Shannon Frost Greenstein: An Open Letter to That Guy with the Cigarette

Dear Guy with the Cigarette,

How I resent you. How you taunt me. How I’m tempted to trail after you on the streets of Philadelphia, regardless of my original destination, just to catch a whiff of that sweet perfume wafting from the beautifully illuminated end of your cigarette. It is perfect in form and function, an extension of your hand. It calls to me as the One Ring beckoned Gollum, sweetly singing a tune of bodily desires and psychological seduction. Guy with the Cigarette, you walk the walk of the privileged, your smoldering companion resting between your fingers, ready and willing to see to your every tobacco need.

My comrade in nicotine, I understand you fully. I, too, used to smoke. It’s been many years since I quit, an extensive process involving a fair amount of backsliding and all-encompassing mourning. However, my life as a smoker remains fresh in my memory, a period of several post-collegiate years chasing the dragon of that first puff. I wasn’t just a smoker – I was a CHAIN smoker, thank you very much. I inhaled that smoke like a scuba diver sucking down the last of his oxygen, completely reliant upon the pungent fumes and in complete denial of that fact.

Guy with the Cigarette, why do you tease me? With your very inhalations, you exclude me from the fraternity you and your kind inhabit, those who have mastered suave Zippo tricks and smoke rings, while I mope on the sidelines with old nicotine gum lying in my handbag like a curse. Wouldn’t you agree that smoking fosters a kind of camaraderie between members of the tribe, kindred spirits able to share in a calming routine of hand-to-mouth and back again, forever friends linked by the delicious nectar that only smokers can enjoy? You mock my willpower with the cigarette tucked between your lips and I stare after you as you walk away, shooting invisible daggers into your smoke-filled lungs.

Do you know why I begrudge you, sir? It’s because I miss it. Yes, that’s right, I’ll admit it loud and proud – I miss smoking. When I had a cigarette, I was never alone. I never had to look at my watch in a bar every five minutes, pretending I was waiting for someone when I was really just self-conscious about being alone in public. I wasn’t the wallflower standing in the corner or loitering outside – No, I was SMOKING. Leaning out of a doorway, looking coolly apathetic about the human condition, I felt untouchable. If only you could have seen me! Smoking was companionship when I was lonely, moral support when I was down, and a security blanket in times of stress. Guy with the Cigarette, I resent you for enjoying that which I have, for some reason, willingly sacrificed.

I feel it’s an act of blasphemy to admit that a cigarette can be something pleasurable. I’m supposed to be a convert, a savage who has since accepted a smoke-free Jesus with the help of non-smoking missionaries. I’m on the wagon, subject to the judgment of other former smokers who preach the glory of conversion from their lofty high horses. In their view, I taint the reputation of ex-smokers with the clandestine cancer sticks I keep in my glove box for extreme emergencies.

My smoking friend, you would never judge me, would you? Despite my bitterness, I feel that you, and you alone, can understand my latent yearnings for a single puff, the three years I struggled to quit be damned.

Guy with the Cigarette, has it occurred to you that perhaps, in a different time and a different place, we may have stood next to each other with our cigarettes, sharing the same noxious air? Do you think we could have been friends? Would you have bent over to light my cigarette if I had no matches, your eyes illuminated by the flickering fire, wondering, as I always did, if lighting someone else’s smoke means you’ll have an easier time getting into their bed?

All this and more would I like to shout after you as we drift by one another in the harsh sunlight, you so regal with the ring of smoke circling your head, me staring a hole in your cigarette hand like a voyeur. Were I able to squash my resentment and had I the courage to break through the urban anonymity that keeps us in separate spheres on the street, I know just what I would say to you.

‘Hey…can I bum a cigarette?’

I Have the Honor to Be Your Obedient Servant,

Shannon Frost Greenstein

Shannon Frost Greenstein resides in Philadelphia with her children and soulmate, who keep things from descending into cat-lady territory. She harbors an unhealthy interest in Mount Everest, Hamilton, and the Summer Olympics. Find her work in McSweeney’s Internet TendencyScary MommySlippage Lit and more.