Back then, I even looked like trouble. I had long blond hair, triceps like a bike messenger and a sexual aura that dangled from me like fringe from my cutoffs as I pranced across the Do Not Walk.
I was never alone in New York, even when I walked to class alone. Men of all kinds—suited up, humping a jackhammer or half-invisible lurking in a doorway watched me, whistled at me, asked me what perfume I wore, if I was a gymnast, a dancer, an angel. I smirked, sped up, but with a little flip of the hair because I secretly liked how it felt. I was so empty back then I wanted to catch all those compliments inside me until I was full. I wanted to believe I was not just beautiful but mystical, somebody’s wild card, a lucky Poker hand. I wanted to present myself at a local bar like a fresh deck of cards, arch my back and listen to the purr of a fresh shuffle, see where I fell. Did I mention I was twenty? I was unstoppable. I could win a race in high heels, I thought. Just shoot the gun.
In French Lit we were reading Nausea. The diary of a life-sick loner. It was a bore, but maybe Sartre was right. That the self is just a construct. It doesn’t exist people, so fuck it. Why couldn’t a girl be a narcissistic French man too? Obsessed with her own thoughts and calling how she was living existentialism? I could contemplate a champagne flute for hours. I could tear my poems to bits and cackle into the night. What if I could evaporate my old self? My old eating disorder self for example? And like a genie, materialize into another new, unhinged me? Or better yet, have no self at all? Just a body. Oh, hello body. Nice to meet you. Imagine that. Me. Just a streak of blonde between bodegas and scaffolding, shot like an arrow from an acrobat’s toe into a bullseye of flames. This could be my year of existential delight. Yes, I decided, sliding New York up my body like a tube dress.
My weeks took on a routine pretty quickly: monotonous classes in basement rooms around the Washington Square area, trying on silky clothes I couldn’t afford in different boutiques and then leaving, reading obscure French theater books for my major in cafés, wandering around Alphabet City. I loved the creepy energy of the East Village. I loved my dark, overpriced dollhouse apartment. I loved spinning the Astor Place cube at three am after doing coke all night in someone’s penthouse I might never see again. I liked sitting on my stoop with my neighbor, nothing to do but make up stories about people, the longhaired Japanese guy who ate tin foil sandwiches but was surely a bad-ass kindergarten teacher. Any of us could be anyone we wanted in the East Village. I could be Chloë Sevigny in a sensual but slightly disturbing Harmony Korine movie. I could be a mosaic on a telephone pole. Tiny pieces of shiny, crushed garbage saved like treasure, pressed together into a mandala. I even liked our local homeless people. Warren, the guy who lived in the F train Second Avenue Station, was my favorite. Hey Britney Spears, he would call out to me, shuffling along with his glassy eyes. I gave him bagels and loose change. I liked knowing he had probably never heard of anorexia, that it would never even occur to him. Someone would be weird enough to starve themselves? Not her! In his eyes, I was just an uncomplicated college girl with the world painted red on my fingernails—ready to grab a subway pole and be whisked uptown. I liked knowing he had my back too. I was out a lot.
I worked four nights a week at this Italian restaurant called Baldo Vino. I flirted with everyone there, since that’s half the fun of working in a restaurant, but most heavily with this Brazilian tattoo artist named Tiago who came in every once in a while, said he’d tattoo me anytime I wanted, just come by. The idea of his hands on my skin popped me open like a bottle of Prosecco. Even though I was always in the midst of some short-lived hookup with a banker, a deejay, an artist/dog-walker-type from a park bench who’d do anything to take me out, this guy was different. My heart raced when I saw him. I’d go limp when he touched my lower back, even for a second in passing. He was not conventionally attractive, but he wore an oversized, worn leather jacket that exuded a certain fuck-it-ness. Bold, aloof and foreign: my favorite combination. I would think about him while we were closing for the night, wiping a long knife or watching candle smoke twirl. And that’s exactly when he would show up and give me the nod. I’d prop myself up at the bar opposite him and let the warm red wine soak into the ravines of my life.
Baldo Vino was a weird and wonderful bunker on Seventh and Avenue A. It gave off the feeling of a Tuscan farmer having a hot affair with the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice and Wonderland. With an Italian owner, Marcello—silky suit, belly as big as a pumpkin, definitely in the Mafia—and a French-Moroccan manager—creepy, leather-faced Michel, teeth like Stonehenge and close friend of one of the relatives of the Gipsy Kings—Baldo Vino offered a muddle of two diametrically opposed cuisines and a clash in concepts. For the back ten tables, we served Italian dishes like veal saltimbocca, mushroom risotto and a pesto-shrimp Strozzapreti. I still dream about the shrimp—it was cooked in such a way that it formed a curlicue you could pop into your mouth in a single bite. And the Strozzapreti pasta? I love that it meant “strangled priest.” The front half of the restaurant was transformed from Thursday to Sunday by Michel into a French-Moroccan lounge that served kofta and mergez at low tables to sexy people. Can you imagine the aroma? Garlic and basil danced with harissa and cinnamon. Only New York could pull off such a clash of cultures and tastes and make them sizzle. And for a brief time, before it closed abruptly and forever, before everyone moved on and never came back, it did.
The best nights were the concert nights. The restaurant would be packed, the Gipsy Kings roaring the night away with their blistered guitar fingers, everyone bathed in sangria, and we’d make tons of cash. At some point, I’d escape for a quick smoke outside on the swell of one of the “Bamboléoooooo’s,” the noisy din from the restaurant still ringing in my ears, the low lights wrapped around my bare shoulders like a hug and not need a thing. That feeling pierced my heart so acutely it was as if the sky might disappear with all the stars forever and it didn’t matter because you could never see stars in New York anyway. Who needed stars when you had the promise of drinks, men, music and all this concrete and light to make your own? I had a past, sure, I had scars—a couple razor slashes inside and a few outside my body, but that was the old me. There is no human nature, Sartre says. First, I must exist. Then I find my essence. I stomped out my cigarette and turned the motion into a twirl. If I was lucky, Tiago might show up later tonight, pull my hair into a corner and put his lips on mine. Maybe.
Monday night. The night when waiters, club owners and bartenders have the night off and roam lower Manhattan looking for trouble. Tiago had the night off too. He picked me up outside my stoop and we practically skipped to Avenue C. This was the evening he’d spontaneously decided to give me that free tattoo he had promised. First, we inhaled a mojito at Esperanto where he knew everyone. Being Brazilian, the drinks were free and filled to the brim in a pint glass. Then I floated in his wake back toward his tattoo spot, which I passed every day on my way to work. My mouth was gritty with raw sugar and mint and my heart raced with anticipation.
He unlocked and heaved opened the accordion-style metal gate at street level with a deafening yank, led me down the three steps to the tattoo parlor, locked the door behind him. When my ears stopped ringing, silence enveloped me like a capped pickle jar. It was a tiny place, just one spare room with a stool, a counter, and a bed exactly like the one you sit on at the doctor’s office. Sterile, silent, private. No skulls or garish photos of fresh tattoos on flesh.
“Sit,” he instructed, cupping my butt like a cantaloupe before disappearing.
As I sat, I was relieved not to hear the clinical crinkle of butt on butcher paper, yet I still managed to make a farting noise on the leather when I crossed my legs. He disappeared. Was Tiago his real name? Should I lie down? No, just prop yourself up on your elbows like you’re at the beach, I thought, grimacing at my hideous feet, hoping if he caught sight of my bunions during this whole procedure that he would still find me attractive. Focus on the tattoo, I told myself. It’s going to be free!
“No one’s here,” I shouted into the air as Tiago rummaged around in the back closet. There was only one light on in the back. I heard the clink of tools on a tray on wheels, the opening and closing of cabinets. My tongue was thick in my mouth. I was neither hot nor cold, simply motionless in my body in the static air of this underground shop I had walked by a million times on my way to the restaurant and was now trapped inside. Out on street level, people were rushing by with Belgian fries in crinkly paper, tugging dog leashes, having obnoxious conversations into their flip phones. I was away from all that now. I felt like a lightning bug that had just been cupped with two hands. I felt the familiar twitch of the impulsive, the pulsating quickness that always terrified and delighted me. Tiago breezed past, told me to lie down and show him where I wanted the tattoo again. He set up a Victorian-type screen in front, the kind women disappear behind in movies to slip into something more comfortable.
“For you,” he said. “More private this way.” And within seconds, the last glimpse of the Alphabet City twilight and the mad shuffle of oblivious feet from passersby was blocked by the screen.
He stood over me, hair hanging over his eyes, half-clinician, half-wolf-in-Little-Red-Riding-Hood. He had that same sexy look that made me sweat the first time I saw him. I watched him scan me. His eyes like a heat lamp. He moved over my entire body. I peeked through all the gaps in the faded black tee hanging off his body like a bedsheet. His arms were all curves and lines, his pecs sprouted with tiny hairs. I opened my fly and pointed to my inner hip.
“Just a black star here—very tiny, as tiny as possible. Is that okay?” I had to open my pants more than I expected to show him the exact spot, so soft and exposed was I there on the table: a prized fish, pink and glistening. He tucked the fly of my pants into my thong and slid it down, exposing me a little more and more in the process. He needs a good angle to examine the spot where he’ll ink me, doesn’t he? I thought. But a door was opening. I knew these signals. Luckily, I was freshly waxed a few days before and didn’t have a speck of hair on me. I tried to remember to breathe. Trees rustled some newspaper on the street. He grinned at my bareness, caressed the future tattoo spot with two fingers, that soft gully beside the hipbones, then mirrored the motion on the other hipbone. I got goosebumps underneath his fingertips.
He licked me next, one hipbone at a time, with something like hunger and longing, two emotions I knew intimately. It felt good. Too good. I was wet. I let it wash over me. One flip flop dropped, then the other with a loud slap. I took a deep breath and held it. He slid my pants and underwear off in one swift motion, the way a snake sheds its skin in one long peel. I froze and surrendered in the same moment, leaned back as he hoisted me closer to his face. When he dove in with his tongue, I sucked in my lips and squinted my eyes. Here we go, I thought to myself. This is actually happening. Oh my God. He licked me slowly at first, slowly, like he was tasting, then with relish as he picked up momentum. Then back to tasting. It was perfect. His tongue was soft, his lips determined. I melted into whatever mango sorbet is made of. He mixed in fingers at this stage, alternating fingers and sucking, licking and sliding in and out in one seamless commitment. Then his tongue got stronger and he started moaning with pleasure. He pushed my legs open wider. I let him. He sucked and licked and kissed. I felt myself coming—didn’t I deserve this? What a wild ride this year has been. The depths and peaks suddenly all seemed worth it. Years of sticking my fingers down my throat to puke, that voice that told me I was trash, all that pain and deprivation, I decided, paved the way for pleasure and fullness. It was like his mouth understood the vibrations in my core. How could anyone keep appointments or sit home drinking tea when there was always the possibility of someone treating your private parts like an ice cream cone? I arched my spine and tossed my head back, squeezed the sides of the table and my ass cheeks together, bracing myself and encouraging the pleasure like a greedy animal. I panted, stifled a laugh, moaned and sighed. He kissed me one final time on my belly, then the mole on my hip as I turned on my side into the fetal position.
He disappeared. I kept my eyes closed, not wanting to see him wipe his face or the puddle I had probably left on this narrow tattoo bench. I hid and celebrated within myself until my breathing returned to normal and my vagina stopped undulating. I wiped myself up with the back of my hand, considered dressing, but what was the point? Now we were on to phase two. The raucous wheeling of a machine on a small cart startled me back into reality. I sat up. He lay me back down, put black gloves on, tested the tattoo needle. The sound was like an electric chair. I braced myself for the inevitable, prayed the tattoo would be tiny.
“It has to be at least the size of a quarter,” he said, placing a stencil on my hip and setting to work.
“It can’t be smaller?”
“Or just an outline?”
“Oh,” I paused. “Why are the gloves black?”
“Sometimes people bleed. The ink—”
“Hold still, princess.”
He started up the machine. The buzzing got louder. I searched his face for emotions of any kind. I couldn’t see what he was drawing. Had I just put my complete trust into a man who had spontaneously put his tongue inside me? The needle went in and out of my skin like a mad typewriter. I could end up with a Satanic symbol or his name in gothic letters or a completely botched version of the two. But hopefully a star? He worked swiftly with the stencil and needle. I figured whatever happened at this point was my fault. I kept my composure as he scratched away at my flesh. The familiar feelings of impulse cheered me on. No one was better at crazy than me, I told myself, making a poetic list in my head. Pierce, coat, binge, purge, squash, stun, burn, cut, shove, sweat, gulp, grab, flirt, fall, fly. The only problem was that I always told myself nothing’s permanent. That I’ll always be able to wash out last night in the shower. Not this time. Not this story. At least I’d be able to conceal the tattoo under a bathing suit for the rest of my life? Suddenly my father’s frown flashed in my mind at a beach, all the kids I had ever babysat, my future kid…
“All done. How’s that?” he asked just minutes later.
I was infinitely relieved to see a wafer-sized black star right inside my hip, slightly red and puffy around the edges. He put a bandage over it, told me not to get it wet or wear anything too tight for a week. I slipped on my skintight jeans and nodded.
“Thanks so much!” I said with the casual air of someone receiving a coffee to go.
He nodded and touched my face softly with the black glove.
“See you at Baldo Vino?”
I ran into the night without looking back.
I didn’t see Tiago at the restaurant or in his shop for weeks. I looked for him at the bar, but he didn’t show. Had he been fired? Was he dead? Had he found new female flesh? Luckily, we were swamped with Gipsy Kings concerts and the eight-hour shifts flew by in a haze of tagine and wine-soaked bodies demanding more of everything. I had burned holes in two pairs of shoes since I started waitressing. It felt good to be busy, to know the restaurant needed me to prepare the votives, dry silverware, feed people pasta. I could stand in the doorway and smoke a cigarette in my pesto-splotched apron and tousled hair and everyone would come to know me as that East Village girl, that cute waitress girl, or some variation, and accept me into the order of things. Yet, I could feel my time was almost up. I’d be graduating soon. What next? I was still alone.
I stayed out all night that night, hopping from bar to restaurant to club to bar to stoop. The heel to one of my high heels got stuck in a grate and I just left it there, limped home.
The next day, I took the 6 up to the Met for a palate cleanser. My head weighed a thousand pounds. I listened to my shoes creak through the impressionist wing. I zoned out into the swirling brushstrokes of Munch’s Madonna, her hair loose as a scream. I gazed dreamily at the red-haired siren in Love and Pain, teeth sunk into her victim. After that, I chatted up a uniformed guard in the throes of his own ennui. Hey how are you? This place sucks, huh? I asked him cheerfully. But he didn’t want to talk, so I wandered among the mummies in Ancient Egypt longing for a sarcophagus to climb into. Did Tiago not want me anymore now that he’d dominated me? Did I smell bad? Why was I always giving every speck of me away? Does anyone want me? The whole me? Who else is out there? I had the feeling I would go cross-eyed trying to navigate these prismatic rooms. But wasn’t there always the possibility of an erudite scholar who looked like Heath Ledger doing sketches with charcoal around the next corner? Or at least a hot Swede with a notebook? I guzzled down water in a plastic bottle then crushed it, cursed the people around me—old people being pushed around by their live-in aides, European families with children in impeccable Polo shirts. After an hour, I fled. Sat on the gorgeous steps outside with my arms crossed, watching the Upper East Side dance its ballet flats and Burberry scarves down 5th Ave, scrawny pigeons fighting for crumbs. Wedged between the pretzel stand and some break dancers, a jazz saxophonist cried his heart out into the sunset and I stayed to listen. The sky was orange and pink and seeping into the tissue of sky like blood or tears. I knew right then (like I knew deep down in all the quiet moments from this year—brushing the hangover off my teeth in class, counting meager tips from the restaurant, searching the stacks for a translation of No Exit on floor 17 where no one in the world would know if I just fell off the step-stool and died)—that if I gave New York a bite of my soul, it would eat the whole thing.
But maybe that’s exactly what I wanted? To give someone a bite of me? Isn’t that why they call it the Big Apple? Nothing left after a while but your chewed-up core. And what was at anyone’s “core” anyway? A wisp of light in a subway tunnel? My elusive “self” was always coming and going like an unreliable train. The disgusting, orange F train. That was my “self.” Transferring, stopping, breaking down, letting people sit all over me, starting up again. One minute I might be stuffed with well-to-do people, the next, humming in my own emptiness until the last stop. I was going and going and going and going.
Like Sartre, I wanted to have no “holy designer,” no life goals, my purpose still in the process of being invented. I wanted to live a little longer in my invincible body. I wanted to keep moving through St. Marks Place like a pair of legs with no top half, just these beautiful long legs prancing by Ray’s Pizza and the Tibetan shops, ducking for a moment into my favorite café on 2nd Ave to twirl on a barstool. I wanted to play Nausea a little longer, content to obsess over bizarre details of a city and state of being—wine-ring-art or whatever-the-fuck. What I didn’t know then and only realized many years later was that the whole year had been about trying to give myself permission to feel worthy. Worthy of food. Worthy of love. Worthy of basic existence. The truth was I was still underweight. I was manic. Lost. Tiago’s tongue had simply caused all these feelings to finally bubble up.
Tiago’s tattoo place closed a few months later, and Baldo Vino followed not long after that. I was taking meds again. Feeling good about closing the book on the whole tattoo experience and never seeing him again when out of the blue he buzzed my apartment one afternoon, two hours before my final. It had been about five months. In two weeks, I’d be leaving for Paris. Instead of pretending I wasn’t home, I let him up.
He leaned right in and kissed me. Pressed into my face with the hungry lips of a prowling raccoon. I suddenly realized we had never actually kissed, which left me with more questions than answers. As he moved toward the bed and started taking off his shoes, it was clear what he expected. I wasn’t in the mood to give him a blowjob, but he grabbed me and smothered me with sloppy kisses, so I decided to let him have me. His body was much paler than I remembered, his ass a little saggy. He was talking about a daughter in Brazil named Silver. Had he aged? I was still twenty, my abs smooth and tan as wind-blown sand. His tongue didn’t go anywhere near my pussy this time, which was very disappointing, but so were all sexual encounters with men after a while. Such a lazy species, I thought to myself as he propped me up on top of him so I could do all the work. He rubbed a rough finger over the black star and I realized he must be forty years old, which in the daylight looked like seventy. It’s amazing how erotic situations could completely blind me. I couldn’t wait to get this over with, but I also was still attracted to him. I couldn’t fight it. Plus, I felt like I owed him for what I hadn’t really asked for but still enjoyed back in the tattoo shop and it was much easier than trying to fight it. Like I said, the tattoo was free. Sort of.
I decided to play Sartre one last time. I had gotten good at the game over the last year. I closed my eyes and imagined I was making love to a certain version of myself—a completely raw and unapologetic self that was really just a bundle of perceptions. There is no fixed design for how I ought to be, I recited to myself like a mantra. I squeezed his biceps and willed the fantasy to enter me. As he grunted and reached, I shut my eyes, stayed focused. Tiago’s eyes in the tattoo shop—I could still see them; the way he had looked at my naked torso that first time. Scanning me like I was something delicious or precious, a diamond hewn from rock, dusted off and yanked from a crag in the sidewalk to glint in the light. I could hear the M1 bus choking by and people shuffling along while sucking down iced coffee, but not us. He had closed the world off completely to stop me from moving for a second, to see me, to examine my body. Oh, the way he yanked my hips to his face and dove in without hesitation! I closed my eyes, imagined the points of the black star he’d needled into me spread throughout my body, the ink seeping and swallowing me into a vortex of pleasure and warmth.
I saw Tiago one more time after that, a year later. On the subway platform across from mine in a bitter snowstorm. I was moving out of New York shortly after my study abroad in Paris. He didn’t see me or else didn’t recognize me, so I just stared and stared at him right out there in the open. He looked slightly sick or deranged, underdressed and jittery, but savagely masculine and familiar in that same leather jacket. My stomach bubbled like a lava lamp. I felt my hipbone pulsate. I crossed my legs, squeezed hard. I had had plenty more trysts since we’d met, but somehow, I was reduced to a puddle of longing in my underwear yet again. His train was approaching. I did not want to call out to him—and he wouldn’t have heard me anyway over the screech of metal—but as the doors opened and he stepped inside, I felt a rush of warmth that was really just train heat, a tattoo that was really just a picture. Doors closing. The black star. Symbol of an era. The New York years where I tried to fill a hole with kisses. And damn they felt good.