During my 15-minute afternoon break from my soul-crushing government job, I sat in the sun on the County Plaza to thaw out from the ice-cold office environment and to escape from my cube, the oppressive lighting, and the intolerable chatter of my officemates. As screaming seagulls flew overhead and people walked buy with house plans tucked under an arm or holding the hand of a lover on route to apply for a marriage license, I engaged in my breathing exercises—that I sometimes remembered to do to keep from stroking out due to stress—when the scent of cloves drifted to my nose on the summer breeze. Instantly, it became 1985. I was transported back to the spring of freshman year of high school and afternoons on the waterfront, ditching crew practice behind the freight trains, smoking cloves when we were supposed to be running. Instead of conditioning our lungs to increase our endurance, we were poisoning them with toxic chemicals. We were not the elite athletes; we were the punkers and outcasts.
Oh, to smoke cloves again! In a moment of nostalgia, I turned to Google on my phone and typed in Kretek clove cigarettes to see where I could buy the tantalizing Indonesian clove-infused tobacco, because once you’re over fifty, you never know when you’re going to get that diagnosis that will give you six months to live, and if I get that, you can bet that I’m gonna smoke the shit out of all the good stuff, eat fatty foods, drink to excess, and do all of the things that “will kill you” because I’ll be dying anyway.
I wouldn’t smoke them otherwise, because as any addict knows, it just takes one puff (or drink, or hit) and you’re hooked again. And as every addict also knows, quitting fucking sucks. And you’d have to quit because if you weren’t already dying, they’d send you to an early grave, for sure.
The Google told me that I cannot, in fact, purchase cloves anymore. They’ve been banned in the United States since 2009. Apparently, the FDA banned all flavored cigarettes in the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Act to deter children from being drawn to smoking by tasty cigarettes—not sure how cotton candy vaping liquid gets around this. Technically, not a cigarette? Not tobacco? Seems you can still buy clove cigarillos, which is what I may have been smelling that day on the Plaza.
It wasn’t cloves that got me smoking, though. If I remember correctly (and who can remember anything anymore) I smoked my first cigarette on the lawn of a church down the street from the school gym, after escaping the insufferable first dance of 9th grade, when I decided that school dances were lame and I’d rather be doing cool shit. Smoking was forbidden. It was taboo. Not because it was socially unacceptable the way it is now, but because I was too young and because my parents would kill me if they knew. A certain kind of individual smokes, and I wanted to be that kind of person. It was exciting. It was an adventure. It made me feel older. It made me feel a little naughty and daring. It made me feel alive.
I smoked again while trick-or-treating with my friend Michele. I can’t remember where the smokes came from, but it was a turning point in life—engaging in a grown-up activity while hanging on to a ritual of childhood. We were too old for trick-or-treating and too young for smoking, and yet we were doing both…together.
I purchased my first pack of cigarettes in Victoria, Canada at a crew regatta. It was legal in Canada to sell cigarettes to sixteen-year-olds, so I thought I had a good chance, even though I was only fourteen at the time. I sheepishly entered a store and perused the ridiculously enormous array of options displayed behind the counter and it was completely overwhelming. I could have spent hours making a selection, but I pointed to a pack of Benson & Hedges in a box the color of a brick of gold. Why I picked them, I’ll never know, but it was the last pack of B&H I ever bought. They were terrible and did not fit with my personal sense of style.
My friends and I sat on a grassy hill in the sunshine and smoked those bland, white cigarettes that seemed like something a female trying to work her way up the corporate ladder would smoke. We felt a sense of power and autonomy.
I was destined to be a smoker even without the delicious taste of cloves, but I will admit I was drawn to the beautiful, cheerful packs of brightly colored Indonesian goddesses and other exotic images, the way the slim packs fit so nicely into the pocket of a flannel thrift shop shirt, the multiple tax stamps that exemplified their global journey to find me in the far corner of the Pacific Northwest, that whiff of sweet spice as I peeled the little ribbon of plastic around the top of a fresh pack and tore open the foil—better than opening any candy bar or any pack of candy cigarettes, which I loved when I was a kid—and the way the tobacco of the hand-rolled, unfiltered cigarettes stuck to my lips, and the way my lips tingled and went numb while smoking them. I loved it all.
I kept clove-smoking to special occasions, for the most part, however, after reports from friends and classmates that their lungs were bleeding and they were coughing up blood. Smoking cloves was more of a treat for concerts and parties, not for everyday smoking, and the smell of them reminds me of those special times.
Some of my favorite memories and times spent with others involve smoking. There is a kinship between smokers—an easy social ritual that unties people in ways that the awkward and introverted often find impossible, otherwise. I never had to remember to do breathing exercises when I smoked because smoking was the breathing exercise; long, deep inhalation, holding the breath, and the slow, steady exhale that leaves you feeling calm and serene. Most of all, smoking made me feel grown up at a time when I had my whole life ahead of me and was just marking time until I was old enough to get on with it.
Because it was an activity of my youth and young adulthood, the act of smoking now would be like traveling back in time to relive concerts at the Paramount, house parties after seeing a band in some Tacoma warehouse, weekends with friends, before jobs, bills, mortgages, and children. Later, smoking became a personal reward for putting up with all the horrible bullshit that was life. For enduring a hellish commute, I got to enjoy the pleasure of a cigarette, etc. Disgusting, dangerous, and expensive habit that it is, and glad as I am to have been free of it for nigh twenty years now, I still miss it. I still dream of it.
I miss the exuberance of youth and the notion that you can do anything and you will still live forever, because old age and death are things that happens far, far down the road. Now that I’ve journeyed that road for so long, I realize that the things we do in youth do stay with us and can shorten our lives. We won’t live forever. But when I smell cloves on the air, I swivel my head to find the source. I want to find the smoker and bum one from them. I want to smoke cloves again, if only to briefly relive those days when everything was ahead of me, when the days were carefree and exciting, and I was still invincible.