A few weeks ago, the five of us found ourselves in The Golden Eagle (yes, we have named our mini van), belted in and not moving. We were stuck in traffic, directly behind a school bus, which was belching out diesel exhaust. Mary hates that smell, and I don’t blame her.
But every time I smell diesel exhaust, I remember the years I spent in Belgium, a country that runs on diesel and Fanta and cobblestones and pommes-frites.
I remember being twelve years old, and getting the news that my family would be moving from southern California to that impossibly far away place. I remember telling my parents I’d kill myself if we actually went. My flair for the dramatic began early.
I remember my friend Colin who lived across the street in a two-story white brick house in Waterloo with black shutters, like they all are. I remember the in-ground trampoline in his back yard, on which we spent hours and hours, jumping our way into adolescence. I remember his dog, whose name was Pharaoh, and his mother’s unbearably loud voice, as it boomed around their house like a grenade and made us run for cover.
I remember the hot August day, just before seventh grade, when I put down my Millennium Falcon, because in an instant, I knew that I was done playing. I remember trying to pick it up again, to recreate those vivid adventures, which existed in my mind and came out of my mouth and hands, but it just didn’t work anymore. I remember the ache I felt that day, having lost something I didn’t want to lose, and not being able to recover it.
I remember spending every Friday and Saturday night of my eighth grade year sleeping over at my best friend Andy’s house, playing Microleauge baseball and talking late into the night. Andy and I are still very close, a thirty-year friendship that I treasure in ways that are incalculable.
I remember my first kiss, which incidentally happened in a “make out room” in someone’s basement during a dance. Stone in Love was blaring from crackling speakers. She was very cute and very short and had fiery red hair, and when she unexpectedly put her tongue in my mouth, I remember being both thrilled and a little scared at the same time.
I remember getting a “D” in Mr. Phalen’s seventh grade math class. He was tough, and he posted people’s “marks” (he was British) on the wall, ranked from highest to lowest. I don’t think I ever even made it into the top half of the list that year. I can still feel the stomach lurching sense of shame when I think of approaching that wall.
I remember falling treacherously in love the moment I saw her coming down the stairs in September of my ninth grade year. She liked me back, then she didn’t like me. I was devastated. That’s when I started listening to The Cure and Depeche Mode, bands who were created for teenagers like me who don’t know how to express the frightening chaos that brews beneath our skin, bubbling and boiling.
I remember getting so drunk one night that I missed the last train from Brussels to Waterloo, so I spent the night alone, outside the locked gates of Brussels’ biggest train station. I remember waking up the next morning with vomit on my clothes and the taste of ashes in my mouth. My parents were out of town, which was good. Had they known, I’m sure I would have been grounded until I was forty. I didn’t tell my parents about that one until very recently.
I remember being selected for the all tournament team in baseball in tenth grade, during a magical weekend in The Hague where I couldn’t miss, in the field and at the plate. And I remember my dad coming to watch every game, having freshly shaved off the mustache he had worn every day of the sixteen years of my life up until that point.
I remember Mr. Tobin. Every student should have a teacher like Mr. Tobin. He got to know each of his students and selected books based on what he thought we’d like. The first book he gave me was Trinity, by Leon Uris. I remember staying up late into the night reading about Conor Larkin, who was everything I wanted to be, but feared that I wasn’t: brave and passionate and rough edged. Twenty-seven years have passed since I met Mr. Tobin, and I recently emailed him to thank him, certain he wouldn’t remember me. He quickly sent a note back, assuring me he did in fact remember me, and hoping that I was well. And now I realize that he was my Conor Larkin in the flesh, the man I hoped I’d become someday.
The smell of diesel reminds me of a time that I treasure, a place of promise and of pain, the place where I left childhood and careened my way through most of my teenage years. Everything that happened to that teenager who looked so confident but so often felt so lost, has shaped the actual person that is now a father and pastor and husband.
And all of it belongs.
What are the smells of your teenage years? What memories can you look back on which have shaped you? Can you hold them in such a way that you believe they all belong?