CaliforniaNiko wiped sweat with his collar, then left me with the tattoo guy who slid a stool under his legs. My nose was broken for the third time. Everything I saw—and I saw everything—contained the swelling’s shadow.

“Sure you don’t want to know?” the tattoo guy said.

“No,” I breathed. “I don’t.”

Tattoo guy contemplated the veins splaying down my forearm, blue as the alcohol in the jars.

“Never done this.”

“Even better,” I said. Choice was his, but you can’t say I didn’t decide. Later, at the patio for happy hour, Niko would point to the beer I’d like. The waitress would scan our menus, her eyes flitting to the wrap of plastic on my arm.

“Do you read?” I asked him.

“I like Melville,” he said. He was tracing, then rubbing the practice words clean with a rag. Thinking of something worthier.

He lifted my arm like it would drop, then rolled back on his chair to inspect the evenness of the words. He swiveled to wipe the needle, I assumed he was satisfied. We caught eyes, our necks flinching. Then he found his way back to my arm, stretched my skin taut. The tattoo guy looked a lot like Niko before he started wearing button-downs to cover the tie-dye look of his sleeves, though he was his own boss, sold high-end electric guitars to kind of famous punk bands. I taught first-graders how to write their loopy names on lined paper and had the entire summer off.

“A kid died in Southie,” I said. “His mother left him in the car.”

The tattoo guy tucked his hair behind his studded ear, teeth bit over his lower lip in concentration. A drowning woman twitched on his arm, black waves, squids siphoning up her ankle. He wore his sleeves like medals.

He said, “Having children is child abuse.”

Niko had gone off, disappearing into the heat on a mission for cigarettes and cash. He’d kissed my throat, in front of the tattoo guy. Without him, I felt the relief of the AC, the sweat that ridged my wife-beater drying out on the nerves of my neck. The heatwave outside had me pressing ice to my eyes. Dogs suffering on chains type heat. The kind that would make our beer boil on the patio.

“What if I’m writing something obscene?”

“I don’t give a fuck,” I said. He winced like smiling could kill him. A long time it had taken him to apply that design. A long time it had taken me not to look. I wanted not to know: what was there, what I thought, what I deserved. Now it was happening. He was engrossed, shading me black, thumb pressed to my pulse. The moan of the needle revved, he steadied his hand, and the pain, like his hand, was delicate. It was a finger in warm wax, hardening. A careful carving. Nothing like getting hit. Blow-by-blow in bright, ecstatic cracks that fainted like fireworks.

His ink was a slow, low dose, milking through my blood like a capsule. I liked the bounce of the needle, smooth as the wheels on a plane when it skims the tarmac. My arm his paper and the drone through his fingers a blossoming. We were cheek-to-cheek. I didn’t fidget. When I did, it was towards him, as if he was pulling something out of me. He turned back, one gloved hand still hooked to my arm, and soaked a cotton swab in alcohol.

He could have been drawing the outline of California: the state you think of when you think of escape. The date: July Fourth. Line from a book: Call me, Ishmael. Bobcat: the knowing eyes. Old lyrics: I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free.

With his hand like that on my wrist I thought of clothes packed in a bag to the brim. The clothes in my mind were always neat and never mine.

Photo used under CC.