The first time I put a cigar in my mouth, I was afraid to light it. In my memory it smelled as strong as tar, and there was so much nicotine in the black cylinder that just holding the end in my mouth made my tongue prickle. I’d begged a few cigarettes from my friends in college, but they were nothing like this.
After an abortive attempt to figure out how to light it and puff on it enough to keep it that way -- ”Kiss it”, my friend Steven told me, which made no sense at the time -- I gave up with a sense of relief. His girlfriend, who had smoked half a cigar, got so sick from it that she had to go lay down. I was glad I’d been able to avoid that kind of embarrassment, much as how I’d been happy to avoid making a fool of myself by trying to do things like play football or solder circuitry.
But vices, much like sexual fantasies, have a way of evolving. A year ago I decided to push myself by trying all the things that I’d been hesitant to do before -- mostly things, I realized, which were coded “male.” They boy-gatekeepers at my high school had done their best to bore me away from them, but with the help of the geek girls of Tumblr I was able to re-discover comic books and RPGs.
At some point, I began to push my boundaries even more, and began looking curiously at three-piece suits, weightlifters magazines, and under car hoods.
Steven, who’d been there for my first puff, declared that he could help me after I told him about my cigar failure. He took me to a cigar shop and showed me how the cigars’ color, varying from light brown to almost black, reflected the tobacco’s potency. My first cigar had been so strong that even some experienced smokers would have had trouble with it!
I chose a light tan cigar, and he showed me how to cut off the head -- but not too far -- and how to light it properly by holding it just in front of the flame and turning it in order to “toast” it evenly. Don’t take it into your lungs, he told me, just hold the smoke in your mouth... and then I realized I could taste it.
Cigar smoke, like wine, can swirl with dozens of different flavors. I’m still a beginner, and have really only tasted less than 20 kinds of cigars, but I’ve had ones that reminded me of nicotine-laced honey, black earth, burnt toast, and seaweed. (Steven, hilariously, told me he likes his cigars to taste a little bit like cardboard, but adds that this flavor is only good in a cigar.)
Also like wine, cigar tobacco tastes differently depending on the country it comes from and the earth it’s grown in, and I can only lament the fact that fear of clogging up my lungs means I won’t be able to try them all.
I found that I loved the little names for the parts of the cigar -- “head” for the rounded end you suck the smoke through and “cherry” for the red coal once it’s lit -- and how smoking also gives you an excuse to spit, either over the railing or right on the ground. (This isn’t so much just to be gross but a necessity, in that it allows you to expel the tobacco juices that would otherwise sour your stomach. This is also partly why my friend got sick earlier: She didn’t spit.)
I also love that there’s really no fast way to smoke a cigar. Even the smallest ones require you to sit down for at least 30 minutes and enjoy the day or the company. Steven and I started smoking on his porch whenever I visited, and would talk about our jobs, swap relationship advice, or just try to blow smoke rings.
It’s only when I started smoking alone -- and in public -- that the problems started. Cigars, apparently, were so strongly coded as something only boys did that they made me visible in a way that my most outrageous fashion choices couldn’t, and I hadn’t realized the reactions I’d be getting without Steven’s six-foot presence to serve as a buffer for me.
Here, without further ado, are the best of a week’s worth of comments:
1. “You go girl! High five!”
This was amusing, and understandable -- DC isn’t really a cigar town from what I’ve seen -- but it also felt strange to be wildly praised just for smoking. This should have been my first hint that more was coming.
2. “Is that a man, or a woman?”
Granted, it was dark on the balcony and I was wearing a vest, but I was also standing 10 feet away from this person. No one should have to hear loud commentary demanding to know what the fuck they are, but it’s particularly disconcerting to hear it when you’re on the balcony of a gay bar.
It’s even worse when there’s only three people on the balcony, counting yourself, so you have no doubt who the two guys in the corner are talking about.
3. “Are you a lesbian?”
This was to my face, and also on the balcony of the gay bar. However, I was also there for an all-orientations happy hour that I’ve been going to for the past four years, and going out on the balcony to get some air and play Angry Birds for a moment had never gotten me this question. No matter what orientation I am, it’s still none of your business.
4. “I’m surprised you don’t get more Monica Lewinsky jokes.”
I can’t even comment on this one.
4. “Oh honey, that’s not how you light it!”
Yes it is, fucker.
This one still makes me angry. Maybe that’s not so irrational, since he then came over and stuck his (lit!) lighter in my face -- and I let him, because I was trying to hold myself back from decking him for both not knowing what he was talking about and being in my personal space. (He later topped himself by making nasty comments about fat people and trans people.)
After around four weeks of this, I was just about done. In what I vowed was to be my last time smoking outside alone, I went on the balcony and lit up, only to discover that rain was starting to pitter-pat on the awning.
I felt a deep calm move through me, just like it’s supposed to when you listen to those tapes of rainfall and whale noises. I was sheltered from the wind and wet, and could sit warm and content in my wool coat while everyone else would step outside for a few quick drags and then hurry back in, shivering.
After a moment of sipping smoke and Jack Daniels, I realized that, all unknowing, I’d reached a kind of smoker’s Nirvana. A sip of the warm whiskey, a draw on what turned out to be one of the smoothest cigars I’d ever smoked, and soon I was happily floating as I listened to the rain.
And best of all, no one said anything to me at all.