Andy had the top bunk, and I was below, liquor-dazed, letting her sister teach me how to touch. Carmen propped her head on the bottom rung of the ladder framing the bed, said, “Faster.” Her fingers were rough from bartending, I could feel the callouses on her palm against my temple. It was near morning, and we’d figured Andy had fallen asleep, that she’d got bored with the conversation when she’d heard us kissing. Her fingers knotted in my hair, Carmen pressed my face to the sweet and sweat-tinged smell of her. The pressure on my jaw made my TMJ flare up, put pain in the joint below my ear. My feet were hot, tangled in the knit afghan folded at the base of her mattress, but I didn’t want to move, to rock the loose wooden frame, to wake Andy.
When I dredge into the memory of that night, I can see their room unlit except for the window shades struck yellow by the streetlight outside their third-story window. Carmen’s hips lifted off the mattress, and I moved with urgency, my forehead on the curve below her stomach until she placed her hands on my cheeks, brought me to her the way she might pool water in her palms and raise it to drink. I dried my hands and lips on her comforter. We lay breathing into each other’s mouths. I said, “Did you?”
“You couldn’t tell?”
I figured that saying nothing was better than having the wrong answer. She took my wrist, placed it on her crotch. Before I could ask what I was supposed to be feeling for, she said, “Just wait.”
Earlier, when Sonar signaled last call with two flashes of the rafter lights, we trekked down Saratoga to grab a cab up Calvert. No bigger than Charles or Maryland Ave, Andy liked to call it “Calvert Highway” since the lights were more forgiving than other northbound routes, letting you get uptown quick. Andy’s the younger sister, always flinging herself into new artistic endeavors. As a teen, she’d learned to draw, then paint, had started tagging in Station North, sneaking out at three in the morning to spray-paint murals of things like Frida Kahlo as the Virgin Mary. The summer before, she’d taught herself to tattoo with a few lessons from her cousin and a bushel of grapefruit skins she embroidered with ink. I met her when she got hired at the coffee shop in Towson where I’d worked in the interim between my bachelor’s and my M.Ed.—two years when I couldn’t pick a direction but knew that, at twenty-two, I still needed to move. She’d come down from Hanover to live with Carmen now that they both were single. It was a cramped one-bedroom in Charles Village, and Carmen needed help covering the rent. They were always doing that—making turns in their lives at the same time.
After the first cab blew by us, Carmen adjusted her bra under her tank top and raised her hand out, waiting for the next. Andy, bent at the waist, tugged at the straps of her heels, all night saying how they cut into her ankles. She looked up, said, “Yeah, that was the problem—your tits weren’t out.”
“Could it hurt?” Carmen said. I was standing between the two of them, caught a wink from her before Andy stood and declared that there was no bearing it, unbuckling the clasps on her heels and stepping out of them. The kick drum was still pulsing in the soles of my shoes—how I knew I was drunk to the gills. We edged out onto the curb, our clothing stretched and damp from dancing. They had three years between them but were similarly petite and olive tan, both with green eyes that sat like jewels on their skin. In the last bit of fall where clouds press like a boot on the city, they could pass for the kind of twins who purposefully pointed their style in different directions to establish uniqueness. Andy had a uniform, said she’d die in a loose T-shirt and tight jeans. Carmen had talked her into the heels, saying she missed those nights at the clubs when they were still toting fake IDs, dancing in their mother’s stilettos. I took a few steps into the street, looking south to the Harbor, could see clear past the monument, the dim road vacant.
“Elton John is playing M&T tonight. That’s probably keeping all the cabs downtown,” Andy said. “We could just walk.”
Carmen let her shoulders sag. “That’s like sixteen blocks.”
I said, “Might as well keep moving.”
We set a path in the right lane, Carmen leading while I walked backwards, watching for cars. Andy had to tiptoe around pebbles and glass, falling behind. I told her I could carry her if she wanted, but she swatted the air, said, “Oh please.”
We’d gotten close when our schedules paired off—Monday to Thursday, opening the shop, stumbling in at four-thirty to warm up the espresso machines, to set up the pastry case, our manager in the back counting the tills. Ours was a commuter-heavy spot—from six to nine, there was a line to the door—and we wrangled the drink bar, one of us pulling shots, the other handling the milk, pouring drip coffees, topping off Americanos with hot water. There was something pleasing about our efficiency, our ability to move, to create in tandem.
My car was in the shop with a busted head gasket, so earlier that night when we closed, Andy said she’d drive us to Sonar. I told her I could DD if she wanted, but she didn’t mind staying sober. I was relieved—I couldn’t dance without being loaded. I’d been sneaking rum into my iced tea from the pint in my coat pocket just so I wouldn’t be too sober when we got there. Rum was Andy’s favorite. I thought we could sit in the parking lot and drink it down before we went into the club. I sat on her trunk in the back alley where the overnight truck delivered milk and pastries at the ramp next to the dumpster. Andy blasted M.I.A., the bass rattling her cracked windows. She’d just learned how to six-step and was practicing, blackening her hands on the asphalt, waiting for Carmen to get off so we could head out.
A few weeks back, before the steady flow of customers began, she told me she couldn’t imagine anything new, so she’d taken to painting imitations, famous pieces of art with only flecks of her own style—a changed color here, a detail redrawn there. It’s why she’d been turning to dance, to music, looking for ways to reinvigorate her creativity. I was half-asleep while, at my shoulder, she spoke low, almost whispered these intimate failings. The wax-paper lamps suspended beside the espresso bar turned her gold. I told her I didn’t have much of an imagination, and she asked about the inspiration from my tattoos—from elbow to shoulder, a collection of emblematic images that now grouped together. I said that each was a long story. She pointed at the wishbone on my forearm, wanted to know if it could really be that deep, and I said, “Would you want anything that can be summed up in a word?”
Carmen worked in a college bar a few blocks down, had traded her closing shift tonight for a double on Saturday. She was tough, could drink until last call and make it to work on time, hiding her hangover with a little eye shadow and an exaggerated pout in her lips. As she rounded the dumpster, duffel bag strapped across her chest, she walked with a form a confidence unfamiliar to me, like she didn’t fear a judgmental eye but welcomed it. She knew how to put that idea in a patron’s head—yeah, I’m your bartender, but I could be into you. And I don’t want to make excuses for myself, but if not for Andy, I could be in the herd of men wet-mouthed and star-struck, fawning over her every word. When the two of us drank at Carmen’s bar, we’d sit on the stools along the backroom with a good view of the counter. We’d watch college kids peeking down her shirt as she bent into the cooler. When she caught them, she sprayed them with a stream of water from the soda gun. She said to us, “It’s funny—the more you shame them, the bigger they tip.”
In the alley, Carmen got her hips rocking as the music hit her, tossing her duffel onto the car beside me, dropping into a b-boy pose, one arm across her chest, the other hand on her chin, as if she were appraising her sister’s new step. They motioned for me to join. The rum had warmed my chest, I could feel the beat in my shoulders, my waist, but I was naked without the cover of darkness and wall of bodies a club provided. Sitting on the trunk, watching them dance circles around each other, reminded me of a time when I was a boy, uncomfortable with my leftover baby fat, wearing a T-shirt on the lip of a pool. But I wasn’t thinking oh, poor me either. Mine was a blood that required momentum—I’ve never been good at getting myself moving, but when Carmen grabbed my wrist, I let her pull me off the trunk. I’d learned to dance from my older sister. She’d perfected the art of the radio mix-tape, and when she’d collected ten tracks, she played them on repeat, taught me to feel the beat through a barrage of Salt-N-Pepa, Boyz II Men, TLC, saying, “All you need is rhythm.”
I told that story to Andy the first time we went to Sonar. Leaning in, she shouted over the music, “Do you always think about your sister when you’re dancing with me?” I swayed my hips now, the clap-snare and sub-bass of “World Town” clipping the car speakers and beating against the brick wall, picturing Andy moving somewhere behind me, even as her sister twisted and turned, inspiring me to loosen.
She asked about the inspiration from my tattoos—from elbow to shoulder, a collection of emblematic images that now grouped together. I said that each was a long story. She pointed at the wishbone on my forearm, wanted to know if it could really be that deep, and I said, “Would you want anything that can be summed up in a word?”
And later, on that walk back, past Mt. Royal and Penn Station, the Male/Female statue looming with its intersected spine bridging around a shared heart that glowed purple in the night—I plodded backwards, watching Andy navigate her bare feet through the debris. Down Calvert, pricks of light turned onto the street, and I alerted them to the cars coming our way. We moved to the parking lane, waiting to see if there was a cab. When they were still fifty feet off and we could see the pair of vehicles were unmarked, Carmen turned up the street, the toes of her pumps grinding into the asphalt. Andy lifted her right foot to her free hand, brushed pebbles loose from her sole. I put my back to her, hunched, said, “Come on, tiny. Hop on.”
“I refuse to be that kind of burden.”
I wanted to say that I welcomed it, her burden, but instead just said, “We’ll go until I’m tired, and then we can switch.” She stepped around me, walking on the balls of her feet. I could see where the asphalt had dirtied them, said, “Look, you could stay stubborn, and maybe we’ll make it there. But maybe you’ll step on some broken glass, a syringe, cut your feet all up. And I’ll have to carry you, getting your foot blood all over my jeans. Then Monday, I’ll have to handle the bar by myself while you stand just working register because of your bandaged-ass foot.”
The traffic light overhead changed from caution-yellow to stop sign-red, put shine in the oil pooled around the gutters. Ahead of us, Carmen was half a block up. Her hips still managed to swivel with each belabored step. Andy looked left and right, checking for cars coming on the cross street. She said, “If we can agree that this is not a heroic act, I will consider it.”
At her shoulder, I said, “Not heroic. Entirely practical.”
“I should never have let you tempt me with Bacardi. We could’ve driven home five times by now.”
“Didn’t exactly force you to drink it.”
She adjusted the waist of her jeans, stepped behind me, and I lowered to meet her. I braced for her weight, was surprised at how little it encumbered me, and holding her off the ground that moment before we trekked forward, I was relieved to know that, while I am not strong, I was strong enough. Behind us, a train swept under Penn Station, layered a steady rhythm of thudding metal and wood to the chorus of distant car alarms. The curves of her inner thigh hugged the gap between my ribs and the crest of my hipbones. Her elbows just past my shoulders, I could feel her breath on my ear.
She said, “You know, you’re not very comfortable. Too bony.”
“Excuse me, I forgot to wear my saddle.”
She leaned forward, her armpits atop my shoulders, hands joining in front of my chest. The dampness on the back of my shirt joined with the belly of her t-shirt, and the rubbing of the two created a warmth that was neither hers nor mine but filled that place where our bodies met. She said, “I’ve never ridden an Asian horse before. I didn’t know they existed.”
“What do you think the Mongols rode?”
“No, I know. But like—what breed was that? Can you name it?”
“A Mongolian horse.”
“You’re making that up.”
“I mean, it’s not as sexy sounding as Paloma or whatever.” I bounced her weight higher on my back, held the ditches of her knees in my palms. “But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the horse that almost conquered the world. That’s more important than a name.”
In the distance, a siren whirred, growing louder for a moment then fading away. She said, “I bet Genghis Khan was a good lay.”
I made like I might buck her, and she put her cheek to mine, started clicking her tongue on her teeth like hooves in a trot. The smell of the rum on her breath, the sharp sound of taste buds pulled from enamel, sent the hair on my neck upright, and I could see only those teeth, square-topped and shaved down from a childhood of grinding her jaw while asleep. A customer had commented on how slight they were and while he topped off his coffee with cream, she bit down on her lips. I could tell she was self conscious about them, and I’d never seen her shy away from anyone. So I told her about my TMJ, about how my jaw clicked when I opened my mouth too wide. I took her hand, fingers coated with espresso grounds, and placed them on that loose hinge, opening wide so she could feel the grind of the joint on the cartilage. I said, “I’d be nervous to get in a fight now. One clean punch could shatter it.”
She said, “Oh, that’s why?” and smiled.
Carmen, a block away, had gotten to the red light at North Ave and turned. She saw Andy on my back laughing, and stopped so we could catch up. We had six blocks till their building, and I wasn’t sure I could make that distance with Andy’s weight slowing me, but I wasn’t ready to surrender it either. Andy pulled on my collar as we got to the light, sat back, said, “I’m fucking starving.”
Carmen checked the time on her phone. “Everything’s closed.”
I said, “Korean barbecue stays open till four.”
Andy tightened her legs on my waist, swayed back from me. I could see in our shadow stretched by the streetlight, she’d reached her arms out to our sides, elongated in silhouette. She said, “I haven’t been to Jong Kak in a minute,” said it like young cock, landing hard on the caw.
Carmen rapped her phone on her knuckles, said, “I’ve got to be up at nine.”
Andy said we could just meet up at their place, loosening her legs and sliding down. For a moment, my fingers held the tendons in her knees, unwilling to release. Carmen let out a sigh, her shoulders slack. She said, “I could use some food to sober me up. But I’d rather have my bed.”
Andy embraced her, gave her a kiss on the cheek. There was a ritual to the shape of their embrace—whether hurried or lengthened, as if in anticipation of a long departure, it managed to recreate itself. Andy’s arms reaching over, Carmen’s hands hooking under, palms flat, filling the recess between her sister’s shoulder blades. Andy would plant a kiss, a peck that came from the neck, forehead forward, pushing Carmen back as it landed. Then Carmen squared her hips with mine, and I could see her hipbones like staples bridging the space between her tank top and jeans. Andy stepped aside and started to don her heels, saying she could bear it for long enough to be allowed in the restaurant. A few cars passed on North Ave, heading toward Howard, and backlit by their headlights, Carmen’s tan turned to slate, then pitch. Pricks of sweat dotted her hairline. She said, “C’mon Phil. Where’s my kiss goodnight?”
Andy laughed, and I couldn’t tell what amused her—the tone to Carmen’s request, or the request itself, that I could be persuaded to slip from her. But the possibility that there was something to slip from felt like hope, and I’ve never trusted it, never raised myself up with it just to be dissatisfied. Andy wrestled the first heel on, and before she started the second, she joined in the pause between Carmen and me. I remember Carmen looked like experience, the skin around her collarbones taut and freckled, the muscles in her thighs creasing her jeans, how she tilted her head just so, pointing her chin my way. Even with Andy watching, I wanted to be able to stand—to strut even—to show her that I was able to hang. Andy must have seen all this passing over my face. She said, “Phil, don’t be an ass.”
Carmen bounced her eyebrows, the pink of her tongue passing behind the gap in her front teeth as she said, “Be a good boy, Phil.”
The repetition of my name sent blood rushing into my head. Andy didn’t scoff, just chuckled almost too low to hear. She went to sliding her other foot into its shoe, dragging the strap across her ankle rubbed red from a night out dancing. When I stepped toward Carmen, I like to think I still hadn’t decided that it meant more to me to snatch up this opportunity to put my lips to hers—that it might never arise again—than to preserve the shred of affection Andy might hold for me. I believed that I could somehow have both, that the instance of that goodnight kiss would not disallow me from something less fleeting. And on the walk to Jong Kok, two blocks up, one block over, Andy didn’t say anything that challenged this hope I had disguised for myself as logic—that the small peck landing flush on Carmen’s lips and the ease of Andy’s daily predawn conversation were not, somewhere, intertwined. We approached the backlit green awning, the Korean script printed across it a mold-yellow edging toward rust. Andy said, “Even the ugliest lights look like home in the dark.”
In her ill-fitting stilettos, she passed through the threshold and smiled as if simply being in the restaurant had satisfied her hunger. Our waitress sat us in the back room away from the front door, secluded from the carryout counter and bathroom. The Korean barbecues in Station North always served after hours, so we got beers whose names we couldn’t pronounce, split a massive order of spiced beef and a tofu hot pot. She said the last time she’d been here, it was on a double date with Carmen and their exes. This was over a year ago, though it felt like longer, looking past my shoulder toward the kitchen where the smell of seared meat and vinegar plumed.
I said, “Do you miss it? Being in a relationship.”
She posted her elbows on the table, craned her chopsticks over the small bowls of kimchi, pickled turnips, and steamed broccoli that formed an ellipsis between us. She said, “Not really. I left for a reason.” She lifted a thread of cabbage above her head, let it dangle over her open mouth. As she chewed she said, “Besides, we still fuck when I get bored.”
I knew better than to flinch at that disclosure. I’d never met him, couldn’t picture Andy with someone else’s hands on her, but still felt a stirring in my chest—a jealousy toward something I couldn’t imagine. Her eyes fastened to me just then, daring me to find discomfort in her frankness, to say something to question or condemn her choice. I pulled from my beer, the sweet barley of the lager mixing with the heat from the kimchi on my tongue. Our waitress set the entrees in front of us and asked if we needed anything else, folding her hands together. I asked her for a round of soju. The steam from the hot pot swung a curtain between us. Andy bulged her cheek with shredded carrot and a ribbon of beef, was still chewing when the shots arrived in chilled glasses. Our waitresses said, “To your health,” and raised her hands, palm up, instructing us to drink. The burn of the clear liquor caught the chili and garlic spice coating my mouth, igniting it as I swallowed. I exhaled, pushing air from low in my gut, sipped my beer to scatter the spice. Andy kept her lips closed and her head bowed after she drank, knocking her fist on the table when the soju cleared her throat. The handle on the cast iron bowl rattled. Andy said, “So much for sobering up.”
When I stepped toward Carmen, I like to think I still hadn’t decided that it meant more to me to snatch up this opportunity to put my lips to hers than to preserve the shred of affection Andy might hold for me. I believed that I could somehow have both.
The windows in the restaurant were covered with matte black paper. It was past three, and I was surprised how lucid I felt. During the week, when we worked at four-thirty in the morning, I spent the rest of my day in a stupor—sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated. But half-full with tofu and red broth, the last fumes of rum still coursing, I was present. When our waitress passed back through the room, I held up two fingers, pointing to the soju glasses.
“It feels good,” I said, snagging a piece of beef from her plate, “the morning racing toward you and just saying fuck it.”
“Fuck a bedtime.”
“For the weekend, at least.”
When we were finished, Andy went to stirring the residue of brown sauce and red vinegar, dabs of oil and broccoli dandruff with her chopsticks as if she were mixing paints. I still remember how her hands moved, how delicately she could bend those scraps into an image. We settled up, and she said she wanted to show me a mural she’d tagged a few weeks ago, said it was on the way back. I asked her how her feet were, if she needed help, and she said she was too drunk for blisters. A few cars raced south as we walked up St. Paul, ducking into an alley near the barrier where Station North blurred into Charles Village. Lamps mounted above the emergency exits lit the alley a muddled orange. Preemptively, I thanked her for letting me crash on her couch, and this amused her. I asked her what was funny, and she said, “You’re welcome.”
The mural stood six feet high on the edge of the brick wall facing Calvert—a rendition of the Statue of Liberty with its eyeless face replaced by the UTZ chip girl, complete with helmet hair and half-moon grin. We stood basking under the flame of the spray-painted torch. I touched the brick along the waves of the robe.
She shrugged. “Sometimes I don’t know what the fuck I’m going for.”
Noticing a spot of dirt on the mural’s hand where the fingers bent around the tablet, Andy licked her thumb and cleaned the olive paint.
I said, “Why’d you leave the tablet blank?”
“I couldn’t remember what it said.”
We stood close enough to see the fissures and chipped edges of the brick. The whir of a helicopter pulsed somewhere we couldn’t walk to. I said, “Well, what do you have to say? Isn’t that the point?”
The streetlights were coated with haze. She said she didn’t have anything tender like that floating around in her, said it was time to get back to Calvert Highway. The liquor rested at the top of my stomach, felt like it was tipping into my lungs. I told her that wasn’t true, that there was plenty gentle about her, she just kept it jailed up. Like a heart wrapped in a fist. She bunched her T-shirt and used the cotton to clean the sweat from her face, and I thought about how her bare stomach might feel under my palm. We turned onto the cross street, caught sight of a soapy light between the swath of trees planted in front of her building. I thought the moon had finally cleared the clouds until the search helicopter came into view from behind a neighboring walk-up, its spotlight lingering a moment before darting out of view. Andy limped to the threshold, saying with a lilt, “Home, home, home. Never the worse for wear.”
On the old wooden stairs, her heels sounded staccato echoes up the hall. Carmen had dozed off on the couch. When I think about their place, now, what I see is the half-dead fern on their windowsill, the bottles of wine between the microwave and fridge, how you had to step sideways to get around the dining room table and into the pantry. That night, I couldn’t make out any of those details in the dark room. The door clapped shut behind us, waking Carmen but only enough for her to untwine her legs and stretch out sideways on the sofa. Andy dropped her keys on the counter that separated the corner kitchen from the rest of the apartment, gestured for me to follow her into the bedroom, said, “Let’s go to bed.”
Andy stepped into the bathroom and ran water over her toothbrush, disappeared into the portion of the tiled room not visible from the bed where I sat untying my Oxfords. She said Carmen wouldn’t mind if I slept on her bunk. I unbuttoned my shirt, folded it on top of my shoes, deciding whether it would be appropriate if I removed my jeans and slept in my boxer-briefs. When I heard her pissing through the open door, I figured I was being squeamish, then sat in my undershirt and purple trunks, waiting for my turn to relieve myself. As she climbed the ladder into her bed, wearing only her oversized T-shirt, she looked at my underwear, said, “Aren’t you colorful.”
I brushed my teeth with my finger. There was something so pleasant about her teasing, and when I sprawled out across the bottom bunk, I let myself entertain the possibility that she would grow bored on her way to sleep and come down to kiss me.
When I closed my eyes, the room felt diagonal. Half-dazed, standing on the edge of a deep and unrelenting sleep, I thought the dainty shadow coming around the bed frame was Andy or a dream of her, that I had drifted off and revealed that wish to myself again unconsciously. It wasn’t until her toes, still cold from the kitchen tile, touched me on the side, until she said, “Scoot over,” that I knew it was Carmen. I never slept on my back, but I rolled onto it to make space for her as she collapsed, stomach down, into bed. I can see now how that half-turn had been a form of submission, that I should’ve risen and gone to sleep on the couch, but at the time I was just staring at the support beams that roofed us in, absorbing the warmth of her upper arm. Time contracted, measured in the inches our bodies joined—at first, her shoulder on mine, and then, gradually, a forearm across my waist, her temple to my cheek. She exhaled before she kissed me, and with the fumes of her breath in mine, I became filled with exhaustion, like every hour of work, every minute on the dance floor, every foot of that walk home had caught up to me at once. Carmen tucked her hand into my waistband, pulled me back from sleep with a firm kiss, her tongue running across my lower lip. When she peeled her mouth from mine, the spit and suction separated with a smack. Andy said, “Gross.”
Carmen kicked the boards above us, said, “Go to bed.”
“My ears are hissing.”
“It was pretty loud tonight,” I said. Carmen shifted onto her shoulder blades, hands folded on her stomach, knees slightly bent. The next twenty minutes, those hands shadowing my movements, landing on my body where I touched hers. The three of us talked about Sonar, how the crowd had thinned lately, about which songs they did and didn’t play. Andy sang, We are your friends. You’ll never be alone again, while I hummed the rolling bass line and Carmen thudded a kick drum with her fist against the bed frame. With Andy out of view, it was like talking on the phone, leaving Carmen and me free to do, physically, whatever we wanted, the act of keeping it quiet only adding to the thrill.
Andy dropped her keys on the counter that separated the corner kitchen from the rest of the apartment, gestured for me to follow her into the bedroom, said, “Let’s go to bed.”
And I’d not known thrill then—inexperienced at twenty-two, I’d just come out of a long relationship that started in high school. My understanding of sex was encapsulated in half a dozen awkward and jerky evenings where the passion ran out before we were finished. Then I lay beside her, naked under the sheet while she questioned whether the failure at physical intimacy had been a symptom of a larger mistake. That memory reverberated in me as I kissed Carmen, eager to erase those letdowns, to prove that I was a man capable of warmth, of pleasing. The conversation trickled, Andy’s voice thick with sleep, and I put my mouth to Carmen’s sternum, could still see the freckles scattered across her chest in the fog of the room.
She must have translated timidity from my movements—fumbling with her jeans, tugging at the straps of her shirt. Her back arched as she crossed her arms between us and freed herself from her tank top. Afraid to speak, she led me with her hands, gently, framing my face, guided me all the way from a kiss to that moment some misplaced minutes later, my jaw aching while she held me by the wrist to the pulse between her legs. Carmen yawned, turned into me, saying, “See? You did that.”
Sleep came for Carmen as soon as her arm fell across my chest, right leg laced over mine, her weight pinning my back to the bed. Her breath in my ear, I focused on the how the streetlight outside backlit the blinds on their window. I stared, waiting for fatigue to overtake me. The plastic blinds were swollen orange like the belly of a wood fire. The longer I focused on its glow, the deeper the surrounding room darkened. It was how I could see the whites of Andy’s eyes grabbing color against the black backdrop as she lowered her head into the bottom bunk. My eyes must have reflected that same ember—how she had no problem finding them in the crevice where the mattress met the wall. How she stared long enough that it felt like everything around me darkened and fell away.
The tattoo was my idea, I decided on it when I woke. The metallic buzz of the gun called me into the living room. Andy sat at the dining room table drawing roses on an unripe banana. She had her contacts out, and I’d forgotten how bulky her glasses were—the tortoiseshell squares obscuring her cheekbones. The moment before she saw me, when I was just standing in my underwear and shirt watching her alone with her art, is a pure sort of memory, unchanged by time, something never recolored or recast when I reflect on the night before. Just Andy, her bare foot on the circular pedal, a look of concern for her every line. I said, “You should give me a tattoo. I’d pay.”
She said, “Put your pants on.”
I told her I was serious, and when I donned my jeans and sat down next to her, she said she hadn’t worked with skin yet. I said I’d be her first. She was worried about not having stencils to overlay the image, and I told her to freehand it. A bowl of fruit at the center of the table held Granny Smith apples, oranges, three bananas dangling like fingers over its lip. I gestured at it, asked if she minded, and she shook her head. Over the tang of the apple, I told her I wasn’t nervous. I held up an orange she’d drawn teeth onto, said, “Your lines are great.”
She closed off the last petal on the rose, held the banana in the slanting light coming through the window. “What do you want?”
I said something simple. About the size of a baseball. Her design. Palming an orange from the bowl, she dabbed the needle into the ink and stepped on the pedal. I posted my hand on the back of her chair, leaning in to watch her draw. The line curved a half circle, drops of black running down the rind. Andy set the gun down, turned in her seat, said, “Buy me breakfast.”
When she rotated toward me, our faces shared a brief and intimate space. We worked forty hours arm-to-arm, reaching over each other to grab cups, to trash grounds, bending at the waist to get milk from the fridge below our station, yet this nearness startled me. Green eyes ringed with red, a strand of bangs stuck under her glasses, that string of freckles on the bridge of her nose. The muscles in my face twitched against stillness. I didn’t want to be the first one to turn away, but her resolve filled me with a feebleness like hunger. I gathered my shoes and wallet, said I’d be back, forgot to ask her what she wanted to eat.
The air in Charles Village was that dense sort of cold, not quite damp but cool enough to confuse your skin. I could feel the impending rain even before I saw the dark clouds lingering over the tenements. On breaks at work, we’d often split cheap breakfast sandwiches, I figured she’d be okay with that, so I went to the University Mart up near Hopkins. On the walk back, under the boughs of half-bare trees, the pulse of traffic whipping south on St. Paul, I almost forgot that I lived twenty minutes north, catty-corner to a Dairy Queen in an apartment with its windows painted shut.
She said, “This is how it’s going to work—you’re not allowed to see it until it’s done.”
I set the paper bag on the table, handed her one of the Styrofoam cups of shitty coffee, asked if she was going to draw a penis on me. She said, “Not just a penis. Balls, too.”
While we ate, we decided where it would go on my body. I wanted it on my arm, blended with my older work, but she said it had to be out of view in case it came out awful. She needed skin that was easy to work with, to start slow. We settled on my right arm, just before the shoulder blade turned the corner of my tricep. I took off my shirt, sat backwards in my chair while she washed her hands. Snapping on latex gloves, she set a soda lid upside down on a paper towel, filled it with ink. The cool air ridged my skin with goosebumps, and I put my forearms on the backrest, felt suddenly aware of how my stomach naturally distended in this position. The scrape of the pedal as she repositioned the wire, the gun, settling in the chair behind me. She thumbed Vaseline onto the paper towel, cleared her throat.
“Are you worried?” she said, placing her gloved hands on my shoulders, and I could still feel her warmth through the rubber, and in it, my willingness. I told her I was ready, and she said, “Okay, ‘cause I’m worried.”
I said, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
For a few minutes, she just pulled on the flesh over my shoulder blade, said she was jealous of how tan I was, how little body hair I had. As the needle bit into my skin, I concentrated on how full I was from breakfast. A tattoo, here, didn’t hurt enough to cause distress, just enough pain not to go ignored, but ten minutes in, I was numb to it. That’s what no one ever told me, that what makes an easy tattoo is whether the skin goes numb, if it deadens at all. I asked her how it was looking, and she said she was just finishing the pubic hair. She took a breath, wiped away the excess ink, the blood, said, “You’ll see when I’m done.”
Time moves so strangely when you’re getting tattooed—the constant state of minor shock bending the length of your thoughts. I wasn’t worried that she might draw some ugliness in me, that I wouldn’t like it. What lurched in me—what I held onto—was that willingness, hoping she could see it, that it might salvage me. Last night had been a misstep, but look at how I was righting the way. Her foot came off the pedal, the wet paper towel cleared the skin, some more Vaseline. She said, “I didn’t know you liked Carmen.”
I tilted my head toward her and she used her free hand to push my face away from the tattoo. I said, “I didn’t either.”
Andy said Carmen had a habit of getting involved with her friends. I remember blaming it on the booze, wasn’t in my right mind, the temptation was stronger than I was, and she said sometimes strength is in what you don’t do. I didn’t quite hear her, then—the rattle of the gun’s motor vibrating, the drops of blood leaving me one by one. When it was finished, she rubbed it clean, bandaged it with paper towels, pinned them down with the blue tape she used to secure paint catches. I protested, wanted to see before she sealed it, but I never knew how to argue with her, how to get my way.
We grabbed a cab south, picked her car up from Sonar’s lot, hopped on 83 toward Towson. I asked her how she felt now that she had her first one finished, and she said, “It’s good to know it’s done.”
The day slipped away from me. Alone in my apartment, I rushed to the bathroom and peeled back the bandage. You’re supposed to pool warm water over the wound until the roughed skin feels like skin again. I sat on the edge of the tub, made a bowl of my left hand and lifted the water to my shoulder, wiping carefully. The hurt of cleaning rivals the work itself, the water agonizing the wound. When my palm caught the skin ridged with ink, free, now, of Vaseline, I stood and dried my hands. Fall air traipsed through my apartment’s thin walls. I had to twist my body in the mirror to see the breadth of it, and I realized I would never know it as she saw it, looking down over my nape.
The next couple of years, we spent some of our Fridays at Sonar, dancing out the week. Carmen never got bored enough to give me her attention again, but I was trying to raise myself to a place where Andy might forgive my misstep. Eventually, change set upon us in that unseen way that flowers never bloom when you’re looking, or if you are, the slowness of the opening goes unnoticed. When their lease ended, they moved into a two-bedroom in Towson, closer to me but further from the things we liked to do together. Then Andy’s schedule got switched, and I moved for school. I can almost forget that life, until, in a reflection, I catch a glimpse of the tattoo as I removed my shirt, or a woman’s hands run across my naked shoulder, asking me to explain it.
What she’d drawn was black ink on my russet skin, thin lines and stippled shading—the dots collecting in every angle to add depth. It healed well, no scabs catching too roughly the inside of my shirt and pulling free the ink, and while it isn’t as bold as my other pieces, there is a certain gentleness about it unique to my body. It is a fist. Finger-side out, delicate nail beds, her hand closed around something unseen. The more I search it, the simpler it is to see the fist is not grasping, not fighting to hold in its contents. The looseness of the fingers that could be pulled back if pried, and yet they are in stone, permanently bridled. There’s no shortcut to defining it—there is no single word to capture, fully, its memory. Each word leads to another. And another. And this.
David E. Yee is an Asian American writer whose work has appeared in American Short Fiction, AGNI Online, Seneca Review, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. In 2017, he won the New Ohio Review Fiction Contest, judged by Colm Tóibín, as well as the Press 53 Flash Contest judged by Jeffrey Condran. He holds an MFA in fiction from the Ohio State University, where he was associate editor of The Journal. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.