Objects of Affection is a column centred around the things and spaces that serve as hallmarks of our relationships, from the personal to the professional, and everything in between. This week, we explore cigarette smoke.
Bringing the small flame to your cigarette, you take the first long drag and a familiar wave of poisoned serenity washes over you.
In the small pocket of quiet you’ve found by the side of the pavement, the next ten minutes are spent peacefully just watching the world go by.
Or so you thought.
Important-looking businessmen discreetly hold their noses as they strut past while mothers of schoolchildren nearby begin to stare, a vehement disapproval etched into their faces. Reading their inner monologue in their eyes, you resist the urge to roll yours.
To them you’re not much more than a public nuisance, a delinquent whose penchant for self-destruction makes your mere breathing offensive.
But not to me. In fact, the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to you like an overzealous one-night-stand reminds me of one of the most important periods in my life.
Temporarily liberated from the clutches of Singapore’s education system, my buddies and I spent our newfound freedom doing what teenagers at that age do to pass the time. From watching every summer blockbuster so we could critically discuss how hot the actresses were, to spending an ungodly number of hours at the arcade, we had clean fun while maxing out on the sloth life.
But being dumb kids who knew fuck-all about financial stability, our days of productive slacking off were short-lived. Our chosen forms of entertainment quickly took a toll on our meagre savings, and a few smashed piggy-banks later, we decided that it was time to get a job.
It was literally a day after our little employment epiphany that we joined the workforce. We walked into the hotel nearest our usual hang out spot, enquired, and voila. That very evening, we became clueless banquet waiters at some poor couple’s wedding dinner.
That was also the first time I met her.
Our initial encounter happened when I was clearing tables towards the end of my first shift. Feeling a small pinch on my ass, I turned around expecting to see one of my mates playfully reminding me it was time to clock out. I could not have been more wrong. Because there she was, a cheeky smile plastered on her face.
Before I could properly register what just happened, she walked off to the end of her shift – a trail of the scent she was wearing the only evidence of our interaction. As a clueless eighteen-year-old kid, I was dumbfounded. I had come from an all-boys secondary school and still had limited experience with the fairer sex.
Was this normal? I didn’t know.
What I did know was that I had to see her again.
About a week later, our paths crossed once more as we dressed the banquet hall for another wedding. Me being me, I bombarded her with all the questions that had been swirling around in my head. She ignored them all with an expression not unlike the Mona Lisa.
During our conversation however, she did share that she was a year older, and was waiting for her A’ level results as well. I discovered that we possessed a shared love of music, both of us having played in our respective secondary schools’ symphonic band. And to top it all off, she had a keen interest in photography, something I had begun dabbling in at the time.
It was as if she was someone so similar to me yet completely different.
For one, she was the happy-go-lucky free spirit that my introverted, over-analytical self was drawn to but couldn’t fully understand.
She also smoked.
Although I never actually saw her light up in all the time we spent together, the distinctive scent was hard to miss. What baffled me was that up until that point in my life, I had always abhorred the smell of cigarette smoke. I could never fathom why anyone would want the noxious odour following them throughout their day. All of that went out the window when I met her.
Somehow, the smell of chemical combustion complemented her Body Shop perfume perfectly, and the result was truly intoxicating. So much so that I never failed to tell her how amazing she smelt every time she walked by.
It wasn’t long before we started hanging out outside of work. Even if our shifts ended close to midnight, we would skip running for the last trains in favour of walking around the hushed city centre, talking into the wee hours. On our days off, we’d go on little dates to explore the country we lived in. We were young, we were happy, and I was in love.
But it was not to be.
A couple of months later, for reasons unbeknownst to me, she vanished. Text messages went unanswered and phone calls either went straight to voicemail or were rejected completely.
She had taken her last drag and the cigarette was tossed.
But as much as it stung back then, in the years since, I got over it. Eventually, I managed to stop playing back every moment of our pseudo-relationship in my head, trying to find any semblance of an explanation. I also stopped constantly wondering about the “what if-s” and learnt to let it all go.
That said, I have and will never forget the feeling of having the rug pulled out from under me.
You see, as much as this article is about a girl who broke my heart, it’s also about how, when you’re young, you really don’t know shit about the world.
At eighteen, I was fearless. I thought I had all the answers and life figured out, but I was wrong. I came to realise that the world isn’t always kind, and at that age, having that illusion shattered makes for one hell of a leap in terms of personal growth. You live, you learn, you figure it out.
To me, the smell of her perfumed-infused cigarette smoke will always be reminder of that.
Yet as we move towards a smoke-free world, I’m left wondering how long that reminder will last.
Even then, for the boy whose relationship with a lit cigarette goes against the grain, a small and admittedly selfish part of me wishes that the smell lingers in the air for just a while longer.
An eau de parfum of rebellion, unrequited love and growing up.