Pain has no memory, I'm told by my tattoo artist
lover. He says this to me for the first time holding me aloft by
the rope of my hair.
When I was a little girl it was wavy and long and had a tendency
toward a tangled mess that my mother had limited patience for. My
grandmother used to buy hot pink bottles of No More Tangles hoping
to save us both from an ordeal. My toilette was always a scene.
This lasted into my twenties, the
vanity scarred from the results of all my hysterical javelin-like
hairbrush launches. The easiest thing for my mother to do was to
every morning pull the front portions of my hair away from my face
and fasten them to the top of my head with a clip. I would go all
day vaguely aware of the apparatus always slightly tugging. And
I was sometimes sent off to sleep this way so that the concert of
waking and preparing for kindergarten was a gentler melody for us.
I remember how my hair would hurt like a sunburn when that clip
finally came loose. I'd walk around with phantom barrette syndrome.
Only what Jeff has coiled around his fingers and the inside of
me seem to touch him. It's for a long moment that I register
an arguing sensation. But then I see that it is like two voices
shouting over one another but in an agreement each is too noisy
to realize. I decide to listen.
When he lets me look his face is quiet. He is the ink that will
re-write me. I don't know how I know this. I have known him for
only a few hours. It is by way of a successful dinner that I find
myself on a hard floor without clothes or objection.
The room is flooded in cigarette smoke; tender wisps colored green
by the glow of a restaurant's neon suspended just outside his window
one story above the street. It feels like being under water. Apparently
I am a pretty good swimmer.
I've no one to answer to. My car's outside. No one knows I'm here,
or where here is for that matter. But I'm notorious
for leaving a trail; stealth in planning, sloppy in practice, or
so I've been accused. I've felt unprotected for so long that
when he grips my throat I am able without any particular fear or
hesitation to lean into the loss. His hold is like a lullaby.
What is your definition of freedom?
I got my tattoo five days after my husband finally moved out.
Mostly I wanted to mark the occasion of my hard won
freedom. A reminder that I'd so willingly given it away and had
to scratch and claw to repossess it. I wanted definition. I
wanted an outward scar. I was tired of being the only one who could
I was put into Jeff's chair. He worked behind me. I felt his hands
on my hips even after the stencil had been applied and
then adjusted. I apologized for the size ten view--marriage had
provided six years of large portions. "Nothin' wrong with a
size ten," he said. I heard his chair squeak and felt the air
expand between us. Sweet talker.
As with most services, once they are paid for, business is generally
concluded. It was a Visa transaction this tattoo. A
little exchange of ink and I was on my way. It's maybe an inch squared.
In my bathroom mirror I watched the smudge at the base of my spine
go through its transformations. I applied the salve at regular intervals.
I followed instructions, for the first time in my life, to the letter
without deviation. Permanence hasn't always frightened me into such
compliance. I liked the way it felt. Like a rug burn, frankly. I
liked feeling it, suddenly and for no other reason than it was there.
disappoint me, it was the reminder I'd wished for.
It wasn't long before I realized that it wasn't just the vibration
of this small plot of physical real estate that I was
feeling but something larger; there was still the ghost of his fingers
lifting me out of the chair. "Careful, your legs might be
asleep." I'd been sitting for 11 minutes.
I saw him months later, by accident in a New Jersey bar. He was
not in the mood for conversation and was not the kind, I found,
who was easily seduced. I offered to buy him a round. He said, "I
don't drink." He tilted his head, lit a Kool with a Zippo he
opened and closed with just a thumb. He didn't notice when I left.
Going home I got lost, or rather, the tangle of local routes, interstates
and turnpikes were not running east that night. It took me two hours
to cross one river. I was
never, I swore with the lights of New York City in sight, going
back...regardless of his dexterity.
I couldn't sleep. One night, then two. I called the store. A day
later Jeff called me back. I learned he wasn't indigenous,
but curious. His side of the conversation was all about some underground
sex clubs on my side of the water that he'd heard about. I wasn't
fazed. I thought I'd seen everything, some things more than once.
The next night we had a meal instead. It was filled with his out-of
town phrases that drew new pictures for me. He listened when I wasn't
speaking and heard me when I was.
In the morning he smoked cigarettes and gave the audio version
of his theories on violence, control and sex. He
persuaded me into the shower. For once, the erratic splashing did
not immediately evoke the summer-time swimming pool injustices I'd
endured as a child which had shaped my long standing dysfunctional
reaction to being wet uneccesarily. Agreeable to any number of his
suggestions, I stood still while he buried his soapy fingers in
my ears and cupped my eyes from the shampoo. All over me were signs
of where he'd been--raised skin and the promise of bruises.
In front of his building he took me by my arm, halting my march
to the car, and asked, "Do you trust me?" I had a limited
range of motion and simply looked sideways at him in reply.
"Give me your keys."
He had a controlled recklessness to his driving. Jeff was someone
who knew well his abilities and the consequences of his
limitations; like a lion tamer and his chair, he negotiated my car
through the tight driving spaces. I had to give him directions to
Manhattan since he'd only ever seen it on TV. He had me direct us
to a porno shop in Alphabet City.
Jeff circled my neck with his thumb and forefinger nudging me
down the iron grate staircase. "Like you remember your first
lover, you will always remember getting your first tattoo. It's
not erasable, the ink or the experience." Inside, he leaned
in to speak with the bored clerk who departed his leather studded
stool, abandoning us to the center of a room filled with racks of
your standard Frederick's of Hollywood fare, boxes of penis shaped
pasta and strawberry flavored body paint.
In the thick of patchouli oil, the clerk returned, "We don't
have white in her size."
"Red or black?" Jeff turned to asked me. "Pink
just doesn't seem you." He had the ends of a supple black leather
collar in each hand. Its restraint was immediate. Clearly amused
by the look on my face, he gave the subtle D-ring a tug, "Not
for nothin', I think it's you."
"I suppose that would depend on what it means."
"Pain has no memory. It's a gentle reminder."
London is a 2000 Fellow of the Ucross
Foundation in Clearmont, Wyoming. Her work has appeared in many
literary publications. She has just completed a novel tentatively