Non-Fiction Is Selling Better Than Fiction These Days
I went to the tattoo parlor on Sunday cause I had nothing else to do and I’d already eaten all the ice cream in my girlfriend’s fridge. It was August in the city, so I was delusional.
I’d only ever seen tattoo parlors. I’d never been inside one. Except for one time when I was in Chicago with a college roommate. After we sampled several cold martinis at a dive bar called Ralph’s, she drove me to a coconut shack on the shore of the ocean-looking lake. She parked her car by a broken gate, and gave me her bag to hold. She crawled toward the shack on her belly, with her arms stretched out like a sandy lizard, and whispered Om-Tay Attoo-Tay?! He was, apparently, famous, this Omtay Attootay. We met him when he slow-blinked at us. He pulled a beaded necklace out from his tank top, and rolled his eyes back in his head. My college roommate squealed, and allowed Om to tap-tap-tap a tribal twirl into the side of her leg. I sat on a nearby stool the whole time thinking what a mess he was making, and I wasn’t even referring to the infection she got the next week.
That was the only tattoo parlor I’d ever been inside, if you could even call it inside. I’d passed some in my neighborhood back in New York. Each looked the same. Neon signs blinking, black-mirrored outsides, made for midnight. Tattooed people going in and out, some with white bandages wrapped around their newly decorated limbs. Once, in the fall, when the weather permitted comfortable out-door stalking, I sat outside at a café across the street from a parlor close to my apartment. I watched all these people with tattoos enter and exit and enter and exit. I was waiting to see if any people without tattoos were going to get tattoos because maybe I could muster some bravery by way of another’s bravery. Isn’t that how it works?
On Sunday, I was so freaking tired of myself, I just went right in. Right in that tattoo parlor. Walked right inside, went up to the counter, slapped my hand down and said: show me what you’ve got. The guy behind the counter, who was seven feet tall, was wearing a black t-shirt. His arms were covered in snakes and dragons and naked women wrapped inside open mouths. What you want? he said and I said, What you got? He said I’ve got it all, and I said, it all? The guy lifted up his tight black shirt to reveal a totally bare chest.
My nips are actually tattooed on, he said, smiling. Do you like the light pink color I picked? Do you think it matches my lips and my eyelids?
Such tender puffs! Or, was that expert shading?
He had a mustache that barely touched the top of his lip. Thick, though. Okay, okay, you’re the guy for me, but I had to make sure. You do improv? I asked. He said what the fuck is improv, and I smiled wide: Improv is when people who feel out of control of their lives go to a dark room with other people just like them, and play games where they control new, make-believe lives. And usually the goal is to make other people laugh.
Tat man asked if they really were funny, the people or the worlds, and I just cackled, because he knew right what I was getting at. We stared into each other’s dark blue eyes for seconds. No one else was in the shop. He asked me what my name was, and I asked Why did you get your nipples tattooed on?
That’s when I learned he had had breast cancer. Not many men have breast cancer, but he did. I cried when he told me all the horrible surgeries he underwent. I cried, for the first time in my life since my mother told me I wasn’t allowed to go back to archery camp because she was getting afraid of my aim, even though I insisted that all the bull’s eyes were accidental. Of course, they weren’t, but just because I got good didn’t mean I wanted to stop.
I cried so hard for this man I was beginning to love, I had to run to the bathroom. I washed my hands in the dirty sink. I tried not to touch anything. The walls were covered in wall tattoos. I heard him from the other side of the door. He spoke through the crack, like I used to do with my girlfriend when she would lock herself in her bedroom and threaten to slice her wrists open with my nail file.
He didn’t have to speak loudly: No one believed that I had breast cancer, so no one gave me any flowers, not when I was in the hospital, and not when I drove myself home in the car I’d parked in the hospital lot, where I’d left it for the entire time I spent in the hospital undergoing painful radiation therapy.
I cried some more until all my tears for the remainder of my emotional life were spent.
When I left the bathroom, I asked the man if I could touch his nipples and he said that no one had asked him that before, and when one of his lovers had asked him, what they really said was: can I touch your nipple tattoos. Which, he said, didn’t make him cry at the time because he was so horny and needed to get off or else he would explode, but that it did make him cry the next morning over a cup of espresso he made for himself with the machine his mother sent from Alabama, where his family was from. She’d sent it with a note about his new cosmopolitan fairy lifestyle. The espresso machine, I think, was meant to be an insult, but I don’t think he figured that out yet because espresso is great for tattoo artists, who stay up all hours of the night thinking about how to make bodies more exact.
After I rubbed his nipples, I sat in his chair and let him tattoo anything he wanted on me. First, he tattooed a smiley face on the top of my wrist. Then, he drew some lines on my fingers, which made me feel chic. He tattooed eyes on the tips of each of my toes, in all different states of emotion. They’ll rub off in a year, he said, if you use your toes a lot. That’s when I vowed to never use the pinky toe on my right foot, because the eye was sort of bashful, and it felt safe to have her there, if ever I needed someone to console me.
I said something bigger, so he tattooed a heron on the inside of my thigh. He covered it up before I could see the work he’d done, but it felt beautiful. Years later, when I looked close, I saw a slender minnow threaded through the beak of the bird.
I was feeling faint after the leg tattoo, so he gave me some cranberry juice. I kissed him on the cheek, which was covered in stubble, and as my lips rested there, I asked him if he would tattoo the color of his nipples on my nipples. He said he would, and he did.
This was excruciatingly painful, but I felt like I’d be happy with the results, as soon as the scabs peeled off.
As he was cleaning the nipples needle, I stood up, put my arms across my head, and asked him to tattoo the back of my leg with his memory of my face. Can’t I have a reference point, he asked, but I said no no no no no, I want you to draw what you remember seeing of me.
He said alright, and went to work. Three hours later, he was done.
On Sundays my girlfriend and I would normally go to Ziti’s Pizzeria and order one large pie with ricotta and spicy sauce, hold the oregano seasoning. But I wasn’t hungry, so I got on the train, and rode to the end of the line. I got out, saw I was in the Bronx, walked to a nearby park, and laid down in the grass. On my right was a bottle cap, and on my left, a game of cricket.
Two men stood oppositely from each other on a rectangular patch of yellow sand. One threw the ball overhand, and the other tried with a long paddle to sweep it upward into the air. Behind the hitter were collections of wooden sticks standing upright. I had no idea how the game worked. I put my head back down on the grass, and when I looked past the bottle cap to my right, I saw a whole field of teenage girls playing softball. They were feverish, and dressed in neon uniforms.
My girlfriend played softball when we met five years ago. She was fantastic at hitting the ball, and less fantastic at catching it. Her uniform was maroon. I would go to every game, and bring extra water bottles, because she was constantly forgetting to hydrate herself. It was probably all of the tears she was constantly shedding. I would call out her name from the stands when she got up to bat, or when she would catch an impossible line drive from center field. I was her biggest fan.
She quit this summer.
I asked her why she quit, and she said if I loved softball so much, I should go fucking buy myself my own mitt, and join a league. I said I love watching you play, and then she left the apartment and didn’t come back for three weeks. I made her bed just how she liked it so that when she returned, and crawled inside the sheets, it was like she’d never been gone.
These sheets smell like lavender, who do you think I am, Sylvia FUCKING Plath?
I washed them for her with Tide, which is how I had washed them the first time.
The cricket games lasted for hours. I wasn’t sure if it was one game, or twenty. I was a dedicated spector for all. My body was wrapped in gauze, from the afternoon of tattooing, and it was hot. I undid all the bandages and realized my body was only beginning to scab. But, underneath the cakes of scab spots, I could make out some of my new skin. Designs, really. I couldn’t see the back of my leg with my own eyes, so I took out my phone, and took a picture. The picture was blurry, so I asked another spectator to take a picture for me. He did. You like cricket? Not many white girls like cricket. I said I loved cricket, it was my favorite game. Did he want to explain the rules to me? If you really loved cricket, you would know the rules.
You’re right, I said, when he gave me back the phone. On it, was a picture of the back of my leg. I wanted to look. But before I could, I got a text message from my girlfriend. She asked me where I’d been all day. She was worried, because I love pizza, and I never don’t show up. She ordered in. The pizza was waiting for me. It might be cold, she said, and sent me a few more messages with emoticons of beer mugs and snowflakes and faces with hearts for eyes.
I smiled, but didn’t respond.
The tattoo on the back of my leg, or the photograph of it, was on my phone, but my phone died before I could see it.
I realized that I valued beauty above a lot of other things, and that it was ruining my life.
The cricket players were wearing white clothes. I watched until the sun went down, until it turned to Monday, and made up my own gameplay, until everything they were doing—the catching, the throwing, the running, the hitting, the cheering, the crying, the celebrating, made perfect sense.
Emma Horwitz is a writer from New York City. You can correspond with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.