I casually walked through the parlor, entranced by all the different designs and templates lining the walls. One parchment would be dedicated to a skull with a snake slithering out of the orbital hole, and then a flower would sit next to that, swirls of petals ripping away from the receptacle. My neck twisted at the grand image of a man leaning lazily in a chair that sat at the center of the parlor. Graying and wan, the man held a staff at an angle, leaning to the side, upon a velvet, maroon chair that belonged in a palace. A tattered suit wrapped around the man, and blood trickled down his white collar. I glanced at the owner of the parlor who was consulting Heath for his tattoo and turned back to the massive painting staring down his narrow nose at me. His jet black hair was combed back, and a sheen erupted from his roots. I turned back to Heath and got his attention by angrily flapping one hand.
Heath turned from the owner, excusing himself, and asked, “What’s up?”
I cracked a grin and pointed at the painting. “If you had red irises like a normal spawn of Satan, you and him would be identical.”
Heath glanced at the painting and then narrowed his eyes sassily. “Very funny.”
I sauntered across the empty parlor—who gets a tattoo around ten in the morning? Heath thought it would give him less of a chance to run into anyone he knew. He didn’t want his parents to know about it because he knew they would definitely try to dissuade him from getting inked. I stood beside him and glanced at the reference picture he brought with him. He actually paid the fifteen cents for the color print at the school library.
Jefferson-Polk: the school that can afford a fancy electric sign but forces teachers and students to pay for copies and prints.Jefferson-Polk High: where communism meets capitalism.
I could go all day.
“What kind of butterfly is that?” I inquired.
Heath held up the resource he brought for the tattoo artist to me. “I honestly don’t know.”
Two lobed wings sprouted from the middle of a black body with two antennae protruding from the head in an acute angle to one another. The tips of the wings bled white across the black base, and then a magnificent, iridescent blue slithered from underneath the white stains, stretching back to the body of the butterfly. An abyssal black rimmed the entirety of the wings but dripped with a shimmer relative to blue.
He turned to me and busted out his face-splitting grin. “I’m glad you think so because it’s going right here.” He rolled up his button-up’s sleeve and pointed to the inside of his muscular forearm, his palm facing the ceiling. “You’re going to be seeing it a lot.”
“Your mom is going to flip.”
“Ah, she’ll get over it. I’ll just blame it on you.”
“You know how much your mom loves me,” I shrugged.
“Exactly. She’ll accept her precious Devin’s poor decisions, but my poor decisions are scrutinized to the strictest degree.”
“Are you sure you don’t want something else, kid? It’s a little fruity,” the manager said as he leaned against kiosk in the front of the shop.
I stifled a laugh as Heath scoffed.
Tattoo sleeves (the theme presumably gore, sacrifice, and Marilyn Monroe) stemmed from underneath his black t-shirt that advertised the Foo Fighters. Tattered jeans reminiscent of road kill loosely framed his stocky legs and kindly emphasized his minute beer gut. A spider sat right below his jawline, and an ink gun nestled behind his ear. Piercings ran up the side of his left arm in a narrow, linear pattern, mirroring the patterns drilled into his ears.
I always wondered why there was never a white collar businessman who moonlighted as a tattoo artist, lacking any inkling of a tattoo scar on his body. I was so intrigued by the art of tattooing and the mechanics behind it, I wondered if maybe I should abandon my dreams of becoming whatever to be a tattoo artist. I glanced at my scarred skin and pondered the idea of what it would be like to have the needle bury into my skin repetitively.
“Alright, I need your license.”
Heath immediately pulled out the fake he paid twenty bucks for from this squirrely kid in our homeroom. I didn’t understand why he didn’t just accept my invitation to make it. My ID had never been glossed over twice in suspicion of counterfeit. The man who asked us to call him Doc, despite the fact he most likely did not have a degree close to a PhD or MD, glanced at it and returned it to Heath. “Second bench to your left.”
Heath sat down in the chair facing the bench, and Doc pulled up a rolling desk chair beside him. Doc glanced at me as I aimlessly stood behind Heath and patted the bench. I pulled myself on top of the table and hung my legs over the side, gently lulling them back and forth. Doc prepared all of the pigments beside me and prepped Heath’s skin with a razor and antiseptic.
I turned my gaze to Heath. The color in his face had drained, and his eyes widened in horror as he watched Doc meticulously. I chuckled, “Hold your shit together.”
Heath whispered, “Oh, go screw yourself.”
Doc cracked a smile and began to load the ink into the tattoo gun. He leaned over and gently pressed the stencil he made while Heath and I were talking about the butterfly against Heath’s forearm. Heath flinched. “Dude, it’s not the gun.”
I milked it for all it was worth. “Heath, don’t piss yourself.”
He gave me the finger.
“First one?” Doc inquired, further messing with the ink gun.
“You’ll be fine. Sounds like you get enough abuse from your friend here. She bites worse than the gun. Just keep your mind off of it.” I noticed Doc had a slight accent—Slovak country of some sort.His words would occasionally begin with a slight slur and a ‘v.’
Heath asked, “Where are you from?”
“Here. My mother is from Czech. How long have you two been together?”
Heath’s eyes shifted to the left as he recalled, counting on his fingers. “About three years.”
“Oh, when are you going to pop the question?”
Heath’s jaw hit the floor, and I almost rolled off of the bench.
And then the ink gun came to life and drilled into Heath’s forearm.
“Ow, shit, no! No, we aren’t together.”
“I thought you said you were together?”
“And the truth comes out,” I muttered, leaning back into the wall. “A little prick and Heath lets the feral kitty cat out of the bag.”
Heath groaned, “We’re friends.”
Doc laughed and turned to me, “You guys had this whole story planned out about your romance or something to trick me?”
I shook my head. “No, it was kind of a romance at first, and then we became friends.”
Heath insisted, “She hit on me first.”
Doc turned back to his work and leaned into Heath’s arm, and the poor kid began to squirm. I reminded, “You got to stay still for this stuff, Heath.”
“Oh my God, Dev, please tell me how to do this stuff.”
Doc glanced over his shoulder and glossed over me as I folded my legs against my body. He proposed, “You want a tattoo?”
“What?” I waved my hands in front of my chest, hoping to wave away any initiation of something I would later regret.
“It’s free if you stay still better than Heath Bar over here. Whatever you want under the dimensions of one by three inches.”
Heath scoffed, “She’ll scream.”
Doc turned back to Heath and cracked a smile. “She can’t be any more of a bitch than you’re being right now.”
Heath waved me away. “Run, minion, run for the hills.”
“Ow, are you a fucking sadist?”
I turned to the wall and glossed over the pictures lining the shop. I wandered what I should get to mark my body for an eternity and pondered the consequences of such a decision. I had never thought of a tattoo idea previously, and the sudden proposition excited me. The spontaneity of marking my flesh quickened my pulse and thoughts. I came across the long script of different calligraphy of all the alphabet letters and then some of other languages. I craned my neck to see all of the various scripts to choose from, but I couldn’t even decide upon a word. I leaned back and glanced over my shoulder at Heath.
“Yeah, why am I telling you about Edna? Oh my god.”
“It’s the needle, man. It gets people to open up. Bet you five dollars I can get your friend to cry in the chair just from talking.”
“She’ll break down first from the needle.”
I stared at the butterfly coming to life, and I just considered the one thing I was so envious of them for. I turned back to the long list and chose a script that was reminiscent of the cursive of a pensive scribe from the early centuries. I peeled it off the wall and scurried back to my bench, leapt onto it, and nestled back into my little kindergarten pose with the piece of paper stuffed in my lap, hiding it from the world.
“You pick a flower or something? Wings? Fairy?” Doc inquired as he shifted to my side to add white highlights to the teal to give the essence of the iridescence from the photo. He drilled into Heath’s skin, and Heath clenched his eyes shut as Doc ran over a large artery stemming from inside Heath’s elbow.
“Could I get some calligraphy?”
“Yeah, chick, what do you want? Song lyrics? Poem? Quote?”
Heath chimed in, “She’ll want a dragon wrapping around her neck like a feather boa. That way you can be Lisbeth Salander.”
I smirked and shook my head. “I don’t have enough badass in me to pull that off. I’ll let her stick with being The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Just a word please.”
“All done, Heath Bar.” Doc rolled back a little bit in his chair and leaned back, observing his work meticulously. He nodded his head when he seemed to be content. “Go ahead and look in the mirror.”
I was amazed by the detail and the realism entrapped in the ink marking Heath’s skin. The pain was worth it as a piece of art would forever embellish Heath’s alabaster skin. The butterfly was so perfect that one could barely believe Heath was born without it. He and the insect were one, and it matched his perfection easily.
Heath stood up and hesitantly walked over to the mirror, staring at the piece in the mirror. He titled his forearm back and forth timidly, his eyes leered onto his skin. A small smile stretched his lips as he turned over his shoulder. “Holy crap, Doc, this is amazing.”
Doc nonchalantly shrugged and turned to me. “Word please?”
I told him and tossed him the script.
He hastily drew up a stencil and showed it to me… It was so perfect I almost felt like it wouldn’t belong on my skin. It would look so alien compared to Heath, whose skin was perfectly made for the butterfly. Heath finally came over after being mesmerized by his new skin. He glanced at the stencil and smirked, “What the heck, Dev?”
I turned to him and shrugged my shoulders. “It’s what I want.”
“Fine, don’t wig out on me.”
“Alright, Dev, where?” Doc changed his gloves and cleaned the gun before turning to me. I twisted my neck to the mirror to my left. My hand traced my shoulder and then fell to my back—the skin not scarred and destroyed by abuse. I pointed to in between my shoulder blades and then decided a little lower—where wings would be if humans were blessed with those features.
“Alright, shirt and bra off.”
I ripped off my clothing, my arm wrapping around my chest to cover my minute breasts. I tossed it to Heath who pressed the sports bra to his face and inhaled deeply. “Mmm… Devin Sebold…”
I groaned, “Ew, perv.” I socked him in the upper arm, and he tilted in his chair. I sat down on the bench, pressing my chest against the paper lining. Goosebumps rose on my skin as Doc applied the antiseptic after taking a razor to my back, and I clenched my toes as the cool breeze seeping from the A/C above the bench.
Heath admitted, “A little chilly, huh?”
I stared intently at the entrance of the shop, half-expecting someone to glance through the windows to see my bare skin and then stare, but no one passed by. No one bothered to see what was occurring in the tattoo parlor at this time of day. In reality, I was just trying to brace myself for the impact of the drilling needle. The whir of the machine tittered, and then I felt the soft, rhythmic sting of the needle.
It hurt like hell.
It was therapeutic.
I could finally get the punishment I deserved for all of my failures and flaws. I could finally get the sensation I desperately needed that had not been relieved in years. I clenched my eyes shut and curled my fingers. A lump caught in my throat, and it wasn’t from the pain. It was the relief that cascaded over my body. I’m no masochist, but I got some perverse pleasure from the needle tearing through my layers of skin and imprinting permanently on me.
I must have stopped breathing because Doc finally interrupted my trance, “Breathe, Devin.”
I took in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. It didn’t take away the pain as he waited for me to finish my respiration patiently like a kid waiting to destroy a bug.
“What do you like to do for fun?” Doc inquired, obviously trying to distract me from the atmosphere.
“Me,” Heath chided.
I twisted my neck and glared at Heath. “Yeah, yeah, totally.”
“She doesn’t like to share much,” Heath piped in again. “Something about being with such a good-looking guy and girls being jealous.”
“That’s fine… I’ll get to the point. What’s with the word you chose?” Doc issued.
I murmured, “I don’t know.”
“For real? You honestly don’t have a clue about why you wanted ‘free’ on your back for the rest of your life?”
Heath caught my gaze, and I glanced at him silently. I finally confided, “I’ll figure it out later.” Lies… Lies…
Doc heaved a sigh and quoted, “’I cannot conceive of any beauty in which there is no melancholy.’ Charles Baudelaire. I’ll let you have your reasons…”
Heath smirked and leaned back in the chair, the saran wrap pressed against his new skin, scabbing over as we spoke. His fingers combed through his hair as he reevaluated the curves and smoothness of my back silently. He licked his chapped lips and turned back to me, giving me a meek smile.
“What are you doing?”
He laughed, “Nothing, nothing.” Leave it to Heath to make me question if I had a cancerous mole in the middle of my back I had never come across.
“Excuse me…” Doc placed his hand on my lower back to concentrate on really digging the ink inside of me.
Goose bumps rose as I became uncomfortable for the first time. I was totally fine with him seeing me almost naked, but his own hands touching my skin startled me. Grateful a layer of latex separated us, I didn’t totally lose my senses.
I sat up and turned my back to the mirror Heath had used and twisted my neck over my shoulder to see the word ‘free’ carved freshly into my skin in an abyssal black. I smiled, and my fingers gently pressed against the red, irritated tissue around the fresh wound. Doc handed me a handheld mirror, but I was too transfixed by something to always remind me.
Heath smiled at me through the mirror. “It fits you.”
Doc glanced from Heath to me and back, perplexed as to what any of this had to do with anything. The only reason Heath said that was because he knew exactly what it meant. He understood why I desired to have that word haunt me for the rest of my life. He knew exactly what it meant to me.
Our eyes locked through the mirror, and he inquired, “Do you like it?”
I turned back to him with a cheesy grin still on my face. “I love it.”
Doc leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms, content with his work for the day. “It looks great, Dev. Let me guess what it means, though.”
Heath shook his head. “You aren’t going to get it.”
“Free from the stress?”
I cocked a brow.
“Free from everyday life?”
“Be free and whimsical like a butterfly?”
“Goddamn, I’m thinking you’re a stereotypical girl getting her first tattoo, and here you are puzzling me.” He bandaged my new scar, and I pulled on my sportsbra, rubbing painfully against the wound, and shirt.
Heath and I went to the front desk of the shop and readied our wallets, but Doc waved them down. He admitted, “I know you two have been through some shit if all you want to talk about is your dumbass cat—no offense, I’m a dog person.”
I gave Doc a high-five.
Heath scrunched up his face and turned to me. “Edna loves you.”
“Holden would eat her if I let him.”
“Right on, Holden—cool name. Anyway, I’m not letting you pay. It’s on the house.”
We both profusely thanked him and made sure he was serious before walking out of the shop and never turned back.
I regret a lot of things from my history—this decision and that decision. Complying to this demand, or enslaving myself to this remark. That tattoo was never one of them because it was a reminder to be free from my past, to not let it burden my heart and to not let it affect who I wanted to be or what I needed to be.