It had seemed like such a simple thing to compliment Martha on the dragon tattoo on her left ankle. I’d always liked tattoos, and her’s was especially nice. That green and silver dragon, wrapping around her brown ankle. How the hell was I supposed to know that she was going to drag me off to the tattoo studio without so much as a warning.
“If I give you time to think about it, you’ll get up in your head over it and never do it,” Martha said, pulling me into the waiting room. She was right, but that didn’t make me any happier about it.
There was a woman waiting at the desk when we came in. She was chewing gum and flipping through a Russian magazine. Her arms were bare, and covered from shoulder to finger in ink. “I don’t give out change for the meters,” she said when we came in.
“No, we’re here for tattoos,” Martha said, smiling at her. She shoved me a little, and said, “Beth here is going first.”
The woman looked me up and down. Finally, she said, “I’ve got some paperwork you have to sign out. And I’ll need to see your ID.”
The paperwork took too little time, and I found myself being ushered into a brown plastic chair far sooner than I’d have liked.
The woman pulled her long hair up into a bun, and started getting out supplies. “Where do you want your tattoo?” she asked, snapping rubber gloves on her hand.
“Um, on my shoulder, I guess,” I said. I figured that was going to be the easiest to cover up. “Is that a good place for them?”
“Any place is a good place,” she said, “Take off your shirt, please.”
Of course, I had been the idiot who hadn’t realized I’d have to take my shirt off to get a tattoo on my shoulder. I hesitated, just for a minute, trying to remind myself how mortified I’d be if I had to go tell Martha I’d chickened out.
I pulled of my shirt. “What do you want?” the woman asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
Her eyes went down to my wrists. The burn marks were little more than scars now, but still visible. The bruises, at least, were gone.
“You were born in 1998, yes? That means your a tiger, according to the Chinese Zodiac.”
“I guess so,” I said, though I could never remember feeling very much like a tiger.
“Tigers are great for tattoos. The represent courage.”
“I guess a tiger is fine, then,” I said.
She rubbed my skin with an alcohol cloth all the way from my shoulder to where my chest started to curve.
“Most people who come in here with marks on their body tell me they’re just clumsy,” the woman said, as she moved on to using the tattoo pen. “Not that it’s any of my business.”
“I just got out of a bad situation,” I said.
The woman nodded. “That takes strength. Good for you.”
It took nearly an hour for her to put on the outlines and color. She looked lost in thought for most of the time, and I didn’t want to disturb her.
“I have a special ink for the eyes,” she said. “It’s unique, no one else has this color. One minute while I go get it.”
“Sure, no problem,” I said. I needed a break from the puncturing sensation anyway.
I supposed that this ink must be special, because she didn’t apply it to the mechanical pen like she had the others. She used, instead, a pen that looked more like a knife. As she added the gold color, it felt like she was cutting it right into my skin.
When she was done, she helped me stand to look in the full length mirror. There were all the things I hated. The flabby, doughy belly. The breasts, big and saggy in my ill fitting bra. The marks on my skin, from burns and cuts. But now, there was something I liked.
The tiger looked like it was stepping down from my shoulder onto my chest. Its colors were so much more vivid than I’d anticipated, especially the bright golden eyes. “It’s gorgeous,” I whispered.
The tattoo woman laughed. “Come back in a could of weeks so I can touch up the color,” she said. “I’ve got some lotion for you to put on it in the meantime.”
Martha was in the waiting room. Her wrist was bandaged, and she had her tablet out, reading. She grinned when she saw me. “What’d you get?” she asked.
“A tiger,” I said, pointing to my bandaged shoulder, “What about you?”
“You’ll have to see when I take the bandage off,” she said.
It was getting late by the time we got home, and neither of us felt like cooking. I ordered pizza while she went around the apartment, watering her thousands of plants.
My phone started ringing, nearly falling off of the counter with the vibration. I caught it just in time, and looked at the caller ID.
It was my mom.
My fingers shook so badly as I tried to hit the ignore button that I was sure I was going to answer it by mistake. I managed to turn it off, though, and set the phone down.
“Was it her?” Martha asked.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to take a deep breath.
“I thought you changed your number,” Martha said, putting her watering can away.
“I did. I don’t know how she got this one.”
“Well, who did you give it to?”
“I can’t, I can’t remember,” I whispered. My chest was starting to hurt again. The new tattoo stung, almost like a small cat digging it’s claws into my chest.
“Okay, it’s okay, calm down,” Martha said.
No, it wasn’t okay. I’d been stupid, giving my number to someone who’d given it to my mom. Hadn’t Martha told me to be careful who I gave it to?
“I’m okay,” I said. I took a few deep breaths, and forced myself to smile at her. “I can ignore a phone call.”
“Exactly,” Martha said. She came to me, and wrapped her arms around me. “And we can go get your number changed again tomorrow.”
I put my head on her shoulder. “You shouldn’t have to take care of me like this,” I said.
“Someone should,” she said, “You’re worth taking care of. Besides, you’re the one who moved all the way here from DC just to be with me.”
That hadn’t been for her, it had been for me. She’d seen me broken and called me beautiful. How could I help but to run to her?
“So, d’you think you’re ready to take your bandage off yet?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. We sat in the kitchen, and she helped me pull my shirt off. Then, she peeled the bandage away and gasped. “Oh, I love it. Look at those eyes, Beth! I’ve never seen a tattoo with such a bright gold before.”
“Let’s see yours,” I said, pulling my shirt back on.
She grinned, and held her hand out so I could take her bandage off.
There, written on her wrist in blue comic book font, were the words, ‘Beth’s Girl’. “Oh,” I said, “I didn’t know you were going to do that. I would have gotten your name too, if you’d told me.”
“Next time,” she said, “Trust me, tattoos are addictive. You’ll get another one.”
There was a knock at the door. “Wow, that pizza was fast,” she said. She went to the door, and opened it.
She had no hesitation, no reason to have ever thought better than to just open a door.
There stood Mom.
She looked just as she had all through my childhood. Thin and tall, as she was forever reminding me. Her make up and hair were done to military perfection, except for the lipstick. It was always smudged when she’d been drinking.
“I’m here to pick up Elizabeth,” she said.
“Um, no,” Martha said. If she was shocked to see my mother there, she didn’t show it. She crossed her arms, and said, “She’s grown, you can’t make her go anywhere.”
“I didn’t ask you,” Mom replied. She looked past Martha, and saw me standing in the kitchen. “I see you’ve been stuffing yourself. Let’s go.”
“No, Mom,” I said, but it was faint. My tattoo was starting to sting again, right a the front and back paws.
“Don’t you dare say no to me,” she snapped. She pushed right past Martha, to come to me. “You selfish brat. I’m sure you don’t care that you’ve put your father’s whole campaign in jeopardy. Every newspaper in town is howling! Senator Callow’s oldest daughter ran off to California to shack up with a black girl. Mrs. Henderson at church is telling everyone how she’s praying for your little sisters, that the can overcome. Elizabeth, that is what she says about the children of gamblers and whores.”
“What about alcoholics?” Martha snapped.
Mom spared her a seething glance. “Don’t speak to me, Nigger,” she said.
“And this is when I call the cops, and get you kicked out of my apartment,” Martha said. “Wonder what your papers will say about that?”
“Elizabeth, come with me,” Mom said.
“Mom, I live here now,” I said, quietly.
“Young lady, if you cannot be smart or pretty, you should at least be obedient,” Mom snapped.
“I’m dialing,” Martha said, picking up her phone.
Without hesitation, Mom marched across the room. She had always been stronger than I ever thought possible. She slapped Martha, kicking her phone away when she dropped it.
“Leave her alone!” I yelled. The pain in my shoulder grew. It felt more like pulling.
Mom took a few unsteady steps back toward me. “You brought this upon yourself, and on her. If you had just done what I’d told you, this wouldn’t have happened.”
My shoulder started to burn. As the pain grew worse, my vision started to fade. Mom was in front of me, raising her hand. Suddenly, I knew no more.
I woke up to an EMT gently patting my face with a wet cloth. He looked intently into my as as soon as he saw them open. “You’re a lucky girl,” he said.
Luck had never been a word I thought fit me well. “Why?” I asked.
He laughed. “You got knocked out by a bobcat and you woke up. Do you remember your name, and where you live?”
“My name is Elisabeth Callow, and I live here,” I said.
“I’ll take it,” he said, grinning.
“Where’s Martha?” I asked, “What do you mean, what bobcat?”
“The one that attacked you and your mother,” he said. His face darkened. “She’s on her way to the hospital now. We’ll do what we can.”
“Where is Martha?” I asked, more insistent this time.
“I’m here,” she called. I looked towards the arm chair. She was sitting there, talking to the police officer standing in front of her. “I’m fine. The bobcat didn’t even come at me.”
Once the EMT was convinced I was going to die and the police had gotten Martha’s statement, they left. The living room was enough to make me sob. There wasn’t a piece of furniture that wasn’t clawed. To me, it looked like more damage than a bobcat could do.
“How do your hands feel?” Martha asked, “They look shredded to shit.”
I looked down. My hands were a mess of cuts, and were swelling. “How did a bobcat get in here?” I asked.
She just smiled at me. “A bobcat didn’t do this,” she said. She came to the couch, and pulled me into her arms. My shoulders and arms were starting to ache.
“Your eyes were golden,” she whispered.
Please check out my book, Days and Other Stories, if you like this.