Sights. Sounds. Smells.
Isn’t it amazing how memories, both good and bad, can be triggered by the most innocuous things? A song playing on the radio; the smell of homemade bread baking in the oven; the sign outside your hometown, welcoming you back after time away – all of these and more can blindside a person, bringing forth a smile that evokes fondness or tears that precede pain.
In my case, it seems like these moments often remind me of the sad times – mistakes I’ve made; people who aren’t in my life anymore, whether it’s because they’ve moved away or passed away; entertainers that had a huge impact on my life, only to lose them through the years, never to experience the world through their eyes again. Yet I’ve been blessed to have the most important association be one that is related to a positive memory.
Pfft. Who am I kidding? “Important” and “positive” aren’t strong enough adjectives; “life-changing” would be more apropos.
What’s the trigger?
Cinnamon, of all things.
Allow me to explain…
At the beginning of 1992 I was a dopey fifteen-year-old kid trying to find my niche in high school. I had always been a good student, so I had that going for me. Athletics were important to me, but around that time I started having knee issues that caused me to give up playing football, basketball, and baseball. Mercifully I began shedding the unfortunate trends of the 1980’s – mullets, Zubaz, tightly rolled cuffs on jeans, you know the drill – and started looking like a normal human being again. As such, it began to feel like I might have a chance with a real-life member of the opposite sex.
[See? I had no shot when I looked like this.]
Then again, one thing hadn’t changed: my introverted nature. I had a close group of friends that I had been hanging out with since early childhood, but how in the world did that help me when it came to girls?! The fairer sex was relatively new to me, having spent much of my childhood running away from them because they were such things as “gross” and “icky.” Yet my eyes, not to mention my newly super-charged nether-regions, told me females were something worth checking out.
Luckily, a beautiful young lady took me off the hook and saved me from bumbling my way into a conversation with her. I can remember that moment like it was yesterday…
First, an aside. Nasty habit or not, I loved chewing gum back then. I bought the stuff in bulk, purchasing ten, five-stick packages so that I could have a pack a day for two weeks. Through middle school and into high school my classmates would try to bum gum off of me in the same way smokers try to bum cigs off of each other. People knew I had the hook up.
Back to that beautiful young lady…
I forget what class it was, but that’s not important. What *is* important is that one day I was sitting at my desk when an honest-to-God female started talking to me. Now, folks, I’m not overselling this when I say she was stunning. Her image has been burned upon my brain for the better part of twenty-five years now – she was tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, and, if I’m being totally honest here, had a body that knocked the socks off my fifteen-year-old feet. I’d like to say I fell into an easy conversation with her, acting cool as a cucumber; my guess is I didn’t come close to living up to that expectation.
[“Uh, I, umm, yeah, um, you, I, why, umm…hi? It’s hi, right?”]
At some point the fog cleared and my heartbeat subsided enough that I could speak again.
“What was that?” I asked, having missed her initial comment.
“Could I please have a piece of gum?”
“Oh, uh, sure.”
I dug my sweaty hand into my front left pocket and pulled out my handy-dandy pack of Big Red gum. She withdrew a piece, thanked me, and took her seat. Strangely, I have very few memories of her prior to that interaction; not strangely, she was the center of my attention after our brief conversation. From that moment forward, I made damned sure I had a piece of gum ready and waiting for her when I got to class each day, much to the chagrin of people who got bumped from my queue (I remember one instance when a close friend by the name of Kyle was pissed at me because I was “holding a piece of gum for that girl!”).
[$.05 for a chance to talk to a beauty queen? What a steal!]
Shortly thereafter, we became boyfriend-and-girlfriend in the unspoken way that kids have of knowing they’re “together.” We had a memorable relationship, as all first-loves do. We spent time doing the simplest things, from taking walks to watching movies to eating dinner together, all of which seemed that much more exciting when partaking with someone else. And, as everyone knows, there’s something breathtaking about sharing a first kiss with someone, which I did with her.
Unfortunately, our candle was snuffed just six months into our time together. I can’t remember why we broke up. I’m sure it was something earth-shattering, like her Trapper Keeper was too ugly for me, or I wore Vans instead of Airwalks and she couldn’t tolerate that. Just two kids making a mountain out of a molehill. Regardless, we split up and that was that. While I bumped into her a couple times in high school, and we spent a few days together in college, she pretty much disappeared from my life…
…until the next time I smelled or tasted cinnamon. That was all it took – chewing on a piece of gum, sucking on an Atomic Fireball, smelling a scented candle, eating French toast or snickerdoodles. In those moments I would instantly be transported back to that magical time with my first girlfriend. I could see her as if she were standing right in front of me, wearing her tight-fitting red shirt and black skirt, blue eyes sparkling, flashing a smile that could light up the dreariest day.
I cherish that association. There are others that I carry with me – MTV’s Kurt Loder will always remind of me Kurt Cobain’s death; Louis L’Amour westerns will always be related to my Grandpa Ken; firemen will always bring up thoughts of my father; Stephen King and horror movies will indelibly come back to my mother; chocolate cake with chocolate frosting will never taste better than the kind my Grandma Marilyn made – but Big Red will always be at the top of the list for me. It’s that special.
So whatever happened to that girl, you ask?
Would you believe she’s my wife? It’s true. We reunited about five years ago and will be sharing our fourth wedding anniversary in just a couple months.
All thanks to a piece of Big Red gum.
[Phew. Still a smokeshow after all these years.]
Until we meet again…