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Canvas Skin


The underground tattoo parlors are strange places at night, caught in limbo. The prismatic neon halo scratches my corneas as I sit in the waiting area, itching all over at the prospect of the next design I'm going to have etched on my skin.

Jax—an older kid who used to share a room with me back at the squat—was the first to introduce me to the removable tattoo frenzy. Since then, I've put away my kit of razor blades and peroxide and I've become a regular at the parlors around town. You get all the pain, blood, and sweat of a conventional tattoo, you get something pretty out of it, and the best thing is, you can scrub it all off not a day later and start from scratch.

Our therapists, if we're lucky enough to afford them, tell us to keep a journal. But why write about our feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing on red-lined paper when we can ink them across our skin for the world to see? That's what my friend Pietre down at the loading docks says, when he's drunk enough to become a philosopher. He does a stick n' poke to himself every night. The word scum on his forehead. Scum scum scum of the earth.

I've settled on a dragon tattoo, because I can't think of anything freer or mightier than a dragon. Tonight, I'm alone, slumped on a torn velveteen couch surrounded by wilting spider plants and tattoo designs stenciled on mold-splotched walls. There's already an inking in session. Through the shut door slink aural tendrils of soft groans, from pain or ecstasy or maybe a cocktail of both. The ambient neon lighting isn't doing my insomnia migraine any favors. My eyelids roll down like steel security shutters.

When I jerk awake seconds later, a girl is sitting next to me. There's plenty of room on the burgundy couch, but she's so close, she's practically in my lap. I watch her out of the corner of my eye. Her hair is black and orange like a calico cat's fur. She's dressed in a tank top and mini skirt, and on her exposed skin, colorful shapes and scribbles fan out like diluted, spilled paint. Her tattoos resemble graffiti, her body a wall, tagged and smudged and rainbowed.

"Thérèse," the girl says.

"What?" I slur. As always, it takes me a while to get my bearings. I can't remember the last time I had a full night's sleep or even went to bed before sunrise.

"My name," she clarifies with a smirk of pearly teeth. "It's Thérèse."

It sounds fake, her name. It clangs like plate armor, but I don't say that aloud. After all, we all need our cover, our protection. "Billy."

She laughs. "Of course. You look like a Billy."

I can't tell if it's intended as a compliment or an insult. The fabric of reality feels sheer, this late at night. My skin tightens against my bones. I want my dragon, my fortification against the world.

"You know the artist?" Thérèse asks, crossing one long leg over the other.

I nod. This is the same parlor Jax took me to a couple years ago. I was a trembling mess back then, but they accompanied me inside the "pain magician's" studio and held my hand in theirs the whole time. I got Jax's name inked in pink and blue across my chest, that first time. I miss the kid, though I try not to think about them too much. If I do, I end up whirling around every time the little bell above the door rings, wishing Jax would show up for a tattoo like they used to.

"Any good?"

Laughter escapes me, bitter as battery acid. "Oh, yeah. If you pay a little something extra, Matt might throw a dirty needle into the mix. You won't die from those. Presumably." They just add a tingle, a nettle burn, a touch of depressed-kid spice to get you through the day without self-harming.

Thérèse laughs, a resounding bark. "No, dying isn't on the table. But I guess everything else is."

The sound of crying drifts through the crack beneath Matt's door. They're ugly sobs, sitting-down-in-the-shower wails.

"Should I be worried?" Thérèse asks, though she sounds anything but.

"Nah. It can get…intense sometimes." I know I've cried more than a few puddles of tears on Matt's bed, had him handing me tissues and complaining that he's not our damn therapist, and really, he should start charging more money, inking our sorry lot night after night.

"I know what you mean."

We're quiet after that as the sobs continue, teetering between pain and elation.

"This could be a while," I warn. I'm debating going to the diner across the street for some black coffee and scrambled eggs, hoping my budget can take it, because I can't afford to skip an ink session. Not tonight, with my skin feeling tight as a snare drum.

"Why don't we go for a walk then?" Thérèse asks. She smiles again, her teeth gleaming under the too-bright colored light.

"A walk?"

"Yeah." She stands up and fixes her '90s stonewashed denim skirt. "Unless, of course, you have something better to do."

She exits the parlor, a trail of sandalwood perfume lingering behind her. Belatedly, I follow, and catch the matte black door as it swings shut behind her.

The night is mild, though mist rolls down from the far-off mountains skirting my city. We walk side by side, my hands shoved in the holey pockets of my hoodie. She carries her strappy heels hooked in her index and middle finger. Her bare feet stamp the pavement like she owns every grimy inch of it.

"You from around these parts?" I ask.

"Not really. Drifting, I guess. Searching."

"For what?" I ask, because that's what I'm supposed to do.

She loops her arm through mine. "What we all want, one way or another. A little pain."

I realize we're walking toward my squat. There's still time to change course, steer her back to the diner across from Matt's parlor, but I don't. It's been a while since I've been with someone—since Jax, really, unless you count the sloppy hand jobs I've given here and there to make some coin.

She doesn't look disgusted or even surprised as I lead her up the dingy staircase of the abandoned office building I've called home for two years now. Her eyes and mouth remain relaxed, impassive. Up we go, through bare corridors and over sleeping bodies until we reach the top floor. It's a nice place, all things considered. There's no running water or electricity, but Jax left behind some aromatic lavender candles. There's also a claw-foot tub that was here before I came across this place, a mirror, and, pushed against the far wall, my mattress. It still carries a whiff of the old people's home from where it came, but I've draped a clean floral comforter over it to smother the ghosts.

Thérèse removes her top and skirt as I circumnavigate the room, lighting candles. The small office space appears timeless in the flamelight. It might as well have been a Paleolithic cave. Our kiss is also primal, like hunting woolly beasts and drawing on walls. Thérèse bites down on my bottom lip. I'm a taut wire, shivers traversing my body all the way to my crotch. Taking her lead, I throw her on the mattress, and fish around my rucksack a condom—one of the few safety measures I allow myself. She tears off my hoodie and digs flaming red trenches into the fading tattoos on my back.

In flashes of skin and candlelight, I catch more words on her body, more designs. An anatomical heart, bulging with blood. The word slut, crossed out. A braided-rope noose. I count twenty-two notches along her ribcage, one for every year she's spent alive, I assume. She clasps my face between her hands, fingernails wet with my blood, and makes me fall into her eyes, grey as mid-winter mornings working with Pietre at the loading docks.

She wails when I'm inside her, and I do too. The sounds we drag out of our throats remind me of the sobbing guy at the tattoo parlor. Her thumb presses against the knot of my Adam's apple. She takes each of my gasps into her mouth, tying them together with her tongue like cherry stems, and returning them manifold. I shouldn't be surprised. This, here, is just another way of getting a dose of that elusive pain-pleasure feeling, our drug of choice.

I shouldn't feel so used.

For all her harshness, Thérèse holds me close after it's over. She runs her fingers gently through my hair and cushions my head on her small breasts. I think of Wendy Darling. I think of my mother. I think of Jax, though the memory is a piece of rebar going through my chest.

"So, what's your story?" she asks as she lights a cigarette from the flame of a half-melted candle. For a moment, she looks like a shadow puppet against the hazy wall.

I think about my drunkard dad kicking me out of the house for being a "bad influence" on my younger siblings, my mom too helpless to stop him. About going to school while living on the streets. Trying to slit my wrists on graduation day. Meeting Jax, the two of us promising to nurse each other's wounds, then failing spectacularly. Going to the parlors. Always the parlors.

My phone chimes. Thérèse leans over to peer at the cracked screen. She seems to have forgotten about her question as soon as it left her mouth.

"Someone named Pietre wants you to know there's a party down at the docks." She grinds her cigarette into the bare floor and discards it, already tugging on her shirt. Her nipples are sharp as gravel against the soft fabric. "Text him we're on our way."

The docks should be empty this time of night save for the usual loiterers and crackheads, but now the rotting wood walkways are bursting with people of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some drink cheap beer. Others share smokes or kisses or secrets inside pools of pale streetlamp light.

The ships are a lustrous dark grey against the muddy sky. Pietre emerges from the biggest one through a hole in its side. He slings his arm around my shoulders in greeting. A beanie is pulled low over his forehead. He looks out of it, his pupils black holes swallowing his face.

"I really outdid myself this time, Billy," Pietre says, motioning toward the metal beast vibrating with techno music. He only seems to notice Thérèse when she pointedly clears her throat. "… And Billy's friend. Come. Enjoy yourselves."

Thérèse grabs a beer from some random kid and a lit cigarette from a spiky-haired girl. She taps the dangling ash into the tall neck of her bottle, then downs the beer in one go before dragging me inside, a bullet whizzing through the darkness.

This isn't my first ship-hull party, but it's definitely my biggest one yet. People are packed tight together, worse than the subway during rush hour. Music thumps from somewhere I can't place, turning the entire ship into an echo chamber, everything, even my heartbeat, amplified. Hookah smoke and other noxious hazy fumes I don't recognize drift upward; the ceiling turns into a smoggy sky with no end or beginning.

Thérèse dives deeper into the crowd, swimming her way through various rooms and levels. A vigorous game of beer pong is under way in one of the darkened rooms. What looks like a role-playing sex scene in the next one. Down a slippery corridor, a fledgling tattoo artist has set up shop, and people are lining up to get inked. I linger, but Thérèse shakes her head and keeps going. I follow her, though I itch for the artist's needle. In that way, I'm no better than a dog wearing a buster collar to stop him from biting at his wound.

At last, Thérèse stops, digging her nails into my arm. I'm still sore from earlier—from her own brand of tattoo artistry—but she doesn't notice my wince.

"There. Look!" she shouts in my eardrum and points. Her heavy-lidded eyes are more alert than ever before, her movements sharper, electric.

I follow the course of her finger. In the depths of the out-of-commission ship, a crowd has gathered below a girl, suspended in midair. When I blink, I notice the glinting of flesh hooks, attached to thick wire rope fastened to the ship's ceiling pipes. The girl hangs by her own skin, twirling, dancing, and contorting into impossible shapes as two wing-like hooks stick out of her shoulder blades. The music is different here, hypnotic. The transfixed crowd, as one, doesn't dare look away from the girl's graceful swan form.

What immobilizes me is the look on her face. She must be in pain, yet the smile across her lips can only be described as peaceful. And I get to thinking how maybe she's hanging from her own skin so she doesn't feel the need to jump out of it like the rest of us.

We stay through the entire performance, this almost religious experience. Finally, the hooks and wires are lowered. The flying girl's feet touch the ground, and two of her helpers rush to her side and carefully remove the hooks. Twin holes gape through her skin, which her helpers slather with antiseptic. The hushed crowd breaks into roaring applause. The girl's smile is dazzling in its dreaminess as she leans against her helpers and laps up everyone's drunken adoration.

"We should try it," Thérèse says, tugging at my arm again.

"Look, I get the appeal, trust me. But we can't just go for it. You need to be properly trained, or else you might seriously hurt yours—"

But Thérèse has already let go of my arm to weave eel-like through the crowd. I watch her congratulate the girl for her performance. Thérèse stares at the flesh hooks the whole time, and the look on her face is starving.

I step back, hit by invisible flying shrapnel. She reminds me of Jax again. How the temporary tattoos soon weren't enough for them, so they turned to extreme body modifications and increasingly dangerous online dares. How I couldn't do anything to comfort them anymore, couldn't make the pain better when all they wanted was more of it. And how it's been a year since Jax upped and left our squat. I still don't know where they are, whether they've managed to sate that bone-deep hunger or let it consume them.

I turn around and leave then, because I don't know what I'll do if I stay with Thérèse. The gyrating lights, tang of sweat and smoke, music pounding like angry fists, it's all too much. I close my eyes and try to find my way out of the ship's guts by instinct alone, shrugging off the party-goers' hands on my shoulders and their drink offers.

Outside, I take greedy gulps of air as I double over, my clammy palms gripping my bent knees. I lost my hoodie somewhere inside the ship, but I'll be damned if I go back to search for it. I rub my goose-prickled arms and cut through the thick darkness of side streets that smell like sewage and burnt rubber, retracing my steps toward the abandoned office building.

I can't get out of my head Thérèse's hungry look or the suspended girl's serene smile. The night air has teeth, yet I'm sweating, my tattered undershirt clinging to my back like a second skin. I pass by Matt's tattoo parlor. The neon sign stills my feet, an alien beam. Two things are true: The thought of sharp objects is sickening after tonight, and it's more tempting than ever.

The squat's top floor still smells like sex and sandalwood. The candles have all burned out. Slivers of moonlight squeeze through the gaps in the boarded-up windows. I take off my clothes and stand before the smudged full-length mirror. In the feeble light, I inspect the body I'm always trying to escape. The scars from my last attempt encircle my wrists, pale, puckered handcuffs, always there. Before my sleepless eyes, the last traces of my temporary ink fade away, leaving my body bare and untouched like a newborn baby's. A blank canvas.

Still naked, I crawl onto my mattress and cocoon myself in my comforter. I don't drift off until dawn breaks over the mountains surrounding my city. In my dream, I burst into flames, and a dragon flies out of what's left of my skin.

Notes from the Author
I wrote this story with the purpose of exploring different forms of self harm. The title, "Canvas Skin", was inspired by the latin phrase "tabula rasa."

First appeared in The Blue Route, Issue 23