Black coffee, old donuts and folding chairs. That’s the meeting I met Piot at. The kind where everybody wants something. One specific thing we all want, obviously, and on top of that our own personal things, our own private needs and desires. Often the one is the answer to the other, though not always. Not, perhaps, in Piot’s case. Almost certainly, perhaps, in mine.
One night, instead of going to a meeting, I went to a bar. Piot was also in the bar. We weren’t supposed to go to bars, so it was a shock to find him there.
I was going to pretend I hadn’t seen you, he said, coming to me with a bottle in his hand. He raised his eyebrows in a way that said he would buy me a drink if I wanted one. No use pretending. I did.
I don’t drink, I said, drinking. Anymore.
Mmm, he said. I quit too.
Lines as funny as that deserved a moment’s appreciation, which they got.
So what do you want? I asked. He knew what I meant.
I’m a tattoo artist, he said.
You any good?
And he showed me pictures of his work, [one tattoo was on the back of a circus performer and it was a spiral with legs of all the different animals growing from its entire circumference. Zebra legs, people legs, duck legs, cockroach legs, hippo legs, llama legs, mouse legs, crocodile legs, fish tails. When the performer cartwheeled, somehow, I don’t know how, the legs seemed to move in the opposite direction. He showed me a video] and it was true, he was very good.
Certainly the best I’ve ever seen.
I told him a story I’d heard about a man who had a beautiful picture tattooed on his chest that was worth so much money, he bequeathed it to his lover when he died. She could cut it from his body, and he told her how to stretch it and preserve it so it wouldn’t waste away, and he already had a buyer lined up if she needed to sell it, or she could keep it to remind her of him.
He got stabbed in the chest, said Piot.
You’ve heard this before? I asked.
He shrugged, and I didn’t know if he had or not. He showed me another tattoo; he’d done somebody’s left hand on their right hand and their right hand on their left. Jesus, I said. That’s painful to look at.
I’m tired of only tattooing skin, he said on our fifth drink.
What else is there to tattoo? I asked on our sixth.
He shrugged on our seventh.
You know, he said on our eighth, you have really beautiful eyes.
Yes, I said, flustered. The best, I told him.
So what do you want? he asked me, but that, I said, would have to wait for another day.
Another day. Hungover, I didn’t want to meet Piot again. This wasn’t unusual for me – I made friends drunk and sober I was afraid to see them anymore. I hated myself for slipping, but instead of going to a meeting, I went to another bar. A different bar. Not the same bar I’d gotten drunk with Piot in.
I got a whisky and a water, and every time I drank from the whisky I also drank from the water, like the one would cancel out the other. Knowing, of course, that it didn’t work that way. Nobody tonight came to talk to me, and whenever the door opened, I looked up. He didn’t come, but I was afraid he might. This bar was too close to the last bar, so after a couple of drinks I left, went to a new place, further away.
Whenever the door opened there, I looked up too. Still he didn’t come.
He didn’t come to the next bar either, nor the one after that.
Jesus, I thought. It’s like he’s not going to come to any of these bars.
Finally, I went back to the place we’d been in the time before, to no luck.
Failing that, I went to the meeting. He wasn’t there either, and I wasn’t welcome. I’m getting drunk just looking at you, said the woman who didn’t want me there, licking her lips.
I mean she was licking her own lips. I wasn’t licking her lips.
You know what I mean.
It was many more bars before I found him, and he was as red in the face as I was.
Were you looking for me? he asked.
No, I lied.
No, he said. Me too.
That night he showed me more pictures of his tattoos. One covered a woman’s entire torso, and looked like the skin had been peeled away to reveal her insides. Small snakes wound around her ribcage, crushing the bones. He told me again he was tired of tattooing only skin and I asked him again what else was there.
You’ve got a good heart, he said.
Ha! That’s my cue to leave, I told him.
But he took my hand, and looked into my eyes, and asked me to stay.
You’re not going to tattoo my heart, I told him. I laughed, and it bounced off the mirrored walls of the backbar and surrounded us.
Let me tattoo your heart, he said. And he pushed his drink away, so that all he could see was me.
Okay, I said. Okay.
Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has been published online in Booth, SmokeLong, Tin House, and Wigleaf, among others. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review. twitter: @ChristopherJ_8D Image: Still Life with Ace of Hearts, Georges Baque, 1914