When we were in the office together between classes, you’d search through every pin that Pinterest had to offer, making all those little decisions that you make when you’re going to have something permanently inked into your skin, something that will stay with you for the rest of your life: Serif or sans serif? How thin should it be? Filled in? Maybe outline only? And this is without even getting into where it should be positioned and how it should be oriented on the wrist of your writing hand.
I’d never been to a tattoo parlor in my life. The closest I’d ever gotten were my friends who had tattoos. But you’d added it to our Friday Adventure List, which also included driving eighty minutes out to buy you a new bed frame from some guy on Craigslist, something your ex never would have allowed you to do. We were in a time of transition, bonded by the shrapnel of your break-up and the constant fog of my breakdown and we both desperately needed an adventure day.
We’re both writers, so I didn’t even think to question the typography tattoo. You volunteered the rationale anyway.
“It means ‘and then.’ Like, ‘and then life goes on.’”
My grandmother had two solutions when I got my first cramps a month before my thirteenth birthday.
The first option was bay leaf tea: Boil water. Add two bay leaves. Add a spoonful of sugar.
The second option was a shot of brandy. This solution had been passed down by her grandmother, a woman who only spoke a handful of words that were not Sicilian.
Her Nonna could still communicate with her family, of course. They’d sit around the dinner table for a big family dinner every Sunday. My grandmother would tell me about how all her cousins would be there. They’d have course after course--insalata, pesce, pasta. Her Nonna kept a sewing needle under her right hand at all times. When my grandmother or her cousins reached for a piece of bread instead of asking someone to pass it, she’d stick the back of their hand with the needle, a warning of “Farlo di nuovo.”
It must’ve been decades after her Nonna was dead and buried, but my grandmother could still recount that story to me.
J didn’t act sick.
I guess there’s this pervasive cultural idea that people with cancer are supposed to be bed ridden or nauseous all the time or something. When I first met J in person and she squeezed me tight until I smiled against her hair, we were working the same convention together, for the company that allowed us to meet each other online in the first place. Within that first year of knowing her, she got the diagnosis. Healthy, late 20s (only three or four years older than me), ate right, exercised, no smoking.
When I was on a break from working security at the con, we ran into each other in the hall. She was running to get a bottle of water for the staff member she was Personal Assistant to. She stopped to talk to me, her speech so quick that she didn’t seem to take breaths. Her petite frame would, logically, have looked about to fall over. But it didn’t. The longer she stood there talking—"And there’s some kind of confusion with who got assigned to who, and they changed a couple of people yesterday, and it was really weird because I didn’t think they’d pick me for him until I made that joke..."—the more intense she looked, eyes bright and shoulders hunched as she waved her hands in gestures that followed her frenzied speech. Anyone looking at her, anyone who hadn’t been told ahead of time, would have thought there was nothing out of the ordinary about her, aside from how emphatic she is when she gets on a rant. On the surface, nothing divulged her illness.
Somewhere there exist photos of the inside of my mother’s jaw.
I don’t mean an x-ray. When I was a teenager she’d had some kind of dental procedure done, one that should have been routine. She went to the oral surgeon after, complaining of pain. She was ignored, and then the abscess formed. The growth of bacteria in her jaw became so large that they had to remove part of the bone with the growth. In those weeks after the surgery, while I sat at the dinner table conjugating verbs for Spanish, my grandmother and my father would double-team my mother:
One would remove the old bandages that smelled of pus and rot. The other would snap more photos—documenting the yellow fluids and a prominent hole—to mark the progress of the infection for the court case. Then the other would clean the wound and re-bandage. It was a production, a performance art, and my mother’s exposed bone was the main attraction. My mother never even winced. I don’t know if she was on pain medication or not.
The photos of my Sweet Sixteen don’t show the hole, or even the bandage. Instead, her jaw line looks dented and stitched with little white scars. If you weren’t looking for it, you might not even notice.
The nightmares didn’t get bad until I left for college.
Everyone made poked fun at me the first semester of our freshman year. The movie never mattered--Seven, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Pulp Fiction. It was two hours in the dark and my body seemed to know those were two hours of sleep I wouldn’t get otherwise. No one ever noticed that I stayed in the lounge of our dorm until the last person left for the night, usually at three or four in the morning. They certainly didn’t notice that I was awake again three hours later, in my pink and black yoga clothes to take the walk from campus to the Isle of Que in the brisk morning fog.
He wasn’t the first one I’d told about the nightmares of being trapped, paralyzed, touched, of the torment of abuse that I could never quite escape—he was the second. He was the one who nudged me when I fell asleep during movies because my snoring was too loud. When his roommate vanished into thin air, we’d sometimes hang out in his room until three or four in the morning. One night he’d offered to let me stay. He had the bottom bunk of the beds, offered the empty top bunk with his extra set of sheets to me. I rejected the offer at first, figuring I already had a roommate and that didn’t help me sleep any easier.
He and I happened to lounge on the bottom bunk together, sprawled out and talking—about our opinions of others in our major, about our experiences in single-sex high schools in New York. We must have passed out some time during that conversation. When I woke up, the light was out, though I don’t know which of us took care of that. The clock revealed that I’d been sleeping for five or six hours in a row, and I couldn’t remember a single nightmare. It was the most I’d slept in one solid chunk for months, in my whole time since coming to college. I rested my cheek on my arm and let myself drift to sleep again.
No dreams came to me that night.
I sit behind you in the tattoo parlor, examining the colorful stylized faces along the wall that remind me of murals on the sides of buildings in Brooklyn. I hear the way that the buzz of the needle dulls each time it hits your skin. When he finishes, wipes away the blood, you show the ampersand off to me, smiling. The whole week’s work has paid off, and now you have that permanent reminder.
“Keep the bandage on for an hour or two. Then use non-scented soaps for the next couple of weeks. Use a plain moisturizer,” the artist says as he wraps it. “It’s going to scar a little, flake and peel away. That just means it’s healing.”
Audrey T. Carroll
Audrey T. Carroll is a Queens, NYC native and the author of Queen of Pentacles (Choose the Sword Press, 2016). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in peculiar, Glass Poetry, Foliate Oak, and others. She can be found online at @AudreyTCarroll and http://audreytcarrollwrites.weebly.com.