Recently a friend posted on her Facebook status that she was cooking and suddenly the smell of the food transported her back to a memory of her grandmother. I've always been prone to smells triggering memories, and often wondered if other people experienced this as well. Often the memories are good ones - the smell of cinnamon buns always takes me back to my mom, who made the best cinnamon buns in the world (confirmed by everyone who tried them), and the smell of rosewood instantly takes me to my father's workshop when he was building cedar chests lined with that particular wood. There is one smell, though, that I actually find very troubling as it always takes me back to a certain time in my life when things just seemed to be in a different language that I couldn't decipher, and when I felt very lost.
It all began the summer before I started university. I had just graduated high school, and was experiencing real freedom for the first time. I was legally an adult, and had recently ended a series of "young adult" relationships. I felt ready to embark on a new adventure - an adult relationship. I had someone in mind already, but I didn't know him. I'd seen him around town over the summer, a local artist with flaming red hair. Our paths had crossed on occasion, and he seemed fascinating. I confess I've always been drawn to people who are unusual - who march to a different drummer, who aren't quite normal - and he fit the mold very nicely. Shortly after I started university I actually met him at a house party I attended. I went to the party with another young man, but when I actually met the artist I was smitten. It turned out the party was at the house he shared with his housemates, a group of artists and musicians. It was an eclectic group, and very different from any I'd ever known.
It took some time but our paths crossed again (mostly due to my manipulations), and we began to spend time together. What I found odd, though, is that we virtually never spoke. He never told me much about himself, and the silences struck me as strange. I am a talkative person by nature, but around him it just seemed that I fell silent. Occasionally we spoke about his art, or my classes. Occasionally we spoke about a movie we'd seen (separately - I don't recall ever going to one together) or bands we liked. He told me little about himself, except that he was ten years older than I (secretly I found this thrilling - it made him as old as my sisters, and lent the relationship edge). I told him very little about me, because he didn't ask.
It was late November, and every day after university I would get on the bus and take it to his house. There we would sit in his room in virtual silence. That we were attracted to each other was obvious - but the silence was something I couldn't figure out. Being an artist he smoked, of course, and this is the only time in my life when I did, too. We would sit and smoke and say nothing.
I would eventually have to leave to head home, and when I left rather than take the bus directly home I would walk across the bridge that spanned the river in our city, heading towards downtown and the bus stop on the other side. I would walk in the frigid temperatures, smelling stale cigarette smoke rising from my clothing, and try to comprehend what exactly was going on. I didn't understand this "adult" relationship. I had no idea where I stood in it, and I had no idea who this man really was, because he never told me. I was, in fact, floundering all over the place, my first year in university going badly as I began to spend more time at the bar across the street from campus than in class. When my philosophy professor, who had taught one of my elder sisters and thought her a spectacular student (which she was), stopped me in the hall after I had missed several classes to tell me that I "obviously wasn't like my sister" I stopped attending his class at all. High school had been a breeze. University was, quite honestly, kicking my ass. I was clearly lost on many levels. I didn't know how to navigate this brave new world I found myself in.
I contemplated asking one of my sisters for advice on this relationship but thought better of it as I knew once they heard his age they'd be concerned. And I'd learned some information that made it worse. It turned out that even when we did speak he had lied to me. A good friend who was worried about me had her mother, who worked for the police, run a check on my male friend. He was not ten years older than I - he was closer to twenty years older, and older than all my sisters. He had a criminal record for things that even I, at 18 and probably the most liberal I would ever be in my life, had trouble reconciling. Not only didn't I know him, even the things I thought I knew were wrong.
As so many things do it ended with a whimper, not a bang. I met someone else, and without telling him began to see them. Why would he care? We'd never spoken of commitment. We'd barely spoken at all. He called my house a couple of times after I stopped going by after classes and spoke to my mom. She said he sounded hurt when she said I was out. I figured she misread it - he couldn't be hurt because there was nothing there to be hurt about. Finally one day he saw me with the other man, someone who also happened to be a person he'd never liked. I guess that's when he knew I'd moved on.
That night he went home and trashed the house he shared. His housemates asked him to leave, and I became persona non grata in that group. A friend of his that I met much later told me that he'd told them that he loved me and couldn't stand losing me. I was competely, utterly, and totally shocked. Love? We'd never spoken of that. We'd never spoken of any feelings. If that was love then clearly I had no idea what love was. I was pretty certain I wasn't in love with him. He actually packed up and left the city altogether, and I never saw him again.
After it was over I spent a lot of time trying to figure that relationship out. Perhaps it wasn't him who was silent, but me. Perhaps he was waiting for me to talk. Perhaps it was just one of those things destined to burn out, like a shooting star. Perhaps he was just as lost as I was at that time and didn't know how to say it. I suppose I thought back then that there was a secret to being an adult and I just didn't know it yet. I thought that adults just knew what to say and how to act. I knew I was struggling with being one.
Now as an actual adult all I know for sure is that the smell of stale cigarette smoke instantly takes me back to that bridge and those late evening walks, hearing the snow crunch under my boots and feeling snowflakes mingle with the tears on my face as I gazed at the twilight stars and tried to understand what being an adult really meant, and wishing I was better at it.