My first cigarette ever (smoked in the back of the high-school bus in response to taunting by Robbie the neighbor boy) left me vomiting and shaking behind the milk shed. I stumbled up to the house and collapsed into my bed on that sunny spring afternoon, my head spinning and stomach churning, certain I’d puke some more if I dared move a finger. Never again, I swore. Smoking is stupid. Next time someone taunts me or calls me a sissy for not smoking, I'll just tell them to forget it.
Even as I thought those thoughts, I felt the cold fist of doubt in my guts. If the cool kids smoked, and I didn’t, how was I going to fit in? I was the new guy in a rural school, and desperate for acceptance. I was also pretty small, barely 5 feet tall and 100 lbs, an easy mark for bullies. Being with the cool kids meant no bullying of me, so being made sick by smoking was a real problem.
When mom came home I told her I must have caught the spring flu, that I wouldn’t be able to keep down supper. It took hours before the headache and nausea were gone. I slept fitfully all night. I worried about what I’d do the next day, when I would certainly be expected to smoke again. I was at a real-life crossroads, for sure.
Robbie treated me differently the next day. He’d saved a seat for me on the bus, and invited me to hang out later with him and his friends at the ‘smoking doors’ (behind the gym at the back of the school). I begged off with a story of a typing class assignment that was long overdue.
All day, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about smoking. That night I watched TV actors smoking and laughing, smoking and beating up bad guys, smoking and getting the girl. I saw a parade of commercials about cowboys on horses roping cattle; sleek, sexy women coming a long way, baby; and other guys with black eyes who’d rather fight than switch. Was I the problem, I wondered, and not the cigarettes? Maybe I just wasn’t manly enough. Maybe I needed to toughen up and learn how to smoke right. After all, I saw smokers smoking everywhere I looked, and not one of them was getting sick over it. I resolved then and there to try the smoking experiment again. Maybe smoking would actually make me tough enough to smoke!
The next morning I asked Robbie if he was going to be at the smoking doors after 3rd period. When I showed up, there were half a dozen boys in jeans and flannel shirts, swearing and roughhousing and smoking. One boy held out his pack of Winstons and offered me a cigarette. I can still feel the thrill of that moment, the personal validation of the gesture, the implied respect and acceptance that came with not only being offered a smoke, but with accepting and smoking it. Even better was the social cachet of hanging out with the other smokers, or, rather, being seenhanging out with them; that was worth any amount of physical discomfort.
I took tiny little tobacco puffs while pretending to take big ones. I could feel the dizziness and nausea returning, but somehow managed to not lose control—until Mr. Benoit, the Civics teacher, burst through the smoking doors and caught us red-handed (smoking on school grounds was prohibited even then). Startled, I inhaled a monster hit of tobacco smoke and burst into a coughing fit. The other boys escaped, but I was too busy choking and drooling to go anywhere. Mr. Benoit collared me and hauled me off to the principal’s office.
This smoking-related trouble turned out to be a lucky break for me, however. It gave me street cred with Robbie and Co, while providing me the alibi I needed to avoid smoking with them for the rest of the year. It also gave me a break from my conflicted thoughts about smoking. In fact, I really believed my smoking dilemma had been resolved once and for all--in favor of not smoking.
Until my senior year in high school, that is. I fell hard for a classmate, Janice A. She was bold and brash. She did what she wanted when she wanted, took no crap from anyone…and she smoked. But I didn’t care about that; I would have done anything to get her to pay attention to me. All my previous bad history with tobacco fled my memory. Before you could say smoking kills I was at the local market (which regularly sold tobacco to underage kids) buying Janice’s favorite brand. And a fancy Zippo lighter.
As I remember it, I wasn’t really thinking about smoking those cigarettes myself. I had in mind a clear image of offering her a smoke, just like in the movies; of snapping the Zippo lighter to light the lady's cigarette; of cupping my hands just so around the burning end to shelter the flame from the wind. And surely, just like in the movies, love would flow from that moment.
I learned that Janice usually snuck down to the park to smoke during study hall, and so arranged to ‘accidentally’ bump into her there. My plan worked. Me, Janice, and a red and white pack of cigarettes wound up occupying the same point at the same time. I offered her a cigarette, gave her a light, cupped my hands just so to get the fire started…She looked at me quizzically and asked, “Aren’t you going to have one?”
“I just had one,” I replied.
“Well, I hate to smoke alone,” she said. So I grabbed a butt and stuck it in my pie hole. I lit it, but only pretended to take a real puff. I sucked some smoke into my mouth (taking great care not to inhale), held it in there while faking a deep dive into the lungs, and then slowly exhaled with my mouth pursed and my cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk’s. It was hard to hold a conversation like this, and after a few minutes of bemused observation, she came out with, “How come you don’t inhale?” I was shocked, certain I’d given a command performance.
“I do inhale,” I answered.
“Not today , you don’t,” she responded.
“Well, I’m in training,” I offered.
“Training for what?” she asked. “Training to smoke?”
I don’t remember what I said after that. Janice and I never did hook up, but I spent the rest of that school year avoiding smokers and telling myself they were losers.
Next time: An Army of smokers?
Alan P, CTTS-M