Storyglossia Issue 18, February 2007.

Tattooed People

by Seth Harwood


The tattooed couple live below us on the hill, on a street parallel to ours. Our balcony overlooks their small back yard from three floors above. I watch them sometimes. They're the kind of people you notice.

He's got big muttonchop sideburns and tattoos all over his arms. On the weekends, when he wears shorts, I see the tattoos on his legs, on his calves and wrapped around his ankles. From where I am, I imagine Celtic symbols curling around his biceps, intertwined with drawings of maidens and people's names. He seems like the kind to have a magic mushroom somewhere in it all.

The woman is big and pale and looks filled with some liquid, something that makes her wobble when she moves. But she dresses punk rock and she has tattoos on her arms and one on her chest that shows above her shirt, a big, round one that looks like a sun. When she wears her hair pulled into buns, one below each ear, I can see a tattoo above her shoulders, a round, dark mark on her neck. Usually, she wears a shirt with draw-ties, open in the back. I can see the skin there is pale and untouched, except for a dark tattooed diamond on her left side, on the left side of her back. I wonder if she has something there on her front too, as if something ran through her and her heart.

The two of them have a girl, a baby close to my Emily's age, pale and chubby like her mother, with folds of skin around her body, especially at the elbows and knees.

They play with her when I'm alone on the balcony, usually when I've come back from a run and am cooling off, or when I'm rocking Emily to sleep in my arms, or sometimes if I'm done feeding her and don't have a book to read, or she's asleep. It's usually just me and her out there, is my point. I don't know why I watch them, maybe because they're moving, or because they're people. I suppose they can see me, could be aware of me all the time I sit there, watching, but they don't seem to notice. It could be because I'm up so high. For all anybody would think, I should be watching the big view of the sky over their house and the hills beyond the trees that recede into the distance, behind the expensive Arlington houses; any normal person would watch the clouds moving and the sunset getting ready to happen and then slowly happening in red and orange and gold, out over the green hills and the cell phone tower in the distance.

Sarah comes by less and less now, and when she does she just wants to pick up Emily or talk about the new bioterrorism lab and how if the protests stop its development it'll be one small step toward making this a safer world. "They're a racist organization," she says. "Profiling the poor and ethnic neighborhoods for a fallout if an accident occurs is racism. Not to mention what would happen to the rest of us if this place was attacked, or if these agents ever got into the wrong hands. How anybody could even imagine putting something like this in a big city, anywhere, after 9/11 is beyond me." This is the heart of it, her concern about how any of us could have anything—baby included—in the world post-9/11. And so this lab, its possession of agents to create anthrax, smallpox, plague, botulism, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers, meaning Ebola, she says, its placement within our city boundaries forms a close-by and egregious problem that she can conveniently put her time into acting against in the name of standing up for something.

I try to get her to talk about how we got to where she lives in the South End without me and I'm here by myself and with Emily, but that usually sends her for the door. Of course I understand the bulk of it, that she has her needs and views on things, how we had our problems, and why a separation was just. But when she has left, I sit in front of Emily's empty high chair and watch the tattooed people unload their baby from her stroller—they have just come back from a walk—and then they go inside or stay and spend time in their yard.

One evening, I see the tattooed couple has brought home two small puppies, mutts, one brown and one white with spots. They allow them to play in the yard, unleashed, running and falling over one another. The tattooed mother holds her baby close to the spotted dog and it yips, but the baby doesn't cry, just stretches out its hand toward the dog, while her mother carries her away. The dogs play and fall all over each other, rolling on their backs in the grass, kicking at the air.

It is later that night when I see the tattooed man and his wife come out into their yard. The light clicks on at their motion, and I can see them clearly. He holds a beer in his right hand. I can see for the first time that his fingers appear stained, the skin of his thumb dark as if from working on cars, and it occurs to me that he might be a mechanic. He sips his beer. The woman sits down on the steps of their back porch, just two or three concrete rises. She holds their baby. Emily is asleep somewhere, I hope, at her mother's; to me it is late at night, time for children to be sleeping, for the adults to be together. Sarah should be here.

The tattooed man touches the face of his child: first her cheek with the tip of his finger, and then the top of her nose like it's a button, something to press. She reaches out to him, takes his big hand in both of hers, and brings it to her mouth. This is what babies do, I know, but I wonder if this man has considered whether his finger might be clean enough for a baby to suck. I have seen people who work with their hands and with tools and I have known them to be clean and conscientious; I have also noticed when their hands become stained from the work they do. I remember the summer I worked at a nursery, before my senior year of high school, and what happened to my thumb after two weeks of watering the plants. On the hottest days, every plant and flower had to be watered once in the morning and then again in the afternoon. To do this, I carried a spray nozzle that I hooked and unhooked to various sections of the hose system that ran throughout the nursery. For each plant, pot, and planter, I would turn the hose on for a short burst, then off. The control for this was a small metal lever at the top of the handle, which you could manipulate with your thumb. That motion, the on and off, combined with the wetness of my skin from the short spray of water when I'd connect or disconnect the nozzle, kept my thumb in an evolving state of disrepair throughout the summer. After two weeks, its right side had gone from red, to rust, to swollen, to broken open, to crater, to scabbed, and then to gray. Because of the movement and the wetness, it was impossible to keep a Band-Aid on the spot, or even a bandage. Tape fell off. I also couldn't perform this function with any other finger. So, resigned to my fate, I watched my thumb change over that summer, callous, become destroyed, and finally achieve a thick, dark cover that could withstand the treatment, but has never looked the same.

I say all of this in sympathy to the tattooed man, but still I wonder at his decision to let the baby put his finger into her mouth. He takes another sip of his beer and leans forward to full-on kiss his wife. She says something to him that gets him to put his beer down, then she hands him the baby. He takes the child in both hands, at first, but then shifts her onto his hip so that he has one hand free. With this hand, he cups his wife's breast, and then, like a ripe grapefruit at the supermarket, he pops it up out of her shirt through some feat of the loose-fitting tie-around garment she wears. I see this; I see her tattooed breast in their back yard under their light. They do not seem to notice, or care to wonder if I am watching, but I see that she does have a tattoo there, in front of her heart, and that it in fact does resemble the one on her back in that it has the same shape, as if she has been run through.

She slaps his hand away, stands up, and disappears into the house. In a moment, the light on the back of their house goes off. The yard falls into a semi-darkness where I can see only the outline of the man holding his child. He touches the baby's face again and she takes a knuckle into her mouth. Soon the wife returns holding a beer of her own and hands another to the man. I notice a large tattoo high up on her shoulder and how dark it looks, especially without the light. Now her skin looks paler, almost glows in the dim light of the backyard and the urban neighborhood. There is a moon above us, but the other porch lights and the tall streetlamps overpower whatever dim light it would provide. There are backyards and porches all around us, some with lights on, but I look around and they're empty. Perhaps because I am so high above, or because my chair is back against the house, they cannot see me looking down. But then, they haven't much bothered to look.

The man sets down his new beer and bottoms-ups the first, emptying it. He leans forward again, kissing his wife, and presses his hand against her breast. She stops him, then turns the shirt around, rotating it across her body so the open part comes to the front, revealing her naked breast but also a large portion of her side. Here, under her arm, I can see another tattoo, this one some form of dragon, snaking around from her back and threatening toward the lower half of her breast, connecting the two I've already mentioned. The man caresses her nipple with his hand, then brings his mouth down onto it. From where I am, not closer than forty feet, I imagine I can see his tongue, its flickering across her breast. Surely there is milk.

As I see this, the woman begins to knead the front of his shorts, between his legs, and then one of her hands slips up a leg of his shorts. This is when I should retreat into my own apartment and let them have their nighttime neighborhood encounter, I know, but would it be so illicit without an observer, a neighbor? Assuming I'm the only one watching. I want to applaud them for their spontaneity and daring, the simple fact that even at the point of having a child, they're wild enough to do this. Then I see the man move the baby toward his wife's exposed breast and they make a transfer: the baby into her arms and its small mouth onto her nipple. With both hands free, he starts sliding handfuls of skirt up her thighs, revealing increasing amounts of her legs, until, with much of her pale thigh exposed to the night air—I can see a tattoo encircling her ankle and calf, and another that starts around her knee—he slips in between her legs as she opens his pants and brings him out into the night and into her.

She leans her head back, mouth open, when he is against her, and her long hair falls down her back, shining in the night. Her legs seem even paler than the rest of her, resemble something brought up from deep underwater and not used to seeing the open air. I can see their shapes perfectly, but only the shape and the intrusions of her tattoos against her skin. She grips his back with her free hand as, their baby between them, he starts to push against her, rocking back and forth in their embrace. All I want to know is if the child is still feeding and if she plays any part in this act, if she knows that something is happening between her parents. But I want to know more: if this is happiness, or family, or love. It seems to be all three from where I sit, watching from my chair, admittedly aroused. But what can I do other than call Sarah, jerk off, or watch quietly? The man leans into his wife, kissing her deep on the mouth and then on her neck, both of their hands holding their baby and then on each other, and though this should not work, it does, his hips moving until she even cries out once, her head back, and he offers his thumb for her to bite between her molars.

Later, I sit alone, unaccompanied by the tattooed parents and their child, and watch the night clouds drifting by against the glow of the moon.

The next afternoon, with Emily back and in her crib for her afternoon nap, I see the tattooed woman feeding her baby on their back porch. She is inside, protected by a roof and screens, isn't in the backyard itself—this is where her dogs play, running and tackling ceaselessly like the happy puppies that they are—and she may be, by some loose definition, in her house itself, but I can see her, her breast exposed, her child intently feeding. This time she has untied the upper tie of her shirt and let its top half fall on one side. I've seen other mothers feeding their babies in public places when they have to, but this seems an extension of their private space to some extent, as if I am the one in the wrong here, the one who should go away. I'm tempted to stand and make myself seen with a loud gesture, maybe even to drop something, an action to let her know in all certainty that I'm here, but then the other side of her shirt-top falls forward, revealing her other breast, free and unobstructed into my day, and I'm somewhat glad, even knowing that I shouldn't be, to see it there. She's revealed no tattoos with this new exposure, only more soft flesh, probably stretch-marked, I imagine, but I'm glad for it regardless, glad to feel the warm summer sun on my face and for this little excitement to come into my life for as long as it takes her to finish the feeding. I sit and watch her, watch the pleasure she takes in nourishing her baby. The child sucks away, happily, and the mother virtually glows, looking down at her child and smiling. In time, she switches the baby to her other breast, and I see the first come into full view, pillowed against her shirt, its nipple pointing up, red and swollen as if in the pleasure of sex. It is at this moment, exactly as I notice this, that she looks up, directly at me and smiling as if she's known the whole time where I was and that I've been watching. The she looks back at her child, as quickly as she's acknowledged me, perhaps not really seeing me after all, or perhaps wanting our complicity to keep trucking along. I watch until she's finished and back in the house.

How can these people be so unconcerned, or unembarrassed, I wonder, not knowing the exact word that I should use to describe what they are doing, and I wonder mainly—this later on at night, while I'm heating Emily's bottle—what, if anything, I should do. After dinner—Sarah still hasn't called—I sit outside on our balcony with Emily, holding her and thinking of the night before, replaying the tattooed couple's actions, their movements and motions on the screen of my mind.

That night they do not come outside, and for a few nights I don't see them in their yard. Though I have Emily to take care of, I admit to getting lonely, feeling a little more alone. And then, in a miracle phone call, Sarah inserts herself, says she wants to stay for dinner when she'll pick up Emily next. She comes over the next night and actually falls against me when I open the door. "I'm so tired," she says, burying her face in my chest and wrapping her arms around me.

"Sarah," I say. I run my hand over the top of her head, bend to smell her hair hoping for her familiar scent, but she smells different now, vaguely of cigarettes and must, not at all like the apple-shampoo that she used to emanate. Already she is moving away from me, tilting back and away as though I shouldn't have done something, smelled her, as if I've crossed a boundary. She moves past into the kitchen, loudly approving and considering the bags of groceries I've just come home with.

I turn and watch her start taking food out of the tall paper bags: lettuce, yellow squash, a bag of plums, a cantaloupe. Emily is in her stroller beside me, watching too, reaching with both arms for her mother and cooing. I bend to unbuckle her and lift her up. "Emily, do you want to see mommy?"

To her credit, Sarah looks at us and stops unpacking groceries. "Oh," she says, as if the thought of holding her baby hadn't crossed her mind but now that it has she remembers it's supposed to be fun, even her favorite thing in the world. "Oh, Emily," she says, coming to us with her hands out, her face changing from surprise to looking as if she might suddenly cry. "Emily my girl."

I pass our child to her mother, an action as simple as standing still, but one that holds everything our family has become, might be. I want to share this with Sarah: our baby, the acts of taking care of her, the joy at seeing the light in her eyes every day—our eyes, more hers than mine, I think. Sarah spins around with Emily's body against her chest, Emily's small head cupped in one of her hands and pressed against her shoulder. "Oh, my baby," she says. "Baby, baby, baby."

"I'm sorry for all I did," I start to say, then stop. I want to say sorry for whatever I've done, for being a bully or an ass, insisting on having this child even refusing to talk about the world in the way Sarah wanted, but instead I stop myself, not wanting our time together to go that way. Having thought it through, my hope is to keep our dinner happy, to avoid the talking as much as Sarah might want. "I'll start cooking," I say, headed for the rest of the bags.

After a stir fry of tofu, squash, mushrooms, green onions, and snow peas over brown rice, both of us eating in relative silence, not exactly the happiness and remembrances I'd hoped for, I lean back and watch Sarah and Emily sitting side by side at our table, Emily in her high chair and Sarah tickling her lightly, making the baby smile.

"She's got a big tooth coming in here," Sarah says with a finger in Emily's gums.

I shake my head. "Not unless it's come in since this morning."

"Nope. It'll be there," she says. "These are things a mother just knows."

"Right," I say, though I'd like to say something about how she'd know better if she saw her daughter more than the two or three nights a week. Instead I nod, push my lip out, say, "Maybe you're right. But that seems like the kind of knowledge we could use more of around here."

She puts both her hands on the table. "I don't want to get into that, now. When we had that conversation, you said what you said and we agreed what we agreed. We talked."

"Really? There's no need to discuss it again, our lives set in stone? You can't be a mother and do these things?"

Sarah shakes her head. She starts to say something and then stops, squints her eyes and bunches her face up like she's holding her breath, then exhales loudly, letting the air burst out of her lips. "I don't know what to say to you, Adam. It's not like I'm trying to hurt you; it's not like I don't sometimes think about just what you're saying, don't—" She stops and puts her hands on the table again, runs them through her hair, puts them back on the table.

"Fuck," she says, standing. She walks past me, to the door of the balcony, and leans against it. Then she opens the door and goes outside. I get up and follow her. She's at the railing, holding it, when I come out.

"Shh," she says when I come toward her. When I get close, I see why: with their lights off, the tattooed couple sit side-by-side on their back steps, the man holding a beer, and the woman holding their baby, breastfeeding it as it lies in her arms. Only the side of her breast is visible now, almost to the nipple, and I can see the top of the tattoo I'd noticed already on her side. "Who are they?" Sarah whispers.

I shake my head.

"They have tattoos," she says.

I want to say that I've seen them having sex out there, that I've seen both her breasts. "She does this sometimes," I say. "I see her."

The tattooed man looks up, not at us but possibly at the sky, the stars above him, maybe looking for the Big Dipper—it's just above their house—and brings his beer up to his mouth for a long drink. He puts it down and I can hear his gasp, the sigh or grab for air that he makes as he finishes his pull. Just a small sound in the night: a satisfied sound, the sound of a man breathing.

"Oh," Sarah says, her hand coming up to her mouth to cover a yawn. "That's unfortunate." She looks back at the couple. "Funny," she says, and heads back inside.

"OK, here it is," she starts, when we are both in the kitchen. "I'd like to try and make this thing work again but I feel like I am doing what I need to be doing right now. This is what's right for me." She lifts Emily up. "I love this kid. I love you. But I need to take a stand for one thing in my life so I know who I am, that I stood up."

I sit down at the table, not knowing if the one thing she's standing up for is her protest, the anti-bioterrorism research cause, or if it's against me. I start stacking our plates and silverware from dinner. Either way, I've heard all of this before.

I carry a load of plates to the sink and turn on the water.

"Can you stop?" she says. "Just listen to me."

I've already got the wet sponge in my hand. I wring it out and rinse it under the water and squeeze all the water out of it. I set it down and turn off the faucet, dry my hands on the still-wet, rumpled and dirty dishrag that's always on the counter next to the sink.

I stop; I look at Sarah and get ready to listen.

Copyright©2007 Seth Harwood