There comes a time in every young girl's life when she absolutely needs to have strange glittery objects shoved right through her flesh. Most girls will drown out the urge in gin and tonic, well-stirred; later they will wonder why melancholy brings to their mind the taste of lemon. Let's make this clear now. I am not most girls.
I might be if I had never met him. His name is Vincent. He is twenty years old, average height, skinny, and his hair is longish, not long-long so that you can make a ponytail out of it, but pretty far from the army cut. His eyes are hazel, thoughtful. He's fairly good-looking, but that doesn't matter. What matters is how he wears his personality: not on the inside, circled by decent walls that only select initiates may enter, but on his body, where everyone who gazes long enough may read it.
I met him after band practice, as I waited for the city bus. He walked into the shelter, earphones on, nodding to the music. I shifted on the bench to make room for him. He sat down besides me and removed the earphones. "Excuse me – did the number five just drive by?" he asked. Then I looked at him – really looked, I mean.
Three voices piped up in my head. The first, my father's, said, "Here's a freak that's ripe for the show!" The second, my mother's, said, "What a shame, such a nice young man, and he had to go and ruin himself like this." The third, my own, said, "Wow."
In my experience, only two types of people would wear body art.
Specimen number one: the biker who hangs out at the local Tim Horton's, and chews on jam-filled doughnuts until his mouth is smeared with powdered sugar. The cops sit across him and sip their coffee in amiable silence. He plays the Santa Claus of the downtown mall, with a hissing cobra that sometimes peeks from beneath a white-furred mitt and scares the children.
Specimen number two: that punk kid from school. There are a few of them, actually. They have rampant acne, love handles, oily hair. Their piercings say: Look at my clothes. Don't look at me. I look away.
Here is Vincent now: another species altogether. He is delicate, fine-featured, and he wears glasses. His clothes are tidy, clean, pretty conservative, a striped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, black slacks, a pair of dress shoes. There is a swirling pattern around his arm, and tiny rings and barbells on his eyebrows, his ears, his lips, his nostrils. He is an exotic bird, stabbed of his own will by a dozen glittering arrows. I envy the hunter.
His eyes are puzzled. He has asked me a question, I recall, and swallow hard. "No, not yet. The bus that just came by, that was the number one."
- "Oh, there it is!" he says when his bus, and mine, comes round the corner. I dare to take the seat next to him. It's too forward, I know, but he smiles at me. "Excuse me," I say. "I couldn't help but notice… You know. Those remarkable ornaments of yours. And I couldn't help but wonder, because you don't strike me like the type who would do that just to shock people. So I was wondering what made you do it."
Most practitioners of the art will, I would later learn, balk at such questions. But I am not most girls, and he is not most men. His pretty eyes light up. "That's a good question. You wouldn't believe how many people think I'm doing this just to get at them. Teen angst: it's the convenient scapegoat for everything the under-twenty crowd does, don't you think?"
- "It certainly is."
- "I think life should be an art, and not just in the spare times. Like, you know, most people, they live a regular life, go to work, go to school, all that sort of thing, and then they come home, and they have nothing to do and they're bored, so they may doodle a little. That's the way it goes."
I see myself classified with "most people," and flinch. "Maybe."
- "Even artists. They have their professional life, and then their profane life. Family time. A nap on the couch. Supper in front of whatever shit's playing on the TV. During that time, the art dies. It disappears under a sheet. That's the way it goes."
- "But not everyone has the time to paint all the time. Like me. I have school to think of."
- "No, but that's not what I'm trying to say! I'm not trying to say you should be painting or sculpting or whatever all the time. I'm trying to say that you can make art out of everything. Like, I don't know – you can sit at your desk gracefully or something. Yeah, I know, that's not a very good example. But if you do everything sincerely, if you appreciate it, if you can see the timeless in it, you can live a beautiful life. And that's what I'm trying to do, you see. I want everything I do to be as beautiful as possible. I want to be as beautiful as possible. People today say all kinds of stuff, like, it's okay to be ugly on the outside if you're beautiful inside, but I beg to differ. I'm not saying that you should look like all those chicks you see on TV, though, you just have to be yourself inside and outside. Like what you're seeing. That's me, that's totally me. It's art and it's fucking beautiful."
I look down at my clothes. A grey sweater printed with the school logo: Saint Mother of Fatima's, 2007. My short-sleeved top peeks underneath, bright orange and a generic monkey graphic. A fashionista of my acquaintance once quipped: "I never met anyone whose colour was neon orange. I never met anyone whose colour was grey." "Hey, that's awesome," I say.
He's embarrassed; I can tell from the way he flushes. "I'm sorry. That's just the way I am. Get me started and I'll rant on until someone gags me."
- "No, that's all right. I'm…Entranced."
- "Cause what I figure is, why keep your personality all to yourself, like you know, some old dragon hoarding a treasure, when you can share it with the whole world? Too often our dress is the only part of us that's willing to communicate with strangers. The rest of us huddles behind it, wears it like armour. We're all afraid of revealing ourselves to psychos and perverts, I guess. But there are many nice people out there, and I wouldn't meet most of them without my philosophy. You wouldn't have talked to me if I didn't have all of this. Eh?"
- "Of course. It's an icebreaker."
- "It addresses everyone who sees it, although not everyone replies. But here's my stop, right ahead. Talk to you later, okay? What's your name?"
- "Lydia," I lie. My name is Linda. I got it from my grandmother. It figures.
- "Well that's just lovely. It was nice meeting you, Lydia. My name is Vincent."
- "Vincent." It's a great name, as old and beautiful as the cathedrals. "So where are you headed?"
- "I'm going to visit my girlfriend downtown. We haven't seen each other for two weeks, so I'll make up for it with dinner. A candlelight dinner, with roses and all, 'cause that's what you chicks love, isn't it? I'll see you around." He mock-shoots me with his index and disappears.
I'm heartbroken already. He has a girlfriend. A fascinating girl, without a doubt, who dyes her hair purple, wears faux-medieval gowns, and can discuss the Pre-Raphaelites for hours on end. Look at her. Look at me. I don't stand a chance.
When I come home, I lock myself in my bedroom and weep.
When I'm through weeping, I smash my piggy bank and head to the tattoo parlour.
I suppose it is an impulse common to beginning artists, this need to find a master we can emulate in order to test our own budding skill and imagination. Vincent is my master. I love him, I want him, I want to be him, but I know he cannot love another himself, and so I must be me, a new me, a beautiful me.
I want to be raped by a piece of steel. I just don't know where – not now, at least – but when I arrive at the parlour I decide on the tongue. Nose piercings don't hurt enough. Eyebrows and lips are too obvious, everyone will stare, I'm not ready for that. The tongue is a nice, special place, just for me, and the artist tells me that it is the safest spot on your whole body for a piercing.
Her name is Rosie, by the way. She is Catholic and she comes from Brazil. There is a portrait of the Virgin Mary, with a rose and a halo, hanging above her cabinet; "I had that picture tattooed on myself," she says, and shows me. I wonder what the people at her church must think about the little horns Rosie has on her forehead, but apparently, they are open-minded.
The piercing itself is quick, and it does hurt, but in a good way. I can't really explain why – you have to be there – but I can feel the needle coming in, or maybe the stem, I taste a bit of blood, and then it's over. I'm surprised about the fact that I can still talk, but Rosie advises me against it. "In an hour from now that tongue will have filled your whole mouth," she tells me in her charming accent. "Take advantage of the situation to eat a lot of ice cream."
She's right. I have a strawberry milkshake at the ice cream parlour, and then a chocolate one. Screw my weight. I also try vanilla. Before I go home, I buy myself powder for protein shakes. I'm afraid I'll be on a liquid diet for a little while.
My mother cries. I hate when she does that. Her face scrunches up until she looks like a bulldog, and the noises she makes could be mistaken for particularly annoying hysterical laughter. "What have we done wrong!" she screams. I swear; she's a fucking caricature. "What is this world coming to? Oh God, but why, why, why?" At every moment I expect her to tear out her hair and spread ashes across her forehead, but that would be too romantic. Instead, I have to be content with a Kleenex spread across her face, hiding the bulldog grin. I can't answer her profound existential questions and so I leave her, weeping in the kitchen, and go to my room. I stick out my tongue at the mirror: Beautiful Defiance. Vincent would be proud.
After the piercing comes the rest of my makeover.
Clothes. Is leather too tacky? Fishnet too skanky? Bright pink too gaudy? And how about those frilly blouses – he would probably like those, but they are so not me. Here's a velvet skirt that isn't too bad. Scratch that: it's lovely. Boots to match. A top. Here goes a week of my summer earnings.
Poetry. Do you think he likes Byron? Dark, romantic, passionate; it sounds like his type. Keats, Shelley, Poe. Emile Nelligan: those French-Canadians can do more than poutine. My mind whirls with buried kings, weeping birds, belles dames sans merci. Is this it? Is this beauty?
I look up startled at the black window and hope to God he will never be mine. If he were to love me, I would learn all the little petty things about him, I would know that he eats, sneezes, snores, and even (blasphemy!) shits just like everyone else, I would notice all of his little imperfections, hairy nostrils, stick-out ears, blunt fingernails, I would argue with him over the position of the toilet seat and the artistic worthlessness of wrestling, and so the god that raised me from the dust of the earth would drag me back into the mud of daily existence.
Then again, what if he is glorified, rather than degraded, by his humanity? Perhaps he is a god, not because he stands above the muck of triviality, but because he manages to shine in spite of it. I cling to that: everything else kills me.
A week passes and I see him again.
- "Hey! Linda, right?" he says. The bus is full, but it is his turn to sit besides me.
I do not correct him. My name's plainness no longer matters to me; what matters is what I make of it. "Vincent," I say, and nod demurely. Thank God, I am wearing my new velvet skirt.
- "What's that in your mouth? Did you do your tongue? No way! I love it."
- "You're very observant." He smiles and toys with his earphones. I summon my courage and add, "Um, I wanted to tell you – about what you told me the other day."
- "You know. About your philosophy. Concerning body art."
- "Oh, yeah! What about it? Oh, don't tell me you did your tongue because of it! No way!"
- "You really got to me. I needed another life. This is it."
- "Right. Wow, I can't believe it. Someone actually listened to me while I was soapboxing. That's got to be a first."
- "After I got my tongue pierced, I went to the library and sacked the poetry shelf. I don't know how long this will last, it may just be a phase – my parents hope so – but I feel wonderful. So I want to thank you."
- "Hey, thank yourself! I may have inspired you, but words don't mean much of anything if no one is there to listen to them, right? Anyway, I have to get off now, but – hey, wait a minute. Are you free this Friday evening? There's a party at my place, and if you want to show up, you're welcome. Give me your phone number – just scribble it here, there you go – Linda. I'll call you, okay?" He shoots me goodbye.
I squirm with anticipation until he calls me, but when I hear the phone ring and my mother call out, "Linda, it's for you!" I am suddenly uncertain. I've only been to one party before, and I was not impressed. Vincent is the only person there whom I will know at all, and do I want to see him in that setting, telling drunk stories, passing a bong pipe around, vomiting on the porch? But, then again, Edgar Allan Poe was alcoholic. I agree to come. My parents are reluctant to let me go, but what can they do? I'm sixteen years old. I can do as I please.
Vincent greets me at the door, still laughing at some joke I missed. He has abandoned his nice conservative outfit for more typical punk garb, black tennis shoes, chain-laden slacks, a Nine Inch Nails shirt. I'm not sure I like it. Loud industrial music is pumping from the stereo. Bottles are scattered across the table and floor. The air is thick with that burnt-oatmeal smell. Strangers stare at me, with that peculiar mix of resentment and apathy the happily bored will feel toward those who dare bring unwanted change in their routine. My host introduces me. There's Wanda and Stephen, over in the corner. Juliet, Lucien, Dieter. Tall Brittany. Short Brittany. Frederick. Nice to meetcha. Over in the corner, my new arch-enemy, His Girlfriend, the lovely Amélie. She does wear faux-medieval dresses, but I was wrong about her hair. It's not purple. It's blue.
I guess I'm just not a party person. Vincent gives me a drink, assures me that I'm welcome, and leaves me to my own devices. He sits on the couch with Amélie, and they share a bottle of red wine. It might be romantic if she didn't spread herself across his lap in a most unladylike manner, giggling loudly in his ear, and occasionally emerging from her blissful state in order to howl at whoever is fiddling with that stereo to LEAVE IT ALONE, ASSHOLE! It's been an hour now. I'm a wallflower and I want to leave, but Stephen takes an interest to me. Small talk at first, then music, poetry, the meaning of life. I didn't bring any alcohol, so he shares his own with me – "I'm not supposed to drink anyway, I'm the designated driver." Stephen isn't exactly my type, long-haired, scrawny, with a bit of a stubble, Kurt Cobain reborn without the good looks, but he's polite and intelligent and I appreciate the fact that he passes the pipe on without using it, and that he doesn't swear. I'm a little inebriated and I wonder, what if I was to date a friend of Vincent's? Just for a little while, nothing serious, but it would give me an excuse to see more of him. That's fucking genius, huh?
Then it's midnight and I promised my parents, I have to go back home. I look at Vincent, but he and Amélie are busy doing something I don't care to see that involves their tongues, and I decide not to bother them. The buses have stopped running, of course, but it's only forty-five minutes away, and the weather's mild. Stephen, however, insists on driving me back. "Forty-five minutes? With all those psychos out there?"
- "I know karate," I tell him, unfazed. An encounter with a thug strikes me as a fun adventure to have on a nice April night.
- "Psychos can take karate classes too. Sweetheart, I would be the devil if I let you go out there at this time. Like Vincent over there – Vince, you're a moron. You were about to let this poor girl go out there on her own."
- "I'm sorry, Linda! I love you!" Vincent shouts at me. Amélie pretends to slap him, and then giggles and hides her face against his shoulder.
- "Moron," Stephen mutters. "Come on, now. I'll drive you home."
I ride shotgun and give him directions. He follows me for a while, but then turns into the deserted parking lot of the local Wal-Mart.
- "It's five blocks away," I tell him, mildly surprised.
- "I know."
- "Is there something wrong with the car?"
- "No, it's just -" He undoes his seat belt and leans across to me. Kisses me. I'm a little tipsy, but I think, uh-oh.
- "My parents will worry if I'm not – ow! If I'm not back by one."
- "It's ten past midnight. You'll be fine. Sweetheart, Lydia, you trust me, don't you? Relax -"
- "Ow!" My tongue stud is aching. I am the dumb glutton, a cannibal, all mouth.
- "If you trust me, just relax, there you go… Relax. Oh. Oh. Oh…!"
- "Please don't!" I say, and try to open the door, but it's locked. Too late.
What he sticks in me is neither sharp nor glittery, but it hurts all the same.
There is so little beauty left in the world. We have crucified Oscar Wilde, smeared graffiti across the Mona Lisa, and massacred Shakespeare in Lit 101. Yet what matters the most is not what we have lost, but our forgetting that we ever had it. Demons, their protruding intestines half-wire and half-flesh, writhe about me, squealing with delight as they wallow in pools of simmering shit. I ignore them and climb to my bedroom, where I draw beautiful red patterns all over my wrists.