I don’t usually get disgusted glances from strangers. Stares filled with righteous contempt and palpable revolt, simmering below semi-apologetic smiles. I take care of the image I project, spending way too much time hesitating between identical peach-colored sweaters. And my status as a Harvard student guarantees a certain degree of (undeserved) anthropological admiration from the herds of tourists that roam our campus. The friendly foreign gaze tends to be a given — that is, until I decide to light a cigarette.
Americans love their unhealthy addictions. From Dr. Pepper-Big Mac combos and Republican politics, to the constant blasting of aggressively bad reality TV shows (which blonde white girl will the former jock choose?), this country appears to have a genuine appreciation for the pleasingly self-destructive power of capitalism. But the moment I even so much as finger an overpriced Camel Royal, the entire nation flinches in agony.
Don’t get me wrong: I am well aware of the deleterious effects of smoking. The past two months have been an outright symposium — guest starring every single one of my American friends, as well as a particularly concerned group of Japanese visitors who felt the need to approach me as I smoked under the rain and suggest that I quit immediately — on the health hazard those delightful tar-filled tubes represent.
And while I may brush their concerns off, citing my country’s higher smoking rates and greater life expectancy (a facetious argument, but also a great deflection), I am too personally tied to cancer to ignore their claims. As a child, aware that three out of my four grandparents had suffered malignant tumors at one point or another, I repeatedly tried to get my own mother to quit. I hid her packs, scolded her constantly, and planned devious (albeit unfulfilled) schemes to autograph subtle discouragements onto her cigarettes, sadistically hoping that writing “I love you” right above the orange filter would make her realise what she was endangering.
Even beyond the whole “increasing the likelihood of premature death” issue, smoking is also just very inconvenient. For one, thanks to Massachusetts’ high taxation and the eternal broke-ness of university life, choosing to do so actively hurts my finances. The winter weather doesn’t help either, adding frostbite to the list of potential health hazards. Should I manage to avoid freezing to death, I’d still be left with the inescapable paranoia that that one esteemed faculty member I’m about to meet with will be able to tell that I just went through my last two Marlboros over the course of five minutes. The cigarette life is hardly ideal.
So, asks the American, why on earth do I smoke?
Perhaps there’s an element of nostalgia — lungs pierced in longing. I miss Europe, I miss Spain. I miss Spanish food, olive oil, and tomato rubbed over a piece of toast, softening its crust. I miss my native tongue, a language I speak without marbles in my mouth, where I am not continually harassed by the fear of mispronunciation and pained by a poignant awareness of my mistakes. I miss the bright, harsh sun, the stare of a cloudless sky, the stale, warm air buzzing around me. I miss an entire existence that lies an ocean away, an existence embedded with the comforting scent of burning cigarettes. Resting on an ashtray by a cup of black coffee, making my entire living room foggy over the course of some Tarantino film, casually exchanged between strangers on the street. Nicotine nation. Home.
But there is something else too, something I can never quite put my finger on. Back home, smoking was inherently social. I would light a couple cigarettes in the warm summer nights, right after grabbing dinner with some friends. I would climb out of my window with my sister, legs dangling over the ledge, and lean back against the peeling shutters to enjoy half a pack’s worth of “the last one for tonight.”
In the U.S., smoking feels lonely. Not that I don’t have anyone to smoke with — at this point I have both found fellow smokers and converted a bunch of close friends. We go on walks by the Charles or climb onto rooftops (unidentified, for the sake of my academic standing) and enjoy that rare intimacy that lingers timidly even when the burning ring reaches the filter. I have people to smoke with, yet I mostly smoke alone. I sneak out of a long lecture or an aggressively American birthday breakfast at some overpriced IHOP and quietly light a cigarette. Smoking here, smoking alone, feels real. Oddly so. A campus (a country?) where everything appears coated in layers of calculation; every conversation a multifaceted evaluation of the other, an attempt to network or impress; where buildings aren’t as old as they are pretentious, tacky imitations of foreign styles; where the moral high ground is eternally desirable, but doubtful at best. Image, projection, performativity.
Hence, cigarettes. Sitting silently, feeling the slight rush pulsing through my brain, observing my surroundings. The wet bricks, the light breeze, the ever-busy transients. Smoking in the rain — hot breath in, cold droplets sliding down my skin. Leaving a suffocating prison of essays and extracurriculars, to do nothing but take deep, poisonous breaths. Thinking — overthinking, even — everything.
Perhaps I will quit someday. Give into rationality, the worship of the practical. Try to preserve my own mortality, start running and drinking broccoli shakes. Maybe I will vape instead, suck onto a plastic pen to convince myself that my nicotine addiction is totally okay (it isn’t). Wear Uncle Sam pajamas to watch the Super Bowl. American assimilation.
But in the meantime, I could really do without the disgusted glances. Just let smokers be.
Guillermo S. Hava ’23, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.