The tattoo artist on the corner of Davies Street says “Please.” “Please let me write something on your body.” After a while, the needle doesn’t even hurt, he promises, your skin just sort of goes numb. I look up at his homemade poster, the colorful three-letter words and catchy rhyme. I think I would probably hate the feeling of going numb. He is grinning. Muddy eyes, dark hair, small beard, he has a little silver ring in his left earlobe that trembles in the wind. I say “I love the idea, I swear, but there is nothing I’m sure enough of to want sagging on my skin when I’m eighty…God willing.” I’m finishing an ice cream cone and since I’m alone, I eat it fast, and sloppy. Smears of it have settled into the tiny scab forming from the cut between my upper and lower lip. I lick the remnants hungrily.
“Let me show you,” he says, “just how beautiful it can be.” I lean forward. He smells like Downy laundry detergent, disarming and sweet. He takes my fingers, traces them softly over his left forearm, over the veins, and the tiny curly lettering which reads, “John 11: 35.” I ask him what verse this is. He says, “Jesus wept.” I ask him why he’d possibly want a sentiment like that imprinted on his skin, and he says, “Because it’s funny.” I wish he had a grand gesture of a reason, like, “I wanted to stare at something sad when I prayed so I’d remember how lovely and lucky and good this life has been to me—” but no, wishing like that is wild. Still, I couldn’t tell if it was really that simple for him—just amusing—or if this answer had been diligently contrived.
He says, “Look here,” and brushes the tips of my fingers over the outline of a mountain range, unnamed, and he says, “That’s for my mountain crush. I gave my whole self to her.” He says it like it’s happening right there before me, like rivulets of water are spreading, like she is yawning with delight and sighing from the blankets and stretching. On this inky scar, he pauses, as if a cough or sneeze is coming, and he says the word “crush” like someone is poking a bruise in his mouth. The word comes out eventually, fragile, and then massaged into empty air.
He brings his hands to his neck, wraps his fingers like a noose, says look, and shows me a string of three small dots. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I can’t believe he will have to stare at these pictures until he dies. I think about that poem I read, with the line, “Maybe the mistake of hoping never to make mistakes is the only pattern we get to leave behind us.” The poet—he’s writing, on the surface, about the aftermath of a bell ringing and he says that after, the air is so clear, we forget what hurt so much, and in forgetting it, think it’s disappeared.
I am coiled inside this thought, when he says, “Listen, I have temporary tattoos, if you want to try it out, just for a little while.” I think for a moment, and say “Oh I don’t know.” He takes my hand, runs his thumb down my palm. The physical contact feels at once invasive and inadequate. But then the skin is begging to be kissed, and he only touches my hand, sets it down tenderly. I say, “Okay yes, surprise me.”
He lifts his needle while it buzzes alive, and he carves into my wrist right where the ligaments hang loosely. I squeeze my eyes so tight I’m scared they might burst from my skull, and I think about so many things—about purple dust and rain sinking a Midwestern sky, about the basement where we were meant to hide, about hula hoops and horoscopes, and praying. I think about one conversation with God that was so long I got rug burns from digging my knees so deep into the carpet. I think about my beautiful sisters and my worst fevers, my stupidest decisions, and going numb in all sorts of strange ways. The noise of the needle abruptly stops, and I open my eyes. “SORRY” is etched in dark blue ink and bumpy, and this tattoo artist looks at me. He stands there, gentle, with a lying smile. He told me it was temporary, so why this frenzy? Frantic blood courses from my stomach to my cheeks, to my feet, and my flustered heart is beating.
Do you know this feeling?