The very first thing Virginia and I did when we escaped the Second Day Believers was get tattooed. Thinking back, I can’t remember why we chose to do this, or why we chose to do it where we did, which was at a small tattoo shop that played death metal at top volume in South Beach. Death metal and South Beach are two things that don’t necessarily go hand in hand—perhaps the awkwardness of the shop is what appealed to us. We didn’t really make a hell of a lot of sense standing next to each other, either. Virginia, with her blonde hair and large breasts, she just screamed sex—a characteristic likely linked to the specific types of abuse she’d endured up to that point in her life— and me. I had dark brown hair, almost black, really, and my tits were very small and I looked younger than my age. Virginia looked older than her eighteen years. Add to that, we brought Isaac, the impetus of our absconding, to the tattoo shop with us, and he was only twelve, and he definitely looked younger than that. As we walked into the shop, it occurred to me that we looked, quite literally, like a bad joke—a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead walk into a tattoo parlor, and so on and so forth.
We hadn’t found shelter, which, in retrospect, seems far more pressing a concern than getting tattooed, but there we were, prepared to hand over a good amount of money that we didn’t have to spare. The reasoning behind this was that this flight from vassalage was a big moment for us—a profound undertaking for the three of us—and a salute to our bravery was in order. Some sort of homage that would serve as a reminder of this act of reclaiming what was ours. And while Isaac was too young to convince the tattoo artist to accept his money, Virginia and I were successful in obtaining her services. Virginia chose an image of a winged nymph from a booklet of stock tattoos, explaining that she sometimes felt similar to a nymph. She looked human, and had all the human parts in the correct locations, but she questioned the authenticity of her humanness, and at times, believed that she might be something of a subspecies of human, much like a nymph. She placed this nymph on her upper left arm, which was the same location I chose to place my tattoo, which turned out to be, to my credit, a tattoo I am pleased to have to this day—which is not to say that I didn’t experience parts of the tattooing process previously described, because I did, just not the turquoise, or the butterfly or fairy or shooting star. Instead, I had tattooed on me the letters “NOAN/MROM/WMC” in three rows, in a simple black font.
It only took one week before Virginia became wildly jealous of my tattoo, vocally wishing that she’d decided against the turquoise nymph she’d chosen. I was lucky to have chosen what I did—I didn’t do so out of wisdom, I picked these letters because they corresponded with the first letter of each word in the following phrase: “No one and nothing may rule over me without my consent,” another of my father’s mantras, one he’d never spoken to me directly, but I’d heard him mumbling to himself late at night when I was supposed to be asleep. I’ve been told this is unsettling—the fact that my father muttered these words quietly to himself when he incorrectly believed he was enjoying a moment of privacy. I disagree. I was lucky to have had a sage father who impacted me so strongly that his words stayed with me at all times. His insightfulness managed to make me appear equally sage when I tattooed the words that, at that point I had yet to evaluate, but were meaningful to him, on my flesh. And I was lucky also, in that those words that were meaningful to him happened by coincidence to apply quite aptly to my own circumstances.
The tattoo artist—her name was Anne—said she’d never seen young girls like Virginia and myself get tattooed without showing any sign of pain whatsoever—she’d seen grown men cry while getting tattooed, she said, and there we were, gazing off into the air in front of us, not even blinking. As she was tattooing me, my nose began to bleed, and I didn’t react to this, either—this is, of course, not at all surprising, as my nose bled constantly. It was just another nosebleed, like the hundreds that preceded it. But Anne found it eerie to see an obviously underage girl getting her first tattoo, her face bleeding for no apparent reason, another young but overtly sexual girl with her, and a little boy with a spider web painted on his face. To her eyes, none of these strange characters who had entered her shop that evening seemed to have an emotional reaction to things that, generally speaking, elicited emotional reactions in people who stereotypically would be much less prone to displaying emotion.
Anne’s hair seemed wet, as though she’d just showered, though it was more likely just greasy from not having just showered, and she was wearing a skirt with little bells woven into the trim. This particular feature caused her to jingle with the slightest movement, which I initially found to be very irritating, but then I quickly became somewhat mesmerized by the surprisingly soothing sound. They say that noises, if repeated with a steady pattern, cause humans to be reminded of their time in the womb. The steady noise mimics the mother’s heartbeat, apparently. This can apply to any noise, even a jackhammer, so long as it has the right rhythm, and no matter who we are, even if our mothers died and left us when we were babies, we all subconsciously want nothing more than to return to the womb, where we were protected by a soft uterus and placated by the established and expected delivery of an unchanging heartbeat. Madam Six never offered any soothing noises—there was nothing consistent except for her nightly drug coma, accompanied by what I suppose could have been a steady pattern of drool dripping from her wet bottom lip. This tattoo artist and her jingling dress soothed me, which I suppose means that I was temporarily returned to the womb. Instead of being entirely soothed, however, I was acutely aware of the fact that I was being soothed. Dr. Green told me this meant that, for me, the womb wasn’t the most relaxing place I could think of. I guess for me it’s a blueberry field or something. As Anne worked on me, she babbled incessantly.
“Do you like cats?” she asked us, and we all just stayed quiet.
“Oh god, I love them,” she said. “I had my cat, Gilda, for sixteen years. Then she got really sick and was getting these little kitty tumors and would go to the bathroom everywhere, including on guests, and she was just crying all the time, so I decided that I needed to put her down before she was just the most unhappy creature living on this earth. The vets told me that she was indeed in pain, though in retrospect, I really want to know how they knew. Then I took her there and I stayed in the room, and the moment she went down was the worst moment ever—it was so fast, much faster than I expected, and I just stayed in the room hyperventilating for as long as it took before they told me they really needed the room and they were sorry but could I please get the fuck out of there? Then I got in my car and called my mom and said nothing, but just cried. My poor mom, helpless from all those miles away. Then of course I was hallucinating her everywhere I looked and I had dreams about her and I began to convince myself that there was nothing wrong with her at all and I’d just murdered her. That was shitty. I always have to remind myself that I didn’t murder her, she was really sick, she peed on guests, etcetera. Then, this guy I was dating at the time—not for long, maybe a week or two—asked if he could come over to cheer me up and I said no, I want to be alone, please do not come here, please don’t think I need to be saved by you tonight, I want to be alone. And he came anyway, and he was wearing a Garfield shirt, and on it he’d drawn a bullet hole right thought Garfield’s head and written “dead kitty” in permanent marker, and he brought candy, all this candy, and he called them “dead kitty snacks.” I could tell he didn’t know he was socially inept, that all this was what he was doing in an attempt to make me feel better, and he just didn’t know how to cope with someone being so upset. Oddly, because it was so bizarre, it did distract me a bit. The poor guy, he’ll never be human.”
“That was a lot about a dead cat,” Isaac said.
“And I could tell you more, too, but I won’t,” Anne said, shifting and jingling. “Anyway, I do love cats. I love kids, too, but much to my mother’s dismay, I don’t have any.”
“My mother is dead,” I said.
“I wish my mother was dead,” Isaac said.
“Me too,” Virginia said.
When my tattoo was finished, Anne began on Virginia. I left Isaac and Virginia at the shop and told them I wanted to go walk around for a bit, but really, I wasn’t really just walking around. I had a destination in mind. And when I got there, I sat with a grown man as he cried, sobbed, and choked on his erratic breathing. He was about forty-six, I’d say, and I had only known him for about ten minutes. He wasn’t crying when I met him—in fact, when I shook his hand, he appeared to be quite together. We were at the diner—the diner that I once frequented with my father. I was smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffee—no cream, no sugar, because of how tortured I was. Tortured teenagers don’t take their coffee with cream and sugar. I didn’t even like coffee back then, and I’m still not sure that I like it, but I drink it anyway. The diner was full of people who smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. There was a dish there called the “diner stack” that included biscuits, sausage, eggs, and hash browns, all covered in gravy. I didn’t order it, because I found it impossible to deviate from the menu my father and I had made into a tradition in my youth, but it was a diner favorite. The man sitting across from me, who I met ten minutes before, was sobbing into his diner stack. “What’s the matter?” I asked him, and he said: “You remind me of someone.”
I lit a cigarette and smoked, looking directly at him, and then I reached for a packet of sugar. I tore it open, licked my fingertip, and stuck it into the sugar packet, coating it in sugar. I sucked the sugar off my finger and smoked again. I twisted a string of my hair around and around, let the hair go, traced the lines of my neck and collarbone with my thumb. Then I licked sugar off my finger again, and smoked again. I kept doing this until the sugar was almost gone, and my cigarette was down to just a nub. The reason I remember all of this so completely is because every single one of those moves was calculated. I thought about them, how they would look to this sad, sad man who was so much older than I was, and I determined that I should innocently lick sugar off of my finger while I looked at him, reminding him of some woman who surely broke his heart in a million pieces and made him cry. Maybe he needed to be seduced. Maybe he needed attention. I wanted to give him what he needed. Why I wanted to give him what he needed was a question that remained unanswered at the time. After all, who was this man? Why did I need his approval? He was thirty years my senior and hanging out in the same place as I was, doing the same thing as I was, only crying while he did it. This man’s approval didn’t mean much. I knew that. But still, I wanted it. So I drew attention to my body and my mouth and my tongue in a desperate plea for his sexual approval, in hopes that this was what this crying man needed. The psychologist I visited years later, Dr. Green, smiled when I told him about this man and my reaction to him. “That diner is a temple to you—to you and your father,” he said, and he was right, it certainly was a building of great significance to us, and I suppose that some sort of repressed Oedipal complex surfaced at that moment with the crying man—a man whose fragile emotional state may very well have triggered unconscious thoughts of my father if the diner hadn’t already done so, and I felt the need to seek my father’s approval by proxy.
“Who do I remind you of ?” I asked the crying man. I spoke coyly and smirked at him. He leaned his head on his hand and ignored my question.
“I’m so embarrassed,” he said. “I never do this.” And I giggled and brushed my hair from my eyes. At that point in my life, I’d been in a number of sexual relationships—legitimate and basically consensual ones—and I was practicing what I’d picked up along the way. So, I sat across a diner table from this crying man, employing cheap sexuality, exactly as I’d learned it from the men I’d crossed paths with and also the Second Day Believers, who at least did me the favor of pretending I wasn’t garbage by constantly marveling at the similarities between their dead high priestess and myself. I sucked more sugar off of my finger and blinked at him like a baby deer in heat. And then quickly, he stopped crying and became angry, and not just angry, but angry with me.
“Stop that flirting, young lady,” he said punishingly, slamming the palm of his hand on the table. “You remind me of my daughter.”
I stood up, feeling profoundly ashamed of my behavior, and I walked to another table, sitting with my back to him because I was unable to look him in the eye after that. I lit another cigarette and wondered if perhaps this diner was cursed. How many fathers and daughters were apart when naturally they should be together, and how many of those fathers and daughters spent their time loitering in this diner, nursing their loneliness with breakfast foods? That night, I didn’t want to leave the diner. I didn’t want to leave ever—I thought that if I waited long enough, my father might amble through the doors, looking to join the other forsaken fathers and desolate daughters who’d lost each other. Of course, he never did, and I knew he wouldn’t. I knew exactly where he was.
Lenore Zion is the author of the novel, Stupid Children (Emergency Press, 2013). Her first book, My Dead Pets are Interesting, was published by TNB Books in 2011, and she was an original contributor to The Nervous Breakdown. Zion has a doctorate in clinical psychology, a degree which spawned her interest in psychological abnormalities. Her specialty is the treatment of sexual pathology, and her dissertation focused on the paraphilias—sexual impulse disorders that include exhibitionism, pedophilia, fetishism, sadism, masochism, and frotteurism, among others. She lives in Los Angeles.
Adapted for Stupid Children by Lenore Zion. Copyright © 2013 by Lenore Zion. With the permission of the publisher, Emergency Press.