ewis found himself at sea. He was, in a very real sense, terrified, for even as he was, obviously, a “tattoo virgin,” as Suliman called him, it seemed as though the younger man was assuming him knowledgeable about a variety of cultural topics that, truth be told, he was scarcely grasping. But he found that it didn’t matter. This young man, this young…godlike being…his presence was so intoxicating that, while only faintly aware that he was doing so, after a certain point he was repeating the words I love you, I love you, inside his head. He had even stopped criticizing himself momentarily. He was so lost in it all that he forgot himself entirely at one point and said something before fully realizing the ramifications of it. “I like that one,” he blurted out, when there was a momentary lull in the conversation.
“Oh?” said Suliman. As he’d been flipping through the pages, he’d been careful to point out the ones he’d designed personally; this wasn’t one of those sections. This particular two-page spread was labeled at the top “Heavenly Bodies.” There were several in this series, stars, planets, and asteroids, in various bright colors, most of them with anthropomorphic features. The facial expressions of the planets, some of which were smiling, others frowning, or looking crafty, and so forth, were somewhat reminiscent of the style of the cartoonist Tex Avery, best known for his wolf character whose eyes pop out when he ogles the busty redhead. The one that had caught Lewis’ eye was of medium size, probably between three and four inches end to end. It was a blue crescent moon, seen mostly in profile, but turned slightly to the side so as to seem three dimensional. It was giving a mischievous grin, and winking. Its surface was textured, covered with pock marks and craters. “Yeah, that’s a good one, isn’t it?” said Suliman. “The guy who did these pages, in this section here, he’s actually a really well known tagger, too…you know, like spray paint art? He’s done some really great murals around the city. The ones on this page, the smaller stars and stuff we normally do for like fifty or sixty each…the bigger ones like that are usually between like one-twenty and one-fifty. I’ll tell you what, if you want to do that one today, just because it’s you? We’ll say a hundred and ten, how’s that?”
“Because it’s me,” Lewis repeated. He was pretty sure Suliman was feeding him a line, being the good salesman, as advertized. He had arrived at the crisis point, the point where, in his neurotic, button-down life, every one of his instincts was screaming at him to walk away, to excuse himself, to say that he’d think it over and then never to come back here. He should even avoid this part of town entirely, on the off chance that he might run into Suliman on the street. Cool people get tattoos, the voice said. You’re not cool. Never have been, never will be. And maybe it was because this one time, that inner voice had prodded him at the wrong moment, maybe because he could think of no other way to continue spending time with Suliman, or maybe because through some strange form of osmosis, being in a tattoo parlor for the first time in his life had turned him into a different person, he said what he said next. “Well, okay, why not?”
Suliman clapped his hands together. “Excellent!” he said. “This is so exciting…I always love tattooing someone for the first time. You never forget your first time, you know,” he added roguishly. Lewis blushed. “Now the only other thing to figure out is where you want it. That’s not a decision to be taken lightly either, you know. One thing about tattoos is that you always want to consider visibility, like if it’s a body part that’s going to be uncovered a lot. If it is, that’s going to make an instant impression on people. If you’re the kind of person, or if you have a job that’s a little, like, conservative, I’d recommend somewhere that’s more easily concealed. A lot of corporate types, that you might not expect to have ink, they’ve got it hidden away in the nooks and crannies.” He bobbed his shoulders up and down, eyes sparkling. “Of course, someone like me, who’s just a deviant, there’s no hiding it regardless of what I wear. I’m like a walking advertisement for my work.” He displayed his bare arms for Lewis. “So, what do you think?”
In light of how far things had gotten away from Lewis’ usual tendencies, he was tempted to suggest the most noticeable place possible, if it meant impressing the object of his infatuation. But it was at this moment that his cautious side reared up again. “How about on my shoulder?” he said, after careful reflection. “That won’t be immediately visible.” It was strange. He really felt almost as though someone or something else had taken over his body and voice, and was using him like a puppet. He watched himself doing and saying these things, so out of character, with a certain detachment.
Suliman was nodding. “I like it. That’ll look nice, I think.” He carefully slid the sheet of tattoos with the moon design up and out of its plastic sheath. “If you’ll just follow me,” he said. “We’ll get started.” He escorted Lewis from the reception area back among the cubicles. They entered one that the artist identified as his. “My workspace,” he said. “Where the magic happens.” There were high wattage bulbs up above that lit the compact square brightly, revealing a leather-seated chair with an adjustable back, some instruments including the tattooing gun on a shelf with some alcohol, rags and cotton swabs, and several different pieces of artwork up on the walls in pencil, pen-and-ink, and full color. There were also several Simpsons collectable figures hanging about, still in the original packaging. “My favorite show,” Suliman said, touching one of them lightly. Lewis nodded. Even as culturally unaware as he was, he’d seen a couple of episodes over the years and liked them. Suliman selected a piece of paper from a stack on a shelf. “You’ll need to sign this waver,” he said. “It’s pretty straightforward, just indemnifying us of any liability if, like, your arm falls off or something.” He grinned. Lewis smiled back, but he thought he probably looked as nervous as he felt. His adrenaline was really going, and he could feel his heart pounding. He thought it was very apropos that there should be a contract like this to sign; it was like he was giving some final permission for something dangerous or possibly fatal to happen to him. His internal voices had started up again. This time one of them was telling him that there’s nothing to be worried about, people get tattoos every day, and nothing bad ever happens to them, while the other one was screaming out, what are you doing, you fucking idiot, this is permanent, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life! It was a testament to how much Suliman’s presence affected him that he was no longer sure which of the two was the voice of reason. With shaking hands, he signed the paper.
If Suliman was aware of his trepidation, again, he showed no sign. He took the liability form and set it aside, then turned his attention to his tools and began his preparations. “You can go ahead and take your shirt off,” he said. Such an easy statement to make, yet such an ominous one for Lewis, with his body image issues. It wasn’t like he was especially overweight, five pounds or ten at most, but of course he didn’t have those model good looks, and he certainly wasn’t a specimen like Suliman. He had the too-pale skin, the slight paunch, the love handles, no real definition in his arms or chest…he’d meant to get a gym membership how many times, but hadn’t done it. He didn’t like to go to the beach, or to a public pool, ever, because he had to take his shirt off. He sucked his gut in when there was an attractive guy around. But what choice did he have? Better to just do it quickly, like pulling off a bandage. He slipped the polo shirt he’d been wearing off over his head and stood holding it, feeling very exposed, awaiting further instruction. Nearby, the high-speed metal being played transitioned smoothly from one song to another that sounded much like the previous one. He could hear, too, the on-and-off, bumble bee buzzing and low pitched voices and laughter. He knew that some people had so much ink that the getting of it was routine, but he couldn’t imagine ever reaching that point. He felt like he had come to a critical moment in his life. Something important and defining was about to happen. Suliman turned around. “Right or left shoulder?”
“Right,” Lewis said, impulsively.
“Turn around for me.” Lewis did it. “I’ve got this stencil here,” Suliman said. “What I want you to do is look in that mirror over there, and tell me if this location is good for you.” Lewis looked into the mirror, which was narrow, starting close to the ground, somewhat below his knees, and traveling up to reflect the rest of his body. There was a similar one on the opposite wall, the effect being that he could look into the one in front of him and see his face, and also see his naked back in the one behind him. How white his skin was! He looked like he’d never been out in the sun in his life. Suliman was holding the stencil up to his right shoulder blade. Lewis felt a tingle as their skin made contact. “Does that work for you?” the young man asked.
Lewis considered. He had to admit, all misgivings aside, he kind of liked the effect. Sure, the voice of condescension and negativity had some things to say about it, but when didn’t it have an opinion to share? He liked the color. The blue stood out sharply against the skin, and the moon grinned at him cheekily. He swallowed. “Yes,” he said. “I think I like it there.”
“Okay,” Suliman said. “Gangster.” He went back to his instruments, and Lewis stood there, shirtless and waiting. Safe to say that was the first time he or any of his doings had been described as “gangster.” Suliman next told him to take a seat in the chair, with his upper body on the back rest and his head and arms dangling over, leaving his back exposed. “I’m just going to douse your skin with this alcohol swab,” he said. “And then I’ll go to work. It’ll probably take an hour or so. Just try to hold as still as possible, and let me know if it gets too intense. We can always take a break.”
Lewis bobbed his head up and down. Was he really going through with this? It was his last chance to reconsider. “Does it hurt very much?” he said.
Over his shoulder, Suliman pulled a wry face. “Well…yeah, it hurts a little. The back’s actually not so bad. With me, you know…like I said, I’m a freak, so I kind of enjoy it.”
Lewis nodded once more. “Okay.” And then again, to himself this time. “Okay.”
Suliman applied the alcohol, sterilizing Lewis’ shoulder. The swab felt very cold against his skin. “Here we go,” Suliman said, and began.
t would be difficult to put into words everything that took place over the next hour. Lewis, wanting to put it all right in his mind afterward, wasn’t really able to do it. The experience began with the same buzzing noise that he’d heard before, but so much louder here, so much more urgent, and attached, yes, to physical sensation. Was it pain that he was feeling? Maybe, in a sense, in part. But other things too. Most of all, what he seemed to be feeling was warmth. It was like a super-heated laser pointer was tracing a slow, lazy pattern along and through his skin. He believed he could actually feel the skin being broken, the thin, individual layers being seared away. His mind kept on going back to being stung by a bee, except it was a long, drawn out stinging. He’d never actually been stung by a bee before, so he didn’t really have anything to base that on. It was probably the continued buzzing of the tattoo gun that made him think of it.
The sensation does not sound particularly pleasant, yet as it went on and on and Lewis began to get used to it, he found it to be so. He was able to admit it to himself; Suliman had said he was a freak because he enjoyed it, and if that was the case, it was turning out to be that Lewis might be a freak as well. When the process began, it was kind of like a macho thing with him. It was wanting to impress Suliman again, by not flinching or crying out or telling him to stop. But as the time went on, he found he also did not vocalize any of the pain or ask Suliman to stop, because Lewis didn’t want him to stop. He was liking it too much.
Often, Suliman would stop to wipe Lewis’ shoulder with the sterilized cloth. This was to clean off the blood, Lewis realized, and the perversity of that thought gave him a chill. As Suliman worked, he chatted with Lewis, keeping up a conversation that was mostly one-sided, but the flamboyant young artist didn’t seem to mind. It was mostly stream-of-consciousness stuff, the topics ranging from Suliman’s relationships with his siblings back to what he had done during Pride and touching again on the state of the tattooing world. Lewis contented himself with asking the occasional question or speaking a few words of assent. It was similar, he thought at one point, to getting a haircut from a pleasantly chatty barber. But there was something much more intimate about it…much more personal. Lewis felt as though a spell had been cast, that he was fully at the mercy of Suliman, the spell caster, yet he trusted him. He felt that all of his sensations had been amplified; he was in a heightened state of awareness. He could feel the draft from the central air conditioning causing a current above them, he could smell the sterilizing alcohol, he could feel the drops of sweat forming under his arms and falling to the floor. He could hear the buzzing of the tattoo gun as it melded with the tinkling of Suliman’s voice and the staccato of the death metal that seemed to be coming from up out of the very ground. He felt that there was something happening between he and Suliman, a joining together that was not exactly sexual but had overtones of sexuality, as of two things becoming one. But also he felt more in tune with his surroundings…he felt a clarity that was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. With that clarity he was able to see and critique himself in a way that his normal nay-saying internal voices would not allow. He was able to compartmentalize the different aspects of his life, the parts that he felt were of value and all those he did not, the fears and the anxieties and all the self loathing and hate and overall negativity. He was able to see his cynicism for what it was, and it appeared to him in the form of a toxic cloud that lived inside, just beneath the surface like a second skin, that even now he could feel being released through the etching being done on his shoulder. He did not know if it was only a little bit of it being siphoned off, or whether a whole swamp of the stuff would remain behind, waiting to be drained. But he thought that maybe identifying it might be the first step toward banishing it entirely, if he decided that was what he wanted.
All of this was going on, a kind of perfect storm of thought and feeling, and he completely lost track of how much time had passed. He had achieved a kind of fugue state that was, in part, like an out-of-body experience. But it did, at last, end. The buzzing stopped, and Suliman wiped his shoulder with the rag a final time and took a moment to survey his work. “That just about does it,” he said. Lewis began to come back into himself as one does when recovering from a particularly powerful orgasm. “Just hold still another minute,” Suliman said. He was affixing a protective covering over the open wound that the finished piece would be until it healed. “You took that like a champ,” Suliman said. “You didn’t, like, fidget or anything. You sure this was your first tattoo?”
“Yes,” Lewis said. “But I feel like maybe it won’t be my last.”
Suliman clapped his hands together as he had before. “A convert!” he said. Lewis followed him back to the waiting area in the front of the store. Looking at a clock on the wall, he saw that, indeed, only a little more than an hour had passed. Remarkable. Suliman gave him instructions on what he should do as his shoulder healed, and Lewis gave him his credit card to swipe. He seemed to be coming down, the blissful sensation he’d experienced still close by. Suliman returned his card. “Do you have any questions at all?” he asked.
Lewis looked at him and said something that, earlier in the day, he thought he probably would have been incapable of uttering, at least not with the ease that it seemed to roll off his tongue. In his current euphoria it sounded like the most natural thing in the world. “Are you doing anything this weekend?” is what he said.
n the train home, his shoulder did begin to give him some slight discomfort. The M was crowded, and as usual, it was impossible to keep from being jostled, his body bumping into those around him. It was no more pleasant than it ever was. His internal voices started up again, reproachful as ever, and they certainly had some fresh fodder with which to torment him. But all of the accompanying feelings, he found, and the scrutinizing of those around him to see if they, in turn, were judging him, did not occur. And he found that, to banish the voices, it was helpful to go back, in his mind, to the hour that he had just spent with Suliman. He didn’t really know if the other man had experienced anything like what Lewis had. He suspected that Suliman probably hadn’t. For him, it had most likely been a normal tattooing, like all the others he’d done that week, or that month. But that didn’t change what Lewis had taken from it. He’d be able to remind himself of it by looking at his shoulder in the mirror, now, and for the rest of his life. Perhaps there had been no incredible, dramatic, or lasting change in him. But he had done something he never thought he’d ever do, a couple of things, for that matter. He and Suliman were meeting for a drink that Friday. Lewis didn’t know what that meant, exactly. It could very well be that, in addition to the stark differences in their lifestyles, there would be no substance to Suliman that would interest Lewis in the long term, and vice versa, either as friends, or as something more. But Suliman had said yes to the drink, that was undeniable, and Lewis felt that, somehow, for all his doubts, it was indicative of larger changes that were happening in his life. In all probability, this date wasn’t going to do a whole lot to help him through his issues with his sexuality, and all his other psychoses. But it was a start, maybe, toward coming out of his shell, and that was the way he had to view it. As a start. Thinking about it, he couldn’t help but smile to himself, and for once, he was not self conscious, or worried about what anyone else around him thought. He could meet their gaze, and he could do it with confidence. He could do it without fear.
* * * * *
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.