Dispatches From The Burn Unit by Brendan Gauthier: Chewing Tobacco

I message my roommate from undergrad, Chris, who was then known for dipping because it wasn’t something a lot of people did where I went to school. He’s since quit, he tells me, but wintergreen-flavored Copenhagen “used to be my go to.”

Another roommate, a doctor’s son from Reno, had packed a lip for the first and, to my knowledge, last time in the living room of our dorm in Jarvis Hall—a Victorian Gothic structure built in the 1870s that originally featured servants’ quarters—and promptly puked out the window.

I carve out a couple of hours and buy a tin. It costs $7 and change. I make a 35-minute recording on my iPhone—for posterity. I take my shirt off before I start—not for novelty, but because I want to wear this shirt to workshop on Monday, and I worry about brown spittle-stains.

I begin.

:59 — I use a pair of dull scissors in an attempt to break the packaging and slice, shallowly, into my left palm. 

2:47 — I dip.

Tobacco cultivation began 7,000 years ago in the Andes and gradually spread northward. In 17th century Virginia, colonists exchanged tobacco (referred to as “brown gold”) as currency with Native Americans for a myriad of resources. With increased demand from Europe, the cash crop became inextricably linked to the abhorrent practice of slavery in the pre-Civil War United States.

This chew—of the looseleaf variety—is salty and has a musky taste, like scotch. It evokes the smell of the one room in my great-grandma’s house where she kept more than one velvet painting of a crying clown.

The saliva is difficult to keep up with, and the spit is not as opaque as I’d remembered. I think maybe I packed too much because little fibers come out when I spit in my makeshift spittoon: a plastic party cup. 

The fibers stick to my lower lip and tongue (Later I will find them between my teeth).

6:32 — “It’s cool. I feel cool. I wish I were doing it in public.” 

7:24 — I may have swallowed some. Not a lot, but enough.

8:42 — I get a buzz. It’s similar to a caffeine overdose without the shortness of breath. I expected the spins, less of a body-high.

8:52 — “It’s definitely hitting me like a freight train now.” My girlfriend suggests that it might be the whiskeys from earlier in the night catching up to me. But, as I tell her, “I drink a lot every night.” I know it isn’t the whiskey. 

15:03 — “I like this. I really like this,” but the lack of nausea is “disconcerting.”

19:14 — “I’m glad I did this.”

19:56 — “I am starting to feel a little weird, digestively.”

20:27 — “I don’t feel good.” 

I fish the wad out of my lower lip, stop recording, and walk to the bathroom. I pace a bit before sitting on our makeshift Squatty Potty®—a children’s stool from Ikea—facing the toilet. 

My girlfriend kindly brings me my phone so I can resume recording. 

21:42 — “The nausea comes in waves.” … [Panting.] … “I’m sweating a lot.” 

The buzz slowly travels to my feet. 

28:44 — I get sick. 

29:56 — I stop getting sick. 

There’s something to be said for listening to a recording of yourself throwing up. Like watching your own sex tape. 

I gather myself and take a nap on the bathroom floor. 

Chewing Tobacco: 2 out of 5 kisses.


Brendan Gauthier is a MFA candidate in nonfiction.

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