D Mortimer reevaluates smoking as a gateway to illicit queerness and exploration of masc performance, which complicates the necessity to ditch a beloved vice
“This smoking no longer soothes. Oh, my pipe! Hard must it go with me if thy charm be gone! Here have I been unconsciously toiling, not pleasuring – aye, and ignorantly smoking to windward all the while; to windward, and with such nervous whiffs, as if, like the dying whale, my final jets were strongest and fullest of trouble. What business have I with this pipe? The thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapours among mild white hairs not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I’ll smoke no more.”
- Captain Ahab from ‘Moby Dick’, Herman Melville.
And so Captain Ahab drowns his pipe, tossing it, still lit, into the waves. I wish giving up was this easy. It’s not the smoking I am into per se, more the idea. The words associated with smoking are also the words of homosexuality: drag, bum, fag. Nice one syllable spitoonable words. Kim Cattrall, in a three parter I remember nothing about except this line, says, “I permit myself the relief of one cigarette in times of great pleasure and in times of great anguish.” I wonder if Sarah Jessica Parker ripped her erstwhile co-star’s line off for Carrie Bradshaw’s on-again-off-again relationship with fags in the recent Sex and The City reboot. In one scene Carrie explains to her new best friend Seema how she keeps a lid on her vice:
“Now, I allow myself one a day in a walk around the block, with like three kerchiefs on my head and Playtex kitchen gloves. I just can’t risk having that smell on my hair and my hands.”
And just like that, And Just Like That, rehabbed smoking and fingering, similarly enticing pursuits where good smells cling.
“It’s not the smoking I like”, says a friend. “It’s the ritual that’s attractive”. And I think of glamour-incarnate, Iris Apfel, who said it wasn’t the party she was ever really interested in, no, not really. It was getting dressed for the party that thrilled her. And here we’re back with Carrie smoking, not at the party, but alone with one arm out her window in acres of tulle.
“It’s the illicitness of asking a butch for a light outside a club that’s sexy,” my friend continues. Smoking goes (nicotine-stained) hand in hand with feminism and performances of gender, masc, and femme. My nan, a painter, smoked until she was forty. She would paint while cliffs of ash grew between her fingers. Without tapping the offending column free, it would finally crumble on her top. She’d paint on unbothered.
My other grandma smoked while she worked at her typewriter. Like how you sometimes see drummers smoke while they beat with both hands, my grandma punched her keys like she was thrashing a drum kit, her mouth becoming simply a convenient place to keep her fag lit. There is barely a photograph of her without a cigarette. In those pictures I can see her mind work, the smoking (verb) more than the smoke (noun) helping her find the words she needs. My grandma instilled in me the correlation between being a serious writer and being a serious smoker. And lung cancer. She smoked while sick with the illness that killed her.
Thanks for reading Lugubriations! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
"BS sticks" my kid friend used to call them, short for bull shit. He’d steal them from his older brother, who was one of the first gays I ever met. We’d smoke them in the park near our houses together, getting addicted to the fags themselves or the attendant headrush of illegality, I'm not sure. New neural pathways were established, though, on both counts and staying "straight" was becoming less and less of an option for me. Like Jean Genet says, crime starts with the cock of a regulation beret. Broken windows theory becomes bummed cigarettes theory becomes bum boy.
I took fags on quite seriously from the ages of 18-30. I think about being in the closet and the draw (literal and figurative) of smoking. A cigarette is a fantastic prop to wave around dramatically, something to bung the mouth up with; a convenient smoke screen.
I have successfully given up smoking twice. First, was circumstantial abstinence. I broke a lot of things and couldn’t smoke. When the cravings for rollies finally stopped I did the honest thing and reached for the Rizla. I weaned myself back on after six months smoke free. If I was dumping cigarettes, it was going to be on my terms.
Good luck trying to kick the habit while working in the service industry, I tried and failed. As a smoker you can accumulate more breaks over an eight-hour shift. Which means at least ten extra minutes of free time on top of an average twenty for lunch. I haven’t done the maths of this versus the minutes that cigarettes take off your life, but no prizes for guessing, the house always wins. Smoking, like day-drinking and having affairs, is one of those things that is chic when the upper classes do it, abhorrent when the working classes do.
I know I have it in me to give things up. I gave up meat 6 years ago which, admittedly, was never one of my favourite vices. But it proves I can do it, I can give something pleasurable up. I now eat vicariously through my carnivorous girlfriend. I like watching her enjoy meat, like really enjoy it. Which I guess makes me a culinary cuck.
I haven’t yet managed to kick the fags entirely, but I have graduated to the status of social smoker. I’d like to get to the stage where just thinking about having a cigarette satisfies me. Ceci n’est pas une pipe etc.
Maybe I’ll try vaping, the Quorn of smoking. I tripped over a queer at a thing recently who had wrapped themselves in a curtain to dodge the no vape rule. I thought it was weird, but not unpleasant, that the velvet smelled of strawberries.
With Ahab, I envy the line drawn. And the decision, to toss the pipe, to recognise when something is no longer serving him. He honours his smoking history with a eulogy and a farewell. My mum says she remembers her grandmother’s last swim in the ocean. Apparently on entering the freezing water she announced, “This will be my last swim.”
It’s rare and a luxury to get to name a final swim, a last fag, an ultimate steak, and maybe that’s the lure of it, to undercut the no-choice of death. How many are forced to quit before they can choose?
These are not resolutions, they are farewells to parts of ourselves. In saying, “I’ll smoke no more,” Ahab is bidding farewell to Ahab the smoker.
The Gender Identity Clinic has told me if I don’t commit to giving up smoking I can’t access their services. This is indicative of the paternalistic nature of gender identity clinics in this country and why we need a model of informed consent now. That said, stubbing the cigs out wouldn't be the worst thing in the world I could do. But, I am also going to give up on giving up when I need to