My First (and Last) Cigarette

When I was the in the fourth grade my hero was a classmate named Clint. He was everything that I wanted to be. I wanted to look like him. I wanted to dress like him. I wanted to act like him. He was the guy that taught me what the f-word was. He used it regularly, and though at the time, I couldn’t bring myself to use it as casually as he did, I admired how boldly he cussed with no fear of teachers yelling at him or calling his parents. I would have followed him to the depths of hell and back. Clint was the type of charismatic guy that could lead a cult. I was honored to be considered his friend.

I suppose what I really admired in Clint was that he was a rebel. He lived outside the bounds that society had set for him, and by that I mean he was way beyond simple cussing on the playground. He was disrespectful of women. I remember there was a girl in our class named Abby, who, even at a young age, was into hairdos and fashion. One time at lunch, Clint shouted across the cafeteria, calling her egg-beater hair. Even as he said it, I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or not, but I wanted Clint to know I approved of his lifestyle, so I did. Like a lady, she ignored him, but I can still see the smug look of satisfaction on Clint’s face.

He had an earring too. This was in the early 90s, when there was a piercing code. Straight men would pierce their left ear, while gay men would pierce their right ear, so only his left ear was pierced. My mom wouldn’t let me get my ear pierced. I wanted an earring though. He’d wear a really dangley earring sometimes too, and though, even at the time, I thought it looked ridiculous when he did, I would have worn one too, just to be like him.

In the bathroom Clint taught me about long distance peeing, where we would stand at one end of the bathroom, and pee into the toilets on the opposite end. Lucky for us the bathrooms in our elementary school were only about four feet across, so it was actually pretty hard not to get it in. Still, it seemed like we were peeing really far. We also had those urinals that go all the way down to the floor, I suppose to accommodate kids of every height, so it was pretty hard to miss.

We weren’t friends though, not really. I realize that now. He knew I was a follower, and for him, I’m sure he got a kick out of the fact that I wanted to hang out with him and be like him. Part of the reason that I know we weren’t really friends is because I never even went to his house, or otherwise hung out with him outside of school. That isn’t the only reason I realize we weren’t really friends, though.

Like I said, Clint was charismatic. I would have done anything to please him, but Abby wasn’t the only person he made fun of. One time he and one of his friends, Kyle, made fun of the way I dressed. I can’t say I blame them, I had no sense of fashion at the time. All I knew was that I liked to wear my favorite shirts, namely my Ninja Turtles shirt, my jet shirt, and my Harley Davidson shirt. As I said, he was making fun of my clothes, and though I didn’t want to admit it, it hurt my feelings a lot. After he finished telling me how bad my sense of fashion was, he said to Kyle, Watch, tomorrow he’s going to show up in a Guess Jeans shirt and Gibeau pants. I remember going home that day, and thinking about how much I wished I could dress the way he described, but alas, half my wardrobe was clothes that my mom had sewn herself. I knew better than to beg her to buy me some new ones.

Clint said he smoked too. Now I don’t know if he really did or not, but he had smoked, and I’m pretty sure that his dad smoked, and hearing Clint talk about smoking, made me want to do it too. I really wanted to smoke. We’d even watched anti-smoking videos in school, but that didn’t have an effect on me. I remember one video where this kid starting smoking a cigarette and it made him cough like crazy, so the kid threw it out. I knew smoking was bad, but in my mind it was cool, and if Clint was smoking, I wanted to be smoking.

One time while discussing cigarettes, Clint pulled a lighter out of his pocket and said that he used it to light up his smokes. It was this really cool lighter where the user didn’t have to spin a flint wheel to ignite, instead it was just a single button. I told Clint that I wanted a lighter like that, and a pack of cigarettes. I asked specifically for Camel cigarettes because that was the only brand I’d heard of. He said he’d get it for me.

The next day he gave me a lighter and one cigarette. I must admit that I was disappointed. I’d asked for a whole pack, and he got me just one. Looking back, I suppose that was all he could sneak, unnoticed, out of his dad’s pack. I was still happy, though, that I had my cigarette. As I said, Clint had the confidence to do whatever he wanted, and that day at lunch we were in the cafeteria eating, and Clint told everyone at the table that I had a cigarette in my backpack. I was utterly shocked, and scared out of my mind that I was going to get caught, and I blurted out, “No, I don’t.” Well, no one seemed to be paying much attention to Clint, so no one questioned me about it, and I was relieved. Still, I wasn’t pleased that Clint had almost gotten me in trouble.

Later that day I was walking home from school, and thinking to myself about how excited I was to smoke my cigarette. My parents are divorced, and I was raised by my mom. She worked hard to support us, and when she got home from work she was so tired that all she did was sleep. I knew I’d have plenty of time to smoke my cigarette without her knowing about it. My plan was to smoke it in my backyard. I was, however, worried that one of my neighbors would see me smoking and call my mom, so I had to be clandestine.

We had a bunch of tires in our backyard. They had been given to us by some neighbors, and we would play with them. Well, I went around to the side of my house, and stacked up all the tires to make a tall tube that I could get inside of, and that’s where I was going to smoke my cigarette. I got the cigarette out of my backpack and, once again, I was disappointed. The cigarette had broken in half. I feared that the experience was going to be over before it even started. I was resilient, however, in my resolution to smoke that cigarette. So I got some scotch tape, and taped it back together.

So there I was, hiding inside a stack of tires, with the lighter, and my taped up cigarette. I was absolutely pleased with myself. I lit it up, and here is the embarrassing part of the whole experience. I didn’t really smoke it. I thought I did, but I didn’t. You see, all I really knew about cigarettes was that you put them in your mouth, and smoke comes out of the end of them. That is exactly what I did, I put it in my mouth, and, instead of inhaling, I blew. I blew so that smoke would come out of the end of it. I thought I was being so cool. I was even holding the cigarette with my index and middle finger, just like I’d seen smokers do. Let me tell you, when you are just sort of puffing on a cigarette and not inhaling, it takes a long time for all that tobacco to burn up. I was “smoking” for maybe fifteen minutes, maybe even longer, till it had finally burned up to where I had taped it, and then I was done.

I was so pleased with myself, though. I even thought I was this tough kid, because I hadn’t started coughing as badly as the kid in the anti-smoking video. I thought, for sure, that smoking was the thing for me. When I was done with the cigarette I casually carried it out to the front yard and dropped it in the gutter along with all the other cigarette stubs that cluttered the street.

The next day at school Clint asked me how the cigarette was, and I said it was great. He then asked me if I was addicted, and I said that I was. Obviously I wasn’t really addicted. I couldn’t have been. I probably didn’t even get any nicotine into my system, but I didn’t know that. All I knew was that I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever done, and I wanted to do it again. That’s why I told Clint I was addicted, because I was hoping he’d get me some more cigarettes. He didn’t, however, and I never had another cigarette again.

I was punished for my vice, though. No, I was never caught, and I never told anyone about the cigarette, but it did scar me. You see, I still had the lighter, and like most boys I found a certain fascination with burning things. One time I took the lighter into the bathroom and started burning some toilet paper. Just a little at first, lighting a small piece, and putting it in a metal trash can to watch the fire die out. Soon I found myself burning more and more at a time, and in the process I burned myself. Some of the flames caught the middle finger of my right hand. Right where you might expect a cigarette to burn a finger if held too long. The burn was so bad that I had no choice but to tell my mom, she asked where I had gotten the lighter. I told her a friend had given it to me, but I didn’t tell her why he’d given it to me. I got a terrible blister. I mean really bad, the scar is still there, on my middle finger. I tell people I got the scar from when I smoked a cigarette.

I’m almost a little ashamed to admit that even today I think smoking looks cool. Well at least Hollywood smoking looks cool, like when you see smoking in movies, and I actually kind of like the smell of burning tobacco when I pass by a smoker. I might have been a smoker. I’m glad I’m not though. I’m glad I never had another cigarette. As cool as I might think it looks, I can’t think of anything more disgusting than sucking smoke into your lungs.

As with most childhood friendships, my acquaintanceship with Clint ended. Part of it was because of the time he made fun of the way I dressed, but it wasn’t just that. He made fun of me a lot more than I was realizing, and when I finally saw how he was really treating me, I didn’t want to hang out with him anymore. I suppose now, I realize, that he probably got tired of me following him around, that’s why he was making fun of me, and, in a way, it was a relief to him that I stopped talking to him. I started hanging out with other kids after that. Kids that most parents would approve of, though admittedly, I never admired any of them the way that I did Clint.