“I swear, if the air conditioning breaks down today, heads will roll.”
“If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” Chris Leclair, a staff writer for the Laconia Daily Sun, always tried his best to be affable, no matter the circumstances. But he had to admit, Laconia really was insufferably hot today, and he was starting to regret having worn a suit. Chris’ friends liked to call him “Mr. GQ” because of his perpetually clean-shaven face, dress shirts devoid of wrinkles and hair always styled just so. He also had the sensitive, gentlemanly personality to match – at least, he thought he did. At this moment, he was at InkRedible, one of the most renowned tattoo parlors in New Hampshire, sweating rivers as Nadia Bennett, the owner of the place, fiddled with the air conditioner to bring the temperature down to a more tolerable level. According to Chris’ boss, Phil Asher, who had a tendency to reduce people to neat little archetypes for the sake of journalism – “rags to riches,” “successful immigrant,” “good kid gone bad,” “the paper needed a story about a ‘fearless woman,’” and Nadia was the perfect subject. Chris had agreed – she must be fearless, he had thought; women who squash tradition under their heels have to be.
“Well, I feel like we’re in the Southwest right now.” Nadia wiped her brow with the back of her hand. Her arms were covered from wrists to shoulders in different designs and words. Heavily tattooed people are not hard to find in New Hampshire, but Chris, who had only been living in the Granite State for a little over a year, was still getting used to seeing breathing, talking murals everywhere he went. He snapped himself out of staring at her when she sat down at one of the shop’s tables.
“You can sit, you know.” She said, noticing that Chris was still standing.
“Oh, yeah.” Chris finally obliged; he wasn’t the type to make himself comfortable in an interviewee’s home or workplace without permission. “Thank you.”
“Welcome to my empire,” said Nadia. She gestured to the warm yellow walls, which were adorned with “Best of New Hampshire” plaques from different years and signs reminding employees about good hygienic practices regarding needles. Every movement of hers – from her runway model walk to the graceful way she waved her hand around the room – was seemingly perfumed with self-assurance. “I’m sorry I didn’t prepare much. Last week was Bike Week up here, so I had a whole parade of men on motorcycles coming in and out to get inked up. I could hardly get a minute to relax.”
“Oh, don’t worry.” Chris placed his iPhone on the table. “I don’t use a strict Q-and-A format. I prefer to record myself having a natural conversation with the subject, and then use any nuggets I find interesting.”
“I’ve never been interviewed that way before.”
“I’m different than the others at the Daily Sun.” Chris replied, if not a little smugly. “I see people first and stories second.”
“Well, you’re a breath of fresh air, then.”
Chris beamed, pleased with the compliment. He gently brought his finger down on the “red” record button on the screen, like an airplane landing on a runway.
“So, Nadia, why this?”
Nadia looked at him wryly. “Why not this?”
“Well, you’re clearly talented and successful at what you do, but tattooing…” He searched for the right words. “I mean, when you have Career Day at school, the teachers don’t typically bring up tattoo artistry as an option.”
“Oh, God, I remember when my father came in to talk to my preschool class for Career Day. He works in pharmaceutical research. Try explaining that to a group of four and five year-olds.” She attempted to speak in a baritone. “‘We give people medicine and see if it makes them well.’”
“Was your class a respectful audience?”
“As respectful and attentive as you’d expect, Chris.” She laughed heartily. “At one point, I got bored and just wanted to derail his train of thought. I remembered we had a children’s book in our classroom all about etiquette, so I interrupted him with, ‘Dada, do you know ‘The Bad Manners Book?’ So he just looked at me, and then looked at everybody else like, ‘Well, this is ironic.’”
Nadia giggled, stuck a hand in her hair, and shook her head. Chris was transfixed by the dark, wavy avalanche that came tumbling down her shoulders. She was a paradox; playful and endearing, yet sexy and sultry with her tattoos, goth-black tresses and plump lips. There was no way to describe her accurately. Whatever she was, she was starting to create emotions that he knew he wasn’t supposed to experience on the job.
“My mother should have come in instead. My class would have loved her.”
“What does she do?”
“She’s a painter. Not a famous one, but a pretty good one. You know those people you see selling their work at street festivals? She’s one of those and makes a decent chunk of change from it, too. I dare say she’s the reason I’m a tattoo artist.”
“So she was your biggest influence?”
“Oh, yes. I learned to draw and paint from her, and she always encouraged me to keep honing my skills. I’m not sure where she learned it from, though. Probably Bob Ross. We watched a lot of Bob Ross when I was little –”
“You’re not old enough to know Bob Ross.” Before he could stop himself, Chris obliterated her thought. Suddenly, the air in the room hardened, and he could feel Nadia crucifying him with her eyes.
“I-I-I’m sorry.” He stammered. “I had meant it in the best possible way, meaning that you’ve achieved so much already, and you’re not even old enough to know who Bob Ross was.”
“I know how old I am.” Nadia bristled, but then felt a wave of guilt rush over her, and scrambled to smooth the moment over.
“Happy little trees.” She put on her best Bob Ross voice and pantomimed painting with her index finger and thumb. “Why don’t we paint some happy little trees, Chris?” When Chris chuckled, she too felt more at ease, and continued.
“Anyway, she never came to any sort of career-related things at school for me or my two brothers. She always tried, but Dad would always talk her out of it.” She rolled her eyes. “He believed that children should be taught to pursue ‘real occupations.’ He wasn’t pleased when I told him I was going to become a tattoo artist, but he finally came around after he saw how well I was doing with it –”
“Ah, that’s why you opened up this place!” Chris interrupted eagerly. “To stick it to him.”
“No, that’s not why.” She exhaled, as if taking a drag off of an imaginary cigarette. “Why do we assume that everyone’s mission is to ‘stick it’ to somebody or something?”
“Because many stories tend to go that way.”
“I thought you saw people first, not stories.” She raised her eyebrows, and Chris felt himself redden.
Nadia began to trace the edges of the table with her finger. “It wasn’t just that. In every area, he would either dismiss or silence her. Even when I was small, I used to worry for her, and she’d always say, ‘You don’t have to worry about me, baby. I’m made of hard candy.’”
She looked away somberly. Chris couldn’t help but notice her skin – the parts that hadn’t been used as a canvas, that is – was a shade or two lighter than the color of natural red clay, and her eyes were as black as her hair. What was in her blood – Mayan ruins? Date trees? Athena and Zeus? Try as he might, he couldn’t categorize her. But he figured she must have descended from some backwards old world where women are taught that they must be made of hard candy to survive. Not me, Chris assured himself. I’m from here, the current century, where we don’t trample all over pretty little things like you.
“But in some horrible way, he was her muse.” Nadia absentmindedly – or anxiously – began tugging at her left earlobe as she spoke. “The worse he treated her, the more she threw herself into her art.”
“Muses can’t be negative.” Chris replied, with the lilt of someone gently correcting a child.
“Yes, they can.” She replied, her consonants made of cold metal.
A humid silence overpowered the tattoo parlor. Nadia began to twist her own wedding band, and a couple of nervous coughs shot out of Chris.
“In general, do you believe that marriage impacts work? Or vice-versa?”
Nadia tilted her head to the sky, as if the answer lay somewhere other than within her. “You know, when Mr. Bennett and I first started going out together, it was like lying on those special pillows that bend and curve to fit the shape of your head. We were perfect for each other – both young, lost, and hungry to become great. He kind of bounced around from odd job to odd job and was terribly unhappy, but I found my way, of course. I’d always loved drawing, and I had already been an apprentice to a family friend– also a tattoo artist – for a few years prior, so I thought, ‘I could do this myself.’ So I got my license, signed some papers, and InkRedible was born. The customers started trickling in, and so did the money, the glowing reviews, and the awards. When all those came, everything he and I had built up slowly started to go.” She started shaking. “We have a friend who’s an EMT, and when she visits, she always tells stories about her job – like about not being able to save a patient – and he’ll say to her, ‘Oh, but Nadia has it worse. She’s doing tough work; God bless her’ or something like that.”
“What does your husband do for work?” Chris asked tenderly, wanting to scoop her up in his arms, though he considered himself too much of a gentleman to even lay a caring hand on her arm.
“Our neighbors pay him to take care of their daughter each day while they work. But he’d do it for nothing.” At this, she sighed contentedly. “They go to the park, the movies – everywhere. Sometimes, I come home to find her taking a nap on his chest like this.” She folded her hands and fake snored. “When I see him being gentle and loving like that, I think, ‘There’s the man I remember.’ Sometimes, little flickers of that man come back out of nowhere, just for me, and it’s almost like we’re back in the old days – even if it’s only temporary.” She twisted her ring again, this time looking straight at Chris. “It’s hard on him, can’t you see? Everything he wanted, I got.”
“I’ve met a hundred men like you, and you’re number 101.”
Chris leaned back from the table, in both awe and irritation. Someone who could manage to have any compassion for a man like that deserved to be kept warm by the strongest type of loving possible – something moonshine-grade, heavier than a hundred blues songs combined, a force beyond quantum physics and holy books. He could feel it trembling inside himself, a fidgety ball in a slingshot waiting to zoom into forever.
“You’re making excuses.” He grunted, filled with hate for a man he’d never even met.
“It’s called forgiveness.”
“It’s called making excuses.”
“Lower your voice.” She snapped, and Chris could tell he had just jumped on her last nerve. Immediately, she gulped. After internally punishing herself for about ten seconds, she sat up straight.
“Listen to me,” She began, trying not to sound too forceful. “For 25 years, I’ve been alive, walking around in the world feeling things, seeing things, learning things that you don’t know and will never know. I don’t need you to finish my sentences.”
“But I’m not…” Chris was growing flustered. “I never –”
“Don’t pretend you ‘never.’” Now, she looked like a wounded puppy. “I’ve met a hundred men like you, and you’re number 101.”
The remark turned Chris’ face to stone. Again, Nadia felt a slight pang of contrition, as she often did for speaking her mind.
“So what’s next?” He asked, pretending that the verbal punch in the gut she had given him didn’t hurt at all. “Do you plan to expand this place? Open up another location?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that in the near future.” She physically waved Chris’ question away. “I’ve actually been thinking about slowing down a bit.”
“Our neighbor’s daughter brings so much light to our lives. When we’re with her, we feel whole –well, he does.” She became increasingly jittery as she spoke. “So, he was talking one night about how much we love – I mean, he loves – caring for her, and how it would be nice to do that someday, but with our own…” Nadia closed her eyes, picturing the future in front of her. “I think it would be amazing –”
“I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot.” Chris, now more vexed than he’d ever been thus far, tapped the button on his phone screen to stop recording.
“Am I?” She asked with a smarmy cool in her voice. “How so?”
“You don’t want this.”
“You don’t know what I want, Chris.”
“I know you’re afraid.”
“Me?” She started to laugh – not her belly-confident laugh from earlier, but a titter you might hear from a teenager trying to cover up the truth about the origins of a scratch on the family car. “I’m not afraid of anything.” She spread her arms and glanced around InkRedible in an attempt to measure her queendom. “How could I be afraid of anything?”
“The same way elephants are afraid of mice.”
Nadia froze and bit her lip. “That’s just an old wives’ tale.” She mumbled, as if to reassure herself.
For several minutes, neither of them spoke, until Nadia’s phone rang. It was Anna, one of her three employees, who was apparently running late. “Hang on one second,” she told Anna. Then she gave Chris a shy, girlish wave goodbye.
“You’re not gonna use everything I said, right?” She asked, slightly panicked, seeing visions of lonely nights and cold shoulders. Chris shook his head no, although he knew that nothing he could manage to write about her would ever be complete. As he walked out of InkRedible and got into his car, he looked through the shop’s window and caught himself ogling her body, a soft bronze highway with dips and curves that he yearned to explore. Chris had been told many years ago by his pastor that human beings are God’s masterpieces, His works of art. Like all true works of art, humans are beyond labels and should make those who see them realize new truths about who they are. By that logic, Nadia had certainly proven herself to be a masterpiece of God to Chris during their short time together. He wondered if the reverse was also true; he hoped so, as he pressed down on the gas and mercilessly steamrolled the earth.