Tim and Yvonne and Cigarettes

This picture was taken at Tim’s place about 25 years ago or so. I don’t remember taking it, but I know where it was taken. Tim lived in a typical low-rent Southern California housing complex: several studio units clustered together on the same lot, connected by fragmented concrete walkways, weeds sprouting up from the cracks. As I recall it, there was a front room with a couch that may have doubled as a bed, a tiny kitchen and bathroom attached; only the bathroom had a door.

Tim was, at the time, I think, in his late thirties. He had ice-blue eyes and unkempt thinning blonde hair and was pudgy. I remember him telling me a story about how a cowgirl rescued him from an alley brawl late one drunken night behind one of the very few disreputable watering holes in town. He was about to get pummeled and she popped up out of nowhere and yee-hawed so loud it scared them off. Tim was into music and there were piles of cassette tapes scattered around, mostly LA rock and punk.

It was always smoky in there, and I remember it as very brown: amber light, brown furniture, yellow windows and lights. A cheap brown-plaid couch. Sink full of dirty dishes. Empty bottles. Ashtrays.

He gave me a Henry Rollins zine that I have since lost and can’t remember the title but I still recall the cover: a needle and spoon. The zine was photocopied and stapled: I suppose Internet blogging has killed the old art of the zine, which is a shame, though I suppose some one has scanned and uploaded that Rollins zine by now.

I forget how I first wound up at Tim’s, though at the time I had just started to drive and was reading Bukowski and listening to Tom Waits and hanging out with a crowd that drank coffee and listened to the Pixies and sat up all night in the smoking section at Denny’s. They were all a little older by a year or two and terribly intellectual and smart and I was awed. The Denny’s in my hometown had been, before our time, a Van de Kamp’s: there was a giant functionless windmill on the top of the building that added a Quixotic gesture to the proceedings in the smoking section below.

There was an American-born Chinese girl named Yvonne—was she Chinese or Vietnamese?—who was promiscuous and boasted about it and was beautiful and provocative and also used to hang out at Tim’s. I remember driving her somewhere and her complaining to me that a boyfriend made her go on the pill then had dumped her. Another time, she and her current lover and me all went to see Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! at the art house cinema in the neighboring town.

She didn’t sleep with me. I don’t think I tried. Like I said, I was a little awed by them all. In over my head.

One afternoon, she and I were hanging out at Tim’s place—in my memory, he isn’t there; she and I are alone, which may be true—and she asked me apropos of nothing, her back to me, raven black hair cascading in the dirty yellow light, ‘Would you like a cigarette?’

Just like that, Would you like a cigarette? she asked, as though it were nothing at all.

In her hand was a pack of Camels. All the parental warnings, the anti-smoking rallies at school, the trepidation and fear Cigarettes Kill! was there in her hand, balanced against the dirty brown-plaid couch, her casually voiced inquiry, the Henry Rollins zine, the European art house movies, the promiscuity, the kitsch windmill that we knew was kitsch because we were terribly clever, even if suburban.

My first cigarette I smoked on Tim’s couch with Yvonne.

I did not realize it then, but I had crossed over into a different world, a world of promiscuous people with tiny, dirty apartments who read poetry and listened to music and talked about art and smoked cigarettes. Later there would be booze and drugs and more accredited education than required and seemingly endless peregrination and perpetual failure to live up to my potential, but if I recognize a moment of ignition, the moment linking present to past (the beginning of the chain of cause-and-effect events that becomes the life narrative; the moment of individuation), that cigarette would be it.







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