By Bethany Holmstrom
Kari drinks the ink from her lovers’ bodies. Her insides roil with dragons and roses and sparrows; a universe of stars constellates her organs.
The first time it happened, a butterfly’s antenna disappeared from a thigh: one blue wing battered and poked with holes.
“What did you do?” The butterfly-tattooed-girl gasped in horror, their limbs still jumbled together in the twin extra-long bamboo sheets of a dorm room bed.
“I didn’t do anything!” Kari insisted, but felt the slick edges of the lie as she said it. Butterfly Girl dumped Kari in the dining hall the next morning, over their vegan breakfast burritos.
The night after the break-up, Kari went to the pub near campus and dared to get a burger, rare — with onion rings piled on top of the patty. Kari’s eyes followed the tangle of stems and veins and petals in the botanicaled sleeve of the server; the bloodied juices sluiced from the corners of Kari’s lips.
“Where’d you get those done?” Kari asked the server, signing on the twenty percent tip.
Kari cobbled enough from her two campus jobs to go to the tattoo parlor the server recommended — the cleaner one in town, with leather chairs and funky turquoise chandeliers and black-and-white Fleur de Lis wallpaper.
“Did you decide what you want?” the artist inquired.
“Whatever,” Kari shrugged; she just wanted to see if this would fix her.
They started a peony — the artist wasn’t sure if Kari was a peony kind of person, they simply liked practicing the drape and heft of the petals — but the fluff of the double-bloom wouldn’t take. The bewildered artist refunded Kari’s deposit and told her never to come back; they were unnerved, watching the needle punch through the skin, and the flesh swallow the pigment moments after.
There’s no logic to it. Kari never knows if she’ll take a little, or a lot. If she’ll siphon off the fresher, or more faded. If she’ll righteously erase a tribal tattoo, or dismantle a memorial.
Her lovers always figure out what’s going on — eventually.
“You should have told me.”
“That was for my brother: my dead brother, Kari.”
“You owe me — the tiger alone cost a thousand bucks.”
“I don’t care if I was going to get Shannon’s name removed anyways — you had no right.”
Kari listened to podcasts on dating and relationships, downloading episodes that explored disclosure and consent. She tried to sketch out the ethical dimensions of her dilemma in an email to one of the hosts she most admired — with his carefully reassuring pauses and avuncular-wrapped advice. The podcast host never replied.
When she told Rob what he stood to lose on their second date, he looked alarmingly aroused. So much of him was covered; he was excited that she could wipe it clean. He liked the unpredictability and her lack of control. He poured money into the newly-unmarked expanses she left behind, hoping it would all be erased yet again.
“A perfect symbiosis,” Rob said.
It took Kari a couple of years before she could fully plumb the gaping gravity of his need. When she ended the relationship, Rob threatened to hang himself from the living room ceiling fan. Since Kari was the one who always changed bulbs out when the filaments popped, she saw how the fixture wobbled in the ceiling’s plaster, and so she left.
After Rob, Kari tried to go without. For a while she used apps to find people who thought tattoos were tacky. Or believed getting one would bar them from an afterlife. Or those who couldn’t imagine spending money on that particular brand of pain — being repeatedly punctured. Or those who already knew the spikes and barbs of regret.
Kari grew tired of algorithms and parameters — the build-ups and let-downs, the performance of the randomized — and deleted everything. Now she waits for someone who will arrive as if guided by what they can trace within her: the flora and fauna, the geometry that lines her tendons and muscles and bones. She knows there will be someone who can coil through her innards, before they pull it all out of her, and paint themselves.
Bethany Holmstrom is an English professor at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY. Originally from rural Appalachia, she now lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Appalachian Review and The Molotov Cocktail.