It has been a number of years since I had a cigarette. I was never a committed smoker – I find it hard to form habits, either good or bad – and some years ago my partner was trying to give up so I stopped too and sort of lost the taste for it. Now it seems an odd thing to do, neither enjoyable nor particularly cool, more nauseous than naughty, but this story is by way of explaining why I smoked a cigarette on Sunday morning when it was the very last thing I wanted to do.
On Saturday night I went to a wedding on the island of Cyprus. It was twinkly and lovely and outdoors with the sound of the ocean distantly through the pine trees, but I didn’t really know anyone there. I was seated at a long table between two strangers. One was a Palestinian industrial designer who lives in Montreal. Oscar Wilde once defined a bore as someone who, when you ask how they are, tells you, but that is only because he never made the mistake of idly asking the stranger beside him at a wedding what an industrial designer does.
Finally I managed to break the death-grip of that conversation and turned to my right. She was a Swede who has lived in New York for sixteen years and runs suicide prevention courses for teens in Australia. By now I was now an older and wiser man so refrained from asking more, although I did wonder aloud about the wisdom of interfering with nature’s way of controlling the number of Australians in the world. She didn’t find this funny.
By this stage I figured I’d done about as much as I could do to keep the conversational flag of my table flying, so I stared out thoughtfully into the hot Cypriot night and solemnly chewed my charcoal-grilled chicken. Say what you like about Cyps, they have a way with a bird.
But my neighbour wasn’t done. She informed me that she has been single, lo these many years. I made a sympathetic clucking sound but I wasn’t surprised. A chap makes a perfectly good joke about suicidal teens, and all you can do is scowl and say, “That’s not funny”? You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, lady.
Apparently my silence encouraged her, because she went on to explain that she regularly goes on dates but nothing ever comes of any of them, and did I know why?
I gave that some thought. We’re all here for one another, and if a person asks, you should help as best you can.
“Well,” I said, “maybe at first you come across as a little abrasive.”
She glared at me incredulously, and I realized that her question had been more of a rhetorical flourish than a genuine quest for truth.
“No,” she said, “it’s because men are assholes!”
I wondered aloud whether the fact that she thinks men are assholes might be the reason that her dates don’t work out, that maybe people don’t like being around people who think they’re assholes.
She laughed in a nasty sort of way, and I tried to go back to my left to find out some finer details of industrial design, but she was explaining plastic moulding or something to the person on the other side.
The evening passed, as even the most social of events finally do. I like to think I did my duty as a guest but by the end of the evening I was happy to be back in my room in the hotel where the out-of-town guests were staying. I was glad to be indoors and looking forward to the morning. The best thing about a hotel is having breakfast by yourself, reading a newspaper or a book, slyly observing the other guests from under your eyelashes, estimating the intensity of other people’s hangovers.
But the worst thing about a hotel of people you’ve just met became apparent when I stepped into an elevator lift filled with guests from the party.
“Good morning!” they beamed.
“Ghmf,” I muttered.
It’s not just that I had used up my week’s supply of conversation and socialising the night before. First thing in the morning is a transitional time, a time in which we are still unformed, not yet made, wet clay still to be moulded. There is a reason that bounty hunters and Gestapo officers descend on their quarry in the hours before breakfast. Expecting someone to talk before, say, lunchtime is an act of violence.
They were all nice people, those people in the lift, even the industrial designer, even the lunatic from New York, and so they were too polite not to say, as the doors opened on the ground floor, “Will you join us at our table?”
I didn’t want to be rude, but with all my heart I didn’t want to join them at their table.
“Oh, “ I said. “Oh. Um. No, no – I’m sorry, I … “ At this point the mature and honest man would have said, “Actually, I prefer to have breakfast by myself”.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m going to the smoking section outside.”
“You smoke?” said the New Yorker.
“I didn’t see you smoke last night,” she said.
“No, I’m trying to give up.” I was flailing.
“Come sit with us, we’ll keep you strong!” cried one of them.
“I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t,” I said, almost weeping. “The nicotine has its claws in me too deep.”
“Do you just not want to sit with us?” said the New York woman.
“No! No! It’s the noxious weed! It’s a demon – a demon, I tell you!”
I fled outside and sank into a single seat at a small table, gasping with relief. A cold glass of orange juice, a cup of hot coffee, a silent breakfast: this is the good life. How clever of me to think of that smoking story.
Then I looked sideways and they were all there sitting at a table on the other side of the glass door, looking out at me. They waved, and I waved back. They kept looking at me. The New Yorker had a suspicious look, the look of one who expects the worst from lying men and is never disappointed.
I suppose I could have just sat there under their gaze, not smoking and not caring. I suppose I could have gone back inside and sat down at their table and told them that I had overcome my craving. Those were both options available to the mature and honest man.
With a sigh, I turned to the next table, and asked, “Do you have a cigarette for me?”
“You’re in luck,” beamed the Greek man, offering me a crumpled packet of combustible, unfiltered hell. “These are very strong!”
The Times, 12 June 2019