Smoking a Cigarette.


Having spent the last eighteen minutes outside wishing my fifteen minute break were longer, I return to the basement of my office building at the corner of Yuppie Street and Privilege Way. Luckily, my coworkers are nowhere to be found. This allows me a brief moment to freshen up —not because I smell like B.O. (although I do sweat worse than a sixteen year old boy driving high on weed when a cop pulls up in the next lane) —I smell like something else. Something more noxious and, despite usually covered up well with BANG by Marc Jacobs cologne, it is the smell of ridicule and condemnation. Sss-sss. The sexual, peppery scent fills the room and my nostrils. My colleague Oxana enters the room just in time, once again rewarding my choice of fragrance with a compliment. As I type in the password to unlock the iMac at my workstation, Oxana sits down at her desk next to mine and begins writing frantically on a Post-It note. A few seconds later, a hand emerges in my peripheral, sticking a yellow square with pink writing on the wall next to me. “786 minutes 😡 “. I peek around the corner to look at Oxana, her smirk reminding me that she, as a mother of two children herself, is only looking out for me. “Thank you, Oxana. Ill buy you some soon for being so caring”I say, sarcastically. She looks at me with distaste and snaps back, “If you do that, I will shove them all down your throat.786 minutes. Divided by six minutes taken off my life per unit (Oxana’s personal assumption, which she assures is proven scientific data) equals 131 cigarettes smoked since I started again a few months ago. And those are just the ones she knows about.

I smoked my first cigarette at age four. My single mother, working day and night to support her two children, often left us home alone, where mischief undoubtedly ensued. Although we were always punished for our misdeeds when caught, there were often times we got away with murder. This, of course, rendered us in our young minds as invincible. The first puff started on our front porch. Erin and Terry, brothers who lived around the corner, sat outside waiting impatiently for Kira (my sister) and I to return with the goodies. We scoured every ashtray, every nook and cranny, to find cigarette butts that still had a few good hits left. After finding two, we returned to the porch where our friends immediately jumped up, saying, “Hell yeah!”Two four year olds, two six year olds, and two half-smoked cigarettes. A parent’s dream!

I continued smoking sporadically until age twelve, taking my mother’s half-smoked butts from ashtrays or standing on the side of 7/11 asking strangers to buy me a pack. Not once did anyone turn down an offer, knowing they would make a few extra dollars in the transaction. More often than not after each transaction, the now-criminals would ask, “How old are you, kid?”I always answered in the same manner, cooly, smugly, “Not old enough to buy cigarettes.”The concept of “smoking-to-be-cool”was my incentive, looking to fit in with the older kids who criticized my feminine nature, as well as my failure to “act black”in order to fulfill the stereotype expected of someone with brown skin. Despite my future goals of excelling in academia and one day attending Harvard Law School, there was something refreshing and exhilarating about hanging out with hoodlums who didn’t share my aspirations. My association with this confused, troubled group of kids never hijacked my ambitions of prosperity and success. I knew our actions were “against the rules”, but why? Phrases from my mother’s lips such as “gateway to other bad things”and “destroy your future”come to mind —she was only 99% correct.

I cannot deny the fact that people with whom I associate —peers, colleagues, family, etc. —influence my thoughts, behaviors, and perception of the human psyche. The first time I tried cocaine, I was attending a party hosted by close friends a few years back. I have since tried the drug only once, as my perception of its heavy users and abusers is that they lack goals and ambitions for a healthy, successful future. I have not seen or heard from those older children with whom I used to smoke for quite some time. Most of them remained confined within that small town in Indiana, having children with their “true loves”, not attending college or, quite horribly, being killed by gang violence. My mother’s fear of smoking cigarettes leading me down the same path as these other children was valid and understandable, since my sister, two years my senior, took a similar path of the other children. Yet, what my mother didn’t know, nor did I understand at the time, was that I smoked to avoid further ridicule from people I feared. As a “white-acting”mixed boy with flamboyant tendencies, my white flags came in quantities of twenty per box at a rate of $2.50 per pack.

I didn’t touch a cigarette between ages twelve and sixteen. Some of those kids with who I previously associated moved away. Others made new friends. It was a blessing, really, as I truly hated the taste and smell of cigarettes, as well as the accompanying memories they triggered. My reintroduction to them occurred as a sick twist of fate. Before coming out as gay, a boy I found attractive convinced me I could buy him a pack of cigarettes without being carded because I looked older than sixteen. He was right; it worked on my first attempt, prompting me to smoke a victory cigarette with this hot hunk of teenage influence. Despite being older and having a better grasp of the decisions I made, here I was again, doing something outside my own norm to be accepted by a peer. I recently saw this person in San Francisco, where he now resides. After quitting the habit nine months ago and picking it back up again recently (UGH!), I remind my friend, still not out of the closet at age twenty-five, that his good looks and charm have cost me thousands of dollars over the last nine years. “I’ll repay you by giving you cigarettes each time you come visit.”Thanks, fucker.

It is undoubtedly difficult for a non-smoker to grasp any sort of benefit from smoking cigarettes. The story I just laid out for you, coupled with the known health risks of smoke inhalation, stained teeth, and the $12/pack price in Chicago, certainly do not scream “beneficial!”But think: how often do you spend money on processed, high-fat, non-organic, artery clogging food? A few times a week? Your daily Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappucino® addiction costs over $2,000 a year, which, by the time you retire, could be a fully loaded Audi A6 TDI (my dream car, by the way.) Alcohol. Showering too often. Antiperspirant. Jogging. Looking at a bright computer or phone screen before bed. Like smoking, all of these things are believed by some to have severe health risks. So why, then, would anyone consciously do harm to their bodies? It is simple: to look good…to smell good…to see what your Instagram friends and crushes are doing at 3AM. Social interaction and acceptance are important forms of sustenance we sometimes overlook when we do or don’t do (or, criticize others for doing or not doing) certain things. We grab a drink or a bite to eat on a first date, or with friends after a long day at work. We shower right before our Grindr hookup arrives to alleviate the always-lingering scrotum smell beneath our Calvin Kleins. We lift, stretch, and tear our bodies at the gym to attract attention on the beach or in photographs. We are addicted to this routine because we crave a look…a conversation…a kiss. Many self-identified “non-smokers”admit to smoking cigarettes “when they’re drunk.”Indeed, after dancing away for hours in a club, I’ll head outside to light up, finding other smokers with whom to converse. In fact, asking (or being asked) for a lighter or cigarette almost always prompts pleasant, intelligent, and/or valuable conversations. Some of my current friendships are a result of venturing outside an establishment (a movie, concert, restaurant, etc.) to smoke a cigarette. While seeing Disclosure at the Lincoln Park Zoo this past June, a man I would have typically overlooked asked me for a cigarette. Handsome (and seemingly straight), I obliged. Two hours later, he met me at a club in Boystown. After two hours of dancing and drinking, the next thing I knew I was inside of him, in my bed, in my apartment. Had it not been for my smoking vice or his vice of inebriated courage, I would not have met this gorgeous man. Furthermore, I would not have performed the random sexual act to which I have been struggling to open myself up more often. I really thought he was straight, the trickster!

I cannot eloquently analogize my smoking, your drinking/jogging/use of antiperspirants, or any other practice in order to alleviate their negative associations or portray their perks as more impactful on life experience than their risks. After all is said and done, we act in a manner that works best for us in the moment. I am going to mask bad smells with showers and Mitchum. I will accept a drink from a handsome fellow at a bar. I will join my colleagues for a cigarette on our fifteen-minute break. Life, in its temporality, must be enjoyed now. Whether I die in my fifties or nineties, I would prefer to remember myself as young, fun, and social —not old, listless, and alone. “I think when you’re young you should be a lot with yourself and your sufferings. Then one day you get out where the sun shines and the rain rains and the snow snows and it all comes together.”- Diana Vreeland.



When a Prude Celebrates International Mister Leather.


The line to get in is down the block…Is it worth it?

This was my third excuse within a matter of minutes to get out of this sleazy, smelly endeavor. Once a year, thousands of sexually-active, bear-daddies come to Chicago for “International Mister Leather” – a gay celebration of the appreciation of new toys, apparel, and furniture men use in the art of sexual pleasure.

Each year when the festivities begin, you see an increased number of middle-aged, pec-throbbed pairs roaming the streets of downtown Chicago; their child-size “large” shirts bursting at the seams. As a skinny, bi-racial “twink” (I do not classify myself as anything, but my rail-thin stature places and keeps me in this category), everything about IML — the bondage, the musk of stale poppers emanating from alleyways — makes me nervous and uncomfortable. I am not very sexually active (perhaps two or three short-term partners a year), and people who frequent IML certainly are not seeking salvation or forgiveness from God for their sins — they are attending these events to fuck, get fucked, and/or find new, pleasurable ways to do both.

Despite my fear, there I was, signing a waiver in front of Bijou Theatre and Sex Club, taking off my shirt to adhere to their admission requirements — “pantless or shirtless” (I stick with the purist one). Waiver signed, my three friends and I cut in front of the long line as one of them kisses the bouncer in a “thanks for hooking us up” fashion. Once inside, dozens of almost-naked men cramp the tiny waiting room as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting for the two inebriated coat-checkers to figure out how to efficiently inventory the hundreds of grocery bags full of our belongings. I slide past them to the ticket window, their beefy, sweaty bodies rubbing against mine, their eyes, widened by the prescription drugs they snorted in their cars before entering, undress the bottom half of my body still covered by pants. I reach the ticket-window and offer my American Express, only to be directed to a sign by the vendor, which reads, “CASH ONLY, $35.” THIRTY-FIVE FUCKING DOLLARS? REALLY?! I squeeze my way back through the steer, wait ten more minutes for the drunk attendants to find my shirt, and head across the street to the too-conveniently located bank. “Guys, go without me”, I say to my friends. “It’s too much money, and I’m not even going to do anything but be a fly on the wall.” One of my friends is on the fence about paying the money as well, so we all decide to get back into the car where bottles of beer and bubbly are waiting for us beneath the seats.

POP! The four of us take a swig of champagne each. Our ages do not differ much — 22, 26, 27, and me, 24 — but I am the only one who never attended an event such as this before. “Josh”, one pleas, “you’re going to have so much fun! I will protect you, I promise!” I give him the side-eye — “Oh, please! You’re going to be face-deep in sphincter after five minutes and I won’t see you again for the rest of the evening.” My other two friends also insist, passing me booze and speculating how each of our nights will go. My mind begins to give in — Maybe (probably) it was the booze…maybe it was the amount of comfort I felt in that very moment with my friends…or, perhaps, the “start living outside your comfort zone” pep-talks I had recently been offering my peers and work colleagues had, at this moment, finally resonated within me. “Fuck it. Let’s go.” One more chug of champagne. $40 out of the ATM. Shirt back off. $35 to the ticket-vendor. I’m inside. I am a shirtless, vulnerable human inside my first sex club.

Penis. From the early 1990s. The first room on my journey contains the movie theatre. Only a handful of the forty seats are occupied, and everyone seems to be just getting comfortable in the space. No one is naked except for the two-decade-old men blowing each other on the 15ft x 10ft screen in front of us. “This isn’t what I expected” I think to myself. “The night is young — this ain’t shit, yet,” my friend says, reading my mind. We exit through a door in the back of the theatre and enter a narrow hallway. To the left, a narrow, metal staircase entices us to the second floor. We instead notice a sign that says, “BOOZE”, directing us outside to the back patio. I hadn’t smoked a cigarette in nine-months, but as men in leather straps and chains peek around the fence to see if the corner in which we’re occupying is “open-for-business”, I feel a level of anxiety only a cigarette can cure. It is chilly outside, my nipples stabbing the air like knives. I throw the half-smoked, nasty cigarette on the ground. “I’m going exploring.” My friends finish their cigarettes and follow me through the maze of men, back into the abyss.

Once upstairs, we find numerous corridors that lead to dead-ends, square rooms with benches drilled into the walls around the perimeter, sheer curtains, and oh, the smell — the smell of scrotum, sweat, ass, and balls. The staunch aroma instills a new level of excitement in me. Somewhere, perhaps everywhere, behind the walls, above and beneath me, strangers are fucking one another in an unknown place, with unknown voyeurs watching, stroking their own penises while they pinch their nipples. I hadn’t yet seen any “action”, but the night was still young.

I decide I need to find the dance floor first, as music always calms my soul. My friends had disappeared. Typical. I later found out, two of them, ex-lovers still in love, went off together to lick each others assholes and cocks, inviting others to join them. Meanwhile, I was swaying back and forth alone in front of the stage as house music boomed from the loudspeakers. In front of me on stage, provoking the male gaze of all these horned men, one man was turned away, rump exposed, his arms bound to pipes coming from the ceiling, being spanked with a wooden paddle by another man. His red ass made me cringe, a pain I attribute to being spanked by my mother as a child when I was being an asshole. I ignore the spectacle in front of me, continuing to dance on my own (blatant Robyn reference) for another thirty minutes, telling approachers, “I’m new! My friends made me come! I don’t normally do this type of thing, but this is amazing!” Of course, in my head I’m saying, “Keep your dirty fucking hands away from me!!” The crowd begins to shift. I look over and see four men: one facing me, the others in a line — one blowing the man facing me, one licking his ass, and so on. What a sight! I stare, obviously, and look around at the other gentleman to make sure they’re all staring, as well. Others, strangers, climb on the train, their eagerness yet calmness blending together perfectly, like an experienced runner waiting to fly off the starting blocks at the beginning of a race. Other parties continue to dance, others are sucking and fucking. These acts, once meant strictly for private procreation, are now a means for study — for understanding; for exploration; for pleasure. Despite my continence, I admired the art form…admired the confidence and self-awareness it takes to stabilize your mental amplitude enough to get naked, get it up, and get off in a room full of eager eyes.

I left the dance floor to unhide my phone, as they do not allow picture-taking in the venue and I did not want to be tempted. Prior to coming here, we had drinks at Taverna 750, a cocktail lounge in the heart of Boystown a few miles away. One of the bartenders, a friend of a friend I’ve been unsuccessfully courting for a year now, looked considerably handsome tonight, so I told him so. He thanked me, his eyes showing a vulnerability I had never seen. I told him we were going to “Men’s Room” (the name of tonight’s event at the theatre), followed by, “I hope to see you there.” Now, in this theatre, drunk from copious amounts of champagne and PBR, buzzing on adderall, I found his name in my iPhone, opened messages, and hit “Compose”:

I was going to ask you if you have a boyfriend.”
“Nope. No boyfriend. You guys still at mens room?”
Yeah. It’s scary
You off work?”
“Yeah. We standin in this awful line.”
You’re here?”
“Ha. Yeah. In line.”
Let me know when your inside.”

(Twenty-three minutes later)…
If you’re not coming, I’m going to cab it.”
“We’re in the front. Just took off our clothes.”

The “We(‘re)” referred to him and his colleague — whom I had seen before, but never met. I greet them both with a hug, then take them outside to the bar where his friend takes a joint out of his clutch. Knowing full-well that smoking after drinking spins my brain directly to pukey-hell, I take a hit anyway, letting the smoke engulf my lungs and bloodstream like a wave of ocean water penetrating every crack and crevice of a cliff at high tide. In an attempt to spend at least a little coherent time with my friend, I invite him to come dance with me. He takes my hand, smiling, as I lead him upstairs to the steamy dance floor where even more gentlemen are inside one another. I pull him close to me, forcing his evenly-leveled crotch into mine, syncing my hip-movements with his. Feeling his warm erection in my torso, I slowly, intimately, kiss his neck…his cheek…his lips. Thank God: a great kisser! My mind raced. “I’ve wanted you for so long…how funny it is that our first time hanging out is here…come with me.” The latter thought actually comes out of my mouth. I grab his hand again, leading him through the chains of men connected by phalluses and bottoms, off the dance floor and into a dark room, closing the door behind us. Passion and fire ensues. We don’t have sex. Well, we don’t have my definition of sex. At one point, someone opened the door and saw us, but we carried on, our silence prompting them to leave us alone. A few minutes in, I say, “Let’s go. I’ll hail a cab.” We would finish later.

My two friends, the ex-lovebirds, are still missing in action, while the other, who had some tame fun himself, is ready to leave as well. I order an UBER for my date and I and take us back to his place to sleep. Laying in bed, it occurs to me that despite being acquainted with this man next to me, he is not more or less of a stranger to me than any other man at the club. Then it hits me: I am no different than any of these men — these men that disgusted and frightened me five hours prior — who seek a sense of community and sexual liberation. Although straps, fisting, and hooking up with complete strangers is nowhere on my Kinsey Scale, I long to open myself emotionally and sexually, putting to bed previous feelings and acts of fear, anger, and abstinence brought on by men of my past.

I am turning 25 this year, in July. I sense another trip to a bathhouse, and the beginning of my sexual revolution.