“I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind—and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.” –Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged
I have a love affair with smoke. The smoke from campfires, cigars, incense, pipes, cigarettes, or a sage smudge. Smoke, rising in the slanted sunlight? Gorgeous. Sweat lodge smoke, that clings to the hair for days? Sacred.The lingering dinner-smoke scent after the guests go home? Comforting. When I see a stranger or friend light up after a good meal, or with a drink, across the room or table, I smile.
As for me? I’m a fake smoker. Once, in a pub in South America, a woman beside me leaned over and said, “I notice you’re not inhaling.” She was right; how very Bill Clinton of me. As an ex-smoker, she was also jealous, and proceeded to lecture me on the evils of “wasting a perfectly good cigarette.” To this day, once or twice a month, I am so very decadent. I light up a cigarette just for the sheer pleasure of capturing fire between my fingers, holding the smoke in my mouth, and blowing it out like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean or Humphrey Bogart.
I owe this habit, primarily, to my first love: cigars. One does not (as I learned in the back seat of a Pinto on the way home from the county fair) inhale the smoke of cigars. A southern friend introduced me to Swisher Sweets, and before long I was on to Cubans and those cute little mini Dutch cigars (whose name escapes me at the moment) in tiny tins. On three continents, I’m known as the Cigar Chick. Gertrude Stein and Georgia O’Keefe would be proud. Nowadays, I’m the Cheroot Chick. Out on my balcony at dusk when the mango crows fly home to roost, I smoke cheroots. These hand-rolled Asian jewels vary in quality and size, and I prefer the thinner style.
Last night at The Strand (in this country Somewhere in Asia), a faint wisp of smoke from across the room caught my attention. It was the distinct scent of something I hadn’t experienced in almost ten years: spicy, heady, sweet Indonesian clove cigarettes. Through tipsy conniving, M. procured me one, and, with a match, I lit up. My friends’ conversation about Patpong girls in Bangkok who can blow smoke rings out of unimaginable orifices, faded into the background, and I was somewhere else, my lips numb with the taste of clove, high in the Andes at Tiawanaku, the ancient ruins of Bolivia. It is the winter equinox, and I stay up all night warming myself by altiplano bonfires, smoking cloves, drinking Pacena beer, waiting for the sun to rise. When it does, I raise my hands to the sky along with thousands of others gathered there on that frigid, remote plain, to catch the first warm rays, the ritual of blessing. And I am blessed: then and now, and it’s all tied together with my clove-numb lips and the scent and taste of an Indonesian cigarette.
So, this is for the stranger last night who so graciously offered me a clove cigarette. And to The Starwatcher, who I hope will light up his pipe and quote the Mahabharata come January. This is for Swisher Sweet D., who taught me how to form my mouth to make smoke rings of all sizes, to The German, who brought me so many fine cigars from Europe, to my Cheroot Compadre Pirate who is on a ship somewhere in the Caribbean, and to Rich, who’s now into week five of not smoking. And here's to Ayn Rand, a smoker for many years, who, after being told by her doctor to quit, put her last cigarette out in his office and never smoked again. And to my Aunties, who sent me an envelope with the CD of Billy Collins reading his poetry, “The Best Cigarette.” (It got here, Aunties!)
It’s time to go out on my balcony to watch the mango crows fly home. Time to light up and waste a perfectly good cheroot.
"The Best Cigarette"
from Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Collected Poems
by Billy Collins
There are many that I miss,
Having sent my last one out a car window
Sparking along the road one night, years ago.
The heralded ones, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
At the end of a long dinner
With more wine to come
And a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach, holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.
How bitter sweet these punctuations
Of flame and gesture;
But the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
The sun bright in the windows,
Maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
Would go into the kitchen for coffee
And on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
Its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.
Then I would be my own locomotive,
Trailing behind me, as I returned to work
Little puffs of smoke,
Indicators of progress,
Signs of industry and thought,
The signal that told the nineteenth century
It was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
When I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
And stand there,
The big headlamp of my face
Pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.