Matt placed the knife on my face, pressing down against my lips. He wanted me to lick the edge of it, to push my tongue up against the serrated edge so he could watch the way the muscle in my mouth looked against the metal. With his other hand, he held my neck to the floor.
The one who tied me to the coffee table was his girlfriend, Frances. Her hand was on my thigh, small and smooth and birdlike, occasionally caressing back and forth across my leg as I lay on my back, pressed into the living room carpet. Frances was naked and sat with her legs under her, tourmaline hair falling to her lower back. We were drunk again, their baby asleep in his crib in the bedroom down the hall.
I squirmed my hips to get comfortable, inched my head left to keep my hair from pulling. Matt’s fingers, thick and callused, wrapped tighter around my neck. The pressure in my skull increased in slow heartbeats, the room fading into an inky black vignette. His eyes, the kind of blue you only see in nature documentaries about very cold places, stared into mine. I stared at the bridge of his nose to seem like I was staring into his eyes. At moments, I would catch his gaze and almost see a flash that I was a Real Living Thing, visceral and bleeding.
I wanted to be validated, the way everyone does. I ended up between a floor and a knife, between a man and the mother of his child. This was before I understood what it was like to be held close, to-the-ribs close. Close like I was the only one.
That summer I worked at RadioShack in a dull strip mall, three miles from my mother’s place in Lamplighter mobile home park. We moved to Lamplighter when I was eight, after my father died from sudden liver complications, leaving us with a garage-sized inheritance of 1970s knick-knacks, old photos, and debt. My mother was a caretaker for the elderly, and although she worked through most holidays, her income alone couldn’t pay the mortgage on the rambler they had bought when they first moved to Colorado Springs.
All summer, my mother had been prodding me to find a job. I’d just graduated high school and had no immediate plans for college, instead investing my time in a growing obsession with snorting Percocet. I was thirteen the first time I thumbed one of my mother’s pills, a Vicodin—only one because I feared she might notice it was missing. I remember carrying it back to my bedroom like a fragile tooth, and I placed it under my pillow with the same excitement that used to come from exchanging body parts for quarters. I brushed my teeth and washed my face in the hallway bathroom and when I came back, the pill was still there. I swallowed it with a glass of water, and at first felt very nauseous. Then a warmth spread from my belly into the rest of my limbs and I felt comforted in a way I hadn’t in a long time. It reminded me of a moment when I’d woken from a nightmare as a child and crawled into bed between both my parents, cradled by the largeness of their bodies and the smell of their sweat, both sweet and stale like old cigarettes.
Jenny and I stood behind the linoleum counter at the store, waiting on customers. Jenny was a girl I knew from middle school, who had worked at RadioShack since her sophomore year and got me a job too. The summer had faded into cool evenings on the cusp of autumn, and wispy locks of Jenny’s pastel blue-tipped hair fell from her beanie. Poised between the gray squares of economy carpet and the stacked electronics, she was the brightest thing in the store.
That’s when Matt and Frances walked in. Jenny took them immediately to the only corner of the store where the camera couldn’t see them.
Matt was tall, his head shaved so close to the scalp I could see the lines in his cranium. Frances stood next to him, her fingers wrapped delicately between his own. With her other hand, she held the tips of her long hair to her mouth. She constantly checked the reaction on Matt’s face as Jenny spoke to them, as if any move she made or word she said was subject to his approval. Her almond-shaped eyes were exaggerated by her thin, drawn-in eyebrows. Matt pulled out a tube of Chapstick and unscrewed the top. He puckered his lips and put it on, his cupids bow glistening in the dead-pale fluorescent lighting. I stared at his upper lip, the bulge and glow of it, until I heard my name.
“Matt is a tattoo artist,” Jenny repeated loudly. I wondered how long all three of them had been watching me. “Show him yours!”
I lifted my shirt to show them the tattoo on my stomach— a barn owl, feathers spread like fingers between my hipbones. I thought about the security cameras and what it might look like if my tiny gray figure lifted her shirt up for a couple of strangers, but since the camera couldn’t see them, I hoped it would be innocuous, like flashing a ghost. The tattoo itself was bare, only line work done three weeks ago. It was my first big piece, an impulsive decision after a dramatic summer break-up.
I had other tattoos, smaller ones I didn’t show off. At first I was attracted to changing the image of myself, placing tokens on my body to center who I was or where I’d been. After a while, I began to enjoy the dry, dull pain and the way each tattoo forced me to confront my own commitment to be hurt over and over again. The first tattoo, a set of stars trailing down my spine, was the most painful. After the artist inked the first line into my skin, a shroud of dread held me in the chair. I couldn’t stop him. If I did, I’d be walking around my whole life with this symbol of weakness etched into my skin. When he dragged the needle down, he focused one hundred percent of his attention on me, and I liked that. The tattoo scabbed over so badly that the color mottled.
After that, I wanted to go bigger, more detailed, in more sensitive places. Cursive words on the backs of my thighs: hopeless/romantic. A moon on my ankle, where the skin was so thin the needle felt like splintered toothpicks rubbing frantically against the bone. The decision to get the owl tattooed right on my stomach was physical proof of my control over my body. The wings feathered out toward my hipbones, and the tail pointed down toward the most interesting part of my body, or at least the one that seemed the most interesting to other people. My mother lamented how it might stretch if I were ever to have a child, but I told her I wasn’t worried about that. The outline had been excruciating. The closer the artist got to my pelvis, the more I clenched my abs against the pain. I’d made it through the worst of the thick line work; all that remained now was the color.
The next day at work, Jenny told me Matt and Frances were interested in me, like I was a subject to be explored. When I asked what she meant, she simply said, “They want to get to know you more.”
A week went by. Jenny gave me Frances’s number. I called, a landline. Over the phone, her voice sounded thick and warm. She asked if I was free that Saturday.