Butterfly Tattoos

Chief Radsville—that was the name of our teacher (and yes, he said, his real name was Chief)—told us not to draw the butterflies.  Try to see her body without the butterflies.  But the butterflies were everywhere: wings sprouting from her back, vivid and detailed as if newly inked, wings splayed out across her rib cage and reaching upwards to cup her flawlessly rounded breasts like loving, multicolored fingers, tiny fluttering creatures breaking off from those wings to drift downwards over her stomach.  And below her stomach, where there should have been hair, was a butterfly the color of a freshly plucked strawberry, its delicate lips parted, kissing nothing. 

I was afraid to ask her name, so I kept my pencil to paper and tried somehow to capture a flimsy filmy flake of her beauty, and to do so without staring.   

I was the only girl in the class.  I was fourteen in a room of middle-aged men with lingering dreams of an artist’s life.  Whatever they had abandoned art for had yielded E-class Mercedes’ and custom made BMWs with beige interiors resembling newborn flesh.  Now they were back.  These men had bald or graying heads and thin-rimmed spectacles, deep grooves in their leathery skin I sometimes thought about running my fingers along, tracing. Yes, sometimes I thought about touching these men.  Sometimes I thought about jabbing my pencil into their carotid arteries and watching their blood spurt out in fantastic geysers onto the studio floor.  Sometimes I thought about their wives.  Mostly I thought about how much—despite their furrowed-eyebrow focus on a graphite rendering of ghostly shapes, a sad, flickering shadow of her arching, rainbow figure—they must be dreaming of pressing their mouths to her cold blossom-pink nipples, stiff as the rubber caps on baby bottles, making them warm, opening up the fruit-like folds between her legs and plunging themselves in, as if into butter.  I couldn’t understand in those years why a man would long to get his penis wet, couldn’t understand the appeal of the indelible stickiness he’d have to carry around with him all day. 

I thought maybe her name could be something like Katarina—her elegance, both foreign and dirty, made me think of a Coke can discarded in the gutter.  She posed for hours, wrists like sapling twigs crossed above her head.  Hours, without moving, without twitching.  The hours were long and gave me time to wonder. Is she real at all? Has she ever moved? Has she ever spoken? Maybe she had come to us from a catalogue, plucked out from a glossy page, ordered by number.  I thought her number would be something like 00166512.  

One afternoon after class I followed her out of the garage and down the street. I didn’t have a plan or know what I was doing, I didn’t know what to expect.  She wore a blue kimono and ballet slippers, nothing else.  She smoked a cigarette as she walked.  She stopped at a grayish minivan from the 90s and deftly slipped a key into the lock.  Then she saw me. 

“It’s not my car,” she said, almost apologetically, “It’s my mom’s.”

“Oh—that’s okay,” I think I said something like, “it looks really…spacious.”

“Yes,” she brightened, “lot’s of space.”

I smiled and kept walking.  The bus stopped at this corner, I’d take it up Ocean Park, I figured, try to forget the van with it’s paint half scraped off and the waxy translucence her face took on under sun light.  The veins sprawled out beneath. 

“Do you need a ride?” She asked.  I turned around.  I said yes.

I told her where I lived and she drove me half way there before pulling over into an alley just behind Santa Monica airport.   

 “Why are we stopping?”

 “I just need a hit.  Do you get high?”

“I’m fourteen.”

“Ha,” she laughed, “I started when I was twelve. Well, pot, anyway.  Not this until sixteen, I think.” I thought maybe she could be twenty-two, the way the skin of her belly stretched smooth and seamless across her hipbones like canvas pulled taught across a wooden frame.  I thought maybe she could be eighty-nine, the way shadowy half-moons carved themselves out beneath her eyes like radiation scars of the many horrors she had seen. 

From her glove compartment she produced a Bugs Bunny Pez dispenser.  She broke open his jaw and wriggled a small Zip-lock bag from his gut, dangled the semi-pulverized rocks in mid air.  

“What is it?”

“It’s the only crystal a girl like me will ever get,” she said, pouring just a little bit onto the mirror side of a CD and chopping it into a fine powder using a pink and white striped gift card from Victoria’s Secret. 

For the same reason I accepted a ride from her, I accepted a line. Instantly, everything shifted into focus.  Colors and lines sharpened, they reached out, wanting a connection.  People describe a racy, euphoric feeling, but for me, in that moment, my mind and spirit synced up to become immensely calm.  A ghostly gray-green light glowed from behind the skin of her face; I thought her eyes would burn holes through her skull and leave stains the color of Zyclon B.

            “They were expensive, you know?” she turned to me, rubbing her nose whose tip now seemed squishy and detachable, as if sculpted from putty and pasted on.  I wanted to touch it. 

            “Yeah. No. What were?”

            “The tattoos. They were expensive. It kinda pisses me off that Chief doesn’t let y’all draw them.” Did she have a Texan accent? Yes, suddenly she did.  And suddenly the garage where she posed felt very far away, and the men who drew her were little inconsequential, two-dimensional blips who existed only for the purpose of providing us with a villain, because without a villain, we wouldn’t have anything to try and feel safe from, and then we would never feel safe. 

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