Alternate Universes and Cigarettes

Islanded in a stream of consciousness

There’s an alternate universe where I started smoking cigarettes in high school, and there’s this universe—the one where my lungs are tobacco-free. Smoking cigarettes, at least among the people I know, is a faux paus. “How could anybody willingly do that to themselves? You have to be an idiot to smoke cigarettes,” a friend of mine always asks when he sees a smoker. When he was eight his father died of lung cancer.

Anti-smoking sentiment isn’t unique to him though; our generation grew up with it. Anti-Smoking PSAs littered after school programming.

“Smoking is for losers.”

“Say no to drugs. Stay in school.”

The police officer who taught P.R.I.D.E. (my school’s dollar-store version of D.A.R.E.), who told us not to smoke cigarettes, smoked cigarettes. There was a “Smoker’s Corner” in my high school—a corner across the street from the school where all the smokers hung out before and after school to light up. These kids were the “cool” kids. But they were also the “bad” kids, bad because they decided to relieve stress with burning tar and nicotine.

Back then I was, what they call in professional wrestling slang, a mark. I believed whatever I was told. Smoking was bad. Only bad people smoked. Do your homework. Listen to teachers.

In tenth grade, I realized it was all bullshit. I became a Bart Simpson-esque character—I was a class clown but not popular per se. People still bullied me from time to time and I had no chance with any girls because I was such a loser, as clever as my antics were. Maybe taking the long walk to the smoker’s corner would’ve alleviated that problem? Maybe all I needed to become popular was a pack of cigarettes? We like to say that high school doesn’t matter but it does. Most of us are destined for a shitty life. At least the popular kids in high schools got to be living gods for four years. Perhaps cigarettes had a small part in that.

I didn’t let the lessons learned here stick though, because I became a mark for college once I graduated high school. I went there thinking it was worth something, that your GPA actually mattered, that what you learned mattered—the whole works.

After I graduated, I realized how much of a fool I had been. College is worthless. Literature and history are worthless unless ordered off Amazon at discount prices. Degrees are for suckers. Hard work is for suckers too, because I worked my ass off to achieve every goal I ever had, and fell short at every single one.

I know quite a few people who smoke, are younger than me or the same age, and have more success than I ever will. If I smoked cigarettes, could I have been them? Smoking cigarettes didn’t make them bad, just like not smoking cigarettes didn’t make me good. Each cigarette I don’t smoke doesn’t help me in any conceivable way. Not smoking only helps me avert a death I’m not dreading too much anyway.

When confronted with my failures, I say to myself, “I should’ve been smoking the whole time.”

I don’t have my health (long story; permanent health issues related to past injuries). And I don’t have a personal life, or a career. So what detriment would cigarettes have been to me?

Obviously, smoking isn’t a panacea and there are legitimate health risks. And I’m not saying that cigarettes make people successful. Cigarettes, to me, represent everything that society tells you not to do. I didn’t smoke cigarettes, which meant I listened to conventional wisdom—the same conventional wisdom that lead our generation, and me, astray.

“Smoking is for winners,” the PSAs should’ve said.

“Say yes to drugs. Don’t stay in school.”

When I say I should’ve been smoking cigarettes, what I mean is I should’ve done the opposite of everything I did. I should’ve smoked. I should’ve been disrespectful and outspoken. I shouldn’t have gone to college. Most importantly, I shouldn’t have written on the Internet, because writing is unhealthier than inhaling cancer.

Writing is cigarettes. Each rejection is a tumor in your lungs. After so many, you’ll be pathetically gasping for air, but still addicted to expression and exposure. “Just one more and I’ll quit.”

Writing is a drug. It’s addictive, destructive, and each day it puts you through the highs of mania and the lows of dementia. When you first write, the high of simply getting published lasts weeks. Then it lasts days, then you become numb to it. It becomes so banal it offers nothing. “So what? Lots of people get published. I want to get paid. I want a career.”

You need something new to find euphoria, so you pitch to bigger sites and create more ambitious projects.

If these succeed, you’ll get your fix but then keep looking for more; a writer’s ego is never satiated. If these fail, you’ll become a junkie. You’ll do anything to recapture just a fraction of what you felt when you first got published—that feeling of “I’m a writer. I’m a real writer.”

I spent most of my adolescence on Internet forums. I had no friends, and my parents took no interest in me. My father wrote me off as a lost cause since I had no aptitude for athletics, and my mother was oblivious to anything and everything. Forums were my salvation, and stayed that way for some time. Thus, I was elated when my favorite MMA website opened a forum in 2008. A few months after the forum launched, the site offered the most prolific, well-spoken poster there (who was a restaurant manager in real life), a staff job. He has since become one of MMA’s most prominent journalists.

One poster doubted this decision.

“I’d much rather be a manager of a big, successful restaurant over a writer,” he wrote in the thread announcing the restaurant manager’s ascent into writer-dom.

Back then, I couldn’t understand how anybody could think that. Nearly six years later, I can.

To make another reference to professional wrestling (I make these references because pro wrestling was a tremendously important part of my life as a kid, before the Internet): There’s an infamous moment in pro wrestling history where WWF (now WWE) champion Shawn Michaels “lost his smile.” Basically, he claimed he had a career ending injury and couldn’t wrestle anymore. His injury forced him to vacate the title and “lose his smile” because his future was so bleak. This was all bullshit, but not because it was part of the storyline. Michaels wasn’t hurt. He faked the injury so that he didn’t have to drop the belt to his hated rival, which he was scheduled to do.

But I lost my smile for real in 2013; winter came for me, and it’s still snowing. That’s why I can now understand why someone wouldn’t want to be a writer.

Maybe my smile is in another universe though. A universe where carcinogenic love has infected my lungs, throat and gums. Where my smile is yellow, my teeth are stained with tar and ammonia. Where cigarettes have propelled me into the success I worked for in this universe but couldn’t have.

I want to smoke a cigarette and have the universe split in two. Maybe this time I’ll wind up on the right side.

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Photo via Abdullah Najeeb.

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I write articles. Wikipedia cited me. I wrote an eBook that college kids might plagiarize from. @mattsaccaro