Athena was thoroughly unimpressed. The sad excuse for entertainment that tarnished the screen– which bore a wretched title along the lines of Dogs vs. Cats…
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I never wanted to be one of those people-- you know, the ones who make such hilariously terrible decisions that they’re lucky if they don’t go viral. I almost escaped my twenties without any such blemish, physical or metaphorical. Then, four months before my 30th birthday, I got drunk in Barcelona and came home with a bastardized Renaissance painting stabbed into my skin.
Like most folks who aren’t contortionists, I don’t have the clearest view of where my own lower back converges with my ass. As such, I didn’t inspect the garish ink job down there very carefully until a month or so after the fact. That was a mistake.
My friend Josh once said women who get tramp stamps tend to have daddy issues. Joke’s on him, though-- I have a great relationship with my dad, while Josh’s dad walked out on his family some 20 years ago. Not that I’d ever be callous enough to rub it in....Or foolish enough to show Josh the reason for my sudden defensiveness.
It was absinthe’s fault. I mean, it was my fault, but the absinthe didn’t exactly help. The weird thing is, people hype up absinthe like it’s some mean, green hallucination machine, but it’s not. It’s just super-concentrated booze that tastes like licorice mixed with cough syrup. If you happen to enjoy licorice, that makes it better than most hard liquors, which just taste like cough syrup. I had three glasses, which was about two and a half too many. I remained functional enough to walk out of the bar while reciting the lyrics to “American Pie,” but I took a wrong turn on my way back to my hotel. That’s how I wound up in a sketchy tattoo parlor in Barcelona, face-down and giddy with anticipation as a busty woman with an ambiguously European accent prepared to brand me.
Looking back, I might have been expecting a little too much from the artist. I wanted a parody of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, with Venus standing on a surfboard instead of a seashell. When the woman pulled up a photo of the painting on her phone, I realized I’d forgotten there were other figures in the original version: Zephyr the wind god and a couple of lesser goddesses or muses or something. I told her she could omit them and just draw a few waves in the background. She made a tentative sketch, which I approved. My fate was sealed.
By the time I finally made it back to my hotel room, I was just about ready to fall into bed fully clothed. I briefly and half-assedly attempted to inspect my new tattoo in the bathroom mirror, but the mirror had apparently been hung by Shaquille O’Neal; I could barely see the reflection of my forehead when I stood facing it. I decided to snap a picture with my laptop, resulting in a brief and very disappointing show for anyone who might have been trying to hack my webcam.
As I checked the photo, the last drops of absinthe sloshing through my bloodstream convinced me that I was looking at a decent tattoo. Sure, it didn’t bear much resemblance to the artist’s sketch, let alone the original painting, but that was okay. It was quirky. It was stylized. Satisfied, I kicked off my shoes and belly-flopped into bed.
The photo sat in an unlabeled folder on my computer, nearly forgotten until long after I had returned to my lousy apartment in Texas. I might have chalked up the tattoo’s very existence to a strange fever dream, if not for the occasional itch when I sat with my back against my chair.
Sadly, my blissful oblivion shattered the moment I accidentally clicked the folder while looking for something else. I could tell just from the thumbnail that I gazed upon something obscene, and the horror only escalated when I saw the full-sized photo.
The tattoo was a mess of primary and secondary colors straight from the most basic, boring box of Crayola markers. The “ocean waves” were dark blue isosceles triangles, and the unfortunate surfboard was both bright red and shaped like a tampon. As for Venus herself, it became clear that my initial impression of her had benefited from some serious absinthe goggles. She was jaggedy and awkward, with a face that didn’t resemble the Goddess of Beauty so much as it did my sour 12th grade math teacher who should have retired long before I wound up in her class. One of Venus’s breasts sort of protruded from her armpit-- which was extra bizarre given the tattoo artist’s own ample and anatomically correct rack-- and one hand appeared to have stolen a couple of fingers from the other.
And I was stuck with this abomination for all eternity.
Until that moment, I’d never felt the urge to scream at the sight of something on my own body, no matter how awful it looked. But this-- this was the stuff of nightmares.
My mind shifted to the three people I knew I could count on during a (thankfully rare) crisis: my mom, my dad, and Kavya Subramanian, my best friend since middle school. Right off the bat, I decided against bothering my parents. This was hardly an emergency-- just a sudden and devastating reckoning with my own stupidity-- and besides, they didn’t know jack about tattoos. Kavya, on the other hand, had a boyfriend named Kurtis who had several printers’ worth of ink up and down his arms and torso. I’d only met him a few times, but I was fairly certain he’d had some experience with laser removal.
I texted Kavya a highly truncated synopsis of events that was still way too long, and I assured her she could get back to me at her own convenience. Kavya being Kavya, though, she replied instantly that she was on her way to my place.
A little more than 20 minutes later, I heard a rapid “Shave and a Haircut” knock at my door. I scrambled to answer it with two knocks of my own, then let Kavya inside. She was carrying a box of chocolate muffins and some sort of brochure, both of which she promptly handed to me.
“It’s good to see you, Marisol! Kurtis sends his regards. I didn’t go into too much detail, but I told him you’d gotten a bad tattoo in Spain and needed help.”
“Thank you for that, and for this,” I said, gesticulating with the muffin box.
We sat down on my secondhand paisley couch. I set the muffins down on the table next to me as I examined the brochure. It was for a local tattoo parlor called Monstrous Ink, whose furry mascot just barely avoided infringing on a certain Disney character.
“Kurtis says this is the best place in town, hands down,” Kavya said. “It’s a little on the pricier side, but you’ll save money in the long run because the tattoos are higher quality. And if you decide you really like your cover-up, you can always come back for more tats.”
“Um, do they do laser removal?”
“Yeah, but Kurtis doesn’t recommend it. It took him almost a year and a half to get rid of a relatively small portrait on his left shoulder, and I remember the area looked super red and blistered for a long time after that. But a good cover-up can work wonders.”
“That’s nice to know. I was getting ready to take a cheese grater to my lower back.”
“Surely it’s not that terrible.”
“Wanna see it?”
“I didn’t come all the way over here not to see it. Show me what you’ve got.”
I stood up, turned my back to Kavya, lifted my shirt slightly, and pulled my waistband down as far as I could without mooning her.
Although I couldn’t see Kavya’s face at that moment, I could feel each stage of her reaction: the furrowed brows that quickly rose as her eyes widened, the strangely twisted mouth soon covered by her hand, and then, of course, the audible part. She barely even gave a courtesy snort before breaking into a full guffaw.
“Oh my God,” she gasped. “I’m so sorry, but that totally looks like what’s-her-face from senior year! You know, the bitch who almost flunked me when I had A’s in everything else?”
“Mrs. Ollenburger. Yeah, my thought exactly, except I had B’s in almost everything else.”
“Well, I can’t say I ever wanted to see the old bag with her tits out, but I appreciate the laugh. Work has been so stressful lately.”
Our conversation shifted into a catch-up session about our post-pandemic lives. I listened intently while Kavya vented about office drama at her accounting job, and I entertained her with cute anecdotes about my young guitar students. By the time we wrapped things up, the sun was getting ready to set.
As soon as Kavya left, I went to the Monstrous Ink website and booked myself an appointment for later that week. In the meantime, I decided to brainstorm some cover-up ideas, but I kept questioning every notion that crossed my mind. Did I want to keep the essence of Venus, or did I want something completely different? Could I just add a bunch of snakes and turn her into Medusa?
I hardly slept the night before the appointment. My phone battery lay at death’s door from hours of scrolling through pictures of other people’s cover-ups. I was pleasantly surprised to see tattoos at least as bad as mine turned into tolerable or even pretty pieces, but I couldn’t quite shake my apprehension. How badly was it going to hurt? I didn’t recall a lot of pain from the first time-- but then, I had been three sheets to the wind. Was it even legal in the U.S. to get tattooed while under the influence? That wasn’t an option, regardless, since I’d be driving myself there.
The next day, I arrived at Monstrous Ink about 15 minutes before my scheduled time. It was one of the few older buildings in the area that had resisted gentrification, and part of me suspected those “luxury condos” asshats left it alone because they didn’t want to deal with the enormous monster statue cemented to the ground right by the storefront. I marveled once again at the shop’s chutzpah; they weren’t afraid of developers or Disney lawyers.
The inside, with its many mirrors, looked bigger than the outside. All sorts of people, from gym bros to suburban moms, sat or reclined as artists worked on their arms, legs, chests, necks, and more. I spotted a small counter with a bald man behind it, and forced myself to approach it before I could chicken out.
“Hi, I’m Marisol. I’ve got an appointment with Siobhan.”
“She’s behind the curtain in that corner,” he said, pointing with a heavily tattooed finger.
“Thank you,” I muttered, then headed to the secluded area. As I opened the curtain, I was greeted by a petite woman with silvery, purple-striped hair. She gestured for me to sit on what looked like a cross between an office chair and a spa bed.
“Hey there! You must be my 2:00 appointment. Just let me check right here.” She squinted at her phone. “Marisol...Steinberg?”
“I’m half tortilla, half matzah,” I explained.
“Like Frida Kahlo?”
“Yes, just like her! Not many people seem to know that.”
“Well, I was an art history major in college.”
“Oh, yeah? See if you can identify this painting,” I said as I exposed my tattoo to her.
There was a very long pause. Finally, she said, “This might be a stretch, but it looks like it’s supposed to be The Birth of Venus.”
“Okay, I’m kind of impressed you got the reference from such a crappy drawing. I’m even more impressed that you didn’t burst out laughing at the sight of it.”
“I assure you, I’ve seen much worse.”
“I can’t go into too much detail-- I’ve gotta protect my clients’ privacy. Let’s just say a lot of their tattoos were very phallic.”
“Ah, okay,” I said. I felt slightly disappointed, but figured I’d already seen plenty of wretched tattoo pictures online.
“I’ll tell you about mine, though,” Siobhan continued unexpectedly. “You see the rose on my right forearm? That wasn’t always a rose; it was once a stick-and-poke of my ex’s name. And I did it myself with my non-dominant hand, so it looked like chicken scratch. Luckily, my brother knew a guy who gave me a cover-up for a discounted price.”
“He did a really good job. I wouldn’t have guessed that was a cover-up.”
“Yeah. I feel like my work here is a chance to pay it forward. Speaking of, how would you like me to fix your tat?”
Before I could utter a reflexive, “I don’t know,” inspiration struck me. “Do you think you could turn my tattoo into Frida Kahlo, or at least something resembling her? Maybe a calavera?”
“I’d love to, but what’s a cala-vayra?”
“It’s, like, a decorated Mexican skull or skeleton. Have you seen Coco? You know how all the people in the Land of the Dead are skeletons?”
“Yes, I know what you’re talking about! In fact, wasn’t there a version of Frida in that movie?”
“Yeah, there was! I mean, you don’t have to copy that exact design. I feel like this shop is already kind of borrowing a lot from Disney/Pixar.”
Siobhan smirked. “You’re talking about our monster? We call him Mully, short for Gregory G. Mulligan. Which is the actual name of the man who founded the place, so it’s totally not ripping off the Almighty Mouse.”
“Does Gregory G. Mulligan have orange fur with green dots?”
“If he did, he must’ve shaved it all off. You can always ask him,” she said, pointing through a small gap in the curtain at the bald man from the counter.
“I’ll be sure to mention it on my way out. Anyway, is my cover-up idea feasible?”
“For sure! I’ll go ahead and get things started.”
I watched in fascination as Siobhan sketched a perfect replica of my offensive tattoo, then buried the image behind an assortment of thick lines and shading. By the time she finished, she had expunged virtually all evidence of my drunken blunder.
“Is this good? I can try something else, if you’d like.”
“Nah, it’s perfect. I’m ready to go.” I lay down on my front side, my eyes catching a lovely view of the floor as I stuck my face through the headrest.
I heard Siobhan put on gloves and gather all her supplies. When the cold wetness of the disinfectant hit my lower back, I had to resist the urge to shudder. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing.
Hey, this doesn’t hurt! Ah, wait, never mind-- she’s just drawing an outline on me.
Once she did start with the needles, I felt like my bare skin was being pelted by grains of desert sand. This sensation built up into something resembling a bad sunburn, then a sunburn that had been rubbed with seeds from hot peppers. Just when I thought I couldn’t handle the pain any more, Siobhan declared a 10-minute break for the both of us. I dried my tears, drank some water, and stretched my legs before settling back in.
When Siobhan resumed her work, my baseline discomfort was already at the bad sunburn level, but I was determined to soldier through. Each agonizing jab was a step towards vanquishing the cursed marking I’d acquired. I found myself grateful that I’d stopped wearing mascara since that time I got a clump stuck in my eye. I was already an ugly enough crier without the melodramatic dark streaks.
Amazingly, my lack of sleep eventually managed to catch up to me. One moment, I was wondering how the hell Kurtis had endured this process dozens of times. Next thing I knew, Siobhan was rousing me from some nonsensical dream about flesh-eating insects.
After I had emptied my wallet of cash for her tip, she sent me home with a bottle of special tattoo lotion and a printed sheet of aftercare instructions. Upon arriving at my apartment, I immediately rushed to my computer and activated the webcam. Siobhan had already shown me the gorgeous final product in the mirrors at the shop, but I wanted a shot of my posterior for posterity.
I put the new picture in the same unlabeled folder as the one that had started everything. Someday, maybe, I’d show them to the world side by side. First, though, I was eager to share the “After” with the friend who had gazed into the abyss of the “Before.”
“Hey, Kavya! You really saved my ass.”
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