Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and All Up In Your Face: Week #40 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On cigarettes and grievances
The other day my friend M. and I were innocently* enjoying a cocktail at a new wine bar in town when we were—through absolutely no fault of our own*—pummeled by the South.
*Okay, let me back up a little. It’s possible that we not entirely innocent. But we were just about as blameless as it’s possible to be while still living in a society with other human beings and attempting to share the limited resources of our planet. There’s only so much you can do to avoid harming your fellow travelers in this vale of tears.
But it’s probably best to start at the beginning.
M. had started smoking again. She is going through a divorce, and has drifted back into a series of bad habits that she fully recognizes are both temporary and absolutely necessary. I am also an off-again-on-again smoker, and have been gently meandering my way back into the habit as well—first out of solidarity, and then out of the fact that nicotine is transplendently awesome and, in case you didn’t know, addictive as all fuck. There are too many people in this town who smoke “casually”—one could move from social event to social event, only smoking other people’s cigarettes “occasionally,” and still piece together quite a respectable little addiction. On that very afternoon at that very wine bar M. and I made a solemn vow that we were all going to have to pick a date, soon, to quit “as a community.”
When we arrived at the wine bar, we did everything right. M. was going to have a quick cigarette in the alley outside, but realized she didn’t have a light, so we went inside to ask at the hostess station if they had any matches. The willowy girl-woman behind the podium blinked at us uncomprehendingly. “Matches...?” she asked, trailing off in confusion. “Do you mean like...?” and then stopped, unable to furnish even a guess about what we could be referring to. “Yeah, like to light a cigarette?” M. replied, while I pronounced clearly and distinctly at the same time, as if to an inquisitive toddler, “We need fire!” She nodded and replied thoughtfully, “I have a lighter?” We assured her that it was just what we needed, asked if we could sit outside on the patio, and then inquired if M. was allowed to smoke out there. “I’m happy to go back to the alley for my cigarette if it’s not okay,” M. swore. The hostess blinked at us again, unsure what her own restaurant’s policy was regarding this bizarre custom. “I’ll check with my manager.”
We thanked her again, and went out to the patio to choose our seats. It was a big, breezy space with plenty of large tables spaced far apart, so we didn’t think twice about sitting down at a table right next to another party, simply because it was the one closest to the door and we wanted to be as far away from the street as possible. I glanced over at the table of three older women and exchanged greetings with one of them, whom I recognized from local Democratic party organizing. When our man-child waiter arrived with our menus, he announced that it was fine to smoke outside. M. thanked him and asked for an ashtray. “Ashtray...?” he asked, trailing off in confusion. “Um, I don’t think so? But let me see if we can find something.” He returned with a tiny cast-iron skillet exactly the size of an ashtray, complete with divots on each side ostensibly for pouring off liquids but also perfect for holding a smoldering stick of carcinogenic plant material. “Oh how adorable!” we cried. “It’s exactly right!” He clucked in agreement and gave the little skillet a quarter-turn to show it off more effectively. “It’s almost like it was meant to be an ashtray!” he said delightedly.
And then M. lit her cigarette. As if activated by invisible springs, the women at the table next to us immediately stiffened, leapt to their feet, and began ostentatiously gathering up their water glasses and menus. “We are all allergic to smoke!” one of them announced. “Oh no! I am so sorry!” M. cried, moving to stub out her cigarette. “I don’t need to smoke! Please—sit back down.” But the ringleader—the woman I knew slightly from local politics and charity work—would have none of it. “No no no, not at all! It’s absolutely no trouble at all for us to move!” she insisted. “We’re outside, you should have the right to smoke, we’re fine moving a couple of tables over.” My friend tried again. “Really—I promise you I don’t even really smoke! I can put this out if it’s bothering you.”
And then things took a turn for the weird. “No no no! We are happy to move and allow you your space to smoke your cigarettes,” the woman cried again. And then, after an ominous pause she went on, “I’m just worried for you. You are so beautiful and you’re just going to ruin those looks with smoking. You really should quit. It’s a terrible habit. I’m only thinking of you.” My friend thanked her and promised she was going to quit soon. She then tried again, a third time, to make the women stay at the next table. “I’m putting out my cigarette right now!” she promised. But they were already halfway across the patio. “You go ahead and smoke! We’re outside and there’s plenty of space! It’s your day!” She was now shouting across the width of the large patio. “IT’S YOUR DAY!”
We watched them resettle themselves at their new table for a moment, then I turned back to my friend and reminded her that it was her day. “Well, this entire situation has been bizarre from beginning to end,” I said. We agreed that it was fascinating to note the range of reactions—from stiff disapproval to utter incomprehension—to M.’s desire to smoke a cigarette outside, an activity that was completely socially acceptable within our own memories (and we’re not ancient). I remember smoking on an airplane, for pity’s sake. Don’t get me wrong—I am completely behind the society-wide condemnation of smoking, and I really do hope that M. quits again soon. (Partly out of concern, partly out of self-interest, and partly out of my deep solicitude for her beauty.) But it was definitely an intriguing sociological experiment to see how far we’ve come in such a short time—to the point where a restaurant hostess at a wine bar in the Deep South does not seem familiar with the custom.
We had a lovely talk at our breezy outdoor table on the patio at the wine bar in the Deep South. Mostly we drank and enjoyed some delicious tapas, and M. had maybe two cigarettes over the course of a couple of hours. We were still lingering, enjoying that loungy post-food, pre-bill interlude where things are winding down but you’re not quite ready to pay up and leave,1 when we became aware that our former next-table neighbor had materialized before us. “I just want to let you know,” she began in a pleasant and measured voice. Oh here we go! I thought. She’s going to apologize for making a big deal about the smoking thing earlier. I started arranging my face into a Please Don’t Worry About It expression. “I want to let you know that you ruined our evening.” We stared at her in horror. “We are leaving early because your smoke is unbearable. We would have stayed longer and enjoyed one another’s company some more but we are forced to leave early because of you. You ruined our evening,” she repeated. “I just wanted you to know that.”
M. started apologizing as fast as the physical constraints of human speech production would allow. “Oh no! I feel terrible! Why didn’t you say something? I would have been happy to put out my cigarette!”
And that is when we were walloped by The South.
“I have nothing but love for you,” the older woman pronounced to a person she had never met and whom she was attempting to publicly humiliate. “I have nothing but love, but I just wanted you to know that you’ve ruined everything.”
“I ... I’m so sorry,” M. mumbled again.
“Nothing but love,” the other woman said a third time. “I’m only thinking of you.”
She turned on her heel and stomped off, and M. and I sat for a moment in shock.
“I am not 100% sure,” my friend finally said, breaking the silence, “that that woman feels nothing but love for me.”
Both our waiter and the manager of the restaurant appeared before us to apologize. “We are so very sorry you were treated so rudely,” they reassured us. “That was completely uncalled for.” Our waiter told us that the other women had been griping for the past hour about how much they were suffering from the cigarette smoke four tables away, bending the ear of their server and anyone else who would listen. “I don’t like to complain about a table to other customers,” he insisted. “But wow....They would not shut up about it. It was really unpleasant.”
I glanced over at the table where the older women had sat for nearly two hours eating and drinking even though they were being subjected to the tortures of the damned. It was a solid 40 feet away. I also noticed that there was a portable mini-fan sitting on the table, the kind of thing people carry around to cool themselves off in the summer, which had been provided by the restaurant. As I regarded this set-up, noting that any molecule of smoke that had reached their nostrils from my friend’s cigarette would have had to violate the known laws of physics, I came to the inescapable conclusion that they had decided to ruin their own evening. They had clearly gone out of their way to manufacture a state of outrage because they wanted, above all else, to feel aggrieved. They enjoyed the hell out of their anger. Which would have been fine—far be it from me to begrudge anyone else their guilty pleasures; some of us have cigarettes and booze and others of us enjoy the occasional episode of righteous indignation—except for the fact that they needed to rope some innocent* bystanders into their psychodrama.
Before I go any further, please let me reassure any readers currently feeling their own righteous indignation on behalf of the tortured women that I have nothing but sympathy for their desire not to be assaulted by cigarette smoke. Even though we were outside, even though they were forty feet away, even though they had a mini-fan on their table, I absolutely affirm their right to decide that M.’s smoke was bothering them, and I know she would have been happy to refrain in order to accommodate them. How do I know that? The same way that they did: because she announced it, clearly and repeatedly, in straightforward English sentences and at an adequate volume.
Given that the women preferred to nurse their grievance rather than accept a sincere offer to stub out an offending cigarette, one can only conclude that they found the grievance absolutely delicious. The Special Mississippi Twist—the reason I suggested we were walloped by The South—is merely the regional form that the women’s passive-aggression took: “Nothing but love! I am thinking of only of you.” (The “nothing but love” line is an even more specific subset of Southern passive-aggression, uttered mainly by observant Christians who believe they are patterning their every action—including being mean as shit—after the actions of their Lord and Savior.) But the passive-aggression itself is certainly universal. While someone from L.A. or Philly or Saskatoon would dress it up differently, the impulse to set traps for our fellow human beings and then delight in feeling wronged when they unavoidably spring them comes from a deeper place than mere, well, place.
When I was in grad school I dated a woman who wanted to introduce me to her mother after we’d been together for a few months. I was really nervous about the meeting—I’d heard stories about L.’s mother, a woman of steely resolve and implacable demeanor who’d been knocked up by an American soldier in Vietnam and moved alone to the U.S. to raise her baby daughter on her own. L.’s stories had made it clear that she was fiercely protective of her daughter and utterly convinced that no one was good enough for her. I was terrified.
We met at a fancy restaurant in Chicago, and after the introductions and preliminary chit-chat, L.’s mom asked me to choose the wine from the menu the waiter had just brought. I immediately began to sweat. I was in my mid-twenties, I knew nothing about wine, and I was terrified I was about to make a complete fool of myself. Should I choose something expensive or something cheap? (I could imagine scenarios in which both choices were wrong.) Imported or American? Was either one symbolic somehow? I had no idea what she liked! It was paralyzing.
I decided to begin with an easy question. “Red or white?”
“Either one!” L.’s mom replied.
“Are you sure...?” I asked. “I prefer white myself but I’m happy with red too!”
“I am indifferent. You choose. I am fine with either.”
I tried again. “What dish are you getting? We could decide that way.”
“I haven’t decided yet. But it won’t matter—you just pick whichever you like better.”
“Okay,” I said doubtfully, and tried to hedge my bets by ordering a medium-priced California red.
The waiter brought the bottle and dragged me through the excruciating ritual of approving a taste from the bottle. Again, I was in my 20s and had no experience with wine. I felt like I was performing an improv skit as I swirled, sniffed, and sipped.
I nodded at the waiter that it tasted fine, and he filled L.’s glass. Then he went to pour some for L.’s mother, at which point she shot her hand out between the bottle and the top of her wineglass—a microsecond later and there would have been red wine all over her wrist and the tablecloth—and sternly informed the waiter that under no circumstances could she drink red wine, as it gave her a terrible headache.
I prayed for a nuclear munition to strike downtown Chicago and bring the sweet relief of death.
Why? Why why why? Decades have passed in which I’ve pondered this moment, and still so many questions remain. Was there actually a right answer? If I’d ordered Chardonnay, would L.’s mom have been happy, or would she then have announced to the waiter that white wine gave her impetigo? Why did she keep her constitutional inability to metabolize red wine a freaking secret? Was the whole exchange an arcane ritual to see if I could decode the subtle signals she was sending me and thus prove myself worthy of L.? Was she a Freemason, or perhaps in a cult? Did she not understand that she was mortifying not only me, but also her beloved daughter?
Obviously the whole thing was a set-up—one might even call it a trap—and the prey was not so much me as it was the feeling of being wronged. Consciously or unconsciously she wanted to feel aggrieved, just like the women on the patio the other day, and I was merely a shadow puppet in a moving little drama starring her as an injured party.
I get it, I really do. Deeply have I drunk of the bittersweet draught of masochistic pleasure after a betrayal, whether grave or slight, real or imagined. There is something absolutely delectable about nursing one’s wounds while muttering under one’s breath in a darkened room—it’s the pleasure of poking a sore tooth with your tongue, or pressing on a fresh bruise to see if it still sends little sparks before your eyes. But it’s not just about self-flagellation; it’s more about a feeling of being right about XYZ after all. Because nothing—nothing—is more satisfying than having your world view affirmed, even if your world view is that everyone is out to get you.
I remember the first time I saw a sitcom episode in which a parent followed a teenager who’d flounced off to his room in a huff and thrown himself down on the bed. The mom sat down beside her son and smoothed his ruffled hair while he cried. I was genuinely confused by this scene. Never once in my household had such a thing happened—I didn’t even know that it was a thing that could happen. In my family, if you flounced off you were left alone by yourself in the dark for hours, until you swallowed your pride and came back downstairs to apologize. In theory, I suppose one might remain sobbing in the dark until one turned into dust.
My parents were stubborn, and while I was, too, the food was all downstairs. It was a great preparation for reading Jane Eyre, but maybe not such a great preparation for life. To this day I feel that everything is just right when someone abandons or betrays me; it’s like the other shoe has finally dropped and I can relax into familiar grief. Only untold hours of therapy have given me a slight toehold against the overwhelming tide of painful pleasure I know awaits me in that dark room. What sweet relief it is to let go into rightness, even as you try to remind yourself that a sweeter relief will come after crawling downstairs to rejoin humanity.
Maybe there will be some cake left. Or a nice glass of white wine. Or a couple of cigarettes nestled side-by-side in the pack.
If we had been back in the era when people really smoked, this would be the point at which we’d start stubbing out cigarettes in the greasy remnants of our crab dip. But we’ve all come a long way since then.