A Christmas Tattoo
Mired to the hips in a too-soft couch, I shove the cell phone hard against my ear for closer contact with my daughter. J is sobbing, stranded by a blizzard at an airport a thousand miles away. Beside me—the side opposite the phone—my son slouches, a six-foot, skinny teenage mop-top. B’s posture is defensive, his expression stricken. The couch, in textured velour, muted greens and gold, clashes with the view through the storefront window behind it: the buckling asphalt parking lot of a seedy Tampa strip mall and the words PIERCINGS * TATTOOS, blazoned on the glass in biker orange and gunbarrel-gray. We’re in line to get our Christmas present—a together-tattoo, a rite planned for weeks—with only two-thirds of our three-person family on hand.
Garbled airline announcements reverberate from the phone in my palm; I picture J huddled in the cavernous air terminal in Hartford amid hundreds of miserable holiday travelers. She flew north three days ago, her need non-negotiable, in a peak-traffic, weather-vulnerable season to spend time with her boyfriend. Her problem, she says, is her brother B.
“It’s more important to him to get his tattoo today than to wait for me to be there.”
He can’t hear her but he can read my face. He mumbles, “If we have to wait I will…” but we all three know perfectly well he will not. He and I are, after all, on this couch next in line for ink because he refused to wait. Tomorrow his winter holidays end and school swallows him and, anyway, today is the day he’s set to do this thing he will and must do.
She’s twenty. He is sixteen. I am fifty and have been between them, their single mom—one of me and two of them—for more than ten years. Flanked by their differences, their ineluctable connection, I am trying hard today to enjoy as much Christmas present as I think I’m going to get.
While they talk and I listen, my eyes track the tattooist, Lefty. He is right-handed. He will reply to my eventual question about the provenance of his name with a laconic non-answer: his father’s name was Lefty and they are Puerto Rican. He is a painter; his canvases—pulsing-bright acrylics of skulls and swords, teardrops, gaping cuts, imploding crystals—tier the four white walls of his shop. Lefty concentrates with an artist’s intensity on the canvas before him, the shirtless back of a client belly-down on a fully reclined chair, that man’s attention, in turn, fastened on the portable DVD player he holds inches from his face. In Lefty’s right hand the tattoo gun buzzes like hedge shears. Car crashes, screams and explosions—a tide of electronic, facsimile violence—ebb and flow from the movie soundtrack. Nobody speaks except a twenty-something metal-head: thick ring in his septum, pointed stud like a displaced unicorn’s horn protruding from his lower lip, racks of barbells in his brows and ear cartilage. He lounges against the counter next to Lefty’s workstation and talks to no one in particular about money and the sure-fire ways to find it. I hear “eBay,” and “selling what’s in my pocket, man,” and “might as well, some guy’s put up a box aliens gave him, and he’s getting bids.”
“It’s me, isn’t it?” I say to J, because I have to say something because now she’s just crying. “You’re mad at me, aren’t you, because I didn’t make him wait…”
Before the words fully leave my mouth I recognize my default response to other people’s discomfort. No matter what’s wrong, it has to be my fault because…there has to be something I can do about it because…otherwise what will I do? How can I stand it? I hate other people’s unhappiness.
She can’t stand me being once again the me she knows so well—concerned but eternally dense. She blows.
“This is my way of being with you! It’s the only way I’ve got.”
Too late, I do get it. J is being her passionate self, opened up and pouring out sharply everything that’s in her. Pain, temper, disappointment, and disempowerment—big crashing waves of it. She’s always done that, and I never see it coming till it hits. I glance at B, arms folded, face set. A peacemaker by nature, he’s as passionate as she is, but it comes out of him in stubborn attachments to his own will instead of emotional storms.
So. I apologize to J and sink deeper into the couch next to B, stuck with my useless warring impulses to walk out, to side with one against the other, or to yell at them both to grow up and stop being…themselves. I have no idea how to handle this mess. I just know it’s familiar territory: I cannot quit trying. In every altercation among us, I try and try to distinguish who’s wrong and who’s right—when always there’s plenty of evidence of both, and not much practical distinction between the two.
“It’s always like this,” J says bitterly before she hangs up. “We never do anything together.”
But we do. For one thing, we fight. For another, we hang on, tenaciously, to each other and to our views of each other. When I shut the phone and it’s just B and me, he says, “She’s the one who left town.”
“Yeah,” I say, although I know better. “Kinda iIlustrates her priorities, doesn’t it?”
We scheduled our tattoo the way busy families do things these days—in multi-point cyber dialogue: she cell-calling me, he IM-ing her, me emailing them both, he texting her (along with a couple dozen of his high school friends) to confirm the satisfyingly edgy plan. I confess I found that edge pretty exciting myself.
Different drummer has been my favorite beat since my own teen years, and what could be less compliant with holiday convention than eschewing the tree, the shopping, the wrapping, even the gifts, and opting for a together-tattoo? Besides, this particular Christmas was the last one we’d spend together in Tampa. J had already gone out-of-state to college. I’d leave Florida for a new job come spring, while B, having moved in with his dad at fifteen, would stay behind to finish high school.
By the time we calendared it, we all understood the Christmas Tattoo was intended to defy our spreading separation. But like most family dramas the real genesis proved hard to pin down. I wanted to believe J started it. The August she turned nineteen, in her last days home before heading back to college, she spent a big chunk of that summer’s wages (compiled at $6.15 an hour as a steakhouse hostess) in Lefty’s shop, acquiring a glossy midnight-black tribal tattoo that transformed her entire shapely back into a graphic statement of her individuality.
I watched it blossom over three evenings, as she arrived home wearing first the outline, and then two stages of inking in: a sleek stylized caduceus-shaped scrollwork, its wings spanning her shoulders, its serpentine wand dropping nearly to her waist, and a smaller, flatter, fibula variant of it seated in the hollow of her low back just above the tailbone. The uncompromising contrast of all that black pigment embedded permanently in her milky, vulnerable skin enthralled me as artist and repelled me as mother. The simple intricacy, the restraint of the design—her own—pleased my eye and made me prideful; she is an artist, too, and she is mine. The audacity of her choices caused me sorrow—a little for her and a little for me. When she’d shown me the design on paper, life-size—not asking permission but definitely recruiting acquiescence—I’d told her my truth about it. Very beautiful. Very bold. Not likely to age well. She told me, as if her forthrightness undid my objection: “Mom, me and my friends never think about getting old.”
Right away—no surprise—her brother B initiated a tiresome nag. When could he get a tattoo? Sometimes I ignored him, sometimes I said “no,” and other times “when you’re eighteen, you may do as you like.” One Sunday afternoon the autumn before the Christmas in question, B and I strolled out of a movie house in Tampa’s sleazy-chic Ybor City, passing a tattoo parlor on our way to the car.
I said, joking, “Wanna go in?” He said, planting his feet, “Mom, I want a tattoo like yours, exactly. Eye of Ra, blue, left shoulder.” This time, because I couldn’t speak, I didn’t say no. I had mostly forgotten, because after ten years out of sight is out of mind, that I had that tattoo—the mark of my fortieth birthday and a savage divorce—a third eye that watched my back.
My boy had not forgotten.
“Does it wash off?” he asked back then, his innocent face perplexed, processing yet another event he hadn’t ever imagined could happen. When I came home wearing the tattoo, he’d been just six years old, in big trouble at school for the first time in his life—for punching other kids with the violence of own his pain—but familiar with tattoos only in their innocuous stick-on form.
“I want your mark,” he said, that afternoon he was newly sixteen. “Because you’re leaving.”
So. There stood my son, taller than I was, telling me I’d started it, the tattoo thing. My baby who’d clung to me in shrieking panic every time anyone else reached for him, allowing me to leave him now simply because I said I needed to, but asking me to let him, please, be scarred like me. Marked with the mark that stood in my mind for a lifetime’s accumulation of mistakes made and lessons learned.
I looked him in the eye. I said, “You’ll have to get your father to agree.”
After that I heard nothing more about tattoos for a couple of months, but between B and J the wee-hours IM-ing and during-class texting and talking-while-driving cell phone scheming must have been underway—in what would turn out to be a rare cooperative effort toward a shared goal of heretofore unattempted scale. J, I suspect, took the lead once he let her know I’d caved. He would have needed her to lead because she’s older, bolder, and, well, she’d not have followed. She thrives on connection and she likes to be the head of the pack; when those conditions mesh, she leads with grace, often to beneficent result. Whatever the mechanics of their collusion, it culminated one afternoon in November when she phoned me to announce the plan they’d devised, and not ten minutes later he called, acting casual, admitting no complicity but clearly salivating to hear me confirm what she’d—no doubt—dialed him in the interim to report.
We would, together, get three distinct and completely original tattoos, each incorporating a part of the other two—both of theirs including an eye of Ra, mine made entirely from parts of theirs. Each person’s marking would be witnessed by the other two. J and B would do the drawings, together, when she came home for winter break. Lefty, his skills a given, would do the ink. And I would pay.
“Okay,” I said, first to my daughter and then to my son. Okay, my kids: tattoos, together, let’s do it. I didn’t want another tattoo nor did I like encouraging them toward tattoos, yet I knew myself honored. I felt myself affirmed. My children’s enthusiasm—and their initiative—proved, I thought, that we’d survived the divorce I’d had to initiate to survive. I hadn’t ruined their lives. We were a functioning family, still.
Yet, to each of my children I had to voice an important caution: “We can’t tell your dad we’re doing this together. We don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
Always the need for some kind of not-telling. Always the need to step over and around trip wires to landmines that might or might not blow. The following Sunday evening B stopped by to rehash the plan, toast it with big bowls of ice cream at my kitchen table, and just incidentally to voice—as reason for his investment in the tattoos—a feeling darker than any he’d ever admitted in my hearing before.
“We’ve been through hell together,” he said, his stubbly face wry, his concision eloquent.
“Yes,” I replied, and nothing more, but to myself I had to admit we weren’t done surviving yet, and might never be.
When our tattooing actually begins—with B, by his choice, first up in Lefty’s chair—I have occasion to reflect on how fundamentally grotesque it is to choose self-mutilation as a gift, and to then have it inflicted by a stranger in a public setting while a family member watches. The atmosphere in a tattoo parlor is a cross between the chilly sterility of a dentist’s office—the antiseptic wipes, the latex gloves, the tipped-back, incapacitating chair—and a grunge hair salon in some trendy downtown location—the exposed ductwork, the uninhibited displays of narcissism. In either setting you pay for the privilege of undergoing a tedious, uncomfortable process in a venue where people unknown to you view your body and the procedures altering it dispassionately, and any emotions provoked in you by your vulnerability will humiliate you to the extent you let them show. B, at sixteen, very much concerned with Being A Man, is in this awkward position in front of his mother. How will I do this right?
He lies shirtless on his stomach in the flattened chair. Goose-fleshed. Gray-fleshed. Concentration gels his expression as Lefty gets started. Swabbing the skin clean, applying by transfer the drawing of the tattoo. Pulling on new gloves, loading the gun with fresh needles and ink. Then the buzzing commences. When he outlines, Lefty explains, he needles deep to make a dark, clean edge, the sensation, he warns, like a fingernail drawn firmly across a bad sunburn. After that, when he fills in, the strokes will be shallower, quicker, less stinging. I resolve to be cool. In that way I hope to offer B support but avoid embarrassing him. I try chitchat, sometimes with Lefty, sometimes with B, alternating a tone of nonchalance with one of calm concern I developed while jollying my pre-schoolers through immunizations and dental procedures. “Are you cold?” I ask B, who shakes his head tersely. “You want a soda?” Yeah, he does. I pop the tab and place the can in his hand.
B’s tattoo—two red arcs, upright and mirroring each other’s curve, strongly suggesting but not banally replicating a heart, nesting within an intricate bramble of jet-black tribal branches and points borrowed from barbwire, with an eye of Ra exactly replicating mine except in unblinking black tucked artfully, asymmetrically, within the whole—fits snugly between his shoulder blades. The design is less than six inches square, but with two colors and a complicated pattern of narrow lines, the work takes time. B says little. His eyes fix on the DVD player a foot from his face. A post-modern, noir-ish Christmas story flickers on the small screen; I think none of us is actually watching. “Give me a minute,” B says abruptly. “I gotta have something with more action.” Lefty sits up, the gun ceases its burr, B flips rapidly through the clear plastic sleeves of a zippered album, then we are watching but not watching bloodthirsty dinosaurs in collision with human stupidity. Plenty of action, lots of carnage. I notice—taking care not to let that notice show—that the white-knuckled force with which B grips the chair preceded the switch in movie subject matter.
He calls several more brief halts. Sips soda, shifts position. Standing on concrete, my feet and legs and my head ache; this is taking such a long time. I keep my eyes on B’s face—resolute—and hands—tendons sprung. I don’t like needles, and especially I don’t want to see or even admit I know about the constant dabbing—the gauze square in Lefty’s left hand lifting away blood beading in the needles’ wake.
Each time B takes a break, Lefty sits up, strips off the gloves, rotates his stool away from his work to sip from a soda of his own. Taciturn, maybe thirty, stout, darkly handsome, he wears a close-clipped, clean-edged beard. What I took at first to be a mustache turns out to be a thick tattoo on his upper lip. In his answers to my small-talk questions, he’s usually sardonic. In his actions and in the timing of his silences, he demonstrates exquisite tact about the emotional dynamic in front of him; his face and his body language remain blank as a curtain whenever B and I speak, and when we can’t. I imagine what Lefty must, in his work, witness. Bodies of all kinds, their most private as well as the public parts, in all their fat and bony, stretch-marked, spider-veined, hairy, odiferous imperfection. Ego and appetite, too: little human dramas of wastedness, grief, self-aggrandizement, wishful thinking.
He’s a tattoo artist, but he’s also, in this self-obsessed, spiritually denuded culture, some kind of priest. People walk into his shop with feelings that can’t be fixed but need urgently to be addressed. Put a picture on me, they tell him, the exact, right one that magically, mystically, makes my hurting right.
When B’s ink is done, we send J—still stuck in Hartford—a picture, via his camera phone to hers, of him laid out in Lefty’s chair, the new tattoo glistening beneath its protective coating of A&D Ointment. We each speak to her, briefly, everyone’s tone cheerful, disappointments and differences masked. Then, abruptly, B has an attack of shivering. The shop is chilly. I am chilly and exhausted and hungry, and we have my ink yet to go.
Stepping outside, where daylight is fading, I pull from the trunk of my car the only thing I have to offer either one of us for extra warmth—this is Florida even though it’s also January, so neither B nor I thought to bring a jacket; we’d run the AC on the way to the shop. I take in my hands a scrap of the tough, brown, corded bedspread that covered the day bed in my first writing room twenty-five years before, five houses ago and a dozen states away, that has since addressed many away-from-home kid emergencies, from soccer-field blood-lettings to embarrassing motion sickness events.
The sky is the color of tired foil stripped from a tray of ballfield potluck. The darkening shapes of the last vehicles in the lot, the traffic rush along the four-lane behind me, the habit with which I suppress my wish to be somewhere else, writing or at the very least aware of myself being a writer, these sensations and that tension are the familiar, nearly comforting, discomforts of parenting. In this moment I cannot really believe how wholeheartedly I sometimes wish for the time, coming soon, when my children will not need nor allow me to feed, to shelter, to shepherd them, and I will be free to make all my choices—and all my art—alone.
Back inside Lefty’s shop, I drape the strip of bedspread around B’s naked shoulders. He welcomes the gesture, and me, with a big grin and wears the scrap like a shawl, or a royal’s robe, while he strides round the shop floor, loosening up. He is relieved. He rules. He’s done this thing he had to do.
When it’s my turn in the chair, I perch sidesaddle, my back to Lefty, my shirttail rolled up and my waistband rolled down. I will receive my tattoo in a spot, midway between coccyx and waist, that only weeks later will B slip up and refer to as my “tramp stamp,” the idiom of his high school peers for what I will then discover—to the profound wounding of my cool—to be a ubiquitous peek-a-boo location for teen girl tattoos, exposed with every squat or bend that separates her too-short shirt from her low-riding jeans.
But my stamp will be the mark my children have made on me: the slenderest suggestion of wings, two inches in height, eight in width, hinged at a vertebra’s bump, and profoundly asymmetrical—the left arc B’s barbed wire branch and the right J’s cursive curl. Because this is my second tattoo, I think I know what the sensation will be, but because the old one sits in soft flesh beneath my shoulder, I learn something new when Lefty takes up his gun. Each time the needles work across the spine they set the nerves there to firing, the result not pain but strong neural static surging up the spinal cord to a brain that can’t make it mean something but won’t quit trying, an inescapable aggravation, a literal nerve-wracking.
B has found a stool and sits facing me, very near. He is solicitous, which surprises me. It taxes me a little, too; occupied with bearing the stinging and the zinging, trapped in that chair when I am so eager to finish, to go home, to get supper, I don’t want to make conversation. It dawns on me finally that he is uncomfortable watching me submit to something he finds painful—later he will say to J, his voice taut with anxiety, “Mom just sat there”—so I should do something, say something, to relieve him.
I cannot think what that would be. He offers me soda, asks if I’m cold, adjusts the position of his stool to look more directly into my eyes. The tedium of this process—time passing slowly, the necessity of being patient through one moment and the next and the next with a process that hurts but cannot be eluded—this makes me think about childbirth, the extreme by which I learned that submission most powerfully. B’s was a homebirth, an un-medicated labor I found merciful and intimate compared to the over-engineered, frighteningly lonely hospital birth in which his sister was, literally, torn out of me. When B finally asks me straight out if I’m in pain, getting this tattoo, I quip, “It’s nothing like having babies.”
His face turns stricken for the second time that day, and a beat of silence ensues. The needles go on buzzing. Then he breathes out, “Thank you.”
His tone is passionate, humble. So tender, toward his mother. This great big child I have battled self and others to raise as best I can, often coming up short in his eyes and theirs, is grateful I put up with bringing him into the world.
I touch his cheek with my fingertips. Shaggy hair, pimples, bristles, all his teenage inelegance aside, the glance we exchange communicates such comfort and connection—acknowledgement and acceptance of necessary pain, exchange and release of that pain—we might as well be, for that single ephemeral moment, lovers.
B returns to the first day of a new term at his high school, juiced about the possibility his fresh tattoo will draw reprisals from the authorities when classmates gather round to gawk. J has gotten in from Hartford in the wee hours after spending twenty-four straight sitting up in the terminal, and has fallen right into bed. I leave the house at dawn to drive the sick cat (J and B’s outgrown pet) to a biopsy, fighting rush-hour traffic on a classic mom mission.
Squinting into the sunrise, hurtling bumper-to-bumper at seventy on Tampa’s overloaded freeways while attempting to tune out the cat’s yowling, I feel a leaden heaviness in the muscles and even the bones of my lower back signaling, I think, the presence of lactic acid, biochemical afterburn from the surges of adrenalin that clenched those muscles involuntarily tight during the waiting, the watching, the empathizing, the getting-mine-done.
My body had registered that form of physical aftershock before: the morning after the six hours I spent in the emergency room of a third world hospital trying to prevent, solely by my stubborn presence, my then-husband from dying from anaphylactic shock and a medical staff uninterested in the woes of one more ignorant, unlucky tourist. D had been struck by hundreds of Portuguese man-o’-war stingers and almost stopped breathing. I left J, then four years old, parked on the beach, uneasy in the company of my visiting childless childhood friend. I rode in the ambulance with D, our seven-month-old clamped on one hip because those were the days he wouldn’t let me leave him anywhere with anyone. So intent was I on keeping my husband alive that I never put our child down until the whole ordeal was over.
The next morning, when I rolled out of bed to answer B’s wake-up cry, still on my own inside a marriage that scripted me to be forever strong, I fell to the floor, crippled with pain from locked muscles in my arm and hip. Only at that moment did I feel the whole truth of what transpired the day before. D had new scars, and so did I, but nothing had changed: we’d go on as if that near-disaster hadn’t happened. As if it were possible to leave its lesson behind.
Five years later I’d know in my body similar heaviness and toxic spasm—less acute but far less finite—lying flattened by divorce to a futon in front of a cheap television on the floor of an under-furnished and ratty rental house, one child curled wounded and fetal beneath each of my arms. My mind singed, my gut terror-blasted by my husband’s rage, I lay between my children, then nine and five, offering them only the animal comfort of my nearness, the sole form of care available from a mother so paralyzed by irreparable loss, so rigid with lonely determination to survive.
On the morning after the Christmas Tattoo—or the two-thirds of it then completed—I lack words for naming what it is my body wants to tell me I’ve lost or might be losing. Only months later, sitting down to write in the clarity of hindsight, will I wonder if that feeling was the beginning of losing the sense that all was lost.
When B and I return to Lefty’s shop a few days later, J’s already in the chair, sitting up, tipped back only slightly, with her legs extended—her portion of our three-part tattoo will reside on her lower leg, just above the bump of her ankle. Lefty’s already working, concentration keen, needles whirring. J watches us walk through the door; she does not look pleased to see us.
Today is the last possible date our schedules could be jiggered, inconveniently in each case, to allow all three of us to be in the shop at once: the day before she returns to college and the hour immediately post-school-day for B. I have arranged my day to pick him up so we can get there together, but we are late despite my best effort, held up first because B’s drama practice ran long, then further delayed by afternoon traffic. J’s chilly affect—just sitting there, expressionless, getting ink—tightens the tension I already feel; once again I’ve proven ineffective at getting B, and myself, to the right place at the right time.
“Does it hurt?”
The question is voiced by a young Latina, slight as a reed and visibly trembling, who’s entered the shop right behind me and B, sheltered beneath the arm of a beefy boyfriend. J’s fists and her jaw clench the way they did when she was a toddler and yet another non-negotiable truth about the world had once again made her spitting mad. She answers, “It’s not bad.”
Weeks later, someone with personal experience will tell me that “ankles really hurt, much more than anything on the back.” For now, I watch J’s new tattoo take shape: a single cursive curl lifted from the twining wings of them on her back, reshaped at her ankle into a perfect circle opened in one quadrant by the eye of Ra. Brutal blue-black on that pale skin, yet barely three-inches in diameter. The work goes quickly, so fast B and I could have missed it entirely had we arrived only minutes later.
My eyes keep slipping off J’s immobile face, drawn by the beading blood, the dabbing of Lefty’s hand. B stands nearby, distracted, I know, by his cell phone vibrating vigorously, again and again, inside the latched pocket of his cargos, but doing the right thing by not pulling it out to look. I feel myself skidding emotionally. Nowhere to stand. Here at this culminating stage of our together-tattoo I find no togetherness, just a doing-it-cause-we-said-we-would rush.
Then it’s over. She’s called no breaks. I hand Lefty a folded stack of twenties, and the shaky girl and her guy step up to the chair while Lefty stretches his back, swigs soda, and begins again his expiatory presence to his clients’ needs. My tattooed kids and tattooed me, out we go, into a winter twilight purple, yellow-green, and gray, the color of a fading bruise.
I urge B and J—okay, I guilt them—into dining out with me afterwards, as we’d agreed to in the original plan. “Christmas dinner!” I chirp. At an Indian restaurant of my choice, seated two-facing-one in a particularly uncomfortable vinyl booth, the seat too hard and the back too straight, nobody eats but me. They piddle and stir in their entrees; they confess one after the other (in what seems to me callous disregard for my feelings) to having eaten (in what seemed to them famished necessity) immediately before the tattoo.
The minute I’ve paid the check, J heads straight back to Lefty’s to meet a friend who’s become a tattoo addict, she explains, after witnessing the inking of her back, his third tattoo scheduled this night. B is visibly impatient to get to the privacy of his room and answer all those missed calls and text messages, and maybe make a pass at his homework.
J was right, I tell myself, driving home alone after dropping B off at his dad’s. We never succeed in doing anything together. That dinner now boxed into three Styrofoam containers on the back seat replicates the disjunction of every eat-out meal we ever had as a live-together threesome—one or both of my children always preferring, and needing, something other than what I could give them.
There’s another season to this story. Fifteen months later, we share a different couch in a different town, all three of us in the same place, this time.
I sit in the middle, of course. B to my left, J to my right, butt-sunk together in the soft cushions of a scuffed and scarred blonde leather sectional, hand-me-down from the affluent parents of J’s roommate. This couch is the centerpiece of a living room in a rundown apartment complex in Greensboro, N.C., makeshift home to college students and immigrant service workers, the worn beige carpeting in this unit obscured with heaps of books, binders and dried-out highlighters; a semester’s worth of discarded takeout containers; laptops, printers, and iPods in a tangle of cables and chargers; and three black cats, along with their toys and the kitty litter they’ve tracked from the box in the closet. Our three pairs of feet—B’s in long and narrow Chucks, mine in socks-and-Reeboks, J’s petite, callused and bare—line up on the smudged glass top of the coffee table. Each of my children holds a beer. My hands cradle a glass of white wine. We have full stomachs—they have just taken me out for Thai food for my birthday, and they have paid.
The large-screen TV we stare at plays a DVD made by a workers’ collective in Venezuela, celebrating Chavez and the socialist revolution there; J is just back from spring break in Caracas, clowning in hospitals and communing with Marxists beneath the wing of compassionate provocateur Patch Adams. It’s a weeknight late in March, and she has physics homework to get to. In only seven weeks she’ll graduate. B and I, on spring break ourselves, will hit the road in the morning for a victory lap visit to the nearby university he’ll attend in the fall.
J and I, living just two hours apart, have helped each other truck furniture up from Florida and shared confidences through a tough year of ups and downs with our respective long-distance guys, she ending up broken up and me not. Tonight, like one of her cats, she curls warm against my arm. B’s sinewy fist rests on the couch near my thigh. For the past nine months we’ve been separated by more than 700 miles, sharing just a weekly phone call while he grubbed the necessary grades and wore through his dad’s resistance to an out-of-state school, thereby orchestrating a three-in-N.C. togetherness that won’t happen now. J’s decided to return to familiar Tampa for a job since she’s solo, and I’ve just told them, this very evening, that with this man they’ve never met I’ve committed to making our three some kind of four, so I may need to move somewhere new.
I’ve hardly said it when I hear myself do the caution thing again: “Don’t tell your dad.” The reflex, hard-wired by old fear, shames me at the same time it clamps my muscles, and my heart, tight. So I apologize to my children for putting them in that position, again. B says immediately, with protective, manly prerogative: “It doesn’t concern him.” But I confess to my children, underneath the cover of the revolutionaries’ cheers and testimonials, how it troubles me, persistently, my flawedness, my transparency about that, my resulting atypical parent-ness. J’s response is acquiescence: “What matters is that you don’t to lie to us.” B won’t let me be in the wrong. He begins his justification: “It’s more….” He pauses, searches, then finds, in relief, in concision, his answer. “It’s more real.”
We talk some, then, seated on that couch, about the Christmas tattoos. We lift shirts and J’s pants’ leg and refresh our memories of each other’s marks and share the satisfaction and the disbelief that we actually got them. I say, settling back into the cushions between them, “This is good.” J shifts fractionally closer. B gives an adamant, eloquent nod, then lets his head loll back in slightly tipsy relaxation. We are all a little bit buzzed, and drowsy. I know one of us, probably me, will toddle off to bed soon, and in the morning we’ll all be up earlier than we want to, rushing through the a.m. preparations, setting off on our different missions.
We could take hands, but we don’t. We could talk more about what’s next for each of us, but we don’t. We need the spaces that are always between us; we are, always have been, a complicated tripartite unbalancing act. Seated side by side, we take it in and we don’t: the television screen and the smiling workers there, and the drift by which we reached this couch.
My children and I, we are inked: pigment we took on together buried permanently, inside our separate skins.
First published in Saw Palm, Spring 2010
Selected Fiction and Creative Nonfiction
From the classroom