They say every tattoo has a story. This is my last chance to decide if I want this to be my story. I can still stop it from being written deep into my skin. This story, a version of my past, won’t let me go. Or maybe I’m the one who won’t let go. Fists clenched, I’m afraid I’m holding onto nothing.
I hear the gun begin to hum. The cord twists over my artist’s wrist. The seconds stretch as the time to change my mind runs out. Sitting on a stool next to me, he pulls himself closer. I hold my breath, waiting for him to touch the vibrating needle to my flesh. Face-down on the table, I remind myself not to stare. The stud in his lip makes it hard to stop sneaking glances up at his soft mouth. I shouldn’t find him attractive but I’ve picked up the habit of wanting the wrong things. My tank top, an impromptu pillow, imprints fabric ribs onto my cheek and hides the blush creeping up my neck. I am half-naked. He’s about to scar me permanently and I asked for it.
I try not to think of the needle about to jab thousands of invisible holes, laced with ink, along my spine. For a moment, I wish Mom where here to hold my hand. But I lost those privileges when I ran away from home. I won’t cry. Not here. Not now. Crying would give me away. I’ll be brave because this is all supposed to be for Tristan, the brother I lost. The brother who ruined my life by disappearing. I’m here to make those invisible wounds visible.
The shop swelters. Today, L.A.’s hottest day on record, the heat refused to retreat with the sun. The invader now hangs out on the street like a local. We’re all gleaming with a sheen of sweat despite the rotating fans. Tonight, I’ll put my pillow in the freezer before I go to sleep like Tristan and I used to do when we were little. I wish we could just be kids again – innocent and sheltered. But I’ve been purposely destroying my innocence for the last two years now. I’ve been hacking away at it wildly like a maniac with a chainsaw. Now, I don’t know who I am. My thoughts are scattered splinters – useless and painfully sharp.
I glance at Jason, my artist, and notice a few beads of sweat on his forehead. He is too focused to wipe them away. I resist the urge to do it for him. My whole body is flushed with heat and I’m glad I can blame it on the weather.
This isn’t like me. I suddenly have the urge to get up and run. But then I remember that “me” isn’t a person I know anymore. And I stay. I stay and cling to my splinters until they sink back into my palms.
I chose this shop in West Hollywood because it’s clean. The Living Canvas is an artsy place, not a biker place. No one in here looks like they could kill you with a tire iron. With scarlet walls and mismatched chandeliers, the place is practically a boutique. Plus, it’s a forty-five minute bus ride down Santa Monica Boulevard from our apartment. That’s close enough to manage but far enough away from Echo Park to ensure I won’t run into my roommate, Maggie. I don’t want her to know about this tattoo or about Jason. I’d like to keep him to myself. At least for a little while. I haven’t had anything for myself in so long. Not having a life is my punishment. I let Tristan slip away and I can’t have a life until I get him back. That’s the deal: my life for his.
An angst-edged voice croons over the crackling speakers. I love this heart-wrenching song; although, I can’t remember its title or singer. The music is a balm for my nerves. The lyrics roll, spicy and lingering, against my tongue like a mint. As I mouth them, they dissolve – smooth and sweet. Someone else’s misery tastes fresh after almost two years of my own sour sorrow. But my humming is feeble and shaky compared to the mechanical buzz.
Jason, who has a menagerie of tattoos frolicking along his toned arms, has already labored with a Sharpie marker for two hours. I hadn’t expected him to be so gentle. He asked for my permission every time he touched me. Crouched over my back, he elaborate on my design – a design I sketched over and over late into the night before I realized I wanted to imprint it into my skin. His breath fluttered against my spine when he leaned forward in intense concentration. He had me stand in front of a full-length mirror. With my tank top clutched over my boobs and my fingertips on my bare shoulders, I examined the black roots spiraling down to the rim of my jeans and the branches stretching up to the nape of my neck. I could still feel his fingertips in each stroke. I avoided looking at my face, bright with excitement and embarrassment. How have I become such a bad girl? Desperation. Practice. And a great tutor.
Our eyes met in the glass. He brushed aside his bangs and used his tongue to toy with his lip piercing as he studied me. I wondered if he knew what that does to girls. I could feel my pulse rushing in every inch of my body. After all my self-depravation, the tiniest hint of love or of touch made me ache.
He took a chance using the free-hand Sharpie directly on my skin instead of creating a stencil transfer. My original drawing was nothing compared to what he had created on my skin. Standing there, I knew nothing could happen between us. I’d lied to him. I was still lying to him. The fake ID Maggie gave me when I moved in with her almost a year ago never fails. She has great connections. Or really bad connections, depending on how you look at it. She the best, bad friend I’ve ever had. Parent permission was out of the question for me in my current state – the state of rejecting them completely and taking matters into my own hands.
Whenever Dad saw someone with tattoos, he would always tut in disapproval. “They will regret that stupid tattoo when they’re older. Don’t make mistakes like that, Zia. One bad decision can stick with you forever.” Too late for that lecture, Dad. If only he could see me and my mounting pile of mistakes now.
But as I stood next to Jason, I didn’t want to lie anymore. Giving a tattoo to a seventeen-year-old without permission could cost him his job. What would he do to me if he found out? I doubted he’d still be gentle. I’ve heard stories of tattoo artists purposely carving swear words or obscene pictures into bad clients’ skin. But, I wanted the tattoo more than I wanted to prevent hurting him or myself. And seeing his interpretation drawn on my back, I knew I needed him to do it. I was high on my own fear. A voice in my head kept telling me to just jump. With a nod of satisfaction, I returned to the table prepared for the needle. His almond eyes lingered on his hauntingly real drawing, which defied its Sharpie origins and became as organic as my canvas.
“You ready?” Jason asks from above me, his face all gentle with reassurance so I know I should be afraid. People have a habit of smiling and saying they’re sorry before they hurt you.
“Yes. Go ahead and do it.” I bury my face in my arms and grit my teeth, wishing I had someone’s hand to squeeze until their knuckles pop. But no one even knows I’m here. Tears suddenly press against my eyelids. I fight them back. I will myself to have only one emotion – not fifty, all swirling around like a boiling sea pitching me back and forth. I feel the threat of drowning. How can one person have so much fathomless, shapeless longing?
I feel the needle descend on the first gnarled branch. Jason guides it along the twisting lines on my shoulder blade. Innumerable stings jolt across my nerves and jangle down to the bone. The needle darts in and out of my skin at a fantastic speed. Maggie was right; needle on bone hurts more.
“Ooh, shit. Shit, that stings.” I suck in air through pursed lips and realize that I have been holding my breath. The excess ink bleeds. I feel it run down my sides. Jason dabs my blood away as if he’s drying tears. The tree sinks its roots into my hips.
“Ooh, shit, shit that hurts.” Pain makes me repetitive as each sting dwindles my vocabulary. I remember this stinging burn from my first tattoo. I briefly wonder if I’m becoming addicted to the pain like those kids who pluck out their eyelashes.
“Well, they say giving birth hurts.” Jason laughs. I am not sure if he means to console me with the idea that this won’t be the worst pain I will ever experience or if he is comparing tattooing to procreation.
I’d listened to the other patrons receiving tattoos while I lay under the Sharpie’s tip, thinking I’d be brave. Their labored breaths and moans reminded me of the sounds that regularly penetrate my paper-thin walls. Each of Maggie’s boyfriends make her sound different. I really wish I didn’t know that about her. She’s an actress who has missed her calling. But this pain is not like the ache I’ve known in my very limited experience of sex; it is the pain of paper cuts, shockingly sharp. Even though this is not my first, I am surprised by each new bite.
This time I am getting what I really want, what I was afraid to get with Maggie, who laughed and crushed my hand in her vice-like grip. Last time, I got a flower – small and meaningless – blossoming near my hip. Maggie hovered over the tattooist’s shoulder and warned her not to fuck it up. Maggie’s vocabulary is limited but powerful. I chose a lily from the sketches tacked to the wall. I pointed randomly and forgot it was a funeral flower.
We wheeled into the streets afterwards, pretending to be giddy with our rebellion and youth; but my tattoo’s tiny pinch didn’t drown out the hollow of shame and cowardice opening in my stomach. I no longer had virginal skin. I no longer had virginal anything. I’d used up all my firsts in a few months. Maggie made a crude joke about me giving away my flower and getting a new one. But a flower signifying death didn’t seem like a good omen. My first permanent mark was supposed to have personal meaning; it was supposed to be for Tristan. It was supposed to be for my one and only little brother, who ran far away from me.
“Zia, you okay? We can stop now if you want. This’ll take several appointments either way. Plus shading.” Jason lifts his machine from my skin and wipes his brow with his forearm. His hands are encased in dark-purple latex. My back is wet. Last time, my blood appeared like beads of sweat and leaked from my newly-planted lily.
“Keep going. I can take it.”
“I thought so. You’re tough. I knew it the minute you came in.” I don’t believe him. He is patronizing me. There is nothing tough about me. Unlike Maggie, I’m afraid of everything in this city. I try to blend in but I’m sure everyone can see I’m a suburban girl ripe for disaster. I’m still dragging around my splintered innocence like a toddler chewing the corner of ratty baby blanket.
The shivering needle descends again. I suck on my lip and resolve to think of Tristan; to let every stroke of ink embed a memory. Once, my fourth grade teacher had us bury sunflower seeds in the dirt, each with a whispered wish. I taught Tristan how to do it at home. When the flowers bloomed, they were supposed to free our dreams. This tattoo will accomplish the reverse. It will hold my regrets tight to my body.
I start remembering with the tree. The one I am having etched, needle stroke by needle stroke, into my back. The tree grows at the center of the memories I am sure of – the few moments I know are true. The rest of our childhood was a lie. And now it’s made me a liar. Such a good one, that not even I can find my true motivations in the ramblings of my own inner bullshit. Still, I cling to these few facts.
The oak grew on hill just beyond our fence-less backyard. Perpetually yellow fields surrounded the hill and a hidden path curved through the knee-high grasses. The grown-ups always complained that the field was a fire hazard. They wanted it to be mowed down. Lucky for Tristan and me, grown-ups are lazy. Nothing else about our neighborhood belong to us except that space beneath those interlaced branches. The rest was dangerous territory: the rusted pick-up truck with bare-spring seats parked in the field; the distant construction sites where the seas of grass broke on upturned dirt; and even the cul-de-sac lit with amber streetlights. Paint ball splats warned us to steer clear unless Tristan wanted his face pounded in. I could only take on so many older boys.
After school, Tristan and I raced up the hill to play beneath our tree. We stayed until the setting sun became tangled in its branches. Mom’s commitment to never again let a TV make it across the threshold of her home made us imaginative. We had one once, but Mom claimed we stared at it like zombie toddlers and demanded Coco Puffs and Gameboys. So, she cut the cable and threw the clunky contraption into a dumpster. Dad, beyond livid, stood staring at the empty space in the media cabinet while his muscles frothed beneath his reddening face. He bought a new TV for his shop. We weren’t allowed to watch it. He made a point of staying later and later at work to make the rest of the family feel the depravation Mom imposed on us. Dad want us to be normal. We weren’t. Not then. Especially not now.
One afternoon plays in my head, beat for beat, like I song I’ve memorized and can’t get out of my brain.
* * *
“It’s too hot. I hate the heat. I wish it would rain.” I kicked the dust with my sandaled foot powdering my toes a reddish-brown. Tristan mimicked the movement. Then, he flopped down and plucked at strands of grass. The grey sky smelled of rain. From the distant street, a boy’s yell shattered our illusion that we had retreated into a secret world the way children could in books. More boys began to shout. We could hear the rhythmic smack of their hockey sticks slamming against the asphalt. Tristan glanced over his shoulder, his eyes wide and his back tense.
“I know, we’ll have a rain dance, to make it rain.” I brought his attention back to me. The rough group of karate-chopping, fist-fighting neighborhood boys spent most of their time roving the streets. But Tristan and I were safely hidden from them.
“It’s a dance Native Americans used to do to ask the gods for rain, Dumb Butt. Don’t your teachers teach you anything? Or don’t you listen?” I mimed taking cotton out of his ears.
“It’s an Indian dance?” He batted my hand away.
“No, a Native American dance. You don’t call them Indians unless you want to sound like a retard. Come on, get up and I’ll show you.”
“Should we get feathers if we are going to be Indians, I mean Native Americans? They always have feathers.” Tristan pulled up a handful of grass and held it to his forehead. I regarded him skeptically for a moment, taking in the effect.
“Okay. I like it. You make the headdresses while I clear the dance space.” I marched over to the dilapidated picnic table we had drug up the hill. Carefully avoiding the rusted metal legs and the clusters of spider’s webs, I pulled the table out from under the tree. Tristan tried to weave grass together into crowns. Thin cuts opened on his fingertips as the grass whipped out of the weave.
“Hold on Zia, I’m gonna get tape.”
“Get blankets for capes, too.” Tristan went pelting down the hill, fistfuls of grass escaping his grasp and flying out behind him. Electricity gathered in the muggy air.
“Hurry,” I shouted after him and held out my hand to test for early sprinkles. I wiped the tabletop with my palms and went in search of decorations. The grasses hid treasures. I crouched down on my knees to scour the ground. I found three, slightly crushed, yellow feathers and some dandelion fluff caught in a cobweb. I found bottle caps, acorns, and dinky purple flowers.
“I got ’em.” Tristan appeared behind me waving grass taped to paper crowns and white sheets.
“Perfect! Bring them here.” I dumped my loot on the table. We took turns arranging crowns on each other’s heads and knotting blankets over each other’s shoulders.
“Now take off your shoes.”
“My shoes?” Tristan looked at the dirt and back at the house as if expecting our mom to emerge at the mere mention of breaking a rule. Rusted nails, shards of beer bottle glass, and spiny thistles hid among the dried leaves dropped by the oak tree. Danger lurked outside, mixed in with the rewards.
“Yes, your shoes, stupid. Indians don’t wear shoes.”
“You mean Native Americans.”
“Yeah, well, whatever.” I tossed my sandals in the dirt and climbed onto the plastic tabletop. Tristan followed, laying his shoes neatly on the bench. He held my arm for balance as he picked his way over the prickly dead leaves.
“Okay, now we have to stomp our feet and twirl around and make chanting sounds to the sky like this: hay-ya-wa-ya-hee-yee-wua-yah.” I beat my palm over my lips while chanting. “Try it.” Our bare feet slapped the table, vaulting my decorations into the air.
“Good, get your knees higher like me and make sure you look up.” With our heads thrown back, we watched bits of cloud twirl above us through the kaleidoscope of branches.
“Louder Tristan, louder.”
“We’re like the Wild Things. I claim this island for the Johnson Tribe.” Tristan leapt higher. We wailed, our throats pulsing with the rhythm of our feet. Thunder rolled in the distance.
“It’s working!” Grinning at each other, we whirled around drunk with our new found power to control the weather. Heavy drops splattered in the dirt. Tristan and I snatched up our shoes and ran, trailing our mud speckled sheets behind us. Our crowns flew off our heads as we were overcome with crazed, conspiratorial fits of laughter (the kind that always annoyed my Dad because he couldn’t understand what made us go manic). We pelt toward the house.
* * *
The buzzing stops as Jason straightens up and surveys his work. The sudden silence jolts me from my memory. The sound of raindrops and of Tristan’s laugh still echo in my ears. For a moment, I swear I can still see his cape breaking free and fluttering to the ground. If only I could’ve kept Tristan – toes barely touching the mud and smile tipped skyward – on the verge of flight. If only I hadn’t let him drop through the cracks, I wouldn’t be here.
“That’s pretty damn amazing, Jay.” Another tattooist, a girl with dread locks, leans over me. Her hand goes to his shoulder. It’s obvious to me that she’s in love with him. I don’t think he can tell. He’s probably used to girls throwing themselves at him.
It’s strange to have them examining me like this, as if I am nothing but a blank sheet of paper. I am afraid, if they stare long enough, they will see all the way through my raw skin and into my memory. I suddenly, desperately want to be alone again. Alone so I can cry in peace.
“It’s only a quarter of the way done and I can’t do any more tonight. You okay?” Jason touches my shoulder and I can’t help flinching. He looks surprised and a bit hurt but I can’t take even one more sensation, pleasurable or painful, added to what I’m already trying to process. My body and mind are on overload.
“Yeah, I am fine. It’s not my first tattoo. I knew what I was getting into.” My cheeks are wet, I try to wipe them casually on my balled-up tank top. “Sorry, I don’t know why I’m getting like this. It didn’t hurt that bad.”
“Tattooing is an emotional process.” Jason hands me a tissue and smiles. “There’s a cathartic quality to marking yourself forever. Stuff kinda comes up.”
I don’t want to talk anymore about the meaning of tattoos. I just might confess everything to him, including my age. The age lie is the least of my sins, anyway. I’ll be eighteen in October, in seven weeks. Although, he might not understand that I couldn’t wait. He removes his gloves. Balling his fists, he cracks his knuckles. I stick to scheduling my next appointment.
He extends a bare hand to help me up. I take it against my better judgement. His skin is warm against mine. I try to sit up without flashing him. Letting go of him and staring at my lap, I remind myself that this is just business.
Getting dressed is an ordeal in which both Jason and the dreadlocked girl have to participate. All three of us work in tandem to wiggle my tank top over the gauze padding and cellophane wrap Jason fashioned over my weeping tattoo tree. If this is only the beginning, I don’t know if I’ll survive the process.
I start to cry. All I want is my brother back just the way he was then. I don’t want him the way he is now, about to be returned damaged. The tattooists stare, alarmed and unsure of what to do. I don’t care how cool they are anymore. I just want to go home with that little boy who still believed in magic. I shrug them off and head for the door. Jason says something but I ignore him. If there are only two things anyone needs to know about me, they are: I am neither as tough as I’d like them to think or as helpless. I can break things as easily as I am broken.