Eulogy to My Cigarette
I was six, but the memory is clear. The first time a cigarette reached out and promised me something beyond a life of the fresh air that I knew.
Walking down the street with my mother, we pass the local barbershop, our favorite Chinese restaurant, a cab company, a tiny bakery with cakes shaped like taxis. I look up at the sky, but obstructing the view is a giant poster of a girl wearing jean shorts next to a guy in a pink bathing suit. Both are laughing with the undertone of flirtation; I can sense it, long before I’m aware of what flirting is. To their right is a camel wearing sunglasses, smiling. All of them are smoking, happy. The three suave characters, telling the simple story that will eventually follow me through high school and college. Smoking is cool, attractive, and as carefree as a day at the beach.
I point up at the camel and call him cute. “That’s not cute, that’s an advertisement, absolutely terrible, of course you think he’s cute. Those assholes!” My mother says. I recoil at my first lesson in marketing, don’t fall for it, and yet, the story sticks.
It’s around then, we go for a visit to my grandparent’s house in deep Brooklyn. On the drive, we see Jews with the traditional outfits reading and chatting on benches.
They wear their long coats. Behind them, dead trees stand tall, the sky’s grey. My grandparents are Jewish, but I’m only half. They celebrate the holidays like Passover and Hanukah, but don’t wear the outfits or speak Hebrew.
During the visit, I find my grandpa sitting on his bed. He’s a WWII vet with a habit for smoking. A habit so strong he gets lung cancer and keeps smoking. I go and sit next to him. Dangling my legs I tell him, “I don’t want to get old.”
“I don’t want to get old either,” he says back. I’ll never forget that small moment together, me in my velvet dress and black shiny shoes.
A few days later, my grandpa is in the hospital. His lung cancer’s causing his skin to pale, his cough to persist. A week or so after that, they release him, he seems to be doing okay again. That night, he sneaks a cigarette in the bathroom. My grandmother finds him, keeled over, clenching his closest friend between his fingers.
I told myself then, I would never smoke a cigarette in my life. Never touch the tobacco death trap that killed the grandfather I loved. He had survived a war, earned a Purple Heart, and yet could not defeat the addiction of nicotine wrapped in paper.
Until I turned 14, I remained true to my promise. And then I entered high school. Every few years my school would fundraise to take the chorus group on a trip to Europe. My 9th grade, the trip was to Prague. My roommate was a girl named Anna. Anna wore a huge wool jacket lined with fur. Her mother was a former model. When I’d visit Anna’s house, her mother’s face would peek out behind framed magazine covers. Anna was part of the new wave of students that joined our small school in high school. There was an intensity to this new wave. They seemed to know more, unshielded by the walls of a small Brooklyn private school. They brought with them weed, and alcohol, cocaine, and a desire to snap out of childhood.
Around Anna and the new wave, an aura of smoke painted their auras. It was on this trip that I shook away the pledge I made as a child. We sat on the bench outside the hotel, using a small lighter with the Czech Republic flag. Slipping away was all fear, swapped with a buzz, an energy that made my heart flutter.
The teachers couldn’t know, my parents couldn’t know, some of the other students couldn’t know. To see my new love, I’d have no choice but to hide it, to find alone time, to walk endlessly down the streets of Prague until my cigarette satisfaction evaporated into the chilled air. It was a secret that few of us shared. And then we flew back to Brooklyn, and I found myself on lunch breaks, at parties, finding a way to taint the air as often as I could.
Cigarettes helped me through math class, through arguments with my mother, through lonely Saturdays. And then, I took my packs to Upstate New York, where I’d go to College. Where I had cigarettes to help me meet people, outside libraries, outside bars. They filled the boredom of loneliness, they gave me the desire to think and walk. Walk through paths between trees drenched in snow, that led to small ponds or more trees. Or walk the campus, overlooking the vast surrounding forests and sunsets. The views always clearer when exhaling smoke.
My senior year of college I smoked more than any other year of my life. I was hopelessly drowning in self-pity, my chest aching of uncertainty, looming decisions, angst. Throughout it all I wanted the comfort of tobacco, of blowing it back into the air. Maybe I thought it would keep me warm in the freezing temperatures if I became a walking chimney.
Some nights when I couldn’t fall asleep, I’d throw the blankets off my bed, turn on the dim lamp, open a window and blow through a whole pack. If needed, I’d grab a can of Budweiser and just sit. Thinking about my classes, how cold it was, how life felt with snow everywhere. Heat emerging quietly from the foot-long radiator near my desk.
In the mornings, running to class up a three-mile road, when I fumbled through my pockets, a cigarette would interlace with my fingers. Promising to keep me company, to hangout in my drunkest hours, to be there with me during finals. Though, of course, the only promise that comes with cigarettes is cancer or heart failure.
But death seemed like far away stories in the news, faded memories. I was surrounded by beautiful, young smokers wearing nice clothes, college bands with tall guys in skinny jeans and flannels. I was mesmerized by long, frosty nights out on town or warm inside next to radiators, the smoke always by my side. It seemed cigarettes could only harm the old, decrepit, homeless, addicts.
With the flick of my finger, I could ignite the flame I was searching for. Intrigue, excitement, freedom.
But as the impending calendar towards graduation approached, I realized I’d be moving home as a full-blown addict. The scent would linger on my sweaters, my jeans, my hair. I imagined my dad watching me reach for a cigarette. The horror of seeing his daughter apparently unaffected by his own father’s death. And so I began a back and forth of thoughts. Until stronger and stronger, grew the understanding that I needed to say goodbye.
The cigarette was never a friend, though I buried it like one. One bitter day in early Spring, I woke as the sun rose. The birds chirped. I wore a sweatshirt, a jacket and a hat. Though the chill still found its way to my spine. Outside my house, was a path to downtown. A path of grass, shrubs and snow-covered trees. I walked towards one of the trees, with a huge trunk and white bark. Underneath its shadow I used a stick and dug a tiny hole in the soil. I placed the cigarette in its grave and covered it back up. I closed my eyes, thanking it for being there through the hard times. I now needed to trudge through the hard times and good times alone, I told myself.
The first month after that, I would wake up and follow my old routine. Step outside into the morning breezes. Inhale, as though I were smoking. But instead, I would take in the nature, my pockets empty, my lungs only breathing oxygen. I pretended to have smoke breaks, but instead appreciated just being outside. Re-learning life alone.
It’s now been four years since my last cigarette. If I walk down the street and someone is smoking, I run to the other side. Away from any danger. I give a sideways look. I wonder how stupid they must be. I think of how everyone knows it could kill you. How it killed my grandfather. If I’m with a friend or family member, I mutter, “disgusting.” But a glimmer in my eye, perhaps, gives off the nostalgia of my past love. Reminding me of the days I was immortal.
About the Author: Susannah Chovnick is a Brooklyn native who has always enjoyed reading about and writing true stories. Following her passion, in 2011 she graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in journalism. She then moved to San Francisco, where she still resides. In her free time, she enjoys writing and eating nachos under palm trees. She has had work featured in Sweatpants & Coffee, Germ Magazine and Lunaris Review.