by Alice Whiting
I started smoking when I was 21. I was living in London and made friends with an Italian girl who smoked religiously.
The first moment I ever saw her when I arrived for my first day of film school, she was sitting outside alone smoking one of her long, white cigarettes. Her hair was pulled back into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, her thick eyebrows furrowed as she concentrated on something unknown. She would bring the cigarette to her mouth and reveal chipped red varnish on her fingernails which matched the colour on her lips.
It turned out we were born on the same day, in the same year. We weren’t that similar. She liked listening to Maria Callas. I liked Johnny Cash. I would tell her about the relationship I was in and how my boyfriend disapproved of my clothes, my hair, my friends, my art coursework, my university; ‘Basta,’ she would say in Italian, drawing a sharp line in the air with her cigarette; ‘Enough.’
My decision to begin smoking was a deliberate act of self-sabotage. I remember this clearly. At the time I was nursing my newly broken heart, missing the sweet salt air of my home town and all the dramas that came with it. Weekends in London when I first moved to the city consisted of long nights alone, slowly rebuilding my sense of self and purpose by watching movies borrowed from the university library. Pretty Woman, Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, Vivre Sa Vie, Breathless. To all of these films, I sat at my window and smoked Camel Lights, losing myself in cinema, finding new inspirations, new possibilities and the sense of a new personality. Studying film and smoking cigarettes seemed to go hand in hand. Along with wearing only black, writing extremely upsetting poetry and eating very little out of choice; all of these things I did to heal myself, to transform myself from a lovesick person in a relentless state of mourning, into a new human being. It worked. I changed from being weak to being strong. I no longer felt insecure, I started to wear a lot of pink, I felt beautiful. I fell in love again. I travelled all over the world and in all of the places I went, whenever I felt lost or frightened or insecure I pulled out my Camel Lights or my Lucky Sevens or my Lucky Strikes and I smoked one. As I blew out the smoke and watched it rise into a foreign sky I felt empowered.
My favourite time to smoke a cigarette was after I had dressed myself up for a night out.
When I was going through my black leather mini skirt, fish net tights and fluffy white roll neck phase, I would finish off the outfit with straightened hair, bright red lipstick and a cigarette in celebration of the whole thing. The celebration of the outfit cigarette would be smoked at home, the second with the addition of a leopard-print coat as I walked to the station and the third as I stood waiting for the train.
These were my own private moments where I indulged feelings of vanity or contemplation; I would gaze at the lipstick-stained cigarette between my fingers and blow my thoughts out in a slow plume of hypnotic smoke.
Other popular times for cigarettes would be right after I had just seen an especially good movie. When a love interest called or didn’t call. After I had just eaten an amazing meal. In the morning before work, at lunch time and then on the way home from work. Excessive cigarette consumption would begin after a bad day. I would get a couple of beers and listen to Johnny Cash on repeat and smoke my way through a whole packet, descending into a drunk, smoke-filled haze which took me back to those early, lonely days when I first moved to the city. It was after these moments that I began to understand that there was a connection between cigarettes and my heart. For years I had been using cigarettes to conjure up a smoke screen which suppressed my loss.
The combination of Johnny Cash and cigarettes became a ritual in itself. I would sit with the songs, reminiscing over a time that had long passed. The act of smoking seemed to give the activity purpose. Neck a beer, smoke a cigarette, listen to the words in song that transported me back in time to a period which I could not forget. As the years went by and each new love affair was eclipsed by a newer acquisition, when all the tears for the most recent attempt had been shed my hand would move as if possessed and the same songs would begin to play on repeat again. Always back to Johnny Cash.
“Studying film and smoking cigarettes seemed to go hand in hand. Along with wearing only black, writing extremely upsetting poetry and eating very little out of choice.”
The decision to quit smoking came after my best friend’s father was diagnosed with throat cancer. I stopped outright, thinking how could I face her with a cigarette in my hand? Throughout our lives she had always been the one who vehemently protested my smoking. Now her father was sick from it. Eight years since I started, eight years of London life, eight years of smoking away a pain that had finally started to ease with the beginning of a solid new relationship.
The first few weeks without cigarettes had me dreaming of my ex-boyfriend. The one who had driven me into a grief which lasted longer than I could have ever imagined. It was as if a bandage had been ripped off my heart. I suddenly had nothing to hide behind anymore. In my dreams I was confronted with the memory of his face, his voice, our past.
I woke each morning weeping, holding my face in my hands until a realisation suddenly dawned on me: it didn’t actually hurt anymore.
As if some kind of flood gate hand been lifted, positive memories started streaming back to me. Memories of when I was 17 and used to dance in the kitchen in the morning before college. The clothes I used to make, the songs I listened to as I drove my parents’ car, the dreams I used to have. In shutting out painful memories I had accidentally cut out an important part of my self too.
I used to think that life was easier when I was younger because I was less afraid. But life only became harder as I got older because my experiences made me uncertain.
Letting go of cigarettes allowed me to let go of my past.
I don’t listen to Johnny Cash much anymore. I have no cigarettes and at last, no regrets.
Alice Whiting | Instagram: @alicedelicious
Alice Whiting is a London-based stylist and creative writer. Her work has recently been published in the New River Press Year Book anthology and She is Fierce magazine, as well as being iced onto cakes for an exhibition of prints currently on show at Palm Vaults in Hackney.
The illustration for ‘Saying Goodbye to Cigarettes and Johnny Cash’ is by Lilly Pollard. Find more of Lilly’s work on Instagram: @lillys_pad_