Session 15: July
Naked women hanging on the walls taunt me with their lack of pain.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
This place smells like sanitizer and ink and the sweat from under my arms. I hold my breath and curl my toes. There’s a crack in the corner of a scuffed black tile exposing an insect graveyard.
I groan as the stinging drag of the gun grazes my shoulder. I try to focus on the music overhead. Reggae, rockabilly. There’s a worn bit of stuffing seeping out of an old green chair. A pile of magazines collects dust on a coffee table shelf.
Ow, ow, fucking ow.
“Need a break?” asks Paul, sensing me tense up.
I clench my fists and cross my legs and tell him to ignore me.
“Impossible,” he says.
I smile but he doesn’t see.
Paul: dreadlocks, Rasta hat. Rose tattoo with a woman’s name. One hand on my shoulder, the other on my neck. I want to push him up against a wall. I want to feel his hands go lower, lower. Although not today — day two of my cycle from hell. God these cramps don’t help.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I squeeze a stress ball while the painted ladies stare me down — Jess’ prints, an artist with half-shaved purple hair and tribal tattoos up the sides of her neck. She’s just finished with a woman’s forearm and comes over to inspect Paul’s work. I’m used to this. I’m inked from left to right across my arms and chest — flowers, herbs, leaves, vines.
“Gorgeous,” says Jess. “It all looks alive.”
I thank her through my gritted teeth.
On my forearms: aster and chrysanthemum. Baby’s breath and clover.
We take a break and I slip a Xanax with some Skittles. I use the bathroom without looking in the mirror. I like to be surprised. Outside, steam rises from the pocked and crumbling pavement as a summer storm rolls in and I see Jess through the window struggling to light a cigarette. Not a cigarette — a joint. I join her and so does Paul.
Jess and I talk music under the awning — shoegaze, grunge, goth. She’s into Nirvana. I tell her to listen to Women. We can both agree on Joy Division.
Paul blows smoke rings into the parking lot, into the mist where they morph and fade. When he goes quiet, like now, he’s thinking about Imani. Wife. Thirty-eight and had a stroke last spring. Still in and out of hospitals and lacking basic motor functions. I want to help alleviate his pain. Remind him what I have in common with his daughter — eight years old and in a situation I’m all too familiar with.
I see myself being for Zariya what I never got to have — a mother to watch me grow from a child into a woman.
But I know my place and keep quiet.
Paul asked about my burn scars during Session 1.
“I got them the night my mother died,” was all that I could say.
My body, marked by fire, confronts me every day.
I value friendships like religion, when friends like Paul — a man who’s never eyed me with disgust — are few and far between. He says he’s revising my skin to match the beauty underneath.
Back in position — me beneath, he above. I breathe heavy, inviting the tip of the gun to pierce my expectant skin as I offer up control of my sensations.
Paul: long fingers, full lips.
Broad. Dark. Fine.
I want to eat him up. Take care of his needs not met at home.
I imagine us exhausted on my bed, lying tangled and content.
He presses down with a dark blue and I suppress a groan. A lock of my hair falls down my arm. He brushes it away. A shiver runs through me and there’s a warmth, a rush of blood between my thighs. I cringe and curse my body’s timing.
Dreaming of the numbness of drink, I say we should head to Skylark when we’re done.
He wipes the blood and ink away and looks me in the eyes. “As you wish,” he says, and I feel like the Princess Bride.
The next morning, I wake from a dream, sweating and damp with blood.
In the dream, Paul was watering my mother’s grave with a can of scarlet ink. I approached, as though invisible, and crouched behind the stone. The ink sprinkled my skin, unseen by him, and as it merged with my tattoos, every vine, leaf, and flower sprouted from my flesh and sunk its roots into the earth. From above, the full moon dripped silvery blue light like a cosmic feminine taboo, and I felt connected to all the women in my family line before me — all their unique experiences of pain.
Inside my elbows: daffodils and poppies.
In the shower I smile and cry while shaving my legs. (Water doesn’t feel like the opposite of fire when it draws out my most difficult emotions.)
It’s getting harder not to tell Paul how I feel. That I’ve fallen in love with him for his soft encouragements and his patience and his daughter I can’t help but see as me. I’m trying to respect his situation — like I did last night, despite his leg pressed against mine under the bar. There were subtleties coming off him like sidewalk steam. Eye contact that read like a teleprompter. It’s obvious he’s attracted to me too, he’s just got to play it safe.
He won’t cut his hair while Imani’s still sick. One of the few details he can control. His mom plays nanny, nurse and cook, and goes to work when he comes home.
“I haven’t been that devoted to anyone since, well, never,” I said after a couple drinks. “Is it weird that that actually sounds nice?”
He gave a sardonic laugh and looked away.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked, hoping for an invitation to spend time with Zariya — help her with homework or braiding her hair.
Instead, Paul asked me for the story behind my scars. And since I was tipsy, I started at the beginning.
I was four years old and staying with my grandparents while my mother was in Rochester for another cancer surgery.
They said I used to sleepwalk. They found me that morning in the yard, screaming in the grass — yelling: stop, drop and roll!
A man in a glaring red suit and red hair had come into my room and poured a potent liquid on my bed. I asked him who he was. Fire Man, he said. I’ve brought your mommy with me. Then he dropped a match onto my sheets, where the fiery form of my mother licked up.
By instinct I reached out and held her tight for what was to be the last time.
That same night, at that same hour, my mother passed away at Mayo Clinic.
I never heard the cause of death. My family must’ve figured I was too young to understand, but in their silence I read the truth of my assumptions. That it was me. That I’d created Fire Man to make her disappear, because then maybe there’d be no more excuses for why she wasn’t with me.
They said the fire in my room was an accident, started by an oil lamp — my memory altered by my age.
I never showed anyone the blackened match I found in my sheets, that I kept clutched in my fist like some cruel souvenir.
At the funeral my mother slept with potted flowers that stung my eyes with fragrant tears.
Every year since then, I attach a fresh bouquet to the stand beside her grave. Then I burn the old petals in my kitchen sink, and save the most resilient for display.
Paul took my hand in his and said, “I’m so sorry you went through that, Venetia. I get it now . . . your interest in Zariya. Thank you for telling me.”
Session 16: August
I’m on the phone with Paul to plan my next appointment. He tells me Imani tried taking her own life last week. I don’t know what to say.
“Can we meet?” he asks, choked up like he’s been crying. “I need to get away.”
I find him at Skylark and wrap him in a hug. His large frame feels lifeless in my arms.
He moves on from beer to liquor.
“I’d prefer death, too,” he says into his glass. “She can’t even be a mother. Zariya hardly knows her.”
His sentiment knocks me down. Did suicide cross my mother’s mind as she lie immobile in her bed? Did she think death might make a better mother than would a patient?
I shiver and finish my drink.
Underneath my upper arms: heather and hydrangeas.
Paul studies the bar top, picking at a chipped mosaic tile. “This isn’t what I planned,” he says. “I planned to have a wife. I planned to have a family. I planned . . . ” He trails off, finishes his drink, and sighs.
“Wanna go for a drive?” I ask. I process best when going fast, and I have a feeling so does he.
Eighty miles per hour. Ninety. I feel so fucking free. The road curves and I’m thrown against him. I lean out the window while he takes the wheel, my hair flying in my face, wind in my pores — a sensation I want to bottle and drink from for eternity. I scream at the night, commune with the waning moon, that feminine cycle from which the Earth is born.
Paul asks me to pull over.
I say nothing as I can see he’s working out something to say.
“Imani won’t get better unless I’m present. Some days,” he says, “it’s like I’ve lost my own identity. Like all I am is Dad, Husband, Saint. I’m sick of people’s sympathy. I’m only thirty-three. I want a normal life.”
“I want that for you, too,” I say. I’ve ached in all too familiar ways.
Paul kisses my forehead, and we sit in silence, fingers linked, watching for shooting stars through the bug-spattered windshield.
In the arid early morning I dream again of Paul.
We’re in the graveyard with Zariya, running through the cemetery with such a gusty chaos that a storm begins to brew. We find shelter in a mausoleum, and she smiles at the disorder, welcomes it as kin. The clouds open up, making puddles of new grass. I see my mother’s gravestone, glowing fiery with light. Imani steps out, the picture of perfect health. She hugs me and I cry out as cords of skin rise from the lines of my tattoos. The inky ropes of leaves and flowers wither, flake, fall lifeless to the ground. I grasp frantically at their liquid shapes, but they only stain my hands.
There’s a heavy lingering sadness from my dream for several days. I wander the city, searching for a sense of self. Not finding it in drink or smoke or unrestrained indulgence. Feeling lonely but avoiding friends, avoiding closeness for the fear of loss.
At home I start fires to watch things blister, shrink, and blacken.
Cassette tapes and marshmallows. Junk mail I’ll never read.
On my biceps: Queen Anne’s lace, magnolias and ivy.
Session 17: September
At the shop, I’m getting lilies for Zariya. My scars are mostly buried.
Imani isn’t better.
Paul studies my design and arranges his inks in a neat arched row.
He’s quiet. Too quiet. I should say what’s been on my mind for months, so I finally just say: “I’m here for your family . . . anytime you need.” And maybe I don’t need to, but I say, “No ulterior motives.”
Silence. Piercing, irritating, like the cramps low in my belly. I hold my breath to ride a wave of pain. I hate when he’s unreachable.
Paul takes a break and I take out a pouch of Pop Rocks. I love their fizzy entropy. I go outside to smoke but keep my Xanax in my purse. I want to be a good example to a future daughter of my own. I want to stop chasing what I can’t actually have and be okay with who I am. I’ve been burnt by love too many times because I go in treating partners like they’ll leave me.
I want to be someone’s person who will stick around.
I want to be rooted to the ground so deep that I sink in — to bloom in perpetuity, thriving on decay, and flourish where I once was singed and fade where I must fade.
On my chest above my breasts: Forget-me-nots and orchids.
AMANDA E.K. is the editor-in-chief of Denver’s Suspect Press literary magazine, and she’s a member of the Knife Brothers writing group. You can find her work in Suspect Press, Birdy, and at yubikwetes.wordpress.com where she writes creative non-fiction vignettes.