The first time Mikey sees a woman go around the bus shelter picking up cigarette butts, he thinks it’s for some art project. It’s the sort of thing Gerard’s roommate would do, make some giant eight foot three dimensional statue of a lung composed of contact cement and cigarette butts. Mikey gets emails from Gerard pretty frequently, and they’ve always got something about the crazy shit that Trey decides he’s going to shock the world with.
The second time he sees it, it’s a old man, unshaven and shivering. Mikey reconsiders it, and decides picking up people’s trash has to be the worst volunteer work ever. Logically he knows that if no one did it, the street would be a mountain of pop cans and dropped transfers and butts and tons of other shit he can’t even imagine. He should be grateful for the volunteers for Clean Belleville, or whatever the fuck they call it, but he just steps out of the guy’s way when he comes close.
It’s the third time that Mikey gets it. The third person that picks them up is a middle aged woman with a cart full of random crap. She’s wearing three hats with rats-nest hair peeking out from the rim, and half a dozen layers of coats. He’s never seen a more stereotypical homeless person. She sits on the sidewalk a few feet from any of the people standing and waiting for the bus to pull up. She pulls out a paper bag and puts it beside her, a smaller plastic bag balances on her knee. She pulls out a butt from the paper bag and peels the paper off, and dumps the tobacco that’s underneath it into the plastic bag. Mikey angles his body so that he can still see when the bus pulls up, but he wants to watch what she’s doing. When she’s got a good chunk in the plastic bag she takes a bible from her cart and tears out a page. She rolls the tobacco like somebody would roll a joint, and then fishes a lighter from one of her many pockets.
He watches her until the bus pulls up and he storms on, dropping his change into the locked box beside the driver’s knee. He settles into one of the seats and thinks about it for a second. He wonders how many people she asked to borrow a cigarette from who said no before she gave up and started doing it this way. He wonders how many homeless people do this, and how it’s taken him this long to notice. He’d like to think that he’d give her a smoke if she asked, but he doubts he really would. His cigarettes are important to him.
Mikey buys his cigarettes for a dollar at school. Lee Anderson is the guy he usually goes to, he likes the brand Lee has best, but once you go to the smoking doorway you can buy off anyone. He could buy his pot or anything else there, but he sticks with the cigarettes. He’s got a full pocket of crumpled, soft, torn dollar bills in each pair of jeans just for that.
At the clubs he stands outside and looks bored until somebody pays attention to him. They’ll go for a grope or a kiss, Mikey’ll let them put their hands where they want, tongue where they want. After he or she is done he’ll get a drag off their smoke. Then it’s back inside to look bored until he gets a drink out of it.
So really, he can understand the person smoking a cigarette rolled in bible paper, tobacco from ten different brands. If he didn’t have his ways to get them, he’d probably do the same.
Things are different without Gee. They used to share a pack. Gerard would always have to buy them, but every second pack Mikey would give him the money to pay for it. Gerard never cared what brand he got, would buy them based on which ones had the least disgusting picture and description of horrible diseases on the packet. There was a difference between knowing it would give you cancer and die, and seeing someone’s disgusting rotten teeth and failing lungs. Not enough of a difference to actually stop, but enough to pay more attention to which brand came home with them.
They’d take turns hiding the pack. Gerard tried every time to take it with him, but Mikey wouldn’t let him. They were both fully aware of the overreaction Mom and Elena would have, the hell that would be paid if either found out. Hypocritical, of course, both the women in their lives smoked like chimneys. It was unlikely either would enter the hellholes that were their bedrooms, but it was the principle of the thing. Mikey refused to let Gerard take the blame, even hypothetical blame, more than half the time. He didn’t need protecting.
Sharing a cigarette at four in the afternoon as mom watched tv a room away was almost like sex. It had to be a kept secret for fear of lectures and punishments. It was illicit in the same way, Mikey was underage for either. It was dangerous and thrilling. And not just because they had to hide from the adults in the house. It was dangerous because it made Mikey want things he couldn’t have, thrilling because for brief seconds smoking made him feel like he could have them.
Mikey liked to pretend that he could taste Gerard’s saliva on the amber filter, feel the lingering warmth of his lips when the cigarette was passed. He could imagine the shape of Gerard’s lips around a smoke, even if he wasn’t looking at Gerard. He’d looked enough that he knew every inch of Gerard’s mouth. He was done trying to not want it, he only focused on not showing his want. And then, the night before Gerard left for university Mikey found the courage -the insanity- to pull the cigarette away from his mouth and kiss Gerard.
Mikey hasn’t bought a pack since Gerard left. He buys some in singles, and trades favours for the rest. When something loses its meaning it’s devalued forever. Mikey refuses to keep cigarette packet relics of something he’ll never have.