When cigarette smoke enters your mouth the lining in your nose and esophagus will almost immediately become red and irritated. This is because of the chemicals in the cigarettes. You may begin to cough. The good bacteria in your mouth will begin to die, this will make your mouth dry and your breath bad. The back of your mouth may begin to itch. For extended users, the tar and heat from the cigarette may miscolor your gums, teeth and lips. Puckering the lip of the cigarette will cause wrinkles and fine lines to appear around your lips. Over time, these wrinkles may grow more prominent and brown spots may develop from the discoloration.
I was in Year 13 when I smoked my first cigarette. It was at a house party and I was with Matthew (goes by Fang). He took me to my first house party where I didn’t know anyone there and didn’t drink since I had to drive home. I sat on the playground at the house and talked to mostly Fang and some of his best friends. It’s the first, and only, time when I’d been at a house party where an ambulance had to be called. A girl there had been stumbling around and didn’t get back up. I presume she ended up okay. But I don’t recall ever asking Fang. Instead, I recall leaning against a tree in the driveway and smoking a cigarette that he gave me. Then, I recall sitting in the front seat with Fang next to me, while he smoked out the window and I showed him the kind of music that I liked. I should have been offended, but wasn’t at the time, when he was surprised that we had similar music tastes and I ended up with his phone writing down names of the songs. I must have spent most of the Summer between Year 12 and 13 with Fang.
It was pretty classic, how we met. I was working in a cafe and he came in and had a walk around. While I was behind the counter, we got to talking and I smiled as he left and I thought I’d never see him again. Then, two days later he came back in, only this time I think he was with his best mate. I gave them pies for free since they were going to get chucked out anyway at the end of the day and we chatted some more and I learned that he was from Waihi College. Only he wasn’t studying right now, if I recall correctly, he might have been expelled. However, I’m not convinced that I’m getting that story all right. Or that he wasn’t just trying to impress me when he said it. Anyways, he left with his mate again and I joked would I see him again in another two days? And he said yeah. And just like that, two days later Fang was back and I was taking a break to go for a walk with him. It was cut short since I had to go back to work, but I told him he was alright and gave him my number, or social media, or whatever.
Fang drove this massive for-wheel-drive truck, and he had a name for her but I cannot recall what it was. It took me a while to warm up, but he started driving me around places and we’d go to Waihi and get takeaways, or go for a walk and watch the sunset around Bowentown or find a waterhole. I showed him the track past Dicky’s Flat which leads through a cave and to a waterhole. I made him carry a massive chilly bin filled with ice cream and ate it with the pizza he brought after a swim. If I look up Fang on Facebook now, his profile picture is still one that I took of him on one of our adventures. Fang would smoke, and sometimes he’d give one of the cigarettes to me and I’d take a couple of puffs then hand them back. To this day, I’ve still never bought a pack.
After 20 or so minutes, the nicotine enters your bloodstream and increases your pulse and blood pressure. It reduces your sense of smell and because nicotine is stimulant, your brain releases feel-good chemicals or makes you hungry. If you don’t fulfill this need, you’ll feel irritable and anxious. Sometimes, you’ll get mood swings. Mucus will start to coat the insides of your lungs for protection.
During my First Year of University smoking became a social thing. It was paired with drinking or going to town or clubbing. I’d go to the front of the club/bar/venue I was at with whoever in my group had cigarettes with them and smoke and chat and socialize. Oftentimes, it was a way to meet new people. Someone always needed a lighter or someone was in a corner smoking by themselves and it was a good way to break ice or join in the conversation. I met Bailey a night like that, we’d known each other through one scene or another and started properly talking at a gig. Outside, on the street she asked me if I had a lighter and I pulled out a Zippo and lit up her hand rolled cigarette for her. Bailey told me she’d stolen the tobacco from her ex and I smoked most of the pack with her. She told me he’d been trying to quit anyway so really she was doing him a favor and I decided not to care that every second sentence was about him.
Bailey drove this little red car and she took me home after that first night we’d met and asked me if she could stay over. I told her nah, but still spent the night in her car making out with her. We spent hours sitting next to each other, and we started talking about life and poetry and other things and the car windshield got all fogged up. I read her poetry slightly blurrily from my phone and she did the same back and showed me stuff from a little hand-written notebook that she kept with her. Later, Bailey would lend me a poetry book and I left little sticky note annotations all over it before I gave it back to her. She told me that she didn’t realize I had left them until she was with a friend later, and the friend had teased her about them but she didn’t care.
Bailey’s cigarette pouch was empty when she drove us to Staglands together. She once told me that her ex hated animals so never wanted to go there, though they adopted a cat together so I don’t know how true that was. But when she told me that I asked her so when are we going? And at the start, she didn’t believe me. But we drove out and I made friends with a Pukeko that let us scratch it. And there’s a video on her phone of me attempting to pat a swan, only as my hand gets close to it it leaps up and tries to bite me and you can hear Bailey's laughter in the background. On the way back from Staglands we stopped at the graveyard so that Bailey could visit her mother and she told me about the hospital and the cancer. And when I got out of Bailey's car I dropped my lighter. And I didn’t get that lighter back for almost a year after I broke things off with her.
Eight to 48 hours after smoking a cigarette the nicotine and carbon monoxide will finally start to leave your system. The excess mucus costing your lungs will begin to drain. It takes a full two days to train all of the nicotine out of your system and for your senses of taste and smell to return to normal again. Smoking makes it harder for your blood to circulate, so exercising and other physical activity may leave you more winded than usual for a further amount of days.
I decided to slow down on the cigarettes after I started dating Ronan. She didn’t like the smell on my clothes or kissing me when there was nicotine on my breath. She said it reminded her of work, but that I could keep doing it if I wanted to. Just that it wasn’t her preference. I started chewing gum and keeping lower nicotine cartridges in my vape. At work, I’d smoke if anyone offered me a cigarette, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to find one. One of the best moments I had at work was when it was about 3am and I was on a glassy run. I didn’t even have my hands free, they were stacked up with pints and plastic’s and one of my friends who was smoking outside offered me a puff. When I couldn’t grab it they simply put the cigarette in my mouth, gave me a puff, then let me go on with my night. That image remains vivid to this day in my mind.
I was doing pretty well at easing off the cigarettes too, that was until I switched to my new job. Suddenly the work was harder and I was more out of my depth than ever and I needed something to take the edge off how it was such a fast pace. One of my coworkers would frequently offer me cigarettes on the close of the shift and I’d frequently accept. I started coming home late at night smelling of cigarette smoke and not saying hi to Ronan until I’d had a shower and taken my clothes off. She pretended not to mind, but I think she did. At Ivy, we’d nick packs that we saw unattended from the tables. At Library, one of my coworkers would always have a pouch or spliff or Winfield’s handy.
I’d started slowly weaning myself off them again late last year, when I realized they weren’t doing anything for me anymore. Just giving me headaches or a bad taste. I guess I smoked my last cigarette on New Year's day. When I realized I wasn’t enjoying smoking them, just the feeling. I guess I realized that I wasn’t smoking for the taste, or headspins, or whatever. I realized I was using them as an excuse to come home late or damage something. I was using the cigarettes as an excuse to avoid Ronan and talking about what I needed in our relationship. So I guess I made a choice on New Years, and she wasn’t the thing that I was willing to give up.
A lifetime of smoking causes irreversible damage to your lungs and airways. It increases your risk of heart attack or strokes and can lead to cancer in more body parts than I care to list off. It also increases your risk of vision loss, heading loss, eye disease and muscular degeneration. It makes muscles tire more easily, make wounds harder to heal and make skin become dull and wrinkled.
The other night, while doing a rockstar shift at Ivy, Ronan came in and exclaimed loudly, to not just me, but all of the other people around us, that cigarettes taste goOOoOoOOOdddddddddd and I laughed at her and her long-covid-asthma lungs in that moment. Later, after the bar had been closed and one of the workers there showed off the cigarettes that he had swiped from a customer, he offered me one and I said no. Instead, I sat on the bar counter and talked to the manager as the smoke from their cigarettes swirled around us and I got just enough in my lungs to taste.
Today, while walking down Cuba street someone in front of me was smoking a cigarette. It caught on the wind and drifted back to me. And for the first time in my life, it didn’t smell appealing.
Phoebe Robertson is a poet currently studying in Poneke, Aotearoa. Her work has previously appeared in Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, Mayhem Literacy Journal, Literacy Orphans, Fingers Comma Toes Journal, Salient, National Flash Fiction and Young NZ Writers. When not studying, she can be found bartending.