A Waft of Stifling Wind

Tobaccos have always been some sort of a conundrum to me. It may come off sounding like an idiosyncrasy, for what’s so odd about a ubiquitous commodity? A malicious substance, commonly assembled and marketed worldwide for those who knowingly purchase, ignite, and consume, suffusing their inner organs full of nicotine.

It relaxes me, it grants me epiphanies, it’s something that I’m used to, as they always say. Both my dad and his mother took those pretexts to the fullest. Whenever he scribbles down the novelties that pop up in his head while examining the look-alike (to me, they were) wavelengths accompanied with complex jargons that I don’t quite comprehend, what usually follows is a sigh of relief, a sip of no longer lukewarm Wulong that’s probably readily hours old; then, with a look of triumph, the self-proclaimed learned researcher would proceed to near that magical substance against his lips, breathing it all in with almost a gesture of salutation. “I’ve told Xiao to get more, A’min, no more worry for next month”, as grandma jabbered, with jocund, follows a dissonant-sounding strike of piano keys, I can’t recall which note she was on, but it was stentorian for sure. One of the granny’s favorite moments is making sure there’s no shortage for the upcoming month, aside from reciting the bible verses and playing those hymns and recitals. So it’s both their motivation and reward, I mused, it seems to me equate cause to effect. As no more than a puerile teen at the time, I put my rumination to a halt.

Now that I’m a young adult — although I do concede the fact that I’m still half fledged — -and gazing back towards the days when wisps after wisps of toxins had filled up my lungs, I figured it out, kind of, it’s people’s ill-will compels them to justifies their action so that they can proceed as they wish and not having to circumscribe their free will. No matter what sort of malignant influence it may provoke on a person’s self and their others, when people are stuck in a loophole in too deep, what they tend to do is to alter their internal outlook, for they are aware of what’s already inevitable.

Mid May of 2012, that was quite a gloomy morning. I was absent from school for half of the day that day. “A’niang is gone”, Ma suddenly remarked as I was brushing my teeth, close to having a stupor from sleep deprivation, “she passed away”, I could hear the quiver as Ma reiterated the news again in English. That put me in an actual stupor.

Never had I ever seen any dead people until that day. Cadavers, emaciated corpses, burnt victims, I got the notion of these mainly from video games. I feared, genuinely, partly because I was a hundred time more superstitious than I am today, so as one of the less favored grandkids, I have a good chance of getting haunted for life; and also, no matter how unfavorable someone seems, it’s chilly to see that someone lying down, lifelessly inert and indelibly wan, and awfully, everything surrounds seems not to change a bit, except the slight trace odor of tobacco still lingers. But at these moments that I was aware that something is gone and irredeemable. Afterward, what comes forth is a vacant sensation of lacking. Things that I was used to are gone, and it’s tough to adjust myself and try to live through this new normal.

Later I was told things happened in a duration of six hours before dawn. The morphine that grandma has been taking after she was diagnosed with liver cancer backfired; at midnight, she started having difficulty breathing, and the suffocation continued despite the family’s relentless attempts. Grandma was 93, people who crave longevity are probably envious of her, but her final moment wasn’t desirable: it was with pain, not serenity.

I do have affection for grandma and his son, but it always baffles me thinking that the latter one day is gonna have to go through the consequence of his pleasure-seeking behavior, to know that something is likely predestined and awaits, shudders me. It’s like those heroic tragedies, the diligent devoter’s fate is predetermined, their demise is inevitable in the denouement. That day, I started to consider what’s more about myself. What now? I was involuntarily assailed by those adverse chemicals for those twelve years, from infant, toddler, to preteen, whenever they decided it’s time to light one up, that familiar yet revolting haze would mesmerize the entire household, and there was no escape. Something I never asked for was already rooted inside my physical being, substances that might impose a threat later in my life stage (presumably if I could reach that). Today, that fume is gone, yet the air is stifling like before. Melodramatic as I was, having that brusque detachment, fear of grandma’s spirit, along with the “what now” concern, I started weeping. To other folks, it probably looks like merely “that poor kid just lost his beloved grandma.”

Fast forward to yesternight, I repeatedly dipped my eyes, slightly bulged and swelled, making sure they’re completely submerged in water as if ablution salvages the arid sensation from the invisible yet debilitating smog. Not gonna lie, I feel somewhat baptized. The pond of placid water seems like the last haven of mine; as soon as I lifted my face from the liquid, the malodorous substance again devoured me, gushing into my nostrils and down to my lungs. This verisimilar feeling contemplated me half-consciously, almost feels like grandma is coming back. Familiar and aloof, the realization of non-escape is restored.

When I woke up again, it was 8 o’clock sharp. Surprisingly, breathing wasn’t as onerous and the despicable smell turned mild, perhaps due to my habituation to this new milieu. Rolling up the shutter, the air is tinged with some unexpected color to the point that I have to question myself whether I can spot some desert-dwelling mammals, or, felis margaritas. With the hope of seeking a bit of vestige from normalcy, I glanced up. As expected, the culprit remains aloft in the higher galaxy, bearing a distinct hue: not scarlet, not crimson, but bloody; lividly aglow, as if telling us no compromise can be made. Its loath conveyed through its gaze, penetrated the curtain, and landed on the marble carved floor. However ominous this shall be, the blending of the two seems a bit aesthetic, if you’ve merely glimpsed.

Today is September 11th, 2020. If nature has consciousness, then he is likely someone who takes pleasure in schadenfreude. The Los Angeles Times reported around 6:30 am the occurrence of several new wildfire incidents throughout the States of Washington, Oregon, and California. At the moment, the Bay Area is straight-up binged orange. Down in Southern California, there exist several new emergencies, including the Bobcat Fire next to the city where I reside. Just like the devastating incident on the same date back in 2001 that decimated the edifice where they celebrated their anniversary, nature has left out its wrath once again, this time the place where I took a stroll on my 18th birthday. The creeping, unappeasable flame pierced through the lush trails of Mt. Wilson and is likely to bring upon the doom for such exuberance.

The third night passed, so did my initial enraged self. Learned helplessness gradually eats up my intrinsic belligerence, no longer spearing towards those of unforeseen and uncanny. No matter how willing I am deep down to sparkle a demonstration and cast out the maliciously nurtured wrath, the physical self answers with a firm no. Recalled? This is not some kind of unprecedented exploitation. You’ve been here before, it was and is imposed by other human beings, the prior direct and the latter implicit.

Sometimes I do conduct some self-questioning: am I being melodramatic? Perhaps this is nothing yet some seasonal phenomenon ended up slightly more severe than yesteryear. Frankly, my incipient thought when I saw that wisp of hot blaze oozing out from the used-to-be lush covered lofty mountain range was more of amazement than intimidation. That instance my Id surpassing the Superego, I spectated but not sympathized, astonished yet not intimidated.

And, I started freaking out when the evacuation warning extended to our city. That night was chaotic. We were simmered in the scorching heat, utter confusion, and from some hearsays. For once in a long while, I had genuinely felt fear. What’s formidable wasn’t particular, yet abstract, as if some malodorous gas lingered in my chest, inertly standing by its stronghold. I’ve spectated quite a lot of natural calamities, though never within a five miles radius. I stood by the crossroad, looking around. If I don’t look up and not judge the clarity of the scene that bypassed my cornea, things seem quite normal. I flinched, however, as I felt some ash-like particles, though invisible, had again sneaking their way up inside my nostril. Pupils, as they laboriously focused on the far away scarlet contour of the mountain range, finally reached their limit and thereby embraced the eyelids. The heat is ongoing as the livid flame keeps shrieking, distorts the muddy sky even more.

I sipped again, this time profoundly, on the straw that delivers the icy-cold frappé.

Then I went home. As if affected by my mom’s sets of precautionary principles, I too, started to pack the “important belongings”. “The house is ensured”, mom squeezed the leisure to remark curtly, I see her all sweating, while trying to carry those readily deformed cardboard boxes from our other spider-infested garage, “you hurry up, take those pictures so we have proof, just in case anything.” I thus followed, obedient as usual, and ignored the absurdity among it. Crucial entities are merely monetary possessions, I knew it well. Perhaps I’m not as materialistic, not as frugal, or I just simply didn’t see the meaning behind it. If our house fell victim to fire, stuff will certainly be gone, stuff that’s not to be recovered by insurance grant. The pleasant odor of that lemon tree when we first moved in, the astonishing moment of seeing that backyard full of lush, the first Thanksgiving we once feasted, the first time I gave in to sleepiness on the reddish-brownish armchair in the study, those are unique. Regardless, I took the just-in-case pictures as if I’m an automaton.

I probably shouldn’t say underwhelming, but several days passed, while we turned 100% vigilant and had been surveilling the surrounding 24/7, the livid flame retreated. Unquenched still, it advanced all the way north towards the lifeless desert. This is a moment of relief, again, even that is not likely to last forever. The fear and insecurity were sown, burgeoned, flourished, and now died down. Its appearance is seasonal and sporadic, and that’s what’s formidable. Sometimes I’m self-incarcerated in this state of denial that everything has a resolution, while wishful thinking makes a vulnerable being out of myself, and the selfish mindset of “it’s probably not our generation that will suffer” turns myself idle, inert, and unsympathetic. What had happened to that indignant teenage self? I unpacked, putting all the accessories back to their positions, and astounded when realizing that I carried that tiny snow leopard figurine along with me.

I glanced through the windowpane towards the high up, that almighty canvas that’s once again tinted with azure hue. Not much a sense of relief that I feel, but a frantic prayer deep down that implores: please, don’t you fade away.

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Boba critic as well as a feline addict. Paranoid centrist. Undergrad @ UCLA. Dabbler in creative writing and literary criticism.

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Jialun Jeffrey Chen

Jialun Jeffrey Chen

Boba critic as well as a feline addict. Paranoid centrist. Undergrad @ UCLA. Dabbler in creative writing and literary criticism.

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