I have been trying to quit smoking for some time now. It all started from the photographs of thinkers and movers who would be captured discussing their profundities cigarette in hand. New to the city I endeared myself to these images imitating their gestures and poses to somehow capture that essence with each inhale and exhale. There must be something intrinsic to that meditative action of breathing and feeling and releasing. Foolish I know and because of that second-hand embarrassment I sought to kick the habit. Yet, here I was in the city desperately seeking something somewhere. I had no qualms about smoking; I even fancied the fact that I could give away these portals to those “less fortunate” on the street. In all honesty they are easier to distribute than cash. At the end of the day this generosity helped me get rid of temptation while still allowing me to feel the addictive buzz of altruism.

Once a man tried to pay me for a loosey. To his chagrin I offered to give it away for free with the bundle deal of a lighter to go à la mode. I was one request away from paying him. In another moment I was asked for cash and I lied. Feeling the freshly distributed bundle of twenties in my pocket, “sorry, I don’t have any cash. I do have a cigarette though.” She gladly took my counteroffer and I gladly walked away with the lie that I did something good despite my reluctance to pay for that altruistic buzz. But, I am paying, usually $17 in fact for the yellow — sometimes light green — pack of goodwill. Yet, it is a small price to pay to avoid unwanted situations: “cigs for convenience.” I have also found that being a saint of nicotine (also being introverted and opposed to initiating unsolicited small talk) made conversation happen organically. I flocked to this phenomenon. I had something tangible to offer in lieu of my abstract opinions on the current affairs and a god-complex plagued by imposter syndrome. Sharing a smoke ushered in conversation like I was the barkeep talking to hurting strangers with three feet of counter standing in between them and me. It was what I needed, what I wanted, and I had a fresh pack — the yellow kind.

When I was sharing white lies and blowing smoke with a stranger outside a bar an attractive woman caught the corner of my eye. She was roaming around as her man talked on the phone. Normally encountering a beautiful woman would be a moment where no nicotine or bar counter could protect me. I would find my tongue incapable of working and my mind would turn to white noise. However, in this instance there was no crossing of wires. Instead, my heart pumped rapidly. My veins ran hot with blood. I started to play scenario after scenario in my head.

“Can I have a cigarette?” She asked.

“No.” I said tartly.

“What do you mean, no?” She responded surprisingly.

“I don’t have any.”

With the bulge of my pack protruding from my pocket I lied again and again. This was not received well and the rate of discussion quickened as I scrambled to find reasons floating about in space. The conversation grew tense. The tone became louder.

“Can I, please, have a cigarette?”

Her partner, now finished with the phone call, became intrigued by our very inconvenient conversation. Oh how I wish I had three feet of pine keeping distance between her and I. It was not there. No one was there. Only lies and anger at an “easy life” were present.

“I don’t have any,” I stated again.

Before I knew it aggression and passion engulfed my body. I grew stiff. I doubled down on my stance and refused to submit to her enquiry. Then, in that moment of demand, a hot flash happened. The rich boy grabbed my collar and insisted that I give up my act. It was the greenlight for ego to take center stage. I pushed him off and made sure to twist that nice, neat, and tacky shirt.

“Who are you?” I said (just as I have rehearsed over and over in my head before).

“Who are you?” “Seriously, who. are. you?”

His response was not one I had prepared for. I stood entangled with wealth and entitlement not knowing where I began or where he ended. Before I knew it things grew. Previously I would have boasted in my ability — theoretically — to be scrappy; of being capable of holding my own in a fight, but I had never been punched in the face. I was a virgin. I have always thought of that first time. I would take it like a champ, or, to my surprise, I would instinctively be able to dodge every thrust prepared by boyhood. Not this time. I was a teacher giving a lesson that was not mine to give. The students became even more aggressive while I stood there alone on my soapbox. A speaker with no crowd is only a few moments removed from manic self-talk.

“Was it worth it?” “All of this just for a cigarette?” “Something that I bought half-expectant to give away anyway.”

Yet, I refused still. I took every exchange of skin to flesh adamant that I would be a martyr for the middle-class refusing the desires of the rich and beautiful. Bloody and bruised, I was saved by the bell of the town car rolling up. They left. They left without a cigarette and I left with a lesson still waiting an audience — a lesson that evidently I didn’t even want to hear. So I lit up a smoke and walked towards home.

“Was it worth it” I asked myself.

Blood pumping to my face and throbbing at the reality of my first time being finished in this way.

“All for a damn cigarette” I laughingly muttered under my breath.

I then came across a person sitting on the side of the street asking for change. I had none, technically. But, I did have a cigarette.

It was then that I snapped back to my position outside the bar behind my cowardice.

“Oh yah, I think I have one somewhere. Here. Here it is. Do you need a light?”

“No, I have one somewhere,” she said politely.

I turned while she left to stand by laughing with her man as young lovers do. The car came and she snuffed out the half burnt cigarette and was engulfed by the city like smoke dispersing in the light.

“Who’s stopping you?” Echoed in my body as I replayed this fever dream over and over. I was feeling sheepish with failure and self-resentment.

“Myself,” I admitted.

The familiar opponent we face — aware of our ploys and unsurprised by our efforts: too close to home. I wanted to take a stand, but had no legs. I wanted to be the teacher of a lesson I felt was needed but even a soapbox means you have to listen to yourself.

“Who’s stopping you?”

“εγο ειμι.”

theologian, writer, creative at the intersection of art, religion, and culture || Yale University ’21 M.Div || George Fox University ’18 BA