It is a cold night in October and the only light in the backyard is the faint glow of six cigarettes. We slouch in lawn chairs that have been organized into a perfect circle, 14 knees pointing towards the sky as if we are members of a moon worshiping cult. Smoke hangs in the air, curling upward, dissipating, and leaving behind only the sharp smell of burnt tobacco, as my friends sink deeper into their chairs with every exhale.
Before I was born my mother was a chain smoker. Mug in one hand, feminist tome in the other, and a Lucky Strike clenched between her top and bottom lips: a classic tableau of her coffee shop days. As the manager of the nonfiction section at Saint Marks Bookshop, she would sit perched on a high stool scouring the store for shoplifters. She took pride in the punk sensibility of early 80s East Village, blowing smoke in customers faces and occasionally gracing them with a snide answer. Her baggy black shirt would sink below her leggings as she dramatically pushed herself off of the chair, her thick curls bouncing below her shoulders, her long silver earrings dangling towards her collarbones. I never saw her this way though. My images of her are an amalgam of other peoples’ stories and photographs that were left behind.
My mother died from tongue and throat cancer, the legacy of her addiction. Doctors say that the cancer may not have been caused by the cigarettes, but even so, the chemotherapy, her constant, debilitating pain, and hours of heaving her body across the floor trying to make it to the bathroom — all of this makes the single thought of one drag horrifying to me.
The girl with the off white converse wraps her arms around me as if it’s been years. The bleached tips of her hair reek of old smoke, the smell of a broad construction worker’s winter coat in a crowded subway car. Her shoelace is undone so she hands me her cigarette.
Feel free to take a drag.
This cylindrical casing is foreign. I’ve seen it between my friends fingers, but never mine. I watch as the heat eats away at the charred paper. I tap the top, succumbing to the rhythm of a teenage smoker. Girls around me purse their lips, shooting cones of smoke into the air. I so badly want to wrap my mouth around the orange base. I want to let the smoke rush into my mouth. I want to stop it at my throat and let it seep back into the air.
This past weekend I visited my grandfather in what my grandmother calls his “temporary” nursing home. He sat propped up in his wheelchair, his knees locked in an unnatural position behind him, his lips tightly drawn to his gums, his face a shell. My grandmother leaned in toward my grandfather, her other hand on my hair.
Isn’t she beautiful?
He looked at me, unable to speak, nodded, and forced a long hoarse breath through his lungs.
There’s a gaping hole between my grandfather’s collarbones, the remnants of his laryngectomy. His mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather all smoked as he grew up. He didn’t know any better.
When people see the advertisements of rotting teeth or tar filled lungs, they cringe, but do these images have a lasting effect? They are an attempt to make your stomach churn and make you feel embarrassed when you see a teenager hanging off the side of a Brownstone, blowing smoke through her lips. But if the ads aren’t personal, if they don’t remind you of your suffering grandfather or dead mother, how are they supposed to make an impact?
I turn to face my friend. She is not drunk, maybe tipsy, and still loosely holding a cigarette between her index and middle finger. She taps the top and lets the ash spill into the grass. Bringing the cigarette to her lips, she pulls in and immediately breathes out, letting the smoke barely escape past the tip of her tongue. She lowers her eyelids and tilts her head back; she wants to be seductive. She guides the cigarette to her lips, once again teasing her lungs. I look at her, trying to understand the allure.
When does it become too much? My friends know their lungs will soon be coated in tar and they know their hearts are getting weaker. They are not ignorant. Do they need a diagnosis to stop? Do they need to watch a loved one suck down oxygen to get by as his tissues and bones disintegrate? My friends incessantly crave cigarettes, their throats are always dry, they spit thick yellow wads of mucus, and they spend $14.50 on a pack.
Anya Katz, Age 17, Grade 12, Berkeley Carroll School, Silver Key