“Ahh. Those would be books.” That one is my biggest. A wobbly stack of old books that winds its way from my lower back where the books are big, and they get smaller and less secure until they are as tiny as a speck on my chest. I love it.
“Books,” he says, waiting. He grabs both hips with his big hands, turns me back over again and leans on his elbow.
He wants the story of this tattoo, and since I’m feeling more relaxed now, I tell him the abridged version. “I used to love reading when I was young. Learned at like 4 years old and became obsessed. The library became my happy place, you dig? Before I knew it, my room was filled with books, and I spent every second I could reading. And then, my mother, trying desperately to be cool, decided to read the same books as me. Didn’t matter what. And when I was like a teenager, the last thing I needed was my mom busting up in my room when I had friends over and talking about the latest book we were reading together. It was lame. Then she would try to teach me crap about them, like she was a fucking professor or something. She pissed me off. So I just stopped. I gave all my shit away and acted like I wasn’t into it anymore. And so these,” I touched my side, “are for me alone.”
I don’t tell him the rest of the story, how bad it got. How I had to keep changing the password on my phone because mother would read my messages. Or how I hid things in the attic that I didn’t want her to see. I knew she rifled through my room when I wasn’t there. So the day after I graduated from high school, I packed a bag and left. It was a horrible scene—the crying and hitting and screaming—but I was done.
Clay nods, inspecting the rest of my body. “So do you read now?”
“Well, yeah, cuz she isn’t around to be in my business. Had to shut it down then.”
He traces sansrkit letters beneath my collarbone.
“Enough with the stories for today, I think.”
“You’ve got a lot of secrets,” he runs a finger over the tattoos, which are all over most of my body except my arms and face.
“Everybody’s got secrets, Clay,” I tell him and roll away, get out of bed. “I’m going to have a shower. You going to take off?”
He laughs, “Damn. I guess I am.”
I know he’s watching me walk into the bathroom, and I blow him a kiss. “Ok then. Bye love, thanks for coming over.”
The hot water burns and turns my skin pink, but I stay under until it runs cool because I want to give Clay enough time to leave. Sure enough, when I come out he’s gone and the room is thankfully empty.
Joe picks me up the next night, and when he walks to the door to get me, it reminds me of going to prom, he’s so formal and nervous. I’m thinking, it’s just dinner, what’s the big deal. But I get into his car and see how clean and scrubbed it is—it’s hardly spotless by any means, but compared to what it was, it looks almost like new. When he opens my door, I wonder what’s going on.
He turns on the car and smoky music starts to play. “Henri! Room with a View—I love this album,” I say. Then almost as fast, I think, damn that’s date music if I’ve ever heard it. So I start trying to think about how to turn this night around, to make it into something else because Joe is a doll, but he’s also in my band, and that’s how things get messy. I’m all about compartmentalizing. He’s also a nice guy, and I wouldn’t want to fuck with him.
He chooses one of my favorite Thai places in the Marigny, and after a glass or two of wine, I forget that I was ever worried about him. He’s easy to talk to and I don’t feel like I have to be as guarded as usual.
“Yes,” I find myself saying, and I wonder how we ended up talking about me so quickly. “I’m a little surprised at what I’m doing these days. Didn’t really plan it, but I knew I didn’t want to be what my parents expected me to be, that’s for damn sure. I’m having fun right now—I’ll figure out the rest later.”
“I hear ya. You gotta do what feels right for you.” The look on his face is so sincere that it catches me by surprise.
After we finish eating he leans in, drums his fingers on the table. “Hey you know who’s at Snug Harbor tonight?”
“Uh, Ellis Marsalis?”
He laughs, “No, not tonight but most every other night, right? How ‘bout Marcus Roberts?”
“What? Get out!” I push his shoulder.
“For real.” He ducks his head, hesitates. “You want to go?”
“Who wouldn’t? But I’m sure it’s bucks.” Then I see him reach in his pocket, pull out two tickets.
“Yes!” I say. Just like that, the word is out, like I had no control over it. “Yes” is a dangerous word used alone, and that’s why I am always sure to qualify it. That way, there’s an out for me if I’m miserable, which I often am. As soon as I realize this, I try to think of something to say, like “Yes, but this doesn’t mean anything” or “Yes, but only if you let me pay for my ticket.” But what comes out instead is “Yes” and nothing else.
“Yes is my favorite word,” Joe smiles, and I wonder what it’s like to kiss him.
As we walk toward Snug Harbor, Joe takes my hand and I feel like myself for the first time in a long time. I want to be with him in that small, dark room where you can lose yourself in the music. I like the warmth and realness of his hand, and so decide not to pull away.