Not everybody smokes in Indonesia, but it seems like everybody does. Pinched between gnarled fingers or hanging carelessly from lips — stall owners, bikers and touts all peer out at the world through clouds of smoke. Within hours of landing the cloying smell of clove cigarettes has jolted me back back ten years, memories jostling for attention as they flicker before my eyes. Simultaneously my dormant addiction begins wriggling into consciousness, reaching out into my thoughts, looking for leverage to make “yes” the only answer.
My introduction to clove cigarettes was through Kaleigh and her civilised habit of smoking a single Djarum in the evenings. My ignorance was fascinated and I quickly discovered that lounging in the evening sun, a quiet buzz in hand, was the perfect antidote to whatever stresses the day had delivered. I had not yet learned about addiction, how it waits and yearns, how it lingers in the corners never quite allowing absolution. It is images from this honeymoon period, as my addiction and I become acquainted, which now fill my mind.
Driving with Kaleigh from Seattle to Anchorage over the Alcan Highway. We barely knew each other and were trapped in her jeep, desperately trying to keep the conversation alive through two and a half thousand miles of British Columbia’s icy wasteland.
At the end of our relationship, standing on my porch and solemnly swearing off women for the next five years, only to meet Teresa less then a month later. Huddling with her on the back steps of Internet Alaska as she bummed cloves from me, the subzero temperatures providing the perfect excuse to sit close enough to kindle an office romance. I still didn’t think of myself as a smoker and I remember my confusion when several weeks later she showed up on the steps with a pack of Camels. I discovered that she was an ex-smoker, and she discovered that cloves are three quarters tobacco.
Watching our friend Mark, as he watched Teresa and I, transition from smoking cloves to smoking Camels. No words were spoken but I understood what he had recognised, and why he no longer joined us for the occasional smoke.
Moving to Portland and discovering a city I could love, a city I still miss. Those endless hours with other volunteers from Personal Telco, sitting around and dreaming in bars and cafes about how we were going to build a free citywide wireless cloud with nothing but geek fervour. The collapse of the dotcom era, my friends and I falling in and out of employment as the economy heaved and twisted. Being trapped in a job I didn’t yet realise I detested, and failing to adjust to the grim realities of an enterprise support role at a doomed startup. It still astounds me that James had the grace to allow me to work four ten hour days, so I could spend a day each week at home working to help Personal Telco’s dreams become reality.
In the stinking hot week of Portland’s summer, relaxing barefoot in the shade on our front steps. With sudden conviction I knew that I wanted to have kids, that I wanted to get married and that I’d really like for us to own our own home. Then the bitter realisation that despite a lifetime of privilege and opportunity, I had nothing but memories to show for it. In those moments I lost the sense that I had all the time in the world, I robbed myself of the freedom to let every experience unfurl in its own time. Years later I realise that there are many things right with having nothing but memories to show for your life.
The honeymoon ended the first time I tried to quit, and failed, but the memories don’t stop.
My first extended travels — three months with Teresa chain smoking through England, France, Holland, Germany, New Zealand and Australia. My failed proposal attempt at the Eiffel Tower and a successful one in the Coromandel. Successfully quitting with Teresa at the end of our travels. Becoming a smoker again through the final months of our marriage and plunging into the abyss of divorce.
Modern etiquette won’t let me say that that smoking was a good companion, but it has been a companion. As I write this I’m shocked at how much of my life has been spent as a smoker. How many memories I can conjure of me with a fag in one hand and a coffee or beer in the other.
I remember reading in Wired that a big tobacco executive thought that he was going to get rich creating genetically modified tobacco that didn’t have any nicotine. Cigarettes that are just as dangerous but not addictive. I howled with laughter, reading it out loud through snorts of derision, at this gross misunderstanding. They had it completely backwards. What they need to do is create a cigarette which is still addictive, but that doesn’t kill you. The addiction is the point.
Smoking provided a reason to get up from my desk and spend ten minutes away from the computer. A reason to meet Teresa on the front porch in the evenings where we would talk and dream about our lives. Rituals full of comfort in cars and airports, coffee shops and bars. A way to be occupied while being alone. And never underestimate the camaraderie of smokers in a world in which they are beset. Each shared cigarette is the beginning of a new friendship, and all smokers share.
For me it’s not the quitting which is hard, it’s the staying quit. As the challenge of abstinence fades, my vigilance wanes. It didn’t take long, maybe a week? A couple beers in Nusa Lembongan and I was bumming smokes from Tania. The surfers in Medewi were more then happy to share their cloves. A week later I succumbed to the pleasures of my own pack, purchased at the Bromo Permai hotel.
Today I’m in Singapore, sitting at a table full of Nick’s dive buddies, laughing my ass off as they joke and tease, teaching me swear words in Bahasa, Hokkien and Thai. Everybody at the table is smoking, drinking and laughing but only I know that I’m smoking my last pack. Tomorrow we get on the train for Malaysia, and in these final hours each one tastes sweeter.