The Things a Body Does
My cousin Temple has the newest tattoo among us. Her brother Jesse’s tattoo was pretty obvious. It was a big Chinese letter on his freckly shoulder, the left one. Jesse is hot, always has been. But the problem is, he is just one half of a hottie pair: him and Zack, his twin. Jesse was born second, so you can imagine some inferiority issues, although he shouldn’t have any, not with those arms. So that’s why I think he got the tattoo. He said it symbolized individuality. Or maybe power, I can’t remember. Plus I think certain characters can mean different things depending on context, and here the context was well-defined shoulder muscle, so it was hard to tell.
Zack doesn’t have any tattoos. He’s a stockbroker and lives in Washington (D.C. or State, I can never remember and I’d feel bad asking cuz he’s lived there a while and I think I’m supposed to know). So maybe he does have a tattoo by now, and just none of us know about it.
Temple’s tattoo is a vine winding around her wrist with light bulbs blooming out of it instead of flowers. If you ask her about it she acts all shy and goofy, and avoids the question. But she knows you know she’s avoiding it, so she’s obviously just being coy, as our grandma would say. She tries to be all mysterious like that. She has long naturally-red hair that I would kill for, but she lets it get all tangled. She went to college for art, but now she works at a frame store. We were each other's first kiss, back in the day.
I have a tattoo of a little heart around my bellybutton. I got it in high school and for months no one knew about it. I liked it that way. When my friend Yessenia finally saw it in the locker room, she said, “You know it’s gonna get all big and warped when you get pregnant, right?” That’s exactly what happened when Ricki started growing in my belly, when I was 19. It got big as a real, human heart and the red turned to pink and the shape was all fucked up, but that seemed about right to me. When you get pregnant your love gets big and warped. You think about how you would kill for the baby you haven’t even had yet. You think about how you could plunge a knife in someone and twist it around.
Ezekiel was born quiet and white, not screaming red like Ricki. I kept thinking a couple of pretty warped things. One, how if I met someone now—after April 15, 2000—they would never know I had two kids unless I told them. Two, how I was glad it wasn’t Ricki. Ezekiel was only ever just a body. Even when he was alive inside of me, he was just the things a body does—breathe, kick, open his little fish mouth—and the things he did to my body. Made me crave fried chicken, radishes, peanut-butter pretzels. Never ice cream and pickles, though. Ricki, she was words already. She was things like, “Mama, la estupida next door pushed me!”
I put Ezie on my leg. Nice and big in blue-green ink, peeking up out of my sock when I wear socks. It says "4.15.2000" below the face. I thought the dots looked nicer than dashes or slashes. People usually don’t ask about him. I guess they get everything they need to know.
When I was fifteen I had to get my jaw wired shut. I have a pointy chin and a small face, and when they put braces on my teeth, my jaw broke. Just snapped, like a wishbone, or that’s how I imagine it, but they’d already given me a local, so I didn’t feel anything. I heard the snap, though, and that was enough. This craaack coming from inside my body. They can’t exactly put a cast on your face, so they lined my jaw back up and wired my top braces to my bottom braces to keep it in place.
I was a pretty pissed-off teenager. Smoked cigarettes, smoked pot. I’d go for days at a time without speaking to my parents, just laying in my room, listening to Janet Jackson and thinking how no one understood me. Typical stuff.
It wasn’t hard to get pissed off with my jaw wired shut, but it was hard to show it. I could growl and I could look away, that was about it. Before, those were some of my favorite tricks, but when they were forced upon me, they felt pretty limp. Suddenly I wanted to spew long, Shakespeare-y sentences, thou hast incurred my wrath or some shit. My mom just put my lunch in the blender and smiled.
The only one who really tried to help was Jaime. He was just some guy in my algebra class at the time, slouching in the back and carving gang signs into the formica desks. He didn’t even belong to a gang, but he could flip the signs and tag the tags. Everyone in Corona could. Anyway, he brought me my algebra homework—I guess that was the first clue he liked me, cuz he sure didn’t like algebra—and a library book on sign language. We learned to finger spell in a day. Sat on my bed and made fists for S, got-your-noses for T, what looked like two legs and a dick peeing for P.
“Deaf people got a sense of humor, man,” Jaime marveled.
I wagged my fist up and down, which meant yes. And we both cracked up cuz it’s not like deaf people can’t nod their heads. Jaime had great hands. Thin fingers with little black hairs on the knuckles, sort of dainty and manly at the same time. Now they’re rougher, but they still make a mean G.
I don’t know why anyone would put a metal balance beam on blacktop, but Ricki’s school did. That’s how she got her first scar a few months ago, trying to do a dismount, she said. You think about not letting your kid watch violent stuff on TV, but you don’t think about not letting her watch gymnastics. By the time I got to the nurse’s office she was doing okay, holding a Tootsie Pop with one hand and touching the big square of gauze that was taped to her face with the other.
On the way to the car, she said, “Can we go back and see if any of my face is still on the ground?”
“Aw, Ricki, that’s gross.”
“Please? I think some of me is still there, Mama.”
It made me want to puke, thinking of her soft, smooth cheek hitting the pavement like that, the pavement winning. I wanted to bust out all my horror stories, tell her about every kid I’d known who’d died because they did something retarded. I let her drag me back to the playground, her sticky hand pulling me, thinking maybe this would be some kind of lesson or something. Like Red Asphalt.
But there was nothing to see. If there was a little piece of Ricki there, the ground had already sucked it back up, just like the gum and spit and bits of rubber from the bottom of hot sneakers.
“You might get a scar,” I warned her in the car. I was always trying to warn her about things. I tried to space it out between cartoons and tickle sessions, though, so she wouldn’t notice and think I was one of those old, boring, lecturing parents.
When she was born, one of my first thoughts was I can dress her however I want. At the time I was still putting like a pound of gel in my hair each day to make my ponytail perfectly smooth—I just hadn’t come across a better way to do my hair—and here was this bald little thing climbing out from inside of me. I wanted to dress her in a way that matched her nakedness, if that makes sense. White and pale yellow and whispery pink. Flannel in the winter and, what do you call it, linen in the summer. Jaime wanted to get her ears pierced cuz he thought it would be cute, but I put up a big screaming fight about that one.
Now she was wearing a Barbie-pink sun dress and plaid knee socks. I was gonna have to remind her not to do cartwheels unless she was wearing shorts underneath. She was starting to dress herself, and I was trying to teach her about what colors go together and what ones don’t, but she wasn’t getting it. It’s not the kind of thing you can explain—red and pink just look weird together, they just do.
The scar was wide but not deep, like a smear of jam across her right cheek. She couldn’t wait to show it to everyone, touching it as she told them about the balance beam, the dismount, the landing- she-didn’t-stick, as if the rough patch beneath her fingertips would help her tell the story. After a while it seemed like part of a big show, and I almost forgot there’d been a point when she was crying over the phone for me to come and get her cuz the stuff the nurse put on it stung bad. The scar has faded a little and the story too. Sometimes I wonder if people who don’t hear the story will think I smacked her or something. But all kids get banged up, right? They’ve gotta learn with their own bodies, Jaime says. I wish she’d gotten her ears pierced instead. If it had been my choice. I would have taken her to the mall and made faces to distract her from the pain.
On Easter Temple and her girlfriend Sonrisa showed up with matching bands on their right ring fingers. Maybe that’s how lesbians do it, or maybe it’s because Temple is left-handed and doesn’t want jewelry in her way when she paints. I’m not sure what Sonrisa does. I just know she’s one of those Chicanas who dresses like a peasant girl, hair in long black loops, and talks a lot about empowerment. But she seems uncomfortable around Jaime, a real Chicano from the 909, like she wants to dislike him but knows it would somehow go against la raza to do so. Hell, I’m more of a Chicana than she is. Still, I like her. She talks. It was Sonrisa who told me they’d gotten the rings in March, they were just silver but engraved with a line from a poem on the outside. She didn’t say anything about a wedding. Do lesbians call them weddings? Over by the potato chips, Temple kept twisting her ring. Tattoo on the left wrist, ring on the right finger. One permanent thing and one promise.
Temple never did the big coming out thing to us. It would have been weird if she had, honestly. In our family you find things out from other people, not cuz we’re so afraid or anything, just cuz gossiping is so much more fun. So one Thanksgiving I hear Temple’s mom telling my mom that Temple is dating girls. Next Thanksgiving Temple shows up with Sonrisa, this girl with embroidered shawls and toenails painted black. She introduced her as “my girlfriend,” didn’t try to hide nothing, but didn’t seem like she wanted to talk about it either. Just made her way to the patio where she lit the only cigarette I’d ever seen her light and squinted hard at the ceramic frog Grandma keeps in her garden.
Sometimes I catch Temple looking down at her hands. Like she’s trying to read herself. But of course it’s different to her, because she sees the vine and the lightbulbs and the engraved ring upside down. Or maybe she thinks of them as right side up. Maybe she’s reminding herself that she can have a family, that she can wear her own art. I want to let her know that I’m looking too. I’d visit her gallery if she had one, but since she doesn’t, I’ll look at that ink on her skin. I’ll look and look until it seems like those bulbs are really glowing.
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