I have grown used to the smell of cigarette smoke. The sweet sticky smell laced with a sour undertone. The stark Ivory cigarette that leaks tobacco smoke; how it is jammed between my Uncle’s thick fingers, vermillion embers pulsing like a heartbeat The way thin wisps of smoke curl out from under the stubble of his beard. It is an odour that has clung to me over the years, stamping memories of my time spent in Brazil with its gritty scent.
For as long as I can remember, my Uncle has smoked. I first became aware of the fact at age ten when poking my nose into the courtyard, I caught him in the act; a plume of smoke dribbling from his lips. I hadn’t expected to see the expression of guilt that soaked into his features, as I peered down into the rusted metal can where he had smeared the ashen cigarette tip. A boundary line of indigo smoke wove itself into the space between us, as I became painfully aware that I had intruded on a ritual that had been previously unknown to me. I had always associated the crumpled paper packet of cigarettes as unanimous to my Uncle, one complemented by the other. In a way this is logical, since every memory I have of him goes hand in hand with a stiff paper box in his shirt pocket. My brother and I knew at an early age to never approach any packet similar in appearance, if we wanted to spare ourselves a panic attack by my uncle. I soon discovered however, that the flip side of this was panic was concern; it brought awareness to how much about him there is that remains veiled. Such as the unbelievable amount of gentleness that drives his somewhat rough attitude; the immense hospitality he sheds upon family and friends. This is rarely demonstrated without his throwing in a mug of thick, sepia-toned coffee. For him, this is how conversations are cultivated, in the airy, linoleum-floored kitchen over coffee, and human interactions.
My aunt is the unsaid ruler of the kitchen, possessing a surreal and octopus-like ability to be in several places at once. As a result, the kitchen collects and traps various odours that inform me of where she is in terms of her housekeeping: beans simmering in their black shiny straightjackets some, having precipitated sufficiently in their seasoned sauce to expose their pale cooked innards. Black bean soup, white rice, melted butter, melted margarine; sautéed kale, laundry detergent; shampoo; fried beef; fried chicken; fried fish; fried potatoes; barbecue; coffee cake and black syrupy coffee. The coffee is my Uncle’s domain, and many any are the occasions where I have arrived at their home to find him entertaining some guest, his thick, husky-voiced comments triggering elegant giggles from his guest. My Uncles has no such trepidations regarding his laughter, and bellows with a smoky chortle that is near intoxicating. It is the kind of sound that one can almost see, accumulating near the top of the sharp angled ceiling along with the cooking smells. Ever since I was tall enough to sit on the plastic covered metal stools, I adored watching my uncle prepare the coffee with a sort of childish pride. I could practically feeling the tenderness radiate from his arthritic fingers, observing the care with which he peeled a single strainer from matted clump; the material only a few shades lighter than his own skin.
He extends the same current of conversation with me, as is carried with his guests. There are a few differences though, that push through the surface enough to be noticed. The wide dimples that crease his mahogany cheeks radiate the same amount of interest and elation at seeing me; but as I have grown closer to him, I realize there are things often overlooked. More so, the intense emotional and physical pain that is well masked behind his features. The obvious discomfort caused by his arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure. And the gnawing pain at having left his family in one of the poorest villages in the metropolis Rio de Janeiro; the unspoken struggles of having married and raised a family far from home. Most powerfully however, is the inherent fear that has embedded itself into certain places where life has grated too harshly against “ready to love” attitude. This is not to say that he is neurotic and jumpy at every cough or snap of a branch. But it does explain his recurring and strongly vocal fears towards anything that might appear dangerous. Staying out on the streets after ten, driving in a certain part of town, gluing his eyes to the ground whenever crossing paths with a beggar or street vendor. My anger at his attitude boiled over the day he refused to let me walk to the bakery at night because of his claim that it was dangerous for me as a girl. Overtime though, I realized that his frustrating attitude was simply based off fear, and nothing else. He is a man torn between two worlds; not wishing for his family to face the trials he did in his world, growing up as a poor, black citizen. I was able to become more literate towards any surprising attitudes on his part that would have confused, even angered me before. For it is through his slight obsessive fears of certain people and ways of life that he feels he is sparing his family crushing blows, uncertainty and disappointment.
However, waves that have lapped against his rounded, full toned personality have failed to diminish his being in the least. If anything, they have magnified and expanded he exuberant, colourful nature that comprises how others see him. That is why a single memory that has not been in some kind of contact with his nature is rare. There is one, yet even then, his cigarette entered the sliver of a snapshot, in a way standing in for him. What I do remember, slides in and out of focus amidst a backdrop of shifting smoke. The day my bother and I cracked a mature coconut on the concrete outside my grandmother’s apartment, marvelling at the fibre encased husk that had splintered in shards on the baked pavement. The air that day smelled of heat rising off the tar filling on the driveway, thick cones of Jasmine, a musky scent leaching from an overripe mango and cigarette smoke. My Uncle had wandered off the premises, but left his cigarette on silver-backed Eucalypts leaf. The round tip burned a hole into the leaf, a makeshift alter that crumbled into ashes as I licked the opaque milky coconut water off my fingers.
About the author: My name Alena means "light" and it was given to me in hopes that it would be easy to pronounce both in Portuguese and English, the two languages that we speak at home, however, it turns out that only in the former language can my name be pronounced correctly. I have lived in Western Massachusetts for my entire life but love visiting family in Brazil, where my parents met and got married. Having access to two very different cultures has given me inspiration and much rich material to work off of when writing. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, writing poems and short stories, playing the cello and teaching myself to play the guitar, being a cello buddy to younger children, singing, composing, being in nature, travelling, and hanging out with friends and family. I am currently a Junior at Hartsbrook High in Hadley Massachusetts.