I smoked my first cigarette in Israel, the land of milk, honey and Marlboro Reds. I was 10 years old and stretching my almost-tween freedom. There was something so effortlessly cool about it all, the way people smoked on the beach in between dips into the crystal-clear, blue water. Or how soldiers at the bus stop would share a cigarette between them like some sort of secret club initiation. Or the hypnotizing curl of smoke that would unwind around my Israeli uncle as he slowly sipped his coffee between puffs.
These scenes were very far removed from my suburban New England upbringing, where cigarette smoking was admonished and cigarettes never seen. Back in Connecticut, anti-smoking campaigns ruled the late ’80s, and pictures of black, decayed lungs were enough to keep me far away from Joe Camel. But in Israel? It seemed like everyone was smoking, and the stubborn kid in me needed to see what the hype was about, necrotic lungs be damned!
It was a week or so into our family trip when I watched my uncle flick his cigarette onto the walkway before he let himself into the apartment. I checked to make sure nobody was looking, and then sprinted toward it. I carefully cradled it in the palm of my hand, not wanting to burn myself, but clearly aware that if I let it snuff out, I’d be out of luck. I entered the stairwell, and after reassuring myself that nobody was heading in my direction, I placed the still smoldering cigarette to my lips.
It tasted amazing.
I inhaled again, this time taking in as much as I could. My lips brushed against the dry, cottonlike filter as biting smoke filled my lungs, leaving a sharp, stinging sensation in its wake.
It tasted disgusting.