It happened on Valentine's Day.
First, there was the rush from work to home, the nervous man at my door, and a long ride east, through rush hour, over bridges, in the murky dusk of Midwestern midwinter in that period just before the streetlights click on. Our arrival at the stroke of 6 in a windswept, ethnic neighborhood north of St. Paul: a Polish-American legion hall, a bar with a neon Miller bottle in the window, a large brick building with a pretty hand-lettered sign. Acme Tattoo.
Then there was the wait, the hardest part. A quick walk along damp sidewalks. Terse words. And finally submission to a woman in flannel pants patterned with hearts and mud-flap girls in silhouette, to her rubber-gloved hand holding a tool that looked like an electric drill but actually contained sterile needles and ink that caused my skin to burn.
"It'll feel like cat scratches," she said. And it did, only better.
Afterward, there was relief. His, mine. Vaseline and bandages. A dark evening sky and a slower walk back to the car, during which he commented, smiling now, that it might not be wise to get matching tattoos with a man I'd known for only two and a half weeks. I said no, but I wasn't really in this for wisdom. And then he asked, "So is it for the story? Are you going to write about this?"
Which made me pause.
Once inside the car and firmly belted, I may have been cool toward him. I'm nearly certain I was. That he took my hand and I let him but held his only loosely. Closed my eyes. Felt the rhythm of the wheels turning under us, the slow heat of my left shoulder, the place on my neck where she, the woman with the heart-and-silhouette pants, had rubbed me gently while whispering in a hoarse voice, "You're done."
He waited patiently. Drove us toward the restaurant and a nice bottle of Spanish wine. I opened my eyes into the brilliant lights of the cathedral on the hill.
"I can't," I said, as if only seconds -- and not minutes -- had passed. "There's no story yet. Something happened, and it's interesting, but I don't yet know what it means."
"Because you have to know what will happen with us?"
"It's not just that." I was warming fast, reeled in by his questions and the hand slowly wandering up my thigh. "The tattoo. I haven't figured out what it is to me. It has no context, no real meaning, no slant."
I find myself giving this lecture quite often, about the slant. And not only on dates.
This would make a good story, someone will say. You should write about it. This will be after something big or funny or tragic. And I'll explain that yes it would be a good story, in terms of plot, because a lot happens, and that makes for a nice narrative arc with well-paced bursts of action. But it's missing something.
What? they will ask.
Theme, I will say. Something underlying. Back story. Emily Dickinson called it slant. This is the point at which most people lose interest.
But for those who hang on, still curious, or for the students who are compelled to listen when I begin to speak, I go on. About Red Riding Hood and the underlying message: Don't talk to strangers. About soap operas, their constant roiling battle of good vs. evil and paradoxically cheerful theme of redemption (you can always come back from the dead, even if you get thrown off a moving train or bludgeoned by a madman; salvation is never impossible). About essays. "Once More to the Lake" is not about a trip to a fishing cabin but rather about mortality, as it is when confronted by a father whose youth and life are reflected in an unwitting son.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant, Emily Dickinson wrote from her solitary room in Amherst. Enlighten, enrich, illuminate. There are only seven major plotlines -- something like that. We're all writing about death or war, fear of the monster, man's search for God, true love. What is there new to say? Nothing, I tell my students. Whatever your idea, your plot, it has been dreamed of or experienced before.
It is all, I say to them, in the slant.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
So. It happened on Valentine's Day. I rushed home from work, made a pot of spaghetti using organic hamburger and canned sauce, then changed my clothes -- exchanging the suit for a camisole and sweater, so my shoulder could be easily exposed. Then the doorbell rang and I might have kissed the man who stood on the step, but I might not ... I cannot recall.
I do know I led him through the living room, past the table where the flowers he'd sent stood shredded because the cat liked to nibble them, and into the kitchen with its too-bright lights and oregano scent, to say hello to my children. My older son stood, rising 2 inches above the man, at least, and tucked his head down as if trying to minimize the difference. There were awkward handshakes, desultory talk. My younger son made his sister laugh and she stumbled, crumpled to the floor, farted noisily, said excuse me, laughed some more. And through all of this he stood solid, one hand on the shoulder I later intended to bare.
The design he'd made using a CAD program and sent for my approval was lying on the counter. We'd discussed it the night before, the children and I: Did I like this symbol meant to signify the union between his life and mine? Was the man a good artist? Was he, for that matter, a good man? A man who would still be around, whom I would choose to have around, after the ink had dried and the scab had formed and fallen away?
"I think it's nice," the 18-year-old had said in his eternally gentle way, then floated off with iPod plugs poking insect-like from his hairy ears.
"I don't know." The 15-year-old, sitting at the kitchen table, spoke from under a middle-aged furrow of brow. "This is permanent. You have to ask yourself, will you want this on your body when you're 60 years old?"
"Maybe you should get something else," suggested my daughter. "If it were me, I'd get Scrappy Doo."
There was an hour spent looking at images of Scrappy, the short, chesty dog of Saturday morning, and debating the merits of various cartoon characters. Rafiki, the sage baboon from "Lion King," Foghorn Leghorn, Sebastian the crab. The middle child relaxed, his forehead smooth by the end, his laughter nearly childlike. "I say, I say..." he stuttered, eerily perfect in his mimicry of the laconic barnyard rooster who was developed in 1946, 20 years before I, his mother, was born.
Now, as the man and I stood in the kitchen preparing to leave, someone poured boiled noodles into a colander and steam rose in a cloud. He raised a hand to the children, patted the cat, and took my arm. Out the door and into the night, we entered the stream of rush-hour traffic, fell silent on the ride to east St. Paul. Then there was the Polish-American legion hall, the Miller sign, Acme Tattoo.
He stopped the car and we stared at the building, square as a fire station. "My friends told me to make sure you went first," he said, voice lilting, a touch of my cheek meant to convey that he is not serious.
"Of course." I opened the passenger side door, levering myself out, slamming it closed. "I intended to go first."
He was concerned, contrite, and came around the car to slip one arm around my shoulders and apologize. But I am the sort of woman who cannot be so tamed, especially when holding back fear through sheer will. Once a challenge has been issued, there is no taking it back. I would go first if it meant kicking him with my high-heeled boot to move him out of my way.
Her name was Tanika, the woman with the hearts-and-silhouette pants. And her hands felt good, even through latex. "What made you decide to do this?" she asked as the tool whirred and my skin burned and twitched and I sighed.
"I'm going to be 40," I answered. She waited, needle gun suspended inches from my skin, humming. "In three and a half weeks."
"Oh." She bent her head over my back and touched one spot with her index finger, as if she were anointing me. "What about him?"
He'd just begun, shirt off, straddling a chair backward under someone else's needle gun. I'd allowed him to start because I was already partially inked -- a combination of the Hebrew aleph-subscript-null (which he told me means infinity) and the base of a blue quill. There was no going back.
"Him?" I shifted and arched a little, letting the pain thrill me for a moment. "He's a computer guy. But I think I really like him."
Then it was after and the thing was done. Tanika rubbed my neck and I was sorry when she told me to put my shirt on and let me go. Do another one, I almost said. But instead, I waited for the computer man, watching his face seize in pleasant surprise, seeing that he, too, enjoyed the pain. A good sign.
But it wasn't then -- as we walked down the hill to the car hand-in-hand, each protecting a left shoulder, careful not to bump into each other and swinging the doors open with our right hands -- that he said what he did. I did get in and let him drive, close my eyes and open them only to see the lights of the cathedral stream against the silky black sky. I was quiet because of the beauty of it all, because I was, truth to tell, in love equally with the man and with Tanika at that moment.
It was as we pulled up in front of the restaurant. After we had kissed for a couple minutes. "They asked me how long we'd been going out." His voice caught and he cleared his throat. "Don't worry, I didn't tell them the truth. I said it had been a couple months."
"Hasn't it?" I asked.
Now, here's the thing. I'm not very good with time. And I do have a magnificent capacity for self-delusion. He did not yet know this. How could he? So he thought nothing of leaning back in his seat and smiling -- his eyes, though he is slim and only 44, crinkling kindly in a Santa Claus-ish way -- and saying, "No, love, it's been two weeks and three days."
At which point my world tilted just slightly. I leaned back, closed my eyes, heard the echo of my daughter's voice. And felt the slant begin.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
It's all true. Everything happened just this way: the children, Foghorn Leghorn and Scrappy Doo, the cat, the flowers, the long, quiet ride to St. Paul. Only I doubt it happened in that order, or even maybe on exactly that night, because again -- I'm not very good with time. In order to achieve the slant, you can't be. You must be willing to collect events and paste them together so the story makes sense. And it must have some sort of coherent theme.
Only this story doesn't. Not quite. The man, the tattoo, the nearly 40-year-old professional woman, now bandaged and dizzy in the front seat of his car. It's all just plot. All My Children. Days of Our Lives. Perhaps what's missing is the back story.
There are the children: proof of her stable, maternal side. Their fidelity, the way they have pulled together over the years since their father left, a tight gang of three, protecting the mother fiercely. These details provide contrast -- the beginning of the slant.
But there was also a marriage of 13 years. A different, larger, dark-haired man about whom she has written many stories, all true, only slanted so they met the basic requirements of narrative. A brawny hero: him. A series of conflicts: money problems, an ill child, alcohol abuse. Love: the kind that cannot withstand the pressures of life but remains intact, specter-like, for the rest of time.
Maybe the story about the tattoo really begins five months prior to Valentine's Day, as I lay on a table in an operating room that was rented by the hour. A small, ridiculously white person with organs as delicate and unforgiving as those of Russian kings, who'd given birth to the 10-pound babies of the oversize husband -- three times -- and torn the muscles from ribs to pelvis, twice. For a decade, things shifted inside my belly in a vaguely unpleasant way. But finally, I could afford the 20 percent co-pay to cut my body open, sew the muscles back together, make me whole again.
After the surgery, when I was sent home with Oxycontin, the former husband was there, making dinners, folding laundry, pouring my wine. He was haggard now, mostly mute, with long hair going to gray and dark around the mouth where the shadow of 30 years of cigarette smoking had begun to form. But there was a routine, familiar, nearly married. Our children returned to it automatically, as if it were dancing or roller-skating. A rhythm inside that need only be reawakened. You already know how to move.
But it was empty. Helpless and high on opiates, lying on the couch, watching a stage play about a real family unfold, I saw, finally, that that first story was over. The hero was tired, the love had receded to something warm and distant that existed more on the page, in stories, than in the real world.
I once was married for a long time and it was its own kind of battle and I am now deeply, permanently scarred. You cannot hide these things, I realized, or erase them. Never mind the children themselves who mill constantly in the kitchen, many heads taller than the mother, moving her gently aside as they fry endless omelets (two dozen eggs a week, at least, and four gallons of milk). There will always be that lightning crack of blood across her belly to remind her of what once was true.
By Christmas, I was recovered enough to start running again. The scar was a ridge of tissue, burgundy in color. But my body felt strong. Work was good. The novel about the large, young, drunken husband was selling well. And then, there was the strange, random meeting with this open-hearted computer man.
Emily Dickinson spent most of her life in that garret in Amherst, watching out the window, wearing her pristine white skin like a glove. Tell all the truth, she said. And she was right.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
It is the 13th of February, the night before Valentine's Day. I am washing dishes and my daughter is sitting behind me with my laptop, at the table, searching the Web for images of Scrappy Doo. "This is better," she says, turning the machine, showing me the bullish puppy poised on his skinny legs with tented ears. "Please, Mom, I really think you should get something else."
She is a risk taker, a tree climber and football player, a great, admirable adolescent with a big laugh. But suddenly -- I can hear it in her voice -- she is frightened.
"What's wrong?" I ask. And she pauses, looks down.
"What if you break up next week?" I sit so we are on a level. Or perhaps, she is slightly higher. She raises her head and stares at me from her father's dark brown eyes. "You'll still have this thing on your back and it will make you sad."
I draw a long breath. Visions of this very thing dance in my head and I wonder, What is the right thing to say to this girl?
"Baby," I say, taking her hand and trying hard to keep my voice light. "I really hope that doesn't happen. But in my experience, when you let people into your life, they leave a mark whether they stick around or not. So I figure, I might as well choose what it will be."
It takes a moment. But then she nods and grins, rolling her big chocolate eyes, and wriggles her hand free.