henever Leila falls into bed with a man, she gets a new tattoo. With Benjamin it was a rosebud on her hip; with Samuel, a mustang running across her shoulder blade. On the dock extending into the swamp-lake behind my apartment complex, she shows me the latest tattoo: a compass on her wrist. I notice that the axis is slightly off, but think she already knows this. She probably did it on purpose, to be different.
Leila helps me understand I am with men only by necessity: the bag boy at the store who walks to my car with me and loads my bags into the trunk because he is hoping for a tip, or the recent college graduate who shares a cubicle with me at the office and neglects to talk at a reasonable volume when he answers calls. These are the encounters I have, but they’re never the encounters Leila has. Leila came out of our mother first, as she likes to remind me. I am certain this is the reason I received fewer of the family’s genetic resources.
“He took me to the Waldorf,” she tells me. I stare at the tilted compass. “It was three in the morning. We looked a mess. The desk clerk was friendly, though.”
“How the hell did you manage that?” I ask.
“It was like a dream,” she says, rolling her wrist so the lines of the compass expand and condense.
Leila usually visits me three times a year. She says she likes to get away from the city, come back to her roots. My apartment is just outside Orlando, away from all the traffic. We usually walk across the street together and sit on the dock to talk about what we always talk about: her life. Her romps around the city, her run-ins with this famous photographer or that prominent music producer. Seeing the two of us sitting on the dock together—her leaning over the edge, staring into the green shallows, and me sitting in a beach chair picking at the mildew—you’d never guess we were related. Her hair is thick and curly, a rat’s nest as Mom always says. Her eyes are the darkest brown, with a glowing ring around the edges. My hair is red and my eyes are blue. In biology they refer to mine as recessive traits; they say they’re unusual. I never bought it, because who would want to pair up with a lesser-evolved organism? My skin burns and blisters in the sun while Leila’s turns an oaky brown.
“I hope you slept with him,” I say. I wait for her to show her picket-fence teeth, that smile crafted over years of practice. It is warm and convivial, and says nothing about her.
“Of course I did,” she says, pulling her hand away from me.
I was kidding. She’s not.
“Kim?” She looks at me. Her body is skinny and compact, a dancer’s body. Mine is round and lumpy. I broke three ribs when I was eight and fell off the swing set trying to catch a frog. Scar tissue formed, and I’ve had a dent there ever since, an impression you can press your fingers into. We’re Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, except some would say Leila’s pretty.
“Yeah?” I say, examining the mildew on my fingertips.
“Don’t tell Mom.” She stands and reaches for the bag of old bread we brought for the ducks. She tears a hole in the side of the bag; the slices spill across the dock.
“Why would I—”
“—about the tattoo,” she says as she kicks the bread into the lake.
can guess she met the guy at some elegant soirée where the guests had to present their invitations at the door and follow a man in coattails to a table with their names on the place settings. Leila got invited to such events because they always needed someone to take photographs of the men and women with big names. That evening, she wore a second-hand dress, one she’d found buried in a pile of some dead woman’s clothes. And it was strapless, so the political wives could gawk at the ink on her body. She’d engaged with everyone at her table, she told me, including a young man in blue pinstripes who’d initially mocked her for the lotus flower at the base of her neck.
“Isn’t that a bit cliché?” he’d said. She’d picked up on his accent, a shade of French, and felt confident.
“He was Asian,” she told him, her eyebrows arching. Then she’d turned her cheek to the woman sipping her ice water to compliment her on her manicure.
The man in pinstripes, obviously curious, called back her attention by touching her shoulder, filling her ears with a story her tattoo reminded him of. He probably figured she would show him her others. Maybe he expected it with someone like her.
Leila stops kicking the bread when only one piece remains. As she bends to retrieve it from the dock, I glimpse the hindquarters of a jaguar climbing her right thigh. I can’t remember which guy that was for; I can recall most of the others, though. Like her first: a box, on her left foot. Just four lines, clean and simple. When she got it, I’d asked her why she’d left the box empty. She was eighteen; it seemed like a statement.
“I can think of plenty of things to fill it with,” she said. “But none of them give me back my inexperience.”
I want to believe my sister is covering her body with tattoos because she likes their gritty defiance of our conservative suburban upbringing; because they are time capsules; because she thinks them artful. She must have twenty or so by now, and each one has become more elaborate. I wonder when she’ll be forced to settle on a final tattoo. Or perhaps she’ll cover her body with ink until she runs out of blank space. I don’t mind all these signatures on her skin. I can still touch her on her arm, or her cheek, and feel her as she was, the original. When she’s completely covered, though, I don’t know if it’ll still be her at all.
The afternoon sun glides behind a mass of storm clouds. Leila holds the last piece of bread, deciding whether to keep it or toss it into the lake. She watches the minnows as they lay siege to the soggy loaf in the water. Its weight is dragging it down faster than the small fish can handle. I lean back in my chair; its metal legs slip into the cracks between the boards. The sound of splitting wood breaks our silence. It surprises Leila and she drops the bread.
“Old wood,” I say. I’m not worried; if the dock collapses, we’ll be in three feet of water.
She examines the boards beneath my chair, tests her weight on them. I see her shoulders scrunch towards her ears when the wood sighs. She’s never liked lakes or the life forms they contain. Leila holds out her wrist.
“I’m not sure it’s done right,” she says, gently rubbing the tattoo.
“Didn’t you have it planned out?”
“I never do that. I just tell the guy what I want and he draws.”
“I like it,” I say. “It’s crooked. Like the world is off balance.”
“That’s not what it’s supposed to mean,” she says, looking at me hard.
She traces a circle from the east, through the south and the west, then completes the rotation through north, stopping just before the arrow marked with an E. When she takes her finger away, it seems the axis of the compass has shifted even further from the centerline.
“You can’t tell mom, she hates these things,” she says.
“She expects it by now,” I say.
“I’m having some removed.”
She doesn’t answer.
“Which ones?” I ask.
She points to the square on her foot. I don’t know what to say. Out of all of them, that’s the one that makes the most sense to me. She tries to squeeze my thigh. I let her tickle me, even though I hate it.
eila leaves the dock to return to my apartment. She wants to organize her things before her flight in the morning. I stay, to lose myself in the hum of the late afternoon. My thoughts wander into Leila’s terrain. I imagine following her to the Waldorf suite, trailing behind the man in pinstripes. She takes me into the bathroom and shows me the whirlpool tub. I place the call to room service for her, because she claims she won’t sleep with him on an empty stomach. The man is very drunk—I watch him struggle with his shoelaces—and it’s five in the morning, and Leila is tired. She confesses to me that all she really wants to do is burrow into the mattress. I tell her I could take her place. Her eyes flutter at this suggestion, and she moves close to me. After we exchange bodies, the man takes me into the other bedroom and I attempt to recall how Leila would perform.
In the morning, he wants to get breakfast. I am no longer her, and she has never been me, so it’s really Leila he seeks when he awakes in bed next to me.
“I have to meet my boyfriend,” Leila says—I say. Her eyes close halfway, like a laughing Buddha. Then they grow dim.
He doesn’t find this funny.
That is where the scene stops. I can’t imagine the rest. What she does after, I have never been informed of. Her stories always end with “this is my new tattoo.”
The sky is gearing up for rain. The dock shudders when I get up from the beach chair and move across the boards to pick up the remains of the bread bag. I toss the final slice into the lake. The minnows take tiny bites of it until it fills with water and sinks to the bottom of the lake. Through the green-brown water, I can see broken bits of bread still under attack. The clouds break, and electricity pops through the air. That’s the other thing about this lake: if I were to fall in, even in a lightning storm, the algae is so thick that I’d be completely concealed.
I see myself in my living room, sitting with Leila on the futon, both of us gazing off at nothing. There is a number for too much; it’s not five, or twenty, or a hundred. I don’t think it’s anything as specific as that. It’s whatever comes after one. If I were to get a tattoo, it would be inside my hand, where Leila has never thought to put anything, and it would be a single black dot, a drop of ink on an untouched surface.