I love the smell of stale cigarette smoke.
I love the smell of it on clothes, I love the smell of it on my fingers after I’ve had a cigarette (rare), I love the smell of it in old hotel rooms that still allow smoking. I can only wish that I grew up in the time where they still allowed smoking on planes. As it is now, I can only stare up at that always-to-remain-unlit icon of a cigarette between the seatbelt sign and the stewardess call button with a faint longing, knowing that it has been stripped of its authority, and now serves merely as a reminder of a time that is now past, like a faded, decapitated but still standing statue of some long disposed dictator.
The reason for this isn’t hard to trace. When I was a child, my mother and my step-father both smoked: profusely, continuously, and without regard for my developing lungs. They would smoke in bed, while making dinner, at the dinner table, in the car. Now lest you think you can chalk up their decision to smoke in front of me, all the time, to the ignorance of a generation that didn’t know any better, the time of cigarette ads in magazines where a doctor stood with one leg on a chair, cigarette perched in his mouth, and declare that he and all of his doctor friends only smoked Winston’s…this was the early 90’s. We knew that smoking caused cancer, and that cancer killed without prejudice. But they were my parents, and – because I was still ensconced within the peculiar, unique fantasy that all children live in – whatever they did was simply right by default.
All that is just background, but it has a point: when I smell that musty odor of stale smoke, or walk through the secondhand cloud of a smoker ahead or passing by, it reminds me of my parents, both of whom are now gone; my mother for eleven years, my step-father for five.
They say that you die twice: the first time when you take your last breath, and the second the last time someone ever speaks your name. So when I smell that smell, and unconsciously call to mind their names (L, C), I guess I am keeping a part of them alive, at least in that last sense. It’s not just their names I remember, however, but a whole avalanche of remembering: I remember their bedroom in the daytime, no shadows yet because the sun rode high in the sky, C seated cross-legged on the bed, cigarette in his mouth or between his tobacco-yellowed fingers, my mother lying just behind him, leaning her head on her elbow, ditto cigarette. They would be watching the baseball game, or a movie that their friend F had dropped by on videocassette (he was one of those guys that seemed to have an endless supply of mostly terrible cheesy movies) on the old television that sat on the bedstand next to the bed, the television that you had to turn way up to drown out the stale buzz that it emitted from out of the back of the console, its electrodes sounding out their painful, and lingering, death rattle.
This was after my mother had quit her job to go on permanent disability, but before the really bad times, the constant yelling and threats, before I came into the master bathroom (a misnomer, it was tiny) and saw that my mother had written all over the walls in black flavored sharpie, and I knew that he had finally driven her crazy. I don’t think he knew how much he hurt her, like really, deeply affected her, in her very core, her psyche, soul, whatever you want to call it. And I don’t think she knew how much seeing her like that hurt me. We all pay the pain forward in our own ways. We are all imperfect people working with, living with, and if you are a parent, raising, other imperfect people.
So if there’s so much pain back there, why, when I smell the smell of smoke, do I let my mind drift to those times? Simple. Because they are there, are alive and have form and can talk and sure, they can hurt me back there, and they did hurt me back there, but god, what I wouldn’t give to have my mother and stepfather here, and now. Even if it’s just in the other room, and even if it’s just to yell. Even so. Come back.
But I can’t. I can’t keep them alive, in that first sense. They’ve taken their last breath. So all I can do is keep them alive in the second. It’s a pale imitation, that second sense. Hardly even a shadow of the first.
But it’s all I have.
I love the smell of stale cigarette smoke.