When I arrived at college, 6 ½ hours and 400 miles away from home, I still had another week of being 17. One more week before I could proudly walk into the corner gas station and legally buy cigarettes – a momentous occasion which fell short of my expectations when the bored station attendant sold them to me anyway without checking my ID. “It’s my birthday!” I said with too much enthusiasm. “Don’t you want to see my license?” I waved it in the air, appearing a bit pathetic, I suppose, and he glanced up from his crossword. He looked from me to my driver’s license and back again. Squinting his eyes he said, “Weren’t you in here buying cigarettes in here a few days ago?” That familiar knot of anxiety rose up in my throat from years of buying smokes underage and I took a small step back. But then I remembered I just turned 18 and grinned at him with a wink. “Should have been checking ID’s then,” I teased as I tucked my license back in my wallet and sashayed out the door, Parliament Lights in hand.
I used to think that cigarettes were a symbol of my freedom, my bravery, and my independent spirit. They gave me an edge, something I felt I needed to hone since I had spent most of my life being “good” and well-mannered. I was achievement-driven as a child. My parents definitely fed into that, constantly giving me accolades and praise that I often wondered if I really deserved. As an only child, I felt I had to bring it. I had to live up to all the expectations of being the sole progeny. My mother always said that she would love me even if was born mentally handicapped, but that she sure was glad I was actually smart. “How lucky you are,” she would tell me. “You could be president someday.” I never wanted to be president. When I told her that, she dismissed it, “But you could. You’d be good at it.” Ick, I thought, Sounds stressful and dull.
When I smoked cigarettes behind my parents’ backs, I felt like a rebel and a badass. I felt like I could NEVER be president. Maybe president of the Poser Goth Thespian Society, but not of the United States, that’s for sure. There was always that tiny euphoria that comes after the first few long drags… when that thick initial puff billows into your lungs and tingles in your forehead. That feeling made me think I was the most complicated, interesting person around. It allowed for just enough pause before speaking that I always looked like I was going to say something profound. I would blow the smoke out, look down, look up beneath sultry, droopy eyelids and whatever I said next was slightly sexy, deep, emotive, or witty. Or so it seemed. I felt like I was mysterious supporting character in a 90’s coming-of-age movie.
After taking the cigarette pack from the attendant behind the counter, I would hold them in my right hand and pack them hard against the palm of my left hand. Smack, smack, smack – 3, maybe 4 times. I wanted the tobacco inside to be packed densely into the cigarette paper so that there was about half a centimeter of hollow tube at the end of each one. Why was this necessary, you ask? Well apart from being an important ritual I applied to the purchase of each new pack, it supposedly helped the cigarettes to burn better. Not sure there is any science to back that up though.
Then I would pull off the small cellophane strip that wrapped around the top of the pack and carefully slide off the top part of the crisp plastic wrapper. I would crumple that up, leaving the bottom wrapper on so that I could tuck in my ID or a folded twenty at the bar later. With my thumb I would creak open the cardboard top of the box, revealing the shiny metallic paper lining. Unfolding it carefully, I would pull the paper so that it broke at the perforation and wad that up with the outside wrapper.
Now there they were – 20 perfect white circles, lined up like monotone crayolas. Some people picked out one cigarette, pulled it out of the pack and turned it around, placing it back in with the tobacco end facing up. This was the “Lucky Cigarette.” I never really understood that tradition – I mean, when you smoked it would you somehow be luckier? Maybe GET lucky? Or is that the one that would NOT contribute to lung cancer? People used to say that they wouldn’t give away their lucky cigarette; or they would save that one until the end of the pack. Which would seem to make it UNLUCKY – since it was your last cigarette and now you are shit out of luck.
I liked to pull my first cigarette out of the tight pack and slide my fingers down its smooth papery length. I liked the way it smelled – just tobacco without fire. I would place it between my lips, my teeth even – I always bit my cigarettes, held them between my front teeth instead of my lips when I smoked them.
I used a plastic Bic lighter most of the time. Zippos had too much going on – too much flipping and snapping, filling and closing. Matches were cool sometimes, if you had fresh ones and were in a windless location. Nothing worse than having only one pack of old matches and all that sulfur stuff has worn off the lighting surface. You keep trying and trying to light it and all you end up with is raw fingers and an unlit cigarette. So I tried to always hang on to my lighters. Which of course all smokers will tell you is next to impossible. Someone always needs to bum a light, and if you’re also a drinker, which I definitely was, you tend to forget which bar ledge you set it on.
Zzzsshhtt! went my thumb… and flint, spark, butane, fire. Crackle, as the paper tip wilted and lit. Puff, as my lungs pulled the flame into the tobacco. If I inhaled just right as I lit the end of the cigarette I could get a burst of orange fire to shoot up – stupid bar parlor trick that made me feel cool. Then the pause, inhale, sultry eyes, exhale…Ahh.
It’s been almost 2 years since I lit up my last cigarette. Those cancer sticks were my loyal wingmen for many, many nights of drinking. I still daydream about holding them sometimes, in that softened nostalgic way one remembers a teenage romance. They were the first accessory to that young rebel many years ago. Bumming a cigarette or finding a light always led to an adventure or at least a good story. You always knew you had at least one thing in common with the other smokers standing out in the cold, and you could usually bet they weren’t going to pester you to find Jesus or start working out.
I look back at those many Parliament Lights I smoked with a nod of gratitude. I can think of at least 5 lifelong friends I met through the smoker’s bond, as well as my husband, who is the father of my children and the love of my life.
Fare-the-well, P-Funks. May you go with God.
©Skye Nicholson 2020