BIC

James was thirteen when he got his first tattoo. He sat on the peeling linoleum in a double wide trailer, with no shirt or shoes, watching his best friend get a tattoo. The tattoo “artist” was his best friend Mat’s older brother. Bryan was paroled that morning, got home and immediately started making up for the lost two years of getting Mat in trouble. Bryan held the tattoo gun (which was really only a melted tooth brush, a pen with a needle stuck in it, a little motor and some other stuff James couldn’t identify) and dotting a smiley face with crossed out eyes on his younger brother’s shoulder.

“Stop moving,” Bryan said, and tried to hold his squirming sibling still. It was already crooked from Mat’s fidgeting but Bryan’s shaking hand didn’t help, either. Bryan pushed the needle deep into his brother’s soft shoulder, marring it until his brother finally asked him to stop in something closer to a sob than a scream. After pelting him with curse words, Bryan dropped the tattoo gun, picked up his cigarettes and stepped outside.  Mat tried to play the pain from his shoulder off, “Well at least I didn’t pussy out”

James had declined earlier, saying: ‘ladies first.’

“Let me do it,” James said — he had seen Mat cry after falling off their skateboards, so he was sure that he would be able to do better. James flipped on the tattoo gun and paused— not for fear of pain, what his mother would think, or future regret, but deciding where it should go. The hair on his legs and arms were just starting to darken, his chest was still bare as it had been on his birthday thirteen (and a quarter) years before. He decided on the nautical star (he was not a sailor, but had seen it on a band’s album cover and had doodled it ever since) should go on the left side of his chest, where he put his hand over his heart for the pledge. Instead of pledging allegiance to the United states of America, he would give his to punk rock. James took several deep breaths and then plunged the needle into the skin of his left pec, exhaling through gritted teeth.

Smell

I spent my Friday afternoons suffering in an oncology waiting room (that smelled sterile and like bad air freshener) for Andy. Other patients and their caretakers sat in the uncomfortable chairs waiting for treatment, too. The “plus-ones,” caretakers invited in for moral support, were waiting for their loved one to be called in for treatment – and they usually were loved ones – only to wait again for them to come out, sedated, and carrying the discharge instructions.

I stared off into the TV, trying to ignore the sensationalist news. Is there radioactive waste in the sewers? More after this break. This cable news channel had the senior demographic wrapped up – preying on fears of big government taking away rights, medical malpractice, inferior vaginal mesh. There were commercials for medical implants and personal injury lawyers, perfectly curated for a hospital. My favorite was for a catheter: an old woman (on a couch) and a middle aged man (in a wheelchair) sat, knee to knee:
“I use catheters. It’s so messy and expensive!” the white haired woman said, wringing her hands together.
“I’m worried about infections,” the man said and reached out to touch his costar.
“I wish there were a better way!” they both cried out.

I leaned back and wondered where I could get these magical, easier to use catheters for all my pissing-in-a-bag needs. I wrote myself a note: order catheters. Neither Andy nor I needed them, but we were never sure what the next side effect would be.

The door to the treatment room opened and a man hobbled out and crumpled into the chair across from me. He smelled like he had been sterilized and doused in the same bad air freshener. But the smell of sickness still oozed out of his pores – it was in his hair, on his breath – the smell was thick and hung around my head like smoke. I watched the man out of my peripherals – he was waiting on his significant other, his loved one.

He was just like my Andy waiting for me. Maybe she would walk him down to the cat, drive him home, and tuck him into bed. He would sleep all of the next day, she would leave him alone and go to work. By Tuesday or Wednesday he was coming out of his pharmaceutical stupor. By Thursday he felt great and visited work, but was never strong enough to actually finish anything. Then he got the treatment again and the cycle started over again. I knew after laying in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV and with that week’s worth of poison flushed through his system to kill what ailed him, Andy would smell like that when he came out, too.

2014.