The sun shone brightly that day in mid fall. On a day like this, the town could forget that winter was looming and the leaves of the maples were still in the process of falling. It was a day to imagine, to pretend that the dawn of summer had arrived. Despite the sun that tried to kiss her with its light, she was filled with an anxious energy that vibrated on the tips of her fingers and the edges of her toes, and although fear ran up and down the length of her short body, the center, the star around which everything swirled, was her chest, the anxious heart that twitched with nervous palpitations since dawn.
She drove anxiously to a tattoo shop on the outskirts of Pacific Ave, the last storefront before the street began to curve and give way to small parking lots and mid-sized hotels and half a mile later, the Pacific ocean. She parked a couple blocks away, in the residential neighborhood in which she had once lived for a summer, to avoid the parking meters. She walked with her boyfriend, a 6’1 man with broad shoulders and a soft stomach. She had woken with worry, the culmination of an endless anxiety about her boyfriend’s drug abuse and his impending trial to determine just how long he would have to live in jail for being under the influence and distributing heroin.
She itched with an internal battle that had become nearly unbearable. It was not sharp, not like lightning blasts or shocks of thunder, it was more like a constant drone, the sound of a mosquito that had played around her ears for days, getting loud, getting soft, but never leaving. And she awoke, unable to contain the underlying pressure any longer.
“I need to hit something. A punching bag. I need a tattoo.”
So they drove downtown, to the shop painted in black on the inside and out with a checkerboard floor. Driving there, every car seemed like an obstacle placed in her way. Every pedestrian was an unmovable barrier to her release. She looked at them all with a small measure of hate. They moved too slow, too unsure of themselves and their direction, idiots in their lack of purpose. She was moving, going fast, determined to reach her destination. She arrived exasperated. She arrived hoping for renewal, for cleansing. She imagined herself after the new tattoo, she would be reborn, calm, the day would then truly begin.
But this was not to be. The receptionist told her there were no available tattoo artists, everyone was booked for the day…perhaps if she came back tomorrow…No. this was not a desire that could be held, tomorrow would not be the same, later in the afternoon would not do. It was now. Now she had to feel the needle in her flesh. Now she had to feel the sting of the vibrating gun. They walked out of the store into the bright light of the sun reflecting off the cement sidewalk. She drove back to her house in the Santa Cruz mountains faster than usual, bursts of anxiety crossing her lips, gusts of heat seeping from her skin.
Inside her apartment, just off the busy mountainous road of Hwy 9, she searched in the phonebook for “tattoo.” She saw an ad for Papa Joe’s Tattoo, which was in Ben Lomond, a small mountain town just a couple minutes north from her. The ad said, “real artists, no attitude.” She picked up the phone and talked to Papa Joe himself. He said that he was not available at the moment, but if she wanted, his apprentice was available. He assured her the apprentice was good, but perhaps he knew that anyone with a tattoo gun would be good for her at that point. He heard her voice of desperation, the unspoken words of longing, the pent-up of frustration and rage that needed an orgasm. Perhaps he recognized the inclination. There could be no waiting. He probably had seen it all before.
With her boyfriend in the passenger seat, they wound up the mountain, passing the indoor swimming pool that was covered in a circular plastic dome, like a clear astronaut’s helmet…passing the art studio of a man who never tired of carving bears from thick wooden stumps. At the first stop light, at the only stop light in Ben Lomond, she made a right and on the corner, saw the pale pink two-story Victorian that housed the shop of Papa Joe. A wooden sign hung above the door, swinging slightly in the warm breeze. She walked inside, a small bell on the door announced her arrival.
Papa Joe was leaning over a man who was laying topless on his stomach, a bright bulb was pointed directly at the man’s back. Papa Joe looked up and the noise of the needle was silenced. “Hi, I called a couple minutes ago,” she said. “Hi, sure, this is Dave, he’ll be working with you.” A young man approached, a twenty-five year old with dark baggy blue jeans and a loose white shirt. His dark hair was nearly hidden beneath a white baseball cap. He greeted her somewhat coldly, barely making eye contact. She handed him the small design she had torn from an old sociology notebook. It was the doodle of a mermaid she had drawn in the first college class that would drastically change the course of her life, but the doodle was manifest evidence she had had many lapses of attention during the lectures. The drawing was three inches long, an abstract black shape she interpreted as a mermaid with the head of a crescent moon. The young man looked at her a skeptically, he brought it over to his teacher… “do you want it just like this, or do you want us to add some details...”
“No, just like it is please.” The two men looked at each other. “You’re sure?” “Yeah, it’s just what I want.” The young man brought the little mermaid to his drawing table and began tracing the design onto carbon paper.
A couple minutes later, she was on the vinyl padded table. She lay on her right side and lifted her shirt and pointed to the place she wanted it, just above the soft mound of her love handle. Dave applied the design, put on his latex gloves and poured a small plastic capful of black ink. He adjusted his work lamp. She heard the buzzing of the needle begin. He leaned closer, she felt the needle approach with the slight wind the vibrations caused…then she felt the pain as the needle dug in. She lay motionless, as still as she could while breathing. Dave outlined the mermaid in a couple minutes, then came back to fill it with a solid coating of black. She felt proud she could lay this still, proud she did not cry out, proud she was strong and did not cry at all. The pain was real. The pain stung. Dave went to wipe the collection of blood that had seeped from her skin with a paper towel, each wipe felt like sandpaper. But she lay still.
Twenty minutes later, the tattoo was complete. She walked out of the shop, relaxed for the first time that day, for the first time in many, many days. And there was now a permanent message on her flesh, a message that spoke of secret yearnings and secret fears, dreams and nightmares which she could never say out loud, not to herself, not to anyone. For her words were of dry land and her secrets were of the waves, and a mermaid formed the bridge between two worlds.