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The Tattooed Bride

Published in Strays.

They were both fans of body modification, Steve and Rae. Though each of a certain brand which the other couldn’t identify with. They had crafted their lives, and their selves, to meet their own goals, their own ideals. But once they met, they both began to wonder what might happen if they let the other in. What might happen if they didn’t?

Rae, with her tattoos. Her ink. Her ethos of: have art will travel. Her skin is a canvas of memories, keepsakes, reminders of past lives. And her home, a small two bedroom single-story house in the heart of the city. Not tiny, but not likely capable of housing anything beyond its current residents: her, her cat, Nomad, and her collections. No matter the time of day the house would let in ample sunlight. Rae loved that. The inside of her home always appeared bright even when it was cloudy outside. So many windows. So many plants. So many shelves. So many items. She had antique cameras and toys of classic monsters from Hollywood’s heyday. Her record collection had long-since outgrown the built-in cabinets on each side of her fireplace, and now poured out into various other areas of the room. They were country and jazz, mostly. Mostly old. Mostly music she first heard as a child when visiting her grandparents. They loved music and passed that love down to their own son, who then passed that down to Rae. Some records were actually handed down to her when they died. One was on her turntable while preparing dinner in her kitchen. She rinsed vegetables in the sink while a pot boiled on the stove. Steve would be joining her soon for a meal which reminded her of the day they first met. The anticipation of her guest loomed.

Steve was in his car. It was a certain make and model that some might scoff at, but to him it was just a car. Steve thought there was nothing special about cars, or many of the things people invested their lives in. His parents did not have much to give him from an early age, and it was from that early age which Steve looked to others outside his family for answers. When he did, he saw what other children had and he recognized what he lacked. But in high school his physical education teacher took a liking to him for some reason. Mister Chambers, as he was known during school hours. After school he went by Phil. It was Mister Chambers who introduced Steve to weightlifting, but Phil who inspired him to work on himself. It was in the old, musty weight room that Steve was introduced to the concept of self-esteem. Phil taught him not only how to lift, but why to lift. Steve was not interested in bodybuilding or lifting weights as sport. It was what they showed him about himself that kept him coming back to that weight room. After high school he found a job, then a place of his own to rent, then a new gym. Steve had always been small for his age, growing up, but the weights became an equalizer for him. Now at twenty-four, no longer was he small. Nor was he large, necessarily. What he was was no longer invisible. Steve never considered himself handsome, but in the years that followed graduation he became increasingly aware of how women would look at him. Some men, too. With each new year removing him further from the person he once was, his confidence grew and grew until one day he found himself approaching a woman at a grocery store to ask her about what was in her basket.

Steve had seen Rae many times before by the produce section. Truth be told, Steve had watched her. He knew nothing about her, but admired her all the same. He fantasized about what he might ask her, and how. He had never gotten close or stared at her long enough to give himself away, but on the day he decided to talk to her he had, in fact, been seen. He had been seen by her.

For years Steve would tell himself he was training only for himself. But as his muscles developed and his body became stronger, he began to appreciate the way others would notice him, too. People would glance his way the way he used to look at others when he was a child. When kids at school would show up back in class after Christmas break with new clothing, he would see them and sink into himself, knowing he was still wearing the same second hand wardrobe he’d had before classes let out. But now, he was the one being looked at.

It was a snap decision. He saw her eyes. A look as if to say, “oh my,” and though it was completely out of character for him to do so, he walked in her direction and smiled. Steve asked Rae about what she was making with her vegetables and she told him she was going to use them as a side to a pasta dish she had in mind. He said that sounded great and wondered aloud if there’d be enough for two people. She said yes. Rae was not the type of woman to say yes to someone who had approached her for a date in the produce section of the grocery store. Steve was not the type of man to do the approaching. But for whatever reason, on that day, at that moment, they both became someone else.

Four months later, Steve pulled up in front of Rae’s small home as she moved the vegetables from the colander to the cutting board. There were white onions, red onions, green peppers, red peppers, and zucchini, and once chopped, Rae mixed them in a bowl with olive oil, an Italian seasoning blend, salt, and pepper. From there, she spread the mixture on a baking tray to be roasted at four-hundred degrees. That would all happen in the background after Rae let Steve into the house though. When he knocked on the door she was quick to answer, greeting him with an apron over her skirt and a kiss on his cheek. She dropped a small dish towel she had used to dry her hands so she could hug him. On the first night they had dinner together they had embraced as they said goodnight. Memories of that evening came to mind for her and Steve returned the gesture, holding her close in his arms.

They would talk, drink wine, and listen to music all night. They’ve done this many times before, but tonight Rae found herself absorbed by an idea that had come to her as she was first rinsing the vegetables. With one of her grandparents’ records playing she thought about what might have happened to the album had she not been around to take ownership of it when they passed. What if they had never had children? What would have happened to that particular twelve inch copy of Hank Williams’ 1963 The Very Best Of Hank Williams if no one was around to take ownership of it when her grandparents had both been put to rest? What, Rae posed to Steve, would happen to her collections if she died? …When she dies.

Steve didn’t have much to say at first. He didn’t have collections like Rae did. He didn’t hold onto items and keep them in his home to remember moments, places, and people from times gone past. He had never really thought about that sort of thing, of what happens to a person’s belongings once they die. Or what meaning might be found in whether or not those belongings can live on after a person passes away.

“The moment we die, so many of the things we cherish in our lives become immediately worthless.” The thought had been with her all evening, but until the moment Rae put her voice to them and shared the words with Steve they hadn’t truly sunk in. As she sat, taking in another sip of the red that filled her glass, she looked up above the fireplace to the mantel which housed photos of her grandparents, her parents, her friends, and herself.

Steve tried to speak, but he didn’t think he was good at this sort of thing. He enjoyed dinners with Rae. She still looked at him in a way that made him feel desired, but he was growing increasingly uncomfortable around her. Particularly at times like this. Steve didn’t feel competent when Rae would raise topics like this one — topics he hadn’t given much thought to before. But that wasn’t all. Rae had suggested they read books together, but he had a hard time keeping up with her, and felt insecure about his understanding of the stories, so he stopped trying. Plus, he didn’t share in her love for music and thought jazz was too sophisticated for him. Steve was always impressed by how much attention Rae paid to her appearance, but even on nights like this one he felt underdressed by comparison, in his collared button down and black denim pants. The words came close to his lips before retreating; something about how the less you buy now means the less that gets thrown away later, but he wasn’t sure if that’s what Rae meant so he kept it to himself.

“Steve,” Rae said, setting her wine glass down as she stood up to turn the record over. “What do you want to happen to your things when you die?”

Steve looked back from across the room, on the chesterfield while Rae had been nestled into her arm chair. “I’m… I don’t really know.” He picked up his glass from the coffee table and took a sip, mostly just to give himself a moment to think rather than to taste and appreciate the shiraz Rae had chosen for them to drink this evening. “Everything is temporary,” Steve replied, putting the glass back down on the table. “Some things are less temporary than others, I guess.”

Just then, the arm relaxed and the needle aligned itself with the grooves of the rotating vinyl disc. Stray dust particles hitting the needle crunched over the speakers momentarily before side two of Masterpieces by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra kicked in. The song, “The Tattooed Bride,” quickly broke the silence, flowing into a series of squealing bopping horns while Rae sat back down in her chair. “I think you’re right, Steve,” she said as Nomad jumped into her lap. “I think you’re right.”