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.”
She’d stopped nodding.
“How long has it been? Since the surgery?”
“Almost two years.”
“Yeah. All right. Well, let’s take a look.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess you have to, right?”
I looked at her. The hell was she thinking I’d do? Ink her with my eyes closed? “Yeah.”
She slowly bunched up her turtleneck, unhooked the back of her bra, then lifted that too.
First of all, her tits weren’t even close to being the same. I wondered how I couldn’t tell that when she first came through the door. Her left one was a little bigger and the right kind of droopy, and they were both lumpy. And the scars running across both of them looked like the goddamn Amazon.
“I know, some sort of botched Frankenstein experiment, right?”
“No. Not bad. Okay. You can stop sucking in your gut now.”
She pulled her shirt down. “They can take flesh from your inner thigh, even your labia, to reconstruct nipples for you. But I don’t want any more surgeries. God, I just don’t. And the areola tattoos—I’m sure you’ve heard of them—they’re just—not me. I just want a little art to help, to make it look a little less deformed. You know?”
When Dr. Lyon removed the bandages for the first time after the mastectomy, he brought over a mirror and held it up so I could see myself. Roy was sitting in a chair to the left of the hospital bed, holding my hand. I’ve always known him to have cold hands—abnormally cold hands for a man—and when we first began dating I’d joked that he was cold-blooded, that he must have a cold heart. But right then his hand felt strange—too warm, too firm.
I remember not fully understanding that what I saw was me—that the body in the reflection was mine. My brain refused to make the connection. Where my breasts had once been were now two swollen, bruised, shallow areas that looked to me like horizontal footballs, complete with the thick, black stitching that forced together my stretched-taut skin. In between stitches, the skin was bloated and puckered. Traces of burnt-yellow iodine and some sort of blue marker stained the outline. And then I recognized a small brown freckle in the center of my chest—in what seemed like the only square inch that had been left undisturbed—and I’d immediately felt ill, looked away.
Even after the reconstruction, which I couldn’t have until after I’d finished my chemo and radiation therapy, the scars were still there. I tried to ignore them, but they were everywhere. In my mind. In the bathroom mirror, before I got in the shower. In Roy’s eyes when we were making love. And now, here they were in the tattooist’s too. Nate got out his portfolio, began pointing to some of the flowers he’d done before. He named them, pointed with his thick, gnarled fingers: primroses and calla lilies, stargazers and sonatas, marigolds and tulips and bleeding hearts. They were beautiful.
“You drew all those?,” I asked.
Nate looked up at me and then back down, flipped another page. “Yep.”
“Where’d you learn to do that?”
“Just practice. I tend to draw a lot in this business. And my ex liked flowers.”
He said he’d come up with a design, told me he’d call when it was done.
I told her it took me a couple of hours to draw her design and that was only because I was watching TV. It had taken me six.
“I—” she said, took the paper from me. “Wow.”
“Don’t get all emotional,” I said.
I told her to go on back while I copied the drawing onto transfer paper. In the room, she’d unbuttoned her shirt, a sliver of flesh showing down the middle to her belly button. I sat in the swivel chair as I snapped on my gloves, rolled over to her. I wiped her tits with a cotton ball and rubbing alcohol. Got out a disposable Bic, rubbed some foam across them, began shaving as close as I could to the scars.
“This doesn’t mean I think you’re hairy or anything,” I said. “Just procedure.”
She smiled, slightly. She was practically shaking.
I reached for the stick of deodorant, popped off the cap.
“Am I perspiring?”
“Yes, terribly,” I said, pressing the transfer right-side-down on her skin. “But this is also to make the design stick.” I smoothed it evenly and then peeled it back, leaving a purple-blue outline. “Voilà. Go check it in the mirror,” I said. She stood up, walked to the wall mirror.
The design was perfect—two brilliant gardens in the shape of crescent moons that covered my breasts like some sort of a floral bra. And when I saw it in the mirror, it seemed—right. That’s the only way I can explain it.
I sat in a chair that looked and felt something like the ones in the dentist’s office: the leather seat reclined slightly back, the slim arm rests, the light overhead that can either blind you or not seem bright at all, depending on the way it’s angled. Nate rolled his chair over to me, began pouring inks into tiny plastic cups on a metal stand. He removed some tubes and needles from their pouches and attached them to a metal gun-like contraption encapsulated by a plastic baggie that was held on by a rubber band. He filled a cup with bottled water, told me it was for cleaning the needles as he changed color. I watched the clock on the wall, the hands of the clock actual miniature arms and hands with chubby middle fingers pointing at the numbers, and I suddenly felt ill.
The same feeling had pressed in on me while I was lying on the table in the operating room, wearing a thin hospital gown and booties, a shower cap covering my bald head. Dr. Lyon was telling me what a beautiful name I have.
“Do you know what it means?” he asked, and I shook my head slightly, my eyes blurring from tears. “It means ‘sea of bitterness,’” he said. “And do you know what my name means? Edward? It means ‘guardian.’ I’m going to take great care of you, Marion. Just go ahead and relax.”
I supposed he couldn’t lie to me about something like that—the meaning of a name—but he didn’t relax me. How convenient, I thought, that his mother named him Edward, and I wondered if he said that to every one of his patients before operating, if he carried around a pocket-size manual of name meanings. A nurse inserted the IV into my outstretched, strapped-down arm.
“Relax, Marion,” Dr. Edward Lyon said again, and what I last remember were hot tears sliding down my temples.
“Hey, you okay?,” Nate asked, leaning toward me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you sure? I think you went out, there for a second,” he said.
“Oh. No, I don’t think so. I’m fine,” I told him. “Really, I am.”
“Well damn, woman, we haven’t even gotten started yet. Breathe from your gut. Don’t hold your breath. I’ve had grown men pass out right in the fuckin’ chair—’scuse me—not from the pain of the needle but from holding their breath in anticipation. You gotta breathe deep, focus on your air. Like yoga or something.”
I nodded to tell him yes, I understood. I would do that.
“This is the real deal, you know,” he said. “You want out, you better tell me now.”
“No. I’m fine, I’m good. Really.”
“Okay,” he said, and then the machine buzzed on, and he brought it to my chest. I noticed a tattoo on the underside of his forearm, a black rectangle probably six inches by two inches, all colored in. I had a hard time assuring myself that it was intentional and wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before. I took a deep breath, like Nate had instructed, hoping he couldn’t feel my heart punching against the wall of my chest, and prayed he didn’t mess me up, too.
I started on her right tit, tightening the skin with my left hand, lining with my right, and every so often wiping the excess ink and blood away. I could hear her breathing over the hum of the machine. Sounded like she was having a goddamn baby.
“You still with me?,” I asked.
I worked inside out. Outlined a primrose where her nipple would have been, starting with the small center and then the five heart-shaped petals blooming out. I began on the orchid that was a little behind the primrose.
“Is that your daughter?” she asked.
I stopped for a second, looked up at her. She was looking at a picture taped to the wall, by the paper towels. “Yes.”
“What’s her name?”
I started again, working around the petals, trying not to think about Grace. Gracie, I used to call her. In that picture, she’s three. It’s my favorite one I have of her. Even not looking at it, I could tell you she’s wearing the yellow-and-purple jumpsuit thing her mother bought her. She’s looking in the mirror, her long blond curls knotted and wet. She’s holding a hairbrush to the side of her head, her oval face screwed up in concentration. The first time she tried brushing her hair. Too damn cute for her own good.
Sheila had taken the picture three months before she moved out and took Grace with her. She’d met some guy who owned a shitty apartment complex the next town over. They were gonna be real I-love-you-no-I-love-you-more happy.
“You don’t have to pay child support,” she told me. Like, okay, take my fucking kid, as long as I don’t have to give you any money for her. Like that was ever the problem. “I think we can manage,” she added. A coded “Please erase yourself entirely from our lives, Nate.” Fuck that. I send her $300 a week. Still, all I get is the leftovers. Wednesday nights and every other weekend. The day after Christmas. Easter.
I moved on to a sonata lily, outlining the six petals that curled at the ends, the small crease in the middle of them, the stamens. I tried not to remember that lilies were Sheila’s favorite.
“You’re married?” she asked, and again I stopped, looked her in the eyes.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I just thought—”
I started again.
Sheila planted bulbs outside our place our first spring together. I was working on my bike in the garage, and I could see her bent over out by the mailbox. She had her knees in the dirt, her nice round ass in the air, her brown hair blowing a little. When she stood up, using the mailbox pole as leverage, she put her hands on her ass and stretched her back, pushing her huge belly out. Our baby. I was glad for the dark garage so she couldn’t see me staring.
“Well, she really is beautiful,” Marion said.
I kept outlining.
Calla lilies, she called them when they bloomed. She wanted to name our daughter Calla. I told her it made me think of the Spanish word for “horse.” She got real red in the face like when she drank too much, told me to go fuck myself.
They were nice, the lilies. They started off white, gradually got pink, and then were this reddish purple at the tips. Kind of like the color of Barney. Grace loved Barney.
When Nate first started, I couldn’t help but look. Not because the procedure hurt. Giving birth to my son, Tim, who weighed ten pounds and two ounces? Having my breasts sliced open twice, in two separate surgeries? That’s pain. But this was just so intense, like a cat dragging its claw across my skin, and all I could do was sit there. For a while, I strained my eyes to watch it, the ink building on the surface in clots. Nate had a black cloth and was wiping away a mixture of ink and, I think, blood, and I was about to ask if that was normal, if that was how tattooing was supposed to be, all of those puddles of ink and traces of blood on my skin, and me not seeing any outline of flowers or petals, but then he wiped the ink and blood away again and I was left with a thin line that became one side of a petal. So I took a deep breath, ignored the black rectangle on his forearm, and told myself that of course he knew what he was doing if he owned his own tattoo parlor.
I was in my thirties when I found out that my father’s mother, my Nana, had had breast cancer. I’d been on the phone with my mom—who’d recently been moved to Gladeview Health Care Center in Old Saybrook and had become increasingly lonely. I’d been telling her about how, when I was young, Nana’s hugs always seemed so hard, her bony body so hard against mine when we embraced. I was used to hugging my mom and her sisters, all voluptuous women, and I always found it strange that Nana wasn’t soft like them.
“Oh yes,” Mom said, “Jean had a terrible time with it. The radical mastectomy. They removed everything—that’s what they were doing in the ’40s, those snip-happy doctors—even the lymph nodes under her arms and the muscles in her chest. You didn’t know?”
As devastating as my cancer was, I’m grateful for the technology that allowed for the type of surgery and treatment regimen that I had. I didn’t have to have everything removed like Nana did, didn’t have to lose what, by the standards of the society we live in, defines me as a woman. After surgery, I was glad that at least I had something left. Some sort of softness.
Someone knocked on the door, and Nate shut off the machine.
“What?” he yelled.
“Some kid’s here. Can you come out for a sec?” the man behind the door said.
He looked at me. “You want a break?”
“I should probably use the bathroom.”
“Yeah. Out the door to the left,” he said.
The kid looked like he was twelve. Had a piece of paper with some quote written in, oh, I don’t know, maybe eight-point font. He wanted it across his forearm.
“If I gave you a pencil,” I said, “could you write that out on paper? No? So what makes you think I could ever tattoo it on your skin?” Some people just don’t have a fucking clue.
When Marion came back, I told her I was just about done with outlining. “You wanna keep going?,” I asked her. “Or come back for the color later?”
“Keep going,” she said. Didn’t even think about it. Good. I’d scheduled her for the full three hours anyway.
I switched to mags and started with the leaves. I didn’t really have to follow the design; once I had the outline, I saw the rest in my head. I used hunter green, the one I use mostly for Japanese dragons, just inside the outline and shading around the leaf veins. I highlighted it with a mix of grasshopper and sea foam. My design needed a little yellow, so I added banana cream. Moved on to the primroses. Mix of Creamsicle and lemon-yellow in the pistils and the highlights of the sonatas. Avoided the callas.
“I’m sorry,” Marion said, “I just have to know. What happened to your arm?”
Everyone asked. Always. “Covered something up,” I said. “One of these days I’m gonna do something sweet with it. Color over it or something.”
“You can do that?”
“Yeah. Well, sometimes. Gotta be good.”
When I was done with yellows, I switched to reds: Kool-Aid, and lollipop, and sunburn. I wished I didn’t draw the callas in the first place.
“But what was it, before you covered it?”
“Tweety Bird.” I didn’t look up. Kept shading and wiping, watching my design become permanent. My hand was getting tired. I turned the machine off, cracked my knuckles, rolled my head around a bit. A few years have passed since it was there, since I’d gotten so fuckin’ pissed at her that I drove to the studio and filled the space all in—not even thinking about what I could make from it besides a black rectangle—but I could still see Sheila’s name.
For a while, I’d been expecting him to say, “Okay, we’re done here.” I couldn’t see that he’d have much more to add. But the machine droned on and I listened to the monotonous buzzing, tried to keep quiet because I knew I was annoying Nate with my questions.
His daughter was really cute. I kept looking at her, probably because her picture was the only thing I could see that wasn’t artwork, and I’d already stared at the drawings enough. I had always wanted a daughter. She was cute, the way her little face puckered in the mirror. If she were my daughter, I would’ve put her in beauty pageants. I wouldn’t have been one of those pageant moms who dyes her daughter’s hair and cakes her face with makeup, but doing something girly like that would’ve been nice.
Don’t get me wrong. Tim is an incredible son. But I just don’t see him often—me being here in Connecticut and him being out in Ohio, a nuclear physicist. He takes after his father. But I remember when he was thirteen, he made me this card. On the front he drew himself, a stick figure, with a bubble coming out of his stick-figure mouth: “Let me tell you a story about the perfect mother.” I flipped it open. Inside it read: “Once upon a time, there was you. The end.” I cried so long, he was embarrassed—he’d meant the card to be funny, a joke. He stopped making me cards after that one. But that one was enough for me. I framed it. It’s still on my dresser.
“All right,” Nate said, startling me. I’d been so lost in my thinking that I’d forgotten where I was.
He turned the machine off, set it on the tray next to us, straightened up. “Check it out.”
I stood slowly, suddenly realizing how sore my entire body felt: my neck and eyes from straining to see what he was doing, the crawling numbness in my left leg and backside, the hot tingling skin on my chest. The bathroom didn’t have a mirror, but now I stood in front of the full-length mirror in the corner of the room, staring at my reflection. The colors seemed surreal—they popped off my skin as if they were 3-D. My skin was red and irritated, and I could see that the lines were raised like on a relief map, but I was pleased. The scars were hidden in the foliage.
I heard him snap off his black latex gloves, throw them in the trash. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s incredible. You’re so talented, Nate.”
“I know,” he said, smiling. In the mirror, I could see him gesture an arm in my direction. “Now you can be the new centerfold model for Sports Illustrated. You know, their swim edition where the swimsuits are painted on?”
I smiled, walked back to where I’d taken off my shirt and left it folded on top of my purse.
“Hold on,” he said. He’d put on a new pair of gloves and was lathering a bar of wet soap between them. “You need to treat this as a wound.” He lightly rubbed the soap across my breasts, and I was surprised that a man who appeared to be such a certain way could be so delicate. He wiped them clean with a wet towel, and then squirted ointment from a tube onto his hand and began rubbing that on my breasts as well.
“You’re going to have to apply ointment regularly to keep out the bacteria. You don’t want to get it infected.” He covered my breasts with large strips of white bandage and then handed me a paper with General Care Instructions printed at the top.
“Get some sort of tattoo ointment, like Tattoo Goo or Aquaphor or something. We have that stuff here. Vitamin E is okay too. Just don’t use Vaseline.”
While I was writing him a check for $350—$300 for the tattoo and $50 for the tip—I asked him, “Now, the tattoo is not always going to be raised like this, right?”
“No. Feel this,” he said, taking my hand and gliding my fingertips over his forearm. His hand was hot on mine, and I watched the grayscale designs disappear and reappear under my fingers. I felt his muscles tense and relax, felt the smooth hairs tickle the underside of my hand. I looked up at him.
“Feel what?,” I asked, pulling my hand away.
“Exactly,” he said, smiling. “Just skin.”