I first used the title "Cancer and Cigarettes" when I was 16 years old. I did a rough sketch of a man smoking a cigarette. Like most of my drawings, it was minimalist in style. The man was youthful and beautiful. Then, days later, I drew a skeleton smoking a cigarette. I entitled the two drawings, "Cancer and Cigarettes." Back then, I thought it would make a good title for a movie. Years later, I was surprised to discover that Van Gogh had a painting of a skeleton smoking a cigarette. One of those eerie coincidences.
I grew up surrounded by men smoking. My father was a smoker and I was never really bothered by his smoking and all the ashtrays in the house, all of which packed with cigarette butts. For me, my father smoked and that was that, the same reason why boys punch other boys when playing. It was a non-issue.
My grandmother was also a heavy smoker and she smoked "alambras," those thin unfiltered tobaccos. She used to ask me to buy her smokes whenever she came for a visit from Nueva Ecija. She lived up to the age of 80. I fondly remember her as an animated storyteller. When she told a story, it was almost like a stand-up comedic performance. She had always seemed healthy to me. She walked many miles to go to the market, and I never saw her out of breath. When I went on vacation in Ilocos Norte, on my way to the windmills, I asked three elderly farm women preparing to have lunch under a tree. They were smoking tobaccos. They reminded me of my grandmother.
Smoking is undoubtedly dangerous to one's health. I will never recommend it to anyone. If anyone asks for my advice if it is a good idea to start smoking, I will definitely say "no." Smoking is a personal adult choice, (I am appalled at how tobacco companies target teens). On the other hand, once you started smoking, that is it. It is just you and the cigarette. There is no pointing fingers.
The following are excerpts from "Cancer and Cigarettes", which is still an unfinished literary work. It is not a novel but it is something different.
THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION and any similarity in real life is simply coincidental. Writers have a habit of taking a piece of their lives and blow them into proportion. It's like taping a grenade to your old teddy bear. You remove the grenade safety pin and throw the grenade with your teddy bear taped on it, and watch it explode. Enjoy.
Written on October 17, 2008
Sandra is still the only one in her family that does not smoke. Everybody else in her family smokes: her ex-husband, two married daughters, one son who is in the army and a teenage son who resembles her the most. Even her own mother smoked (when she was still alive) but Sandra never had the urge. Not even when she was surrounded by notorious chain-smokers, she never lit a stick even just to try. It was also pointless to try to convince her to inhale just once because she would just make jokes about how gorgeous she would look with a long thing in her mouth. She would go on and on until everyone listening would be laughing so hard that they would eventually forget why they were laughing in the first place. Sandra had a knack for distracting people.
After Sandra saw her husband and his nameless mistress devouring the shitake mushrooms with cut red and green peppers, she yelled at them. She insisted that her husband make a choice right there and then. She bellowed, “It's her or me, choose!” Her husband did not choose her.
That night, she went home defeated and humiliated. Everything that she worked for was invalidated. Everything that she believed in was meaningless. Her faith in people had failed her. She opened 8 bottles of beer and consumed them one after the other in the hope that she would get drunk. But she never did. She was simply too agitated, frustrated, angry and she felt something inside that she could not describe but it was eating her alive. But as it charred her stomach, it also invigorated her abhorrence.
She ransacked her husband’s closet to find further proof of his infidelity. She was looking for pictures or anything that would prove that his betrayal dated even earlier than five years. As she labored through his junk, she found a pack of Philip Morris. She tore the top part, pulled one stick and lit it. She inhaled it slowly. She knew that she would cough once the smoke entered her throat. It always happens to first time smokers. But she was furious and she refused to cough. At first, she felt the irritation in her throat as the first cloud of smoke slithers in her throat. She felt a cough brewing but she controlled it. As the smoke finished its hot crawl on her inner passages, she eased up. She exhaled her first cigarette smoke and it was perfect. She knew she smoked it just as adept as any long-time nicotine addict.
In the coming months, she began to smoke more and more, until she ended up smoking 8 sticks of cigarettes a day. She also started going out with her old college friends and former colleagues. They were all flabbergasted when they first saw her smoke. Being single again, she went out more often than when she was a college student. She was photographed countless times with her friends, while drinking, smoking, laughing, and having delirious fun. She felt alive as if she went back in time and started her life again.
In one sunny day, perhaps one of the hottest days in 1998, her friend sent her some pictures taken during their last Halloween party held in her friend’s bungalow in Makati. In one picture, she was surrounded by her old college friends, and a very attractive 30-something Filipino Japanese guy who flirted with her the whole evening. The picture was perfect. She was beautiful, in fact, surprisingly youthful. She also had the look of seduction, a look that she never had even in her twenties. On the back of the picture, her friend wrote, “To Miss Vivacious! You’re one hot momma! Separation certainly agrees with you.”
Suddenly, she pressed the tip of her burning cigarette hard on her face in the photograph. She wanted to burn her face. She did not recognize that woman. “Who are you?” she thought to herself. “You beautiful beast!” She kept pressing on her face in the picture, burning a hole and producing so much smoke. By the time she stopped, a big hole replaced her smiling face in the picture.
That was 10 years ago, Sandra has never smoked again. She also never drank. She never saw her college friends again. Most shocking of all, she has abandoned her 4 children, if abandoned is what you can call it. After all, her children were all grown up, the youngest of which was 19. On his youngest son’s nineteenth birthday, she bought him a cake with a Superman emblem made of frosting on top of it. Her son, (named withheld) told her that he was already too old for such a cake. Sandra just said that that would be his last “childhood cake.” “After 19,” Sandra said, “you’re meat for everybody to consume.” Then she cut the cake, took one piece, wrapped it in aluminum foil and placed it neatly inside her purse. She kissed her son on the forehead and she left. Her family and friends never heard from her again except through very succinct e-mails.
Nobody knows where she lives, what work she has or if ever she lives with another man or woman or both. All they know for sure is that she does not smoke any more. Her friends and family knows this because that all she writes in her e-mails.
I’m doing fine.
Still not smoking or drinking.
You might have noticed that some words, phrases or sentences are in red. I always believe that words are alive. They can be enslaved or liberated, killed or created, loved or hated and so on. Words have colors as well, and I see certain words in color, mostly in the red hue. Of course, I am talking figuratively.