junk leg by gibson culbreth
When we were 16 you let our friend Rodney tattoo you in his basement. He had rigged a makeshift tattoo gun from an electric toothbrush and guitar strings. The hum began and your gaze locked with mine. I wondered if you could see my heart in the glaze of my eyes.
More and more lately we had been hanging out alone. You’d gotten your driver’s permit and your parents didn’t give a shit about teaching you, so I would ride shotgun as we cruised around the neighborhood after school in an ancient Toyota Camry. I was younger by a few months so I didn’t know how to drive either. Nothing seemed as important as the rhythm between us when we exited the car, our heads bobbing up, the chorus of doors slamming, the beat of our Converse hitting the pavement as we walked in step to wherever we were headed. The last few months, you had become the world in which I existed. Sometimes you called me your moon.
Rodney tattooed the word “punk” on you while you were wearing a denim vest that you’d dedicated time to, sewing patches on all over. It smelled like booze and cigs and sweat and it made you a punk kid. You explained to me that girls have to try harder to be punks. You said we were always seen as weak, that we had to prove ourselves. Once, I saw you kiss another girl at one of Mack McKenna’s basement parties. It made me feel like seaweed, like the gravity had been pulled out of the room. I thought about you kissing other girls a lot, even though I liked boys. I was kind of seeing Mack’s friend, Dylan. I saw him on the days that you worked right after school, or if you had a family thing. You said you didn’t like him. He reminded you of Dr. Frankenstein’s sidekick, Igor and you hated how he shuffled when he walked. But Dylan was my denim vest, my signifier that I deserved to be a punk too.
I guess it struck me how ironic it was that you had to brand yourself with the word “punk” to make you feel punk. To be fair to you, Rodney wasn’t exactly a certified tattoo artist. He had been after us for the past few weeks, begging us to be his first victims. You weren’t afraid of being the first piece of human flesh he was injecting ink into but I had to come with you. His previous experiments with orange peels sat shriveling on the concrete floor. He pulled out a metal folding chair for me, and you sat on a couch, Rodney perched next to you. The basement was the kind of cold that made you quiet and sank into your joints even though it was the summer. You reached over and grabbed my fingers as Rodney prepped your skin with rubbing alcohol. You’d worn shorts for the event and your tooth white skin glared under the fluorescent lights. I gave your hand a squeeze. Rodney looked over, catching our secret message. He grunted, pulling your leg closer to him, so that his own knees pinned it into place. I smiled but it felt like I was baring my teeth. “Is this safe?” I asked Rodney and he looked up; grinning big and holding the buzzing rig close to your skin. “Of course, babe.” He called me babe a lot, like it was my name. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Once, I told you that I hated that he called me that and you said he didn’t mean anything by it. He called you babe too and yeah, you didn’t like it but that was just how it was. After all, he knew you were a girl who dated girls so he couldn’t mean anything by it, right? You told me punks aren’t so sensitive. Why didn’t I ever ask you who had given you these lessons? Why didn’t I think it through? Your words were tarnished silver to me and I held onto them tightly, hoping that with enough attention I would be able to uncover what was underneath.
You winced when he started. I imagined it felt like bee stings. Rodney’s legs clamped around your own and it looked like the two of you were overlapping. Rodney’s greasy hair strands kept slipping from behind his ear and nearly brushed your skin. You kept your eyes on me and kept your hand clasped firmly in mine. I thought about the time I found poetry in the margins of your math notebook. You told me they were songs. I asked if they were about me because when you are 16 everything is about you and you are about everything and you blushed and said no, that’s stupid. In the basement with fluorescent lights shining on your skin being carved up I summoned words you wrote and knew they were about me. A thrill of fear plummeted through me. If your poetry was about me, if you thought about me as much as I thought about you, maybe things would be different. Maybe love would look different than I thought it could. My eyes stayed on the makeshift rig, dipped into india ink every few seconds. The color beat it's way into your skin. I wondered how this change would feel tomorrow. If you would ever think about this night in Rodney’s basement and what you would remember. If it would just be about the letters sinking into your thigh, or if you would remember me holding your hand.
I wondered if you would grow up to become a lawyer, or some straight laced office chick and you would have to explain this when you wore short skirts or a bathing suit. My heart jumped again, this time so hard that I could feel it, electric between my teeth. I wanted to kiss you, but punks don’t kiss and punks don’t have hearts and punks get basement tattoos that are crooked right atop their knee caps. And I wonder if maybe I’m not a punk after all. Maybe the need to kiss you was something else because I’d never felt it like that before. The feeling radiating from my lips down to my kneecaps. I never felt it for Dylan, or the guy I kissed before him, or any boy I’d ever batted my eyelashes at. I almost jumped up. You smirked at me, all knowing, keeping me glued to the folding chair.
After Rodney wiped your new tattoo down, he took a picture “for the portfolio.” He gave us a shot of Jameson and we left. The liquor settled bitter and thick on the back of my tongue. We walked side by side. You in your denim vest and Op Ivy shirt, me in my cutoff Nirvana tank top and jeans.
“What do you want to do now?” You asked. It was almost midnight. When you are 16, summer is the thing of miracles. The world is warm enough to hold you and you have enough agency to weave situations, twirl circumstance and the need for excitement together and see what happens.
“We could go to yours and watch TV?” I offered. My body still felt warm and melted, strange and empty. Even with all of the possibility in front of us, sometimes it seems best to stay safe. Huddle inside and feed our impulses to quippy television shows that we can quote to one another in the months ahead.
“Do you think that people will like my tattoo?” You looked at me, eyes shining like a Christmas tree.
“Duh, none of us have tattoos yet, Rae. You’ll be the coolest of them all.”
“You’re next,” you laughed. “You are my moon, you always follow me.”
I wasn’t sure if I should be offended or not. Were my choices not valid? Did I only follow you and ask for your permission?
I asked you again about that poetry and I really don’t know why. I think it was the line “I just thought about how you sit on couches next to me,” that began the elegy that really caught me. You turned to me and there were street lamps lit all around you, that dead quiet near midnight where things start to feel wilty. You jammed your mouth against my own fast, like a lightning strike. I heard heavy guitar crashes and the air smelled like lilacs and you tasted like fresh cigarettes spiced with irish whiskey and my heart was there. I wondered if you could taste it as your tongue slid against my own. I wondered if you were thinking of the way I sit on couches next to you, facing you, back to the room, staring into your brimstone eyes as if that’s what keeps me upright. You broke away first and I was left kissing the summer air. You said, “I knew it,” as you looped your fingers in between my own and we started walking down the cul de sac to my house, hips bumping, hearts jangling, skin shaking with the aftermath.
You knew it. You said it and the words burrowed into my brow like shrapnel. You knew it, knew me better than I knew myself. I was jealous of the knowledge you had apparently known all along, and had never thought to make me privy to. Still, your lips brushing against my own at the end of the night were enough for now.
The next day you wore jeans with big holes in the knees so that everyone who saw you could see your new tattoo on display. You greased it up with aquaphor every few minutes and your car smelled like band-aids and cigarettes. It turned my stomach in the crushing heat.
There was a show in Mack McKenna’s basement that night. His parents had a two car garage but since his mom took off his dad had just let him have the run of the thing. You were excited. You said we didn’t have to tell anyone about us yet, if I wasn’t ready. You knew I had never been in a real relationship before and you understood if I was having trouble with the whole coming out thing. I smiled and it felt like concrete on my face. I wanted to tell you that I was having trouble with it. That it seemed like a spin on my life that I had lived so long without, and even though kissing you felt as natural as breathing I still hadn’t gotten used to the frame of what things looked like now.
“Was this easy for you?” I asked, my face turned to my legs. I could see the tributaries of shiny white stretch marks from where I grew my tree trunk thighs too fast. I picked at the frayed edges of my shorts, pulling strings free and dropping them onto the floor of the car.
You were driving, one arm hanging out of the window. You glanced over at me. Your eyes reminded me of dark beer bottles, gleaming and full. “It’s never like, easy. But I guess I just wasn’t patient and I knew what I wanted and I never really thought it was wrong or anything like that. You know my parents are hippies.” Read: your parents rarely showed up or gave a shit.
“Is it weird that I’m scared?” I was ashamed of how small and metallic my voice sounded. When I looked back to you… Well, it all happened so fast.
I screamed. They weren’t words, just some guttural noise that only made your warm, dark eyes widen with surprise.
When you woke up in the hospital I was sitting next to you. Your moon. The Explorer cracked into the side of your Camry, pinning your left arm between two behemoth metal monsters. I was safe, a little bruised and shaken but otherwise untouched. Your arm was broken in three places, your wrist fractured, each finger sporting it’s own silver splint. Your head was done up in a white bandage. It matched my own.
“What happened?” You asked into the crisp, medicinal air. Your voice was sandy with confusion and pain.
“I was just thinking of the way you look at me when you drive,” I said. My words were overpowered by the rush of your parents to your side. The coo and glow of their relief that you were awake, you were alive, you were battered but otherwise the same girl you’d always been. And after you took in their faces, felt their tears on your skin you looked to me over their shoulders and the look in your eyes told me you heard me. You were scared too but I was there and somewhere inside of you maybe you doubted that. Maybe you thought the fear would have kept me from you, hurled me back into my room for you to come and uncover later. And that was the day I learned that punks do have hearts and punks do kiss and sometimes punks get scared and hurt because at the end of the day we are all just people.