****Leanne had decided; she was not chickening out again. Still, as she headed for the door of her apartment, she stopped. Faltered. One horrible thought occurred to her: "Tia hates tattoos! What if she hates mine? What if she never wants to talk to me again once she sees it?"
For most people, this wouldn't be a concern. However, Tia was the only friend Leanne had made in this city of grime after a year. If she lost her, it would mean Leanne would be officially alone in this nightmare of a place, again. That was not a prospect to be taken lightly.
Leanne reached for the door. She thought of getting lost in the city and having nobody to call. She looked at her hand- long nails, purple nail polish, shaking a little, poised to open the door and leave and just do it already. She had just been paid, she hadn't divvied the money from the check up into her iron-strict budget yet. It could be a long time before she had this chance again.
Needles. Leanne had always hated needles. Tia wasn't scared of anything, in Leanne's mind. "I need to call her," she thought lamely. "I need to call her for- for moral support. She'll know what to do- about the needles. Yes." Now she had an excuse. She turned away from the door to find that the shoddy excuse was unraveling already, as much as she tried to keep from picking at it.
"You coward. You fucking coward." Her inner critic was acting up again. "You admire her, and for good reason, but you don't need her approval for everything. She's probably sick of you. Leaving for a tattoo? Whoever heard of such a thing? And, you don't break with friends like lovers, Leanne dear. She's more likely to fight with you for being too clingy." The words picked at her. She gritted her teeth and eyed the phone, feeling oddly like she was trying to kick a habit. They stood off for a minute that lasted for years. The next thing Leanne knew, the phone was in her hand. She stared at it dumbly, wondering how it had ever got there. Then she decided to take it as a sign and just call Tia already.
"Hello?" Tia said pertly.
"Um. Hi. It's me. Leanne."
"Oh! Hi! What're you up to this lovely weekend?" It had been raining, as it always seemed to whenever Leanne wanted to do anything.
"Get it over with quickly," Leanne thought, and then fired into the phone- "I've been thinking about getting a tattoo." That wasn't right. "Um. No. I'm going to get a tattoo."
"Oh. Wow. Really?"
"You... just don't strike me as the tattoo type."
"You sound so serious. That's why you're doing it, aren't you?"
"Why? Because I'm serious?"
"No. Because you want to show people that they've assumed wrong about you."
"Oh." That had never occurred to Leanne. This was the bad thing about being best friends with a psychology major. "Um. Maybe."
"Yeah." Awkward silence. "So. What is the tattoo of?"
"It's going to be an apple. On my left shoulder."
"Wow. You've thought about this a lot."
"Why an apple, anyway?"
"Um, a lot of reasons. I like apples. I remember going apple picking with my family."
"That's a great reason for a tattoo."
"That's not all! Um..." She hadn't intended to tell anyone this part. But hey, this was Tia. Leanne couldn't hide anything from Tia. "There's this Greek myth... there's an apple tree tended by nymphs... Hercules had to get one... I can't remember the name."
"The apples of the Hesperides?"
"Yeah. They look like regular apples, but they give you eternal life. So, it's like to say that, that, even though..."
"... you look like a regular apple, there's a lot more than just that." Tia cut her off. "Aww. Isn't that sweet. Listen, I've got a message for you."
"You know my general feeling about tattoos."
"Yes, Tia." Leanne had hoped this wouldn't happen. "I do."
"I think they're an idiotic idea. But in this case, more power to you. You sound like you've put a lot of thought into it. I just have one little message for you." Leanne held her breath. "But I'm afraid I can't give it to you over the phone."
"What? Why? Afraid of spies?" As soon as she said this, Leanne regretted it. It sounded mean. Scornful. That was the last thing she wanted to make Tia think of her. To her surprise, Tia laughed.
"No. Not that. It just... won't work if I say it now. It has to be given at the exact right moment. And it won't work if you can talk to me once you get it."
"Are you serious?" Leanne was regretting calling.
"Yes. It's just something to think about."
"So, um... how will I get this message?"
"On paper. You need to meet up with me. How does 3:30 sound? At the Jesus cafe?"
"But that's only a half hour from now!"
"I won't be able to get my tattoo now!" What the hell was Tia up to?
"I know. Listen, Leanne, just go with it, okay?" If it had been anyone else, Leanne would have fought. But she was in awe of Tia, and afraid of losing her.
She sighed and said, "Okay."
The Jesus cafe was Leanne and Tia's name for the Burns Cafe. It was in the midst of a red hot district of trendy shops and nightlife. Because of this, all the churches, synagogues, mosques and what-have-you in the area decided that it was a safe bet most of the souls in the area were ripe for saving. The Burns Cafe- aka the Jesus Cafe- was where the evangelists tended to congregate when not on the street scoring converts, as everywhere else seemed too trendy and/or sin-filled to them. Tia had introduced her to the place. At first she had been intimidated by the people accosting her and giving her tracts and packets and pocket Bibles whenever she got up, but after a while she learned to deal with them and almost find them funny. Tia was a staunch atheist who loved debating with the preachers, but Leanne just liked watching the show. Plus, it was nearby them both and had good coffee.
Once they had both made it through the flurry of "Would you like to learn how to save your soul, young lady?" and grabbed a table, nobody said anything for a while. Both waited for the other to bring the subject up. Tia looked out the window at the tragically hip looking ticked that the world dared to rain on them, the ordinary scuttling around purposefully, the homeless wandering, and the zealots hoping for one last convert before they came inside. Leanne looked at Tia with her usual mix of awe and amazement that such a person would ever stoop to talk to her. People like Tia would normally reduce Leanne to the spluttering shyness that she had been trying to shake most of her life. In fact, Tia had done just that the first time Leanne met her. She had stopped her and asked her for directions back to her apartment. Tia had laughed and told her it was on the other side of town, and offered to take her there. Tia had coaxed her into conversation. They found out they both hated reality shows. And thus, a friendship was born. Leanne still thought it an unlikely friendship, even after two years. Tia looked like the sort of person who needed a soundtrack. She was interesting, looked interesting, and did interesting things. She seemed like the kind of person who should be on the cover of a book.
In appearance, they were utter opposites. Tia had deep brown hair that curled loosely and went to just past her shoulders. Leanne's hair was just above her shoulders, and was blond and stringy. Tia had purple glasses and nice brown eyes. Leanne's eyes were gray, and her eyelids somehow curved in a particular way that made her look like she was perpetually high. Tia was a good height- not too tall, not too short. Leanne stood at six foot two, and had spent most of her life looking down at people awkwardly. Tia looked like a fashion model. Leanne had about the proportions of a walking stick. Tia wore interesting jewelry- handmade beaded bracelets, funky necklaces, dangly earrings. Leanne almost never wore jewelry- she barely ever had time for anything except maybe a quick pair of earrings, which were always studs, because wearing dangly earrings irritated her. Tia wore clothing that said "notice me!"- bright colors, funky styles, bizarre sayings on t-shirts, hats, fifty layers, strange purses... things that made you look, even if they only made you look and say "wow, that's out there." Leanne dressed to blend in, in plain t-shirts and normal jeans and shoes that were, on the whole, average. Even if she might adore bizarre trinkets like Tia's flowerpot hat or antique book purse, she would never have the guts to actually wear them. Even if she did, she felt like it wouldn't have the same affect. Tia was the sort of person who would and could wear flowerpot hats. If Leanne did, though, she felt like people would just point and laugh.
It was at this moment that Tia turned around. "So. About my message."
"Yeah? Will you just tell it to me?"
"No! It won't work that way, I told you. You need to get it at just the right time for it to have the desired impact."
"Couldn't you just text it to me or something?"
"Texting is overrated. And plus, you'd still be able to talk to me if I did that. It's critical that you can't respond, because it's not meant to be debated, just thought about."
"Okay, Tia. If you say so."
"So. How have you been?"
"Okay, I guess. And you?"
"Oh, fine, fine. I have a paper to write, but I don't want to now. It's raining, but I like the rain. It makes everything feel more real."
"Yeah. I agree," said Leanne, who hated being wet and would have given a lot for the sun to be out at that moment. Tia seemed to know this, and smiled wryly.
"So... um, I've been thinking about making the tattoo smaller."
"Well, because I feel like a huge giant apple would look a little odd. You know?" Tia shrugged.
"I don't think it would be that bad."
"And, if the tattoo was smaller it would mean less needle time."
"Aha. That's a bonus for you." Tia had coaxed Leanne into going to give blood once. Leanne had convinced herself she was fine with it, but the second the needle came out she had gone out like a light. She had woke up sprawled on a bench with Tia sitting on the ground next to it maybe ten minutes later. Tia told her it went very well, as things usually did when the patient was unconscious.
"So." Leanne was ready to get down to business. "Your message?"
"Got it right here." Tia pulled out of her purse and handed Leanne a small white piece paper that had been folded in half.
"After all your talk about timing, I'm guessing I shouldn't open it," Leanne observed.
"Exactly. Now I'll tell you when to open it. Listen closely- open this just after you go into the tattoo parlor, before you do anything there. Read it carefully. Think about it hard. And whatever you do, don't call me or text me or anything. Okay?"
"Okay," said Leanne, more confused than ever.
"Good. So, um... do you want to stay longer, or just go?"
"Um." As much as Leanne would usually want to stay longer with Tia in a desperate attempt to soak up some more of her interestingness, she desperately wanted to get the tattoo over with before she lost her nerve. "No, that's okay. I'll go now."
"Alright. Suit yourself. Good luck with everything, okay?" She finished off her coffee and stood up, waving off a woman who had dashed over, holding out a pamphlet hopefully. "I'll talk to you later." She then turned to do battle with the lady, leaving Leanne to elbow her way through the spiritual deluge to the door.
She rode the subway to the tattoo place she had picked out about a week ago, after a lot of careful research. This might- no, probably would- be the only tattoo she ever got. She would be kicking herself for the rest of her life if she managed to screw it up. The stop was a few blocks away from the parlor, so she walked there in the rain. Something about the darkness of the skies and the cold rain mingled with the erratic light from the road and the general grime of the city made the whole scene feel a bit threatening. Leanne shrunk back into herself a bit and wished she was at home. Why did she have to get the tattoo right now, anyway? Couldn't she put a bit of money aside and get it tomorrow, or the next day, when there was no rain? Maybe with broad daylight and a few more people around and a bit more reassurance from herself, this whole thing would feel a bit better. She realized that her resolve was faltering, and stopped those thoughts short. This was her only chance, she told herself. She had told Tia. She had researched. She had got the money. She had decided. She was going to do it. Now.
If only it would stop raining.
She jammed her hands into the pockets of her jeans and walked faster, counting her steps, almost marching. Then her fingertips caught the edges of paper- Tia's note. She slowed somewhat. What could it say? Maybe "I hate you." That almost made her stop entirely, but she decided that if Tia wanted to do that she would have just said it to her face, and kept going. Maybe it said "You rock," or something equally encouraging. "Yeah, in my dreams," she added derisively. Maybe it was some bit of anti-tattoo stuff, like "You're going to have that until you die. How will it look when you're 65?" She could see Tia doing that. Maybe it said "I have a tattoo too!" That almost made her laugh. It would be amazing. But Tia had already said so much about her hatred of tattoos to Leanne that she found it very hard to believe. Still, one never knew. People are strange.
She was on the block of the tattoo parlor at this point, and here her thoughts turned mainly to things like "Don't think about the needles. Don't worry about getting some rare infection and dying from tattoo complications. No, that can't happen- this place is very reputable. At least, it said so on the Internet. And don't worry about how it'll look. No, wait, do worry about how it'll look, because it'll stop you from thinking at all about the huge, sharp, scary needles..." At this point she realized she had unconsciously been almost running, and had gone right past the tattoo parlor. She turned around and went back to the door. It was glass, and she looked in. It looked unassuming enough- not glaringly antiseptic and neat like a doctor's office, but not a bit like some seedy dank den of evil either. She had her hand on the handle and was bracing herself to open the door. "One, two, three..." Then the thought of the note hit her like a ton of bricks. What had Tia said about when she should open it? Before she did anything, she remembered that. But should she be inside? Finally she decided that whether she should be inside or not really didn't matter- she was going inside anyway. Any longer in the rain and she was certain she would start melting, like the Wicked Witch of the West.
As soon as she was inside, she fished the note out of her pocket. Nobody seemed to notice her, which was good. She had enough to worry about and think about. Before she opened it, she looked at it for a moment in giddy anticipation. Then she opened it so quickly and violently she almost tore it in half. It was an ordinary enough white post-it. It had been written on with red pen in Tia's large, swooshy handwriting. It said: "Do you Really want this for the rest of your life?"
The words hit Leanne like a punch in the stomach, and her carefully prepared resolve ripped from the impact and fluttered away like tissue paper. She thought frantically, "So it was an anti-tattoo thing!" It was obvious what Tia meant by it. She meant, did Leanne really want an apple on her back for the rest of her life? "I do," she thought at first, grasping desperately for the pieces of her torn resolve. But then the message got through to her, in the way that anything Tia said usually did. Why was she so fixated on an apple on her back, anyway? Looking at it without her own attachment, it just seemed like everything else she wanted- dorky, misguided, of questionable benefit. And when she was older, did she really want that apple as a constant reminder of how insecure she once had been, that she needed a symbolic apple tattooed on her back just to remind herself she wasn't all that awful? She turned around right then and there and left the shop. It was just a fleeting whim, she told herself. Tia would be happy, anyway.
But once she was outside again in the rain, an alarming whisper rose in the back of her head, getting louder by the minute. It was this: Tia wanted this to happen. At first Leanne tried to ignore the thought, but it refused to be ignored. She was certain that Tia had wanted this- she had wanted her to see the note, falter, turn around, and leave. Otherwise, why the careful timing and secrecy?
She thought of the note again. "Do you really want this for the rest of your life?" That's when it happened. It was like somebody had flicked on a light in her head, and instead of squinting and groping for the words of the note she saw it clearly, as it was to her. It was obvious how Tia had meant it. She had meant it about the tattoo. But suddenly Leanne saw it as about life. If she did like Tia thought she would, she wouldn't get the tattoo she had been so carefully planning, she would go back home and thank Tia for saving her from her delusion, and she would go on living her dull little life and worshiping Tia's interestingness. She would keep listening to Tia, keep doing everything she suggested, keep asking her about everything, keep vainly trying to get some of her flair to rub off on her.
Did she really want this for the rest of her life?
What would happen if she got the tattoo? She didn't know. It could come out horribly and she'd have a misshapen red blob on her back for the rest of her life. She could pass out from the needles. She could decide she didn't like it after all. Tia could get mad at her. Tia could love it. Her parents could get mad at her. They could ignore it. She would have a little less money. But she would have made her own decision for once. She would have done something she actually wanted, for herself, no matter what happened. And she could live with the uncertainty. It might even make her dull life more interesting, not knowing what would happen for once, not sticking to the predictable.
Tia didn't like tattoos. Oh well, Tia would have to deal. She would like hers enough for both of them.
She went into the parlor.