Jessica Luo '24

I was walking alone along a deserted boardwalk one hazy morning in November. Icy waves broke beside me as I strolled the silent planks. Out of the blue, I heard a high- pitched squeal behind me and quickly turned around, disturbed.

“Look!” a child shrieked.


I glanced down to see a five-year old tugging on the edge of my jacket. I noticed that the frigid cold had turned the knuckles of her grubby hands bright pink. She held a broken shell between her shivering fingers.


“Where’s your mom?” I asked in a futile attempt to shoo her away. Her tiny blue pinky pointed towards a man standing by the waves. Cloudy fumes braided around his fingers and face, and a gentle smoke weaved in and out of his mouth. I have to admit; it would’ve been poetic. It would’ve been beautiful if his five-year old daughter wasn’t left unattended, freezing, and unaware.


“Hey, mister! Is this your kid?” I shouted.


He looked over with sleepy eyes, tossing his cigarette into the sea. After a dozen or so heavy steps, he appeared in front of me. His breath reeked of tobacco. With a single stench, the stores of memories returned, choking me calmly.


It was a blazing sunny day in late August. “Going off for a smoke,” he told me. He threw the phrase away like his used cigarette butts, scattering remains everywhere he went. I stayed and waited.


It was all I could see. Children running around in houses full of sweet fumes, breathing in their parent’s lifestyle of overwork, fatigue, and surrender. It was so fun.


It was so lonely.


I looked the man in the eyes and told him a story. I told him a story of rebirth, victory, and defeat. How, at age six, it returned after years of his promises to “never go back.” He replaced our bedtime stories with drugstore trips, and dozens of boxes would magically appear and vanish within days. At last, it came. I listened to his voice grow thinner and thinner until I couldn’t bear to hear it. I watched his body shrivel away into ashes, but it didn't end there. He got better, of course. He always found a way to return to “normal,” but at this point this was his normal. A gravity-defying comeback, an awe-inspiring recovery, and the dreaded rebirth. With its expected arrival came the recoil. Doctors, tubes, monitors, a late night sickness replacing midnight smoke.


I never realized it, but the stench of death always reeked in our house growing up. Maybe it was always there or maybe it was just waiting for the perfect renaissance. I guess I’ll never know.