by: Nico Lang
I’ve had a lot of last cigarettes in my life. The first time I had my last cigarette, I was curled up on my grandparents’ old wooden porch, letting the rain fall over me while I listened to my IPod. The Eels told me that I was climbing up to the moon, even though the sky was covered in clouds and dust, and I couldn’t see much of anything.
That first time I quit smoking, I wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t ready most of the first times that I quit. For me, smoking was the secret that I hid from my grandparents, the secret source of solace I kept hidden away in forgotten rooms. My cigarette was the light that was always on, even when it was dark, the little warmth I could gather in an attic that was always too cold.
Their attic was where I lived, and I would huddle up next to the window and let the smoke filter out into the cold while I watched Godard movies on the tiniest television. I idolized Anna Karina, and I wanted to believe that I could live like her, that my life could be filled with as many bright colors, that my soundtrack could instantly burst into a song when I least expected it. I could share a kiss with Belmondo in the metro, and the arriving train would blow up my skirt in the most delicate way, as if held aloft by invisible birds. Belmondo would lead me by the waist, knowing that perfect place to put his arm around me, and we would go absolutely anywhere, anywhere but here.
But when the cigarette went out, the birds always flew from me. They never came back, but I always had more cigarettes. I could always buy more cigarettes.
When I went to the store, I liked how many different colors of cigarettes there were. Marlboros were red, for days when I had the mean reds; Pall Malls were blue, and I always smoked those in the winter time, when the world is filled with ice and everything is supposed to be white, but it all feels like blue; American Spirits were yellow, and those were for days when the world was warm and the sun felt close to me.
Most people develop brand loyalty, as they decide what kind of person they are, but I didn’t know what kind of person I was, and I liked them all. They were like little packets of 20 instant friends, and I remember the first cigarette tasted so sweet, like the beginning of something beautiful. My first cigarette was a clove, and it made my mouth taste like cherries and sugar. This was my first day at college, and I sat at an outdoor café with friends, overwhelmed and excited by how big the city was around me. I wanted these people, this city to be my friends, and I was amazed how the cigarette made us feel closer.
When the boy next to me lit the cigarette by putting it in his mouth first, it was like we were sharing a first kiss. The smoke we shared was deep, slow and sensual; it tasted like everything I wanted in the city, the future I wanted to taste like something.
But with all things, the next taste was not as good at the first, and I shared it on a balcony during the week of finals. I couldn’t even breathe it into my lungs, but I smiled like I was taking the best breath, like the cigarette was filling my body with respite. When I coughed, I tried to hide it. I didn’t want to let them see me; I wanted them to think we were the same, people that were all able to share the same brand, the same brand of people.
I would cough the next cigarette, but eventually, the smoke found its way in, and it curled around everything. At one point, that curl felt intimate, as if the cigarette were inhabiting a space inside me that I wouldn’t let anything else into. I was still a virgin – because I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone inside me – but this wasn’t like a person. This was shapeless, and it took the shape of me. It was like breathing in God, if God tasted like shit. It turned out not to be God, but I got used to the taste. I learned to love it – because it was comfort and it was there.
When I smoked, I wasn’t just huddled in the warmth of my lighter; I was enveloped by the hands of a community, one that always seemed to be ready to light a match for me, to give me another cigarette when the pack only had ashes left inside. I got to meet people, the people who huddled in doorways to keep warm during the winter, the ones who hid from the rain with me, the ones who became my friends.
Cigarettes meant you were always meeting people, even when you didn’t want to meet people; even when you didn’t want to give up that last cigarette, you couldn’t keep it because saying no was like turning down friendship. I liked the warmth, the companionship, especially the way that anyone could be a smoker. After awhile, I got really got at picking out potential smokers, and I called it Smoker-Dar, which was a lot like Gay-Dar. I used to like the ways in which the two overlapped, that I had This Thing in common with many people in the queer community, the community that I was still finding myself in.
Cigarettes made me feel comfortable there; they gave me something to say, something to do with my hands. I only feel right when my hands have purpose, something to hold or touch.
And no matter what I did, I couldn’t quit them. Even if I wasn’t loyal to a brand, I was loyal to my hobbies, the things I liked; I obsessed over them, and quitting cigarettes was like dumping my oldest friend, one that had been there when others weren’t.
Every time I quit, I always feel like I’m missing out on that friendship and the future friendships I might have because of it. Not smoking makes it harder to meet people, shows that I have one less thing in common with most of my friends, means I can’t go outside with the group of people who get to share this secret together.
When I left for Paris this fall, I felt like I couldn’t meet anyone – because I didn’t speak the same language or share the same culture. Every time I went to open my mouth, my French just got stuck. It was like trying to talk with cinnamon in your mouth.
I hadn’t been smoking for a couple months, but I started again on another balcony, a balcony on which I swore it would be the only one. This was my first night in my new apartment, which looked so much bigger and emptier than when I had visited it before. But smoking made it feel less strange; smoking brought me a little piece of home, comfort when nothing else could give me that. When I opened my mouth, I finally felt like I had something to talk about.
But after I left, I quit one last time.
When the plane took off from the ground, it was like I was saying goodbye to my cigarettes as much as I was bidding adieu to the country I had grown to love, the city that started to feel like home. Somewhere, I knew I would have to start again without their help, and the ground felt farther and farther away.
Up in the air, I felt so small. But I felt like I could finally go anywhere.
Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a first-year graduate student in DePaul University’s Media and Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a film critic for HEAVEMedia. His work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the New Gay and on his mother’s refrigerator. Nico is also a tireless advocate for the brussel sprout, a delicious vegetable he feels has gotten a bad rap. Follow Nico on Twitter @GidgetLang or on that Facebook thing all the kids are talking about.