By Ethan Leonard
The moment Denise touched a cold slab of Aquaphor to her bare back, she heard Ari’s nagging voice. “That’s too much,” they said.
Denise waited for Ari to reach their hand out and remove the excess, to feel one thin finger clean the raised ink of her tattoo. Instead the handle of her butter knife, duct-taped to the blade of another butter knife, came loose and clattered on the hardwood floor. She attempted to rewrap the knives in the last of her duct tape and heard Ari’s complaints again. “The butter knife isn’t clean, and honestly not even a safe way to take care of the tattoo. Just ask Wyatt to help you.”
Denise used the ladle from the dishwasher instead. She made small circles against her tattoo. In the bathroom, she twisted her chin toward her shoulder to get a better look in the mirror, but couldn’t tell if she’d done a sufficient job. The phone rang in the other room. That gave Denise an idea. She hung up on Ari’s mom and used her phone’s camera to take a picture, but the moisturizer didn’t appear in the photos.
“Want me to ask Wyatt for you?”
Ari’s voice always had a tone of knowing triumph, and Denise was stubborn. She knew she would’ve said no again if Ari had another night to lean against the frame of the doorway with arms folded over their chest, smiling to themselves. Denise imagined what it would’ve been like to say yes at least once, to allow somebody who was not Ari to help her when she needed it. She pictured her ex-partner watching Wyatt take care of the tattoo from the toilet seat lid, chugging a beer and cracking jokes about other new uses for silverware.
Ari’s mom, Michiko, came over unannounced as usual. She didn’t say hello when she entered. She did, however, ask questions in her usual and succinct form of barrage: “Why don’t you answer my calls? Do you make enough to pay rent alone? Are you going to need a place to stay? Why did you use so much tape on the boxes? Why is there a ladle in your bathroom?”
Denise learned from listening to Ari talk to their mom that Michiko appreciated a similar prompt response to her questions: “My phone was on silent. I can make rent work. No. The extra tape kept me from re-opening them. I was trying to take care of my tattoo.”
Michiko marched her child’s boxes to the car. She and her husband had already sorted through the things they wanted to keep. What was left was the one big trip to Goodwill. When the last box was put away, Michiko forced the overpacked trunk of her Outlander shut. “Can I see it?” she asked.
The question didn’t register with Denise.
“The tattoo,” Michiko added.
They returned to the apartment. Denise removed her shirt. She hadn’t told Michiko what the tattoo was, didn’t think about who she was showing it to. Ari’s mom stared at her child’s handwriting, copied directly from the name line at the top left hand corner of a recent in-class assignment. For a moment, the silence doubled.
“Why on your back though?” was Michiko’s last question. “Don’t you want to see it?”
Denise didn’t answer the first part, which was that she was large and Ari’s arms were stubby. When they embraced, it was where Ari’s hands met, barely able to touch their fingertips together. She only said, “I know it’s there.”
Later, Denise would learn she’d used too much Aquaphor during her recovery. A friend of hers would inspect it and tell her, “It’s faded. You should touch it up.”
She’d be blunt about it, shrug and say, “Everything fades,” but still she’d schedule an appointment the following month. She’d tell herself she wouldn’t cry this time, wouldn’t have to stop a million times for such a small tattoo—one whose size was changed at the last minute by her intolerance to the sharp sensation. “A tattoo,” she’d remember the artist saying about aftercare, during her first visit, “is an open wound,” and how a moment came when the artist rested his large, gloved and unfamiliar hands on her back and the needle buzzed to life. She didn’t realize how long the pain would last, certainly never imagined she’d ever want to come back for more.