I met my first cigarette at the Metro, the bar where we were getting a beer after class one night. Isaac had driven Zoh, Ali, and I to 8th Street Tobacco. Jacob Pride met us there. The boys bought loose tobacco, and Ali bought a pack of Djarum Blacks for the girls to share. When we got to the Metro, we crammed ourselves into a booth. A desk light sat on the edge of the table, and every time Ali’s need brushed against the outlet, it flickered wildly. Sometimes it went out completely, and we sat in the smoky darkness until Ali could find the plug again. I was nervous, and the Newcastle bottle cooled my palms. I didn’t know anyone there very well, and I didn’t know Jacob at all. I did know his cousin, Sam, and I wondered if Jacob, like Sam, would be one to sneak Miller Light in a gas station fountain drink cup into class.
Ali packed the Blacks, took one for herself, and offered the pack to Zoh’s delicate fingers. She took one, and I watched those fingers ignite the tobacco-filled stick, and place it to her lips. She inhaled, gently, and after a few seconds’ stillness, a blue-grey cloud slipped out of her mouth, and formed a nebulous haze three inches above her forehead. I watched this process for a while, learning how it worked. I held my breath after she inhaled, and anticipated the moment smoke would slide across the invisible gap in her lips with her neck arched back. Ali practiced smoke rings with Jacob in the background. Isaac rolled cigarette after cigarette, pausing to consider the flavor between each drag. I sipped a Newcastle, and half of another before Ali thrust a Black in my hands, and said “Here, smoke it.”
I had to ask how. “Easy,” she said, “Just breathe in, and take the smoke with you.” I did, and the rich, sweet smoke overtook my throat. There was the taste of candy on my lips; the filter was laced with cinnamon and cloves. I didn’t know how to bring the air into my lungs, so I held it there, on my tongue and at the roof of my mouth for a while before I tilted my head back and blew the now stale smoke up into the air. My exhale was sloppy and moist, and instead of the smoke blowing neatly away from my face to dissipate into the air, it drooped miserably near my cheeks. I repeated this for as long as I could stand, which was only about an inch and a half of my cigarette’s life. I finally had to snuff it out, leaving it crumpled and pathetic in the ashtray before I excused myself to the restroom and splashed cold water on my face.
Staring at my flushed complexion in the mirror, I clutched the porcelain of the sink and whispered, “Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up.” I could taste mingled beer and tobacco on my tongue, and heated spices in my hair. Traces of cigarette clung to my fingertips. I regained control of my senses, and walked back to the table. The air was muggy and stale, and I couldn’t feel a breeze through my turtleneck. Someone suggested we leave, and as crisp air washed over my face, I felt relieved. January air filled me, flushing out the hot cigarette breath that clung to my lungs. Later I would brush my teeth, only to still taste it on my tongue.