My children are playing a game in which they steal the magic key to a castle door. My son, reaching between my shoulder blades, pinches at the tattoo, pretending to grab the key. Running off to his sister, he declares the Kingdom under his domain. They never ask about the tattoo’s origin, what it represents, details about shape or function. To them, my tattoos are merely markings, sources for imaginative play. My daughter grasps and rotates my hand, pretending to type in a code over the numbers on my wrist. “I figured out the password!” she yells, victorious. “I’m in!”
You came over midday with that little amateur kit to touch up my favorite tattoo. I would’ve agreed to anything just to be alone with you, out of sight from our co-workers, your team members, customers. I didn’t even know how to tell if a tattoo needs touching up. Just the edges, you said. They’re faded.
You told me you needed your wife’s permission to tattoo other women, but I didn’t ask if she’d approved. I didn’t consider if the lone fluorescent basement light would suffice for quality work. I didn’t think about anything other than you touching me. I paid you in beer bought by my roommates. At 19, I didn’t have much else to offer.
My daughter asks if she can draw more tattoos. “Just with this pencil,” she says. I’m a canvas. My tiny artists cover my skin in rainbows and suns and smiley faces and cats with whiskers so long they curl at the tip. Connecting freckles, they design constellations and develop mythologies. It hurts, but I don’t tell them. I can’t interrupt the joy, the giggles, sibling harmony, this part of their childhood I won’t get back.
I never knew this day would come. I never knew my body could nourish and carry, comfort and provide. That it could be repurposed for love. I never dreamed motherhood was an option. My daughter says, “When I grow up, I’m going to have more tattoos than you, Mama.”
The next day at work, you pulled me into a closet and kissed me, turned away, said you could never see yourself leaving your wife. Soon after, we messed around again, this time in a storage room. R notices us rounding the corner together; his eyes meet yours with suspicion. The following week, for your wedding anniversary, you tattooed your wife’s name on your bicep among portraits of deceased pets and etchings you’d collected since you were my age.
Later, you asked if I wanted to drive into town together for supplies. Rolling down the window, I decipher through the breeze, Listen, I think we need to stop this. Hours ago, you had my breasts in your hands. OK, whatever, it’s fine, I said. I told myself that at 39, you didn’t have much to offer anyway.
I told you I didn’t remember what happened, how I woke up confused, searing pain in my arm, jeans inside out, alone. You asked me if I liked R. No, I didn’t even mean to stay. What does it matter to you anyway? You said you’d beat the shit out of him, really, you would, but right now your team is short-staffed and you can’t afford to lose him. He should’ve never touched you, you offered.
In the office bathroom, I unwrapped my arm bandage and replaced the rust-stained fabric with fresh gauze. Later that month, when I told you I was leaving, moving to the city, you said I hope you find happiness and Good luck out there, kid. Away from this place of hauntings, I found I had a lot to offer.
My toddler runs her fingers across the rounded scar on my forearm. “Bumpy,” she says, tracing the perimeter, grazing the discolored skin where R extinguished a cigar while I was too drunk. She asks me, “Mama? Button?” I say, “Okay, baby, blast off!” She presses the now-healed wound with her thumb, and I lift her up, up, up. She giggles and squeals. We pretend the rocket carries us through the galaxies, past shooting stars, to the moon and back.