This is an ugly poem.
Its muscles are thin
so it topples over,
stretches and leaves
a yowling yawn to the air.
It sits wringing its hands,
elbows on knees,
broken by words it wants
to say, but can’t, will not.
It is silent because
it doesn’t care to be seen.
Its serif edges will buckle,
its first line will cave in
and lead passersby
to only glance.
Company, warmth, love
will not come to it.
One day, it will be dusted off.
The light will strike through a crack.
Its beauty may be found in a beat,
in a phrase that rolls off the tongue
and is still tasted.
In time, it will be buttressed
by wet ink,
dried by warm air,
rededicated to purpose and care.
Someday its ugliness will be vogue.
Before he touched my skin, I already detected that I was lying in a puddle of sweat and sticking to the naugahyde massage table, with my jeans unzipped and filleted around my thighs, my underwear elastic pulled down over them. I hadn’t prepared for this fully, I realized. Good thing I wore my good underwear, I thought.
I heard the gloves pop onto his hands and heard his four-wheeled low stool, the seat matching the black naugahyde table, roll away with a swish and then roll back, as I stared at a high-vaulted tile ceiling. Something soft and wetly cool touched my lower left hip, wiped across it, then the other way, then lifted with no sound.
“I’m laying the stencil down,” he said, in a monotone voice, nonetheless one of the phrases in his arsenal he used every day, as natural as “Good morning” or “How’s it going?” I felt pressure and then a comfortable pull, like a Bandaid one wears for days finally peeling off with little fanfare or pain.
“Take a look and see if you like it.” From this prone and vulnerable position, I was now denigrated to standing up, at the age of eighteen — hardly a prude but not nearly far enough away from my previous virginhood — with my pants below my waist in order to waddle to a full-length mirror, in front of a man I’d met only moments before, all with the goal of making a marked change on the rest of my life.
I studied the view – the vantage of a scorpion from above, claws both raised above its head, tail turned in towards my abdomen and toward one of two stars separately posted on the outsides to indicate the constellation and the zodiac. If there was ever any symbol that defined me throughout my life, it was the scorpion, my birthright, literally. I was textbook – withdrawn yet watchful, forceful yet determined, obsessive yet intuitive, jealous yet passionate.
Shuffling back over to the table, I plopped myself like a fish on the cutting board of the massage table and shimmied my body — head, back, hips, ankles — as close to the position I had lain in before all in order to put myself back together.
“Okay,” I smiled, staring again at the ceiling. And so we began.
Believe me: they can try to make you feel at home with paintings on the walls, books on shelves in their cubicle-style offices, and music slowly drifting from their iPods. It almost works if you close your eyes. The tattoo artists and institutions can attempt to mask the smell of metal and blood and burning flesh with sterile goops and oils and wipes. And for this, we should be thankful. We aren’t, after all, a bunch of sailors settled in port for the night, yearning to blow of some steam with a bottle of whiskey and an outline of a pretty girl.
But the truth is, you are electing minor surgery when you walk into that tattoo studio. The initial buzzing from the tattoo gun is the scalpel ready to slice. It’s the machete ready to rat, tat, tat against the husk of your life, to farm a new crop on the soil of your skin.
The minute the tattoo outline begins, you register your terror and the idea takes root. What are you doing? Long lines of pain and then reprieve, slicing and then wiping, slicing and then wiping, feels like hours when it’s hardly close. The seeds are sown in perfect pattern. You feel dizzy and you shake, and your skin feels like it is being whisked by cold gusts without the wind. (Some say like tiny bees making a calculated stinging attack, all in the same area of your body.) Your system yearns to understand what defense mechanisms it should employ to detect and eradicate this virus. But this is self-inflicted, this is conscious, and your brain runs the course of logic while your body gets wounded. You march yourself into war and you take the beating, lying down, just like others before you and after you, who are and will be attracted to the experience and the outcome– the yearners, the searchers, the prophets of their own lives.
I remember attempting to have a conversation with the tattoo artist but my voice was shaky and unsure, especially over the bellows of British punk rock and Nuevo American metal slashing out of the iPod’s speakers. Soon enough, my soft supple hip gave up registering pain, sedated from the torture of the outline.
Then the magic began – the unsuspected second tattoo gun clicked into being where it hadn’t existed before and began filling the spaces in between, giving dimension through the shading of the claws and the arachnid shell and the stars. Gaps of flesh, imagined but not real, seared underneath the needle with five more tips than the first and rubbed raw against my skin like a Brillo pad on sunburn. I found myself feeling a sense of pride in marking my own body, in fighting my impulse to run away from pain and just being. Just feeling.
After we finished, there was more wiping down, some goo applied that felt like sonogram gunk, and more sterilization and then a covering. Those hands that felt so alien to me only an hour before, warmly taped a matte-finished yet slippery bandage pad over my hip and drew two long lines of medical tape across their lengths to cage in the mark. I stood, fully aware, hyperaware, of my surroundings – the warm wooden and scuffed floor of the tattoo studio, the old 19th century rowhome turned tattoo studio posts holding the building up, the fragile giggling of others in the waiting room.
It was a high, probably not unlike a runner’s high, but I am no authority on that. I do know that I left that tattoo studio feeling newly molded into myself, into someone I was fully in control of creating. That night, after the requisite two hours, I pulled the bandage off, and slowly, in circles, wet my hip with warm water and caressed it with antibacterial soap to remove the dried blood, then applying some burn cream to start the healing process. I threw the underwear away that night, already muddled by the blood I wouldn’t be able to wash out or explain to my parents if they investigated my laundry. The blood wouldn’t come out but it was no issue – the girl who wore those underwear hours before wasn’t walking the world anymore.
Jack smoothed the front of his button down in the standing mirror; turned his head right to left, left to right, examining his sideburns and the shade of his haircut: short and then less shorter and then longer on the crown with a spike. Leaning forward, he growled silently to check his teeth, inspecting especially the spaces between his incisors for any spinach.
He walked through the tight doorway, from his bedroom to the front of his apartment, where a dinner tray table stood by the door covered in randomness: leftover coins from the subway toll machines; half crumpled business cards he’d homemade himself, offering music lessons and editing assistance, anything really to pay the bills; a stack of pictures of Emily and him that his mother delivered to him shortly after his father’s birthday party; a lost button; a half-empty bottle of water; keys; a pack of smokes. And a stack of mail fanned out horizontally in some places to almost resemble a star.
Jack shrugged his shoulders, popped his arms out, shook around a bit. He picked up the stack of envelopes like cards and plucked the first four off like he was about to start a magic trick: make something disappear, make something else appear.
The name on all: Janet Stockton, 17 Whisper Woods Drive, Apt. 2D. The address where they arrived: Jack Rutland, 17 Whisper Woods Drive, Apt. 1D.
Jack had seen a glimpse of a flowing skirt up the steps and at another point the glint and shake of a tendril of hair out of the building door since Janet moved in, perhaps two weeks ago. But he heard more than he saw. Showers taken at night, and brief. A hairdryer. A trashcan lightly beating the thin linoleum, being shaken for the full bag to pop. A vacuum cleaner; a horror movie, somewhere in the middle with only one character screaming; a closet door.
Jack had held off, hoping to run into her on the steps, on the front sidewalk. Hey, hi… I have your mail.
But with four now stacked, three more than one, than an accident, the anxiety was getting to him. He didn’t want to stand in the way of Janet Stockton and her bank statements, her credit card statements, her bills. She must be anxious already, he thought; hoping she didn’t forget to change her address for all of her mail, hoping she followed the U.S. Postal Service’s instructions on moving, on uninterrupted service.
Jack had to see her anyway. He needed to know what she looked like. He prided himself on knowing every face in the building, every car in the parking lot. He was that type – he paid attention and stayed connected to his world in order to navigate it. Surprises, strangers, inaccuracies, anachronisms – things he couldn’t measure or brace for made him shiver, made him shy.
He should be a friendly neighbor anyway. She may need some help and would know who to ask.
Shuffling the mail against his thigh, he exited the apartment and climbed the stairs, counting. Counting, and turning, stepping up, counting, turning. In front of 2D, Jack stood. Shuffled the mail against his thigh. Licked his teeth. Pulled the collar from his neck in the front.
He struck the knocker three times, lightly, instead of knocking on the metal door.
He heard steps. The same deadbolt he had unlatched sounded, like deja vu. The same handle lock clicked and then suckled and then opened. And then presented a woman, a Janet.
“I have your mail.”
It’s a weed that attracts more weeds. It’s a gangly arm shoved from the right of my body, with my hand straight out, all attached to a torso, attached to a neck, attached to a head with a face that scrunches up in discontent at the tone of your voice, the diversion of your eyes, the word, that word, on your tongue.
It’s overgrowth, stretching to cover hard emotions that aren’t so hard, but can be buried in soft ground and covered by more shoveled sand and silt and dirt until no one else would know. Or rather, I believe that they can be buried, like my head in the pillow, going to sleep under covers in the middle of the day to avert a crisis of worry, a non-existent possibility that consumes my brain.
It’s those defense mechanisms I’ve held on to for so long to keep from healing. Weeds still need rain and sunlight, they still need to be nurtured in order to stay alive, to thrive. I tend them with my ignorance; I tend them by still using them and not asking why. Walking away, when I feel defeated or attacked; drawing myself inward, limbs tight, face averted; becoming quiet, misinterpreting your words. Or rather, interpreting your words the way I would 15 years ago, when I felt trapped and lonely and unwelcome.
Without the anxiety, without the mechanisms, I’d have to breathe and listen. Without the weeds, I have to assess the situation, I have to analyze what overgrown tomb of emotional and psychological haunt these actions are coming from.
Those weeds are wizards, they’re warlocks, disguised as growth. But just because they’re alive, it doesn’t mean they’re immortal. Weeds can die a death that’s slow and painful. But the more they sink in, the more painful it gets, the more those roots wrap around and cling. It’s a Catch-22 that’s not magical or paranormal or unimaginable. It’s well within in my hands to turn those reflexes over, to shake that overgrowth and soil in the pan of my life, to discover the gold nuggets through introspection and acknowledgement.
It’s only in my hands to stop watering those weeds, to pull them out slowly and to thank them for a job well done.
The night was dark in places Janet had never seen before.
Perhaps the black sinkholes on the right, boxy and straight and stacked, where the wall should be were book shelves. The deep oval corner – striated like muslin at the ends in grays and dark black golds – above the door (this much she knew) was the spot where light dissipates the most, an ominous black nothing where fear could creep in if you stared too long. This is the hole through which she came, muddled and unsure and stumbly, locked by arms, or lips, or hips with the sound behind her back now, rising and falling like the tide of the ocean when the moon was new and she had stood on the coast all those years back, wondering where the sand dried and the water wetted with each swell.
Janet knew the sound in her ear was resting, rested – unlike her body, the legs especially, twitching with mismovement, restlessness. Looking about the room, eyes darting sporadically, surveying the corner and side she could see without moving from her back indented into mattress soft, Janet looked for a clock and instead found numbers floating where sleep should have come so many hours before. Invisible numbers… but tangible, reachable, decipherable – 4:30 a.m.? 5:15 a.m.? 6:00?
She waited for a faint hint of dawn on the ceiling. She waited for a bird singing the new day’s first song. She waited for a thwap, a thunk, a whack on the floor above her to signal what to do next in this still dark world.
We share kisses like handed-down recipes,
covered in scribbled notes
and spills of former loves and lusts.
We modernize old dishes:
add the hiss of steam,
a gurgle of hunger,
the sweetness of cinnamon,
a dash of salt.
Licking each other’s lips, we test the temperature,
improvise the seasoning.
Hands knead the pulse of me, squeezing and guiding,
flattening and rolling.
Soft pecks and slight tongue,
the backs of knees,
palms on cheeks.
From where we’ve grown, life lines of ingredients
formulate our mixtures – they comfort and warm.
They reminisce of campfire cookouts,
coal stove winters, stovetop holidays.
We learn balance:
when to hold back,
when to add one more pinch.
Improvising and substituting,
bettering what was already made better,
we ready these instructions
for our own childrens’ melting and cooking,
fumbling and burning.
I want to tell a story with full words and slight stops, but it’s too high in the throat. I have to throttle it out into full drive.
Where it started I can’t say- a silent stare into your eyes, a touch that tattooed my skin, a laugh that jumped into the air and never broke. I sing the songs I’ve hung onto for so long, downcast and depressing, and they have lost meaning, they fly into the background, crash, lay flat, and deflate. The music of vision and purpose, one step in front of the other; a defined path and a case for setting it right on foot, out of the wilderness.
Where it starts- a morning yawn that mouths your name, a stretch that shakes of you, a sound that mimics the crisp Spring.
Lost and grasping, I need to refresh this blank page and start writing, but the blank page collects my imagination and pushes it to months of growing older, to hours of talking it over, to seconds of hanging on.
I want to tell the story with full words and slight stops of who we’ve become to each other, of old eyes seeing new again, of old souls finding home. Of saying good morning and meaning it first, of stepping off this brake and enjoying the ride, of turning fear into life.
This story gets written from here, our tongues in their proper places, our lips pursed to start, our throats clear and ready to scream.