So many of the posts for 30 Days of Pride so far have been unapologetically celebratory. However, I think it’s also important to recognize the strength that we draw from difficult experiences as well. That’s why I am so excited to welcome my friend Brian to the blog today with this darker, poignant post. Brian is every bit the book nerd (and fellow Sara Bareilles stan) that I am and is currently an English PhD candidate, so I am doubly grateful he took the time to write this post for me. You can find Brian on Twitter.
Content Warning: Physical Violence, Assault, Smoking
Your mouth is running a mile a minute,
But it’s leaving you in the dust with your
Used up cigarette butts. Do those butts ever
Miss their cigarette? “Don’t leave me.
You’re all I have in the world.”
“I’m sorry, babe, but this turning to ash
thing is just so much better than clinging
to you. You always filter me. Take a little
of what I’m giving. Why can’t you just
let go?” “Once you go what am I?”
the butt would cry, “Without you I’m
useless. You change, you get to burn
bright, and I just get crushed.”
“Sorry, babe, but that’s the way it works.
Things burn out. Things change.”
“But I don’t wanna say goodbye.”
“Sometimes goodbye is the easiest
thing to say because it’s the only thing
to say.” And with a last puff the
cigarette disappears. And the butt gets
thrown for a loop. “But you were my thing.”
Until you weren’t.
I started smoking cigarettes in October of the year I lived in London getting my MA. I would always smoke when I was walking, or when I was with my crush at the time. We also started hooking up in October, but he wasn’t out and he didn’t want anyone in our program to know. I accepted that for a lot of reasons, chief among them my dismally low self-esteem. This poem is about him, but it’s also about me.
My smoking habit stemmed for a desire to spend more time with Bobby (not his real name). During our classes together he’d go smoke afterwards and it gave me an excuse to join him. But I started smoking earlier in the month, not just to get a few more minutes in the day with Bobby. Early in that October I was assaulted. In my flat. After bringing a guy home with me. I was, admittedly, very drunk. He was too, but we were kissing and holding hands on the street walking back to my place from the bar. We got back to my room. Things heated up. About an hour into our escapades something flipped.
He started choking me. But not in a sexy way, in a I-want-you-to-die way. I was able to flip us off the bed and curl into the fetal position to protect myself from the onslaught of fists and objects that came flying at me while he spewed vitriol at me. My room was trashed. I was in pain. He stormed out of my room and I called the cops.
I didn’t want to press charges, I just wanted him to leave. But I was arrested (he claimed I had sexually assaulted him). I spent 16 hours in a holding cell before being interviewed by the officers. I was in and out of consciousness from the alcohol, adrenaline, and the fact that this all transpired around three in the morning. I was cleared of all charges, thankfully, and was on my way. I had a black eye, a broken rib, and bumps and bruises all over. I was okay, I told myself.
The next day, I saw him at a bar not too far from my flat. He had a cast on his wrist (he had broken it while hitting me). I panicked. I couldn’t breathe. I walked into a shop to get off of the street. That’s when I bought my first pack of cigarettes. I walked outside and lit one up. That was how I dealt with the trauma. I didn’t want it to be “obvious” that I felt a need to protect myself; I could burn him if he came after me while I was smoking. The most fucked up part about it was the fact that I felt like I needed to hide the fact that I wanted to protect myself.
The strangest thing to me, looking back on it all is how cigarettes came to represent Bobby and the man who attacked me. Bobby turned out to be a terrible person too, so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, but I think it’s odd because the cigarettes came to represent both my fear and my hope. I think that happens a lot for me (it might happen a lot in the queer community, but I don’t want to impose my voice on everyone). My trauma becomes a badge that I wear to protect myself and try to reassign to something happy. It took me years to work through that trauma and to stop smoking.
I used to feel that so much of my queerness, for my adolescence and early adulthood, was framed by lacking autonomy. I couldn’t protect myself; I couldn’t be myself. I still struggle, within and without myself, but I realize now that it has more to do with my humanity than my queerness. I was conditioned to feel that my queerness was weakness, but now I see that it’s not. While my trauma shaped me, healing, constantly, from that trauma also shapes me. While cigarettes gave me something to hold on to, my queerness gives me something to celebrate. And for me, life is worth celebrating.