Sunday morning was bright and stark. November in New York City and the palette had turned all gray. The streets were still wet from an evening rain as I came above ground from the subway. I could see the slight orange glow from the neon “tattoo” sign in a puddle when I came around the corner. The waiting room was claustrophobic, just two dirty chairs below a high wooden counter with a crate in front of them covered with binders of tattoo designs. Upon entering, I was greeted with the caked bottoms of a pair of Fluevog boots, the mud making it actually easier to read the inscription “To Love or to Hate, the choice is yours.” I smiled, hoping that yes, indeed, this would be Mason. I peeked over the boots. Slouched below was a bear of a man, his concentration buried deep in a book entitled “Our Appointment with Life: Sutra on Knowing a Better Way to Live Alone.” He was bundled up, still in his winter gear: a ripped up motorcycle jacket over a fleece lined hoody and a faded red and white kuffiya, one of those scarves worn by Palestinian supporters, around his neck and tucked into his sweater. He raised his eyebrows at me and took a deep slug of coffee.
“Hi, I have an appointment.”
“Oh, you do . . “ He raised the last syllable while taking another swig from his cup. Was he winking at me? He had a tattoo of a tear under his right eye, actually a couple of tears. I remembered reading that tear tattoos meant you had killed someone. Somehow this, embarrassingly, made him more attractive. He swung his legs down and drew himself up to his full height, rubbing his eye with a large hand fitted with frayed fingerless gloves.
“Yeah, I’m Mason,” He reached his other hand out. I waited a moment before extending mine.
“You must be pretty excited about getting a tattoo.” He waved his hand around. “There aren’t many other people breaking down the door to get a tattoo on a Sunday morning.”
“Um, well, hmmmm . . . Actually you are pretty popular and it was the only appointment . . . “
“Or you could have waited . . “
“Um, I guess I could have waited . . “ We spoke simultaneously. He was still holding my hand. We laughed.
“So,” He looked down at the book, “Vera, is that how you pronounce your name?”
“Oh, yes, I mean it wasn't always Vera, I just started calling myself that, a long time ago, like in sixth grade, I mean secretly and then it stuck.”
“What, did you have a vision?” He had left the confines of the desk and was now leaning against the display, arms crossed in front of his chest with one elbow on the high counter, legs slightly spread.
“Um, yeah, a vision, I guess you could call it that. I just felt a little, you know, different.” Smile. “I imagined it on a book. Or maybe in a book. Or on TV. Or . . something like that.” Smile.
“Oh . . . A movie star. Or a writer? Or a movie star writer?”
Ok, can we just fuck now? Excuse me while I collect myself. I looked at my boots.
“What do you have there?”
“In your hand darling, in your hand. You have a drawing or something?”
Oh yeah, that’s what I am here for. I sat down on one of the chairs and started to tell him the whole story of the quote “The body knows the beloved is never, ever going to return," stopping short of explaining my family history but accentuating “I just broke up with someone and I am feeling really free.” I crossed my legs for emphasis, swinging my heavy platform boot. I then explained that I wanted the inscription around my wrist.
Mason reached out for my hand and then he stopped. “May I?”
I stammered. “It’s the other one,” pushing up my sleeve and extending the soft white inside of my left forearm.
“Sweetheart, you don’t want that on this beautiful wrist. I mean look at it. It’s like a the inside of a sparrow wing. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to tell you what you want but I have put a lot of words on a lot of people and let’s just say this, we might be able to come up with something better.” This time he was actually winking at me. I got the feeling that he was just a winker, that he winked often as punctuation but that totally did NOT infer he didn’t mean it.
“So what . . “
“We have this word here, BELOVED, that seems to be what you are most concerned about, right? I might be wrong but what I think, and this is after listening to you carefully . . “ He was now crouched down in front of me, my wrist still in his hand, “Like I was saying, I am responding to what you just said . . I think you mean that the beloved is in the mind, right, it is what we remember . . And if I heard you right, you want to remember that the beloved is right here.” He tapped the back of his rough fingernail against what might be my heart.
Letting go of my hand, he leaned back a little, still holding my eyes in his.
“I might look a little . . Dense . . But you know this work is very precise, on many levels, “ He laughed, “I have seen it all, babe. So what do you think? Beloved, right? It’s a beautiful word. We could do it all romantic, a thick script, like this . . . “ He grabbed my hand again and traced a loose curve towards my wrist, “And we could bind it to you, you know, like with a chain . . What kind of work do you do again? Do you mind if it flows down onto your hand. I love that, falling out from inside your sleeve, you know what I mean . . Some people don’t like that, to have public ink . . Oh yeah, I remember, you are a movie star writer, a hand tattoo, so I’m thinking that would be good on you.”
I had literally stopped breathing. He got up and went behind the counter to draw. I excused myself and went into the bathroom, mostly to look in the mirror and pray “Do not fuck this up.” What exactly not fucking this up meant, I was not sure but at least I could find a way to pace myself.
Mason situated me in an old barber chair in the small room in the back of the shop while he readied several trays of inks and a couple of tattoo guns. He was much too big for the room. Like an optical illusion, almost a parallel universe. It felt like he would be too big for any room, that he and I were actually members of two separate species. Slow and tentative as if my body was learning a new language, I paid close attention. He kept situating himself and re-situating himself, mumbling, not particularly to me. We had clearly shifted into a deeper, more substantial movement of our dance: he was working and I was becoming more naked by the minute, not literally, but as close as I could be without removing my clothes. I was glad that this was a discreet tattoo, on a part of my body where I could maintain a little mystery and decorum, unlike the scene for my compulsive middle-of-the-night crazy dangerous pussy belly tattoo, where I was pretty much naked for real. I could sit up and keep eye contact. There was no escape. For the time being, I belonged to him.
“Do you always wear that ring on your left hand?” He pointed to a heavy gold ring with a red stone that I wore on my middle finger. I think the stone was a garnet but I hadn’t taken it to a jeweler. I had found it in my mother’s jewelry box when my father poured the contents out on the dining room table last Christmas, suddenly and without warning. My sisters and I scrambled through the pile hungrily; Mair, Juju and Lula hung back with just the slightest facsimile of patience, waiting their turn with the leftovers. The ring was all I took. I was told it belonged to my grandfather, who I had never met. It was curious because I have slender fingers and the ring fit me. Either my grandfather had very delicate hands or at one point in her past, my mother had worn very masculine jewelry or, perhaps, it actually belonged to someone else. No one had seemed to be able to place the ring in their memory.
“I do. I mean I guess I do. I just started wearing it actually. It belonged to my mother. She died last year.”
“Oh, sorry about that . . It’s a good one, though. I’m just thinking about the red, actually, like we should use red as a shadow, you know in the writing, or maybe, oh wow, now I got it, we’re gonna wrap that hand of yours in a chain that is actually a vine and the red will be like these invisible flowers . . “ He turned his back to me, mixing some ink.
Time passed slowly. Although the tattoo wasn’t large nor extremely complicated, it hurt, the gun drumming deeply into all the boney parts of my wrist and down my thumb. He kept stopping to ask me how I was. I usually just hummed a little. I was falling inside myself, blanking out. Opening my eyes, I found myself staring into a small medallion nailed to the wall. It said, “PRAY.”
“Is that for you or for me?”
“Well, go ahead, but, yeah, it’s for me . . I got an intense program going on . . . Need a lot of help . . You know.”
“No, I don’t know.” I was feeling bold. “Tell me.”
“Un, I had a friend I had to say good-bye to and she’s the kind of friend that just won’t go away.”
He knocked me on the head like he was knocking on a door.
“Hey stay out of there. I bet it’s not what you think. I was a mad heroin lover, if you know what I mean. Got me in a lot of trouble. I’m working on being in love with being clean. And she’s not quite so pretty.”
I opened my eyes, just slightly and then closed them again. The gun was right on the knob of my wrist. Droplets of blood, almost ephemeral, sweated out of my pores along the delicate lines of his drawing.
“Oh yeah, I am sober. I mean, oh, whatever, sorry about that, I’m not assuming . . “
“That I know anything. That I know anything at all. I am sorry, I interrupted you.”
He touched my cheek. I looked at him.
“That’s ok. We’re cool, you and me. No problem.”
He paused and lifted the gun. We held our gaze.
“What was your . . “
“Reasons? Oh, sorry babe, I interrupted you this time.”
“No. What I was going to say was, what was your epiphany? I mean you must have had one. Like the split second when you saw everything, when you felt like there was a possibility that maybe everything could go completely differently, like it was worth it, I mean, to change.”
“Epiphany. You are deep. I like that, but I don’t know what you are talking about.”
He went back to work. We didn’t talk a lot after that. The tattoo was so much more than what I asked for. It was it was perfect, I loved it, but it was truly his vision, wrapping around my wrist twice, beginning in the center of my inner forearm and trailing almost all the way down my thumb. It looked extra beautiful because my arm was so inflamed from the process, the indigo blue and deep green stood out, a little bit raised from the fresh ink. He slathered my arm in antibiotic ointment and wrapped it with saran wrap to keep it dry. I felt like I had a fever.
I realized when we were done that I had never discussed a price with him. He was dry about the transaction, little words were exchanged. He charged me by the hour and for the drawing, no discount for the sexy repartee. I was probably paying for that. I felt out of sorts, like I had missed the exit ramp, like I made a mistake. We were clearly finished with each other. Someone else was waiting in the front. I fussed with my bag, crouched on the floor. He stood over me. It was hard to tell if I was projecting his impatience. I just couldn’t read him. Turning to get one last glimpse as I walked out into the sunlight, I caught him smiling at me as he draped that impossibly unruly body sideways across the counter, stretching to answer the phone. He winked.
Not sure of what to do next and actually content to be alone with my endorphins, I took the train back downtown and found myself some breakfast. Fumbling through my wallet, I realized I had left my mother’s ring behind.