The first time I smoked a cigarette is not the time I think of as my first time. There was something suspended, unofficial, about that event. It wasn't about the cigarette.
Here's how it went down. I was fifteen, and none of my friends smoked or drank or did drugs. In fact, they made fun of the other kids who did that stuff, and I was a little confused by their behaviour. I knew that those things weren't the healthiest of life choices, but neither were eating fake cheez and hitting on your english teacher. I thought they were more than a little uptight, but it was the mid-eighties, and hysterical fear-mongering was rampant in the school system.
A classmate delivered a speech once that was all about her struggle through her addiction to poppers. She tried to make it sound like one of those desperate made-for-tv movies that were popular in the early and mid-eighties and to impress upon us that her life had been a mere thread away from spiraling into chaos and eventual death, but I must confess that I quietly rolled my eyes from the back of the room. Doing poppers three times in your suburban basement was not a brush with junkiedom.
I had never taken all the misinformed, hysterical anti-drug talks to heart. In those sessions, held in the school gymnasium under high-beam fluorescent lighting, we were told that marijuana led to heroin, and all other drugs were rungs on the ladder to that terrible fate. If any of us gave in to peer pressure and smoked pot, we were going to turn into the hollowed out skeletons that could be found on East Hastings in Vancouver. Even I knew at ten years old that that was ridiculous. Alcohol and nicotine were drugs, and yet after years of recreational use, my father and all of his friends weren't hanging out in alleys using their belts to tie off each other's arms. I was pretty sure that there had to be other factors involved in such a transformation.
By grade ten, I was tired of this clean living I had been doing, and I decided that I would steal one of my father's cigarettes. I sneaked one out of his pack while he was dozing in his armchair. It was not that I really wanted to smoke that cigarette. He smoked what I thought of as old-man, small-town cigarettes, Craven "A" King Size Menthols, which robbed them of any of the coolness I was trying to affix to them. A friend would later refer to menthol cigarettes as lung candy. What drove me to smoking on that fateful night was my group of friends. It was one thing to have my parents disapprove of this sort of thing, but when even my peers were too uptight for a little experimentation, I knew I had to strike out on my own to brush shoulders with addiction. Any rebellious leap I took was going to have to happen without them.
Mentholated cigarette in hand and an old pack of hotel matches in my jeans pocket, I sneaked out the back patio door and sat on the deck steps. Now, I was normally a pretty good kid. I was nonviolent, spoke when spoken to, and didn't swear in front of my parents, but this particular night, I chose to sit down and smoke in full view of the kitchen through the patio window. If my mother or my father had walked through and bothered to look outside, they would have seen me sitting there puffing away, and I would have been dead, but I didn't feel scared or thrilled or nervous or anything like that. I just sat there and smoked that cigarette like I did it all the time. I inhaled, I figured out how to french inhale, I flicked the ashes. It was like I had been doing that very thing my whole life. It felt simple and normal.
When I was done, I just put it out, tossed it over the fence into the neighbours' yard, and went inside to take a shower. Nobody mentioned that my coat smelled or wondered why I was showering at night when I never did that. My father never brought up his missing cigarette. I never told my friends about it afterward. It was a secret I wanted to keep for myself alone. I didn't want anyone telling me I was stupid or asking if I could show them how to do it. It was for me, it was my thing. I felt that, with that act, I had communicated something to myself that did not belong to anyone else. I felt dangerous, but not in a rebellious, motorcycle, hard living kind of way. I felt dangerous, because I suddenly knew that the continuum of my childhood, of that enforced transparency by those in authority, was snuffing out. I was stepping away from it, and I felt fearless.
And yet, I don't think of that as the first time I smoked a cigarette, because it wasn't about smoking. I always think of the first time as that time a friend and I went to a nearby mall, and I managed to buy a pack of cigarettes underage with money we had pooled from our allowances. She was nervous while we walked down the alley behind the mall, but I assured her that no one would care about two kids sitting on a step next to a dumpster and smoking. She had trouble with the lighter, so I lit both cigarettes and watched the sun set beyond the edge of a fence. I could see how impressed she was with my nonchalance, which made me feel less vulnerable. I felt stoic, like a fisherman looking out to sea and bracing his face against the sea wind.
When she asked me Why do people do this?, I answered, I don't know, but I like it. And I was no longer simply brushing shoulders with addiction.