2002 KSU Fiction Winner
“So you’re really going to do it, Lex? Geez, I just can’t believe it! I mean, you’ve done some crazy shit before, no joke, like the time you and Katie flashed the football team from the Winstead’s drive-thru, and then took off in your car? That was some crazy shit. God, you should have seen the look on Cohn Goodman’s face, Lex, priceless, but shit, Lex, this is big-time. Man, your mom is gonna kill you for sure...
I rolled my window down, blowing my cigarette smoke out as gently as I possibly could, looking cool and collected as I flicked my ash outside. I ran my hand through my black hair, which was much shorter than most other girls’ that I knew and much spikier, thanks to a generous amount of gel. I let Sarah’s incessant babbling drift out the window with my smoke. Waited for the light to change so I could show this brand-new Cavalier with the too-large muffler next to me who was boss. I tapped the gas pedal of my ‘93 Laser.
Anyone who knows me knows my car. Not very many people drive a burgundy car with gold wheels and trim. I normally wouldn’t either, but when you’re a high school student, you can’t afford to look a gift horse in the mouth, so to speak, and really, it’s a pretty decent car. A little, well, flashy, to say the least. People who know me say it fits me perfectly. Even though I don’t consider myself “flashy,” just alternatively fashion-oriented.
Light flashes green, and we were off. Sarah was still yapping about what balls I had and how my mom was going to have my ass over this particular little stunt I was about to pull. Sometimes, she’s like this giant mouth, attached to a mass of curly brown hair, oversized brown eyes, some skin and a backpack, I shit you not. As if I cared what my mom thinks. Chris was lounged across the backseat of my car, picking at the fringe on his ripped jeans. Man of few words, he looked up and caught my eye in the rearview mirror.
“Can we change the music? This old shit makes my ears hurt!” he cried plaintively.
I glared back at my sixteen year old little brother. He knew the rules: my car, my music. And I liked to listen to classical music when I drove. Today, Chopin’s piano was resonating through my car.
Love for classical music was something I inherited from my father. He was a high school music teacher. As a matter of fact, music was one of the only things I got from him before he left Mom for one of his students, which is a lot more than my little brother received from him. Chris didn’t even get a chance to know the guy. I can’t say I’ve been real bothered about it. Lots of people’s dads take off when they’re little. No big deal, right?
I’m not exactly sure why, but listening to classical music always soothes me. And I figured if I was going to be behind the wheel with a blabbermouth and a crybaby, with my, um, volatile, personality, I’d need all the soothing I could get.
It was a wonder Chris could even hear the music over Sarah’s chatter, and it’s not like I wanted to bring him along or anything, not my fault mom made me give him a ride to and from school every day. He caught my look in the mirror and decided instead of pushing it with me, he would resign himself instead to silent pissyness.
We were en route to Michelangelo’s Body Art tattoo and piercing shop. I had turned eighteen over the weekend and felt the need to do something really cool to my body. I already had a tattoo, thanks to an ex-boyfriend who figured girls that you date don’t need to conform to age restrictions. My shoulder had been graced with the Japanese symbol for faith since I was sixteen.
People ask me all the time, “What’s it mean?” Like it’s any of their business what I decide to fucking emblazon on my body, really. Then I tell them that it stands for faith, and they start looking at me all misty-eyed and shit, and I have to walk away before I get really pissed off.
I don’t understand why I have such a low tolerance for everyone around me. I like most people okay; I just wish that they would occasionally think about something other than themselves for once before they open their fucking trap. At the same time, although I really think she’s a great person inside, at times I get so irritated with Sarah, because she always has her nose in other people’s business.
By the time I had turned eighteen, I hadn’t exactly matured the way my mom would have liked. I loved her enough to at least try to be the girl she wanted for a daughter when she was around, but my leading a double life was not easy on either of us.
I had gotten into the habit of changing clothes when I walked in the door of my house. I changed my tone of voice, how I spoke, how I acted, everything. I hated it when my mom gave me one of her “disappointed” looks. I know it sounds really stupid, but I really did want her to be proud of me. And to know that for all the trouble I got into and all the stupid shit I pulled, I really was a good person.
However, as I said before, turning eighteen didn’t slow me down much. Now we were on our way to the best tattoo and body-piercing parlor in town. I had decided I needed a body piercing. Not my ears; earrings had no personality whatsoever. Plus, I have really cute earlobes. Facial piercing was definitely out, as my mom would flip shits the moment I walked in the door. For an art teacher, she was awfully closed-minded about body art. No, I needed something relatively hidden.
I considered navel rings, but found out in gym class one day that too many cheerleaders had them cause they were just so cute! I was so horrified that I ruled my navel right out. No, I needed a piercing that was a credit to my boundless tolerance of pain. Something that not everyone could see and bug me about, like my tattoo, but something that if the right people knew about it they would say, “Geez, Lex. That is so cool. I could never have done something like that.”
Which is how I came to the conclusion that I would get my breasts pierced. Most people call this nipple piercing, but there is something about the word that just makes me shudder. So for me, it’s breast piercing.
Now, this is where most people start freaking out. But I assure them that I’m sure it won’t be as bad as it sounds, and that it is the logical conclusion to a well-thought-out problem. Besides, I’m going to do it anyway and if they don’t like it, tough shit.
We pulled into the parking lot and piled out of the car. I led the way inside, saying “hey” to the guy behind the counter, who was nonchalantly fiddling with a quarter-inch-wide hole in his ear while he thumbed through the newspaper.
“What can I do for ya?” he said, sizing me up. I could see him taking me in: the black Doe Martens boots that laced up to my knees, the ripped fishnet hose. My baby-blue T-shirt that proclaimed “I’m Not Wearing Any Underwear” in navy blue cursive across my chest. I was wearing my black leather wrist cuffs that had the same silver studs as my belt, which was holding up my plaid skirt held together by safety pins.
“Yeah,” I said, forcing him to look up and make contact with my deep brown eyes. “I need to see about getting my breasts pierced.”
That was all I needed to say to send the eyes southward again. Boys, sometimes. Do they ever think of anything else? I mean, I could practically see the hamster turning the wheel in his head; it was that sad.
“Okay. You eighteen? Good. Forty-five each. I need your driver’s license and you need to sign these papers,” he reeled off, passing me a clipboard. “I can do it in about fifteen minutes, gotta wait for the equipment to be cleaned. Pay first.” He scratched his much-decorated arm and glanced over my shoulder. “What’s with them?”
I turned to see what the others were doing. Chris was flipping through a book of Polaroids of previous customers marked “Below the Waist.” Sarah was staring in shock at a collection of naked lesbian tattoo designs on the wall.
I pushed five twenties still crisp from the ATM machine across the glass case toward him, along with my driver’s license, hoping ten bucks would be enough of a tip so that he wouldn’t maim me any more than I was asking him to. I shrugged in response to his question, “Repressed?”
He chuckled. “Have a scat. I’ll come get you when I’m ready.” He picked up the paperwork I had finished and went to a back room hidden by a curtain.
I turned instead to the glass cases of body jewelry, pretending not to hear Chris muttering, “They really do look like O’Keefe paintings...
I walked along the case, eyeing the various rings, wondering what mine would look like. There were all kinds of rings, varying in colors and sizes; there were even teal green rings, my mom’s favorite color. I had to smile at the thought of my mother in a place like this. She wouldn’t last two minutes, and what was worse, she would start asking questions in that stupid way of hers. I could just hear her, “Yes, but why would you do a thing like that? It looks so weird! Did it hurt? Well, why would you do it if it hurt?”
My mother doesn’t understand anything outside her little world of teaching art at the local grade school, housekeeping, and grocery shopping. Really, by now she was at home, trying to figure out what I had done to earn the detention that was inevitably keeping me and Chris late this time. That’s how reliable she was. Shoot me if I ever get that reliable.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that I don’t like my mom, I do. I just wish I could open her mind a little to the world outside so she wouldn’t seem like such an ignorant person sometimes. Then maybe she could see me as the type of person I really was, strong and independent.
I sighed and walked over to the couch and sat down. Sarah immediately came over and plopped down beside me. She looked at me intently, trying to figure out what was going on in my head.
“Your mom is really going to kill you when she finds out. You know that, don’t you?”
“That’s if and not when. My mom doesn’t make a habit of checking me out naked for your information, so it’s very doubtful that she ever will. And who died and made you the voice of responsibility all of a sudden?”
“I just know you, that’s all. Ten bucks says, right now you’re thinking about what she’s going to think. And I can almost guarantee it will be worse than when she almost sent you to rehab for finding your stash of pot in your drawer. Or the time when she took your car away for a week after she found out about you ditching algebra. Or the time when she caught you sneaking back into the apartment at three in the morning...
God, I wish Sarah would keep her fucking trap shut sometimes.
“You remember how bad she flipped shits when you came home with the tattoo? You were grounded for, like, ever. Think of how bad it will be when you come home with this.”
“Sarah, zip it. Jesus, it’s not like you’re doing it and having to go home to my mom or anything. Why don’t you just let me take care of myself?”
“Your funeral, Miss Bad-Ass,” she sniffed, and got up to go join Chris, who was still poking through “Below the Waist.”
I swear, if she weren’t my best friend, she would drive me up the wall. Just what I needed. Another flicking mother. She did pretty much have me pegged, though. Not that I’d ever give her the satisfaction of knowing it.
Piercing-guy emerged from the back room at that point, breaking my thoughts. He grinned at me.
“As I’ll ever be.” I threw Sarah and Chris a defiant look and strode toward the back room. Sarah followed.
“You can’t be in here,” piercing-guy said to her.
“Why not? I have to be! That’s what I came for!” Sarah’s voice reached a high pitch and broke like glass.
“State regulations. You can wait outside.” And he shut the door in her face.
The moment we were in the room alone together was when I felt panic creep in. It occurred to me that I was in a room with a complete stranger with several very sharp objects. I took several deep breaths and forced myself to relax.
“You okay?” he said, looking at me.
“If you’re not, tell me the instant you’re not, and I stop. Promise.” He smiled at me. He was putting on his rubber gloves and cleaning several silver objects. I looked away.
“Now comes the fun part,” he said with a devilish grin on his face. “Take off your shirt.”
I hesitated. “What’s your name? I don’t take my shirt off for people when I don’t at least know their first name,” I teased, delaying, making a joke of the situation.
“Steve. And you can trust me. Really. Your friends are right outside. Believe me, you ain’t got nothing my wife don’t got, and I’m a professional. Been piercing for about fifteen years now, got started out in California...
And as he spoke, I felt myself hypnotized, doing exactly as he said, listening to him speak, and trusting him. It was like I was caught by his voice so entirely that I could not understand what was going on around me.
“Do you like Tori Amos?” he was saying when I felt that first little prick, not even really enough to hurt. “You look like the kind that would like her. My wife loves Tori. Anything with her piano music. Went to go see her in concert, too. Ever seen her in concert? No? Too bad, she’s amazing.. .“ His voice went on and on, asking me questions, telling me little snippets of his life. “Well, you’re done. And let me just say that you handled it beautifully.”
Done? How could I be done? We were just having a conversation; it didn’t even feel like he was doing anything... and then I caught a glance in the mirror. He was telling the truth; there were the silver rings.
He handed me a paper with cleaning instructions and very sternly read them over to me as I put my shirt back on.
“Now go out and give ‘em a show,” he laughed.
I walked out the door. Sarah and Chris were standing there staring intently at me.
I smiled at them. “All done. Let’s go.”
The guy resumed his position behind the counter.
“Have a nice day!” he called out. “Come back and see us!”
We were filing out the door when Chris, who was right in front of me, stopped abruptly. I crashed into him. Jolts of pain raced like bolts of lightning through my chest.
“DAMN YOU!!!!” I screamed, and reached out to pinch his ear off, but he scuttled away, laughing.
I composed myself. “Come on, Sarah. Now that we have the whole car to ourselves, since someone evidently wanted to walk home...”
Chris stopped laughing. “You do,” he snarled, “and I tell Mom exactly where we’ve been all afternoon.”
I glared at him. “Get in the car, and you better not even think of fucking speaking the entire way home. Get it?”
The ride home was pretty uneventful. Sarah dwelled on every final detail until she had completely worn out the subject and tarnished the newness of the piercing. They really were starting to hurt; a throbbing heat was coursing through my chest. Chris rode in the backseat again, drawing faces on his hands and miming Sarah’s chattering with hand puppets in my rearview mirror. By the time I dropped her off at her house, my sides were aching from held-in laughter. I have to hand it to him; my brother can be pretty funny when he wants to be.
I left Sarah on her driveway, promising to take care of the piercings just as the paper told me to, and promising to call her later. I drove directly to the apartments where we all lived, turned into my parking lot and got out, tired. Chris scrambled out of the backseat and, grabbing his backpack, ran off in the direction of his best friend’s house.
I sighed and looked up at our apartment window. The lights were on, meaning that my mother was already home and making dinner. I wondered how big of an inquisition she would make me endure if I asked to skip dinner tonight. The soreness was really starting to set in, and eating dinner was about the last thing that I wanted right now.
I trudged up the stairs and went in the door. I was starting to head for my room so I could change my clothes when I heard my mother’s voice from the kitchen.
“Alexis? Come in here. We need to talk.”
Oh, shit. Here we go. I wonder what it is I did that she found out about this time. I hope it doesn’t take too long; I’m dying to run to the bathroom so I can put a cold washrag on my chest. The pain is starting to kill me.
I stepped into the kitchen, and Mom was sitting at the table, her Martha Stewart mug of hot chamomile tea in front of her. Her eyes swept down over the outfit, and she pursed her lips before she spoke, her eyebrows knit over her eyes.
“Where have you been? It’s past six-thirty. I needed your help bringing in the groceries.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know. Chris ran off, probably to Ben’s. He’ll be home in a while. I had to stay late, my photography deadline is coming up and I had to use the dark room,” I breathed, hoping it would be enough.
“And you couldn’t call? Lex, I called your art teacher when you didn’t show up; you weren’t in the dark room after school.”
I sighed, tried again. “Fine, I didn’t want to tell you, but I had a detention after school; I would have called, but Mr. Davis is such a dick when he has to govern detentions.”
“Try again, Lex. Try the truth. I had to go pick up some mat board from the art supply store on 87~. I saw your car at that tattoo shop.”
I froze. Think, Lex, think. I sighed. Started over.
“Well, I didn’t want to tell you, because I know you don’t like me being around that stuff, but Sarah asked me if I would go with her to get her navel pierced, for
moral support and everything, and I told her it would be okay. She chickened out at the last minute, though, and didn’t go through with it.”
I forced myself to look my mother right in the eye. Sort of a staring showdown, daring her to find the fault in my words.
“Really,” she mused, eyeing me. I glared as her eyes roved my face for an offending ring. Her eyes wandered to my waist.
“Let’s see your navel.”
“Jesus, Ma, why don’t you just flicking strip search me as soon as I walk in the flicking door!” I exploded. I couldn’t believe she was accusing me! I mean, I know I was guilty, but she didn’t, and probable cause was no call for her to go invading my privacy this way. For a split second, fear made me wish I had not gotten my breasts pierced at all. But it lasted only a second.
“I told you to keep from using such language in my home, Alexis. And if you haven’t brutally disfigured yourself again, you should have no problem with showing me your navel. Now, please.”
I fought the urge to start screaming. I lifted my shirt just enough to expose my navel. “See?” I said sarcastically. “Look, ma! No piercings.”
She sighed and shook her head. “It’s always something with you, isn’t it, Lox? Can’t ever just be content to be normal. Always have to wear weird clothes, hair, etc. Always getting into fights at school, smoking.”
She said “smoking” like it was a dirty word or something. I opened my mouth to protest.
“Save it, Lex. Do you think I can’t smell it on you every time you walk in the house? Just how stupid do you think I am? Now, I suggest if you’ve done something weird to your body again, that you get rid of it before I see it.
Tattoos say something about you, Lex, and it’s not what you want people to see. The only people I see with tattoos are weirdos. Do you want people to think you’re a weirdo? Not only that, but it reflects badly on me. Every time you act up, every time you pull something, I get to hear about it. I get to see people look at me and wonder what sort of job I did raising you to be like this. And I have news for you, Alexis. I’m sick and tired of it. You may think you’re so wonderful, being different, making a statement, but people don’t want to understand why you are a certain way; they just assume that you’re weird. And you may not think so, but it closes doors for you, Lex. It really does.”
I had been staring at my shoes during the lecture, and now I raised my eyes. She was giving me the disappointed look again.
“Not that it matters or anything,” I lied, “because I haven’t done anything to my body, which, by the way, I think is total crap that I get lectured for basically being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it doesn’t seem to bother me as much as it does you what other people think of me. I refuse to associate myself with people who would judge me based on my appearance anyways.”
She sighed again. “You still don’t understand. You don’t always have that choice. And I would hate to see you lose out on a job interview or a college interview based on something as trivial as the clothes you had on. And you’re not even considering what I go through as a result of your behavior and such. I hate it when people look at me like my daughter’s a freak!
“So,” she said, resigning herself. “Tomorrow’s Saturday, and you and I are going shopping for some new clothes. And we’re going to get rid of some of these things you wear that make you look like a deviant. And we’re going to work on that behavior of yours, too. Because I’m about fed up with all of this.
“Maybe you think you’re above all of this, that you’re eighteen now and can just do whatever you want, but part of growing up means assuming the responsibility of knowing that maybe you shouldn’t do everything you want.”
“Fine,” I spat, turning and walking away. “I’ll just go wash off all this cigarette smoke I seem to have acquired. And since I’m apparently going to be a weirdo until I get these new clothes, I’ll just stay out of your normal little life 'til then.” I infused each word with all the hatred I could muster.
I closed the bedroom door behind me and very carefully removed my shirt. It had been too painful to wear a bra home. I looked at myself in the mirror.
Damn, even though they were a lot of trouble, with my ma and with how much they hurt, they looked so cool. They exemplified perfectly my rebelliousness. They hurt really badly, though. Blood was beginning to crust on the silver rings. It would be hard, but I would get through this. After all, I’d never heard of anyone dying of nipple piercings before. This was worse than the tattoo, though. Just these, I told myself. Just these and I’ll never pierce anything ever again.
I let my eyes meander around my room, which was decorated with all sorts of vintage movie posters. My eyes stopped on Amazon Women in the Jungle of Love. It was my favorite poster, even though I had never seen the movie. I think the guy who sold it to me said that it was some sort of circa 1970’s porn film, which I found incredibly humorous.
“See?” I said, facing the women in fur bikinis. “Now I’m an Amazon, too! I don’t need shit from anyone! I am in charge of MY OWN LIFE!” I laughed, not noticing my damn cat pushing open the door to my room and coming
in. I was still laughing when I looked up and noticed my mom standing in the doorway, a look of combined horror and revulsion on her face.
But she turned and walked away. I could hear her rummaging in a drawer in the kitchen, clanking utensils together. Shit. Now I was going to get it for sure.
I pulled on a T-shirt and went back out to the kitchen.
“Mom, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to lie to you, I just knew that telling you would make you even more disappointed in me than you already were, and I really wanted to do this, but I didn’t want to disappoint you so I...”
She turned on me, her face red with rage.
“Disappointed? Lex is that what you thought? Never mind, I can’t even comprehend what you think.” She slammed the silver shape that was in her hand down on the table with a bang so hard it made my ears ring.
“I’m much worse than disappointed, Lex. I’m fucking ashamed to have you as my daughter.”
I had never heard my mother swear. I looked at her, standing there red-faced, tears of rage and pain and utter frustration in her eyes. I sighed and turned around, went back to my room. I left the pliers on the table, knowing that they would be there later if I should need them.
Samantha Warren is the winner of the 2002 Touchstone Kansas State Contest for Fiction. She is currently studying for her Bachelor’s Degree at K-State.
All rights reserved. Copyright KSU Touchstone 2003
Last updated April 24, 2003