Body Art ♦ (Part Three of Three)

Part One of “Body Art” can be found here and Part Two can be found here.

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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.

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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.

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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. 


Body Art ♦ (Part Two of Three)

Part One of “Body Art” can be found here.

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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.

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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.

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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. 


Body Art ♦ (Part One of Three)

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t was ironic that an event called “Pride” should be the perfect showcasing of his insecurity, and this fact was not lost on Lewis. A weekend of events that were supposed to inspire unity, camaraderie, and, well, pride accomplished exactly the opposite. They induced feelings of discomfort and self loathing that were even greater than usual…and there was usually plenty to go around.

New York was talked about, in some circles, as being like some kind of gay Mecca. On the East Coast, liberal, progressive, and, just recently, same sex couples had been given the ability to marry. Lewis thought that was nice, but it wasn’t likely to affect him personally. Chances were he was never going to get married, not because of his sexuality, but because he was about as reclusive as a person can be who lives in a city of eight-and-a-half million. He hadn’t had sex in more than two years, and lately he’d been thinking about something his roommate had said back in college, that if you went seven years without sex you effectively regained your virginity. He’d been thinking about it because he thought it more likely he’d reach the seven year mark without getting laid again than it was he’d hook up with someone within the next five years. He just couldn’t see how it was ever going to happen again, and in certain respects, he’d be glad if it didn’t. It’s not like the sexual urge had gone away, quite the contrary. It was just that a regular routine of shameful masturbation came without any outside judgment, and that was (he could admit it), pretty much the one thing in the world he most wanted to avoid.

Lewis was thirty-seven, of Irish descent, five foot ten, about a hundred and ninety pounds, making him “husky” or “portly” or other euphemisms for what he thought of as slightly fat. No six-pack abs, let’s just put it that way. He had skin as white as milk, the kind of skin that, if he was out on a mildly sunny day, would start to redden alarmingly in about ten minutes. He had a weak chin and a small nose, puffy cheeks like a squirrel, and a spray of freckles across most of his body, with concentrations at the forearms, face, and across the shoulders. His hair was thinning, but not evenly. There was a deep groove going down the left hand side of his scalp, while on the right it had only just begun receding. He was by no means an extraordinarily ugly man, nor was he a markedly handsome one. In terms of physical appearance, he was the sort of person who would not immediately jump out at you in a crowd, and that was something he very much cultivated.

He made his living as a music teacher. He’d been a cellist with the New York Philharmonic for a little more than four years, but eventually he left, the primary reasons being that the competition among the musicians was so tiresome, and also because his last boyfriend, a violinist, had broken up with him, and Lewis didn’t want to see him six days a week. Since then, he gave private lessons, almost exclusively to children. He taught the cello, and also the piano and the flute. He’d always been talented musically, and was almost equally adept at all three. He lived in Williamsburg, playground of hippies and hipsters, with plenty of bars, health food and antique stores, pizza parlors, bodegas, and some nice green spaces. And home, yes, to a thriving gay community, or bisexual, in some cases, or bicurious, or polyamorous, or falling into less definable categories that were exhausting to try and keep track of. He taught students at his apartment, in the afternoons, mostly, but in some cases he’d agree to travel into Manhattan or Queens, if the price was right. The fact that he’d played with the Philharmonic had garnered him somewhat of a reputation, of which he was undoubtedly deserving. He’d been surprised to find out that he was a born teacher, soft spoken, patient, and able to build confidence even in those pupils that he knew privately to be hopeless.

He didn’t drive, and so took the subway fairly regularly. It was convenient, but also one of the things he hated most about the city, to be down there on the platforms, in the press of people, during rush hour especially, or in the cars themselves, bunched in together, enduring the squeaking of the wheels, people trying not to breathe too heavily, hearing the music leaking from nearby headphones. Lewis didn’t like to be touched, to have his body pressed upon by strangers. Not to say that anyone likes that, but he had a real aversion to it, to the point that it almost made him physically sick. And then there was…well, there was his problem with people looking at him.

Everybody, at some point or other in their lives, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment, has had self esteem issues regarding their own body, their own physical appearance. The lucky ones barely think of it, while it weighs more heavily on the minds of others…there is, after all, an entire cosmetics industry that preys on insecurity, not to mention commercials for fad diets, and reality TV shows that showcase the struggles of the contestants to lose weight. Lewis was one of the unlucky ones, extremely unlucky, even, because for virtually his entire life he had dealt not only with discomfort concerning his body, but also his sexuality. It had been bad enough when he was younger, but now it was even worse, as he was aging, steadily, becoming a day at a time, as he thought, fatter and uglier. He’d grown up in the Midwest, the son of a career military man and an overbearing mother, the middle child sandwiched between two girls. His father was often absent, so he was raised in a house where he was virtually swimming in estrogen, his sisters very much girly-girls, all horses and knitting and gossip. He’d loved it, when his father wasn’t around. And when his father had been there, it hadn’t taken Lewis very long to understand that approval from the only significant male presence in his life would never be forthcoming. His father would come home and say “And how are my three daughters today?” which was meant to be taken as a joke, as though he didn’t intend it in a mean-spirited way, although for the most part he did. His father always claimed to love him, and maybe he did, in his way, but the best he seemed to know how to deal with Lewis was to keep his distance from him as much as possible, both physically and emotionally. Lewis had always thought it funny, or interesting, at least, that his background was so stereotypical, in terms of where some schools of psychological thought deemed that homosexuality originated. Of course it had never been proven conclusively what made a person gay. Some maintained that there was a gene for it, others that it was a natural aberration of some kind, like a four leaf clover, only less rare. But there were shrinks who said that a child who was raised around women without a strong male role model to show an interest in them was considerably more likely to be queer. Had that been the case with Lewis, or was it a complete coincidence? He’d definitely thought about it over the years, but he had no way of knowing, just as the scientists who had hunted the “gay gene” and the shrinks with their theories could offer no legitimate proof. There were plenty of guys who grew up with a mess of brothers, and fathers who were an active presence in their lives, but who still turned out to be gay.

But Lewis was stereotypical in another way also, in that he had always been ashamed of his sexuality. He’d been teased growing up, yes, taunted, beaten up by his classmates sometimes. There really wasn’t any way to hide who he was, and in the small towns where he’d spent most of his formative years and adolescence, he had attracted attention. Bad enough to be gay, but to be shy, quiet, reserved, a musical prodigy who wasn’t the least bit athletic…a nightmare.

He’d come to New York in his early twenties, at a time when the city seemed to be in transition, becoming, in the ‘90’s, more tourist friendly, less sleazy, a far cry from the Taxi Driver style squalor of the ‘70’s. He’d had very mixed feelings about coming to a place known for having a prominent, visible gay scene. A part of him, the optimist that so rarely surfaced, was wondering if he might be able to find a niche, make friends…be amongst his people, be accepted. But it didn’t work out that way. He found opportunities in his career that likely wouldn’t have been available anywhere else, but socially…the biggest problem was that everyone there already seemed to know each other. Maybe that wasn’t an accurate perception, but that was how he saw it. The gay scene, in his first clumsy attempts to become involved with it, reminded him of a bratty high school clique, and he was the out-of-towner with the wrong clothes and haircut. The most obvious places to meet other gay men socially were clubs and bars, most of them in the Village, and the forays he attempted were mostly disastrous. He wasn’t a drinker or a drug user, he wasn’t good at approaching people, he wasn’t good looking enough to be approached himself. And he found the mannerisms and flamboyant dress of the queens annoying. Nor was he a muscle man, or a bear, or into leather. He couldn’t quite give up, not when he still got as horny as the next guy, but he pursued the interactions halfheartedly, waiting for someone else to make a first move that seldom came.

That was then, when he’d been new to the city, nearly sixteen years ago. Now he was more used to it, but no more comfortable on the trains, because that was something you couldn’t grow to enjoy, not when it was so tailor-made for unpleasantness. Lewis was keenly aware of train etiquette. You had to be, if you lived there. The tourists never knew what the hell they were doing. They complained in other countries, Europe, especially, of how loud, crude, and boisterous Americans were. Well, maybe so, but he thought the tourists from other countries visiting New York were just as bad. Talking loudly in their native languages, leaning in over the heads of seated riders to study the transit map and argue over it, then indiscriminately asking directions of anyone around them when they couldn’t figure it out. All against the subway code of conduct. No eye contact, obviously, that was first and foremost. God, how Lewis hated it when people broke that rule. It was his policy to keep his eyes downcast, his legs together, and his hands clasped in his lap, making himself as inconspicuous as possible. This way, he ran the least risk of confrontation, and he also hoped that he wouldn’t be scrutinized too closely, as that would lead to inevitable judgment.

He had a theory that everyone in the world- walking about in the streets, on elevators, in the audience back during his days with the Philharmonic- were spending most of their time looking at the people around them and making judgments about them. This included people of any age, from toddlers to the elderly, and everything in between. Any evidence to the contrary, like a person listening to music, in conversation, or closing their eyes entirely, he took to be a clever ruse. Like many people who have a mild form of psychosis, he often chided himself, mentally, telling himself it was only his imagination, that there wasn’t anything to it. And even if there was something to it, he reasoned, then why should he care what people thought of him? What should he care if the guy across from him on the train noticed that he was losing his hair, or had a little bit of a paunch? But no matter how often he told himself that he was being irrational, he couldn’t force himself to stop thinking about it. He felt like he was being judged for his obvious lack of physical perfection, but even more so for his sexuality, something that shouldn’t be immediately evident, but in his opinion, was. In a slight sidelong glance from a person sitting near, he would see disgust, hatred…hatred for who and what he was. He was constantly trying to repress a running string of internal dialogue that he imagined was coming from the people around him. Well, would you look at this prissy little fairy. Just out and about in the world, pretty as you please. Fucking faggot cocksucker. I’ve got something for him. And on it went. What he thought of as his real voice would cut in just as often. Its favorite lines were: now stop that, goddamn it, you stop it right now. You’re being absurd. See, he’s not even looking at you. It’s all in your head. Shit, he saw you looking at him! Look away! Look away! No, not that quickly! Now he’s onto you!

He felt sometimes like there were several people living inside him, a small community, and together they all made the effort to keep him relatively sane and functioning in society. He felt like, despite his constant fears about those around him and their intentions, he did a pretty good job of keeping these thoughts and feelings hidden. His last boyfriend had only been aware of them in the smallest of ways, through little bits that he had let slip whenever the context seemed appropriate. The way he felt usually revealed itself on the surface in a stiff kind of formality, one of the reasons, undoubtedly, that he didn’t have many friends or find it easy to make them. He’d been told by different people, his sisters among them, that he needed to lighten up. Would that he could. He’d often been worried that if he had more than one drink, then he’d expose too much of his personality, that he’d start acting “too gay,” and who knew what the consequences would be then! Even though the rational part of his brain insisted that there would be no consequences, it didn’t matter. He was the way he was, and no amount of his personally berating himself would change things. He’d thought, many times, about going into therapy. But the idea of actually talking, out loud, about all of these issues only brought on still more intense spasms of fear and panic. He felt like he’d rather have his fingernails pulled out than go to a shrink.

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ow did all of this relate back to Pride? Well, put it this way. Pride was the time when, for the local gays and the ones that had come from around the country and the world, they could demonstrate how comfortable they were with themselves, and that, of course, was the exact opposite of Lewis. At the centerpiece of the festivities, the parade itself, and also the myriad other related events, the parties, the specials at all the bars, there were all of these people who were able to be everything that he wanted to be, but couldn’t. Sure, some of them were idealized perfection, young, gym-toned and tan, pearly white teeth, gel-styled hair, dripping in costume jewelry, possessing of seemingly boundless exuberance. But there were just as many others who were obviously gay, but who looked more like him, older, not always in great shape…in short, ordinary guys…who seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much, and that frustrated and angered him even more. And that’s what he was, angry, yes, and envious, and then even more ashamed of himself for feeling that way. It was the typical shame cycle of the insecure. They were what he wanted to be, and so he hated them, and himself even more for hating. Because, truth be told, he had serious problems with homosexuality. The way he reasoned it out, heterosexual was the optimal way to be. You were “right,” you were “normal.” You were male, you found females attractive, and vice versa. You were bisexual, there was nothing wrong with that either. You were willing to have sex with the opposite gender, thereby leading to reproduction and the continuation of the species. Your having sex with members of the same gender just meant that you had a high libido, were open minded, and were in touch with your sexuality. Bisexuality was even preferable to being straight, in some ways, because you doubled your field of potential partners.

But homosexuality was wrong, in Lewis’ mind, for this reason. If everyone were gay, meaning that all men were only willing to have sex with other men, and all women with other women, then within one generation the human race would die out. That was why homosexuality was improper; it didn’t have anything to do with God, or morality, or any sort of foolishness like that. Lewis was basically an atheist anyway. No, to him being gay was wrong because it meant you weren’t willing, or able, to do your part for the human race, replacing yourself with progeny that would take over for you when you died. To be gay meant that you were willfully helping the human race die out.

Of course, there was a fundamental flaw with this way of thinking; all people weren’t gay. Only one in nine was, or at least that was a statistic he’d read, though maybe there were more who just wouldn’t admit to it. The point being, there were still far more heterosexuals out there, meaning the possibility of the human race dying out for that reason was virtually nil. He knew this too, of course, and it was another one of those things of which he was constantly reminding himself, but it didn’t change the way that he felt. Which then made him feel guiltier, for disliking his own kind, the content and the well adjusted…and on it went. The shame cycle.

All coming to a head at the time of Pride, because even if he didn’t actually attend the parade, or any of the parties, it was a big event, practically city wide, and it was difficult to avoid. This particular year, he had actually pretty much forgotten about it, what with his having a fairly busy schedule. His number of students fluctuated, and it was strange that there should have been a spike, he’d been thinking, during a recession, since music lessons were usually considered non-essential by parents. But New York was the playground of the over-privileged, and far be it from him to question the money when it was available. He was on the M, heading into Manhattan, and doing his usual routine of not making eye contact and being generally uncomfortable, when a posse of loud, brightly bedecked young men got into the car just a few feet away. There were six of them, all looking sort of like David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust, spandex, go-go boots, faces painted in silver streaks and swirls, showing a lot of skin, and every one of them gloriously thin, hairless, and perfect. They could have stepped right out of some fantasy of his, and he hated them from the moment he saw them. The oldest of them probably wasn’t more than twenty-two. At the age of thirty-seven, he, in gay years, was pretty much long dead already; he just hadn’t actually stopped breathing yet. They stood up in the middle of the car, twittering and preening like a flock of birds. The car was semi-crowded, a few seats available but none together, a variety of age groups and races represented, different social classes as well, by the variety and manner of dress. Lewis, in his constant state of paranoia, was always convinced that people were looking him over, if surreptitiously, but here was a situation where most of the eyes in the car actually were trained on the new arrivals, who collectively had all the glamour and pizzazz of a passing carnival float. Not that they were ashamed of the attention; far from it, it was obviously what they cultivated. They were loud and proud, a spectacle, loving the spotlight. Lewis couldn’t be surprised by the behavior; he just hadn’t expected it to be thrust into his face so abruptly, and noisily. This was a rare opportunity for sociological study. Trying not to be too obvious about it, he was able to look over the other riders and take in their reactions. In all probability, this would validate what he already knew American society felt toward the openly gay. It did, in some cases. A couple of workmen looking types, part of a construction crew, maybe, by their clothes, were eyeing the group with something between scorn and open hostility. These were the sort of guys you wouldn’t want to meet alone on a subway platform if you were a lone queen heading back to the outer boroughs late at night after a round of clubbing. They were likely to beat you down, though whether they would do so partially because of a secret attraction could only be speculated upon. The straightest acting of guys, Lewis well knew, were often the most closeted. There were some other passengers who seemed merely bemused by the new arrivals, smiling out of the corners of their mouths. It was the children in the car, a boy and girl, both looking to be about kindergarten age, who gawked openly but without malice, entranced by the spangles and glitter. It made Lewis happy and sad simultaneously, glad to see the childish wonder so much in evidence, but the pessimist in him cried out stubbornly that for these two it was only a matter of a couple of years before society began to teach them about prejudice.

* * * * *

Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 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.