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Nicotine & Nihilism
In the twenty four years I’ve lived, I have never lit a single cigarette.
It’s the only flaw my father ever saw in me, the only reason we’ve never spoken since I left the nest; I’ve committed myself into a work I’m not passionate of. I’ve transformed from the ambitious gentleman my parents raised me as to a humming drone, an oily cog in a smoking machine, a punch-clock villain. I can’t blame them. It’s not their fault I was born with a few missing pieces.
The cigarette industry. Of all the places to be, fate led me to the cigarette industry. The same people who killed Uncle Andre and his wife, seeded tumours and paranoia in their offspring. The big bad corporation planning death on all your houses. The devil’s lair, hidden in plain sight. You think it’d be a little bit more intriguing, with that résumé.
Indonesia’s government is not cigarette friendly. Granted, very few governments are, but Indonesia’s on the list of cigarette-neutrals. Nobody likes having carbon monoxide and burnt tar shoved in their faces; nobody can live without the ridiculous tax prices they charge for it. We run on cultural variety, ground spices and suppressed vice—the latter of which famous for acting the least detrimental of the three.
“Advertising for cigarettes is hard, not impossible,” Majikan once told me. He had a sharp face, a Roman nose, one deformed, milky eye. Rolled up sleeves, suspenders like the ones you’d see in old movies, an onyx gilded in plated gold on the index finger. Dark, tall, and improbably handsome for his age. “The government thinks that by disallowing cigarettes from actually appearing in our ads, it’ll make us quit. It doesn’t. The entire idea of censors is deluded and erroneous—they don’t stop us from selling cigarettes, they only force us to be creative in how we do it.”
And he was right. Commercials with mountain climbers and successful businessmen, colourful posters, catchy slogans, none of them showing off one man taking a drag. Has it become a problem? Yes. Should we stop for the greater good? Of course. But you have to give the industry credit; it takes skill to have a generation quoting inspirational messages off Marlboro billboards.
It’s a cubicle job, advertising for a pack of poison. Coffee breaks, low to average wages, dull meetings at noon, charts, charts, charts. The only time when it seems a little enlightening is during the graveyard shifts—when the night creatures come out to play, and the vices become evident. Two types of people work in the business: those who work for cigarettes, and those who live it. A majority of the latter stays after twelve.
I, too, stayed after twelve. But I was no Cigarette Man. I drank with the Cigarette Men, I dressed like the Cigarette Men, I even spoke the language of Cigarette Men. But Cigarette Men knew I was no such thing. Cigarette Men had livers of steel, offered pitch after pitch, treated the business like a deity. Most Cigarette Men were dark-skinned men with tongues like knives, not Asians with clean cheeks and slits for eyes. I was no Cigarette Man. Luckily for me, the Majikan didn’t care.
He invited me to his office from time to time, usually after some celebration for rocketing sales, a half-drunken bottle of champagne and filled ashtrays involved. His one milky eye would look out on the glass wall behind his desk, staring out into the city. The eye of a philosopher, my father once told me—only in the blind can one truly see all. He’d sit in his spinning chair, a cigarette between his fingers, an ornate silver lighter on the other. Huff once, cough.
“You think I’m the bad guy,” he said, once, in his throaty voice.
I froze. Then, aiming for the reflection on the glass, I nodded.
He grinned at me. Smoke slipped through his lips, followed by a chuckle. “I like you,” he said, smiling. “You remind me of myself, when I was younger. A thinker.” He tapped at his head with his onyx ring. “’I’m working for the devil’s accomplice’, your brain weaves, carefully. ‘Death’s essence, between a man’s lips. Killing families, strangers.’” He shrugged. “Intricate fairy tales, good versus bad, the little people against the evil corporations.”
“Do you disagree?” I asked, balling my hands behind me.
His laugh bloomed clouds of gray out his nose, his false teeth glimmering in the dark. “What in God’s name suggests that?” He turned to me. My rage was extinguished by the fire in his eyes, the guilt and the acceptance. “Of course, I’m the bad guy. Of course, I’m hurting people. But of course, I’m also helping them in significant ways.”
The rage returned. “You kill people, Mr. Hartono,” I told him, refraining from shouting. “You admit to that, yet you insist you’re helping them?”
“Son, I don’t kill people. If I was, I would be adding more nicotine to the rolls.” His eyes peeled open, like a child’s interrogating gaze. “See, what I do is help people kill themselves. And you’d think it’d be even worse—because you’re one of those ‘classical’ thinkers. A child of Hans Andersen and Grimm Fairy Tales, a devotee of gray morality. I was once, too.” He spun back to his desk, dimming his cigarette but against a glass ashtray. His white eye reflected the dying flame, flickering in and out. “Then I lit my first.”
He dropped the cigarette entirely, pulling another pack from his pocket. It wasn’t our brand. “Cigarette smokers do it as a hobby. They do it because their uncle once did it, who saw his grandfather do it, who saw his father do it. The hobby people, they can stop whenever they want to.”
He pulled out a piece, lighting it with a flick like poetry. “True smokers do it to...complete them. To fill the pieces they’ve lost over the course of their life. They’ve realized something only psychology acknowledges; everyone, secretly, wants to die.” He looked to me, grinning. “It’s called living.”
I shook my head. I could feel my brows knitting creases on my forehead. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“As I said: classical thinker.” He spun back into the city’s possessive arms, the starless night he’d learnt to tolerate with a vacant smile. He took a drag and for a moment, he was the hovering fog, the January mists that crowded the sleepless streets of Jakarta. “You’ll understand, though. You’re a Cigarette Man.”
It was my turn to chuckle. “I’ve never--”
“You will.” He looked my reflection in the face, solemnly. That was the first time I realized how pale he looked, the moment I finally saw him for what he was. Not the devil’s accomplice, or a cold hearted corporate executive. Not even as a man. The Majikan was a walking corpse. “Trust me. You will.”
That was two years ago.
A week after our talk, the Majikan was diagnosed with lung cancer. He prepared a will donating his riches to the company, and his assistant as the new boss. Day after day, he kept smoking. Bought a few more packs of cigarettes. His heart wouldn’t stop pumping.
I got the news through the papers—Kompas, Surya, a short obituary in the Jawa Pos. Jumped off a bridge, they said. There wasn't much more. No sympathy for the big bad cigarette company executive, they told me. No sympathy for villains.
In the twenty four years of my life, I have never lit a single cigarette. Not a single one. I sit here in my old boss’ chair, staring at his silver lighter and his hidden pack of Marlboros. Yet.