At night, my neighbors’ tattoos come to me and spill all their secrets.
“I’m worried that people can tell I’m shallow when they look at me,” a monarch butterfly who pulled herself off my neighbor’s ankle says.
I sigh, I get out of bed, I put the kettle on.
“You know that’s not a productive thought pattern,” I tell the butterfly. It’s cold, so I retreat to my bedroom and get another sweater. There are holes in the walls of my rowhouse, between the apartments upstairs, downstairs, and beside me. The wind and the mice and the tattoos come through.
“I’m worried that people think I’m stupid,” a komodo dragon, clumsily drawn, says as he stomps his way in for a cup of tea. He likes it strong and black even though it’s well past midnight.
“More likely, they’ll think you’re compensating for something,” I tell him.
“He is compensating,” the butterfly says.
“Bitch,” says the dragon.
“Behave,” I tell them both.
New neighbors moved in next door at the beginning of the month. They have a baby whose wails travel through the gaps in the floorboards. I don’t know if the mother has tattoos because the tattoos can only crawl away once their bodies are asleep. The father has a Smiths lyric, though.
“And if you ever need self-validation, just meet me in the alley by the railway-station,” he says every time he visits.
“Can’t you think for yourself?” the butterfly asks.
“I love my daughter, but I’m worried that if I get too happy, I’ll lose a part of my identity,” the Smiths lyric says.
“My mother died alone, and I regret not being there,” the butterfly says.
“There’s only so much you can control,” I say. I started buying St. John’s Wort for the sad-sack tattoos: the crying Madonnas, the melancholy quotes, the portraits of the dead. One grandmother wreathed in daisies isn’t so much sad to be dead as she is angry at the tattoo artist.
“He fucked up my teeth,” the grandmother says, “I had nice teeth in real life.”
“It’s better to be a little ugly,” the Smiths lyric says. “It makes you seem more true.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” says the butterfly.
They sit around my kitchen table with me and drink their tea. My cat comes in and meows at them a bit, but she doesn’t scare them even if she is a monster of legend to the mice.
“That’s a pretty cat,” a new tattoo says, a wobbly Om sign peeled from the base of my downstairs neighbor’s neck. She used to be a hippie, but now she has a welcome mat that says: “Come Back With A Warrant.”
“Don’t tell her that, it’ll go to her head,” I say.
“I’ve never once looked at my body and thought: I’m beautiful,” the Om says.
The kitchen is getting crowded. Everyone is getting tattoos. Stars peel themselves off in crescents from the curve of my neighbors’ ears and hang from my ceiling. Calligraphy unsticks itself from the smalls of their backs and curls at my feet breathing dead lovers’ names. Whole sleeves of blooming flowers unfurl and strain upwards from my countertops toward my feeble ceiling light. There are a few goofy cartoon characters and old stick and pokes who’ve faded into greenish blobs. Their worries are always the same:
“I’m afraid I’m not young, and the world isn’t what I thought it would be.”
“My grandson is having an affair with his therapist,” the grinning grandmother says.
“I used to have affairs,” the komodo dragon says, “but I’m not good looking anymore.”
I never got any tattoos. Not when it was truly transgressive and then not again once everyone I knew had them. My mother told me you couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you had a tattoo. Turns out that’s not true, but it’s for the best. I don’t want pieces of myself peeling away in the night to tell insomniacs that I feel bad about my body or that I’m worried I will ruin every good thing I get from wanting it too much.
When the sun starts to rise, the tattoos slink away. Some of them thank me for the tea. They disappear through the walls, following the mice and the music, the fights and the sex and silent sobs. I wash all the teacups as pink dawn creeps in.