Philippe Nahon in a scene of Irréversible (2002)
To Antonio di Benedetto—from Antonio di Benedetto
I’ve always been a tenacious smoker. I have no memory of my first cigarette, but I still remember—and perhaps fix, idealize—the time in which I conquered the everyday puffing around by systematizing it, by consciously discerning among tobacco brands, regional subtleties between the natural flavors of the leaves, and between seasonal harvests; pipes over cigarettes, cigars over pipes, rapés and flavored fronds to alternatively sniff and chew, though those were never real substitutes for the warm breath, its constant call into a unique sort of awareness: that the constellation of events creating life—my life—at a multitudinous node is both always coming and going, with the cadence of a sleeping body slightly inflating and deflating while—who knows—it dreams of loving or adventuring, while it dreams of killing.
Of course I’ve heard a thousand arguments from as many different people attempting to push me away from the habit. That it is unhealthy I know, as anyone else knows, but pointing that out while taking sleeping pills or holding a soda, while refusing to exercise every now and then or to quit processed food, while holding religious beliefs or even watching TV makes of anyone a hypocrite. Where are they all now, is what I often ask myself. Even in the case one found that one person free of vices from which to hear health lectures—which I haven’t and doubt I ever will—why would anyone listen to that kind of narcissistic, pusillanimous soul. The safe gambler, the self-condemned to the harshest acceptance of everybody’s ending. Why would anyone listen to such thin spirit—thin to the point of running away from vice, a defining element of humanity. No, I’ve heard it all against my smoking, and it is worse each time, because my respect for other people fades away with that hypocritical stubbornness. I smoke: it is dirty and unhealthy and annoying, as life is.
There is something in my inclination that teaches the disciplined smoker what cannot be taught—I believe—by any other means: the sudden grasping of one’s wholeness at the moment of a delayed breath of tobacco. People meditate or kneel before some sort of idol, faking their longing for true existence; others meet these epiphanic moments by accident, before a sudden risk; there is also a similar pursuit among those who take drugs that, unlike mine, wreck the human understanding almost immediately. Some might count love in this list of failed triggers of true life that I’m improvising; I should know.
Marcus had left a little while ago when one night I heard steps from his floor. I lit a new cigarette with the burning end of a dying one before going upstairs to take a look. Marcus was my neighbor and a friend of mine. He did not mind the smell, which in these times is rather rare and one of the reasons I valued him. It is really difficult to find someone willing to rent an apartment beside smokers. Marcus was also my tenant; I own the building. He used to pay very little money to live there, because of my habit but also because of the neighborhood, which has been broke since I remember and remains inefficiently communicated with the rest of the town; the bus and subway stations are several blocks away, and that mandatory walk isn’t pleasant: flaky walls, no trees, scarce light at any time of the day or the night. Just massive blocks of grayness disposed together, as if someone had planned to barely leave enough space for the air to flow, allowing just the necessary elements for survival but defeating at the same time any means of enjoyment.
One could bike as fast as possible through that prison of cement and despondency—though not with my lungs—but very few people owned a bicycle around, for it in all certainty would be eventually stolen. No neighbors have the means to invest in a vehicle that soon will be taken away, so they all prefer to pilfer it—if they ever see one around. Cars are harder to steal—not that it never happens—but they are also more expensive to maintain, so as a general rule most people walk the torturing blocks toward the bus or subway stations to buy groceries, to find a park or a doctor or a pharmacy, to visit a theater, or to go work or study. I don’t require any of that, so I rarely find myself touring the disheartening surroundings, except when I’m in need of tobacco supplies.
It should be a nightmare for most people, one tends to think, but soon enough everybody learns to live in their own nightmares.
The implications of any improvement in the area and—supposedly—in the quality of life would not succeed at enriching one’s experience for one reason: it is the sort of comfort one expects downtown—the stores, the gardens, the fashionable people—what leans individuals into a still existence. I spent many nights explaining this to Marcus, holding the pipe between my lips, and I believe I convinced him for the most part, theoretically so to speak, but still that assurance couldn’t prevent him from leaving, because deep inside what one wants is not to live—for living is struggling—but to die, and because there’s no better way of mimicking death while not surrendering to primal fears than living in comfort. I don’t hold it against him. After all, Marcus never shared my vice; he just tolerated it, which was generous of him but still a sign of a compromised character.
That night, a while after Marcus had left the building and me, when I heard the sound of those furtive steps coming across the thin ceiling from his apartment, or from the one that had been his apartment before and then was unoccupied, moist wood crying at the slightest pressure, I probably got excited, too excited I mean, my fingers holding unsteadily the endings of the cigarettes, for Marcus had also been my lover.
A different occasion, I fell asleep with a cigarette between my lips. It was some time ago, too, I often lose a proper sense of the days and months and even years. I don’t know why, but I suspect that one of the reasons for it, if not the main or even only reason for it, is that the very idea of a sense of time to be proper is mistaken in its root. What I know for sure is that one night I fell asleep with a cigarette between my lips, and that it was a while ago, way after Marcus had left but not so long after Gretel did.
At some point I realized I was alone again. Gretel was gone and I didn’t know for how long but something made me feel as if it were forever, just gone, the same way it had been with Marcus, though I had the feeling that Marcus had followed a logic, that of the one willing to live in society, be prosperous and comfortable, pursue happiness, while Gretel’s disappearance followed only the logic of me being left behind over and over.
This other night, the one I fell asleep with a cigarette between my lips, it happened accidentally, because falling asleep occurs always behind one’s consciousness, even when one expects it, even after one shuts down the light, the TV, undresses, gets under the sheets, even then, despite one knowing that it is about to happen, when it happens, it happens from behind one’s consciousness; it is hard to explain, but one concludes that sleeping is not an action but a distraction—words that fake too well a common origin. Distraction means literally “to be carried away” and mostly that’s the way people fall asleep. But it is true that some of my will had set the scenario for my little accident, because even though I lack the guts to do something radical in face of loneliness, deep inside I wished my cigarette could start a fire that would bring everything down, all turned into ashes, consumed once and for all by my smoking, sole true company of my life and—then—death. But my building is a gray cube of cement, and to think it could burn down to ashes by a cigarette is at least silly. But that’s not the point, it could have burned my sheets, my bed, my bedroom, it could have burned just enough for me to come to a decent end; or I could have swallowed it and burned inside—but no, I couldn’t have—just enough to not wait for Gretel any longer, full of doubts, staring at the fading reserve of tobacco, I could have burst from within, burst, burst away, I thought, but I really didn’t think that, it was more of an implausible fantasy.
I had told Gretel, though, I’m glad I found you, I’m glad you came to my unsecure building looking for a shelter and stepped into Marcus’—and here she would stare at me oddly. I had told her It is good to have a woman for a change, I had told her while lighting her own cigarette or teaching her to rightly hold the pipe, You don’t need to leave, because you have no aspirations about becoming social, successful, pursue happiness, and I had told her Your feet are so warm, Gretel, my Gretel, though you’re on the bones, while Marcus’ chubby feet were unbelievably cold for those rolls of flesh waving on me during love, one would think a heater machine, his body, with all that hair anyway—that you don’t lack, Gretel, my Gretel—but no, those were cold feet and, coming to think about it, it was a cold body all the way or almost all the way, exception being that burning spear of his. But, of course, my building didn’t fall into pieces, my sheets didn’t burn, my insides didn’t burst. And my fate was to wake up sooner than later.
That morning I almost giggled at the black spot, not larger than a dime, on which my cigarette had fallen from my lips.
I stared and stared at the stain for several minutes, and then it was many months later. It appeared impossible to know how many, but also unnecessary. I had been carrying the heavy load of abandonment for a while once again. The ashes blackening my sheets were telling me that, and they were also telling me something else which I could not fully grasp at the beginning, but which became clearer while my once white sheets gathered their own patina, finally dissimulating the stain with regular, ghostlike grime: it was as if I—and I alone—could produce only failure.
I puffed out another dark cloud with a sigh.
In order to lie, never confess the totality of your reasons, just a truly important one—Gretel told me once. Indeed, lying is disclosing only verifiable truths that do not step on your way. Is this how you hide something from me, Gretel, I replied. No, this is how we all hide something from everybody, dear. Gretel was a theorist; she didn’t bother with particularities, unless they could trigger a swiping conjecture, which I obviously liked. She used to tell me that smoking was an essential action—her voice deeper, more masculine than Marcus’—as opposed to just a dirty habit. It is the air one breathes, it is one’s spirit, I’d add right before spiting black, my palms shaking dramatically up and down.
In a different day I had been thinking on Gretel’s theory about telling lies when she interrupted my train of thought by asking when exactly had I decided to take her, sexually. When I heard your steps on Marcus’ flat, I said. She seemed disappointed. I didn’t give her the time to reply: So you know how to lie, but how does one tell the truth, I asked. She got this poignant expression of hers and now that I think about it she could have decided to leave then—or perhaps it was that no one was paying rent anymore; the supplies were diminishing, the tobacco. Gretel complained about the noise from the streets, the neighborhood, the sirens, the urban clatter. The people. What are you talking about, Gretel, I cannot hear a thing; hardly someone lives in this area and no one else would dare walking around, there are no sirens and no people and no traffic noises, just the silence; this has become a graveyard. Not worse than most places, dear. The way she used to call me Dear was always contemptuous, but I didn’t mind. So you couldn’t wait and see me before wanting me, you are really that lonely, she insisted. No man disdains the prospects of an illicit affaire, I snapped through a stream of smoke, satisfied by what I took as my wit. I think I even was about to laugh then, boisterously, but I started coughing instead for the longest time, without control, a high whistling coming straight from my lungs; it had been happening a lot lately. You’re just ill; contagiously, I’m afraid. Not worse than most people, Gretel. The truth is, it could have been Marcus upstairs, that night, which was clearly the worst prospect for love. This was a perfect explanation, but I don’t remember who brought it up.
This I told myself later—perhaps years later—while recreating the conversation before a mirror: I must at least keep my right to fantasize, Gretel. Sometimes I’d say it calmly, sometimes furiously.
Either she or Marcus told me a story that perhaps I had foreseen, but by myself would have never fully comprehended: When the city discovered that it could pose no more questions, I was told, it became happier. Each could be alone within its certainties. Merely by all neglecting everyone else’s differences, shame ceased to exist; blame and punishment were so casual that they became meaningless. One would seek another for matters of collective necessity or common interest: to gather a crowd for entertainment, to agree new boundaries for imagination. A man would seek a woman and a woman a man, to fuck. In hopes of isolating themselves even more, some managed to justify the most mundane accidents of life with rigid dogmas. But when their offspring reached certain age, the city understood that their children had natural curiosities. Then they were crossed by despair. They were unable to live within themselves any longer. They abandoned their suburbs and segregated themselves even more, shredding the realms of self-proclaimed worthy people even thinner. They moved downtown and downtown only, above the rest of the city. Something chased them or pushed them further into seclusion. It was their fellow men’s questions what chased them away.
The last thing I remember about my apartment is that morning, when, afraid of awakening, I finally reached in the dark for an empty box of cigarettes. It was as if I knew already what was going to happen: I had grown a disfigured limb during the night. Grossed out, I rushed in search of a cleaver. I cut the thing. Fallen, before the first fugitive shaft of sunlight coming from between the empty buildings through my window, there was a slain, squalid woman whom I never knew if I had loved. I don’t know how long I stared and stared at it. Sirens outside.