One night when I was drinking gimlets and smoking at a bar, a man touched my elbow, asked for my name and placed an envelope in my hand. I opened it and glanced at the bundle of pen and ink drawings of women smoking. The ladies smoked elegant cigarettes, and they were themselves composed of cigarettes: chorus girls’ legs were scissored cigarettes kicking high in the air, burning embers replaced nipples jutting under sweaters, cascades of coifed ashes fell around stern female faces. “You’re my art critic,” he suggested. “What do you think?”
I studied the drawings briefly and told the truth: “I like all the cigarettes.”
He was a large man, nearly imposing 6’4″, well-dressed and very solidly built. Yet he was shifting his weight from left foot to right in a curiously humble gesture of impatience, like a child suffering as his mother fumbles for a quarter.
“You like all the cigarettes?” he asked.
“I love to smoke,” I replied.
“Will you burn me with your cigarette?”
He asked with such unabashed and sudden urgency that I found myself pushing my cigarette into the hand coming towards me it was as if he had startled me into an instinctive response. I laughed in surprise. Within ten minutes our deal was arranged: for each cherry nip on his hand I could expect five dollars plus a fresh vodka gimlet. And if I would meet him privately at my home for twenty minutes the next evening I could expect one hundred dollars.
I had gone out that evening fuck-it broke, prepared to spend my last twenty dollars on drinks. I was overcome primarily by blind opportunism. I had already burned him in a knee jerk reaction to his nonchalance almost tricked into burning him and nothing monumental had occurred, either emotionally or intellectually. I was still drinking my gimlet, Smoking Man was still standing, people were still milling about. There was no smell, no sign or scar I could see. Burning him felt like turning the page of a newspaper. I thought: I just burned him, and I feel fine.
I had never been truly broke before and I was scared. I wanted money badly. The familiar public context made me feel safe and this promise of new employment seemed impossibly easy. As soon as I’d signed on, he lowered a hand discreetly to my waist. I twirled the tip of my cigarette delicately against the center of his palm, counting to three-one-thousand in my head before he jerked his hand away. I looked up at his face. He was flushed and studying his hand with a look of wonder, alone with whatever I had done to him.
The next day I had second thoughts, but I kept thinking about the hundred dollars. He called in the afternoon, as planned. He seemed nervous and excited, like he had a crush on me. I asked my roommate to stay home and told Smoking Man that she would be. He said that was fine. I was reassured.
When he entered my room, he placed five crisp twenty dollar bills on my dresser and sat down heavily on the edge of my bed. I felt a thrill at the base of my spine. Easy, lazy money, I thought. Prostitution, technically. I sat on a little settee in front of the bed and warmed up by blowing smoke in his face. I’d never seen a man blush so fast. His facial expression was that of a man trying to lift something very heavy. His arm reached towards me and fell palm up on my knee. I pressed his hand firmly and swirled the cherry into his palm, circling around and around. I ashed into the center and rubbed it in, his hand a small, live ashtray.