I was in the middle of eating some bib-guk-gui-tang Korean shit that Hog was making me try when a woman came in the front door. She just stood there looking at us like she might turn around and bolt, and when the door shut behind her, she jumped forward and looked back at it as though someone had just spanked her ass. I could tell she was a tattoo virgin, all jittery and confused-looking. I glanced at Hog, betting, “Rosary beads. Ankle.” He grinned, his mouth full of noodle slop. He mumbled something, but I couldn’t understand him. Anyway, he’d be wrong. Everyone was coming in wanting rosary beads these days.
The woman stood in the doorway, twisting her head at odd angles like a goddamn owl to see our designs on the walls, before walking up to the counter.
“Sure you’re in the right place?,” I asked. “This ain’t no nail salon.”
“Is Nate here?”
“Yeah,” I said, “what’s up?”
“Marion,” she said, reaching her hand over the counter. I took it and shook. “You came highly recommended by my niece, Janice. You tattooed a rose on her hip.”
She looked at me like she expected me to remember. Shit, if I could remember every rose I tattooed on some girl’s hip, I’d be in the Guinness World Records for the best fuckin’ memory.
“Oh, right,” I said. “The rose tat. Came out real pretty.” I gave her my best smile. “You want one, too?”
“Oh, no,” she said, pulling a piece of paper out of her purse and unfolding it on the counter, leaning in so close that I could see the goddamn pores in her nose. “I have kind of a different thing going on.”
After reconstructive surgery two years ago, I had briefly considered getting the areola tattoos that Dr. Lyon suggested. He told me that a lot of women found it comforting to have the tattoos, that tattoos make them feel as though they have nipples without having to undergo more surgeries. My husband, Roy, encouraged me to at least call the medical specialists Dr. Lyon had recommended for such a thing. I thought the whole concept was foolish.
One night, while I was cleaning the kitchen, Roy, who was at a business conference in Michigan he’d been in charge of directing and so couldn’t miss, especially with all the other time he’d been forced to take off, had asked over the phone, “You think having nipples again would, you know, help?” Looking back, I realize cleaning the kitchen was something I did quite often, almost obsessively, as if one person could make much of a mess, especially when she’s in the middle of chemo and eating meal portions the size of a golf ball.
“Help who?,” I asked, coolly. “Me? Or you?”
“Oh, come on. I just don’t see what’s so wrong with them, is all.”
“What’s wrong with them?” I laughed forcefully, crazily, surprising even myself. “Let’s see. To begin with, they’d look different, probably look nothing like mine.” I yanked open the refrigerator door. Put the bottle of homemade plum vinaigrette back on the shelf. Slammed it shut. “And,” I added, “they’d never have any sensation. They’d be flat on my breasts. They wouldn’t harden when I’m cold or aroused or feel sensitive when I’m menstruating.”
“They wouldn’t be real, for God’s sake. It’s absurd. I’m not doing it.”
“All right. Okay.”
“I just think you need to start being honest with yourself. I think you’re even more repulsed by my breasts than I am. Isn’t that true? Isn’t that right, Roy?” I paced the tile in the kitchen, returning a clean bowl to the cabinet, folding the water-crackers box top in on itself.
“Hey, I really just don’t want to go there tonight, okay? You’re being unfair. To me. All right?” Then immediately after, “I’m sorry, I’ve had a long day.”
I ran my hand over my peach-fuzzed skull. “Long day, huh? Well, I’m so sorry to hear that. I mean, I’ve had an easy time back at home, you know, fighting for my life and all.”
“I’m sorry I’m not there. You know I am. I’ll be home in two days.”
My legs felt weak, and I gave in and sank to the floor. In front of me, the dishwasher sighed and the “clean” light blinked on. “I’m tired,” I said.
“Why? I thought fighting for your life was a breeze.”
I smiled faintly. “I’ll call you tomorrow after chemo,” I said, and hung up. Then, wrapping my arms around my legs and cradling my mostly bald head in the neat V my knees made, I cried until all I could think of was sleep.
Roy’s answer to my question about getting this done was, “I’m not going there again. Your body, your decision.” I thought about asking our son, Tim. When he was eighteen, he’d gotten a four-leaf clover the size of a quarter on his shoulder. He’d made it clear that he regretted ever getting it done. I knew what Tim would tell me.
But Christine, the intern at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, where I work, had gotten a copy of her one-year-old daughter’s inked handprint tattooed on her wrist, and I knew she hadn’t once regretted it.
“Yeah, Marion, go for it,” she’d said when I told her I was thinking of getting the flowers done. “I think that would be sex-ay,” she said, turning from where she was cataloging to wink at me.
“You don’t think a forty-eight-year-old getting her first tattoo would be weird?”
“Nah,” she said, “people do stuff like that all the time. When my parents got divorced, my mom went out and got her belly button pierced. Her barbell has a diamond-studded Playboy bunny hanging from it. And plus, a tattoo would mean something to you, you know? You’d have a reason. I don’t think that’s weird at all.”
She wanted flowers. She said she came to me ’cause her niece told her I was good with color. I am. The paper she had was covered with flowers. The real popular kinds: daffodils and roses and orchids.
“All over,” she said, “I want the scars covered. Gone, if that’s possible.”
“Come on back,” I told her.
She followed me into my office and waited until I shut the door. The room had three seats: the inking chair, a swivel chair, and the stool in front of my drafting table. She was on the stool. My seat. I sat in the swivel chair.
“So, listen. Marion? Right?” I cleared my throat. “I’m gonna be honest with you. You need to know the risks. A while ago, I tattooed a cutter who was going in the Army. He had these little white scarred slices all up and down his left forearm from when he was an angry little punk, and I did a great American-flag-and-eagle number. Couldn’t even see the scars through the stars and stripes and talons. But,” I emphasized—she’d begun to nod like a fuckin’ bobblehead—“scars are risky. I’ve heard some real bad shit. I’ve seen pictures, and trust me, it can get messy. Skin can pucker, indent, not heal right, get infected. Or the ink might not take. Or it could spread. You can’t tell if those things will happen until you do it, and you can’t do much afterwards. You can’t really guarantee anything. With scars.”