The age of the crowd on the boardwalk undulates from old to young. Time gerrymanders the demographics as the sun sets, as the sky burns. Two boys fist-fight along the shoreline; a combatant collapses to his knees by an uppercut to his jaw. Outside the Taj Mahal, police cyclists surround a pack of teenagers; an old man quivers behind the authorities, his shriveled finger points at the kids in accusation. Bronzed college boys in popped polo collars hurl wolf-whistles at young girls, their bikini tops and jean shorts exposing floral tattoos on thighs and lower backs. I gawk at a black boy, five or six years old, as he slaps ice cream from his mother’s hand. “Bitch,” he says to his mother. His mother.
I walk into a random souvenir shop, its overhead lights beam through keychains and shot-glasses: cheap, touristy pieces to help rewrite the visitor’s memory of Atlantic City. Behind the counter, outrageous cigarette prices are written on irradiated sheets of card stock. A thirty percent markup. He grins at me, a twenty-something with barbwire tattoos around his arm. “Got some new tee shirts toward the back,” he says. His breath reeks of beer. He ogles the young girl fondling the tee shirts.
Her breasts are space-age. Sugar is printed on the buttocks of her red shorts. I can smell the ocean in her blonde hair, her skin is blotchy from hours under the sun. Owen is tattooed on her right hand, its cursive font is ornate, Elizabethan. She picks up a black tee-shirt: a male stick figure stands before a female on all fours. The phrase Choking Hazard is underneath the picture. She hands it to me without saying a word. I press the shirt against my body. “How do I look?”
She replies, “Bald black man with a gray beard. Sad eyes. A porno shirt. I should take you to a club.”
Images of disco balls and rainbow lights flood my brain. I haven’t been to a club in decades. Times have changed, I’m sure of it. I ask her about the tattoo.
“Oh, this? I got it about a year ago. My son.”
“Why on your hand?”
She rummages through her purple pleather purse. “You’d think its stupid. It is stupid. I mean now it is.”
“Tell me,” I say, “unless it’s too personal.”
She pulls a small, amber tube from the purse. Unpainted fingernails twist until waxy lip balm rises. Her bottom lip is split; she grimaces as the balm seeps into the wound.
“Is it too personal?”
“No. Well kinda. But not that kinda personal. I’m right-handed, so-when I punched someone-I wanted to remember who I was fighting for. Like I said, it’s stupid.”
“Are you a boxer?”
“No,” she said. “I punch people.”
“No,” she said, throwing the lip balm into the bag. “Sometimes, a bitch gotta fight. Is that stupid?”
“Does it matter what I think?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t have to. I know it. I’m a mother. I’m supposed to be grown, right?”
“It’s all relative,” I say. “How old are you?”
I wave her off. “Whatever.”
“Seriously.” She dives into her bag and hands me her license. “And you?”
I stare at the plastic card. Alexis Keane. She withheld her smile for the camera; a gash was under her left eye. Her hair was slicked into a ponytail, quick and dirty, as if she left some boy on the couch. I swipe my thumb across her photo two, three times. “Older,” I finally answer.
We had Jean late in our marriage. Ten years together before we decided to try. Our family was a master plan: travel, settle into our careers, buy a home, have one child. I wanted a son. When I held Jean in my arms for the first time, I fell into amnesia.
While Eva attended her weekly painting class, I rested my head on the kitchen table. In the dark, drowning in liquor, my eyes tried to hide. Jean entered and sat next to me. She poured herself a drink, swallowing and handling the bourbon’s singe with a honed, matured sigh. She said, “Tits aren’t everything, Dad.”
It was on a Tuesday when Eva called and asked me, with an unnatural nonchalance, to meet her at her doctor’s office, to “swing by” as if picking up a bottle of wine on the way home. “Some news,” she said.
“Can you be more specific?”
“Yes, but not over the phone.”
I hung up on her without another word. Some news. She called while I sat in entangled traffic on the Walt Whitman Bridge. I boiled in my car, air conditioner in need of repair, with the windows down and a rorschach of sweat stained the back of my shirt. Under my breath, I called her a cunt and, at once, cursed myself and apologized as though she was in the passenger seat.
Eva was not at the doctor’s office; the bricked, one-floor building was dark, its parking lot empty. At home, I parked the car and peeled myself from the seat, my skin and spirit covered in a tangible stickiness, like the adhesive left behind from a bandage. Eva was at the dining room table.
“What the fuck?” I asked and repeated, “What the fuck?”
“I figured you were in traffic,” Eva said. “But I thought you’d make it in time.”
“Why did you even call me? Don’t do that shit to me,” I said.
“They found a lump,” Eva said, “in the right one.”
“A lump?” I leaned against the wall and stared at the hardwood floor. “What did they say?”
“I need a biopsy. And that’s why I called. I didn’t know your schedule, you know, if you had meetings or needed to travel this week. You were running late, though,” Eva said with a tinkle in her voice, the sound of fragile crystal beginning to spider-web with fissures, “so I scheduled it for Monday. I asked if it was okay to wait until Monday. They said it was fine. I guess if it’s cancerous, what’s a few more days going to do to me?”
I frowned and asked, “How come I never felt it?”
“Because my love,” she said, “the left is your favorite. Isn’t that a silver lining? The favorite one stays?”
“You should get a tattoo,” Alexis says. She folds the pizza slice in half and rams it into her mouth. When she speaks, the half-chewed food is a beige paste fed to prisoners and astronauts. “I can take you to my spot, up past Trump. Best tattoo parlor in town.”
“Maybe I don’t want one. Besides, I wouldn’t know what to get.” I rip a napkin into little squares and ask, “Does it hurt?”
“It’s a needle stabbing you a few hundred times per minute. Then again, you’re straight once the endorphins kick in. Get one on the neck.”
“Doesn’t that scream â€˜mid-life crisis’?”
“It’s all relative,” she says with a smile. “How old are you?”
“Oh, you’re past mid-life. Unless you live to be a hundred. I wouldn’t want to live that long. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Ellis. And I’d kill to live another fifty years. At some point, you cross over. The scales tip and you wake up, realizing the majority of your years are behind you. I guess one way to cope is do outlandish things: bungie-jump, skydive, get gored by Spanish bulls.”
“Fuck girls half your age.”
“Well yeah, that’s obvious. A cliche, really.”
“No more than getting a tattoo.”
“Point taken,” I say, nodding my head as if it’s oversized, plastic and attached to a metal spring. “I’m trying not to be obvious.”
“Sitting with a young white girl, a P.Y.T., a tenderoni-you’re failing, Ellis.”
I look around. The sun is gone and a breeze blows off the ocean. Couples sit around us, elbows and beach towels resting on white tables. They slurp through straws and glance down at cell phones. A girl holds one up, showing her partner a video clip of a fat black girl dancing on a table, then tumbling to the ground like a trash can. I can’t see the video, but I remember the sounds-remember how hard I laughed when Jean emailed it to me. I light a cigarette. “How old is your son?”
“Where is he?”
“With my mother.”
“Why aren’t you with him?”
“Cuz it’s my birthday.”
“Is it really?”
“You saw my license, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t notice. Happy birthday. Where’s his father?”
“Murder,” she says. Suddenly, she releases a maniacal laugh, rubbing her hands together like a mad scientist. “Drugs, actually. Possession,” she says while reaching for my pack of smokes, “with intent to distribute. Stupid. You should buy me something-for my birthday.”
“I did. I bought you dinner.”
“Pizza and soda. Yeah, I’m swooning over here.” Alexis points a thumb over her shoulder, “The mall’s still open.”
On the way, a juggler performs in front of a Korean War memorial: a statuesque soldier, eight feet tall, clutches dog tags in his left hand. The bedazzled pins twirl, suspend themselves in the air, freeze in time until their master calls them down. I watch the angles, the geometry, the choreography of his hands. It requires the same motion, the same speed and placement. No deviation or the illusion will come crashing down on the boardwalk. Alexis tests his concentration and ask him his name.
Choreography unfazed, he replies “Rob.”
She asks, “How long have you juggled?”
“Ten years, something like that.”
“This is how you make money?”
“Nope. I’m a lawyer.” I find myself impressed. I drop a five dollar bill into his Phillies ball cap. “Thanks, brother,” Rob the juggler says.
The oceanside mall harbors high end boutiques. In the jewelry store, Alexis stands over a glass case, staring at the assortment of engagement rings: chunky or solitaire, clear or multicolored, set into yellow gold, white gold or platinum prongs. She softens a little bit, just enough for me to peer past the breasts, the sugar on her ass, to finally see her true age. Nineteen and longing for marriage-she wants the fantastic clarity of a husband, a lifelong partner, a bedtime story. Her neediness betrays the act of an old soul, of a weathered spartan, of a mother.
The night before Jean left for college, Eva came out with it. The crickets sounded their mating calls. I watched an arrowhead of birds begin their flight south. With my bourbon and cigarette, I felt at peace and, therefore, expected something to go wrong.
Her silver hair was cropped short with tight, pea-sized curls. She grabbed my glass and sipped; the porch light reflected off the bourbon’s surface, bounced into her eyes, and consorted with the hazel inside her irises. “I want a divorce,” she said.
I didn’t know what I wanted. Earlier in our marriage, I imagined her leaving me, as a child imagines the death of a parent. Preemptive preparation in the hopes that the inevitable cut would miss the bone. I said, “I still love you.”
“But you don’t want me. Anymore.”
“I just need some time to adjust.”
“It’s been long enough,” she said. I looked at her. The last chemo cycle was in the past; it and the butcher’s block halted the cancer’s progress. The color in her face, the shade of butter pecan ice cream, returned. She put on some needed weight. Still in repair, but almost back to full power: she was in love. The way she stared across our yard, out toward the starless sky, affirmed what I once imagined.
I took medical leave to be with her. For two years, she skulked about the house; her gold bracelets clanked as she ambled from room to room, in search of food or companionship, her haunting work conducted at night. As her health improved, and the deeper scars started to heal, she wanted more of me-in the old ways.
We acted like virgins. As I shifted underneath the sheets, Eva walked into our bedroom, her arms folded across her chest. I wasn’t ready. She pulled the knot loose and the white robe fell. The half-erection I worked up evaporated. I sutured my eyes closed, covered my mouth and wept. Her incision had the slightest curve upward, a wry smile. Eva stood there, naked and incomplete, gasping as I turned over and switched off the lamp.
“Tell me about him,” I said.
They met at her painting class. Younger, but not too young. “Late thirtyish,” she said. He asked for a cup of coffee and time to explain cubism. She hesitated for a moment, as though she started to share sexual details. In her mind, I stopped being a husband, and became a confidant, a chum, an old girlfriend.
“Talk to me,” she said.
“How you feel.”
“How-I-feel.” My fingers dug into the patio chair. “I’m being punished.” I stopped to swallow the salted knot in my throat. “I’m being punished for being honest.” Who lied to me? Who whispered the nonsense into my ear? My mother? The minister who married us? Daytime television?
I smashed the glass onto the floorboard. “How I feel,” I said, pointing to the mess. “I hope it eats you alive. I hope they take the other one. Finish the job.” Eva said nothing. She blinked a few times, her eyelids shuttered a few tears loose, and she rose, walked into the house and slammed the red front door shut. The words looped in my head, echoing off some cavernous part of my brain, and I glanced down at the pool of bourbon, motionless and austere like crime scene blood.
Alexis steps back from the engagement rings. “I’d never get married,” she says.
“Not the wifely type?”
“I don’t see the point.” She removes a cell phone from her bag and presses a few buttons. The small screen sets her face aglow and, like that, the light disappears. “What’s the point?”
“How would I know?” Alexis lifts my left hand, her thumb grazes the tan line around the ring finger, and looks up at me. “It has its pluses and minuses,” I say.
“No doubt.” She kisses my fingertip, licks it as though she were Sharon Stone. I can feel the saleswoman judging me from behind the counter. Standing there, hands on narrow hips, watching the obvious.
I don’t know what to think. It’s not as big as I imagined and it’s packed. Painted freaks of nature, with plastic things in their earlobes and metal hoops and studs pierced in rather inventive places, roam around the small tattoo parlor.
We plop down on the blue sleeper sofa; it smells of corn chips. Alexis quickly fills out the consent form. I look over my form and slowly, neatly, print my name, age, mailing address, and check marks inside of empty “No” boxes: am I HIV positive, do I have allergies, am I currently under the influence. I lean over and ask, “Do you mind going first? You know, so I can see an example.”
“You’re scared,” Alexis says.
“I’ll pay for it. My birthday gift to you.”
“You don’t have to buy me anything.” Alexis takes our clipboards, and driver’s licenses, to the receptionist: her hair is dyed red, a steel ball juts from her bottom lip-the dot of an exclamation point. Alexis hands me my license and drops onto the couch. “It’ll be a little while,” she says.
“Seriously. The tattoo’s on me. Nothing too expensive, though.”
She turns to face me, her leg underneath her body, half Indian style. “So you’re really having a mid-life crisis.”
“No. Just facing facts, trying to accept who I am, learning to digest regret.”
“So it doesn’t get easier as you get older,” Alexis says while biting her fingernail.
My laugh is a foghorn; the patrons turn their heads, either scowling or staring blankly like paper dolls. “I’m sorry,” I say, still chuckling to myself. “No, not easier. You just-accept that there’ll never be enough time to get it right. Stumbling around at nineteen is the same at fifty-five, except slower, more arthritic.”
“I regret having Owen. Sometimes. I sat outside the clinic, freezing my ass off in my shitty car, thinking up reasons why I shouldn’t go through with it. I took a gamble, I think. I said, â€˜Alex, you’d regret killing this baby more than anything else.’ What is that, a premonition? Maternal intuition?”
“A good eye,” I say, half-believing in the worth of my words. “Maybe that’s why you don’t want to get married. You see something, even though you can’t articulate it right now.”
“I lied,” she says. “About marriage. Something about it seems comforting. It reminds me of a blanket. It gets warmer as it gets older, even when starts to smell moldy.” Alexis tilts her head, lays it on my shoulder and superimposes her hand on top of mine. “Let’s get married,” she says.
“Polygamy is illegal here,” I say.
“We can pretend.”
“I’m too old,” I say.
“I’m not playing games with you,” Alexis says, “if that’s on your mind.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Nothing,” she says. “Isn’t that enough?”
God, I want it to be enough. I feel nothing for Eva, but it’s not enough. Kisses on her mouth, widening myself to receive her bad days, watching Jean make our old mistakes in novel ways: I can’t make love to my wife anymore-but what of making time? We’ll never fuck again, yet I still burrow my nose into her silver hair. I can only give her half intimacy or, perhaps, the frustration of an orgasm unrealized. She has a right to more. An amicable severance does nothing to temper my anger, my fright. She’s leaving me with thirty years’ worth of memories; I have no room in the basement to house so many boxes. The lump left me cleaved, too-but it’s not about me.
Some guy walks up to us. I almost piss my pants when I see two horns, I don’t know what else to call them, stretching underneath his forehead’s skin. His right arm, well defined, is a mosaic of symbols and faces and numbers. His smile is amiable, well-versed in customer service training, and he asks, “Who’s up first?”
“Me,” Alexis says. She leaps from the couch and grabs my hand.
“Back here.” He ushers us down a narrow hallway, an art exhibit, its walls covered with random photos of fresh tattoos. Overhead, three purple light bulbs add a soothing contrast to the ruckus: the laughter, the loud rock music, the buzz-stop-buzz of tattoo needles jamming themselves into skin. We walk straight ahead-the usher peeking back at Alexis as she leads me by the hand-until we enter the room at the end of the hall. “Shut the door,” he says to no one. I follow orders.
The tissue paper crinkles underneath her body. Alexis sighs as she reclines in the white chair that resembles those in barbershops and dental offices. The room is as clean and nauseating as bleach. “I’m DJ,” he says over the snap of plastic gloves. “Did I do you before?”
Alexis pouts her lips and nods slowly. “I think so. You look familiar, now that you mention it.”
DJ chortles to himself, his face aglow with achievement. “Something on the other hand this time?”
“Maybe,” I say, watching their heads whip toward me, “that’s not a good idea. Maybe,” I say as I approach Alexis, “here.” I trace her collarbone. “A little more personal than the neck, I think.”
“That’ll work,” she says. “What should I get?”
“My name.” I laugh. She stares me down. “I’m joking.”
“Ellis,” she says, facing DJ. Without a cue, Alexis removes her tee shirt. Her breasts are netted behind a plain white bra. She continues to stare me, while pointing to the blank slate of skin next to a bra strap. “His name is Ellis.”
Getting older is a type of time-traveling, moving in and out of past lives and loves, projecting oneself into the future, bleak and accurate as it might be. The dystopia I see whenever I close my eyes: buildings are dilapidated and blood-splattered, graveyards buzz with new business, and love loses touch with sex.
We’ll sit on the bench of a beach house and watch the ocean’s black turn purple, a deep amethyst, then orange and, finally, blue again as the sun returns. Seagulls will land on the beach and squabble over yesterday’s trash. I’ll glance down at my wrinkled hand and feel something familiar in my chest as her smooth hand comes into view, lands on top of mine, and interlocks fingers. Owen will look faded.
I’ll visit Eva in the hospital. We won’t speak. I’ll hold her hand and watch the screen: a black background split by a green line. I’ll continue to carry that weight while she disintegrates into a feather. I’ll kiss her forehead, stroke her face, whisper in her ear. A flicker of warmth will come over her before the chill emerges.
Alexis stands over me, shirtless, my name branded onto her chest. Whole and made anew by ink, she runs her hand along my damp scalp. The chair is comfortable. The light hurts my eyes. I can’t see a thing. Not a goddamn thing. I hear DJ ask me, “So whatchu want?”
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