In 1993, I try my first cigarette. It’s eighth grade and it’s a pilfered smoke from my friend’s grandmother. We’re in the woods in flannel shirts and jeans sucking rebellion and premature adulthood through a cotton filter, and for only that, it tastes good. Eight years later, I am attending art school and buying my own packs regularly. This time the smell is mixed with turpentine and the smoke rises over the music in the painting studio. We brush away at our paintings, rarely looking up or talking. We break only for more cigarettes outside–an excuse to walk away from work for five minutes, re-humanize, and talk between puffs.
When I begin teaching, I make the hike back to my campus apartment, step onto my balcony, draw on my cigarette as I light the end, and exhale superiority. Our students aren’t supposed to see us smoke, and I feel teacherly smoking alone as I know they are filing through the lunch line in the cafeteria. A few years later, diploma earned, I am part of the real world. The disappointing one. I am working three jobs. Construction site, hotel restaurant, and cake decorating. I take smoke breaks with carpenters and painters. Buss boys and girls and waitresses. Bakery managers and butchers. We sweat. We ache. And we break from it together, finding spots of shade by palettes of mulch and dirt and dumpsters. The smell from our cigarettes mixes with paint, sugar, and dirty dish water.
As of this past November, I’ve finally quit smoking cigarettes. I feel like I’ve had all my moments with them. I’m tired of buying them. I’m tired of smelling them. I’m tired of feeling bound to them. I used to joke that a cigarette was a seven minute vacation. I’d crave them mostly when I was angry at life and felt they were stolen moments for myself. But more than the smell, I got fed up with that paradigm.
Today, I’ve discovered cigars. I’ve traded the strong chemical burn for a sweeter, more earthen smolder. I’m not a better person than I was when I bussed tables or sanded walls for eight hours. But the way I enjoy a smoke has expanded. I walk into a humidor instead of a gas station, and pick up sticks and breathe in whatever I can from the unlit cigars. I have my top five favorites, and am always trying new ones. I’ve found that they’re not consumed as stolen moments, but as entire chunks of a day. You spend an afternoon at a cigar shop. Or an evening on the deck. Or a night of poker.
I enjoy camaraderie with white and blue-collar women and gentlemen and fathers as well as business owners and retired men at the cigar bar. I suppose we are mildly defined by the above, but when we smoke, we are very simply united by our unabashed love of cigars. We talk about what they taste like, share and trade, and ask each other for recommendations. We are purposefully unrushed as we sip on cold beer and puff on the thick sticks of aromatic tobacco. There is no bragging. No posturing. No competition. We are all naked in our intentions there, very much stripped down to our desire to settle in and be soothed. There is no angst for me anymore in the way I smoke now. Nor do I sense it in the company I keep there. I feel like my life has expanded in the most small and graceful way with this discovery. I can often be found sitting with a cigar among friends. We taste the spice of burnt leaves with hints of chocolate and foreign aromas. And more importantly, we are at peace, simply living.