By Arianna Sullivan
The man on the street with cancer on his face notices every sunny or sullen twenty-something-year-old who passes him dangling a cigarette from their lips, and in dainty fingertips. He doesn’t have to look twice—just once and then quickly away. Yet I get scathing looks all down the street from the righteous, coming in all shapes and sizes. Wishing I wasn’t scalded, I try to graze them back with grimacing glances of you don’t even know me, and who cares?
When I hear those people sighing, if it did to your face what it does to your lungs… I’m listening. Because I know well enough what it looks like to have a viscous mixture of puss and blood oozing from the inside flesh of my cheek. And it is not because I got socked in the face once, it is because I’ve had to pop the sore in there, which flowered forth after three weeks of cigarette smoke. Still, I must be careful when I mention that, because then I hear a whisper of the word cancer, like it’s some spreading secret that I haven’t heard about yet. I know what cancer is, and I know what it does. I had one hell of a grandma, she smoked cigarettes most of her life, and then she smoked cigars. She didn’t make the switch because she knew about cancer. She started with the cigars because she didn’t want to burn the house down with five kids running around and they went out on their own where cigarettes kept burning. When she finally quit smoking for good it wasn’t because she heard about cancer, it was because she got cancer. She didn’t die three months later because she was seventy-six, she died at the age of seventy-six because of lung cancer.
Next I’m told that it’s different these days —now we know what it does to you. I don’t think I can do much to disagree. Most people my age can spout out cigarette-smoking-symptoms quite sufficiently, and the word death generally hits the end of the list like a blunt axe. I’ve been able to tell you cigarettes can kill since I was a squirt who picked up the used bits of fire-crackers and slipped them between my innocent lips just to practice looking cool.
So when I met a man on the street today, who was sitting on the last stretch of Stanton, and who asked me with his silently extended cigarette for a light, I didn’t scowl or scoff or snoot. I did wonder, watching the trembling shake of his empty hand—strategically kept close to his chest—which drug it is that gives a man such an uncontrollable twitch. I looked for his eyes, and he stared at something invisible ten feet behind me, moving the hand with a lit cigarette to tip his hat in thanks even though his head was empty.
“Can I offer you a spare, or are you all set?”
Because whatever drugs he’s on, I’d rather he be smoking another cigarette than more of that. With an extra American Spirit stuck safely behind his ear he sends me on my way with extra thanks and a shaky feeling every step I take because there’s more important people for self-important street-spectators to be concerned about than all of us twenty-something-year-olds smoking cigarettes, and I had just met one of them.
So I’m still traipsing around singing my own chorus to drown out the sound of my own lost bets and my own broken promises, humming to myself,
right now nothing but this cigarette I’m smoking is going to give me that same rush that I had the other day sitting on a twelve-story rooftop;
well I’d rather smoke cigarettes than be an alcoholic;
it just got cold today and I needed something to distract me from the shiver on my spine while I walked all those blocks home;
look, I’ve got one heck of an oral fixation and as soon as I can help it, I’ll quit this nasty business and start exercising again, ok?
But those are the harder truths to face, so most of the time I do what most of us kids do, and walk around practicing the gaunt look that tries so hard to say
I smoke with my shades on even though the sun is gone,
I wear red lipstick and carry only the classiest brand of fags,
I will smoke if I feel like it because
if the aspartame in my chewing gum doesn’t give me cancer
then the chlorine in my tampons will,
and these are the lives that we lead,
We are gloriously horrified masochists, so we will smoke those cigarettes.
Hope it’s just a phase.