Two years of translating Verlaine from his original French to Esperanto is a pleasure. Though, honestly, it’s tedious at times, but with a tidy sum at the end of the proverbial rainbow. But I’m not even close to being done. So, I thought, talk instead about something near and dear: Smoking.
I’ve smoked for twenty-six years come April 2013, and I’ve no intention of quitting. Not ever.
Us smokers, as a group, have had our lazy turncoats, as all defectors go. Jon Stewart, the two remaining Beatles, Sophia Loren, John Wayne. Anyone you can think of who has ever mattered has smoked. My grandfather smoked.
BENSON & HEDGES
Beyond that I fail to recall the specifics. Lights, full-flavor, mentholated? He kept them in his hiding place (a lockbox, the key always in plain sight), along with some erotica and a single pill I always thought was a cyanide capsule.
Turned out to be Advil, but his 100s, which, if smoking parlance isn’t your area, are the really long ones, contrasted with the 22s or “midgey ciggies.”
At twelve, I stole a Benson & Hedges 100 and stole away to the garden, which he kept spotless of aphids and the detritus thrown over the fence by the neighbor teenagers.
“Goddamn kids drink like sailors,” he’d say, fake-exasperated, trowel in hand.
I lit up out there in his absence. The roses looked rubbery. The combined sensation of fake-looking flowers and the burn in my throat reminded me of watching scrambled Emannuelle flicks at home, my puritanical parents sleeping soundly in their assurance of what was right, what was wrong.
After a few puffs on the filter itself I remembered that this was my first cigarette and, more instinctually, that it hurt more than it should. And I snuffed the B&H in the soil near a dead bee.
The side of Omar’s house was a common meeting place for us troublemakers. His mother would gladly lie to our parents that we were all fastidiously completing homework assignments while we shoplifted candy and Jack Daniels from the Alpha-Beta up the street.
I didn’t really want to. The B&H filter-smoking incident had turned me off to the whole idea. But I was an impressionable kid, eager to fit in, and the group had guffawed in mockery when I admitted I’d smoked only once before.
They stood around trying to remember the words to “The Guns of Brixton” and “Neat Neat Neat,” pretending to ignore my first full-flavor Marlboro.
I hadn’t coughed. My efforts were applauded. And in celebration of my achievement we smashed the taillights of a Chevette mysteriously parked in the orange groves. It was barely light enough to see when Myles doused a dead dog in lighter fluid and nearly caught himself on fire holding the lit lighter to its spilled intestines.
After that I’d give Omar a dollar fifty every few weeks, and he’d usually return the next day with a pack of reds. No C.O.D. for Omar. Been burned too many times. Payment, in full, up front.
He’d always say, before handing me the pack, after looking both ways for patrolling aids, “Better dead than red,” as though he’d thought it up and written it down and understood what it’d meant. I didn’t. But it sounded cool so I’d always say, “Yeah,” and laugh like he’d broken onto a new plane of understanding.
Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.