Smoke Screens

By Bobuq Sayed

The week the pandemic hits, I break my lease in Little Haiti and drive fifteen hours up the I-95 to be with my parents. My father has bad lungs and I’m scared the virus will get there before I do. At night, his hacking cough rattles the floorboards between our rooms and, each time, my throat seizes up waiting for the fit to pass. His strained joints clutch the headboard: a sign of djinn or the fear of death teething at his epidermis. I listen for the faint purr of my name in case he needs to be taken to the clinic again, where doctors many years his junior scold him for the poor choices he’s made. I remember how he took me by the wrist to warn me about cigarettes when I was a child. “The green stuff, it expands your mind at least,” he said. “But, nicotine, it’s just an addiction. Listen to me. I know what I’m talking about. Wasn’t I a doctor too, once?” Another story I accepted as gospel. I promised I’d avoid cigarettes. It is the first time I ever lied to him. 

My sister and I worked the family deli alone on Saturdays to let our parents rest. For hours, I stood on phonebooks stacked by the cash register and sold fried chicken and pornography to port workers and paint-licked tradesmen. Between the end of the morning rush and the start of lunch, my sister would lock herself in the disabled bathroom to text the Polish boy from school who she was forbidden to date. That was my window. I’d climb onto the counter and sweep the back rows of cigarette packets into a gray plastic bag. Benson and Hedges, Winfield, Drum, Horizon, Marlboro, loose leaf and pre-rolled, it didn’t matter. The graphic warnings on the labels had convinced me that smoking cigarettes caused imminent death and I felt a blade of guilt that our deli sold weapons of mass destruction. Whatever I could, I squirrelled away. If there was time and no sign of customers, I’d march to the dumpsters, bury the bag under sheets of cardboard, and bolt back inside. By the age of eight, I knew how to dispose of my secrets discreetly.

In Japan, when predators break into the galls of winter hazel trees, a species of pea aphid deploy a protective unit of soldier nymphs to defend the colony. Dozens of soldier nymphs sting the invader and repair any damage using a white gunge. The gunge contains a cocktail of chemicals rich in lipids and, once it has coagulated, most of the soldier nymphs die: from suffocation in the now-hardened gunge or exclusion from the gall. Gradually, regrown plant tissue seals the area.


Once, the morning after my parents hosted a party in our home, I discovered snubbed out cigarette butts submerged in the soil of the petunias behind our back door. Protocol meant the men retreated outside to drink and play cards while the women foot-soldiered the sink and stove. One of the men must have mistakenly left the relics of their smokes in our garden, set loose like a murderer in our midst. Forensically, I collected the foam canoes on my palm and disposed of them. Even their light contact with my skin made me feel filthy. A reedy hunched over Lady Macbeth scrubbing away the stench of tar and the sin of betrayal. These were my family members, after all, related to me and everyone else I loved by blood. Why would they choose to die in front of us? Did everyone know this was happening? How could they allow it?

There was a span of months when I was a child where my parents found new company. My father was a good match for Aziz Kaka. They were dormitory friends from the old days in Kabul, both burly and loud and easily tempted by an extra pinch of whiskey. My mother, on the other hand, was older and more devout than his wife. Roya Khala’s hair had a volume and color I recognized from the glossy photographs my mother kept in a biscuit tin beneath her bed. Roya Khala smelled of royalty and sickly-sweet perfume when I greeted her. There was something else I detected too, some other scent I knew but couldn’t name. I found my mother in the parlor room after dinner, her ankles crossed, wrestling with a lit cigarette. It was the night I learned she was no god and the knowledge made me cry so emphatically I had to be taken home. Over and over in the car she promised me it was her first and only time. She said she was sorry but the tears were inconsolable: my own private funeral. We never went over to visit or dine with them again.

Among my memories of undergrad, a feathered curtain of smoke veils the ginger curls of my first boyfriend. “Chakmak var mı?” I asked him over the thundering beat the moment our eyes first met in a club. He lifted his lighter to my lips and ignited the desire. The next day, by chance, I saw him at the North campus library and then later for a date. He got the shakes when he didn’t smoke, he said, and the world was ending either way, wasn’t it? Smoking was just a little suicide in the meantime. Our fatal mating ritual. The longer I spent with him, the more my alveoli flayed like bug-bitten leaves. I stumbled into him by the Bosphorus Strait a week after we broke up. He shook loose a cigarette from a paper sheath of Camels. This time it was my fingers that trembled.

In the 1960s, NASA and the U.S. Navy funded scientific research on three bottlenose dolphins. John C. Lilly and Margaret Howe Lovatt spent two years attempting to prove that dolphins could learn to mimic human speech by modulating the passage of air through their blowholes. In a private facility on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, Lovatt committed six uninterrupted days of the week in close quarters with the only male, Peter, with whom she routinely practised English vocalizations. The live-in experiment lasted six months and, during this time, Lovatt manually relieved Peter’s frequent sexual arousal. When the funding was cut, the lab was disbanded. Peter was sent to live in Miami while Lovatt stayed on in St. Thomas. Separated, Peter’s health soon deteriorated. Dolphins are not automatic air-breathers. If the conditions of life become too unbearable, they can elect to drown themselves. They do not take the next breath.


My eight year old niece is helping me pack when she discovers a full packet of blue American Spirits in a bum bag at the bottom of my closet. She is intensely curious like I was at her age, forever scouring under beds for secrets and peeling at the guts of other peoples’ drawers. “Don’t worry. I’m not a smoker,” I insist. “Every once in a while maybe. If I’m out with my friends or drinking or something.” Her earnest reply is immediate, emboldened by conviction. “But they are bad for you,” she says. And she is not wrong. I cannot tell her that smoking is not the only way I have tried to kill myself. That dying is not so bad when it is glamorous and prolonged.

The truth is that displays of concern for long-term health draw my ire. Asbestos was built into the walls and ceilings of our council housing estate. My mother’s brain produced so much cortisol after leaving Afghanistan in the dead of night that it gave her lifelong insomnia. She parcels out her quarters and dimes as though any minute now she could lose a home, a language, a nation, again. Memory loss plagues my father, too. The grease that clogs his pulmonary arteries is the ghost of the deep fryer at the deli where we worked. Both of my parents will die too soon. Some people are born at-risk and others are assigned risk later in life if they become poor or stigmatized. There are no studies on the long term health outcomes of queer people of color but I don’t need a graph to formalize what I already inhabit. I know what is killing me because I survive every day in spite of it. What kind of world is this, that our execution is inevitable?

In order to survive, the larvae of a parasitic nematomorph hairworm must be eaten by a grasshopper or a cricket. Hairworms grow inside the host animal and soon develop the ability to influence its behavior. There is some indication that this enjoinment changes the proteins in the host’s brain, which alters neurotransmitter and geotactic activity. The parasite’s influence causes the host to launch itself into a body of water and drown. The adult hairworm then emerges from the carcass and reproduces in the water. If there is no water, it cannot compel its host to travel at length. Only on sight of its own reflection can the life cycle of death continue.


I pick up smoking every time I move to a new city. It is the best way to make friends. Smokers trust each other. There is no shame or shyness. The ritual is well rehearsed; an unspoken oath between strangers. They share lighters and banter and light grazes of the wrist. Social groups in courtyards are more porous than the cliques inside bars. Open air broadens the horizon. Smokers spend money on gratification in lieu of security and so they are more fun to be around. They are present. A prominent death drive is an arousing feature. I have seen enough cinema by Godard and Truffaut and Varda to know it is artful to share a cigarette with a lover over espresso or after sex. My first few months in Miami, I meet a fashion punk at Las Rosas who is slimy with the sweat of other bodies and, by lighting a second stem, my interest is conveyed.

Headshot of Bobuq Sayed

Born in West Australia to Afghan refugees, Bobuq Sayed is a freelance writer, artist and a former editor of Un Magazine and Archer Magazine. They have received fellowships and residencies from the Wheeler Centre, Firstdraft Gallery, Punctum, Kundiman, Tin House, and the VONA/Voices foundation, and their work has been published and performed widely. Bobuq is a Michener Fellow in the MFA program at the University of Miami, where they edit fiction for the literary magazine Sinking City.

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