courses at Colorado State.
Illustration: Quiet Smoke (2010) by John Kirby.
Many of us like to think we are still young at heart. A youthful spirit suggests a certain freshness, an unselfconscious exuberance. But there is a darker side of youth which we often lose sight of amidst the anxieties of adulthood. Growing up is actually, by definition, about coming to terms with a confusing, frightening and alien world.
John Kirby has spent his artistic career stripping away the defences behind which adults have learned to hide. His paintings describe, allegorically, the suffering of people squeezed into the straightjackets of religious, sexual and social norms. His haunting paintings, peopled by hybrid child-adults and transgendered, doll-like figures, point out the flaws in our rose-tinted view of childhood - and suggest that the child inside us may not be such a carefree spirit after all.
John Kirby was born in Liverpool in 1949. He trained at Central St Martin and the Royal College of Art in London. He has exhibited extensively in Europe and the United States in Solo and Group Shows and his paintings are included in several prestigious Public and Private Collections.