The smell of Cuba is beautiful. Every place has its own smell. London, for example, has a different smell than it used to have. It was unmistakable as you stepped off an airplane and lined up in the Customs and Immigration Hall at Heathrow. London had the aroma of beer, heavy lubricating grease like the kind they use on escalators, and diesel exhaust from cabs. It doesn’t smell the same now. It has changed.
I would wait to inhale New York until I got down around 11th Street in Tribeca before it got to be trendy. New York smelled of saltwater, dank basements, car exhaust, and unfiltered cigarettes. Chicago always had a note of feed grain and animal offal. Austin smelled of dust and heat. Heat has a smell. It is dry. You feel as if the inside of your nose is slowly being cooked, and beer, though not English real ale like I detected in London. I can close my eyes and you can put me on a plane and when I land I can tell you where I am.
Havana is my favorite. It smells of the car exhaust I knew from my childhood before emission controls became standard in North America. Rum, a sweet note hiding in the background, but hard to detect. And cigars. Cigars everywhere. That’s where I developed my love of what my friends call the most disgusting habit in the world. Cohibas. Cohibas and liquor. I can almost imagine I am in Cuba when I open a bottle of Jack Daniels. There’s smoke in there somewhere, which is why I have gone to great lengths to recreate the smell of Cuba. I mustn’t forget the note of ocean salt. That’s there, too.
My wife left me because I said she smelled like Quebec City, like stone that is cold even in late spring. My dog gets wet in the rain. She’s stonily metallic, and sometimes I smell my wife on her, not as she was but as she became. A garrison city. The cold hard smell of a clear day when you look east along the St. Lawrence and you see all the way down to where fresh water meets the sea. But you don’t smell fresh water in Quebec City. Everything smells like my wife when she said we were over
I told her she was the stony silence on the seaway, as Leonard Cohen called it. It is the smell of a worn-out relationship, the personal ramparts meant to keep invaders at bay. That’s why I smoke cigars and drink heavy black rum. I want to remember Cuba. I want to smell the saltwater on her skin, a Cohiba between my fingers as she lay down glistening beside me. The oddly out-of-place aroma of coconut suntan lotion after it is salted by the sea.
I want to tell myself I haven’t forgotten what love is because I can still smell it, though each reminder is slowly killing me.
‘Cuba’ was originally published at Retreat West, 2019.