Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Smoke Break

For the record, yes, this is less a work of fiction and more a work of stylized nonfiction. I am, for better or worse (and often worse) a smoker. It, like any other bad habit, is something I love doing but hate the fact that I do. Despite that, as a smoker, I loathe the vehement hatred my little pastime gets from people. The fact of the matter is, people who smoke were not tricked into it. We all know full well the dangers of smoking, and we have for hundreds of years. I mean, I know our ancestors were a bit misguided on things sometimes, but I refuse to believe they didn't realize sucking in hot opaque gas that makes your lungs and throat burn and makes you hack up phlegm was a bad thing. But we choose to do it anyway for one reason or another, and that's our business. Why cigarettes, which smell bad and kill their users and others around them in certain contexts, catches hell and beer, which smells bad and kills its users and others around them in certain contexts, does not is beyond me. But regardless, this is my sort of explanation of my mentality on smoking, and what my personal smoke breaks are to me.


For the briefest of moments, as the Zippo breathed hot orange life into his cigarette, the world lit up. He could see the flakes of snow stuck to the fibers of his coat, the pale, freezing white of his hands, the cigarette blacken and smoke until it glowed red hot, and the bland, featureless gray of the pavement under his feet. Then clink, the Zippo was closed, the light was gone, and it was him, the snow, and the darkness.

He left the cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth, rubbing his hands together desperately to try in vain to get some warmth back in them. It was way too damn cold out, and his circulation had always been bad— or so he'd tell his girlfriend when he went back inside and his icy fingers met her impossibly warm skin. Before then, as per usual, he'd try to wash the phantom stench of smoke, the smell he could never notice but she could pick up from two rooms away. He'd stand in the bathroom, stripping off all of the layers he'd put on to protect the rest of him from the apparently foul smelling residue and starting his cleaning regiment: hat off, jacket off, long-sleeve shirt off, water, soap, rinse, more soap, rinse again, dry, drop of cologne. Then he'd try to sneak back upstairs, skipping the third step from the top because it squeaked every time. He'd take his shoes off beforehand so his steps would be silent, and then, without fail, he'd try to open the door silently only to have it scream in un-greased agony. She'd wake up, and look over at him with one eye bound shut in exhaustion and one that said Ugh, you've been smoking again and that's disgusting and I hate it but I love you too much to complain. He knew what that look meant all too well to take any solace in her not complaining.

But that didn't matter yet. For the next ten minutes, that didn't exist. Nothing existed but him, the snow, and the darkness. Gone were the worries about getting a call back from that retail he really didn't want but really did need. Gone were the money concerns, the constantly lingering thoughts about whether he'd have money for rent, bills, food, happiness. Gone were thoughts of school and grades and papers and projects and the endless stream of assignments and assessments that may never amount to anything but a framed piece of paper he wouldn't use. Gone were the worries about the future and whether all of the work and worry he was trying to sculpt into a degree would amount to anything could or would use in life. But he knew it was ephemeral freedom from the burdens in his life, as if the cigarette was only a fuse burning steadily down, set like dynamite to blow open the floodgates in his mind.

But not yet.

He leaned against the side of his apartment and let his legs give out under him, sliding down into a squat, exhaling a sharp burst of smoke into the air in front of him. It billowed out in front of him, curling and rolling, trying desperately to get as far as it could. But no matter how far it got, how much ground it covered, it was futile. It overextended itself and faded. Even its now distant cousins, the snakes of smoke drifting up from the cigarette were doomed to the same fate. They'd slither up and up and up, reaching for the stars with all their might, but the higher they got, the weaker. And in the end, all it took was a single gust of wind to blow them away. He understood their plight, commiserated, grieved their passing.

After a few minutes, he could feel the heat in the filter on his fingers every time he took a drag, and, dark as it was, he could tell the cigarette was almost dead. He contemplated just lighting up another, extending that fuse, holding life at bay for just as long as he could. Then he coughed, hacked, and spit, rubbing his throat and realizing it was just delaying the inevitable. He could stay out, but it wasn't like he was just hitting the pause button. Stepping out for a late night cigarette could give him distance from problems, it could give him peace of mind, it could give him a chance to think, it could even make him a bit more content with life. But life didn't stop when his smoke break started. Time kept moving on regardless how long he stood outside smoking; it was stubborn that way.

He took one last drag, and then one more for good measure, tasting the foul taint of burning filter, and then then threw it out into the street. It bounced against the blacktop, sparking angrily, as if offended at the sudden betrayal, and then was killed by a falling snowflake as he turned and went inside.

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