If she were to go to Ben’s wedding she would cut in during the first dance. She’d have on a long black skirt and hiking boots; she’d be so awkward and bitter no one present would imagine she was Ben’s old girlfriend, the one who dumped him and then regretted it ever after, the way she’s regretted everything in her life. It’s a good day to be alone. She’s horrible company, worse than usual. Even the dogs leave her be. Shelby tries not to think about centerpieces of roses and orchids and a red velvet wedding cake. Ben actually talked about those things to her on drunken evenings when he thought they’d be the couple to be marrying. He wanted to go to Mexico on a honeymoon. He had it all planned.
In the afternoon Shelby walks through the snow to East Third Street. On Ben Mink’s wedding day she finally goes inside the tattoo parlor to mark herself for her sins. She stomps fluffy snow off her boots. Three men are in mid-conversation, which stops dead when they see Shelby. Because of the weather they’re clearly surprised to have a customer, particularly someone like Shelby. She used to resemble a homeless person, someone who could snap, who might have a knife in her pocket. People often crossed the street when they saw her, bald head, torn red sweatshirt, but now, in her Burberry raincoat and new pair of boots, she may look too upscale for her surroundings. All the walls are covered with tattoo patterns, some intricate and tribal, others colorful and traditional. There’s low jazz playing on the radio. The men all have elaborate tattoos. One guy says something to his cohorts, then approaches Shelby. He’s dark and brooding, a large man with a demeanor that can be taken as threatening. He appraises Shelby in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable.
“Just looking?” he says with a scrim of sarcasm.
“I’d like a tattoo.” For some reason Shelby feels judged. Her hackles are up. “Isn’t that what you do?”
“I’ve seen you lurking around before, but you always disappeared.”
Shelby furrows her brow. “I don’t lurk.” Then she thinks of the time the door opened and she managed to avoid a shadowy figure. “Well, maybe sometimes,” she admits.
The artist has dark, liquid eyes, with an intense gaze that goes right through her. “Where do you want it?” he asks. When he sees that she’s puzzled, he grins. In his amused expression she sees the glimmer of another side of him. “The tattoo?”
Shelby has considered her choice for a very long time. “Over my heart.”
“Are you sure?” He’s not handsome, but something about him draws her in. Can it be that stepping through the door of this shop has brought her into a world where another fate is possible?
“I’m sure,” Shelby tells him. She hopes that if you reveal something on the outside, it won’t cause as much pain on the inside. It will float to the surface and leave you alone.
The tattoo artist holds up his hands, as if giving in to someone who is clearly making a mistake. “You’re the customer.”
They go into the back room. The tattooist says his name is James. He informs her that he learned his craft at the School of Visual Arts on Twenty-Third Street and in prison. If that’s supposed to scare her, it doesn’t. She’s always felt she should be in prison for what she did to Helene. She used to fall asleep in her parents’ basement waiting for the police to knock on the door.
“Drugs,” the tattooist tells her. “When you’re young and desperate for something you act before you think.”
“I don’t believe you were ever young,” Shelby blurts. Then, embarrassed, she apologizes. “Sorry. I don’t know why I said that.”
“Because it’s true. Old soul.”
There are several tattoo chairs separated by black curtains and one faux leather table that reminds Shelby of something a masseuse might use. The room smells like sweat and incense. For a minute Shelby’s afraid she might have to get naked. She already feels overly exposed. “I’m not undressing,” she says.
“Did I ask you to?”
Again, she feels embarrassed. They exchange a look that makes her even more ill at ease.
“Just the clothes that cover the area,” he tells her.
Shelby slips off her raincoat and sweater, then sits on the table.
“Do you want me to tell you about the process?” James pulls up a stool. “Some people feel more comfortable if they know what I’m doing. Like when a doctor explains the steps of a surgery before he starts cutting.”
“Don’t tell me anything,” Shelby says.
She tugs her T-shirt over her head. She’s wearing a bra, which she assumes she can keep on. It’s nothing special, she doesn’t believe in name brands like Victoria’s Secret, despite her Burberry raincoat from Ben. Her bra is simple, black, a little too small for her, something she didn’t realize until this moment.
“We haven’t discussed the art,” James says, his eyes all over her.
“It’s a name.”
“Of course.” He sounds contemptuous. “You want a heart with that? And a forever?”
Shelby glares at him, unsettled. “Do you make fun of all your clients?”
“Names are usually a bad idea.” He sits beside her on the table, close enough so that their legs touch. Shelby feels burned. She moves her leg away. She’s here for only one thing. She doesn’t want to talk to anyone, she wants to get this over with, but the artist won’t shut up. “I think of life as a book of stories,” he goes on. “You move through the stories and the characters change. But once you have a name on your skin you are stuck with one story, even if it’s a bad one.”
Shelby is surprised by the way he expresses himself. It’s not what she would have expected given his tough appearance. But she disagrees with him and isn’t afraid to say so. “Well, I think of life as a novel. You can’t just hop out of the mess you’re in and into another story. You carry it all with you.”
“You’re wrong,” he says.
Maybe she is. She tells him about The Illustrated Man, how it’s a book of stories, but those stories are threaded together, tattoo by tattoo, until they become a novel. Bradbury’s book is a hybrid and that’s why she loves it so. That’s what life is, Shelby claims.
“I’ll have to read it. Sounds great.”
“You read?” Shelby says.