One For The Lungs

One For The Lungs - A Vaper's Tale


Forty Euros and it doesn’t even kill you? No, thank you! I've invested a lot of money in lung cancer and pulmonary heart disease and I'm not about to blow my investment now. E-cigarettes! Fuck! What's gone wrong with us when we want all the allure of smoking without the consequences? The Marketing of the Self. That's what it is. It's why chewing-gum or nicotine patches rarely work. They look over the fact that smoking is mostly about image, that smokers are just as addicted to the personality which holds the cigarette as they are to the additives within them. Cigarettes allow us to buy further into the persona we want to project – our internal hero. And because we figure it’ll take at least 30 years of smoking to even begin killing oneself, it’s become the safest, least reckless way to advertise a sense of self-abandon. Cigarettes are fetish and I‘m as guilty as anyone of using them as accessories.

One for the lungs and one for the fashion!

Oh, my beautiful words. The poetry of reckless and idiotic youth. A Marlboro poking out my breast pocket and another behind the ear. Sweeping onto the underground with my scarves aflap, smelling of snuffed dog-ends and some other perfume from some other lover. A wildness in my eyes, my gait. The last vestiges of smoke still drifting from my mouth. Standing tight up against the doors, impatiently flicking my lighter to a spark, revealing a person out to destroy himself, someone in a hurry to suck down another lungful of youthful demise. I've never known a heroin junkie who did not smoke; I wouldn't trust one who didn't. I don't even trust the ones who do. The flirtation with death and stunted living starts there. An infatuation with self-image, style and attitude, all pulled in from a searing, smoking stick, sucked way down and blown back out as your fantasy persona clears into view through clouds of your own myth.

The cigarette.

My first erotic love.

Lying back, breathing heavy, her legs open, waiting that my tongue tastes her for the first time. Me. Between her thighs. 3am. Bare apartment. Single mattress on the floor. No electricity. Rats in the loft. Kissing up her thighs. Pushing her legs still farther apart. Her sex tingling. The entire universe and all existence collapsed down into a bud of pleasure. I take a long, slow drag from a B&H and funnel a fine flute of smoke against her swollen clit. And with the air and the warmth she groans and quivers and pushes forward, suddenly clenching her stomach for the first steep drop of the death ride. 21 and discovering ourselves, taken over by an insanity we didn’t know we possessed. An intense mournful and desperate erotic longing, pupils dilated, tears from an unknown emotion, mouths biting words of unrepressed madness and honesty.

We must die together… I can’t live without you now.

I know, My Love, I know. I’ve wanted to die so badly, but in you I want to live.

I want to live so badly too. Tell me that you'll save me, that you’ll save all of this… that tonight will never end.

Ssssh, My Darling, Sssssh… This hell is ours eternal.


Oh no, not you as well, I said.

The local shopkeeper pressed a button on the side of his e-cigarette and, looking at me, sucked in and blew out, letting clouds of vapour pour from his mouth before swallowing the last of the heap down.

Voila, mon ami... That's how you evade the law, he said.

He pulled the e-cigarette from his mouth and showed it to me, pointing at the graduation marks printed up the top side. He said that he had filled it up only that morning, had been vaping away all day and still had 0.4ml of nicotine left. It meant nothing to me, but I read the reaction he sought and pulled an incredulous- looking expression like I was greatly impressed and what a shrewd investment it was.

Does it feel like smoke or is it like swallowing air? I asked

The shopkeeper wagged a demonstrative finger at me, then put the e-cigarette back in his mouth. He pressed the button once again, only this time he kept it pressed. I watched him curiously. He watched me back, his eyes open wide, the e-cigarette between his lips, button held, taking in vapour,  the seconds passing and his face becoming more strained and more ridiculous by the moment.  Finally he removed the device from his mouth and inhaled, instantly falling into fits of coughing, a shock of smoke sputtering out his mouth and nose. Through watery eyes he looked at me and forced a smile: It's just like a cigarette, he said. It's real smoke... Only, NOT smoke! Then he coughed some more before making a horrendous wretching sound like a bird regurgitating food for its chick.

For the first time I was kinda impressed. I'd imagined a variety of  politically correct smoke that didn't touch the throat on the way down.

Fuckin' good them things and I’ll tell ya wot for as well, said a new voice behind me. I quit with mine. Smoked 50 a day for 25 year. Stopped just like that. Amazing! Has turned me life right around and I feel so much better for it.

I turned around to confront the owner of the voice. It belonged to a new customer who had entered, who then whipped out his own e-cigarette, mouthed it, pressed the GO button and sucked down a lungful of steam himself. I eyed his sallow, bloodless complexion, his tea-stained teeth and oiled back grey hair. He stood there in a full-length woollen coat, yellowed from years of tar perspiration and nicotine-filled bars. A real smoker here, no doubt. A definite potential stiff for the cancer ward. I could see him there now, his last days spent dragging around an oxygen canister as he shuffled out the lift to stand in the hospital grounds in his pyjamas and smoke himself off in style. This was no three-a-day weakling but a hardcore, lifelong smoker, all attitude gone, someone who had smoked out of habit, through the night, coughing up phlegm and lighting another and not a slither of coolness left about it. He blew his vapour over me and the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper took a drag of his own e-cigarette and returned the gesture. I stood in the middle as these two local characters blew misty kisses at one another. The vapour didn't smell much like tobacco smoke but rather of some sickly perfume you would never want clinging to your clothes.

When I was once more alone with the shopkeeper, I questioned him about his electronic stick. To each question, the shopkeeper would present me with a different part of his device,  excitement lighting him up as he explained away how it worked and the genius of progress. It seemed like it was a piece of technology that he finally got better than the young. Twisting off the stem of his e-cigarette, he showed me how easy it was to refill and how to recharge it.

USB, he said, USB key!? As if asking me if I knew what one was. I nodded. Then he started going into the mathematics of the money this new-age cigarette was saving him.

Hmm, interested now aren’t you, he said, supposing everyone was as calculating with money as he. That speaks to you, don't it?!

It didn't, but I nodded as if I did, as if I was now open to the idea of an e-cigarette myself.

Standing as close to the shop counter as I could comfortably be, the shopkeeper took up his traditional position behind it and beckoned me still further forward, secrets abounding in his eyes as he leant in and whispered.

Listen, if you want an e-cigarette DO NOT buy it from the tobacconist. No, no. 50 euros from them dirty criminals. If you want an e-cigarette, my friend, come and see me. Look...

From below the counter he pulled out a package that looked like it contained two quality pens. E-cigarettes.

From me only 40 euros... for the TWO.  Plus one 12-miligram refill. Brand-new best quality, he said. Just 40 euros for you, my friend.

So that was it: The Hard Sale. This mule was so het up about e-cigarettes because he was flogging them. The other goon who had come in tinged the colour of morning piss was probably his stooge.

40 euros? I'll think about it, I said.

Don't think too long, he replied. Every second with them other foul things is killing you... And your wallet! E-cigarettes: all the pleasure of the real thing without the death sentence!

He sounded like a programmed advert. God, how it sickened me. For a moment back there I thought he was genuine. This man, this little independent shopkeeper who had plead poverty over the years, who had kept me supplied in chocolate and cholesterol, who I'd remained loyal to despite his inflated prices, was now trying to sell me any old junk he got his bartering hands on. Why, only three days previous, he had sold me half-priced Albanian cigarettes. I took a carton of cheapest orange juice he sold, paid, and walking home wondered what the hell was in it.


You should at least try it before you condemn it, she said. I thought you were more open-minded than that... That you‘re into everything e-dash and smart?

Not everything. And I don't need to try one. I'm sure they work just fine and that the vapour is as good as everyone says it is. But that’s not where it falls down: it's the thing itself. E-cigarettes just aren’t attached to anything or anyone or any image. That may sound ridiculous but everything nowadays comes down to that: not the practicality of the thing but what it says about us, the consumer. The Marketing of the Self, capitalism's greatest success and hold over us. It sells us fantasy and individualism through association. With all the choices we have we can construct a personality around ourselves, be whoever we want to be, except, ironically, ourselves. Some people construct that character around an empty husk, become what‘s cool and fashionable, and others construct an outward representation of their internal self, that hero they imagine they are and want the world to perceive them as. But it's all marketing and we are all victims, no less the people who claim to have escaped modern life, who live in tents and shit under trees. I can spot an eco-warrior miles off! How? Because he/she dresses in a certain style... Keeps their hair in a certain fashion. They market themselves to the image of who they want to be. We project who we are, who or what we want to be and what we're into by our clothes and accessories. Do you think modern books are designed to be read? Well, they’re not. They're designed to be shown off. It's why e-books haven't completely taken off just yet, because no one can see what you're reading. Give Kindle a back screen which displays an image of the book you're reading (even better an image of the book you're not reading) and sales will rocket. People could then show off an appetite for Jean Paul Sarte while reading of the wizardry of Harry Potter. Do you imagine there's one person on the bus or underground who is not conscious of what the cover of their book is and what they imagine it says about them? I'm sure I'm not the only one who has chosen books especially for my journey, going so far as pretend-reading the same words over and over for the eyes of others. One woman even once pulled me up on it.

Sat on the underground opposite me, smirking and looking over like I was a simpleton, she said: I say, you must be a terribly slow reader... You've been on that same book now for almost four months and you're not even a third of the way through! I smiled and said: Every great book's worth at least one half-decent fuck and this one hasn’t paid its dues yet!

And it won't today, she replied, standing up and moving away before she caught whatever stupidity it was I had. I’m telling you, it's all about image. Westerners have become obsessed with being someone in this life. It comes with the loss of religion, which is a good thing of course, but the transient period, the intermediate search for meaning and acknowledgement, is not so good. God needs a replacement. Without an omnipresent peeping Tom to distinguish ourselves to, it's only natural we become more and more extrovert as a people.

Fuck, Christ what has any of that got to do with anything? How does that stop you from at least trying an e-cigarette? They’re revo-fuckin-lutionary!

They could very well be once some rockstar takes up the habit while shooting dope or a bunch of vaping gangsters hold up a casino in some film or other. What they’re lacking right now is sex appeal. That's what will really make the e-cigarette: an identity. And even more importantly: If it can help get you laid or not. And that, that search for company, this 21st century isolation, brings it back once more to the loss of God.

Huh! Well, I think you've thought way too much about this. What a sad man you really are. There you are writing on about living such a decadent life as you do, when really you're sat at home alone, pondering over all kinds of nonsense. And, by the way, not everyone is into dead rock stars and sex appeal. Not everyone is so superficial and self-conscious as all that!

You think so? It's not important if it's a dead rock star or a sport's personality, whether it's people power-dressing for work or a 50-year old biker with no bike: it's all the same thing. And before you say it, it's nothing to do with adolescence or being immature or anything like that. And we rarely wise up, ever. We just age, shrivel up, and pass onto another marketing image. We modify who we project as we get older. We steal from what we feel are wiser, more sophisticated sources or those that will benefit better what we want from life. But it's not really about the age we are, it’s much more about the age group of the people we’re looking to attract. But, back on subject, for the moment the e-cigarette adds nothing to our marketed persona; it may even detract from it. Imagine a different scenario, one in which our paedophile cousins adopt the e-cigarette as theirs, in which vaping is known as an accessory of child molesters. In that instance, how many adult males do you think would take up vaping? Not many, I tell you. It's where anti-smoking campaigns have always fallen down in the past, by showing black lungs and hideous neck tumours. They made smoking seem even more dangerous, even more rebellious. What they should have done was associate smoking to a very uncool image, an image that'd have had kids ridiculed and bullied and young adults mocked off the streets. Instead they sold death to the young, and the young are infamous for wanting to die.

Oh, come on now, stop! Not one subgroup will ever have exclusive rights over a product. That's really fucking simplifying it.

Of course it's simplifying it. I agree it's much more complex than that but we'd never get there if we didn't simplify it. But still it happens. Look at how rubberwear is, associated to taboo and S&M, or how a certain haircut can define what music someone likes. Look at the swastika! If I were to wear one tomorrow I'd be branded a fascist and probably be beaten too.

Let’s leave swastikas well out of this. As to someone’s hairstyle or clothes, it all depends on what and how they wear them. Something as practical as an e-cigarette will maybe find its niche markets in colours and shapes??? It could be that a certain style of electronic cigarette comes to be associated with a certain type or group, but not the entire product itself.

Yes, but that’s exactly it : that's what the Marketing of the Self is. It’s exactly that! And once we've marketed ourselves right down to a specific type and colour, right at that point where we believe we've attained true individualism, that's when we've been done over completely, pigeonholed into small denominations with tastes so refined that we’re sitting ducks for specific products and ideas. At that point, as a sub-sub-sub group, the market knows exactly what to sell us and what magazines and websites we'll most likely visit or buy. It knows our morals, sexual perversions and our politics. It's why all these sub-genres exist in everything from music to art. People think it's individualism but it’s not. We're being divided up into ever smaller subgroups so as our choice of products becomes ever more defined. With a large enough wardrobe, you could go out and masquerade each day as a completely different person. It already happens: multiple interior personality disorder! People, terrified of loneliness, taking on multiple interior personalities according to the set circumstances or what people they’re with on any particular day. The phrase ‘I'm gonna let my hair down’ is a symptom of such a phenomena. What it really means is: I'm gonna abandon my serious and professional self and instead lose myself in someone quite different for some time.

Yes, yes… I understand what you're saying, but I’m wondering whether you do? On one hand, you're criticizing such association and on the other, you don't want to be seen with an e-cigarette because it's not 'rock n' roll' enough. You seem highly confused… Even more than usual.

It's not confusion. It's saying I'm as much of a victim as anyone. That I've nowhere near escaped the capitalist system. But I don't ever pretend I have. For me, the ultimate victory over capitalism will not be if you were used by it or not, but if you were conscious of being used by it or not: If you were duped or not duped. To undermine any system or order you must first become a part of it, use it against itself. A revolution is that... It's all a part of the same circle. Whatever our society becomes in the future, the free market will have played an important role in getting us there. In that way, if you believe in and strive for a fairer social and economic system, you must ultimately celebrate the role capitalism played in getting us there. You can't love the human and hate the monkey.

If you're evolution I certainly don't love the human.

Well, now you're sounding just like that bitch on the train, and I suppose you'll not let me fuck you either... E-cig, paperback or not?

And she didn't answer. She just shook her head like there was no hope left for me. Then she pressed GO and swallowed down another lungful of steam.


I could feel myself cracking from a long way off. I'm so familiar with that dual inner tension of desire and restraint that I now often give in immediately just to save time. I caught myself watching people with e-cigarettes, searching out any potential types, some malleable and corruptible characteristic that I could clutch on to, possess and make my own. But I saw nothing. Just idiot after idiot, holding these things like Irish whistles and sipping at the vapour like someone trying to make a single shot of whisky last an entire lifetime. When I came across a group of young clerks stood outside a bank, looking like an advertisement for menswear fashion, I knew there was little hope for me to be able to ply my sickly trade in this newly-emerging market. One of the clerks, a tall, slim, rosy-cheeked young man with blond hair, even seemed to goad me. Taking a pip-puff of his tin whistle, he blew the smoke out as if he were blowing his fringe out his eyes. Then he smirked as if I were the punchline of some joke. As I passed I heard his little crowd of cohorts chortling away with amusement, like they maybe would at a hated client who'd just lost his house and car and family on a bad investment. I was the bad investor. And lighting a fresh cigarette with the butt of my old one, I surely was.

Fucking bank clerks! I spat, looking at my reflection in the storefront window of a tobacconist’s. I'd prefer to be dead at 40 rather than have the misfortune of being one of them until the age of 60! And as my spite receded and my reflection disappeared in the glass, they came into sight, dozens of them, some dressed in black with white tops, others in sparkling pink, another in army fatigues, polka dot, glitter, gold, some fat, some thin, some long, others short, some sculpted and slender, some straight and some sober. Laid out, on display right in front of me, e-cigarettes of all shapes and sizes. I stood there staring at the wares, trying some more to figure the product out while fighting off an inner yearning to try it. My stupid head went so far as to start making deals with itself that I could smoke real cigarettes in public and take things a little easier on my body in private. I went through my options and each time opted for a death I didn't want. God, smoking is so unremarkable that it hardly matters anyway. Am I really so superficial it matters? Probably. Surely. Scratch my skin and you'll find nothing underneath. I'd probably disappear if I grazed myself badly enough. I eyed the e-cigarettes with great suspicion, thought of the bank clerks, and then eyed the cigarettes some more. Then taking a breath and swallowing my soul, I entered the shop for a closer inspection.


I took my first puff on an e-cigarette two days after Christmas. It had a weird sweet taste, not at all like a cigarette, but not unpleasant either. I did not buy it from the Algerian shopkeeper and neither did I opt for anything fancy or anything which resembled a real filter cigarette. It was plain black, 22 euros, and I bought the strongest liquid nicotine available. I felt like a fraud. I crept home and I charged it and I vaped covertly and mourned the sale of my bartered soul. To my surprise, it worked well. Over the following few days I went from smoking forty real cigarettes a day to no more than five. By the end of the week, as long as I was inside, tobacco had lost much of its importance. Outside, however, my cigarette fetish was as strong and as hellbent as ever. I started buying cigarettes expressly for that reason. But then two things happened, one by accident, and the other by design: The first change came when I cooked up a small fix of heroin and instead of shooting it in my veins I mixed it with my nicotine liquid and filled my e-cigarette with it. It wasn't strong, wouldn’t have killed a novice, but I could taste it and it seemed to keep me stoned without doing much more. I spent the day traveling the city and openly smoking heroin on the metro, in the street, alongside police officers, in shops and just about everywhere that hadn’t yet outlawed vaping. And it felt good. And in my mind the e-cigarette changed. It was then something subversive and secretive and I felt quite sure that everyone could tell that my e-cigarette wasn't quite smoking like any other around. Ha! It became not only a pleasure but a duty to vape outside, blowing out feint heroin fumes around the most unsuspecting of people. After such bastardization, I was no longer ashamed to be seen with such a thing. The second event came by way of complete hazard. Standing at a packed tram stop a tall young man came bouncing along, knocking into anyone who didn’t step aside. As he neared me I tensed my upper body and stood my ground. He knocked right into me and was duly sent veering off his line. He must have felt the resistance in my body as when he had regained his course he stopped and spun around.

Mind where you’re fucking walking! I yelled at him. The young man approached me with his arms flung open like he wanted some business. Or what? Or WHAT? he said as he came right up to me. With my e-cigarette pushed into the tender side of his neck, I leant in to his ear and snarled, Or I’ll empty you out right here. He must have seen some madness in me which he wanted no part of. Cool down, man, he said. It was an accident… Just an accident.

Well, mind your fucking accidents next time and never accident into me again. He backed off with his hands slightly raised. Go! Be off! I said. When he was far enough down the road he turned once more and screamed some insult at me in a foreign tongue. I just stared, all the while chugging on my e-cigarette. When he was finally gone, I heard the other people at the tram stop discussing what had happened and how he had either bumped into them or had made them step aside. And as listened I vaped, and for a moment I felt like a dangerous man.

On the short walk home from the tramway that evening I decided to pass the little corner shop. As I turned in off the road, there stood outside was the shopkeeper sucking the entrails out the arse of cigarette. When he saw me he quickly dashed the dog-end aside before putting an arm around me and shepherding me into the shop in such a way that I wouldn’t have seen the smoking butt on the floor. The man was a cloak of absolute deceit.

Were you just smoking? I asked.

He was all set to lie, then must have remembered that he believed in an all-seeing God and so made a confession.

Ah, yes, yes, he said. You’re a very intelligent and observant man! But I always have one cigarette in the evening and one after breakfast each morning. Sometimes you just can’t beat a real cigarette.
Yes, I agreed, pulling out my e-cig so as he couldn‘t help but see. Sometimes a real cigarette just cannot be beaten.

When he saw my device he washed over with a very distinct strain of sorrow, like I had caused him a great disappointment in his heart. O, but why? Why this cheap vulgar thing and not one of my beautiful vaporizors? Did you lose your mind over the New Year? Why, why, sir?

It was a present, I lied. And besides, yours don’t seem to work very well. I just caught you out there smoking away in shame.

O, but I explained all that, he said. It was just one… My allotted transgression, if you will. But never mind that— I’ve a little gift of my own for you, for your much appreciated custom.

The shopkeeper went behind his counter and bent down out of sight. I heard him rustling about and open some kind of carton. When he rose he handed me one of his electronic cigarettes and a quite devilish smile to accompany it. Here, for being such a good reliable customer. I instinctively reached out to take it. He pulled it back from out my reach. There’s just one condition, he said. If mine smokes better than yours, you must agree to buy the other one?

Oh no, I said, I don’t like such agreements… I’d not be comfortable with that.

Take it, Sir, please... It’s a gift. It’s yours. No conditions if you don’t like. But please accept it. Will you?

Under such duress I agreed. The storekeeper visibly lit up, dropped the-cigarette in a small paper bag and said with great excitement, You will see… Now you will see how much better mine are.

I took the small bag containing the e-cigarette and without buying anything, I left the shop.

Back home I took the e-cigarette out the bag ready to put on charge. As I unscrewed the vaporizing chamber from the battery, a thick dribble of saliva ran out the mouthpiece and over my hand. The sly old bastard. The entire mouthpiece was not only clogged with spit but was also heavily chew-marked. All that bending down behind the counter while making out like he was opening something was a complete charade. This wasn’t a new e-cigarette at all. It was his old one that either no longer worked or was so sodden with spittle that the vaporisor needed replacing. No doubt the shopkeeper now felt like I was in his debt, that I would find it difficult to worm out of buying the other e-cigarette without offending him in one way or another. That’s how the world often works. It pushes things our way and taxes us for them later.

That night the New Year was brittle with cold. The windows of the apartment frosted up through the night and the ice creaked and cracked and at times it was like there was no life out there at all. In the dark of the room the charger for my e-cigarette emitted a single green light. It was charged and ready to get me through until the morning. I laid on my side staring at that little light and listening to the wheezing of my lungs. Technology had come too late, and anyhow, I missed the orange glow and the magic patterns of a lone cigarette burning through the night. And with a certain resignation I reached across for my Gauloise Reds, shook one out, placed the firm filtered end between my lips and lit her up. It was a lonesome old world and my lover tonight would kill me tomorrow. But that was fine, and what‘s fine is good, and I puffed some more and sealed my rotten fate.

- - -

Lines for Joe M