Twenty little friends in a box; they are soldiers marching me towards death, illness, or certainly a hacking morning cough and rancid breath. Fair-weather friends; we routinely split up, sometimes for years at a time. True friends: we reconcile in times of stress, sorrow, conviviality, or sometimes just when I get drunk in a bar. They’re going to kill me, sure, but not any time soon, and during the bad times, it’d kill me just as certainly not to have their comfort.
Our relationship started as an affectation. Fourteen years old, at concerts, the older men I wanted to meet in dark corners, cradling beers and cigarettes in a perilous balancing act that said, cool. I’m pretty jailbait, and they ask me if they can bum a smoke, if I have a light. I start carrying a lighter. At first I’m scared to spark the wheel, I’ve heard that pocket lint can make lighters explode, but the magnetic pull of older guys with long hair force me to flick the lighter confidently. Later, when I find out the Indian reservation doesn’t ID, I start to carry my own pack of smokes. I try not to inhale the first time, but the boy I cut class with says, You didn’t inhale, and so to save face I do. I don’t cough, but it burns, tastes funny; it somehow reminds me kisses from both of my grandmothers, themselves dedicated pack-a-day women. They smoke Marlboro reds, Eve 120’s. To distinguish myself, I carry, then learn to smoke, Camel Lights. I quickly develop a taste for it, the comfort, the rituals, and graduate to Camel Wides. No one likes to bum those, they’re too heavy for most girls, but they impress men with their fat virility.
Faster than even I can believe, the affectation becomes my habit, my comfort, my little soldiers marching their way into my memories and persona. The music I see at shows, the boys I go to Denny’s with, chainsmoking over bottomless cups of coffee before it becomes a social taboo to smoke in restaurants: all of it hopelessly enmeshed. Caffeinated smoker’s kisses, sneaking out of the house, going to coffeehouses, smoking and reading Plath under smoke-hazed lights: in my memories they are all there, ushering me through my first love, sex and heartbreaks. I learned to blow smoke rings while laying on the hood of a beat-up Thunderbird that belonged to the brother of the first boy who meant anything to me near an airport runway, while we dreamed of being older and watched planes take off overhead. At seventeen, there was the joyful discovery of smoking while getting drunk, how there was always something to do with my hands now, the caustic pull of inhaling smoke as the Boone’s Strawberry Hill tickled into my bloodstream. The college years: clove cigarettes, deliciously toxic, the sugary taste of the filter and the oily, strong smoke gave me headaches as I wrote Kafka papers and drank cup after cup of coffee, the bitter tastes of tobacco and caffeine like the bad-for-you version of peanut butter and jelly.
Smoking gives you an icebreaker, it inspires camaraderie with other smokers, especially after we become pariahs, kicked out of restaurants, malls, and later, bars. Huddled outside in inclement weather, we are comforted in our mutually shared bad habit. It can also be a buffer, a way to end a conversation you’d rather not have, because it repels those who want to gripe, You know smoking gives you cancer, right? No, I’d never heard that, I shoot back, as the flint sparks and I take the first blessed drag.
Little soldiers, these friends, forgotten for years at a time, I always come back to you; you know I will, when life gets too difficult to manage without your ritual. I’m quitting after this pack, I think, buying an extra pack, just in case. This is stupid. I can manage without these, placing a 99 cent Bic alongside them. I don’t need to do this, carefully smacking the box upside down against the bald meat of my palm, ten thumps then a clockwise turn, four times, for symmetry. I pull out the foil paper—front and back—and count out the numbers of letters, turn over a lucky on the M, for the friend I buried too soon. The lucky cigarette gets smoked last, I make a wish before I light it, what a stupid habit, but I smoke the pack away and make a wish all the same. When I cup my hand around the cigarette, light it and take that first drag, feeling the familiar and potentially cancerous stream of smoke curling into my lungs, there is also relief. It is the feeling of seeing the cavalry cresting over the top of a hill, when you’re down in the valley, in the middle of a war.
Allie Marini Batts is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles, meaning she can explain deconstructionism, but cannot perform simple math. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She contributes to the publication of AULA’s Lunch Ticket literary magazine, Spry Literary Journal, The Weekenders Magazine, and The Bookshelf Bombshells. Her first chapbook, “You Might Curse Before You Bless” was published in 2013 by ELJ Publications, and her second chapbook, “Unmade & Other Poems,” is forthcoming from Beautysleep Press. Find her on the web: https://www.facebook.com/AllieMariniBatts