Sense Memory

I’m 17 and in love with a boy in Australia. He visits Singapore every other month and we spend our days together, late mornings to nights so late they turn into mornings. We eat together, we laugh together. We wander around Far East Plaza and break into the gardens above Lido together.

When we go to the roof of Far East Plaza for him to smoke, he kisses me when he’s done. He doesn’t taste like ash. All of the commercials say that kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray, but that’s not true. It tastes like him. It takes like tobacco and sweetness and smoke – his kiss is like the crisp edge of a marshmallow left in the fire too long.

When we break up, the smell of his cigarettes brings me to tears. I cry openly in public, face red and splotchy, not even trying to hide behind my hands. He broke up with me in public, on the steps outside of Tang’s, facing Orchard Road. I think I’m allowed to cry in public now, too. I do not know what he smokes, what plastic-wrapped foil packet brings my emotional demise, but it must be common. I smell it all the time.


 

I’m 18 and still in love with a boy in Australia who broke my heart in public, but I am recovering. I am taking my time and talking with friends and enjoying myself. I am sitting in a dive bar six nights a week, drinking water most nights because I am too broke to buy booze. My friends are all there, behind the bar, playing pool, parked on the barstools. I am the only non-smoker.

I am 8 months into what will be a life-long relationship with cardiologists, beta blockers, and constant lectures on the importance of heart health, and I am bitter. I don’t even want to smoke, but I resent that my friends have the choice and I don’t. When we sit at the bar, I am in the middle of them, cigarettes lit, smoke clinging to my clothes as much as it does theirs.

When they have to exhale, they all lean back, the petals of our adolescent flower opening out, blooming, while I sit in the middle, watching the smoke rise to the ceiling and be pulled into the fan.


 

I am 20 and in love with a farm boy from Virginia who says “darlin'” and helps his dad hide guns from his mother. He is an ex-smoker, having decided that if the choices were be able to smoke or be with me, he wanted me. Before we dated, when his friend was attacked and he needed to calm down, I gave him the only pack of cigarettes I’ve ever bought. He needed them then. Now he needs me.

Facebook is still new, still novel, and photo albums are exciting and new. I am flipping through pictures of him from his long weekend at another school when I see it. He is standing, laughing, red Solo cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

I think I can smell it on him when I see him, though it’s been days since it happened. We get in a fight about it, one of the few where both of us yell, and it is terrifying. I can’t smell cigarettes on him, I can’t smell anything but his cologne, I don’t want to know what the two smell like together. I win, though. He doesn’t have another cigarette until he moves out of the house we share four years later.


 

I’m 25 and in love with the life I have created in the wake of the break-up with my farm boy. We are still friends, still talking, still cracking jokes, but learning the new tension points. We’re testing our new kind of relationship, our friendship-with-a-history. We would not even be friends if it were not for cigarettes. His father is dying, the haze of unfiltered Camels that clouded his parents’ front porch for years has made its effects known.

I visit his father for the last time a week before he dies, and the thing that is weirdest about the house is not the sense of death creeping closer, it is the clean smell of farm air without tobacco. When I hug his father, his curly beige hair no longer carries the lingering smell of his cigarettes. His smell is gone, there is no more nicotine-infused sweat, just the smell of exhaustion and pajamas worn too long.

He has changed physically, but that difference flares up and fades away quickly, a magnesium flare leaving a brief after-image superimposed on his body, and then it is just him – tissue paper skin, strong bones, and a frustrated laugh. But his smell is gone, and, soon, so is he.


 

I’m 27 and in love with a guy who reminds me of the boy from Australia. A few days in and I’m already familiar with the way cigarettes taste on my new paramour’s lips and tongue, the way his kiss burns just a little. He promises to quit, tells me it’s easy, I shouldn’t be impressed. He’s a non-smoker now. Simples.

I wonder if it’ll still feel like him when we kiss, if my heart will still race when he doesn’t taste like the fire I feel in my veins when he’s around. Will he be somebody new when my eyes are closed? Will I have to check and see who I’m kissing? I worry that he will taste wrong, taste off, and I am secretly disappointed that he has quit.

The night he tells me it’s simple, we go out and he steals a cigarette from a friend. He won’t let his friend drink and smoke, he says, pulling the packet from his friend’s shirt pocket. It’s dangerous. He takes a cigarette as a fine and returns the pack to his buddy. When I don’t smile, he pouts. It was funny, he tells me, Irish accent thick with three shots of tequila and an addict’s longing for a fix. Laugh.  I force a laugh. What I don’t see, what I can’t see yet, is that the only thing that’s simple for him to quit is me.

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