The Tattoo

***

He meets me at the airport, a humongous bouquet of velvety red roses in one hand, some over-sized plush toy in the other. A bunny rabbit? A green plush bunny rabbit. Some things never change.

“You’re staying at my place, right?” He is hopeful. I don’t want to disappoint him but…

“Dunno yet. Gotta see my folks, sort some stuff out.” I am playing with the ceramic souvenir I have for him in my pocket. I love the roughness of the surface and the way I can feel the curves and dents of the Escher knot with my fingers. A pocket-size sculpture. I have this atavistic habit of exploring things with my fingertips from before the surgery.

“Well, your folks are not here, so for now we are going to my place.” He insists. “The cat has missed you.”

I am well aware that his cat Lissa? does not really care about me but… whatever.

“OK, anywhere with a hot shower and a couch will do.” I am too exhausted to argue.

We are long past hugging or holding hands. It’s been years. Yet, when he kisses me, his lips are as soft and as right as ever. The sense of intimate familiarity is overwhelming.

No, I am not going to stay. This is just a visit.

I’m calling you because you are not alright

tattoo-ilya“I’m calling you because you are not alright.” His distant voice from the other side of the planet sounds tiny. So far away. Does he even exist?

All these times he has woken me up in the middle of the night. Just to ask how I am.

And every time he knows before I utter a single word. Like that time when I had my hair dyed orange – for some vague therapeutical reasons, I suppose. I was just leaving the hairdresser’s when my phone rang. He phoned to say he didn’t like it.

“How are you?” he inquires, as if it was the most natural question to ask at 3 am.

“Mmmmm… sleepy. You know what time it is?” I half-murmur half-mumble.

“Nope, can’t keep up with your time zones. So what’s up this time, Kitten?”

It’s pointless to pretend.  He has some sixth sense about the times when the shit hits the ever-faster spinning fan of my life. And no, I am not alright. And yes, he is going to ask me why and I am going to tell him. As usual.

“Well, you know.” I give in. “The surgery. I know it’s minor and there is nothing to worry about. I am fed up with surgeries, though.” He stays quiet on the other end of the line. Waiting for more.

“And… I’ve met somebody.” I finally admit. “It’s rather… confusing.”

Now I got him interested, it seems: “Is he married again?” he asks brightly.

“No. Can I please go back to sleep?” I am pleading, but not for real.

“Is he at least older than the last one you dated?” We both laugh. He knows me all too well.

“Yeah.” My disobedient voice is low, raspy. “No.” My vocal cords never function properly after midnight. “Come on, stop this interrogation. It’s nothing.” I am too groggy to be annoyed with him.

“What’s his name? What is he like?” He is relentless. Stubborn, as always.

“Why do you want to know this person’s name, for god’s sake? She isn’t even aware I’m interested.”

He hangs up.

Let’s go find Kitten

Do you know how many people drown in their vehicles during the flood season in Texas? I don’t. But I see it on the news all the time so there must be a lot. And I always think how stupid of them.

So I have this dream sometimes. I am in a car my old Chevy? There is water all around me. And, I guess, in my dream, I am drowning. I cannot open the door or do anything. I can only watch the water seep into the car in slow mo. Now it’s just a puddle on the floor. Now it’s up to my ankles. So I retract my feet onto the driver’s seat.

It’s a dream so I don’t feel panicky or worried, just a bit curious. Until I notice someone outside the passenger window. I am mildly surprised to see him.  He is saying shouting? something, but I cannot hear. Of course. Because the window is shut. What does he want me to do, open it?

And then he starts pounding on the glass with his fists. The sounds he makes are plasticky, muffled by the water around us. Thump. Thump. Silly of him, why does he want to break it? I’ll drown if he does. I always wake up just as he manages to bash through the window and the water rushes in, mixed with the blood from his cut hands.

And, oh, I could explain it all away with my psychoanalysis skills. I’m a pro, after all. But why would I bother? It’s easier to just stay away.

***
He can be so sweet, though. When he is not drunk or high, that is. Then he is plain scary. Talking to someone or something that is not there, pupils dilated, a wild look on his face. Yet, even then he is beautiful. No matter how drunk or high or not-quite-there. And never mind the cuts and bloody knuckles… The swollen knuckles covered with dried blood. Was it his blood or someone else’s? I will never know.

“Honey, what happened?” I remember asking him, half-whispering. Like I was afraid to wake someone up. The someone inside him, maybe. “Nothing, Kitten.” he would reply. “Just tired.” And he did sound tired. Not drunk, not drugged, just someone who had not slept in a long while.

“But your hands… what have you done to your hands?” Funny how we ask questions sometimes and we don’t really want to know the answer.

He wouldn’t say anything. His face would acquire that blank expression, as if he was not aware there was something wrong with his hands. Or like he could not remember how he had hurt himself. Had he also hurt somebody else in the process? And if yes, how badly? And why?

I was never able to find out what really happened on those nights. It was as if there was a firewall in his head, preventing him from remembering telling. The only thing he had ever said was that there was a window he did say “a window”, did he not? and he had to break it. And there was nothing to break it with.

Oh, and that stupid Christmas Eve of 2007, when he butchered some poor houseplant. He had forgotten to get a Christmas present for me and decided he would give me “flowers” instead. Only the flower shops were closed, of course. So he found some houseplant downstairs, in the lobby of the place where I lived. He tore it out of the pot, its roots hanging limp, still covered with soil, and brought it upstairs to me. As if it was a most exquisite flower arrangement. Naturally, I was furious. I opened my mouth to give him a piece of my mind. And then I saw his drunk face slip off like an ill-fitting mask. He knew he messed up again. And there he was, swaying in the doorway, the dead houseplant in his hands, blood dripping from his left wrist had he cut himself again? tears streaming down his face.

What do you do when your boyfriend does shit like this? Comfort him? Tell him to go away and to never come back?

Well, I could not very well let him leave that night. Not in his condition. He had to stay inside. So I tried talking to him, but he was just sitting on the floor in the corner, unresponsive. In the end, I started to doze off. And then he said something. He was not looking at me, though. His eyes were fixed on someone standing to his right. An imaginary someone, one of his unseen interlocutors. He said abruptly: “Yes. Let’s go find Kitten, we have to warn her.” And he stood up, ready to leave the room. I tried to stop him, pull him by the sleeve, tell him I did not need finding. That I was right there, in the room with him. But he wouldn’t listen.

He called me the next morning to wish me a merry Christmas and to apologize for not coming over the day before.

The Escher Knot

When she wakes up, the cat is on the pillow, playing with her hair and purring. “Hey, kitty…” she purrs back pretty kitty, she thinks. And the cat is pretty indeed, silky black, with delicate white whiskers and emerald eyes. Lissa, right? The cat’s name is Lissa.

Her sense of time is messed up, she doesn’t even know if it’s evening or morning outside. He is in the armchair same old armchair they used to cuddle in, watching her. He looks older, but it is still him, his dark eyes with crazy sparkles underneath the green. Why is it that green-eyed people/cats are so cool?

“How long have I been asleep?” she asks him.

His eyes linger on her face, tracing the familiar lines. “Dunno. You are beautiful, Kitten.” he says.

She wants to tell him everything. How much she has missed him, and how happy she is to see him again. Tell him all about all the new crazy shit that is going on in her life. He’ll be happy for her, she is sure. She would be, in his place. But it doesn’t seem to be the right time.

Let’s try small talk, she decides. Damn it, what do you talk about with your ex whom you haven’t seen for years?

“Aren’t you supposed to get married soon, hon? I’d love to meet her, you know.”

“I broke up with her. After you said you were coming.” He says matter-of-factly.

He is not wearing a shirt and she can see that tattoo on his chest chests don’t get wrinkles, half a thought, a smile. The tattoo, an inch and a half above his left nipple, states his blood type: “AB-something-something”.

“You know what?” she says aloud. “I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo.”

His face changes. “What tattoo?” he sounds worried. “Kitten, why would you need a tattoo?”

“Dunno, just because…” She is taken aback by his reaction.

“No,” he says firmly. “You don’t need this shit.” Is he being conservative or just stubborn? Like that time he asked her to change her hair “back to normal”.

She is no less stubborn than him. “It’s not shit, it’s called art.” she says.  “I mean, you know I am into bizarre stuff, philosophy, esoterics…. And there is this cool Dutch artist and he does – did – drawings of impossible things.” By now she is babbling, unmindful of  his obstinate silence. She always gets excited when she talks art. “So you look at these pictures.” She continues enthusiastically, her eyes wide. “And at first sight everything seems to be normal. But the longer you look, the more… wrong they seem. It’s like the laws of physics just don’t apply. They…” she searches for better words and smiles.  “They kinda screw up your sense of visual perception.” She reaches for her tablet to show him.

He stares at her for a long while. “This tattoo,” he says finally. “Let me guess where you’d like to have it.”

“Go ahead, naughty boy,” she smiles without raising her head. She is relieved that he is not trying to talk her out of it.

“Your shoulder. Your left shoulder.” His words are affirmative, it’s not a question.

She looks up for a moment and her face lights up: “Wow, babe, you are a clairvoyant! Is there Wi-Fi in this place?”

His voice grows more urgent, for some reason: “And this tattoo of yours, what did you call it, an impossible object?”

“Yeah?” She replies absentmindedly, playing with the tablet’s settings.  “Can’t show you unless you have Wi-Fi, though.”

“Never mind the Wi-Fi!” his tone is increasingly impatient. “It looks like some kind of a knot, right?”

“Uh… yep, it does.” Her gaze is not quite on him. She looks through him. Another habit from before the surgery. “I didn’t know you  …”

She trails off as her eyes stop wandering and she registers the expression on his face.

“The door to your bathroom, what does it look like?” He asks, after a considerable pause. “I mean, the place where you live now?”

The bathroom door? Where did that come from? Dumbfounded, she misses a beat, unsure where it is all going.

“Is it made of wood?” he keeps on.

“Oh, come on.” She says, mentally running through possible phrases to lighten the mood. “You and your questions. Yes, it is a regular-looking wooden door with a round metal handle. And it’s white. Why?”

They stare at each other, their eyes in a deadlock. Like there are no words left in the whole world.

***

“Ah!” I suddenly remember, after what feels like an eternity of ominous silence.  “I almost forgot. I have something for you. A souvenir from the Hague. Let me get it.”

I am about to leave the room when he grabs me by the arm, not too gently. It actually hurts, and his eyes get that wild look again. Like when he talked to that imaginary someone. When he wanted to go find me and warn me about some danger he imagined I was in.

“Kitten,” he says quietly. “I need to tell you something.”

I make half-hearted attempts to  wriggle out of his grasp, but it’s not working. Never has. “Have you been drinking again?” I say. “Are you high?” I will have a couple of purple fingerprints on my bicep after this is over.

“Kitten. Please. Stay.”

I can only hope he is not high and is not going to do something crazy. Maybe he’ll just lock me in and leave, like he used to do? I should have stayed away from him. From all this madness.

He continues what he has to say, in a small distant voice: “Remember when I told you about the glass back then?” He doesn’t let go of my arm.

“The glass?” I am momentarily confused but then it all comes back to me. The glass, of course, not the window. The knuckles. The blood. My dream?

“Kitten,” his grasp loses its terminator quality, his voice somehow deflated, volumeless. “It was you all along.” He sounds resigned, forlorn. “It has always been you. You, waiting behind the door I have to break. The glass door.”

And I finally get it. It’s all just a bad dream, right? One of my nightmares. I’ll wake up in a moment, my alarm clock buzzing, just to the left of my pillow. Right? Can I please wake up now? I don’t want to hear any more.

Another long pause, and then he is finally able to go on, strain in his voice. “I have this dream sometimes.” There are hot tears in his eyes now, They make him look like he is twenty again.  “Only, it’s not a dream.” His voice breaks. “I see…  I see you in a bathtub. You look a bit different from now, but your hair is orange. Like this”. He waves at the experimental orange streak in my bangs. “And…” he continues, carefully picking his words. “There is a tattoo on your left shoulder. An industrial looking image, like teeth of a zipper or a chainsaw tied up in a knot. Impossible, that’s what you called it?” His eyes never leave my face. “It looks impossible.”

I am doing my best to wake up. This dream whose dream? is dangerous.

“Anyway,” he says. “In my dream, you have locked yourself in there. But the door must be made of glass because I can see you, right? And I start knocking on the door. I want you to let me in but you don’t hear me. And your eyes… ” He pauses, collecting himself. He searches my face for something.

I am not dreaming, I finally admit to myself. Things and objects are too vivid, too real. There is no waking up. But I have to know. “Go on,” I say. Because now I have to.

My dream. His dream.

And he does go on. He finally tells me how it all ends. He tells me how he pounds and pounds at that door. Until his hands go numb with pain. But I don’t hear him. I don’t see him.

All I see is water rising, and it’s turning red.

tattoo-ilya

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