“This your first tattoo?”
The tattoo artist is big, burly and ink-covered, tattoos on his neck and up and down both arms, and Martin assumes over his chest and stomach and back and down his legs, probably even to his feet. Martin is as big around as one of the man’s thighs, and in the pallid flourescent light, his shirt and jacket folded in Arthur’s lap, he feels exposed and pale and brittle as a dry bone.
He’s about to answer when Arthur chirps, “Yes, it’s his first, nothing but virgin skin all over,” and Martin feels the artist’s eyes rake over him, probably wondering how Arthur knows. “So you’ll be extra gentle with him, won’t you?”
The tattoo artist eyes them both now — Martin hopes it’s simply with disbelief. “Yeah, kid,” he says, “I’ll be gentle.”
As usual, it’s Douglas’s fault. Or maybe it’s Martin’s fault for believing Douglas, trusting Douglas, making that absurd bet with Douglas; but in the end the only important point is that if it weren’t for Douglas, Martin would not be here, pasty and half-naked in a tattoo studio in New York City, about to get the MJN logo tattooed onto his shoulder. Carolyn had been no help, of course — all she had said was that it couldn’t be visible when Martin was in uniform. Douglas wanted him to get the tattoo on his neck, so Martin supposes that’s a small saving grace.
He had to sign a form, which he supposes is good, stating that he is sober and of age and not possessing any medical issues that the tattoo would worsen; and the studio is clean, if rather disturbingly decorated (lots of demons on motorcycles in the artwork, which he supposes is typical, since many of them have variations of “Born to raise hell” as their captions), and the tattoo artist has clean fingernails and latex gloves to snap on once he begins the actual tattooing.
Still, Martin flinches every time the artist’s fingers brush his skin, which is a lot since he cleans Martin’s shoulder with rubbing alcohol before he even starts placing the tracing of the logo on his skin. “Twitchy one, aren’t you,” the artist says gently and places a hand on Martin’s other shoulder, his finger brushing the nape of Martin’s neck, as if he means to calm him.
It has the opposite effect. Martin’s heartbeat skyrockets and his mouth and throat go completely dry. Martin swallows and swallows again, and says, “What — what was your name again? Sorry.”
“Angus,” says the artist absently as he removes his hand. He’s olive-skinned and dark-eyed, and his hair cascades from a ponytail at the back of his head in a mixture of black, bleached blonde and green. The sides of his head are shaved.
“Funny,” says Martin, “you don’t look Scottish,” and the artist pauses again as Martin tries laugh.
“My mom liked the name,” he says simply and says to Arthur, “help me out, Chuckles, and hold the mirror.”
Arthur scrambles up, eager to be helpful, and holds a large hand mirror over Martin’s back so he can see where Angus had placed the tracing of the logo. “It’ll look fantastic, Skip,” he says as Martin tries to orient himself with how the mirror image will look on his actual skin. “Too bad Douglas isn’t here to see.”
“Too bad,” Martin echoes and catches the smirk Angus doesn’t bother to hide.
“Your boyfriend?” Angus says.
“Of course,” says Angus. “Are you happy with the placement?”
“Yes,” Martin sighs. It’ll be hidden by his uniform — it’ll be hidden by his shirts, and no one’s seen him without one before tonight for an embaressingly long amount of of time. No one will know it’s there but the four of them, which, Martin thinks, somewhat defeats the purpose. If he were a different sort of man, he muses, he’d be like Angus, wearing his ink in the open and proudly, not caring what people thought as long as they thought he was a badass.
“So, this Douglas,” says Angus as he gets out some little pots of ink. “He’s the reason you’re getting this?”
“More or less.”
“Hm,” says Angus, then says to Arthur, “you can put that down now, Chuckles.”
“I’m Arthur,” chirps Arthur, and tucks the mirror under his arm as Angus prepares the row of inks. “What color do you do first?”
“We’ll outline it in black and then fill in with blue and white. The blue will take the longest.” His tone is gentler than it was before, as if he knows how terrifying the prospect of getting a tattoo is, and he says to Martin, “You’ll be more comfortable if you lie down.”
“Right, okay, sure.” Martin lies on the padded table, his head cradled on his arms, and Arthur sits again and gives him a thumbs-up. Martin manages not to scowl at him.
“Now,” says Angus, “it’ll feel like getting scratched over and over, and because you don’t have a lot of fatty tissue you’ll feel it more than some. But just grit your teeth and bear it, and once your adrenaline kicks in you’ll hardly feel it at all. Ready?”
“No,” Martin whispers and closes his eyes, and then opens them again when Angus musses the curls at the back of his head. It makes him exhale, though, and unclench a little, and he says, “Yes, I’m ready,” and doesn’t even flinch once the buzzing begins.
Somewhere in the middle of it, the buzzing needle and the sharp scratching (Martin thinks it’s more like getting cut over and over by the tiniest of knives, which is what’s actually happening, isn’t it?) and the smell of ink and the pain that’s almost but not quite too much to bear, something hits — endorphins, the adrenaline that Angus mentioned — something that makes this feel almost … good.
Douglas would hate that aspect of it, Martin thinks, and smiles. Douglas doesn’t need to know. He wouldn’t believe it, anyway, since he thought this would be punishment, when instead it’s exhilerating, and shockingly intimate, having Angus’s face bent over him so close and so long. He can even almost ignore Arthur’s running commentary and fascinated questions, and even laughs when Arthur says, “Oh, you’re bleeding, Skip!”
“I’m getting cut over and over,” he says and turns his head to look at Arthur again. “Of course I’m bleeding.”
“I’m surprised you’re not screaming your head off,” Arthur says frankly. “Your skin’s so red.”
“I’m not,” Angus says quietly. “You’re tougher than you look.”
Martin turns his head back to Angus’s side and gives him a quiet smile, and Angus musses his hair again.
He’s trembling and out of breath by the time the tattoo is done, as if he’d been running for miles, and his hands are shaking when Angus declares it done and has him sit up. Arthur holds up the mirror again so Martin can see the tattoo, and says softly, “It really looks good, Skip.”
“It really does,” Martin says to Angus. He tries to stand and sways, his hands and knees shaking, and falls back with a laugh. “Is this normal?”
“To feel a little drunk? Yeah, it’s normal. It’ll pass in an hour or so.” Angus smiles at them. “Just sit for a few minutes more. Get your equilibrium back.” Martin sits and breathes, his elbows on his knees, as Angus disposes of his gloves and needles.
“We should get back to the hotel,” says Arthur and holds out Martin’s shirt.
“I have to bandage you up before you get dressed,” Angus interjects and Arthur steps back deferentially. “We clean you up first,” Angus says and cleans Martin’s shoulder with a lemon-scented baby wipe. He tapes a bandage to his shoulder next, and then gives him a printout of instructions. “Keep it clean and moisturized,” he says. “That’s the most important thing.”
“Thank you,” Martin says and once he’s dressed, they go to the front of the little shop to pay. As strong as the euro is compared to the dollar right now, it’s still a little painful to hand over the cash (and a tip, which Douglas was insistant upon as proper tattooing etiquette — and how would Doulas know, anyway?) — on the other hand, Martin feels remarkably good about it all. The pain is only a dull throb, no worse than the time he sprained his ankle, and Angus was a lot kinder about it all than he expected. And he’s done something Douglas would never do. That feels remarkably good, too.
They’re about to leave when he says to Arthur, “Wait here for me?” and goes back to Angus’s little cubicle, decorated with demons on motorcycles and dark-eyed, big-breasted women giving come-hither looks and screaming skills engulfed in flames. Angus is still cleaning up, putting away his little pots of ink into a cabinet, and he smiles when he sees Martin. He’s not someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley, thinks Martin, though he is someone you’d want in that dark alley with you.
“Everything okay?” says Angus.
“I just wanted to thank you again. Er. Thank you. For making it … not utterly terrible.”
Angus chuckles. “You’re welcome.” He pauses. “Martin. You’re stronger than you look. Don’t forget that.”
“I try not to,” says Martin, and goes back to the front of the shop to rescue the receptionist from Arthur.
Arthur keeps up the chatter all the way back to the hotel, and says when Martin’s unlocking his room, “He was actually kind of fit, wasn’t he? I mean, if you like the burly type. I’m not sure I’d like the burly type if I liked blokes, but if I liked the burly type, I’d like him.”
“I suppose,” says Martin and steps inside. Arthur takes a step as if he means to follow him, and Martin tries not to notice the hurt expression Arthur gets when Martin blocks him with his body. “I’m very tired and we’re flying home tomorrow. Good night, Arthur.”
“Good night, Skip,” Arthur says, and then says, “Skip?” as he pauses on his way to his own room.
“Yes, Arthur,” Martin sighs.
“Will you come with me when I get mine?”
“You weren’t part of the bet.”
“I know. But I was thinking, if you can get one, maybe I can, too.” He smiles sunnily. “Good night, Skip.”
“Good night,” says Martin and closes the door.