Nonfiction / Caitlin Cowan
In 1989, I lit myself on fire, just a little bit. At a Fourth of July barbecue, someone gave me a sparkler and it caught the hem of my dress on fire. Every year the story looms like smoke, is smoke, made of and by its foggy tongues. I was three. I was on fire. I’ve never forgotten that day, though I’ve forgotten every fireworks display I’ve ever watched. It’s easy to remember the first time you ever felt truly alone.
My father liked to smoke a cigar on the Fourth of July. More than anything, he liked to light the fireworks with their glowing tips. No—most of all, he liked running away from the sparking promise of their explosion, cigar in hand, boat shoes on his feet though the lake was neighborhoods away and we never used it anyway. One day, years from now, he’ll run our boat up on some rocks in Lake Michigan—my mother will say he did it to ensure it would have no value when it was ordered to be sold in their divorce. But that blaze comes later. For now, a controlled burn.
The Fourth was the only time my mother allowed him to smoke. Or at least the only time when her protests were quiet enough for him to ignore them. An occasional cigar seemed like a middle-class indulgence, not a lethal habit. I expect that he looked forward to this holiday very much. Mosquitos, smoke, sparkling, and the tang of tobacco.
The way he feigned his fear: that’s what I remember most. After bending low in the grass to light the puny legal fireworks we’d procure in a multipack from a local Meijer, he would anoint the fuse with a kiss of his cigar. He would run, muttering a little too loudly, oh shit! He would comically dart away from the sizzling display as fast as he could, as if he were actually in danger, as if the greatest dangers he would face were behind, not ahead of him. He would smile, almost imperceptibly, as he ran. All memories I have of his performance on the Fourth are now, so many years into his absence, the same memory.
Allen Carr, author of The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, says that the occasional smoker suffers much more than the habitual one. The habitual smoker is able to assuage his cravings on a near-constant basis if he chooses, while the social or occasional smoker must discipline himself terribly. Think of how hard he must work, Carr says, to sustain himself between smokes. I think that my father was this kind of smoker. No, he was not the pious reformed smoker my mother imagined him to be nor the inveterate liar, furtively smoking at every opportunity, stealing away in the night to crouch behind the garage with a Marlboro, as I once imagined him to be. I think he abstained most of the time in order to smoke some of the time, assuring himself that his darker impulses could be controlled. But something that can combust will always combust. If you can burn, you burn.
Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls, an inveterate smoker for all of his 76 years on earth, once wrote that smoking separates the self from others. When I heard this wisdom for the first time, it startled me like a sudden crackling in the sky. I knew it to be true in every sinew.
Smoking surrounds you with a literal barrier, if an easily penetrable one: a curtain of gray pollution that’s all your own. Even smokers prefer not to be enveloped in someone else’s smoke, choosing to stay safely ensconced in their own. It’s private. Blowing smoke in someone’s face can be considered battery in some places in the world; in others, it’s an invitation to fuck. There is intimacy in that corrupted air: the smoke enters your body, gets to know you inside, then makes itself visible outside, having absorbed something essential from you. Perhaps it’s even stolen a little piece of your life.
Though I barely remember the moment of my first cigarette, I remember the path that led me there acutely. It wasn’t pouty-lipped celebrities letting them dangle beautifully from their lips or the allure of being transgressive. It was their emotional shorthand, I think, that I admired the most.
Before my senior year of high school, I had to decide whether or not to take AP Calculus. I’m only a little ashamed to say that I took it out of arrogance, out of a sense of challenge. I earned two A+ grades on the first two exams. Then, having already gotten into the University of Michigan, I let the heavy mantle of academics go. I finished the year with a D in AP Calc. I then received a letter from the university saying that my offer of admission might be revoked because my senior-year grades had slipped.
Gripped by terror, uncertainty, and resignation, I became a fist of pain. I had not secured admission to any other schools. I had been raised to value education over everything else, and when I found out that I might not go to college, I felt as if I’d been handed a death sentence. It was, I can see now, my first interaction with grief since my parents had split up when I was 12. But an 18-year-old can do a lot of things that a 12-year-old can’t. And one of them is purchasing a pack of cigarettes at a gas station, as I did after receiving that letter from the academic review board.
An 18-year-old can find a physical outlet for her pain. She can find a spot under a tree. That tree will not be in a park or a quiet forest. It will jut out from some commercial landscaping near a strip mall or parking lot, because that’s what the vistas of suburbia are. She will sit and smoke cigarette after cigarette, barely inhaling at first, but braving up to inhale deeper and deeper as she goes along. Sickness will settle in.
She can think to herself, You are no longer alive. Your life, brief as it has been, is over. You do not serve a purpose. You are not as smart as everyone says you are, as you think you are, you arrogant little shit. You will never escape this sordid town, your mother’s house, your reach that perpetually exceeds your grasp. Cigarettes seemed to be the best way to telegraph to myself a singular, perverse message: I am bad and fucked up. And though I would get into U of M after my teachers wrote letters on my behalf, I would hold onto my smoking habit for another 15 years. It helped me keep myself separate—separate from myself.
Dusk. Choking. The Fourth of July. And yes, the running. This is the fire and the rest is the tinder—two years later, my mother made me hold an unlit cigarette to shame my father. Six years later I would write an award-winning school essay about avoiding cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol, though I would not be offered any for two more years beyond that. Fourteen years later, I would buy my first pack of cigarettes, and when I tried on that shroud of smoke, it felt like it was made just for me. I wore its noxious lace for decades, always smelling vaguely of burning.
Why couldn’t they see I was on fire? I was burning and they didn’t know. No one could help me. Every breath choked me so my brain said run. I had to keep running. If I stopped: pain. Like I always would, when something went wrong I ran away from others, ran toward myself, into myself. My mother insists that it was a minor incident: nothing more than a singe. A scorched dress. But to a child, there is no sense of relativity: not now and not ever. I have so few memories of my early childhood. This one pulsates—has its own heat.
One thing I know for certain is that I started smoking because it seemed like the adult thing to do at that precise juncture in my life. Looking back, I think that young girl, crouching under a tree and wondering how she would get the stink of cigarettes off her hands before she went home, wanted someone, an actual adult, to see that message and send help.
But no one saw it. My mother saw my academic failure but did not see my pain. I think she would continue to turn a blind eye, and a blind nose, on my pain in its various forms for years. When I ran out to grab baking powder from the store on Christmas Eve for a pie, when I got up early to go to Starbucks to buy us both lattés, running out to the car at the mall to drop off our bags because they were “too heavy.” I think to myself now, she must have known. Though I’ve now quit for good, my partner was able to smell my only slip-up on me even though I hadn’t smoked in eight hours, had brushed my teeth, and had washed my face. If he could tell, then so could she. She had so many more chances to see, and smell, the truth.
Some part of me thought I was getting away with my furtive smoking, dousing myself in Designer Imposters Coco Mademoiselle, rolling the windows down to let the wind have its way with my hair, studding my cheeks with sugared mint gum so strong it made my teeth ache. The other part of me wished to god that I would get caught. I remember a friend of a friend in high school saying that her mother issued her the following warning: If you come home smellin’ up of spray with gum in your mouth, you’re grounded. She was smart enough, as I assume most human beings are, to recognize the smell of the cover-up as easily as the smell of the crime.
There were times when my mother would say “Give me a hug!” soon after I walked through the door after a night out with friends while I was home from college for the summer or visiting over Christmas during grad school. I used to think this was a test. Maybe it was. I don’t understand why she didn’t explode with anger when she smelled it, if she did. I kept thinking, surely, this time… But I got to keep my secret for years. Somehow, it stayed down there with everything else, ready as kindling.
I didn’t tell my mother about the letter that came from U of M at first. I simply sweated it out, held my fear like another body, breathing life into it with every passing day. This pattern of relying only on myself, of hiding the most difficult parts of my life from my mother, of retreating, Scorpionic, into my hole, fossorial like the star sign I was born under, never abated. A divorce, a breakup, a traumatic cross-country move… I dealt with these things alone, smoking my way through them, wreathed in gray, dissipating garlands that kept me apart from others.
But the smoking itself, of course, was the thing I hid most ardently from my mother. Even after she caught me smoking one day outside the Target I worked at during the summers between semesters, even after she tearfully invoked the childhood asthma that had hospitalized me countless times in my childhood, her own father’s collapsed lung, her best friend’s death from lung cancer.
It was as if nothing she said and nothing I did had any meaning at all. We were both locked in a dance, out of breath. One night, when I admitted to her that I had been smoking while on the phone with her, she said “I can’t believe I’m your ashtray.” She sobbed. Sobbed. To this day I do not understand her histrionic reaction. It’s so silly it makes me laugh. What does it even mean? It is, like most things, not about me. It’s about her. Sometimes I think she is angry at her own parents, who smoked for decades. That night, and so many nights after, I stared into her inexplicable pain, looking into the black abyss of the telephone connection. I lived in that void forever, inured myself to reality and to my own body, burning myself in earnest, making up for the mere scorching I’d suffered as a child. I had made myself into her worst nightmare. And for a long time, it felt so, so good.
I remember my baby thoughts, far away from the adults assembled on the lawn, can still taste the sourness of the smoke. It burned: some tiny, stylish frock my mother had probably purchased at Jacobsen’s in downtown Birmingham, a ring of burnt umber seared into the fabric over my tiny thigh.
The difference between the truth absolute and the truth of the mind is burned away, here, and perhaps is burned away always. There was no panic about the burning dress. That’s what I remember. My mother says they didn’t know it was happening. I feel for my mother on the other side of the divide: She did not intend to make me feel alone as I choked on the fumes of my little burning dress. And yet alone I felt. My truth as good, as heavy as hers. As hot.
What chemistry did I taste in that first fear? Aluminum, zinc, a million magnesium stars I swallowed. Unsuitable for birthday cakes; do not consume the ash. Dear reader, I consumed the ash. Consumed the smoke, the binder, the oxidizer, the fuel, the wire, and my own hand holding it. As the years go by I can’t see it as well but I can feel it: the backyard hazy with citronella, the boozed-up grandparents who could not see me, the parents who still laugh about that day, the lawn, the evening sky, my sick lungs that would never let me run until I ran.
I run now, am running, towards a man who seems both new and familiar, who sends me photographs of his nephew on his lap, pulling his face into a beautiful grimace before the fireworks explode. Sometimes he looks like my father, the one who lit a cigar every Fourth to detonate the horde, would run from its sputtering once he started something that he could not stop: fire, new love, a child’s heart. I wonder if the film will soon start over again from the beginning. Maybe this time it won’t end in flames.
Pyrotechnics are born to blow up, but sparklers are born to burn. It’s slower. It takes time. Like Natural American Spirits: my brand of choice throughout graduate school and right up until the bitter end. But before that first sparkler and before the Spirits, it was Parliament Lights in my undergrad years at Michigan. When my mother found a pack of those in my purse back then, she scoffed, “that was your grandmother’s brand.” My friends and I used to make jokes about sniffing coke because of their recessed filter. I had never tried cocaine but still brought it up at parties to seem like I was in the know. I did not know anything, least of all how much consumption and addiction dictated my young life.
When I started smoking Spirits, the hipster cigarette of choice for all free-thinking starving artists in Denton, TX, it meant that I was away for longer, outside, huddled in alleyways, shrouded in furtive corners for seven, eight, maybe even ten minutes. Smoking ultimately isolates you from other people. If you squint your eyes hard enough, it might feel for a moment, or a year, or a lifetime, like it’s keeping you safe.
But we humans have a funny mechanism built right in. The more we are alone, the more our brains push us toward other people. In “Evolutionary Mechanisms for Loneliness,” sociologists Cacioppo, Cacioppo, & Boomsma argue that “loneliness may serve as a signal to increase social connection and thus increase chances of survival.” As in, I went outside to smoke so I could come back in to the warm glow of my friends at the bar. Can you fucking believe that loneliness exists to keep us alive?
If we hold that in our hands along with the sparkler, an unlit cigarette, and the bald fact that smoking physically separates us from others, we might be able to ask this question: Did I smoke to drive myself to the edge? And more importantly, did I go there just so I could learn how to come back?
I was six the first time I touched a cigarette. The details are veiled in a haze. We were parked in front of a McDonald’s on a family trip up north. My father had gone inside to use the restroom or order food. My mother, searching for something in the car, had come across a pack of cigarettes he had apparently hidden (though not very well). He had told her that he quit many times over. Could she already tell that he would hide other things from her in the years to come? The bottle of pills I’d found in his suit coat pocket, the false business trips… the other woman?
That afternoon on the road, she didn’t explode. She smoldered, a spark traveling down the wick of her anger. She pulled two cigarettes from the pack and handed me one. I didn’t understand. Just hold it, she kept saying. I vaguely remember her even trying to show me how to hold it, the verisimilitude of an actual, adult, smoking hand. A deflated peace sign. I obeyed. I did not know what I was doing or why, but I did it.
Memory tells me that my mother rolled down her window and went so far as to light hers, though she did not take a drag from it. And there we sat, one woman and one woman-in-training, pretending to smoke for a reason that, even now, three decades later, smoking and quitting and smoking and quitting and smoking one last time after a setback at work and then finally, blessedly, quitting again, I still scarcely understand.
What was she trying to prove? She wanted my father to return to the car and see it. I suppose she wanted to cause him alarm. But what was the message? What would the equivalent be if it were a gun she had found and not a pack of cigarettes—something that kills you quickly rather than over the years? Would she have pointed it at my head? Asked me to hold it? Maybe she could have torn open some ketchup packets, told me to close my eyes, daubing her painting with alizarin crimson, could have wrapped my limp fingers around the barrel.
Her anger stoked her creativity, like mine does now. She morphed from mother to master director, setting her stage just the way she wanted. And the centerpiece, the most critical prop on the stage, was the cigarette. Can you see it? If you squint your eyes, it doesn’t look like a condemnation at all. It looks a bit like a monument.
All these little parts, little stories: the smoke I choked on as my dress burned, the smoke I gulped between sobs when things went wrong, the smoke I imagined curling from the end of a prop cigarette my mother once handed me. The whole of it is so much greater than each hazy tendril, each polluted breath. I have to look at it all, even when there’s so much smoke I can hardly see.
Though all four of my parents’ parents, my mother’s brother, and my father all smoked at some point in their lives, cigarettes were the highest taboo in my household. The story of stories is that my mother’s parents quit after some 40 years. My grandfather quit cold turkey, but it was harder for my grandmother. She had slip-ups, used nicotine replacement, and generally struggled to kick the habit. She reminds me of me, which made my mother’s condemnation of her own mother’s supposed “weakness” difficult. The fact that her father was able to quit easily after four decades permanently destroyed my mother’s ability to think of cigarette smoking as an addiction instead of as a moral failing.
But in its own way, too, this deepened her anger toward him. If it’s so easy to quit, she wondered, why didn’t he do it sooner? Of course, she can never understand what it’s really like to quit smoking. She also couldn’t know his internal struggles. She could not know the white-hot shame and anger that my father must have felt rip through him like an unfiltered Lucky Strike when he saw our faux-smoky pageant in the McDonald’s parking lot. She could not understand how her violent prohibition of smoking made it simple for me to take my habit underground, deep into my scorpion’s nest—solitude on solitude on solitude.
The smoker perpetually lives in a state of cognitive dissonance. Smoking feels like companionship but isn’t. The smoker knows, with complete certainty, that what she is doing will harm her, has the power to kill her, even. But she also knows that she enjoys what she is doing. I think this is what Carr meant when he said that quitting smoking frees you from the “black thoughts” that plague smokers: I have to quit. I’m going to get lung cancer. This is going to kill me. Maybe I’ll be ok if I quit this year. Next year. When I graduate. When I move. Next year. Next year. But Carr says less about the smoke-white thoughts: I’m enjoying this. I am truly alive because I know I am dying.
I do not remember how my father reacted. This knowledge may come as a disappointment to you. Have I blocked it out? Has time merely taken it from me as a small kindness? I do know that nothing momentous happened. He came back, said something to my mother. Someone would have taken the cigarette from me. And then we never spoke of it again. So final was our denial of that bizarre tableau that my mother insists that it never happened, and if pressed she will only admit she “doesn’t remember it that way.” Every time I’ve burned, she’s disappeared it with words, letting it all vanish like one last drag. What’s a memory worth if you’re the only one who has it? If you smoke a cigarette all alone in a courtyard, who are you separating yourself from?
On Arrested Development, hapless patriarch George Bluth was fond of teaching his children a lesson by scaring them nearly to death. At the end of his tautological pranks, he or the one-armed colleague he often hired to terrify young Michael, Lindsay, and Gob would intone, “and that’s why you always leave a note,” or “and that’s why you don’t yell.” Like any good writer, he preferred showing to telling. On TV, I laugh at it; in life, there’s less humor.
Sometimes I think my mother enrolled in the same school of thought when it came to her marriage. She wanted to teach my father a lesson that day on our way up north: And that’s why you never smoke a cigarette. But I’m not sure how the mathematics of her theatrics add up, even to this day. Was she hoping to point out that smoking made my father a bad role model? That his smoking would cause me to smoke? To this day, I’ve never seen him smoke a cigarette, and haven’t seen him at all since I was a young teenager. I smoked anyway, and with great relish.
Instead, that weird afternoon in the parking lot became an echo, sounding its report throughout my life in various rancid permutations. My mother didn’t have an actor friend with one arm like George Bluth did. Instead, she had a daughter with two arms and two hands with which to clutch tens of thousands of cigarettes she would handle in her life. Little paper ghosts passing through the forest, ten pine trunks, my baby fingers. And that’s why you don’t look for the smoke. You look for the fire.
We start to smoke because we don’t believe we’ll die. But of course, we will. We smoke because we don’t care if we die, or we want to pretend that this is true. We smoke because we believe in god. Because we don’t. Because you were raised as an atheist. Because when you asked your mother what happens when we die, she said our bodies go into the ground and flowers grow out of us.
We smoke because we feel that we are special, that we can beat the odds, that we are the protagonists of our own little dramas. How bad could it really be? We keep smoking because the smoke starts to feel like a shitty friend who, in spite of everything, always returns your calls. We smoke when it’s expensive, when it’s cheap, when we feel sick, when we feel young and healthy.
We keep smoking because the cigarettes are organic, the box is made of post-consumer materials, and the company sends you little seed bombs to plant in your yard to show how friendly they are. You never remember to plant them, so nothing—not one single thing—ever grows.
From the writer
:: Account ::
Recently I’ve focused on trying to tell stories I’ve never told. One such story relayed in this essay is a core childhood memory of mine that my mother insists is apocryphal. As I burrowed into it,I realized that the core plot element of the story—the why—was not only slippery but also, surprisingly, less interesting than what the memory has to say about shame, addiction, and loneliness. Because cigarette smoking, the larger subject of the essay, is a cultural phenomenon, branching out from this core experience also made me want to engage with the question of what the act of smoking means, if anything, in the larger sense. Here again, I found more questions than answers, but in constellating those questions, I felt, ultimately, like I could see a recognizable figure anyhow.
The work of psychologist Fritz Perls seeded this project in that respect: a jotted-down note in my journal about Perls’ assertion that smoking is designed to separate us from others had been troubling me for years, and it finally led me back here and to my childhood, adolescent, and adulthood connections to smoking. Author Allen Carr, whose audiobooks about self-hypnosis and smoking cessation I listened to, also haunts this piece. The central tenet of Carr’s The Easy Way to Stop Smoking was my first encounter with the idea smoking is actually not enjoyable at all. Carr died of lung cancer in 2006, 23 years after smoking his last cigarette.
This essay is part of a manuscript called Solitary, which is a hybrid CNF/poetry project that uses the structure of a popular pagan song to interrogate the terrestrial and spiritual origins of solitude and its relationship to womanhood, from solitary witchcraft to the peculiar weirdness of only childhood.
Born and raised outside Detroit, Caitlin Cowan earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of North Texas and an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School in New York City before returning to the Midwest. Her debut full-length collection of poetry is forthcoming from Cornerstone Press (2024). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Best New Poets (2021), The Rumpus, New Ohio Review, Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Rappahannock Review, and in other journals and anthologies, including Erase the Patriarchy (University of Hell Press). Her work has received support from the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and elsewhere. She is a Poetry Editor for Pleiades and serves as the Chair of Creative Writing at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Caitlin writes regularly about the intersection of poetry and popular culture at PopPoetry.