I remember my first time. I mean, my first first time. It was my senior year of high school, and I’d done plenty of other things before, mind you. But this was going to be it. I promised myself. And even with some whisky ballast in me, I couldn’t stave off the clammy hands, and the feeling that I was going to choke. The credits rolled on the B-movie in my parents’ basement, and we shuffled up to my deck on a crispycrackly Midwest November night. Circling the fire pit, our chitty high school gossip succumbed to broader (what we merited) more thoughtful conversation. Hell, we just bitched about how long Cliff’s Notes for Paradise Lost was. But it was conversation nevertheless. It was really cold out on the deck.
We had gone out a few times before. I followed my “shock and awe” high school playbook: Paul McCartney tickets? Sure. That new white-tablecloth Mediterranean seafood restaurant getting superb reviews (for Cleveland, mind you). Absolutely. Art house play seventeen year-olds can’t yet understand anyway? Yes, yes and yes. This was my turf. Surf and turf. Things were progressing quickly, and I could not let her know this was my first time.
The staccato of conversation was stalling out.
You remember your first time. The fumbling fingers. The shortened breath. The swelling insecurity. It’s probably so embarrassing you too wish you could forget it. Wanting to be whatever it meant to be cool in high school. Decidedly not wanting to be the only that hasn’t. So much longing for something.
Now we were just warming ourselves around a few smoldering chunks of wood in the fire pit. She reached in the back pocket of her jeans and fiddled out that damn pack of Parliaments. “P-funks,” she called them. She shook one out, and passed the pack around the fire pit to the others like a communion plate. Once we all received our sacrament, I pulled a stoker stick from the fire and lit my inaugural cigarette with a comically-large blaze. I dispassionately inhaled a shallow breath. Or I thought I did. I doubt I really did. I puffed at first. I pretended. I sputtered. My eyes watered. I tried to extend the exhale from my cheeks, hoping my deep-dragging friends would not notice. They did, I’m sure of it. And were kind enough not to call my puffing bluff. My virgin lungs weren’t yet ready to drink deeply. To “drink life to the lees” as Tennyson’s embodiment of Ulysses.
And that which we are, we are: it didn’t work out with the dame, but she sparked a deeper love than I could have found with any woman at seventeen.
Myopic infatuation with cigarettes blossomed. And practice makes better. I slowly began to feel the rhythm of the tobacco. The effortless rapport of conversation while burning a few down. To look her square in both eyes as I lit her cig. Like Bogart. By Spring I was flicking burned out butts like Tom Waits. I grew more attuned to social surroundings, knowing when it’s acceptable to duck out for a smoke. And when it’s not. Some light up over coffee. Others whisky. Me? I’m an omnivore with an insatiable appetite.
Smoking cigarettes continues to be my paean to a more fulfilling love. As Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray:
You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?
And like all things I too-much love, it waned into disillusionment. I learned that over 95% off all cigarette brands are just imprints of four multi-national conglomerates known as “Big Tobacco.” I learned that these companies use a host of chemicals and burn-accelerants on their tobacco, and even dice up the stalk and add it to their cigarettes, to save a few cents. I learned that the government requires them to use fire-safe paper to counteract these burn accelerants. Chemicals to neutralize chemicals! And this applies to “all natural additive-free” cigarettes like Big Tobacco’s Natural American Spirits, too. The more I read, the more despondent I became. Smoking certainly isn’t a physically healthy enterprise. But no doctor can categorically claim it isn’t an emotionally healthy one, right?
While trading soybeans in South Georgia I befriended some stolid old tobacco farmers and began laying groundwork for a pure and independent smoke. Smoking endless cigarettes with these men I learned the terroir of rolling tobacco fields. That the tobacco stalk is as sensitive and finicky as the grape vine in producing piquant fruit. That neighboring acres will yield drastically different plants. I relished these stories. They added character to the art. And I became a fastidious student of the nuanced laws regulating this once unfettered behavior, now trammelled by decades of prude propriety.
I am still seduced by the simple evanescent pleasure of smoking. And hope to return the practice to its spiritual and communal traditions. This year I left my job and started Hestia Tobacco. Named for the Greek goddess of the hearth and communal fire. Channeling a fire pit on a brisk November eve a decade past, and a resplendent social awkwardness that molded me. My tobacco is totally natural. My paper isn’t “fire safe.” I am proud to sell the most natural smokes you don’t need a prescription to buy. Pour yourself a cup and light one up.