Okay, sometimes I do smoke clove cigarettes with a friend, but we don’t inhale, so it doesn’t really count. We smoke them because the ends are laced with sugar, and the smell of burning cloves is enchanting. When we are hanging out with our partners, my friend or I will say that we need some “man time,” and then we will leave the women and go smoke clove cigarettes under the stars. We puff, sip whiskey, nod a lot, and generally enjoy this time together. Somehow the ritual eases the strain of everyday life and makes us feel closer.
Once in a while, my wife will puff on a cigar with me, which is sexy and fun.
If I see people smoking in a movie, I want to smoke. If I am at a bar with a smoker, I want to smoke. If I read about smoking, I want to smoke. But smoking has become socially unacceptable, and so I rarely smoke a cigarette anymore.
My nieces and nephews have been taught that smoking is evil, and they will point out smokers in public and tell me that these are bad people. I say nothing when they ask, “Right?”
One night a few years ago, while my wife and I were backpacking through southern Africa (where it is still socially acceptable to smoke just about anywhere), I got drunk and walked out onto a pier to smoke a cigarette with another backpacker, a hilarious Iranian-born Englishman whom I had met the week before. I looked out across the moonlit Atlantic and felt the salt mist on my face and sucked the cigarette smoke into my lungs and blew the gray clouds out through my lips, and suddenly I began to think about my grandfather. It must have been the smell of smoke and the gasoline fumes wafting from boats docked nearby. The feeling was so intense that I wanted to cry. Far from home, an entire ocean separating me from everything and everyone I knew, I thought of my young grandfather in the navy, navigating the same black ocean I was now gazing across, and the smoke that issued from his lungs and climbed toward the same stars now overhead. I lit another cigarette, and when my wife reproached me, saying that I was smoking too much, I loudly proclaimed that the cigarette in my hand would be smoked for my deceased grandfather and that I wanted to be left the fuck alone. Annoyed, she and the Englishman walked away while I stood at the end of the pier and watched my breath escape my body. Smoking with my back toward the others, I wept quietly for my grandfather.
My wife is a yoga teacher, and in her class I have learned the three-part yogic breath: draw in three breaths on top of one another, gradually filling the lungs bottom to top; then exhale the entire lungful slowly and deliberately. This process is repeated until the breather is in a trancelike state. My wife has also taught me how to slightly constrict the back of my throat and breathe in and out through my nose, making the sound of the sea. When I breathe using these techniques — and notice that I am breathing, and appreciate that miracle — I have visions. Images from my past will flicker across my mind’s eye: me fishing with my grandfather; or helping pump gas at his station; or digging for the coins that he hid in the sandbox. And I see the future too. It dances upward from somewhere deep within and then dissipates before I can re-member what I’ve seen. My wife has taught me how to sit and experience the calm, quiet edge of a universe that I cannot even begin to com-prehend. The practice is intimidating, but also pleasing and cathartic.