Drag it Out Back – Bryan Michael

I keep one loose cigarette in the house. One loose cigarette that rolls back and forth in a seldom opened junk drawer, imprisoned under unread instruction manuals and delinquent utility bills. It’s a lone survivor from a pack of identical cigarettes, an ancient memorial for the nineteen that came before it. Stowed away and forgotten along with the memory of who smoked them.

In days of limitless youth and limited responsibility, cigarettes became another vice added to my growing list. Another distraction I mistook as a personality trait. I can’t recall my first inhale, probably in a cul-de-sac of suburbia with my friend Chris and a belly full of vodka. I wish I could ask him about it, share the memories we chose as keepsakes. He died elven years ago. I was smoking when I heard the news. Perhaps another drag would help me remember.

Why I started smoking eludes me. Was it influence from my peers? Was I another casualty as part of big tobacco’s most marketable demographic? No, I was an imitator. Yearning for the life of my idols, a creative life, I plagiarized their behavior, destructive and cool. Plucking on steel guitar strings or scribbling mad in leather-bound journals, white tips waved between their fingers like flags surrendering to a Muse. It was a study how to cope with struggle, concluding with the realization I had none. I felt cheated by a happy home of warm family dinners and upper middle class Christmases, trapped by comfort.

Escape was the goal, but I’d found another captor. Shackles tightened on my lungs with each exhale. Smoke branded my fingertips, guilty and pungent. Nicotine fueled this heroic flaw, a dependence on mediocrity. Cigarettes represented what I thought I was, how I saw myself, creating smoke screens reflected in bathroom mirrors, distorting an illusion for one. I prayed to this seventy-millimeter ritual of incense. Burn enough and I was sure to reach a higher plane.

I’m a hypocrite, not an addict. Repeating mistakes I refuse to call habit, so assured of a destiny with no evidence or promise that it awaits in the future. Well, I’m aging out of society’s lenience for the youth and with it go innocence and whimsy and all the thrilling newness of fucking up. Things become familiar, patterns emerge. Self-awareness is a cruse, a cruel trick played on the idled insignificant. One of Life’s mocking reminders that it is possible, knowing damn well you’ll go right along believing it isn’t. At times, it seems the only fate I’m fulfilling is the one we all share in bearing its inevitable responsibility.

I envied that thin ivory stick, omniscient of its purpose. But as I stare at it now, static, reliant, waiting in tortured purgatory, I’m awash in pity. The cigarette needs me. It’s nothing without me. Until flames flick a fiery tongue at its tip, turning white to black and black to silver ash, until smoke twists and ties like a noose around the air, burning in a burst of orthostatic hypotension, the cigarette continues on, unfulfilled. What freedom is that? Change is Life’s gracious gift, a promise that tomorrow can be unlike any yesterday. A crutch only seems necessary until we learn to walk again—one step in front of another, on our own.