LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE GIRL IN THE TATTOO PARLOR
BY MICHELLE TEA
Alaska. I met you in Dallas. You were leaning on the counter of a tattoo parlor, flipping through a book of flash. Your eyelids were painted like butterfly wings and you wore one of those plasticy track jackets from the 80s, purple and green and gold, that made a whooshing sound when your arms moved. Your shorts were so short I could see the tattoos coming up the back of your legs—a woman’s eyes captured in a rearview mirror hung with a pair of dice. Chain link, shattered glass. I felt a throb of jealousy and feared that my own tattoos were basic. Your tattoos are so cool, I told you, and you responded with a smile. I knew you were an Aquarius, because I am, too, and I could feel all at once something spacey and brilliant and detached and engaged about you.
You said, “It’s like you’re the future me and I’m the past you,” and there is no bigger compliment to get, as a 48-year-old, than hearing that the coolest girl in Dallas would happily age into where I stood that day. I was wearing a rose-colored camisole and a pair of coral lady slacks, and the mural of maybe-basic tattoos scattered over my own body—hearts on my fingers; the word Amethyst, my birthstone, ornate on my neck; hands holding roses across my collarbone—saved me from looking like a slightly quirky business lady.
Alaska, I told you that I was not as cool as you when I was your age, and I wasn’t being modest. When I was your age, in New England, I had a lousy boyfriend and I was blowing all my hard-earned money on a single semester in college. I was not cheerfully lounging around a tattoo parlor, taking in the framed flash that lined the walls—Japanese samurai and World War II motifs, the glowering devil masks and jumbled piles of dice, all of it lit with the hot glow of the neon on the back wall: T A T T O O. The whole room was like an altar of sorts, and the two of us, Past and Future, were ready to offer our skin as a sacrifice.
Alaska, you can’t tell me you like it here in Dallas. What is this place? I’m staying in an Airbnb, an apartment in a neighborhood of condos. It stinks like cheap cleaning products, like the murder of a previous guest had just been scoured away. I mean, I guess it’s clean. I sat on the back stairs smoking last night, watching lightning crawl across the sky. I did like that, a Texan lightning storm. I thought I was staying in low-income housing, but in the morning, I walked through the neighborhood, strewn with those scooters, tipped onto lawns like they’d been driven home drunk, and I wondered—students? I called a car on my phone and for blocks and blocks and blocks this went on, these condos, and I felt like I could have been in any sad spot in America.
This neighborhood, Deep Ellum, is the good one, though, right? I feel its growing wildness as afternoon ends, with more chaos to come as Sunday day drinkers transition into night. I’m getting a tattoo because I’m traveling and I’m bored and I’m in love, and it’s a strange combination of sensations inside my body. It’s less boring to travel now that my partner and I have opened up our relationship, when every day of work winks into a nighttime of possible dates with local strangers. But—I can’t tell if you’re queer or what, Alaska, but I just want to share that my current experiment of hooking up with a bunch of cisgendered straight guys has been kind of a bust. Like, with the exception of a single hot Scorpio with a tattooed neck in Portland, Oregon, it’s been a real snoozefest. The one last night, before the lightning storm, was the worst yet. He didn’t seem to get my joke about the low-income dorm I was staying in, and when I got to his place I saw it was the same kind of joint, only, like, funky, with a chandelier in the foyer. I thought because he’d lived in Oakland and was in the theater and practiced Non-Violent Communication child-rearing techniques with his kid that he’d be more interesting, but I have found that the stultifying effects of cisgendered white heterosexual maleness can trump anything. I was hoping the sex would be a regional adventure, and preferable to staying in the creepy apartment, but as it happened, that lightning was the best part of my night.
Earlier today I was at this bookstore, Deep Vellum, and is that a great place or what? Generally, a bookstore is going to be the best part of any neighborhood. Think of Antigone Books in Tucson, Arizona, sitting on the corner there for years, hippies and college kids and everyone else passing by. Moon Palace in Minneapolis, a literal rainbow oasis. Source Books in Detroit, a soulful spot tucked into a gentrifying block in a gentrifying neighborhood. At Deep Vellum, Cristina took Tatiana Ryckman’s I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) and pushed it into my hands, because she is a Libra in love with love who also happens to be, presently, in actual love, as am I, and thus understanding of this impulse to push my hungry face into books, searching for a phrase or verse or poem that resonates with the passion coursing through my body, so that I can take a picture with my phone and text it to my amour who is so far away from me, today but also always, in San Francisco, near Alley Cat Books, a great, roomy bookstore with art in the back and streamers in the doorway. In Los Angeles there are no bookstores to walk to, but Skylight is just a car ride away, with a tree growing up toward a window in the ceiling and an employee who sketches book covers onto old cardboard boxes with colored pencils and sells them for five dollars. I’ve bought Welcome to the Goon Squad, The Argonauts and White Fragility. At Deep Vellum I bought a chapbook by Lucy Ellmann and Esme Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, and I followed Cristina’s directions to the tattoo shop, crossing streets and turning corners, moving toward where the sidewalks became fuller, people lingering with cigarettes or walking with beers, the ubiquitous smell of weed, a booming hip hop in the distance growing louder, as if I were walking into a festival. I swear that guy thinks I’m cruising him. I keep walking past him, back and forth, but I’m just lost. There, there is the tattoo shop.
Alaska, I have to tell you, I do not like my tattoo. We were both getting baby-themed pieces—funny, right, another thing between us—but you got the only girl artist in the shop and I got that guy who looked like my depressed stepfather. My tattoo of a snake twining around a baby bottle, its fangs poised to strike the nipple, is too big and bright, too cartoony. I’d imagined it more classic and elegant, occult. My artist looked sad, like he knew I was disappointed, but I guess he’d looked that way from the start. Out front we stood on opposite ends of the shop’s long, plate glass window and smoked cigarettes, and sometimes I caught him looking at me regretfully. Meanwhile, the neighborhood had erupted into full wildness. A woman in a wheelchair bummed a cigarette off me, and the music was so loud it seemed to come from the darkening sky, from god’s own boombox.
I wanted a tattoo because the love inside my heart had nowhere to go and made me feel wild and reckless and craving of sensation, and now I had it, throbbing on my arm, the skin around it bruising. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if that tattoo is good or bad. I knocked on the window before I left, Alaska, and you looked up from your own tattoo of an evil baby, and the smile you gave me was so legit. I know you’re not going to stay in Dallas, no matter how good the ramen is at Oni or the stock at Deep Vellum, your tattoo connection or your obvious thrift scores. I’ll find you in another city, draped over the counter in a different tattoo parlor, the vixen on the back of your thigh forever peering into the cracked rearview at the highway she left behind.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michelle Tea's collection of essays, Against Memoir, is the recipient of the 2019 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the essay. She is the author of over a dozen books in various genres, including Valencia, which won a Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction, and most recently, the Astro Baby children's astrology series. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, Cosmopolitan, The Believer, Marie Clare, n+1, Buzzfeed and many other print and web publications. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Header image by Stephanie Johnson