The Lingering Aroma of Character

Allison Shuman

August 1, 2010

My sundresses and t-shirts reeked of smoke as I pulled them from my suitcase. The musk lingering on my clothes was not that somewhat warm, seasoned smell of cigar smoke or the wise air of cherry tobacco; rather it was the biting odor of cheap cigarettes. I had just returned from a weekend vacation visiting North Carolina and was eager to put my things away. I love to unpack immediately after returning from a trip so that the last minutes of vacation can be used to sit back and relax. This time, however, the unpacking was less satisfying. I sniffed t-shirt after t-shirt in hopes that maybe there was something that could just be put away. My clothes had been steeped for days in my friend’s smoke-saturated apartment where my sisters and I had stayed. I gave an eye roll and a smile picturing the hazy poker night we had all enjoyed together. Overall it had been a pleasant trip, but in some ways the visit had left me with more than a literal odor of abrasiveness in my suitcase. My friend and I don’t always get along and some unpleasant moments, revived during the long drive home, were dominating my memories of the weekend.

My non-smoker nose is pretty sensitive to the smell, although the odor is not always an unpleasant one. In fact my maternal grandfather used to smoke cherry tobacco in a pipe. How I loved that smell even as a small child, mostly because it was paired with his kind eyes behind brown-rimmed glasses, afternoons spent eating tapioca pudding and waiting to hear him say one of his quaint Bostonian words like “rubbish.” My grandfather was very dear to me, whom I respected then as I still do now. Whenever I smell cherry tobacco, or even just imagine its distinct aroma, I am back in his living room with the weathered blue couch or in his kitchen pulling M&Ms out of the fridge. No, I don’t really look down on smoking, but with neighbors like lung cancer I don’t think that I could move into the habit. An author once wrote, “Smoking is one of the leading causes of statistics.” It’s true – everyone and their mother has an opinion on smoking, whether they hate it, love it or are apathetic towards it. Journals are devoted to it, ad campaigns seek to influence its impact and laws attempt to place boundaries around the wily devil of a habit. What I find truly fascinating about the hobby of smoking is how long the distinct smells of smoke can linger. After the effects have vanished and the physical pieces are gone, its flavor remains in the air.

There are many figures in film and history whose smoking habit is nearly as iconic as their face. For instance, the charming stem of Audrey Hepburn’s classy, long cigarette holder or Carrie Bradshaw’s daringly honest, contemplative cigarette as Sarah Jessica Parker’s “Sex and the City” character. It’s amazing how closely we relate the roles these actresses played with their fictional habits, analyzing them in attempts to reproduce the strong persona they exuded and we admired. In Hollywood’s golden age it was rare to see a movie that did not include at least one clouded scene, where haughty lifting or nervous tapping of a cigarette could enhance characters. We can all see the image of renowned Brit, Winston Churchill: stogie dangling over his lips, “V” for Victory in his fingers. The legacy of Churchill’s statesmanship and dignity has wafted through history books and every American’s perception of politics and World War II trivia. A person’s habits are powerful expressions of character in a way that captures our senses, leaving us with reminders of either vices like insecurity and corruption or virtues like courage and unshakable optimism.

In high school my friend was known among our crowd as the cocky kid who drove too fast and smoked when none of us did. He has done a lot of “growing up” since then, but a certain measure of recklessness and ego is just part of his personality. If I could summarize him in one word it would be something like “manpower,” so I should have known that it was a bad idea take the responsibilities of navigator when he took the wheel on our day trip down to the beach. After some confusion on highway exits and a few questionable turns I began to voice the directions more forcefully (“No, REALLY. We need to be going EAST. This is NOT east…”), because after all I was holding the map. Three U-turns and one conversation with a cop later, my overly confident friend gave in to my original directions with a reluctant apology. It’s hilarious now, but at the time it was all I could do to not roll down the window and throw his ham sandwich onto the highway (or a more drastic, impactful action). But that’s how it often goes between us: his ego-buffed insistence against my redhead indignation. The next night my sisters and I poked fun at the torturous drive (which was filled with other interesting moments), laughing over text messages sent across the table during a smoke-filled game of poker. The humor eased my irritation over the incident, but the memory was still pungently bitter.

As I finished unpacking back at home, deciding whether my clothes could do with a simple Febreze or needed a double wash, I decided that overall the weekend was a fun trip. Sure, some moments had been truly infuriating but others, like laughing with my friend about his roommate, redeemed the experience. Good character and bad both leave such strong traces every time we arrive and depart, leaving lasting impressions about us and about the people around us. What aroma does your character leave in another person’s metaphorical suitcase?

Allison Shuman is a junior from Mentor, Ohio, majoring in History and Business Administration.