The shoulder in question? Smooth as a baby's bottom. Unblemished, the color of mocha and oh so nice. That would be Jenny's shoulder. The one I'd fallen in love with. And, of course, all that was attached thereto.
Jenny and I were lying on the grass in the park across the street from our high school, me on my stomach, my head resting on my arms, she on her back, legs crossed, looking up at the sky. School had just let out and we could hear voices in the distance and the shrill sound of a P.E. whistle, rising and falling.
"Present and accounted for."
"I've decided to ...."
"Jen, listen. I think I'll change my name. Something stronger, more jockafied. I'll never make varsity soccer with a name like Daniel. Chip. Sounds strong, preppy. I'm serious. Or maybe a Latin name. Antonio."
"Call me Antonio, just once. Let me..."
"Daniel, will you stop with the name stuff. I'm trying to tell you something important. I've decided to get a tattoo."
"Really. I've decided. A present to myself."
"No way "¦ Where?"
"Like where on my person?"
Jenny sat up, crossed her legs, and pulled the sleeve of her jersey blouse up over her shoulder. "Right here," she said, placing her forefinger on that delicate piece of geography favored by nurses everywhere for shots and boosters.
"I suggest you give this some serious thought, Jen. I mean, if you want to get yourself a present, try Macy's. Or get one of those L.L Bean utility tools. You can fix my bike."
"I'm serious, Daniel. I've given this a lot of thought. I'm definitely getting one."
"I've, like, already got it picked out. It is so cool. Sarah and me? We stopped at this parlor, you know, this tattoo boutique? On the other side of town. It's where she got hers. There's this really cool guy, they call him the Rag Man."
"The Rag Man. Anyway, he's done tattoos for, like, ages. Everyone goes there. I'm getting this small sunburst. Yellow and orange, touch of red and blue. He showed me the design. It was on the wall with hundreds of others. Called a flash. It'll look so cool."
Jenny pulled her sleeve down and sat hunched forward, running the flat of her hand across the short bristles of grass, a smile touching her lips.
"Jen, damn, get one of those press-ons. You don't like it, you shower. But a real tattoo? You're talking forever."
"I know. Neat, huh? Wait'll you see the design. I'll probably want to wear tank tops the rest of my life, so I can, like, show it off."
"Right. You realize that they ask you on college applications if you have a tattoo. Or piercings. They want an inventory. The reason for asking is to determine if you have even a shred of common sense."
"Daniel, you're so full of it. What's your problem with one small tattoo? You know they call it body art. Everybody's had work done. I mean, name one kid in the Western Hemisphere who doesn't have one."
Jenny looked at me, smiling, challenging me for a name.
"Jen, think about it. Everyone doing something is not a reason to do anything. That's a poll. You have to come up with a serious reason."
"Fine. How's this. Having a tattoo is just something I want. For me. An expression of my inner self. My individuality. I'll look at it and know that no one else has one just like it."
"Right. Just you and about ten thousand others. Jen, this is not a good idea."
"Okay, Daniel. Fine. Tell me why."
I had an answer. I did. And it was a good one; but I wasn't sure how much I wanted to get into it. Other than to say that anything involving needles made my hands clammy and my head swim. And anything having to do with needles in places like tattoo boutiques — which I imagined to be grimy, marginal places, smelling of rubbing alcohol, sweat and garlic, peopled by creepy drifters who led these bizarre, dark and edgy lives — carried a huge risk. Huge.
I debated about telling Jenny about an experience I had when I was much younger. A memory that hovered in the depths of my subconscious, ready to make itself known at the mere mention of a tetanus shot. Or the thought of sharing a room with someone named the Rag Man. Years ago, my parents had taken me along to the hospital to visit my uncle Clark, who was having what my father called a procedure. Because I was so young, they left me in a small waiting room, sitting on a vinyl couch while they went down a long hallway to his room. Everything was hospital quiet, hushed, people dressed in white and green walking quickly by, their crepe soles squeaking on the linoleum floors, others stopping to talk in low, serious voices.
Across from the waiting room, and directly in my line of sight, was a room with the door open. Framed by the doorway was a man, a very old man, lying in bed covered only with a white sheet. A plastic bag of clear solution hung from a chrome hook attached to a pole, a long tube snaking down from the bag, the end inserted into the top of his hand, held in place by strips of tape. A halo of harsh florescent light above his head illuminated his gaunt face. I was certain I could hear him breathing, his mouth opening and closing.
Suddenly a nurse appeared and walked into the old man's room carrying a small tray, about the size a bellhop might use to deliver a business card in a hotel lobby. She set the tray down on a raised cantilevered table near the bed. Without looking at the old man, she quickly pulled on a pair of latex gloves and picked up a vial and needle from the tray. Holding the vial upside down at eye level, she inserted the long tip of the syringe into the vial, pulling back on the plunger, watching the chamber fill. Holding the needle at the ready, she took a square of gauze and pushing up the old man's hospital gown, exposed a pale, flaccid arm. She gave his shoulder a brisk rub, and with a practiced efficiency plunged the needle into the loose flesh. I winced, but the man didn't move or even turn his head. After what seemed only a heartbeat she pulled the needle out, giving the shoulder another quick rub with the gauze. The tray in hand, she left without giving the man even a glance. He never stirred.
I shuddered, feeling my skin goosebump, and tried not to look at the old man. Suddenly every vagrant hospital smell — stale sweat, alcohol, sickness — seemed to fill the waiting room, and I felt light-headed, and the couch began to tip and sway. The hallway, the old man on the bed, all became a blur. Thinking I might pitch off the couch onto the floor, I pushed myself to the back and closed my eyes. A trickle of sweat rolled slowly down my back and my face felt damp.
Eventually, my parents returned. We rode down in the elevator, sharing the cramped space with an orderly who was taking a woman on a gurney to another floor. I tried not to look at the woman, but I couldn't help myself.
She wore a green cap, and she stared up at the ceiling, unblinking, as if everything in her life had become inevitable. The elevator stopped with a jerk and the door slid open. The orderly angled the gurney carefully out into the hallway and I noticed the woman had covered her eyes with her hand. I didn't want to think about where she was going. By the time we reached our car, I felt feverish, shivering, my mother putting her hand on my forehead, wondering aloud if I was coming down with something. The minute we got home she put me to bed, and my dad looked in on me, asking me how I felt.
I hadn't thought about that moment for a long time, though for weeks after it worked its way into my dreams, waking me in the dead of night. I would lie staring into the darkness seeing empty hallways, dimly lighted rooms with cadaver-like people waiting on gurneys, masses of tubes winding around their heads, and images of that old man who stared at me with sunken, fearful eyes while the nurse leaned over him holding a long, stiletto-like needle.
Some weeks after getting out of the hospital, my uncle came to our house for a Sunday dinner. He was a big, gregarious man, flushed face, wide smile, a man who talked in a booming voice that no one could compete with. Sitting at the dining room table, filling his plate, he told about his operation in a voice that was both serious and comical.
"It's a place to avoid. They tell you to rest and then wake you every two hours to ask you if you're asleep or to give you a pill only a horse could swallow. And the food. Hell, it couldn't keep a canary alive."
The kidney stone, the reason he was there in the first place, was described in detail as being bluish-gray and about the size of a small, pitted marble. "Keep it in a jar on my dresser next to my cuff link box. And the incision," my uncle exclaimed, pointing at us with his fork, his mouth full of potatoes, "great good God, goes from here to here." He pushed back from the table and using his forefinger in place of a scalpel, traced a line from his sternum to the small of his back. When he started to pull his shirt out of his trousers, saying something like, "You will not believe this," my mother, her eyes going wide, convinced him it might be better to wait. "Perhaps after dinner, Clark," she said. My uncle, looking disappointed, said, "Sure. But you gotta see this damn thing. Wicked. Doc sews like a saddle maker. You could drive a small car through the opening." My mother smiled weakly, passing him the dinner rolls.
Later, lifting his dessert fork to his mouth, a chunk of cake balanced on the tines, he said, "Gotta tell ya. Hate hospitals. Hate 'em. Lucky I got outta there alive. People go in to have a toenail removed and end up having their will read. First thing I did when I woke up after surgery was take inventory. Make sure I had all my appendages. No one's sure what the hell they're doing in those places, they're so busy."
My mother tried to make him stop, saying, "For Pete's sake, Clark, it can't be that bad," glancing at my father as if to say, Do something.
But rather than explain all that to Jen, how that hospital visit gradually morphed into a persistent aversion to needles and shots, not to mention hospitals, I played for time and changed the subject. "You hear about Andy?" I said. "Yelled out the F-word in class. Second period."
"He did what?"
"Honest. Yelled it right out loud. In History."
"Oh, m'God. History with Halverson? I think she's born again, river baptized. I bet she's never heard that word said out loud by any living person. Andy must have a latent death wish."
"Latent no longer. Swears it was unintentional. Fell asleep. You know how Halverson drones on, always reading from the text book. This time it was the Bill of Rights. She could make those tapes that help people fall asleep at night. Anyway, Halverson's reading, walking around the room, taking her time with each amendment, when she wanders back to where Andy's z-ing, slows down, and notices him deeply asleep. His head was resting on his history book, mouth open, drool coming out of one corner. She stops reading, and after watching him for a moment, the entire class by now watching right along with her, she gives him a sharp poke in the shoulder. Pretty hard. Andy's eyes pop open, startled-like, and yells out the F word. Loud. I mean, really loud."
"Oh m'God," Jen said, her hand covering her mouth.
"It was unbelievable. Person who jumped even higher than Andy was Halverson. Dropped her book, let out a yell of her own. Then wrote out an office referral slip. Profanity during an oral reading of the Bill of Rights."
By this time I knew my distraction was working, since Jen was laughing, letting out these irresistible little piglet snorts. Show me a woman who snorts when she laughs and I'll show you the mother of my children.
"And check this," I said. "Andy asks her if what he yelled wasn't protected by the First Amendment, free speech and all. Actually, I thought the question was inspired. I wish you'd been there."
"Unbelievable. Halverson. Of all the teachers. He'll get detention for sure." Jen gave a toss of her hair back over her shoulder and looked at me, saying, "Okay, Daniel, getting back to my sunburst..."
"Fine. The sunburst. We were discussing your intention to take part in this body altering ritual that the herd has recently decided is fashionable. Have blue ink injected just below the epidermis, using a needle that works like a laser-jet printer. Wonderful. Right up there with body piercing "¦ now that's something really fun to think about. Making holes with very large, dull needles in all these very tender places on your body, just so you can insert some piece of polished metal through said hole. What is that all about? Some kids have more metal attached to them than a medieval knight."
I'm saying this and Jen is looking down at the grass, shaking her head, wondering, I'm sure, how I could be so pathetically uncool. But I couldn't stop myself. All of it seemed so, well, dumb. Not to forget that a good rant has a life of its own.
"Oh yeah, wait, hang on a sec, there's always the nipple. Definitely my first choice for a nice round loop. What mental midget came up with that location? Or how about the center of the tongue? Just the place. Makes you talk like you've got a very large marble in your mouth. And then there's all those other places, tender spots I don't even want to think about. Next thing'll be neck extension rings. Or foot binding. I saw that on National Geographic."
"Jen, don't. Please don't get one. Think about it. It's shallow, a fad. And worse, it's dangerous."
"It is not. What makes you think it's dangerous?"
"Well, for starters, there's the guy who's the needle jockey. What'd you call him? The Rag Man? Now there's a moniker that instills confidence. Man probably spent ten minutes taking a tattoo correspondence course. Gets his supplies from Tattoos R Us. And let us not forget the needle itself. God knows where it's been before your spiffy looking, untouched, virginal shoulder shows up. That would be the shoulder I've come to know and love. The one I've spent quality time with. How about a hickey instead? I could do that, no charge."
"Daniel, be serious, this is, like, not the Middle Ages. The needles are disposable. The man wears rubber gloves. Sarah and I watched him actually do a tattoo. Everything was very sterile. Plus he's an artist."
"He's an idiot. You see him actually deep six the needle? Put a new, sealed, packaged needle on his gizmo? I bet he just goes in the back room and gives it a quick rinse under the tap. Like it was a watercolor brush. Save a few bucks. As for the rubber gloves? I bet he wears the same ones all day long. Like his socks. Has 'em on when he plays with the dog. Really. Just because he wears latex doesn't mean he's sterile. Sanitation workers wear gloves. He probably showers once a month and has enough hair on his back and arms to make an industrial size door mat. A wild man. I know the type. I watch the Learning Channel. Jen, would you let this man even close to your toothbrush? I mean think hepatitis A through D and worse."
Jenny gave a deep sigh. She leaned forward, pushing her long brown hair back off her shoulders — a mannerism I had grown particularly fond of — saying, "Daniel, would you just listen for a sec. It's so annoying when you get like this. I swear, the Rag Man's very sanitary. That's his rep. Think hospital. Plus, his work is known, practically internationally."
The last thing I wanted to do was think hospital. "Fine, you're about to put your life in the hands of a guy who looks like Bigfoot and has a passport. But speaking of Bigfoot, what's your dad gonna say?"
"I "¦ well, I've decided that I don't need his permission. I'm almost eighteen."
"What? Almost? Jen, you're barely seventeen? I thought you had to be at least eighteen to do this. Wait "¦ hang on. You're telling me you were carded and you used fake ID and you're not telling your dad? Or your mom? So, that would mean you plan on spending the rest of your life wearing long sleeves and not tank tops."
Jen knew it was risky keeping her folks out of the loop. But understandable. Jen's dad? A classic. The man wears clip-on ties, suspenders with a belt, and on weekends, it's over-the-calf dress socks with baggy plaid shorts and leather dress shoes. The man's a sartorial wonder. He works for an insurance company downtown creating actuarial tables. Look up the word conservative in the dictionary and you'll find his name. He has a GOP elephant on his desk, given as a gratuity when, as a very young man, he worked for the committee to re-elect Ronald Reagan.
Jen had once explained that her dad was relaxed and happy when she was small, his sweet pea, his little princess. Until she turned fourteen and boys started calling on the phone or showing up at the door during dinner. It was at that point he started talking about digging a moat in front of the house with a drawbridge.
Naturally, by the time I showed up at the castle gate he had this look in his eyes like he was under siege. Suddenly sweet pea was home a lot less, and what he said around the house that always went? Now, suddenly, didn't. At least not without, let's say, a few words from Jen who was happy to point out that most of his new rules were seriously lame.
Actually, having gotten to know him, I'd have to agree that Jen's father was just a tad rigid: think ironing board. So it was clear to me that if he got even a whiff that Jen was about to get a tattoo there would be real trouble: think tsunami.
"Just so I understand, you're telling me your dad is going to be kept in the dark about this very small but permanent alteration of your still unblemished left shoulder?"
"What I'm saying, Daniel "¦ sweet Daniel "¦ now give me a minute here before you say anything "¦ what I'm saying is that I want you to go with me."
I know my mouth dropped open, and I know my head started shaking back and forth, telegraphing what I was about to say. "Go with you? As in drive you there? To the tattoo parlor?" Now it was my turn to sit up, looking for any sign she was teasing me. "I don't think so. No way, Jen. Not in this lifetime. I'm serious. This is stone serious. I don't do well in hospitals, emergency rooms, or in places inhabited by guys who call themselves the Rag Man and wear latex while holding a needle. Food servers wearing latex? Bring 'em on. But I really hate needles. Love to be there for the creation of that little sunburst and all, but "¦"
"Daniel "¦" Jen had begun to pout, her irresistible lips, the color of a ripe plum, puckering, the lower lip trembling ever so slightly, her Bambi eyes large and pleading.
"I am not now nor will I ever be the designated tattoo driver. Hear me, Jen. You are in the presence of someone who can't even watch his mother sew on a button. Not that she has ever sewn anything on anything. But you get my point. Take a seamstress with you. Anyone."
"Daniel "¦ pleeaase."
Jen was now giving me her killer look, so sweet and sincere and not to be denied. That look would've made Genghis Khan weep. Me? I was bailing out the dinghy though I knew I was lost, sunk. But I couldn't just give in. At least not right away. "Nope. No can do, Jen," I said weakly, shaking my head as if I meant it.
"Daniel "¦ 'member how we pledged we'd always be there for each other? Through thick and thin? You promised."
"I believe you were kissing me at the time. I would've promised to kidnap the Pope. But if you want to try the kissing thing again, I'm game."
Jen, going for broke, gave me the Bambi-just-found-out-his-mother-wasn't-coming-out-of-the-burning-forest look.
"Ah, man. I really hate this "¦ Okay. Fine, I'll go. But only on one condition. And I mean this."
"You will, Daniel? Swear, you'll go with me? What's the condition?"
"You take off your top off. Then I'll go."
"Let me see your chest. You owe me."
"No, it's lust."
"Fine, remain fully clothed. When do we do this?"
"This Friday, after school. At four."
"You really sure, Jen? Think about it. Once the deed is done, the deed is done. The fat lady in the helmet with the horns carrying the big spear will have sung. The bell cannot be unrung. When you come to the fork in the road, take it. The "¦"
"Daniel, enough already. I know. Once the Rag Man's into his design mode, you can't, like, call it off. I get that. I'm ready."
"Design mode. The Rag Man has a design mode? Dear God. How long's it gonna take? The Rag Man have cable?"
"You're going, Daniel."
"I know. I will. Honest."
"You really want to see my chest?"
"Well, maybe a corner."
"Take everything off. I'll show you which corner."
"Not in this lifetime."
"I can wait. I believe in reincarnation."