By Don Stoll
Nicola had thought to distract himself from the pain of getting tattooed by recalling the more severe pain of slashing his wrist. It wasn’t working. As the old man poked at his forearm and nattered on about this, that, and the other—Nicola trying to block it out but picking up the odd fragment in spite of himself—he thought that of course the wound to his wrist had hurt more but this was no day at the beach either.
“Holding up all right?” the old man asked, and before Nicola could attend to the question sufficiently to reply that he wasn’t, he added, “Need the loo?”
The latter question alerted Nicola to the extreme pressure on his bladder. Thinking about the slashing of his wrist had distracted him from that, anyway.
“If you don’t mind, Tom,” he said.
The old man showed his yellow teeth. They appeared below the iron-gray of his mustache, so bushy that it was a wonder he could take oxygen into his nostrils, and the iron-gray of his long, forked beard. Then he hid his teeth again. Nicola appreciated that.
“My, aren’t we polite?” the old man said. “Wouldn’t have asked if I minded.”
Nicola sat up on the tattoo bed.
“It adjusts, you know,” the old man said. “You prefer to sit up?”
At first sight, the bed had reminded Nicola of a hospital gurney. It ought to make him uneasy for that reason, he thought. It didn’t. He shook his head.
The old man was standing before Nicola had swung his feet onto the floor.
“I’m first to the loo,” he said, patting his crotch. “Old man’s prostate.”
Nicola had a vague notion of the prostate but thought this wasn’t the time to seek clarity. He followed the old man toward the loo, stopping a respectful distance short of it. For what he swore was more than a full minute, he was equally aware of the pressure on his bladder and the silence from the loo. He heard a trickle that might have lasted three seconds. Silence ensued, then a trickle of brief duration. Then more silence. He wondered if the old man’s sensitivity to his presence was exacerbating the struggle. He took a step back and raised his voice.
“Mind if I nick a smoke, Tom?”
“Be my guest.”
“Ta. Stepping outside.”
The old man had left the pack on a counter that held the till and a large overstuffed book: samples of his work. Nicola considered taking it outside to flip through. He decided not to expose it to the weather. Shouldn’t expose himself to the weather, come to think of it.
He took a cigarette that he didn’t really want. He dropped it in the pocket of his tatty sheepskin coat hung from a hook on the wall. He slipped into the coat. He went to the door and opened it. He shut it hard. He stood just inside, facing toward the loo at the back of the studio as if he had entered the instant before. He tried to estimate the extent of the embarrassment that would result from pissing himself. He decided that the discomfort of such a blow to that sense of capable independence that entitles one to no longer be called a child would exceed his physical discomfort. Additionally, as one is reminded at the start of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when you wet yourself first it is warm and then it gets cold. Nicola had not got past the start but he intended to. As an artist and a young man himself, he might find it relevant. Anyway, it was not a day for going about in cold wet blue jeans. Furthermore, the likelihood that the huge old man would have something lying about that would fit him was nil.
But the old man took so long that Nicola reached the point of preparing to absorb the blow to his independence. The absorbent capacity of his jeans was a separate issue. Leaving a puddle by the door would make a poor impression should a prospective client enter. He was in process of choosing a less conspicuous site when he heard a flush. The old man appeared.
“Sorry,” he murmured as Nicola hastily opened and closed the door.
“Halfway through now,” the old man said. “Try to remember that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Sitting on the bog, Nicola tried to remember precisely that. But not in connection to getting tattooed. He remembered his sudden lunge out of the bathwater upon deciding that he didn’t wish to die after all. He had wanted a towel to make a tourniquet before calling for help. He knew he ought to hurry. Yet from force of habit he paused to admire his reflection in the mirror facing the tub, full-length and inlaid in the door. Typically, the image of his body shiny with bathwater would provoke a yearning for pleasure that rooted him to the spot until he had attained satisfaction. His climactic gasps often coincided with the last gurgles of water down the drain.
But on this occasion, disgust rather than desire was awakened by the sight of his body, tinted red by the bloody bathwater and in contact at the calves with the expelled contents of his stomach. These floated on the water, after their ejection moments before out of disgust not with his body but with his behavior. Shahid had betrayed him by sleeping with someone named Angela. Though she preferred to be called Angel, Shahid had explained, this “endearment” sufficient to cause nausea if Nicola had not been moved by the greater cause of having begged Shahid for his continued attentions. He had also begged to see a picture of Angela. When Shahid complied, Nicola begged him for assurance that he was prettier than her. Shahid had said you’re prettier but it’s not about that. Nicola had said then tell me what it’s about. Shahid had done so.
He heard the old man’s knuckles rap on the door.
“You been in there a while, darling.”
The old man laughed.
“You’re thinking I should talk,” he said.
Nicola looked for toilet paper. All gone. He thought he had probably dripped dry anyway.
Back on the gurney, Nicola focused on the old man at work.
“I think you’re done with the iris,” he finally said.
“I think you’re right,” the old man grinned. “Could O’Keeffe have done better herself?”
Inspecting Nicola’s forearm, he said, “Sure you want the words underneath, darling?”
“Darling! That shows why I want the words. You know my pronouns are he and him.”
“And his,” the old man said. “Here goes, then. ‘I am not defined by my vagina.’”
The old man resumed his poking. Nicola liked him. He had asked if Nicola wanted him to brighten up the O’Keeffe original by making the iris red instead of black. Nicola had pointed out that a red iris might look a bit too realistic. The old man had pretended not to be embarrassed. Now, Nicola decided to tease him.
“You know how to spell vagina, right?”
The tearful justification of Angela, or Angel, that Nicola had squeezed out of Shahid included the assertion that he needed a real girl. Shahid did not need a bloke with a girl’s body or a girl who imagined she was a bloke, or whatever in God’s name Nicola was. Even though it’s not your fault what you are, Shahid had wept.
Pausing before climbing out of the bloody tub, disgusted not only by the sight of his body but by the dependence on Shahid’s imagined love that had produced the sight, Nicola had decided that he needed to shed this dependence on someone else and live as what he was.
Though Shahid had been spot-on to suggest that whatever in God’s name Nicola was had yet to be made clear. Nicola understood better what he was not.
But he hoped his classmate Angela might help him find out what he was. Outside the studio, the instructions for care of his tattoo yielded first place in his mind to thoughts of Angela. The irony that an Angela had come into Shahid’s life as well as his own amused him. He was pleased to think that Shahid’s Angela was the lesser. His Angela was prettier than Shahid’s. She was prettier than almost anybody. Nicola was excited to be headed to her flat to begin his nude painting of her. And he was pleased that she had no interest in being called Angel.
Yet he worried that his artistic skill would disappoint Angela. Professor Reed had certified Angela’s own skill by letting her join his Painting class late in the term, in November.
Her first day had been memorable. A flat tire had delayed Professor Reed, so Angela held court throughout the first fifteen minutes of scheduled class time.
“I don’t use the same method every day to choose my outfit,” she was saying when Nicola entered. “For example, one morning last week the words ‘devil mermaid’ popped into my head as I woke up. I had a bit of a scramble to make that one work.”
“The juxtaposition of objects or images not often associated with one another,” said a tall young man named Roger. “Would you say your approach to selecting your outfits is Surrealist?”
“Not usually,” Angela said. “This morning I didn’t have an idea in my head. So I started looking through my vinyl collection and. . . you know Sweetheart of the Rodeo?”
Nicola turned to the young woman next to him.
“The Byrds,” she whispered.
Roger’s straight black hair weighed heavily on his shoulders. He bunched some of the hair in his right hand, as if to give respite to that shoulder.
“Not convinced the Surrealists haven’t influenced you,” he said. “We usually draw unconsciously on historical antecedents when we think we’re being ‘original.’”
Angela wore a pale pink top, canary-yellow jeans, and a blue scarf. Nicola looked for Sweetheart of the Rodeo on his phone. Roger noted the absence of a Western hat.
“Should get one,” Angela said. “Not for this outfit since that would be too much like the album cover. But without a Western hat I deprive myself of options.”
“A beret, though?” Roger said. “That’s totally un-Western.”
“It’s super-cute,” someone said.
This defense of the white beret was widely seconded.
“What other vinyls you have?” someone said to Angela.
“Got the first Flying Burrito Brothers. I’ll do that for you some time.”
“Got Electric Ladyland, too. But that’s off the table.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Might happen if it was just us. But poor old Reed would literally die of a heart attack.”
That provoked laughter. Conspicuously, Roger abstained. He had another question.
“You feel a particular affinity for the music of that era?”
“My grandad did,” Angela said. “Vinyl comes from him.”
Nicola googled Electric Ladyland. He looked at Angela to appraise her more carefully.
“Got a problem with what you do,” Roger continued. “Suggests you’re insecure. Like, can’t get people here to notice your art, so you’ve found a different way to draw attention.”
“The way she dresses is art,” someone said.
Others were heard to agree.
“There are cultures that don’t even have a word for ‘art,’” Angela said. “Making or doing beautiful things is just what they do.”
“But those cultures are absorbed in beauty and you’re only absorbed in yourself,” Roger said. “You know that U.S. state—one of those Wild West states where everybody carries a gun and drives a pickup truck—where some white chap is building a whacking great monument to Crazy Horse? You know Crazy Horse? The Sioux warrior.”
“Montana?” someone said.
“Point is, it’s all guesswork what Crazy Horse looked like because he never allowed himself to be photographed. All about modesty, he was, whereas we’re all driven by ego.”
Roger had been declaiming for the entire class. He stopped to look at Angela.
“Especially you,” he said.
He did not appear discouraged as his classmates turned away.
“But there’s ego and then there’s ego,” he said. “I can respect an ego that at least knows itself and therefore knows exactly what it wants. But this being so-and-so today and someone else tomorrow rubbish. . . It betrays a gaping void at the center of the self.”
It was unclear who was listening. Nicola googled the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Nicola was the first student to arrive for the next class meeting. He claimed the easel next to the one he expected Angela to take. He guessed that Angela, comfortable with being the center of attention, would choose the middle of the front row. She had done so on her first day.
Her appearance created less of a stir than at the previous meeting because Professor Reed had arrived early. He was kind, yet intolerant of disruptions. Nicola thought Angela looked sensational. She had done the Flying Burrito Brothers: specifically, Chris Hillman, as indicated by the blue jacket and the curling and piling atop her head of her light-brown hair.
Professor Reed wandered among his students as they painted. He followed the serpentine path of a proctor for a standardized test. His back was mildly humped. He had joked about having become a painter only to avoid becoming a painter’s model.
Halfway through class, he stopped between Nicola and Angela.
“You’re tense, young man,” he said. “Do you have tiny handwriting?”
“Big and loopy,” Nicola said, pausing his brush.
“Then paint like that. Relax your hand.”
The professor touched Nicola’s hand.
“Wristwatch not too tight, is it? That could make you tense up.”
Watch is fine, Nicola thought. And useful for hiding the scar when I wear short sleeves.
The professor gestured toward Angela.
“Relax your hand like she does.”
Later, he observed Nicola again.
“Give it time,” he said. “You’ll get it.”
He lingered. Nicola became more tense.
“You won a scholarship competition to come here, didn’t you?”
Nicola worried that the professor thought the scholarship committee had made a mistake.
“I was on the committee that chose you,” the professor said. “I know your potential.”
At the end of class, Angela spoke.
“People always ask what I am, but what are you?”
“A tense painter,” Nicola sighed.
“No. I mean a Flying Burrito Brother, a Flying Burrito Sister. . .”
“My pronouns are he and him. And his.”
“Thought so. I heard Reed call you ‘young man.’”
“Couldn’t blame him if he forgot. But professor’s quite dutiful.”
“Indeed,” Angela said. “Since. . .”
She took a step toward Nicola. Her hand pushed against the front of his blue jeans.
“Thought so,” she whispered. “Since here your pronouns are she, her, and hers.”
Nicola looked around. The other students were headed out.
“Girl wants to be a bloke, but keeps the girl’s name given by Mum and Dad,” Angela said.
“Dad had no say. Unless he phoned in his vote from where he’d pissed off to.”
The corners of Angela’s mouth turned down.
“Probably for the best, based on my mum’s stories about him,” Nicola said. “Course, that’s her. Unreliable narrator, the lit chaps say.”
No dad’s pathetic enough, Nicola thought. But now Angela might want to hear his mum’s gruesome life story. It would make him seem a charity case. He didn’t want that.
“Who’s a reliable narrator, anyway? All any of us have is our own point of view.”
Nicola thought he ought to stop chattering. Angela’s response—“So true”—came as a relief.
He tried to steer the conversation even farther away from the topic of his alleged family life.
“Hated hearing that Roger chap say you’re driven by ego,” he said. “That was nasty.”
“Wasn’t altogether wrong. Point is to create a society where nobody’s ego is suppressed.”
Nicola had nothing to say. He was pleased that Angela had made her declaration as if challenge were inconceivable and affirmation superfluous.
“Haven’t been too intimate, I hope?” Angela said. “But you do raise certain questions.”
Then she was in Nicola’s face. Her kiss landed under his nose. He wondered if it had been the equivalent of a kiss on the cheek, or if she had aimed for his lips and missed.
“Got to run,” Angela said. “Meeting with my Sculpture prof.”
Nicola was alone. He touched the place where Angela had kissed him. He touched the front of his jeans. He walked to the classroom door. He looked into the hall. He shut the door.
When Nicola got his tattoo, December was near. Three weeks had passed since Angela joined the Painting class. Two weeks and some days had passed since she bestowed on Nicola her ambiguous kiss. Most of the term had passed since the break with Shahid. Though Angela had been friendly to Nicola, her conduct since the kiss had not supported the possibility that she had aimed for the lips.
Nicola staved off despair by reminding himself that Angela had her own projects and priorities. And her behavior had not ruled out absolutely the possibility that he hoped for. Her acceptance of Nicola’s request to model for him may have signified nothing more than the conviction that aspiring artists should help one another. Yet it presented an opportunity.
The tube station nearest the tattoo studio was Oxford Circus. The station closest to Angela’s flat was Marylebone. It was far enough so that, in the unappealing weather, Nicola would not have walked. But he thought that, in case the train was so crowded that he would need to clutch one of the overhead straps with his left arm, his coat sleeve might slip down enough to reveal the tattoo. He knew he was being silly. The crowding would need to be extraordinary to keep him from using his right arm instead. But why chance it? Getting the tattoo had implied his readiness for a row with anyone who objected. It had not stipulated the time when such readiness would commence. Perhaps the time would come in the big flower shop that Nicola recalled being in the vicinity of Marylebone station.
He requested a bouquet of carnations and amaryllis.
A middle-aged woman designed something on a computer and said, “This for twenty?”
Nicola said, “I’d hoped to spend less than ten quid,” and the woman frowned.
While paying, Nicola rolled up his sleeve. The gratuitous gesture went unnoticed by the woman as her eyes scanned the shop for customers likely to prove less stingy.
I tried, Nicola thought.
Angela answered the door of the second-storey flat in her dressing gown. She mumbled a thank you for the flowers but seemed more interested in Nicola’s admiration of the garment. He wondered if it was adequate for December. Then he noticed the flat’s comfortable warmth.
“We know why you’re here,” Angela said as she pirouetted. “So I might as well be ready.”
She came to a stop and looked closely at Nicola.
“Want some wine? You seem tense.”
“I’m a tense painter,” Nicola smiled.
He glanced at the easel and canvas, set up during his previous brief visit to the flat. He envied her for having enough space to be able to reserve a corner of the front room for the work.
“I’ll see to it you’re relaxed,” Angela laughed.
Nicola followed her to the kitchen.
“You bought a Western hat,” he said.
He picked it up from the table.
“But not to go with your Sweetheart of the Rodeo get-up, right?”
Angela spoke over her shoulder as she found the white wine in the refrigerator.
“Changed my mind about that. Why not go all out?”
She brought the bottle and two glasses over to Nicola.
“Sweetheart get-up’s my favorite,” she said.
She poured the wine.
“It’s those yellow jeans. You notice that they’re skin-tight?”
“They go right up my. . .”
She touched the dressing gown between her legs.
“They put me in a constant state of arousal.”
She whirled back to the refrigerator.
“Grabbed the cooking wine by mistake. It’s vile.”
She returned with a different bottle and two more glasses.
“You a good cook?” Nicola said.
He had worked up an appetite in the tattoo studio.
“You’re not hungry?” Angela said.
Her astonishment suggested to Nicola that he should not admit his hunger.
“Got work to do before I cook, darling.”
“This will hold you over till I make my legendary mushroom risotto.”
She left the kitchen. Nicola sniffed both glasses of wine.
“Promise you’ll keep your head on,” Angela said as she returned. “Need it to see me.”
She emptied the contents of an envelope onto the table. She arranged them neatly.
“Guest goes first,” she said.
Nicola looked at the table and then at Angela.
“Table’s clean and so are these,” she said, holding up her hands. “So you’re safe.”
Nicola’s wish to appear confident was supported by having seen many films.
“This is lovely,” he said.
He bent over the table and took his half. Angela followed.
“But don’t know about mixing with the wine,” he said.
Angela took his glass. She moved her head to signal that he should follow. In the front room she flopped onto the sofa, spilling the wine. She looked at her dressing gown.
“If that were red wine, I’d have to strip this off and soak it in cold water.”
“But can’t have that: you’d see me naked.”
Nicola took his glass back. He thought he could probably handle mixing. He drank.
“I can’t tell cooking wine from the good stuff,” he said. “But thank you anyway.”
He touched the wet spot on Angela’s dressing gown.
“Should hang it up so it dries faster,” he said.
Angela gazed at him over her glass.
“Thin material like this, dries in no time,” she said.
She set her glass on the floor. Then she stood and left the room. Nicola drained his glass.
Angela came back. Nicola blinked to make sure that she was naked. He stood up clumsily.
“Such good manners,” Angela laughed. “But no need.”
With the bottle she had brought she filled Nicola’s glass.
“Now, this is the wrong color to spill,” she said.
Nicola took his eyes off of Angela. The liquid was neither white nor red.
“Jack Daniel’s,” Angela said. “Sit.”
They sat carefully. Nicola sipped the whiskey. He stood again to remove his coat.
“When in Rome,” Angela said.
“You saying I should take the rest off?”
He was disappointed that she did not encourage him. But maybe she would notice his tattoo. Instead, she closed her eyes. She slouched, resting her head against the back of the sofa.
“Be odd for the model and the artist both to be naked, I suppose,” Nicola said.
The remark pleased him. It served as a rationale for why she had not asked him to undress. Yet it also left her an opening to propose that they might dare to act unconventionally.
“It’s totally all right if you want to go down on me.”
“What?” Nicola said.
“Boyfriend’s in Norwich for a week. Mum quite ill, apparently.”
Nicola couldn’t think what to say. His eyes traveled up and down Angela’s body.
“No pressure,” she said. “Probably won’t feel as good as when he does it. He likes to keep a stubble on his face because it makes him look manly. So he thinks. Truth is, looks like shit. But I like the contrast of that dry, rough feel with his wet smooth tongue.”
Nicola remembered when Shahid had not shaved for a week. It had been all right.
“Go on,” Angela said. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Of course it’ll be fine, Nicola thought. People who don’t have beards have sex all the time.
Angela spread her legs. Nicola set his whiskey aside. He knelt in front of her.
“Can I take your glass?” he said. “I mean, if you’re opposed to spilling.”
He put her whiskey next to his own. Looking inside her, he recalled the foot massage scene from Pulp Fiction. He was embarrassed to think that he had never caught the pun before. He had considered only the religious meaning of holiest of holies. Those chaps had seemed to have no religion in them, so it was funny enough even without the pun.
He thought also of Georgia O’Keeffe. Iris and vagina both, or iris only? Iris only had its defenders. Bollocks, he thought.
“You going to keep staring?”
Nicola saw that Angela had opened her eyes.
Angela shut her eyes. Nicola began. Angela’s attainment of orgasm was swift and dramatic.
Nicola believed he had done well, considering it was his first time. Yet he thought most of the credit probably should go to the hypersensitivity to touch induced by the cocaine—unless Angela typically experienced spectacular orgasms. He felt some shame about his own orgasms. However, almost all of his sexual experiences had been with Shahid. Perhaps the blame should fall on him. Still, he thought that when Angela reciprocated, he ought to be ready to exaggerate his response, if necessary. But there was no telling what the cocaine might do.
Resting his head on her thigh, he gave her time to recover. Finally, Angela spoke.
“Effect of the stubble’s clearly overrated.”
Nicola stood. This gave Angela space to stand. He began taking off his clothes. He expected her to help. But she stooped to retrieve her whiskey and then moved toward the easel. Her purposeful step indicated that she had shaken off the torpor resulting from her orgasm.
“Shall we get to work?” she said. “Decided on a pose, or this going to be trial and error?”
She gulped her whiskey and set the empty glass on top of her head. She kept her hand on the glass until she had found the right spot. She spread her arms and lifted one leg off the floor.
“How’s this?” she said. “A pose unique in the annals of nude paintings.”
She patted the thigh of the elevated leg.
“Can’t do a proper flamingo pose, unfortunately. You ever wonder where they hide the other leg when they stand on just one?”
Nicola did up his undone buttons. His voice shook.
“You’re not funny. Did you agree to model for me only so that I could service you?”
Angela spoke standing on both feet.
“As if you weren’t aching to. But me return the favor? I like men, not. . . whatever you are.”
He tried to stare her down, but he had teared up.
Blinking fiercely, he looked away as she removed the glass from her head and came toward him. She picked up the bottle of Jack Daniel’s and poured herself half a glass. She swallowed half of that. She stepped toward Nicola. Her breasts collided with his. She giggled as she took a step back, pretending that the force of the collision had propelled her. She placed the hand not holding the glass on one of her breasts.
“You pose me recumbent and I keep drinking, I’ll nod off,” she said. “And I know you’d rather feast on these than on mushroom risotto.”
Nicola continued to look away.
“Girl like you wants to be a bloke,” Angela said, “and I’m offering you every bloke’s dream: beautiful naked girl dead to the world.”
“I don’t. . . I. . .”
Looking away, Nicola felt Angela’s eyes on him. She had decided that he was a thing to be pitied. He thought he should not underscore that impression by stammering. He thrust his chin forward.
“I don’t want to be that sort of bloke.”
“Got to pee,” Angela shrugged. “Have your mind made up about a pose when I get back.”
Nicola seized his chance to leave the flat.
Later, in the bath, Nicola opened up the scar tissue on his right wrist. He had reflected on the tattoo artist’s suggestion that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He thought that in case he decided to climb out and phone for help as he had done before, he might have been made stronger. That was a serious matter in comparison to his wish not to have both of his wrists scarred, but the scarring of his wrists was nevertheless worth thinking about.
Don Stoll is a Pushcart-nominated writer living in Southern California. His fiction is forthcoming in Evening Street Review and has appeared recently in The Honest Ulsterman, The Galway Review, and elsewhere. In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit karimufoundation.org which continues to bring new schools, clean water, and medical clinics to a cluster of remote Tanzanian villages.