As I grasped him by the neck, blood ran between my fingers. His own blood — glistening, warm, and thick. I felt the red liquid slide down my arm, unto my elbow. Red drops fell onto the linoleumed floor. The acrid smell of it caught in my throat and I wanted to gag but stopped myself from doing so lest I insult him. I sensed his suffering. His jaw was clenched and his eyes were closed. I can feel his ragged breath as he tried to detach himself from the pain.
I reached a crucial part, so tricky that I had to maneuver closer to him. From there, I could see the jugular vein pulsing with life. I aimed a bit to the left — after all, this is free-styling and he would not mind. My arms ached from the uncomfortable position. The smell of blood so close to where I was made me lightheaded. I had difficulty moving my fingers. The blood there was already starting to dry. And I am still not done with my task.
Moments passed in silence punctuated by the hypnotic whir of the machine. I had to stretch a bit.
“It’s done?” he asked when he felt I’ve stopped grasping his neck. I toed the switch and the whir of the machine was automatically silenced.
We stretched. I wiped my hand with the soiled rag I kept for occasions like this.
We lighted our respective brands of cigarettes and puffed like there’s no tomorrow.
I told him I just had to shade the edges and we’re done. I explained that it might mean half an hour more of work. He looked beaten. I felt him waver between calling it off and getting on. But after a moment, he nodded and took a swallow of what remained of the rum sitting on the table amongst an ink pot and stained gauzes. He leaned his head again to one side and said, “Just make sure it will look nice when it’s done, ok?”
I said yep, took a grip of his neck again and started the machine. Tattooing is easy when your best friend is a willing subject.
It was the height of the Christmas holidays. I was thirteen and self-conscious about everything to do with myself. I felt I was too big to be in the company of my hyperactive cousins who got the same-colored tickets for almost all the rides offered by Star City — which in the early nineties was the “bestest” amusement park to take the family. I shuffled behind the grown-up chaperones, trying very very hard to look un-thirteen years old like — at least to myself. I had on a punks not dead black shirt and straight cut jeans and I had wanted to feel really, really cool but I was sweaty and klutzy and pimply and I thought my nose was way too big for my face [there are days when I still feel this way]. I slouched and bit my lower lip. I envied the willowy girls my age, who were fresh-faced, wore pink lip gloss and pink sleeveless blouses and had long, flowing hair. They looked so carefree promenading through the amusement park’s walkway with their equally fresh faced first boyfriends.
I managed to dodge the chaperones who got busy lining up the younger cousins who wanted a ride in the caterpillar. It involved me pretending to adjust my shoelaces and slowly making my way to the edge of the crowd composed of ride-eager relatives. In a little while, I was far from the ruckus.
I slouched, bit my lower lip and headed to the entrepreneurs’ booths lining the Star City walkway.
One booth particularly caught my interest. A banner outside the booth was emblazoned with the words “Tattoo Artists Convention ‘93″. There was a collage-type poster displaying photographs of people posing with their tattoos. Mythical creatures, faces, swirls, symbols. In black or in color. Pride was so obvious in the faces of the tattoo owners.
I stepped inside.
A bald guy was sitting on a medical table, with his leg dangling down the side. Another guy, this one with long hair tied back with a twine, was bent over the dangling bleeding leg. The first guy was pale but he smiled when he saw what was going on with his leg. I saw a half-finished cross manifesting on that leg through the ministrations of the second guy. A low machanical whirr emanated from where the long-haired man sat, bent nearly double. On the floor where the second guy was working were scraps of paper, a couple of steel bowls, blood-stained gauzes and a box containing some ink bottles. The smell of rubbing alcohol mingled with blood and cigarette smoke was heavy in the air.
I felt I had walked in on some sacred rite.
I am an intruder. And a minor at that. My eyes have belatedly landed on a sign overhead saying that they don’t welcome minors.
I decided to step out before anyone noticed me. I started backing away, planned to go back to my hyper-active cousins and the chaperones. I wondered a bit what those people inside would do if they saw me there. But no matter. They didn’t know I’ve been there.
“Can I help you?” Someone suddenly said from behind me. I whipped around. A guy, with goatee, with long dark hair and intense eyes stared at me. He didn’t look pleased.
But after seeing that I looked more or less harmless, his eyes softened. He looked me over.
“Ever had a tattoo before?”
Why would he ask if I had a tattoo before? I was only thirteen and even with the slightest violation of chewing gum in class could already get me into so much trouble with the school’s discipline officer, how much more for an ink on the skin? I’d probably have to personally carve out the marked skin without anesthesia. In front of the D.O.
I shook my head.
“Would you want one?” the guy’s eyes were suddenly lit by some unholy flame as he walked to a small cabinet and got out a three-ring binder. The drawings and pictures inside the binder almost made me want to abandon my previous life and join the guys in their tent, much like running away with the circus.
Tattoos. Tattoo designs. My mouth watered. My heart pounded a primeval beat.
The goateed guy smiled with disarming gentleness.
And offered a deal that today I still regret the decision that I made.
“Your name. My name. Your skin.” He said. He showed me a page in the binder. It was a drawing of a sorceress. Her talon-like fingers held a crystal ball. She had bat wings, a pair of arched eyebrows, she was done in black and purple tones. And for the life of me, I wanted her to be part it.
And I did not doubt that the guy standing before me could pull off and draw that design on my back.
But at thirteen?
With a full-back tattoo of a sorceress? It was never beyond my family elders to disown anyone. I wouldn’t be the first.
A full-back tattoo, all for free… with my name in the magazine credits?
And I’m still kicking myself as I write this.
Being fifteen years old and tanked up on gin and calamansi juice would be the perfect formula for unwise decisions. Especially if there was some alpha male, older, wiser, goateed and looked deity-come-down-on-earth hot. Any lonely fifteen year-old would be desperate for an ounce of attention. Nevermind that years later that the then-fifteen-year old would contemplate and decide that the once-deity-come-down-on-earth hot alpha male wasn’t that hot. But that time, he was and that was what mattered. And that was what spurred decisions the fifteen-year old made on a front porch one summer afternoon. He took her right hand.
She didn’t mind.
He groped for the soft flesh between her thumb and index finger.
She held her breath.
He looked into her somewhat bleary eyes, as if to say, “trust me, I wouldn’t hurt you.”
She quivered. Bit her lower lip. She wanted to trust him. She wanted to shut her eyes but kept them open. She felt the need to see how the thing will be done.
He lowered his head, moved closer to where she was. She could feel his breath… ticklish warm on her skin. Surely he could feel hers as well.
She smelled the musky cologne he always wore when he visited. Years later, when she smells that scent on someone else, she’d be transported to that cool afternoon and the vision — not so unpleasant, of blood — calamansi juice, a half-filled bottle of gin, and him, would come rushing back.
He plunged in. Deep.
Like he had said it would the first time.
She wanted to cry. She looked at his face. He was pale. Nervous because it was his first time, too.
He plunged in again. Deeper. And she saw the blood.
Yet he plunged. Then again. And again.
“Hold it. Stop, please.” she begged, her voice cracked because she bottled in the pain.
He stopped for a moment and bit on his lower lip.
“You don’t like it?” He asked, more nervous with her verdict than with the bleeding that they have to deal with in a moment.
“You have to make a curve before the second line ends.” She pointed to the bleeding space between her thumb and index fingers. The ink has already seeped in and the pattern of the planned tattoo, the first one she was getting, was already starting to show.
“Oh, I nearly made another straight.” He took back her hand, ever so gently. He was no longer pale, having already drawn first blood.
The needles he was using, all seven of them, were bound together with black thread. Every now and then they get dipped into the Coke bottle cap filled with black Rotring. And plunged again into her skin. She saw her blood run freely down her arms, darkening as it met the Rotring in its downward journey. Tickling her a bit. But she didn’t mind.
He was engrossed in his handiwork.
She was fascinated. The pain was already gone.
She looked on. Every few moments she refilled their glass with calamansi and gin.
He and she took turns drinking.
The sun was already setting and she had to get up and turned on the flourescents. He streched.
And as the dusk enveloped the entire front porch, he looked up at her, his eyes filled with a sense of deep happiness. She smiled at him. They’ve done it together.
For both of them.
Fifteen. Left alone with a bottle of gin. Two dozens calamansi lolled inside a deep porcelain bowl. In the company of an alpha male, older, wiser, goateed who looked deity-come-down-on-earth hot. Decisions. Decisions on how to be branded for life.
And when she sees the mark left on that soft patch of flesh on her right hand, she sees the way he looked at her. And her day would be made.