Marlboro Reds. The choice cigarette of cowboys and cattle ranchers, of healthy corn-fed Westerners with tanned skin and rugged faces who dexterously smoke with their thumb and forefinger. In the October of my senior year in high school, this was the first cigarette I ever tasted. Instead of putting hair on my chest like muscled men from Oklahoma it put stars in my vision and I felt momentarily ill from the burning bitterness that took unrequited revenge on the flesh in the back of my throat. I felt like a living barbecue pit.
My friend Madeleine who had recently picked up smoking was home on fall break from NYU and late Saturday night had proffered my friend Lana and me a cigarette. We were not at home, and Lana was anxious that her parents and older sisters would see us. We stood shivering on a curb next to a deserted soybean field in suburban New Jersey, the only light coming from a distant parking lot.
I struggled, reeling back and violently hacking after my initial inhalation, but I persisted. Smoking is the fuel of the creative class, the Parisian pleasure, the social lubricant of trendy New Yorkers. I’ve heard someone joke that a man at a party standing alone, looking out a window is a bore. Hand him a cigarette, and he becomes a philosopher. Even if I didn’t intend to use it anytime soon, smoking was a necessary skill I had to learn at some point, preferably not in front of someone who might judge me on any ineptitude.
Madeleine smoked effortlessly while Lana and I suffered. Casually and almost imperceptibly, she reached into her black leather purse. She raised the long and thin white stick to her lips, around which she deftly cupped a hand to allow the flame from her Bic lighter to ignite the tobacco. She’s tall, has voluminous dark brown curly hair, milky skin, and a heart-shaped mouth painted with dark red lipstick that leaves speckled kiss stains on her cigarette. When lighting it her face glowed golden and her cheekbones and dark eyes became illuminated. I gawked as she leaned back to release a steady, cloudy stream from her throat. She was a blatant bad-influence trope in action.
Before I could successfully smoke my own Marlboro I noticed a long ash forming at the end. In an attempt to flick it off, I burned my finger. It took several tries before carbon snowflakes fluttered to the asphalt. This, for me, is still the hardest part of smoking. Lana seemed to be having similar troubles.
Soon enough, I mastered the faintest suction, the most delicate pull, the softest drag. Millions of cilia had been subjugated under my will. I exhaled noxious but beautiful vapors that curved around my lips and floated away before my eyes. Curlicues of smoke and warm breath dissipated into the chill October night. “You’ve got it!” the other two exclaimed, and commended me on my apparent grace. I smiled, dropped the spent cigarette butt to the ground and crushed it underfoot. I smoked another to reinforce my new technique.
This wasn’t a rebellion. Despite a clandestine setting, if I had actually felt badass and reveled in my victory over nicotine I probably wouldn’t have brushed my teeth twice and drunk a tall glass of water to cleanse my foul mouth the instant I got home later that night. My parents had both tried smoking at various times in their lives and would have been laughably and almost depressingly uncaring at what I had done. They are far more concerned about drinking, and my mother has explained to me several times in car rides that my brain isn’t fully myelinated and any alcohol before the age of twenty-six is going to render me brain damaged.
As for my friends, smoking cigarettes in the suburbs is a rarity and most teenagers stick with reliable basement parties, backyard binge drinking, and weed smoking. In high school, my only acquaintance who smoked idolized Jim Morrison and sometimes liked to say he would die before age forty. It doesn’t have a great reputation where I come from. At seventeen, I understood that smoking was a more cosmopolitan activity, but I wasn’t rebelling against my parents or banal suburban existence. It was part experimentation, part evocation.
A lot of girls start smoking because of older, sultry figures like Chloë Sevigny or Kate Moss. You can’t toss a shoe backstage at a fashion show without hitting two or three chain-smoking models. My reason for smoking is more deeply ingrained from an image indelible in my head since I first saw it when I was eight years old. It’s a piece of family iconography and folklore, a photograph of my great aunt Mary.
In the 1930s Mary left school and, much to her family’s discontent, went to London. Much to her family’s delight, she wound up engaged to a member of the British gentry. Unfortunately, the relationship turned to ashes along with the rest of London during World War II when her fiancé left her a letter explaining he would never return from Malaysia and not to bother looking for him.
In this photograph taken after the rupture, Mary poses for the camera wearing a black turtleneck and holding a cigarette in the crook of her middle and index fingers. She’s looking away and a fogged lens softens her face and the tendrils of smoke curling up from the cigarette. Her hair is freshly curled and though her man has left, she’s in power. Her gaze is stoic but nothing can disgrace this woman. Kate Moss and Chloë Sevigny could never look as sexy.
After seeing that picture, I was predestined at an early age to try smoking at some point. Sometimes when I smoke on the Street, a common question I field is whether or not I smoke when I’m drunk. I want to shout “No, you fools!” but instead my face turns slightly pink and I crack a timid smile, occasionally using the lame alibi that I’ve been doing this before coming to Princeton and sometimes partook during my senior spring of high school. But I’ll admit that I’ve regressed into a Terrace rat that only smokes after having a few drinks.
But I can’t live up to the photograph of my aunt Mary, and I recently discovered that she didn’t even smoke at all. The cigarette was merely a prop. I was duped.
Smoking is over-glorified and overrated, and it’s too easy to portray cigarettes as cool. I don’t even know why I still smoke sometimes, since nicotine doesn’t give me a pleasant buzz. My smoker friends say over and over again that their addiction is their biggest regret in life. They are constantly trying to quit. It’s a decent conversation starter to ask for a light or bum a cigarette from another, but I’m beginning to find it pointless.
There is one exception to this feeling. The best cigarette I ever tasted was at Ivy, close to the anniversary of my first. Some boy whose name I can’t remember and face I can’t recall had a cardboard box of black cigarettes with gold foils. I discovered later that they were Sobranie Black Russians, a brand not to be found in America, and he was handing them out like candy. It was at once repulsive and delicious, pungent and saccharine, but so smooth. The smoke caressed my trachea and sweetly sizzled my taste buds. I stood on the back patio smiling and recalled my first experience, except instead of standing next to two girls, I was surrounded by British people. I’m not a smoker, and I don’t think it’s anywhere near as attractive as I once thought, but I’d send away any Brit to Malaysia if you give me a pack of Sobranies.