January in West Virginia is bitter without snow. You’ve been dead two years now. I buy a stick-and-poke tattoo kit for Christmas to honor you, but have yet to use it. I’m afraid I will make a mistake, of what permanent means in ink.
You tattooed star signs, arrows and x’s, shapes and animations on the bodies of friends in ink. The first time we met, you showed me a picture of your most recent work. See? The lines aren’t totally straight, you’d said. It’s not finished.
We grew up in the same West Virginian town. We both played violin, wrote poetry, drew portraits of women in our free time. We shared the same friends. The same fears: of being ordinary, of loving people more than we were loved, of being forgotten. We met for the first time a year before you passed. My tattoo kit sits on a shelf, half-opened, a reminder of so much potential.
I misremembered your death. I remembered hollow elms along the empty street bowing in bereavement. I remembered a slate grey sky like empty eyes, cloudless, cold enough to snow. I remembered run-down houses, wood panels leaning into the mountains, tired. Empty beer bottles like fallen leaves along the sidewalks. Not what the obituaries read. Not April. Not the smell of freshly cut grass and rain. Not flowering dogwoods like flushed cheeks, tulips in their tiny coronation dresses swaying in front lawns.
Cracked champagne bottles and empty prescriptions roll beneath bridges. January frost clouds windshields. Friends visit me in my college town after New Years. We get drunk in my small apartment and they ask me to tattoo them with my new, unused tools. For practice. Worst case scenario, they offer, it’ll fade.
You wore silver rings. Little ladder rungs that sang against the rims of coffee mugs, beer glasses, walls. You had the most beautiful hands.
I carve arrows into my visiting friends’ skin. Dots, a little turnip. They bite their lips, grimace. I apologize, ask if they want me to stop. Blood pools along their fingers and wrists. I don’t even look, just drive the needle near the first point of scarring. Again, again.
The last time I saw you, the ex you were living with had just admitted he wanted to see new people. You’d moved to Morgantown to be with him. Without him, who did you have? I wanted to help. I did. But you knew: my friends didn’t like you. Called you Too emotional. Too intense. I was afraid that they too would discover you in me. That your sadness would spread like an infection through my already-hardening veins. When you died, doctors claimed Stress cardiomyopathy. When you died, you’d done a little too much blow. Drank a little too much, were a little too lonely for a little too long. When you died, I knew: you died of a broken heart.
I tattoo myself last. I’d planned on being alone, somewhere with natural light. Somewhere with LCD Soundsystem, one of your favorite bands in the background. I’d planned on something more sacred.
The last time I saw you was to get drugs. I had been avoiding your recent attempts to hang out. Your arms, once healed, were now covered in fresh cuts. On your street, houses leaned into the steep hill. Beer cans and red cups littered the sidewalk from a party long over. What if it doesn’t get better? you asked. I waved you off. Give it time. This feeling will fade.
I remember thin black lines along your ring and middle fingers. Two sister circles, untouching. I’m sorry.
The last time I saw you I had my own ex to drown out. It was an accident, your death. Hours after the last time I saw you, you slipped into a coma. We’d taken the same things, drank the same amount. It could have just as easily been me.
I remember Christmas break two years ago. The two of us cross-legged on a carpeted floor, dogs milling around us, double-fisting Twisted Teas. I remember February, ankle-thick snow, party hopping. Your thin wrists, swan necks, landing every cup in beer pong. How when I squeezed your waist, lifted you in celebration, I thought your ribs might crack under my weight. I press the needle deep into my fingers and welcome the pain.
I missed your funeral. I didn’t know what I’d say to your parents, to your ex, to the friends who hadn’t ignored you when all you needed was to be seen. Instead, I grieved you at parties, bass throbbing, neon lights discoing across my teary face. I drunkenly wept on front porches, gripped bannisters to keep from stumbling, white paint chipping like teeth. I survived myself. You didn’t. I wondered how many storms I had to usher in before lightning would rip through me, too.
Tattoo, a Samoan loanword, meaning: “To strike.”
You were in a coma two weeks before your parents took you off life-support. Your leg arteries clotted, were too small to administer antibiotics for blood flow. You would’ve lost them. I imagined you waking up, feeling for ghost limbs. Searching for pieces you tattooed, proof: only you could belong to yourself.
Stick-and-poke tattoos, at their heart, are just a series of points, connected. They require multiple sessions, multiple touch-ups, to become permanent.
The last time I saw you, you were gaunt. Black hair spilled over your thin, sharp shoulders. You were the best Call of Duty player I’d ever watched. I stood behind you before leaving, watching you thumb the controllers, slumped over the lip of the couch. You were already fading. Would you still be here if I had just stayed?
I press harder, faster, until the lines are clear.
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