Friday, September 03, 2010

Friendship and cigarettes

I have a friend who smokes. He lives far away from me now, but when he is here, he likes to smoke cigarettes and drink wine, and when he is here i smoke and drink with him.

When we were first friends, he lived here, and we would smoke and drink at night outside, looking at the stars. We talked about the people we knew, our plans for the future, our sense of ourselves and our careers. He is from a place far away, and he carries with him the restlessness of the person who has left home and always looks for it again. When i am with him, I feel most myself--the most myself I feel with anybody. He doesn't judge people, which is not the same as not having a critical perspective on them. He just has perspective. He loves fun with the firmness and melancholy of a person who has been beautiful, and young, and utterly careless, but is moving away from these to another place. He believes fun is still always there, though in the simplest of moments. Fun is there in the ridiculousness of aging. He is right.

I like him because he is a boy. Because he is a boy, and himself, he shrinks from over-analyzing people's motivations. He is much more interested in effects. He feels the flow of social relationships, and the feelings that ebb and wash and mix with our own individual desires and dreams as they connect with other people. He feels the effect of big personalities on the world, on history, and on out hearts. We talk about these things when we smoke cigarettes on the porch at his house far away, or at my house here.

We have all of us, in our post-cigarette worlds, lost something with our loss of smoking together. We have lost those moments of contemplation and camaraderie, when we pause in the middle of what we are doing and adjourn together outside for a cigarette and conversation. Television shows like Mad Men glamorize the chain-smoking and drinking of an earlier era, but those shows substitute distracted consumption for the soul of the thing--smoking--which is a sinking down into the present moment, the slowing of time, the enjoyment of now and the people standing right next to you, smoking with you. Fellowship. And being alive, and curious, and social, and full of joy in a good meal, or a good drink, on a cool city night.

On the street, outside the bars and restaurants, we meet people we don't know and will never meet again over cigarettes. We exchange observations and the feeling of being here now, in the world, at our age, in this place. When we adjourn to smoke, we leave our tables and companions to gather in new formations in a space outside the world we have brought with us. We leave our tables and spouses, and move in other configurations for five, ten minutes. We say what comes into our heads. We listen to stories.

We tend not to take this time to just be if there are no cigarettes. One of the things I most loved about my mother was my sense of her, late at night, sitting in her chair in the livingroom, in the semidarkness, smoking her cigarette and just thinking. I would walk down the hallway of my childhood house and past her, sitting in her wingback chair, thinking about her entire life, as much as one can in five or ten minutes. I'm not sure what her insights were, but I know she enjoyed the pause, and the contemplation. The quiet, and the time just for her, just for the moment's pleasure of thought..

i don't smoke much anymore. I don't buy cigarettes because I know they are bad for me. They make my lungs burn and my heart race, and in the morning, they make my head hurt.

Still, they are a treat beyond cakes, or aged Scotch. They are a commitment, for five minutes or so, to standing still, breathing deep, and thinking about everything.

My friend usually leaves me a couple cigarettes when he goes. Tonight I stand on the porch, alone, smoking a cigarette and looking at the stars. The stars are not bright in Chicago, but tonight as I smoke on the porch i look at them, and think of him, and his friendship, generosity, and loyalty. I think of my mother, and her moments of silence. I think of the future and the past, and wonder, still, what life will bring. I listen to the wind, and feel the first autumn chill in the air. I think of how the strong connections we make with other people buoy us up in rough water, and soften our loneliness. The smoke curls up through the night, silver and fragrant, and I watch it as I watch the stars winking faintly overhead.