I started moving on when my friend took a drag of a proffered Djarum and pronounced, smirking, “It’s like smoking a fucking spice cake.” He was nineteen then, a shaggy-haired music school dropout who rolled his own American Spirits and was officially the worldliest person I knew. The two of us who were with him laughed, but we knew that it, like that Magnetic Fields song, was an indictment of our own bourgeois naiveté. We hadn’t yet stopped feeling cool smoking cloves: we smoked them as we drove downtown listening to experimental jazz, on the periphery of a parking-lot drum circle, outside the blues club during a break in the jam session, outside the theatre during a break in rehearsal. We enjoyed getting called “the little incense factory in the corner” when we sat in the coffee shop playing chess for hours, as we did while waiting for the midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the art house next door.
By the next summer, none of us would still admit to enjoying cloves. We’d moved on—to other cigarettes, other things to smoke, other ways to rebel.
I hate to say it, but the Feds were right. Cloves really are a gateway cigarette, the weapon of choice for teenage bohemians—for, well, black-clad seventeen-year-olds—who like the edginess of smoking but want it to be sweet and gold-striped and crackly. For the rest of us, that cherry-incense smell is cloying at best, ridiculous at worst. The last person I know to actually buy a pack of cloves was a friend of mine on a nostalgia trip; she ran out of nostalgia before she ran out of cloves, and let the rest get stale because she couldn’t bear to choke them down. (I had run out of real cigarettes fighting an all-nighter, and took a few off her hands; at sunrise, my lungs still tasting of cherry, I texted her a sardonic “Thanks for taking me back to high school.”)
But since the federal ban turned our memories of spice-cake smoke into a past that can’t be recaptured, the clove has turned into another Proustian madeleine. Placed irrevocably in the past, the tame subversion of youth we’d normally blush at becomes an innocent romanticism that deserves our sighs. Everyone to whom I’ve broken the news has gone through roughly the same stages of grieving: 1) regret that he didn’t “just go buy a huge carton of them to save,” 2) realization that “I haven’t smoked those things in years,” 3) nostalgia for youthful countercultural innocence, as illustrated in 1-2 gauzy anecdotes, 4) eulogistic invocation of the same damned Magnetic Fields song. All I need to do is mention that cloves have been banned, and my interlocutor spends a few minutes with his nose pressed against Fezziwig’s window, chuckling at the youth he used to be. And upon hearing him go through his nostalgia trip, I’m launched into one of my own, which generally starts with the “spice cake” line and ends with the incense factory.
Except. Except except. Except that I was never actually the teenage bohemian I wanted to be, and the more I dig into my memories, the more I realize what a trick I’ve played on myself. That rush of images I associate with the smell of clove smoke can actually be separated chronologically into two distinct periods: the months of college during which I smoked cloves myself—only a few weeks of which were spent in my hometown among the friends who populate my memories—and the years of high school when I was a wannabe bohemian too afraid to do anything genuinely rebellious or risky. I never smoked a clove cigarette during a rehearsal break; I held the door for the girls who did as they coolly discussed cock rings and I pretended not to be shocked. The smell of cloves must have come from someone else during that chess marathon—and despite my carefully chosen outfit, I was by far the most conservatively dressed girl at the Rocky Horror showing. I didn’t even know the tune to the Magnetic Fields song until I arrived at college; I’d only seen the lyrics in the AOL Instant Messenger away message of a friend of mine who’d moved to New York, and I giggled knowingly to myself as if I had any idea what she meant.
But once I moved away from my hometown, and could no longer visit the places I’d frequented but had never belonged, it was easy to turn a bohemianism I’d aspired to into something I’d once possessed. After all, memory as seen through Fezziwig’s window wasn’t all that different from the perspective I’d had the first time, watching the scene from the periphery. And that remembered smell of clove smoke—bringing memories more vibrant and powerful than most—only helped confuse the times I’d been producing the smoke myself with the times I was experiencing it, like the rest of bohemia, secondhand.
Maybe the people I talk to now have more trustworthy memories than mine, or less timid younger selves. But the collective nostalgia trip we’ve all taken as a eulogy for the death of the clove cigarette produces the same false belonging. After all, it’s only in retrospect that the stock character of “teenage bohemian” even comes into focus; the teenagers themselves, of course, are usually convinced they’re expressing their individuality. The added perspective of time helps reveal the shared conformity of counterculture, but it does too much when it turns a thousand individual experiences, most of them solitary, into the shared experience of a thousand. The rebels I admired a few years ago, and those of years before that, may have smoked the same cigarettes as those of yesterday—but at the time any of them would have been appalled at the presumption that that created some sort of commonality between them, or at the suggestion that in the future they’d be wistful or embarrassed to remember that they once felt so cosmopolitan and pure.
So my friends and I will have to find other reasons to snicker at the teenagers we see now and imagine to be our heirs. We’re wrong to imagine it, of course, both because some of us, like me, were never quite like them, and because they would never recognize their rebellion in our nostalgia. Adolescence feels very different as it’s experienced and as it’s remembered. Memory has a stubborn ability to make everything seem precious, safe, and shared. Sooner or later, our pasts all start to smell like clove smoke.