I smoked my first cigarette at age 17.
At the time I’d found myself in the midst of a small clique of goth girls, and on weekends we’d hang out in various scummy public places around Melbourne, occasionally going back to someone’s house to watch The Craft, drink and, of course, smoke. The leader of this group was called Iggy (The Girl Formerly Known as Emma). Iggy was a hulking 6”2, with bleached and thirsty hair plummeting down towards her waist, perfectly painted black lipstick and a penchant for “nose smoking” and classic English literature, in particular the work of Oscar Wilde. She could easily pass for a woman in her mid-twenties, and as such she was our gateway towards cigarettes and cheap vodka, both bought from a dodgy bottle shop near her house in Sunshine (where, ironically and metaphorically, the sun did not often shine). We would sit and drink, and I would raise the cigarette to my lips and puff futilely away like one would at a fine cigar, genuinely believing this to be the great and terrifying act my mother had warned me of time and time again. It wasn’t until some months later – mid 2005, this would’ve been – that I actually achieved the act of inhalation. The head-rush – combined with a mix of expensive spirits pilfered from my parents’ cabinet – was astounding, and I was hooked.
The first packet I bought was Dunhill Blue. I had no idea what type of cigarette this was, only that I’d seen a girl at school smoking them, a girl who was, it seemed, effortlessly cool – donning red lipstick, impeccable music taste and a quiff matched only by her attitude – and so I bought Dunhill as my own attempt to become closer to the stratosphere of her coolness.
Late at night, after my parents had fallen asleep, I would hang out of my open window and quietly smoke; an old horror movie silently illuminating my tiny bedroom with the crimson glow of all-American blood and guts. I’d inhale, exhale, inhale again, let the fibrous vapours float out my open mouth and hang in the air, and feel for a second or two like my life held the sort of poetry I both read and consistently aimed for.
In actuality, of course, I was simply poisoning myself while Milla Jovovich, caught half-naked on mute, wiped waves of bloody zombie chunks from her exposed and perky breasts.
I am adopted. The last time I saw my birth mother one on one, I would’ve been about 20 years old. By this point, my lungs were well hardened from an extended stint working for a particularly horrible call centre, where each break – 5, 15, 50 minutes – would be punctuated by the constant lighting and relighting of cigarettes, ashen life-preservers we’d suck on with the kind of desperation that comes with eight hours of attempting to hock phone-lines and internet to people who genuinely hate you.
That night I stayed at my birth mother’s house, and together we polished off a couple of bottles of wine, ending up sitting together on the porch, drinking in the late Summer air. As I thought to myself, “shit, I wish I had a smoke”, my birth mother, like the nicotine fairy I’d always wanted, produced an entire carton of menthols. Sensing the hunger in my eyes – a combination of an addict’s heady lust and the sheer amazement at seeing that many cigarettes in one place – she offered me one. I accepted – and followed it up with another, and another, ad infinitum. At one point, I distinctly remember declaring – menthol hanging out the side of my mouth, minty freshness broken by that seedy undercurrent of tobacco and tar – “They’re so light! It’s almost like breathing air!”. Almost.
The next day I took the train home, head pounding, lungs throbbing. After cleaning myself up in a café bathroom down the road – in those days of hiding from my mother, Listerine Fresh Breath Strips were my best friend – I finally arrived home. The perfect crime.
I walk into my room to find my mother sitting on my bed with an eerie calm about her.
“Let’s go for a drive,” she smiles, tight and thin. The universal code for: boy-o, you’re fucked. Oh god. “Come on.”
With the resigned terror of a man on death row, I follow her into the car, sitting in silence as she backs out of the driveway and presses down the door’s locks. It’s a trap.
We carry on, the silence permeating my very being, for a good ten minutes until she slowly, surely pulls up at the beach. In front of us, a pristine, sunny day, emerald waters gently lapping the sand as seagulls and happy families frolic and play. This can’t be good. I reach to open the door, forgetting I’ve been locked in. My mother turns to me, slowly, eyes piercing my soul:
“You’ve been smoking, haven’t you.”
Shit, I think. This might actually be worse than the gay thing.
Across the years I’d been able to pick up and put down cigarettes without much fanfare, delving into their comfort as I needed then leaving them for weeks, months at a time. My first and real struggle with quitting occurred – quite stupidly, in retrospect – as I was directing the biggest production I’d ever been in charge of, a production of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade.
The stress inherent in helming a play with some 22 characters – most of them insane, and most played by actors who delighted in keeping in character at all times – drove me to, for the first time, actually need to smoke. I would stand out in the rain during rehearsal breaks and chug desperately down on a cigarette, another one in my hand, ready to be lit up at a moment’s notice.
“Break has finished two minutes ago,” our long-suffering stage manager would inform me, head sticking out of the rehearsal room. “The actors are ready.”
“Well, I’m the director!”, I’d reply, lighting another cigarette off of the one already crammed into my mouth. “And I say we get five minutes more.”
“But – ”
“Whattaya gonna do – start without me?”, I’d snarl, and continue sucking them down. By this point I was smoking menthol cigarettes almost exclusively – they were easier to cram down quicker, and hence were more economical. It was a busy time of my life, and if I was going to smoke, I was going to be the fucking best at smoking.
My decision to quit was fuelled in part by these bouts of rage. Friends in the cast who, like me, smoked, would side-eye me with waves of worry as the stage manager would trudge back inside, before lighting up another cigarette, as much out of fear as anything else. “Where’re you going?”, I’d smile pointedly as they’d attempt to leave before me. “I got us five more minutes, guys! It’s fine.”
One of my favourite cast members of this particular play was an international student from Malaysia named Jasmine, a girl of elven beauty with a thick mane of black hair and striking opal eyes (that I later learned were contact lenses – it was a shocking time for me all round). I had cast her because she had ostensibly been the sweetest auditionee out of more than a hundred. Instead, she had turned out to be a beautiful fusion of party girl and sheer blind insanity, to the point where it would occasionally be uncertain as to whether she was acting onstage or just being. I could dedicate an entire collection of stories simply relaying the wonderful, crazed things Jasmine did – and may yet do – but aside from all the nipples bitten, the tales of international marijuana brands smoked, the violent, insistent booty-popping and general screeching, she was also the unquestionable queen of non-sequiturs. Case in point:
I stand on break, smoking, as per usual, as she pops her head out, feline in her inquisition.
“Got a light?”. I do, and she comes over, pulling out the largest, darkest cigarette I’ve seen in all my life from an unmarked packet. She catches my eye as she squirrels the packet away and asks, voice full of cheek: “Want a puff?”.
I try to inhale and it feels immediately as if a sandpaper covered fist has bludgeoned its way through my oesophagus. Through the coughing, I manage to ask Jasmine why on earth she smokes these death sticks.
“Oh,” she says mildly, breathing the filterless monstrosity like it’s nothing. “If I have menthols I just keep on smoking them, one after the other. But with this, it’s so strong, I only need to smoke one each day!”. Somehow, somehow, she’s finished the cigarette, and she drops it to the ground, stubs it out with a dainty twist of her foot. Then, brightly, she turns to me: “My dad, he die of cancer.”
For the first time in a long time, I hesitate to continue with the smoke in my hand – and in fact I stub it out and head back inside. I manage to live cigarette free for a good week and a bit, before my main actor – five days out from opening – develops vocal nodules and loses her voice. My first reaction to the stress and fear of this is to light up once again.
Two or three weeks after the production closed, a great friend of mine did something very stupid: he took his own life.
This friend’s name was Stuart. He was a troubled and beautiful person, beloved by everyone he had significant contact with, and a large chunk of people whom he didn’t. He and I bonded initially over a mutual affection for bitchy humour, cigarettes and coffee, and although we’d often fall out of the other’s radar for weeks at a time, we were consistently there for each other when it mattered.
The time immediately after his death was thick with grief – not sadness but grief, real and hot and desperate that hung in the air and on your skin – in part compounded because, cruelly, he had chosen to commit the deed on our university campus, a place that for so many of us was synonymous with his particular brand of life and energy. For days on end, people would come and attend the altar of his demise, a collection of photographs and messages and small gifts, all extolling his virtues and individually, collectively asking, demanding, pleading: why?.
By this point I had moved from menthol cigarettes to Peter Stuyvesant, thinking irrationally that Stuart – who time and again, with a faux-fey flick of his wrist, grinning cheekily, would rip into me for “wussing out” and not smoking “real” cigarettes – would have wanted it this way.
The most distinct memory I have of this time is sitting cross legged in the sun in a bizarre tee-pee of limbs, wrapped around one or two friends who in turn were wrapped around one or two other people.
A girl with a beautiful face, donning a dressing-gown wrapped tight over her everyday clothes, wipes her eyes and sits down next to me. She lights a cigarette, inhales, then places it with tenderness on the ground, lining it up perfectly in front of small tree, cracked and wrecked but somehow still alive. She then lights another; breathes it in.
I gesture towards the ground, barely making the word out: “Why…?”.
She exhales. “For him. That’s where he hit the ground.”
I watch in morbid fascination as this cigarette slowly burns itself out on the ground, bright orange filter like a sick marker pointing towards that hallowed spot. After the girl leaves, I pick it up and smoke the end of it, trying, failing to be closer to him.
Late on the night it happened, tucked tight in bed with my boyfriend at the time, someone I’d been dating for a fortnight at most, I received a text message from him:
I just realised something – you and Jack are totally dating.
We are, I’d thought, brain caught in the heavy state between asleep and awake, and turned my phone over, leaving it for the morning.
In the following weeks – and in some respects, even today – I struggled hard with that message. The obvious thoughts crossed my mind, of course – if I’d only replied, could I have saved him? Was it a call for help? What did it mean? – but the sad fact of it was that he was too fucking clever and too fucking stubborn for any of us. There was no indication.
The days turned into weeks, and slowly, surely, the sharp and immediate edges of our grief and lamentation turned into a weight; an acute collective melancholy that carried with it a tiny but determined speck of hope, that things would be better. The days droned on, and brought with them some of the highest highs and lowest lows I’ve felt in all my life with a raw and heightened feeling that was, for a while, impossible to turn off. In those days, and the days following, smoking lost what little sheen it had held in the first place – in fact, it became one of the few things that did seem futile, and one afternoon, quietly, almost sheepishly, I put down my cigarettes and refused to pick them up again.
I wasn’t able to save him – and, truth be told, if anyone were going to have saved him, I’m not sure that it could’ve been me – but he was able to save me.
It’s been almost four years since I’ve bought a packet of cigarettes.