My friend Nora has words on her arms. They say “Now” and “Semper Fi.”
They’re not easily noticeable, but as I sat across the table from her at a dimly-lit dinner I saw them peeking under her sleeves. They almost look like she’s drawn them on with a pen in a meeting while she’s bored. We’ve all been there.
She’s erasing the tattoo she got in her early twenties, one of those free-spirited whims girls get to combat their boredom. (I have one of those on my ribcage, easily hidden under bras and sweaters.) But she got these new tattoos to remind her of important people and things, kind of like a northern star to focus on. I understand this, because I’ve often thought about inking my grandma’s name on my arm to ground me a little more, to stop me from doing the dumb fucking things I sometimes do. I’d ask for pansies, not roses, because Grandma loved pansies.
I always laughed at those girls who tattooed things like “Breathe” onto their wrists. I still do, if we’re being honest. But then again, I get it. I’ve always been so high strung, so tightly wound, that maybe the best way for me to let it all go is just to look down for a reminder. I’ve got two tattoos now – a cameo on my ribcage, poorly done when I was 19 and tipsy, and an octopus to match my best friend’s, with an extra leg for luck. My tattoos don’t mean anything, and when I’m dressed you don’t see any ink at all. My father will always hate them.
My last boyfriend had hideous tattoos. I cringed inwardly every time I saw them. I guess that should have been a huge, blinking-red hint that this certainly wasn’t going anywhere. It was coded on his skin, but it took me awhile to figure it out.
He has words on his arms too. I didn’t like them at first; I wasn’t around when he got them, so they’re still new to me. His are phrases, not just little words. His are complicated. One of them is a line from an old book I gave him when we were still starry-eyed and silly, when he’d come straight to my apartment after a midnight flight from Las Vegas just to sleep next to me.
I wake up next to him now very early, a little bleary and worn out, his tattooed arm thrown around me as he sleeps. We always slept all tangled up together, though it didn’t last through the sticky days of that summer. I asked my apartment manager if it’d be hot this summer – I’d moved in a panic in October – and he said he didn’t know for sure about this building in particular. Maybe, maybe not; I was low to the ground, after all, and heat rises. I said, I’m lucky I sleep alone, huh? And I do, mostly.
I watch him sleep for a minute, memorizing the words on his arms and in my brain to store them up for awhile, and then I rustle and fidget in the sheets to wake him. He knows I’m a bad sleeper, a restless one, and he opens his eyes. He whispers good morning. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still thrill me a little, that even though this is all old hat, it still gives me a jolt.
He pulls me to him and kisses me and then suddenly I don’t see anything. My eyelashes are all in my eyes.