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Jodi Angel, author of You Only Get Letters from Jail and Matthew Spektor, author of Amerian Dream Machine reading at Powell's Books Monday, July 22, 7:00pm
From issue 26, Kevin Moffett’s tale of love, indifference, and tattoos. All the essential ingredients for our favorite relationship cocktail.
by Kevin Moffett
Dixon drives. Andrea attends to the beachside drifters pushing shopping carts along the sidewalk. She calls them “Cajuns.” She likes how it sounds when yelled. Cajun! She likes that the drifters have no idea why she chooses this, of all things, to yell. She and Dixon drive past a restaurant that sells only hot dogs, past a giant rocking chair made of cockleshells, which you can pay to sit on. Cajun! Andrea wants to throw something. A ripe pear, a stuffed animal maybe, something not too hard.
Dixon is excited. He sings along with “Afternoon Delight” on the radio, smiling without smiling, something in the squint of his eyes. Andrea isn’t bothered by his singing—his voice is soft, nonintrusive, nearly pleasant—but she finds herself waiting for him to stop. In a few hours she has to babysit for her brother. She thinks: Something has always just happened or is about to happen. Nothing is ever happening.
She is nineteen, Dixon, twenty-four. He has red, tightly curly hair, red eyelashes, red hair on his arms, his chest, red hair all over, except on the top part of his legs, which is shaved. He is training to be a tattoo artist by practicing on his thighs, covering them with flames, leaves, wings, cartoon characters, hearts, crosses, squiggles, spirals, and other meaningless designs. When she first met him there were freckles and soft red hair on his thighs. Now it’s a mess, a tattoo stew. He is wearing shorts and if Andrea looked away from the street and at his right leg, she would see a purple tiger paw pulling scratch marks across his thigh.
A man pulling two clear plastic bags steps into the crosswalk. “Cajun!” Andrea yells. The man jerks his head forward, then sidelong like a fish extending for a worm, hooked.
He has to practice on somebody, Dixon tells her.
He is singing again, to a song that goes, “I want it,” over and over—it being, Andrea guesses, sex. Dixon is excited because they are going to see a building he wants to turn into a tattoo studio. He drives exactly thirty-five miles an hour. He thinks the streetlights are timed so that if you maintain the speed limit you won’t get any red lights. Every few blocks he’s proven wrong.
Early this morning, they were naked in his bed. “Maybe you could allow me your right shoulder,” Dixon said, tracing a finger along her clavicle. Andrea told him that at the end of August, on their first anniversary, she’d let him tattoo a small roman numeral I on her thigh. She’s mad at herself for saying it. She doesn’t want a small roman numeral I on her thigh. It seemed reasonable when they were naked. Anyway, it didn’t satisfy Dixon at all. “I need practice,” he told her. “I’m running out of room on my legs. All I’ve got is my arm.”
They pull up next to a stucco two-storied shop with dry-rotted awnings and a for lease sign on the front door. It used to house, Andrea can read in the dust and sand collecting on the torn-off window stickers, The Fun Shack. The building looks slightly nonplussed, as if someone has just asked it a question.
“Look inside,” Dixon says. “Imagine chairs and artwork on the walls. A big dog walking around.” He sprints across the street, kneels to one knee, and holds a camera to his face. Andrea waits for the flash’s wink, but it doesn’t come. The sun is shining.
She cups her hands over her eyes and leans against a window: pair of sawhorses, balled-up tarps, bar stools. The blond pine floor shines in parallelograms where the afternoon sun comes in through the windows. Andrea tries to imagine a big dog walking around.
“It’s expensive,” Dixon says when he gets back. “And the location is no good. We’ll have to lure people down here.”
She should offer something pleasant. She should compliment him on finding this Fun Shack. He is sitting on the hood of the car, deep green tattoos sneaking out of the hem of his shorts. “Tattooizm,” he says. “There’ll be an orange neon sign in the front window. Tattooizm with a Z, indicating impatience with the way things are.”
She could say she likes the pine floors, that he has managed to find a building with the loveliest pine floors she’s ever seen. “Aren’t there licenses you need?” she asks. “How are you going to afford it?”
“Loans. Business loans.”
“Didn’t you ruin your credit, Dixon?”
“Come here and enjoy our building.” He pats the hood of the car. It makes a solid, an unsociable sound. “Let me worry about the particulars.”
She walks over and sits beside him. He reaches his hand inside the waistband of her shorts and underwear, rests it casually atop her thigh. Whenever she hears what kind of person Dixon thinks he is, it causes her to wonder what else he is mistaken about. Does he realize that lately he uses we when talking about his plans for the tattoo business, and that she feels pretty much indifferent to the whole thing?
His hand is just sitting on her thigh, inert as a cicada’s vacated husk. Stillness unbothered by anticipation—it makes her jittery. She grips his elbow and moves his hand higher and to the right, closes her eyes while he maneuvers his fingers up, searching for her, slowly, finding her. He rubs with two fingers, rests his thumb in her navel.
Her new favorite answer when her next boyfriend asks what Dixon was like: He could draw a really good Yosemite Sam.
She looks forward to some rest when school starts in three months. Dixon’s an increasingly demanding lover. In the morning he picks her up and they drive around or go to his house and have sex three, four times before she has to babysit her brother in the evening. Dixon lights candles, burns sage oil, turns his bedroom into a little shrine. He keeps his shirt off, his hair wet from repeated showers. They watch a lot of TV together: Dixon has a lot of channels. Sometimes while a woman in an apron, say, is praising a no-wipe oven cleaner, the TV goes black and Andrea looks over to see Dixon’s rapt face moving toward her lap. She helps him slip off her underwear, leans back on the sofa, tunnels her fingers through his tight red curls. He has a certain appeal, she’ll be the first to admit.
Now, on the hood of his car, she shudders from her tailbone ahead toward Dixon’s hand. Once the feeling passes, she’s left fogged by momentary cheerfulness. Dixon slowly slips his hand out of her shorts. Her eyes are closed. The sun backlights the blood vessels in her eyelids. She opens them and sees Dixon holding his hand aloft and still, like it’s about to be fitted with a special glove. “Well,” he says.
The air smells very suddenly like orange blossoms.
“It’s a nice building,” she says.
Dixon smiles, hops off the hood of the car. “I wish that expression were permanent. I wish it would stick around a few days at least.”
“What are you talking about?”
He kneels, pulls the camera out of his pocket, and snaps a picture of her. “Satisfied. I’ve satisfied you.”
She lets whatever expression was on her face go slack.
“And away it goes,” he says. “Hope it sends me a postcard.”
He drops her off at the security gate to The Grove, where she lives with her mother and brother, and where the guard has told Dixon that since his car is no doubt leaking oil, he can’t drive in, where there are children and wading birds and endangered cypresses. The second he pulls away, Andrea feels untethered. Never has someone’s absence exerted such influence on her. When they’re apart she is nagged by the certainty that she neglected to say the thing that would have set things right. She’s been dishonest in her silence.
“We could live on the top floor,” Dixon said as they were pulling into The Grove. Andrea was too surprised by the suggestion to laugh, which would have been the correct response. Whereas she imagines living above a tattoo parlor by the beach as akin to being nailed into an attic and having food passed to her through a slot, Dixon happily refuses to bother an idea like this past speculation. There was an old Pennysaver on the seat between them and she should have rolled it up and swatted him across the chest, or put it to his ear and yelled, “You aren’t my future.”
She’s been out of school for more than a year. In the fall she begins classes at the junior college. She looks forward to paying attention again, to being rewarded for listening and remembering. She needs to buy folders and pens, some new clothes. Most people are unhappy about going to the junior college, but Andrea is not. Or she is, but only slightly. She is determined not to be.
Her little brother, Cory, meets her at the front door and tells her that their mother has already left for work. He begs Andrea to hurry taking off her shoes so they can microwave some nachos. Cory finds intense satisfaction in watching the cheese melt and bubble and congeal on the chips. He is part boy, part savage. Andrea wants to encourage the boy so she gladly microwaves the nachos. She gladly does any old moronic thing to make him happy.
She layers the chips in a collapsed-domino pattern on the platter. “We found a plumber,” he says when Andrea asks how his day was. “Mommy cut my hair while I stood in the tub. We hanged another feeder.”
Cory’s hair looks exactly as it did last night: ragged around his ears and neck and pasted in a straight, straight line above his eyebrows. He has a barely kempt look to him, like a parolee on a job interview. A dubious boy’s face has replaced the vacant infant’s.
“You were gone when I woke up,” he says. “Were you in school?”
Andrea opens a bag of pre-grated cheese. Three Cheeses in One! the bag says. “I haven’t started yet, remember? I was out with a friend.”
“Mommy says you want to marry a man from the circus.”
Andrea pours the cheese over the chips. It comes out in three colors: white, orange, and very orange.
“The Human Sketch Pad,” Cory says.
“She knew you’d tell me that,” Andrea says, wiping her hands on the front of her shorts. “Mom thinks things are one way when really they’re another.”
“I thought she was gonna tell me a joke.” He lays a hand on the platter. “Don’t microwave them yet. I want them to be like this for a while.”
Andrea misses childhood. Her childhood ended the morning she bled from her vagina, according to Miss Moten, her eighth-grade health teacher. Miss Moten also said that having sex was like being tickled from the inside out. One day in class she removed her shirt to demonstrate the correct way to apply deodorant. Some parents complained, but it turned out Miss Moten had obtained necessary clearance from the county to remove her shirt in class. Since then, things have gotten considerably less wondrous in Andrea’s view. She supposes Miss Moten was more or less right about everything.
“Left side, right, middle, middle,” Cory sings as the nachos cook. It’s a song from a TV show that he’s adapted for the nachos. Andrea touches the pause button on the microwave and her brother shrieks with delight. When the nachos are sufficiently scorched, she dumps them into the garbage.
The phone rings while she and Cory are playing checkers with canned food on the kitchen’s checkerboard linoleum floor. “The forearm,” Dixon says, as if answering a trivia question, “is deceptively small.” Andrea sits on the countertop with a dented can of butter beans in her lap. Cory has run off somewhere. “I just put a roman numeral I above my wrist. Wait till you see it. It’s perfection.”
Dixon is probably playing with himself. Often he does while they talk on the phone. He probably hasn’t even taken off his surgical gloves. His penis is drooped like a sunburned mushroom out of the fly of his boxer shorts while he handles it carelessly, probably.
“What’s your middle name?” he asks.
“Olive,” she says, though this is not true. Her mother didn’t give her a middle name.
“Spelled in the traditional way?”
“Don’t put Olive on your arm, Dixon. Why can’t we talk about normal things?”
“My arm, your middle name, we’re talking about normal things.” He sighs. “Listen, I took a nap when I got home and dreamt that you let me tattoo strings along your spine and an f-hole on each side of your back. When I made love to you from behind, it was like plucking a cello. I awoke and, well, I guess it goes without saying . . . ”
Made love to you from behind, Andrea repeats to herself. It is perhaps the worst attempt at delicacy she’s ever heard. She plans to tell her next boyfriend that Dixon had a foot-shaped gas pedal in his car. That he was fond of movies in which an adult and a child switch bodies. That he meant well, but emotionally he wasn’t her equal. She’s always been mature for her age. The next boyfriend will already have started to surmise this.
She tells Dixon she has to go find her brother.
“Sometimes,” he concludes, “I think you and I are wilting from our own need.”
Out back, Cory is refilling the new bird feeder. It’s a test tube–shaped container with flower-shaped holes through which red liquid leaks onto the deck. Cory tears open a sugar packet and pours it into the feeder. “Mommy says that a hummingbird’s tongue soaks up nectar like a paper towel with juice,” he says. “Its tongue is shaped like a W.”
How entirely beside the point! Andrea is too young to be smothered by Dixon’s longing. He seemed so self-contained when she met him at the art-supply store. She was buying markers for Cory. Dixon was waiting for her, or someone like her, it’s clear now. Someone who acted more experienced than she was. Someone who’d had sex maybe a dozen times with a surfer boy who, she’s presently reminded, claimed he could tie a cherry stem into a knot with his tongue, but who broke up with her before he showed her, and who used to talk about Costa Rica, and who laid a Quiksilver towel over his bedspread before they began kissing.
“Squirrels are smarter than birds,” Cory is saying. He walks around checking the other feeders, which are topped with wooden squirrels to deter real squirrels.
“I was having trouble finding anything I want in here,” Dixon said when she met him at the art-supply store. “Are you an artist?”
Andrea will allow Dixon this summer. He had last fall, he has had winter and spring. Summer will be a nice end of the cycle. She will start college and meet nice boys with manageable obsessions. Of course she intends to remember Dixon fondly, like an old toy or a book that she read in bed when she was sick.
One day she wakes up thinking: I am becoming what I wasn’t. It seems terribly ominous in the haze of sleep, but really it doesn’t make much sense. Or it does make sense, but it’s too obvious to think about. She isn’t sure. Sex is draining her, turning her into a dull and contented cow. Away from Dixon, when she is able to consider, really stop to soberly consider, the physical act of sex, she decides it is overrated. Just because it feels good doesn’t mean she should spend all day doing it! Soon it won’t be special anymore. Dixon doesn’t know anything. If he weren’t around, she could easily be happy without having sex three, four times a day.
She misses her friends. She had just two: Jamie and Erin. Jamie was earnest and creative and Erin was sarcastic and good with her hands. Both met Dixon once and said he was nice. Nice, even when Andrea barely knew Dixon, seemed wrong. Either they hated him or they weren’t too perceptive. Jamie said he had a nice voice; Erin thought he was too skinny. Really, they thought he was old and weird and gross. Andrea has stopped calling her friends, because what’s the point? She has stayed and they have left. Jamie is attending culinary school, and Erin plans to become a merchant marine. Andrea has no clue what, exactly, being a merchant marine involves, but she loves the sound of it. She is jealous of Erin. In ten years Erin will be able to say: Back when I was a merchant marine . . .
A substantial part of life, Andrea thinks, is finding and wanting things you like the sound of.
Dixon picks her up and they drive to his house, along the beachside. “Cajun!” Andrea yells at a woman reading a newspaper on a park bench. The woman looks up from the paper, and she isn’t a drifter at all, just a normal woman with windblown hair.
“The junior college was on TV last night,” Dixon says. “They asked some foreign students what they liked about the college and one of them said, ‘Every day is discovery.’”
They drive past the deserted hotel’s parking lot, where kids from the high school used to gather on weekends. A vinyl banner attached to a flagpole says Pardon our Progress. Though Andrea never went to the parking lot, she feels nostalgic driving past. Mondays at school she would hear about fistfights and arrests in the parking lot. Once someone with a pitchfork threatened someone else.
“I’ve never been anywhere,” Dixon says.
Andrea yells at a black man on roller skates carrying a rake and a pail. She’s not sure why she has continued yelling at the drifters, she means them no harm. Their lives, she knows, are difficult enough without being yelled at by someone in a passing car. It is something she and Erin started doing in high school. Andrea would yell, “Cajun!” and Erin would yell, “Rubble!” It was very funny. They would never yell something overtly mean like “Bum!” or “Loser!” For starters, neither, when yelled, sounds as good as “rubble” or “Cajun.” Probably it is the nicest sounding thing the drifters will hear yelled at them all day. Erin used to call the people who hung out in the deserted hotel’s parking lot “combers,” because the hotel was called The Beachcomber. Probably Andrea’s nostalgic about the parking lot because she can’t go there anymore, even if she wanted to, which she does not.
Later, naked in bed, Dixon strokes her thigh. Candles cast roving shadows on the walls: excited arms, retreating animals. Andrea watches the shadows and tries to discern a pattern, but there is no pattern. Dixon’s sheets are sandy. His pillowcases smell like his scalp.
“Flex,” he says. His hand, moving upward along her leg, stops on the crease of skin where thigh meets pubic bone. He rubs it. “Does that feel good?”
“Sort of,” she says. “Not overly.” In the candlelight, his forearm looks meticulously bruised, or gangrened. Andrea knows what is there: in the center, written in dark and elaborate cursive like a formal declaration, is Olive, followed by an exclamation mark. The O is set apart from the L so it looks like O live! The rest of the arm is beset by roman numerals, dozens of tiny Is and Xs and Vs scattered at random.
The lines on the new tattoos are more assured, the shading more delicate. Clearly he is improving his technique. But oh! Andrea cannot look at the new tattoos. They are indisputably, noisily, mistakenly about her—and permanent, permanent, permanent. She instead looks at Dixon’s thighs, at the symbols that have nothing to do with her. She can look at the thighs without feeling anxious. The thighs, compared to the forearm, are Disneyland.
“Does that feel good?” he says.
Today in the gas station the cashier pointed to Dixon’s arm and said, “Those aren’t real, are they?”
Andrea thought this the worst response that one with tattoos could hope for, but Dixon seemed pleased by it, like he thinks he’s defying reality or something.
He’s still pleased. His face, lit from below by the candles, looks hollow and evangelical. He tucks his hand between the fleshy part of her thighs. “I want to fall asleep with my hand between your thighs,” he says. “I won’t pull it out till morning.”
She has decided to break up with him on August 25, which will be a week before their first anniversary and one day before classes begin at the junior college. There is no way she’s letting him touch her with the tattoo gun, which sits beneath a T-shirt on his nightstand, and looks nothing like a gun. It looks like a dart attached to an engine. “Tattoo machine,” he says when she calls it a gun.
She has registered for four classes: Calculus, Argumentative Writing, Geology Lab, and Volleyball. They offer a class in volleyball! She is going to be polite and astute, the most hopeful student on campus. She plans to join clubs, form study groups. She’ll volunteer to help deaf students take notes. She’ll bring extra pens to class. She’ll be reluctantly popular. She’ll wear a sweatband and those cool little canvas knee pads to play volleyball.
Dixon goes to the kitchen, returns with a bowl of blackberries, and watches Andrea eat them. When she finishes, he puts the bowl on his nightstand. She rolls over onto her side and he rubs himself into her. She exhales a forced breath. He seizes her ear, her entire ear, with his mouth and gently bites the cartilage. It feels good. Almost everything he does to her feels good. He grips her hand, brings it around, and puts it between her legs. She touches herself but it seems a bit redundant, so she reaches behind and clutches his hip, which is sweaty. He is working hard. Her hand follows the thrust and pop of his hip. He whispers what sounds like little tin pans. The shadows on the ceiling have gone crazy. The sheets are still sandy. She makes long low sounds, smeared, overrun.
In the shower Dixon scrubs her back with a sponge. Her eyes are closed beneath the showerhead. The water is too hot, Dixon is scrubbing too hard, and for now everything is righteously okay.
While they towel off, he tells her he is taking her home early because he has an appointment to talk to someone about a work space.
“What’s happening with the building?”
“A new plan,” he says. “I haven’t told you about our new plan?”
“You haven’t told me about any plan.”
“I guess that’s because it’s a surprise plan.” His big laugh reveals a space between his canines, a word missing a letter. His chest, covered in freckles, is orangish from the hot water. “I’m doing research right now. But soon enough, this new plan is going to happen. Prepare yourself.”
She thinks: Soon enough a lot of things are going to happen. The muscles in her nose twitch, like a rabbit nose. She sneezes.
As Dixon dries the top of his forearm gingerly, Andrea looks at his thigh, at a cluster of blue spheres above a semitruck hauling a bolt of lightning. Above the spheres, below a thicket of red hair, is his penis. It looks beleaguered. Andrea feels sorry for it. Flushed, crooked, not knowing what will happen next .
Dixon towels off her back. When he’s done he says, “You are immaculate.”
He drops her off at the entrance to The Grove. The security guard is new, but Dixon doesn’t try to sneak past. Andrea’s walk back to the apartment is nice—past gnarled oaks with osprey nests that look like steel wool—long enough to collect her thoughts but not so long that she starts to doubt them. She makes nachos for Cory. She sleeps. She hasn’t seen her mom in days. Her mom leaves notes on tiny scraps of paper, tapes them to the front door: Remember Cory’s teeth. And: Get melon. Before Cory and her mom are awake the next morning, Andrea leaves the house. Dixon picks her up at the security gate, his hair wet, new tattoos on his forearm. They go to the drugstore and buy condoms for Dixon and folders and pens for Andrea. She needs to buy a rock kit for her geology lab, but she wants to see if she likes the class first. They eat lunch in Dixon’s bed. They watch TV again. They get naked again. They stay naked for hours.
Dixon sits on the edge of the bed with the tattoo gun. “This I looks like a T,” he says. “T isn’t a roman number.”
A week goes by. Another week. Andrea has trouble keeping track of what day it is. Naked, everything is pretty much the same as the day before, and after.
Except: Dixon has stopped mentioning the anniversary tattoo. He’s not any less physically attentive, but he hasn’t mentioned that his forearm is now fully covered with tattoos. She appreciates the consideration. She appreciates it and is suspicious of it.
One day, on the way back to The Grove, she says, “I don’t want a tattoo, Dixon. I know I told you I’d let you give me—”
“I know,” he interrupts. “Nobody’s going to give you something you don’t want.” He turns to the open window. Did he spit? His head lurched slightly as if he did. “We can’t want what we don’t want,” he says.
She laughs without meaning to. He sounds so earnest, like their conversation really means something. She can tell she’s disappointed him. She’ll continue to disappoint him.
“It’s so fake!” Cory says. This is Cory the savage. Andrea sits next to him on the couch, beneath a Superman blanket, watching two wrestlers on television karate-chop each other. The crowd cheers when the man in black tights karate-chops the man in red tights, and boos when the man in red tights karate-chops the man in black tights. Both men glisten with oil. The man in red tights jumps on the back of the man in black tights and pulls his chin from behind. The camera cuts to a Japanese man in a tuxedo running with a folding chair toward the ring. “All he has to do is wiggle his way free. And then—” Cory jabs his elbow upward.
The Japanese man swings the chair at the man in red tights but instead hits the man in black tights, who cringes and stands up. He and the Japanese man begin karate-chopping each other.
Beneath the Superman blanket, Andrea has slipped her hand into her shorts. She intended to scratch an itch on her thigh, but once she moved her hand the itch disappeared. Now she has begun playing with herself. She pulls the blanket higher on her shoulders and massages wet folds between her fingers. At first she didn’t realize what she was doing, she was just rubbing herself without ambition, but now she realizes what she’s doing.
“It’s so fake!” Cory shouts, accidentally kicking her arm. “It’s so retarded!”
Now the man in red tights is struggling with the referee, trying to prevent him from stopping the match. Andrea fingers herself more vigorously. She rubs side to side, moving just her fingers; the rest of her body is perfectly still. It is like typing a single letter. She watches Cory. His mouth is open in an expression of pure malevolent joy. Rarely does she imagine anything sexual when she plays with herself. This feels nice, she’ll think. This is pleasurable. Dixon could be a thousand miles away, on a Pacific island, tattooing himself with a bird quill. The important thing is that Cory is happy—she loves even Cory the savage: this is what she is thinking, or feeling, while she watches him watch wrestling. She fingers herself fondly and more intently. Dixon could be in Iceland, in Greenland, encased in ice, grinning as if he’s performing a public service . . .
She moans loudly, twice, before she thinks to suppress it. She tightens up and a shudder passes through her, unaided.
Opening her eyes, she sees Cory staring at her. “Are you gonna pass out?”
“I’m dizzy,” she says. “I think I might have food poisoning.”
She runs to the bathroom, locks the door, and pumps soap onto her hands. She squeezes them together under the running water until they hurt. She is frantic, crying. What was she doing? Why couldn’t she have waited until she was alone? Dixon’s torn some seal or protective covering or something, and now she can’t control herself.
“Are you okay?” Cory says on the other side of the bathroom door. “Can I help you throw up?”
Andrea tells him she’ll be all right. She lets the faucet run, sits on the toilet, and cries a little more. When she’s done, she feels emptied, better. She decides to paint her toenails copper red. She collects all the supplies from the medicine cabinet and sets them in front of her. Applying the nail polish, she imagines she’s being evaluated. She’s careful. Her strokes are smooth, no streak marks, no polish, not a drop, on her cuticles. How efficient her technique! How not-ugly her toes! Another vision of Dixon: shirtless in his bedroom, squinting, aiming the needle to his arm.
August 25, she reminds herself. Then Calculus, Geology Lab, Argumentative Writing, Volleyball. Volleyball!
In the living room, Cory is watching Xtreme Animal Challenge, which shows footage of animals stalking, chasing, catching, and eating other animals. The host says, “Does anyone have some jelly? Because this gazelle is toast!” A gazelle, pulled down in midstride by some lions, folds onto itself like an empty sleeve.
Andrea sits down next to her brother, who watches the lion eat the gazelle. The lion tosses a hunk of flesh aside. “Picky, picky,” the host says. Why does everything have to be so hostile and funny? When she was Cory’s age, she used to watch a woman tell stories using a series of hand puppets. At the end of the show the woman would hold up a mirror, turn around, and say, “Magic Mirror, tell me today, are all my friends at home at play?”
“This is tedious,” Andrea says. “Do you know what tedious is?”
Cory considers it for a second. “No. Do you know that there are some plants that will eat ground beef?”
Later, Dixon calls. He tells her to be ready in the morning for a surprise. For the rest of the night Andrea doesn’t know what to do with herself. She reads a book to Cory, who lies on the carpet with his eyes closed. She studies her toenails, which, dry, are more ruby red than copper red. Oh, the little disappointments. She imagines she is still being evaluated, but now she isn’t doing so well. She’s being penalized for diminishing congeniality. Dixon should know that saying get ready for a surprise makes the surprise unsurprising. There’s still the surprise, but not the surprise of the surprise.
“Cory?” she says.
He has fallen asleep on the carpet. Asleep, he looks like Cory the boy again.
In the morning, when Andrea locks the front door and starts down the driveway, she sees Dixon’s car coming up the street. It moves slowly and low to the ground, scurrying forward like a cockroach. When she gets in she sees that Dixon is wearing tan slacks and a striped shirt with a button-down collar. His hair is wet, he’s clean-shaven. There are small red bumps along his jawline. “The guard let you in?” she asks.
“I replaced my oil pan. He said I’m free to enter and exit at my discretion.”
Turning out of The Grove, Dixon salutes the security guard. Cuff links, Andrea notices. She wears a tank top and a pair of shorts with a bad waistband. She feels gloomy and slack, inadequately prepared for the day; on her way to the front gate is when she usually prepares. Dixon, in that outfit, is going to expect something from her, she is sure.
On the beachside, they pass a water park: chain-link fences around yellow slides named after natural disasters. The Typhoon, the Tsunami. The early morning sun casts everything in blushing light, peach and sea-foam green like a yard sale sofa. The hotels, the houses, the streets. Dixon is excited today, singing with the radio. He smiles by squinting. He drives exactly thirty-five miles an hour. Every few blocks he’s proven wrong.
A bearded man at the street corner points accusingly at a newspaper machine, argues with it. “Cajun!” Andrea yells out the open window.
Dixon turns down the radio. “Don’t do that. Not today.”
“It’s childish. Plus today’s different.”
As if for proof, he pulls into the parking lot of a two-storied cinder block motel with yellow doors and a yellow sign: Side-o-Sea Motel. He leaves the car running while he goes into the office. Suede loafers, Andrea notices. She imagines he’s attempting a romantic gesture by dressing up and bringing her here. She feels sorry for him, for herself. Wedged into the dashboard is a picture of her sitting on the hood of the car, taken when they went to see The Fun Shack building. In the picture she appears pleased with herself, sloppily.
Their motel room is dark and cold with ugly, palm-patterned drapes closed across a sliding glass door that, presumably, looks out onto the ocean. The floor is silver terrazzo, polished to dullness. Dixon sets a duffel bag on one of the beds, unzips it, and pulls out gloves, towels, disinfectant, tubing, his tattoo gun.
“What are you doing?” she says. She looks at the door, at him, at the door again. The door isn’t yellow on this side, but brown.
“Unpacking,” he says.
He stands between her and the door. “What are we doing? With your tattoo gun.”
“Tattoo machine,” he says. He’s tricked her! He reaches into the duffel bag again—twine? handcuffs?—and pulls out a flyer. Tattooizm Enterprizes, it says at the top. She scans the rest of it: something about free demonstrations, something about a variety of designs available. She’s relieved, though not totally relieved.
“Do you realize that there are people who want tattoos but can’t afford them?”
“This is the surprise? Tattoos for the underprivileged?”
“Do I look like I’m kidding?”
No, he doesn’t look like he’s kidding.
There’s a knock at the door. Dixon opens it and a tentative-acting drifter enters holding the same flyer Andrea is holding. Andrea sits on the bed while Dixon negotiates with the drifter. The man wants the Mitsubishi logo tattooed on his upper arm, his favorite car is a Mitsubishi. Dixon needs a picture of the Mitsubishi logo. The man doesn’t have one, maybe there’s a Mitsubishi out in the parking lot? “Listen,” Dixon says. “I’ll do a nice yin-yang for you. The yin-yang’s been around for several thousand years.”
The man considers it for a moment, shrugs.
Dixon unbuttons his cuff links and rolls up his sleeves while the man sits down with a cough on the other bed. The man smells like spray paint and stale beer. Dixon wipes the man’s arm with disinfectant, then carefully assembles his tattoo gun. Andrea turns on the TV, lies on her stomach, and gets very interested in a special about famous despots. No reason to leave now: the special has just started. Most despots, but not all, are failed students, it says. Most, not all, love dogs. Most, not all, worry about their height. The more Andrea learns about despots, the less historic her presence in the motel room feels. She relaxes. The man on the bed next to hers coughs a scuffed-leather cough.
“Did yours hurt like this?” he asks after a while. Andrea waits for Dixon’s answer, then realizes the man is addressing her.
“I don’t have any tattoos,” she says.
“It feels like I’m being chewed. No, friends, I don’t think I like this one bit.”
Dixon bears down over him. When he’s finished, his gloves are spotted with dark blood. He conceals the yin-yang under a bandage and throws the gloves onto the floor. “Drink plenty of water,” he says. “In about four days, the yin-yang will start to itch: don’t scratch it. A slap, a light slap, will suffice.”
Andrea imagines a great fog lifting when she starts school. She’ll tell her next boyfriend that Dixon was avid about his work. So few have such passion! she’ll say. So few do. When Dixon concentrates he looks like a boy. She likes him most when he is concentrating, when his expression is guileless and imperturbable. He is sexiest when he’s at his most unaware. She probably won’t tell her next boyfriend this.
A woman knocks on the door and asks for a red rose on her shoulder. Dixon didn’t bring any red ink, so she settles for a palm tree. The woman falls asleep while he’s working. The next man, who wants the Marine Corps bulldog on his stomach, settles for a palm tree also. “The palm is our most sophisticated tree,” Dixon says.
The man has a blue tear tattooed on his cheek. When he leaves, Dixon tells Andrea that the tear means he has killed someone.
A woman in a Jaguars sweat suit comes in and says, “I came for some praying hands, but there’s a dude downstairs talking about his arm being manhandled.”
“He had sensitive skin,” Dixon says. “Why don’t I give you a sample with white ink. If it hurts too much I can stop and no damage done.”
“I don’t want no half tattoo.”
“It’s not a tattoo,” Dixon says. “It’s the tattoo feeling.”
A tan boy in flip-flops comes in with a picture of a flag with a blue stripe at the top and bottom. Dixon studies the picture while Andrea studies the boy’s toes: the hair on them is blond, almost white. Around his right ankle is an inch-wide tan line from his surfboard leash. He’s a surfer, Andrea’s age. He is watching her. She turns back to the television.
Most despots, but not all, die in uniform.
“You’re Andrea, right?” the boy says.
Andrea looks up from the television.
“You used to date Bobby. He’s always talking about you.”
Bobby was, is, the surfer. “What do you mean?” she says.
“Bobby, when he’s talking, a lot of the time it’s about you. Does that make sense? ‘Andrea told me blah but she meant blah blah.’ ‘Andrea acted like she didn’t like anything.’ Bobby can’t figure you out.”
“Bobby wasn’t too observant. I like plenty of things.”
“Yeah. I’ll be sure to let him know I saw you here. In this motel room. Bobby and I are leaving for Costa Rica in a few weeks.”
It seems unfair that, now that they aren’t together, Bobby always talks about her. When they were together, Bobby always talked about Costa Rica. “Tell Bobby people aren’t supposed to be figured out,” she says.
Dixon, who’s been staring at the picture, hands it back to the boy. “I’m here for the needy,” he says.
The boy looks at Andrea, then at Dixon, and seems to swallow whatever retort he had. When he leaves, Dixon bolts the door and sits down next to Andrea while she watches the closing credits. She singles out the nice-sounding names: Mira, Sven, Lamar, Katya.
The boy is going to tell everyone she’s unhappy, jealous of him and Bobby on their way to Costa Rica. “For a few thousand dollars it’s possible to live like a sultan in Costa Rica,” Bobby used to say. He said it with such greedy certainty. “Who wants to live like a sultan?” Andrea would ask. What does Costa Rica have to do with anything? She isn’t unhappy. What makes her unhappy is the fact that the boy thinks she’s unhappy.
She rolls over and lets Dixon kiss her. He tastes familiar. He rubs her hips, then scoots down on the bed and removes her shorts and underwear in a single tug. He takes off his shirt and kisses her breasts, her navel, strokes her neck with his left hand. O live! she sees. Really, the tattoos don’t look that bad. The lines are assured, the shading delicate. At least he’s passionate about something.
He turns off the TV and removes his pants.
“Let’s lie here for a little while,” she says. Since the episode with Cory, she has begun refusing sex once per day. One has to make rules, even arbitrary rules. Refusing sex usually means delaying it for forty-five minutes.
“Whatever you want,” Dixon says. He lies on his back and puts his hand in his underwear, where it remains. “I’m exhausted,” he says. “We’ve done some good! I mean, let’s not rest on our laurels, but let’s not fail to recognize obvious truths.”
Her heart beats erratically. Given the right wording, she thinks Dixon could persuade her to get a tattoo, a very small one, on her ankle. She thinks she could be persuaded, given the right wording, to do just about anything.
“Tell me about Bobby,” he says. “We know he’s a surfer. And that he’s on his way to Costa Rica with another surfer. That he spends all his time thinking about you, like I do.”
“I barely remember him,” she says. This is true, and also insufficient. Once, she had a conception of how she would describe him to her next boyfriend, but she’s forgotten it. Dixon has never asked about him. She says, “He drank a lot of water.”
Dixon adjusts himself. “Everyone’s a mystery.”
“He liked summer.”
She feels sad. She has long suspected that, behind her back, people were reaching a consensus about her. Soon Bobby and his friends will agree on her past, present, and future unhappiness. Andrea will concede the past, concede the present, but she is not destined to be unhappy! She’s just overly hopeful. When reality fails to meet expectation, she’s disappointed! Isn’t everyone?
“Can I satisfy you now?” Dixon asks.
Yes, she tells him.
As he bites her ear, there’s another knock at the door. They lie still until they hear footsteps retreating.
Later, Dixon says, “I’ve been thinking, Andrea. You said you don’t want a tattoo, but do you realize I can put one anywhere, on your armpit, on the inside of your lip?”
She doesn’t know the wording she was thinking of earlier, but she knows this is not it. She tells him she doesn’t want a tattoo.
“You start school in a few weeks,” he says. “Then what? We spend less and less time together. You’re tired all the time. I call you and you’re in class or at the library, studying with Ashley and Chad. ‘Can I take a message?’ your mom says. But there is no message. I’ll go out of my way to drive past the college, imagining you in class, raising your hand, asking questions just to ask questions, trying so hard. I never raised my hand. I’m not stupid. How can I convince you how happy I’d be if you’d allow me to put a tattoo on your thigh? A remembrance, a tribute, small?”
Her first impulse is to argue with the prediction, to tell him that her starting school doesn’t mean they’ll break up, who knows what will happen. She’s annoyed. Partly by the assumption that she’s so easily distractible, partly by the fact that she and Dixon have been imagining futures so similar.
“How bad will it hurt?” she asks.
He says he can put the tattoo on the back of her thigh, which will hurt less because there’s so much fatty tissue. “No offense,” he says. “It’ll take twenty minutes, tops.”
He stands up before she says anything, puts on his underwear and a pair of surgical gloves, and begins cleaning the ink tube in the sink. She looks at the bedside clock: two hours until she has to babysit Cory. Dixon in the daytime, Cory at night. She is being pulled from both ends. The other day Cory said, “If I got a tattoo, it would be a word only I knew the meaning of.”
She lies on her stomach while Dixon sterilizes her leg. The cloth is cool, and then the gun buzzes, and her thigh feels slightly hot, but she can see Dixon hasn’t started yet. He stares at her thigh. “I can do a letter, a shape, anything you want.”
“Where are you going to put it?”
“I’ll center it. It’ll look like it’s been there all your life.”
She tells him to give her a small asterisk on the side of her thigh, then explains what an asterisk looks like. Dixon nods, still staring at her thigh, memorizing it. He is excited. Andrea feels buoyed by his excitement. Finding the right things to want is easy, she decides. Actually wanting them, this is the difficult part.
She stares at the ugly drapes, waits for the needle. She thinks, It’s just as easy to make drapes pretty as drapes ugly. She thinks, Another contented cow thought.
August 25. Calculus, Geology Lab, Argumentative Writing, and Volleyball. She’ll get to know her professors. She’ll buy terry cloth running shorts, a shirt with stripes down the sleeves. She’ll befriend people because of their interesting-sounding names. She’ll take notes with one of those four-color ink pens, changing ink color for each class.
Dixon dabs at her leg with a towel. He is leaning over her so purposefully, attending to her. “Almost there,” he says. “You all right?”
She’ll miss Dixon, she already misses him. The fog will lift and Dixon will be gone and she will miss him. She will tell her next boyfriend that Dixon, poor Dixon, was very nice, that she has nothing but nice things to say about him. The next boyfriend will understand. He will offer to scratch her back, or apply lotion to her back, or whatever the occasion calls for.
Dixon dabs at her thigh some more, then sets the tattoo gun on the end table. “I’m finished,” he says.
“That’s it?” Andrea says. “That didn’t feel like being chewed.”
“Fatty tissue,” he says.
“Can I look at it. What’s it look like?”
“It’s lovely. A perfect souvenir.”
She walks over to the full-length mirror. In her bare feet, over the dull terrazzo.
“It didn’t feel like anything,” she says. She turns around and looks for the tattoo. In the center of her thigh are a few beads of blood around a colorless star, a tiny patch of skin faded to white.
Dixon removes his gloves. They snap off his fingers.
“It isn’t,” he says.
Kevin Moffett is the author of the story collections Permanent Visitors and Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events: Stories. He is a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s and his stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, the Harvard Review, American Short Fiction, the Chicago Tribune, the Believer, A Public Space, and in three editions of The Best American Short Stories (2006, 2009, and 2010). He has received the Nelson Algren Award, the Pushcart Prize, and a literature fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts.