Part One of “Body Art” can be found here.
he train stopped at Delancey Street, and several people got off. It freed up some space around him, and the group seated themselves, some across the way, two right next to him. The feelings he’d been having intensified. The two beside him, these divine creatures, talked and laughed and seemed to take no notice. Of him, and his opinions, and the thoughts and opinions of anyone else on the train that might care to look at them. The one sitting next to him, Lewis’ right leg was touching his left. Scintillating. Attraction grappled with revulsion and envy. The potent stew bubbled inside him, and he did his best to keep it down.
When you came in physical contact with someone on the subway, it usually went one of two ways. Either the person you were touching stiffened, indicating their dislike at having their personal space invaded, or they didn’t. With most people it was the former; with this kid it was the latter. He was wearing fawn colored tights, like a leotard, is what Lewis was thinking, the material very sheer, and he obviously had no problem with his leg touching that of Lewis. Lewis didn’t actually have any problem with it either, whatever negative feelings he might be harboring toward this group. It wasn’t every day that he got to be so close to this…acme of the homosexual male. The kid being about twenty years old, maybe, slender but muscular, a dancer’s build. Wearing in addition to the leotard pants, a kind of a skin-tight, sleeveless tunic, made of porous material, that showed, in black and white, a skeletal ribcage. It looked like it had been salvaged from an old Halloween costume, and it was at least a size too small, so that the young man’s midriff was exposed. Completing the get-up were a pair of silver slippers that somewhat resembled moccasins. They had straps but no laces, and they sparkled, as did the kid’s entire body, from head to foot; he was doused in glitter. He had dark eyes, a Roman nose, black hair that styling products made stand up in irregular formations like damaged battlements. His ethnicity could have been several things, but Lewis was guessing Indian. His face was painted in red and black and silver streaks, reminiscent of a Faustian devil. His bare arms, powerful looking despite his lithe frame, were covered in tattoos, in the style sometimes referred to as sleeves, with virtually no skin left uncovered. Although it violated subway etiquette, Lewis couldn’t help but study the ink. It was so bright, so vibrant, and so close to him that it was almost hypnotic. The tattoos, featuring a lot of greens and reds of various shades, were mostly of different types of foliage, tropical looking, leaves and flowers, climbing vines, and animals hiding in the canopy. Lewis picked out a gecko, a poison arrow frog, a toucan. He wondered how much of the rest of the kid’s body was covered. He felt about tattoos pretty similarly to what he felt about open homosexuality, envious, because those who displayed it oftentimes seemed to do it so fearlessly. He was actually looking down at the young man’s left arm for so long that he neglected to notice the conversation between the two sitting beside him had waned, and now it was he, in turn, who was being observed. He became aware of it only when the young man spoke to him. “Do you like it?” is what he said.
Lewis started slightly. He’d been so entranced by the colors that he’d looked up into the face and into the eyes a few inches away from his before he had a chance to consider what he was doing, namely breaking one of the rules regarding familiarity between train passengers. “Yes,” he said. “Very much. Did it hurt?” Immediately he felt that this had been a stupid thing to say, but now he couldn’t take it back. He was more or less in a state of shock that the youth had deigned to speak to him. He’d had it set in his mind for so long that there were certain ways you were supposed to act when out and about in New York to avoid trouble that he sometimes forgot that it was only he who actually lived by those rules so carefully, when in reality they were not universal; they existed only in his own head.
“Yes, it hurt,” the young man said, and smiled. “But I like the pain.” Lewis could smell his breath. It was a combination of fruit and alcohol, not unpleasant. “Do you have any tattoos?”
Lewis shook his head. “No.”
“Ever want to get one?”
Lewis glanced across the way. He was sort of expecting the others in the group to be monitoring this interaction, laughing at him. Look, look at Fernando, talking to that old guy. That Fernando, what a card. Always trying to give the charity cases some hope. But no, they were talking loudly amongst themselves, seemingly not paying attention. Not that Lewis trusted it for a second. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve considered it once or twice.” It was true, he had. In much the same way that he’d considered sky diving…as an activity that he might be sort of interested in, in an abstract way, but he knew he’d never have the guts to go through with. “I always thought…I’d come up with something I liked, and I’d get it, and then in a few months I’d hate it, but then I couldn’t get rid of it.” He laughed, a kind of a high pitched chuckle that sounded so incredibly nervous in his own ears that he had a flashback to puberty, to when his voice started changing. He could feel himself blushing, skin burning. But the kid smiled at him. What an amazing smile it was, too, nothing but strong, fierce white teeth. It was infectious, that smile. Lewis was mirroring it before he could stop himself.
“That’s an objection I hear from a lot of people,” the kid said. “Sometimes, y’know, they just don’t have any interest in it, or they won’t do it for religious reasons. But more often than not they won’t do it because they think that like, somewhere down the line they’ll change their minds about what they got.”
“Isn’t that a valid reason?”
The kid shrugged. “I don’t know. They do actually have procedures to remove tattoos, so it’s not like it’s completely irreversible. For me, I think the permanence of it…or the relative permanence…is part of the appeal. It’s like, say I got the tattoo, you know, and then in five years I decide I don’t like it as much. Well, at some earlier point I must have liked it, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten it. I can look back, y’know, and remember what it was I was thinking and feeling that made me want to get it in the first place.” The kid was earnest, if drunk. This was clearly something he was passionate about. “A tattoo,” he said, “is sort of like a letter from your past self that you’re sending to your future self. If you got a band named inked into your flesh, then you must have loved that band at one time. Y’see what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” said Lewis. The kid’s openness was sort of endearing. It was just remarkable to Lewis that someone could strike up a conversation with a stranger so fearlessly and effortlessly; again, he was noticing how much at odds it was with his own rules. And yes, he was still envious, but it was hard not to like this kid, who seemed practically overflowing with charisma, with charm…just with life, in general. “I see what you mean,” he said. “Let’s just hope your musical tastes don’t change and you think the band you got a tattoo of is completely awful ten years from now.”
The kid grinned. “Well, obviously you want to think carefully about it beforehand. That’s why I won’t ink anybody who’s drunk or high or something. That’s always been my policy.”
“I’m sorry, you won’t ink…”
“Oh,” the kid said. “Didn’t I mention it? I’m a tattoo artist.”
“Is that right?”
By way of an answer, the kid reached into his shoulder bag and rummaged around for a moment. He came up with a card and handed it to Lewis. Pyramid Tattoos, it said, and the young man’s name, Suliman Sunseri. The address was in Chinatown. “That’s me,” the kid said, pointing to the name on the card. “And you are?” Lewis introduced himself. Along with the usual insecurities that came about with talking to a stranger, and an attractive one, at that, he found himself grappling with another problem, this one coming in the form of a series of questions. Does this guy know I’m gay? Did he know about my orientation from the start? Is that why he sat down and started talking to me? There wasn’t any reason that these questions should matter. And yet, Lewis being the neurotic mess that he normally was, he wanted to know the answer; he wanted to know if his cover had been blown, if this perceptive youth, who flaunted what he was, had penetrated his disguise, had instantly seen through him, smelled him out. Lewis found, if that did prove to be the case, his first response would probably be to get offended. A sorry state of affairs. Of course, there wasn’t any tactful way for him to slip it into the conversation. Suliman was talking again. “You should keep the card,” he said. “If you want something custom designed, I can do that for you, or if you like, we’ve got books and books of drawings. Maybe something will grab you.” As he said the last bit he laughed, an airy trill, and extended the fingertips of his left hand, so that they made contact with Lewis’ right wrist. Lewis smiled, trying to convey in every possible way that interactions of this kind were a normal, everyday occurrence. Yes, he had an intense aversion to being touched by subway strangers in most cases, but this was a rare exception. He would allow Suliman to touch him all he wanted, would welcome it, in fact.
hey were just at this point pulling into the Canal Street station, and the others in the fanciful dress were standing. Suliman also stood. “Come by,” he urged Lewis.
“I’ll think about it,” Lewis said. Suliman flashed the smile again, and in an instant the group had passed through the train doors and their noise and brilliance was receding. It seemed to Lewis that the rest of the passengers, with the possible exception of the children, all made small adjustments to themselves, their posture, their facial expressions, as though a tension that was previously present had just been alleviated. There was no question that the atmosphere was different now than what it had been, and for the most part, Lewis was relieved. But as he sat there, still holding the card, and thinking of the magnetic smile of the young man who had given it to him, he was a bit disappointed too, a bit wistful…he had caught a glimpse of the unattainable, had rubbed up against it. Everything that he had such contradictory feelings about, that he so envied but so despised.
He went to the tattoo parlor two days later, on a Tuesday. Pride was now officially over, the parade finished, and all of the events that went along with it. He had no lessons scheduled for that day, and he’d spent the previous forty-eight hours in a quandary. For all that he tried, he’d been unable to get the chance encounter with the winsome young man, Suliman, out of his head. The smile, the easy laugh and manner of speaking, the fruited alcohol on the breath…they pursued Lewis about his apartment, from room to room. Their recollection was like a pleasant virus that had infected him. He found himself replaying, in his mind, not only the incident on the train, but other times in his life when it had seemed like he was on his way toward social acceptance, toward being comfortable in his own skin. There were few of these; they were so outnumbered by the calamities, the disappointments and the pitfalls. He examined the card, turning it over and over in his hands. He found the website of Pyramid Tattoos online and looked over the many designs. He wanted to go, yes, to see Suliman again, but he felt that if he did, there would be no way of recapturing the brief, free-flowing magic that had, for a few glorious minutes, been kindled on that train. But he went. Against his nature and better judgment, he went. He brought the card with him, clutching it in his hand on the train ride into Manhattan, holding it in front of him like a religious icon, a token to ward off evil. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to do or say when he got there. Though the train was air conditioned, he was sweating.
The tattoo parlor was in a part of Chinatown not far from Canal Street, where the wider thoroughfares were bisected by much narrower, slanting alleys. They had street names, but most of them were barely wide enough for a car to have driven down. Lewis came to the address and at first wasn’t sure he was in the right place. There was a glass door swung inward, held in place by a door stop, and no sign to identify what the business was, or even that it was a business at all. Then, by stepping backward and craning his neck up, he saw the sign in the window. Along with “Pyramid Tattoos” in the same lettering as that on the card, there was an emblem of a glowing golden pyramid with rays of purplish light emanating from it. It had a very New Age look to it, and Lewis, who detested such things, was even more put off. But he was there already. He’d made the trip, and something was spurring him on. Perhaps only the desire to see Suliman again, perhaps something else.
He walked up the stairs, two flights, and took a left at another open glass door. There was a soft bing-bong, familiar to anyone who has ever visited a doctor or a dentist’s office. In rather stark contrast to that, Lewis could hear some high-speed death metal playing from somewhere close by. He was in a sort of waiting area, a rectangular room with a counter and a cash register, behind which were signs extolling the cleanliness and safety of the tattooing equipment and the credentials of the staff. Installed in the opposite wall was a shelving unit with what looked like massive photo albums, which Lewis assumed were full of tattoo designs. The rest of the parlor, some of which was visible from where he was standing, seemed to be composed of cubicles. He could see one standing empty; it appeared white and sterile, almost like an operating room, with a chair in the center and trays of gleaming instruments nearby. There were two large windows on the far left, one of which contained the sign he’d seen from below. The sunshine coming through them seemed to be the sole light source. “Be right with you!” someone called. Lewis stood there, a bit awkwardly, listening to the slightly muffled death metal. It wasn’t anything that he recognized, that was for sure. He could also hear, now, a faint buzzing noise intermittently, someone, he realized, getting inked. It sounded like a large, particularly angry hornet. A few seconds later there were footsteps, and a young man appeared. It was Suliman. He was dressed slightly more conservatively today- tan loafers with no socks, white Bermuda shorts with an image of a palm tree on one pant leg, and a dark blue tank top. His arms were exposed, again revealing his many tattoos, or perhaps, as they were all interconnected, it could all be considered one large tattoo. He looked like he could be heading for a weekend at the beach. He was smiling, and he looked every bit the epitome of health, vigor, and youth that he had on the train.
t is not an exaggeration to say that Lewis’ heart skipped a beat when he saw him. He immediately found himself tongue-tied, rendered helpless and stupid by this sublime presence. It was terrible; what was wrong with him?! He could remember having crushes on guys, back in high school or before then. Most of the objects of his desire had been straight, so obviously unattainable that approaching them could not have been anything but disastrous. Even on the few occasions when he knew or suspected they might be gay, that was hardly any better, due to his crippling social awkwardness and self esteem issues. This was like that all over again. It wasn’t just physical attraction. It was like the young man exuded some kind of animal magnetism. Desperately Lewis tried to get himself under control and remember why he was here. But whywas he here? He didn’t even know! “Hi,” he said. “Remember me?” Suliman’s eyes narrowed, as he appeared to be thinking it over. But he obviously didn’t remember. Why should he remember you, said Lewis’ unpleasant inner voice, which he spent so much time trying to stifle. You’re about the most unmemorable guy in the world. The silence had lasted too long; he felt it becoming awkward. “We met on the train,” he said, his voice sounding desperate in his own ears, close to panic. “You were going to the parade.” He found himself extending his hand, in which he still held the business card with Suliman’s name on it, as if hoping it was some sort of magic ticket that would unlock the young man’s memory.
To his relief, the fog of uncertainty seemed to lift. “Sure,” Suliman said, smiling again now and nodding. “Sorry dude, I completely spaced for a minute. I was so bombed that day. I like, practically blacked out at the parade. It was even worse after, we went to The Cock and just started knocking back shots…” He shook his head, and whether his expression was self-deprecating or nor Lewis couldn’t tell.
“That’s okay,” he said. “Think nothing of it.” It was the strangest thing. Lewis, who valued control above all else, didn’t like to hear about people drinking to excess, certainly not to the extent of blacking out. But to hear Suliman talk about it, it sounded like the most pleasant activity in the world. He felt like, if he wasn’t careful, he could just go into a daze, staring at Suliman without saying anything, and he wanted very much to do it…to just look at him. He fought the urge with all his strength.
Luckily, Suliman didn’t seem to notice any of this. “So, what can I do for you?” he said, smiling again.
“Well, I’m not entirely sure,” Lewis said. That was true enough. “It’s not like I even considered getting a tattoo before, not really strongly. I think I just…when I heard you talking about it on the train, the way you explained it, and how passionate you seemed…it really made it sound kind of appealing. Does that make sense?” He was really afraid that it didn’t, but Suliman nodded.
“Yeah, totally. I have this tendency to like, go on a tangent when it comes to body art. It’s happened a lot, actually, that I’ve convinced people who wouldn’t have normally done it to get all inked up. You’ve got to be a good salesman,” he said, flashing the brilliant smile again that seemed to come to him so easily and often. “It’s part of the job.”
“And you’re good at your job, I’m sure,” Lewis said. He felt under intense pressure to keep the banter going, and to try to keep it light and casual. He hoped he was succeeding.
“The best!” said Suliman. He was looking at Lewis now with what seemed to be both open appraisal and devilishness. “So, since you came here, you’re obviously thinking about getting some work done, at least a little. Maybe, possibly?” he added, as Lewis was looking a bit dismayed.
Of course, this had been the problem from the beginning. Lewis had come to see Suliman again, with the pretext of being interested in getting a tattoo. Now he needed to continue feigning interest without actually committing to anything. Till he accomplished…what, exactly? He still wasn’t even completely sure what the end result was that he’d been trying to achieve. “The thought had crossed my mind,” he said. And the inner voice, on cue, dripping sarcasm: oh yes, very smooth. Play it coy, that’s what you’re good at.
“Okay,” Suliman said, rubbing at the end of his chin with long, dexterous fingers. “So did you have, like, any ideas on your own, in terms of design, part of the body, or did you want to take a look at some of our stuff here?”
“I think I want to look at some of your stuff, here,” Lewis said. Oh, that was well done. There’s no way he doesn’t think you’re a creepy old pervert now.
If Suliman did indeed think that, he gave no outward sign. “Well, I think we can accommodate you,” he said. “Why don’t you come over here and take a look at some of these.” He guided Lewis over to the oversized albums, and began to rifle through them. What followed were several minutes during which time Lewis allowed words and images to carry him along like a pleasantly flowing stream. Suliman talked as he navigated the many designs, page by page, pointing out his favorites as he spoke about many aspects of the tattooing industry that it is safe to say had never remotely entered Lewis’ mind before. Occasionally he stopped to ask Lewis a question, seldom a very complicated one; usually only a simple “yes” or “no” was required. He talked about how tattooing, in the past couple of decades, had experienced unprecedented heights in popularity, and how many different classes of people in all walks of life and many different areas of society had begun to have it done. He talked about how it was a renaissance, in certain ways, for a tattoo artist, and yet how it was also potentially a negative, as widespread ink had also led to the loss of individuation that, in the past, tattoos had been indicative of. He spoke about how certain tattoos on certain body parts had become particularly passé; he was especially vehement about tribal tattoos around men’s biceps and what he called “tramp stamps” on women, this meaning lower back tattoos meant to be visible just above low riding jeans, something he had to explain to Lewis, who wasn’t familiar with the term. He spoke about how spiritual tattoos were to some people, and how frivolous and arbitrary they were to others.
* * * * *
Stay tuned for Part 3 of “Body Art.”
Steven Finkelstein is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY, and a graduate of the English Writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. His work has been featured in a variety of different publications, both online and in print, most recently in the literary magazines Mouse Tales Press, 40 Ounce Bachelors, and The Stone Hobo. For more information, visit his website, www.stevenfinkelstein.com.
“Body Art” is his first publication at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure.