Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Smoke

(Setting: 24 years ago in an upper apartment in Holland)
My Godmother who is also my aunt drew in deeply from the Virginia Slim she had just lit. I sit there quietly sipping white wine, listening to a male voice croon to us in French from her record player… something about life being for our amusement and death being the time to rest, The singer's name is Moustaki.

My aunt has long brown hair that she likes to pin away from her face with a small clip. She sits back in her favorite easy chair, legs crossed, an ashtray carefully balanced on the overstuffed arm, and asks me a question.

“Karen, who do you love?”

She asked this of me with her gorgeous Dutch accent just out of the blue, blowing smoke upwards around the tops of our heads. She gives her cigarette a delicate tap over the ashtray and looks directly into my eyes. I stared at her through the downward drifting haze and pondered her intensity. She meant to get the truth from me... for me. I slowed down my breathing.

“The one I love is the golden love of my youth.”  I offered.

“Is he still available?” She asked.

“I think, maybe, yes” I said without certainty, peering up at the smoke caught in the light between us.

“Then find him.” she replied.

Her own story rolled across my heart unspoken. I pondered the difficult task of honesty at hand. I was grateful for that curtain of blue-white moving space between us. I stared at the swirls vaguely amazed that I hadn’t started coughing yet. Smoke in a room tends to set me off into hacking fits requiring water and a swift couple of whacks on my back. To this day I still associate the awareness that I had to track down my soul mate with a cloud of smoke. His return into my life is associated with a solid question lingering in visible drifts of air tinted with a melody to Live.

“Who do you love?”

He is a Firefighter. I awkwardly broke off an engagement from a distance and took a ferry across the English Channel to talk it over with him. It had been several years. He met me at the dock and took me by train through London to his military base. The whole time we never stopped grinning. The air around us shined.

On our first day together as a married couple in our snug little British apartment, I confessed to him the seriousness of my smoke allergy. I think he already knew based on how I reacted when we stepped into the local pubs. Bruno’s was the worst with their low ceiling but we kept coming back for their espressos; they rubbed the rim of the cup with an orange peel. At home he would sit on our snow covered front step and smoke. I never asked him to quit but he did within two weeks. He still likes to have a cigar with the guys once a year on some momentous guy day.
I love watching him prepare for the ritual of enjoying a cigar. He wears an English waxed overcoat that he refers to as his “smoke coat.” It keeps a lot of the smoke from settling into his clothes. He pours cognac for the guys and they sit outside next to the chiminea like a displaced men’s club from another time. I’ll glance at them with outward disinterest while I water the plants, checking really to see their togetherness. They are puffing in front of each other like dragons, occasionally turning the lit tips of their rolled brown leaves inward to have a glance at the burning ends.
I remember my aunt’s intense question. Are the guys asking each other questions of deep intensity? They’re probably discussing g-strings under knits. Does the smoke draw out the truth? I know the cognac will do that. Love draws out the truth; love of a dear aunt whom I respect. I gave her a truthful answer and changed the course of my life. I remember how I thought the smoke helped hide my confusion. Actually the smoke and Moustaki artfully softened the moment.


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