She wants a diamond with a blue star in the center. She’s drawn a sketch of what she envisions on the blank side of a Coffee Bean napkin. When she hands it to Ari, he sees that her cheap metal ring has haloed her thumb green. Her hands are strong. She bites her cuticles.
Ari asks how big she wants it. "Big," she says. She pulls off her wife-beater, revealing a frayed peach bikini top, and turns around. "Right between my wings." She reaches back, pats herself between her flexed shoulderblades.
Ari says, "That’ll take maybe two-and-a-half hours. Two hundred bucks." He’s giving her a low quote, because she’s pretty. The star is full of intricate swirls. It’s going to be at least three hours. He could be charging her a hundred fifty an hour, easy.
Outside, the beach is grey and sunless. A row of stoic surfers clutch their boards and watch the water. Too calm right now; maybe too choppy later. It looks like rain. Summer’s over.
"I’ve got . . . " She fishes in the pockets of her denim shorts, pulling them down past her hips. More peach bikini, and a fine web of stretch marks standing out white against her tan. She’s not a little girl. Her legs are thick, her hips solid. She seems to know where his eyes are resting, because she takes a long time to find her money. She pulls out a wad and counts. ". . . one-twenty and change."
"Fine," Ari says quickly. It’s not enough but he doesn’t care. He wants to tattoo her. It’s a slow afternoon, but this morning, when the sun was still out, he tattooed kanji on a large group of German tourists and made plenty of money for the shop. Kanji are simple, small, only take minutes. He takes his time with them, then way overcharges. The Germans seemed happy. Ari thinks kanji are silly: getting a word in a language you don’t even know, a symbol that could mean anything, that you trust means what the flash poster on the wall says it means. He gets that writing your message in Chinese makes it secret — except that everyone is just going to ask you what it stands for anyway.
Ari pulls out his sketchpad. He freehands a large rendering of her sketch. "What’s your name?" He asks as he draws, not looking up.
"Cam," she says. "You draw really straight lines."
"You better hope so," he says.
She smiles. Her sun-blonde hair is damp and stiff around her face. She smells of ocean. She watches as he fills the star with swirls and loops.
Ari invites Cam behind the counter. He explains that he is going to make a stencil and transfer it onto her skin. She nods, watching him closely. She makes him nervous. Pretty girls always make him nervous. He’d rather tattoo ugly people only; less pressure. Also, lately his work has been so-so. He’s the only one who notices. Customers always seem thrilled, but he knows the difference between a decent tattoo and a great one. When he started, when he was sixteen, every piece he did had life to it, an energy under the skin. Lately the tattoos are just there.
Cam leans against the wall by the stencil machine. "How old are you?" She asks.
"Thirty-three," he says.
"That’s about what I was gonna guess."
Ari is twenty-one. People have always guessed him older. He got his apprenticeship here when he was a few days shy of fourteen, on a fake ID that made him twenty. No one’s ever called him on it. Either they all buy it or they don’t care. He leads Cam to the chair and asks her to untie her bikini top. "What about you," he asks.
She tugs the string and catches the cups of the bikini in her hands, holding them over her breasts. The strap has left a ghost of untanned skin. "I’m twenty-five," Cam says. This close to her, he can see that her shoulders are freckled. A fine white down covers the back of her neck where her home-cut hair ends. A few tiny braids tangled in the hair. Boredom
She pulls the bikini off, then leans forward into the chair, topless.
braids. There’s a scent under the salt-water dried onto her skin, a hint of sunscreen long washed off, clean sweat, something green like tea.
Ari explains he must shave her before he transfers the stencil.
"I’m hairy?" she asks.
"No," he says quickly. "Just, any hair gets in the way of the ink." He wets a cloth and eases it down her back, then smoothes on shaving cream.
"Why a diamond?" He asks her as he runs the disposable razor between her shoulders.
"It’s instinctual," she says, after a moment. "It seems like the right thing to get. I’ve been doodling diamonds since I was a kid, then filling up all the empty space in the middle."
Ari dries her skin and centers the stencil. She checks the placement in the mirror, nods okay. "This your first?" he asks as he lays out his inks: black, titanium white, three shades of blue, silver and a golden yellow for the glint of the jewel. She nods.
When Ari tattoos, the skin in front of him becomes his whole world. Skin only looks smooth from a distance. Up close it’s porous, shifty, alive; tricky terrain. Some people bleed more than others. Many jerk back from the first sting. Some inch away from the pain. Some lean into it.
He cups his hand over her stenciled skin. She’s warm. Her back is almost as muscular as a man’s. A surfer’s back. She pulls the bikini off over her head, then leans forward into the chair, now topless. Ari realizes he hasn’t seen breasts in months, and the last were those of a fifty-year old woman who was getting a turtle tattooed between them. Cam’s breasts are full, pressed into the vinyl of the chair, the outer roundness of them just visible. Ari realizes he hasn’t even jacked off in days. He feels that dead feeling, the one that’s been following him around, the one that comes up behind him sometimes and throws a black sack over his head. His dick is getting hard now, which only makes it worse. Body waking up, reminding him of his life: coffee-ink-sandwich-TV-bed, his apartment up the block with its big rooms and practically no furniture.
Ari takes his hand away and snaps on latex gloves, loads ink for the outline. "Ready?" She presses her face into the back of the chair, hugs it with both arms. Ready. He adjusts himself in his pants. Holding the tattoo gun instantly calms him. "First line’s gonna hurt," he warns. She sits still, waiting. He turns on his gun and presses it lightly to the point of the diamond, then moves his hand away, anticipating her flinch. But she doesn’t move. She exhales softly. He stretches the skin with his right hand, inks with the left. "Not a flincher, huh," he says.
"I have a high tolerance for pain," she murmurs.
He wipes the blood away with a tissue. "But you’re a bleeder," he tells her.
"Huh. Must be the aspirin."
"Did you take some today?"
"I take it all the time," she says, just loud enough to be heard over the buzz of the needle. "I have a headache every fucking day. I thought I had a tumor, but I don’t."
"Does it work?"
"Does what work?"
"The aspirin," he says, whipping a quick upward line, then catching the blooming blood in a tissue. She bleeds as
Her odor intensifies, sea and earth mingling with the antiseptic, the latex of his gloves, the ink and blood.
much as anyone he’s tattooed. The tips of his gloves are red and sticky already.
"Yeah, just taking it feels good. I chew them. I like the taste, now. Oh, that part hurts," she says when he runs over her spine. Then, "But not like a bad hurt."
"People get addicted." He thinks about how stupid he sounds, spouting the great cliche of tattooing.
"I’m not surprised," she replies. "I shoulda taken more aspirin, maybe?"
"It wouldn’t help. You’d just bleed even more."
"I have this monster bottle. My dad bought like twenty of them. His doctor told him to take one every day after he had a heart attack. It’s supposed to prevent another one."
"No," she says. "Last year." She holds her voice as steady as her body, but last year is not long ago. Ari knows. When someone is dead, last year is yesterday.
"It’s okay. I like taking his aspirin, you know?" And then they don’t say anything else.
Ari was six when his mother got sick. His mother is dead, and his girlfriend is dead. Women pull apart in his fingers like wax. They blow away like dust. After his girlfriend he couldn’t see how to get close to a girl again. The last four years, every one he met seemed accompanied by an invisible twin: her own death. The car crash to come, the drunken plummet, the disease, the OD. After his girlfriend he felt himself incapable of being surprised. People go the way they are going. His mother worked with chemicals, got cancer from the chemicals, died from the cancer. His girlfriend rode a motorcycle, died in a crash. This girl smells like the ocean. Her invisible twin has already drowned.
Ari welcomes this train of thought. It takes his attention away from Cam’s hips. They’re full; gypsy hips. His boss would call her "old school." His girlfriend was a slip, a sylph, weightless in his arms. He used to toss her up and down like a child. After she died his dreams were full of her slow-motion cartwheel in the air above the bike, a rag doll made of air and cotton candy.
He finishes the outline and switches needles for the color. Her skin is starting to swell up around the lines, tighten. Her breathing has deepened, dropped lower in her body. He’s breathing with her as he paints the star blue. She’s sweating a little. Her odor intensifies, sea and earth mingling with the antiseptic, the latex of his gloves, the ink and blood. He has the sudden, strong desire to lie her down on the floor and rest his head against her back.
"You know you won’t be able to swim till it’s healed," he warns. His voice crackles.
"Yup. Saw the sign on my way in. No hot tub?"
"Chlorine makes the color fall right out."
"I don’t have a hot tub anyway." More silence, as he adds wisps of white to make the color stand out. This tattoo is going to be good. Actually good, not just competent. Pressing his gun into her skin he feels a little of what he did when he started at the shop, that desire to change someone, improve a body, add meaning.
But the tattoos didn’t do what they promised. They didn’t make love last. They didn’t make independence easy or fun. So Ari’s art became just a job, all about keeping the lines straight and blending the colors.
When Ari reaches over to switch to yellow, his elbow grazes Cam’s back and catches a smear of inky blood. Her blood is hot. It stops his arm midair. His dick’s screaming now; he wants to turn her around and pull her right into his lap. Instead he cracks the yellow open and dips. I will make this tattoo beautiful for you, he thinks. But it won’t change anything. She’ll still be pretty and curvy till she gets old and fat. She’ll still chew aspirin that doesn’t bring her dad back. She’ll catch waves till she drowns or she’ll die another way. What he hopes is that she catches glimpses of it in her morning mirror. That when she cranes her neck to look at it, it makes her smile in a moment she wouldn’t otherwise be happy. If it does that a couple times, that would be plenty.
He wishes he could tell her this. His customers talk to him all day. They want to tell him all about the significance of the tattoo. Last week a linebacker of a cop wept while Ari tattooed the fineline image of his recently dead beagle onto his meaty bicep. Two
"I have a guy I fuck," she says. "Why do you ask?"
hours of stories about this dog, the way he fetched, the sweet look in his eyes. Just yesterday, a stoned couple got matching tattoos of their new daughter’s name, and in the time it took for Ari to write "Jessica" twice, gave him an education in raising a vegan baby.
He clears his throat again, but when he opens his mouth what comes out is, "Do you have a boyfriend?"
She thinks for a moment. "Not really. I have a guy I fuck. Why do you ask?"
He inks and blots. "Curious."
"What makes you curious?"
"I don’t know."
"Is it weird to you to do this permanent thing on total strangers? I mean, it’s kind of intimate."
No one’s ever asked him that before. "Usually not." He examines the intersection of lines at the edge of the diamond — once the color and blood well up, he’ll be shading blind. He works carefully. "Right now it’s weird."
He can’t bring himself to say, Because you’re pretty. "Because you don’t talk that much."
"People usually talk?"
"People usually can’t shut up. It’s like I’m their shrink."
"Huh," she says, and they say nothing for the rest of the tattoo.
When he’s finished, Ari cleans her up and leads her to the full-length mirror. He turns her back to it and gives her a hand mirror so she can examine his work. The skin around the tattoo is bright red and puffy, making the diamond stand out in three dimensions, vivid silver and yellow gold. The star within is alive, the blue swirls like perfect waves, capped white. He didn’t realize he’d turned the curls into waves. It just turned out that way.
"You put the ocean inside the star," she breathes.
"They look more like waves than I thought they would," he admits. "Do you like it?"
Cam stares into the mirror for a long, tense moment. Ari’s stomach knots up. Finally, she nods. She looks at him in wonder. "It’s amazing," she says. "It’s so amazing. It’s like you read my mind. I’m not paying you enough."
Ari exhales. "It was a dead afternoon. It was my pleasure. Let me bandage you up."
He coats her raw skin with antibiotic and covers it with Saran Wrap and cloth tape.
"At least let me . . . let me buy you an ice cream," she says.
Ari checks the clock. It’s four-thirty. His boss won’t be back for another hour. His boss is an old, sour binge drinker. He would probably fire Ari if he came back to the shop and found it closed.
"Sure," Ari says. "You can buy me an ice cream. Let me just close up."
The night Ari’s girlfriend crashed, he was supposed to pick her up from work. She worked at a pizza place. They had been together for eight months, almost to the day. Other than the lie about his age, everything he told his girlfriend was real. He only bent the truth the first time they made love. He said he had never felt sex like that, when the whole truth was that he had never felt any sex — it was his first time.
Ari’s girlfriend was tiny and caffeinated and liked to dye her hair. She barely slept. She wrote songs and poems and played guitar all night. There was something in her voice that made Ari come up from his own depths to meet her. A teasing quality, something that said, "If you don’t come here, you’ll miss something great." She didn’t know how much she was teaching him – how to hear music, how to cook eggs, how to hold a crying girl, how to make her come with his tongue, how to have a fight, how to make up after a fight. In the eight months they were together, she slept in his bed every night. He tattooed a sleeve on her skinny arm, koi fish and bubbles and phosphorescent seaweed, a mermaid hiding in her armpit. She squealed when it hurt, chain-smoked through it, her cigarette trembling from the pain.
He was supposed to pick her up and take her to Griffith Park Observatory to see some kind of meteor shower. Instead he worked late. He called her to say he couldn’t go, he had customers. She was disappointed, but it wasn’t anything dramatic. "Too bad for you," she said. "This only happens once every three thousand years. I’m going to see something tonight that you’ll never see."
Ari knows that if she hadn’t died that night, she would have died another night. People who ride motorcycles die. Just like Ari knows that if his mom hadn’t died when he was nine she would have died when he was ten, or eleven, or twenty.
Cam notices the lack of furniture in his apartment immediately. She holds up her ice cream wrapper and pointedly asks if he owns a trashcan. He follows her to the kitchen and finds her standing at the fridge, staring at the postcard he’s tacked on there, of the Tattooed Lady from an old Ringling Brothers promotional poster. "Jesus," she says, "That’s a lot of tattoos."
Ari’s heart is pounding against his ribs. He hasn’t had a girl in his apartment forever, and he doesn’t quite understand how she ended up here. She just sort of invited herself.
"Do you have a lot of tattoos?" She steps closer and peels off Ari’s long-sleeved shirt. His arms are covered in tribal designs; most of the skin is inked black. "Wow," she says. She traces the designs over his muscles to the ones on his chest and stops. "Your heart," she says.
Should he apologize for his heart? "It’s beating," he says. "Fast, I guess."
"Are you nervous?"
"You’re gorgeous," he manages to say, hoping that explains it. She laughs. He asks if he can get her anything. "I have water, beer."
"I wasn’t gonna get it done today. I went into the shop because I saw you there. I like guys who shave their head." She runs her hand over his black stubble. Her fingers skip down to his ears. She notices the tiny mark behind his ear, a black ink sun. "You have little surprises everywhere, don’t you," she says.
"Are you really surprised?" He counters. "I do this for a living."
"Well, kind of not. But kind of, yes." She pulls off her shirt, moves her shoulders experimentally, feeling the fresh tattoo. "It hurts, like a bad sunburn, just like you said."
He turns her around so that she’s leaning against his sink, her eyes level with the little uncurtained window. He kneels behind her and puts his lips to her skin, right at the edge of the bandage. He kisses a circle around it.
A woman. I’ve never been with a woman, he thinks suddenly.
She sees the expression on his face, and for reasons that are a mystery to him, she looks pleased. She takes his hand. "I am taking you into that room behind the closed door hoping there’s an actual bed of some kind there," she explains.
They land together on his futon. She hisses when her tattooed skin hits the mattress, sits right back up again. "I can’t lie down," she says. She reaches for his buckle, her eyes holding his, sea green with flecks of brown like sand, even the eyelashes sunbleached. She’s the mermaid he tattooed into his girlfriend’s arm all those years ago, voluptuous and brown. A woman. I’ve never been with a woman, he thinks suddenly. His girlfriend was a girl, nineteen. He wraps Cam’s hair around his hands and pulls her onto him, buries his face in her neck, inhales, finds the ocean there, the garden.
She wrestles his pants off his hips and pulls them free of his legs, uncovering more ink, two Japanese masks and a tiger, two koi fish swimming below his navel, more tribal marks on his thighs. "Jesus," she says again. "How many hours did all this take?"
He has no idea. Hundreds. "That’s so much pain. You almost have to have something wrong with you to go through that." She doesn’t sound judgmental, just thoughtful.
"I like the art," he says. "It stays, the pain’s just for the time it takes to get it down. You get so used to it you barely feel it."
She gives him such an odd look that he asks what she’s thinking, but instead of answering she reaches up the leg of his boxer shorts and finds him, cups his balls softly, then firmly in her hands, then slides up to his cock and encircles it. "Is this tattooed too?" She asks, her voice teasing. She yanks off his shorts to check. Finding it naked, she says, "It looks ordinary."
This makes him smile, makes him brave enough to joke. "I could go tattoo it, but then I probably couldn’t use it for a few days. If that’s what you want — " But she cuts him off by capturing it in her mouth. He lies back, stunned by how good it feels, wanting to push her off him, so he can look at her more, put his hands on her breasts like he wanted to the second she walked into the shop, sit up and pull her into his lap so he can kiss her and find her with his fingers, feel her breathing change as he coaxes her towards orgasm. But he’s paralyzed by her tongue, his nerves singing, blood pounding in his ears.
At the last minute he manages to lift her off him. "Take your shorts off," he tells her. She shakes her head no.
"I can’t," she whispers.
"Why not?" He asks. She lays her head on his thigh, not answering quickly enough. "You don’t want to? That guy you’re fucking?"
"I’ve got my period," she says.
He stares at her.
"What?" she demands.
"You’ve been bleeding on me for hours," he points out.
"That’s different." She unbuttons her shorts, unzips, slides them down her long thick legs. She’s wearing only those peach bikini bottoms now. They land just below the curve of her belly. She pulls her knees up to her chest, wraps her arms around
Their hands are slick with her blood and desire, and now they’re in a hurry.
them, rests her chin atop one scraped knee. Her feet leave grains of sand on his comforter. She is staring hard at a spot on his forearm. When he looks down, he sees that it is the only untattooed space on his arms. She strokes one warm hand over the naked spot. She asks, "Do you fuck a lot of your customers?"
"I don’t fuck anybody." Cam puts her hands on his shoulders and leans into him, pushing him back into the futon. She covers his mouth with hers. She tastes of peppermint ice cream. He knows he tastes of chocolate, and of the cigarette he smoked on the walk to his apartment. His mouth remembers kissing, the ways of kissing, right away. They move together like that, her hands on his face, his tracing her waist, weighing her ass, riding her spine, avoiding the sticky plastic bandage. He tugs the strings of her bikini and they give, she’s on him naked now, all that skin speaking to skin, the most direct communication. He snakes a hand between their bodies and down, finding her wet. She starts to pull away but he holds her there with his other arm around her neck. Holds her mouth on his as his fingers slick over her, find the string between her lips and pull.
"Wait, let me," she starts, her fingers finding his in her wetness, but he shushes her. He drops the tampon onto the floor. Reaches blind under the corner of the mattress, where he stashed a strip of condoms a long time ago. His fingers close on a wrapper. He tears it open with his teeth. They unroll it together onto his cock, their hands slick with her blood and desire, and now they’re in a hurry. He lifts her onto him. She’s slippery and hot, and she has him completely.
"You feel good," she whispers, and then they don’t say anything. His fingers leave prints on her skin in her own blood. Her smell washes over him in waves: earth, salt, sun.
Afterward, he brings warm, soapy towels and washes the fluids from her skin. She lies on her stomach as he runs the cloth over her. He peels the sweaty bandage off her tattoo, gently cleanses it and smoothes on fresh Neosporin. She’s drowsy, sweet, like a kid. She curls up under his comforter. She looks completely new to him, miles and miles to explore. He could take his time with her. He could learn her. He wants to. He wants to fuck her every day for a year like memorizing an epic poem. He wants to know her birthday, where she’s ticklish. He wants to watch her surf. He wants to tell her things. He doesn’t know where to start.
Ari’s cellphone vibrates in the pocket of his discarded jeans. It’s his boss, wanting to know where the hell he is. Why did he leave early? It’s only nine p.m., and a bunch of walk-ins just arrived. Would Ari rather get his ass back to work or be fired? Ari thinks Cam is asleep, so he says he’ll be right there.
"Do you have to go back to work?" Cam mumbles, lifting her head, watching him gather his clothes. He nods, stepping into his jeans, throwing on his shirt.
"You can stay here if you want."
She bites her lip, considering, then shakes her head. "I gotta go." She’s dressed in seconds.
They stand at the door. She doesn’t offer her number. He gets the strong feeling she doesn’t want him to ask for it. He asks for it anyway.
"Let’s let this just be this," she says, and goes.
Ari walks back to the tattoo shop in the dark. His chest hurts. He asks himself: didn’t he believe, somewhere deep down, that she would go? No, he really didn’t. Surprised again. Maybe this is what it’s like to actually be twenty-one, Ari thinks, the way the spring-break kids who get tribal armbands and geckos and rainbow kanji are twenty-one. Wanting to drink, and cry, and fuck, and wail. Hoping and being crushed.
At work, he tattoos a butterfly anklet on a skinny teen girl with blue hair. He sits on a low stool, her foot on his knee. He becomes aware of the scent of Cam coming up through his clothes. The sex smells, and the rich odor of her blood, like ocean and metal and wood.
He thinks of how he might run into her one day on the boardwalk. How that will be awkward, because she ran. How she shouldn’t have run. How if she stayed he could love her.
So she ran. People run. For as long as they’re alive, there are things they run from. It’s a luxury of being alive, running.
Ari realizes he’s been thinking instead of focusing on the tattoo. He’s been on autopilot. He lifts his gun hand away from the girl’s ankle. He looks up at her; she’s staring at her tattoo, mesmerized. He looks down. He’s almost finished it, and it’s beautiful.
The girl grins. "You’re really good," she says. n°
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Sera Gamble lives a happy life in Los Angeles. On the web, she lives at www.seragamble.com.|