Lyonya defined her life by the tattooed words scribbled on her skin. They ran like trails of broken thoughts. Idioms lost, clashing against one another like cars mangled across a stretch of highway. Those tattoos. They were a habit among her many.
In all her scribbling, those tattoos etched out messages, dates, thoughts, ideas… reminding her of what she couldn't keep track of in her head. They had all been brilliantly remarkable in the speck of time in which they were fabricated, all short-term memories printed into permanency. But fading.
Her first mark was gradually dissolving into a smeary blue, becoming blotchier and blotchier by the year.
“Believe!” it said, now with the blemished ink finding depth into her skin. Fading. Becoming like the rest. Defining her with words she once defined. There were hundreds of lines and phrases, running all the way up her arms and shoulders, some on her thighs and legs, some hidden beneath her foot, self-tattooed as if the act of writing could help remember more than the ink itself.
But she couldn't remember.
There was only the illusion of remembering.
Lyonya stared at that first word etched onto her wrist. Believe! Believe in what? It wasn't something magical, or promising. Believe in believing, is all she could think of. Like a knotted rope meant to be untied so it could be knotted again.
The word itself was becoming submerged by all the other scribbles that surrounded it. Too often it sunk behind reams of bracelets, which kept it hidden through most of the day. Now she had so many of those bracelets that she had lost track of how many there were. Each of those stood for a week, a month, or a year that she had found remarkable at the time. Every one of them stood for a memory, each one holding a folded symbol.
They were all she had left, those symbols. Those moments lost in her tattoos and bracelets and necklaces that draped down to her chest. Yet, she felt the necessity of those symbols. She felt the necessity of her written words.
Just like now.
It was time for another tattoo. She needed to write this one down. Now. Before she would forget. Because forgetting was her biggest fear.
Make it permanent before it fades, she told herself, and this thought brought her calmness for a moment.
She sat at her frail, crumbling kitchen table with rust gnawing up the wobbling, metal legs. Among the piles of papers and trash, she found her homemade tattoo gun. She used a guitar string for the needle, which made the humming of the little motor feel musical when she wrote.
She had become quick with the ink.
On her forearm she found a spot of untainted skin that squeezed between I hate people and Like a glorified majesty on the 21st. She had to slide the reams of jangling bracelets up her arm to find the vacant spot. Her writing hand became steady when she tattooed. She brought the pointed guitar string to her blank, pale skin. The metal needle pierced and drummed. An emotion took charge of her, and all she felt now was the need to place it down into permanency. If she didn't, she might forget tomorrow. She might forget an hour from now. The letters formed like petroleum scratches.
Before she could complete the phrase, her cat, Adara, meowed from inside the purse, breaking Lyonya away from her ink.
“What is it?” she said delicately to her frail cat. She switched off the motor and put the needle down.
They made contact with their eyes, a glare that she found brilliant in her cat. She stood from her creaking chair and went to the cupboard. Among the cups of glasses, some clean, others not so much, she pulled down the bag of cat food. She grabbed a handful of dried food bits and dropped it in Adara's bowl. A few bits spilled and rolled onto the floor along the crumbs already settled there. Adara crawled out of his throne—her purse—and moved to his bowl. The dried bits crunched between his teeth. Lyonya crouched low, watching him in adoration.
He made gentle purring noises, confessing his love for her.
“I love you too,” she said.
With a sense of unfitting calm, she brought both hands to her chest, pressing them against her own solar plexus— the central gate to her soul, she believed. She moved her fingers up to her neck, where dozens of necklaces draped over one another. There were hundreds of beads, mostly wooden, bound in hemp. Her fingers reached for one of the necklaces. It was the only one made of pearls.
Pearls in the banana sun.
This was written somewhere on her left thigh. She had found the necklace in the trash at a market place downtown. Someone had thrown it away because the clasp was broken, tossed right on top of a pile of garbage, tucked inside a banana peel. A treasure amongst trash. Anyone looking at Lyonya with her newfound pearls didn't seem to care. Her awkwardness of digging through trash fazed no one. It had seemed fitting somehow. Around her, the market stands had displayed flowers and fruits against the backdrop of gray buildings that dove towards the city sky.
She had grasped the pearls into her fists and held them against her chest. Nobody would miss them. They were just more proof to support the truth of displacement. The truth of belonging by not belonging at all. The truth that things—objects, emotions, thoughts, fears—were found only if they were first lost. It was among the chaos of loss and displacement that finding anything was possible. There was no other way for discovery. She made this her truth.
The door to the apartment slammed; an angry mood vibrated through the walls. Lyonya rose, peered out from the kitchen, and asked, “Did you get it?”
There was no hesitancy in her voice. She had been waiting for him.
Drake stood at the door with their three-year-old boy in his arms. Drake's hair swooped low, down to his neck, curving around to the front like thick blades of grass. He carried a glaze in his eyes that a poet might have admired once, locked in a dream-state within every watchful saccade. He peered back at Lyonya, round jaw clenched.
He set the boy down.
“Did you get it?” she repeated.
He shook his head, eyes unblinking. There was something lodged in his stare. Lyonya couldn't tell exactly what it was. Sadness? Guilt? Yearning?
“What do you mean no?”
“I just couldn't, okay?” he answered in a groan.
She took this for annoyance, when it could have been fatigue or sorrow. They miscalculated one another's tones. They misunderstood one another's signals often. It was easy to do by now. It was easy to pretend you found what you expected instead of what was actually there. Expecting the worst usually meant you would receive just that.
Lyonya made a gesture to her boy.
“Come Zephan. Come to mums.”
The boy gleamed up at his mother with sheepish eyes. His hand tightened around his father's.
“Go on and play with your trucks,” Drake told him. “Go on.”
Zephan scampered toward the trucks in the corner of the living room. His little shoes made no sound. He sat in the corner, facing the wall, barely touching his toys.
“Why'd you bring him with you?” she asked, now looking back at Drake.
He remained silent, staring back, eyes flinching—an accusation held in their own language. She scratched her arm between the reams of her bracelets.
Those words standing. Itching. Make Zephan what? Already she couldn't remember. Already the thought had dispersed. She turned her face back to her boy, trying to regain that dwindled emotion. A rose bloomed somewhere inside her for a long moment. A quiver strummed her spine like a cord. A guitar string pierced through her solar plexus. Spreading. Make Zephan, she thought, and felt she could regain her claim on that emotion. A boy of three years. Her boy. Once born of her womb, fed of her milk, now nourishing on her suffering.
“Another one? You got another one, didn't you?” Drake asked.
With two steps he reached her and grabbed her wrist, which felt like a malnourished branch in his grasp. His hands were large, big enough that he once used those hands to hold her shoulders close to him for comfort. Big enough to hold her heart and protect her from harm.
But this was then, now lost in the presence of their tempered habits. She with her tattoos. He with his unfinished poems. Both of them with their snorting coke. An addiction they both loved and devoured as greedily as it devoured them. A love for the same violent powder. The same hard, quivering high.
“You can't go on like this,” he said with an expression she read as either remorse or disgust. But it could have easily been pained compassion.
“Don't can't me. Not me.”
There was a lyrical beauty to those words, even though she thrust them with contempt.
Holding her wrist, he traced the traffic of words trailing up her arms with his eyes. She could see him reading, searching, rephrasing. He pushed up her bracelets then, and saw the new branding immediately. He knew her markings better than his own poetry, just as she knew his poems better than her own ink.
“Make Zephan,” he read. “Make Zephan what?”
The question stunned her. Was he curious? Interrogating? Accusing?
“I dunno,” she said. “I knew a moment ago. I swear. I knew this time. I knew.”
“Lyonya. Maybe it's too much. Maybe you oughta stop.”
This hurt, of course. Even through his gentle tone, it hurt.
It had been his hands that taught and guided her fingers through her first tattoo. It had been his poetry that convinced her to believe, offering a context for keeping the symbols fixed. It had been him who said that her tattoos would serve as her own poetry. We can form poems, he had promised. Together. The two of us. Now he was telling her to stop, which was the same as telling her she should quit searching for something to believe in.
“And you? What about your poetry? Why don't you stop?”
“Goddamnit Lyonya, it's not the same,” he said, striking each word from his lips.
And there it was. There was his quickness. There was his temperament rising with little prodding. There was his selfishness for wanting to keep his own poetry while telling her she should leave hers behind. Just like when she was pregnant, when he told her she should stop snorting coke while he could go on. Somehow snorting was bad for the baby only if she was the one doing it.
“It's different,” he repeated, calmer now, but his anger had left its stain.
Different, she thought, and saw the word for the lie it was, because in truth, it was all the same. They were both dependant of the same need for symbols and the same need for snorting a drug that made the world blend together so that they could break it apart. Break it apart with their own words. She on her body. He on his sheets of journal. Both of them with ink as permanent as their mediums allowed.
“This was different,” she said to him, pointing at her latest tattoo, and she recognized her words for both the lie and the truth they presented. Yes, this tattoo meant something more this time, but how could it be so different if already she couldn't remember what that more was?
There was love in those gestures. There had always been love between them, right from the first moment when they met eyes at the marketplace downtown. He had complimented her pearls, and she had admitted to their discovery. Both of them gazed the other with watchful eyes, dazed in adoration for a long poetic moment.
Sure. Love was there.
But the problem was that Lyonya understood love as something contextual. She understood it as something that needed to be rediscovered each day. Something lost among the chaos of life. Lost so that it could be found again, and again. Drake understood love as an interpretive force. Something that needed to be understood and explained with new terms, fresh words, and stunning metaphors. These were two different kinds of love. One was discovered, the other explored.
Over the years, they had fooled themselves into believing that they both wanted the same love. They both gave it the same name, calling it Poetry as a synonym for something so big that it could be found or explained only in pieces. Except in the end, for two people to believe in two different breeds of love was like splitting one God into separate beings. Even their love for cocaine split them in half, often turning Drake to violence and Lyonya to self-loathing.
Drake twitched again.
And that was all it took to give him away. There was actually nothing like poetry in that twitch. It was a twitch she knew how to read. It meant only one thing. He had some.
“You lied to me,” she said.
Her face changed with those words. She could feel that ripple of her lips, brow, and eyelids tightening.
“What? No. I don't have any.”
“You lied to me,” she repeated.
“You're crazy. You're fucking crazy. I don't have none.”
“Give it to me. Where is it?”
“Get off me. I said get off me.”
He swore at her, but her arms and tattoo-battered wrists wailed at him, hitting him. Her one hand scooped into his jacket pockets, digging into one, finding nothing, searching another, while her other arm kept swinging and striking his body in a frantic anger. Drake finally pushed her off, hard. Her spine struck the wall.
“Fine,” he shouted at her. “Is this whatchu want? Is it?”
He held his arm outstretched, dangling a small baggie before her.
“Gimme,” she said, and lunged toward him, but he pushed her off again.
The boy cried and wailed from the corner, but neither of them paid him any attention.
“Not yours,” Drake shouted at her. His voice devoured oxygen.
There was drama in that voice. Drama he was always trying to stress. His hand shook the bag with each word, fingers clenching tighter. He had always been one for the dramatic.
Lyonya felt her heart drumming, shaking every vein and artery that clung onto its beating. Her breathing quivered with yearning. Her eyes stared at the brilliant white powder dangling before her face. She wanted. She wanted. It was just one simple truth, confirmed by everything else inside her. It was a want that smeared every other desire. It smeared even the desire to quiet and soothe her boy's crying, making it distant, pushing it far and away.
Her lips puckered with yearn. Drake enjoyed seeing that look on her face. It was like a child's lust for chocolate. It was a look he liked to deprive.
He licked his lips. A gesture that mocked Lyonya's wanting.
“This,” he said, giving the baggie a quick, angry shake.
She was pleading, but that was okay. Pleading might work. Anything. She'd do anything for just a little. A tiny little bit. She wanted. She just wanted.
“Shut up,” he said.
“I just… It's simple—”
“Shut up, I said.”
Adara wrapped himself around her leg as if to protect her. She barely felt his fur. The moment stood silent, and then… Wails of tears again. Louder somehow. Closer. But not close enough because in an instant Drake thumbed open the baggie and put it against one nostril.
Before Drake could inhale, Lyonya swatted the baggie from his hand. The white dust flew through the air and dispersed. It fell to the ground like a slow, white mist.
For a while, neither of them could hear anything but the sound of cocaine falling. The powder became lost in the thick strands of the carpet. They would not be able to recover it. Then the sound of their child's crying consumed them both. They looked at one another, ashamed, and then looked at their son, ashamed more still.
Lyonya was the first to pick him up and hold him. Drake touched the boy's shoulder, touched the boy's chin. They both apologized to one another and to the boy in silence while Adara weaved in and out of their feet like a rhythmical dance. Before long, the boy's crying exhausted him and they both put him to sleep in a makeshift bed Drake had built with scrap wood.
They made love because this was the only way they knew how to speak their apologies. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry,” they said, over and over again. And while Drake hovered over her body, Lyonya watched the small pearl tattooed just above the tuft of his pubic hair. He had the pearl tattooed there on their first anniversary as a gift to her. It was the only tattoo he ever allowed anybody to needle to his body.
He fell asleep after making love, like always, and she stared at his singular tattoo.
It was just like poetry, that tattoo, where the fewer the words, the more impact it was intended to have. Drake said poetry had to have an echo longer than an epic novel, be more powerful than a short story, more secure than an anecdote, more intrusive than a dirty joke.
Lyonya envied that pearl because it would always achieve more than all her lost scribbling. It was so easy to find. It was so easy to remember what it stood for, lost in the most perfect place. It was private.
She stared at the ceiling for a long, long time. She wondered what might have happened if she hadn't slapped the baggie from Drake's nose. Lyonya pictured her husband snorting up all that coke, his eyes bulging with pleasure. His eyes growing so big that they might burst like small bubbles of jelly. His knees popped instead, joints shifting like slabs of unevenly stacked bricks. She pictured him fall to the ground and overdose on the one substance they both violently loved the same.
The sound of honking came from the streets outside. Lyonya slid out of bed and walked to the window. She stood there naked, clothed in all of her scribbling. The words ran up her legs from her ankles, rose over her buttocks, wrapped around her waist, curled around her breasts, spread out to her shoulders and fell down her arms to her wrists.
She opened the window and felt the rain pelt her face and shoulders. Below, the street was packed with cars moving slower than creek water. Amidst the traffic of vehicles, a woman stood with a blond-haired child in her arms. Lyonya could see the woman's face. It was filled with searching. Car drivers honked and some shouted at her to move out of the way. The woman moved through the traffic, between the bumper-to-bumper cars, upstream, holding her child close to her chest. She followed the woman with her eyes until she became lost in the distance and couldn't see her anymore.
Lyonya looked down at her newest tattoo. Make Zephan. She realized in that moment she would not finish that phrase.