issue twenty-one
art gallery
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(7386 words)
John W. Buckley
Girl in the Mirror
The girl’s bedroom, like the rest of the house, was enormous. Sitting under a high, vaulted ceiling in the center of the room was a massive canopy bed, an ornate island in a sea of sleek hardwood. A picture window dominated the south wall, offering a view of the city below -- diamonds on black velvet on clear nights like tonight.

The girl poked first a tentative foot, then a whole leg out of the silken cascade, touching it to the clammy hardwood below. The leg was long, smooth, aglow from the moonlight that poured in through the picture window -- an alabaster appendage, a sculptor’s lost masterwork. Then the curtains parted, silently birthing the rest of the girl into the hollow night. She stood at the foot of the bed, a golden-haired sylph, a midnight whisper of a girl with a white nightgown draped over her bony shoulders like a swath of cirrus.

A bureau rested in one corner, a hulking oaken sentinel, taller than the girl by half. She glided over the hardwood to it, opened a small drawer, elbow high, and retrieved a crumpled paper bag. Clutching it in her fist, she slipped out of the bedroom, moonlight in her wake.

At night, the hallway resembled one from dreams -- unlit, unending, a solitary tract of labyrinth. A faint light from some far-flung part of the house -- her mother’s sitting room, perhaps -- lent it a dull glow. The girl ran her hand along the wallpaper as she went, dodging framed photographs by memory. Photographs of her and her mother at like ages, side by side -- visitors often had trouble telling them apart, bedazzled by the rows of sparkling eyes and sharp smiles, tumble after tumble of flaxen locks.

Her soft, supple fingers could feel each individual sheet of wallpaper as she went, feel their ridges along the wall, each piece overlapping the next, like she imagined a cocoon might feel. The whole house, covered in layers. The original walls, measly and bare, were forgotten, dead and buried beneath the decorative paper. What wonder would emerge from a cocoon like this?

Eventually, past her mother’s room -- door closed, as ever -- the hallway ended, wallpaper giving way to a framed door. Her fingers danced from the papered walls across the frame, making purchase on the heavy door. She pushed, and the door yawned open with a creak. The meager light at her back threw ugly, misshapen shadows into the room -- limp, dark blobs that melted into each other. They looked nothing like the girl. The blobs shifted as she stepped into the room, melting further into each other, seeming to thicken as she shut the door, a blanket of gloom. They then scattered, slipping under the door, back into the night, when she flicked on a light with an extended finger.

It always seemed more like a hospital room than a bathroom. Or a laboratory. Sterile, frighteningly sterile -- the entire room was white. Tile, curtains, rugs, walls, even the light coming from the vanity mirror above the sink -- everything white. The altar-like marble sink, smooth and chic. The porcelain vase (her mother said vahse), fraught with daisies. Even the mischievous Georgia O’Keefe nestled into a corner, almost an afterthought -- white. That was her mother’s touch. Simple, yet elegant -- one of her favorite phrases, pried straight from a design magazine.

Of course, the girl hated it.

Almost as much as she hated the girl in the mirror.

She couldn’t help but see her as soon as she turned on the light -- the mirror was large, mural-like, ostentatious, reflecting the individual back in grand scale. The girl was almost invisible against the enveloping white. Perfectly pale skin, ethereal and smooth, almost pallid. Slight, sinuous frame, more bone than curve. Timid eyes and a blank expression. All this and a crown of pale, shimmering blond hair, wavy and shifting with the slightest movement. Long silky, golden locks -- her mother still called her “Goldilocks” after a few glasses of chardonnay.

Gaze fixed on the mirror, she examined herself for a few seconds, as if under a microscope, before averting her eyes. The girl in the mirror did the same.

Approaching the alter, she remembered the bag she carried, heard its crisp rustle as she opened it. It contained two objects -- no, tools, really, or instruments. The first was a tube of black paste, which warped to the shape of her trembling fist. The second was a pair of scissors, cool and heavy in her hand. The rust against her pure white skin hinted at elegant danger. She held both objects with thoughts of vandalism and lifted her eyes again to the girl in the mirror. She put the contraband on the basin and turned  the water on. Hot.

As the steaming water swirled, she turned and locked the door, possessing an almost ritualistic desire for solitude, separating herself from the night and its sounds, its denizens. Turning back toward her reflection, she regarded herself again for a scant second before slipping the nightgown off her shoulders. She peeled it off her body, shedding her satiny husk, hooking her thumbs through the thin band of her underwear as she went. She shuddered, cold wisps of night coiling around her body. A final shrug and it all fell to the floor, a silken halo pooled at her feet. She kicked it aside and faced herself, finally free.

The girl in the mirror looked back, bashful, reticent about her own nakedness, the awkwardness of her body. Her figure was streamlined -- narrow shoulders, small, pink-tipped breasts, knobby hips jutting out uncertainly under a lean waist. Any excess fat had been trimmed away through years of involuntary dieting and forced exercise, unwanted trainers and the gavel-like needle of the scale. Her size-one figure felt like a prison -- constricting, suffocating.

As the sink filled up, the girl’s pulse quickened. She could feel each beat throughout her body, her skin stretched taut over bone and tendon and muscle like the skin of a drum. Her heartbeats were almost musical, rhythmical, a pulsing accompaniment to her own private ritual. The sink full, the girl reached out a tremulous hand to turn the faucet off, unsure if the tremors were from anxiety or anticipation.

She unscrewed the cap and squeezed the black paste out onto her palm. It lay there like a fat, shiny slug. Or perhaps a caterpillar. It was black and thick and decidedly ugly and the girl paused for only a moment before mashing it into her hair with joy. She felt something tug at the corners of her mouth as she worked the paste into her hair -- her perfect, soft, flowing, blond hair. Hair that had only known the treatment of a salon, the experimenting hands of a professional stylist. The girl marveled as the gold turned into black -- alchemy in reverse, gold into base, her own private science experiment.

The girl squeezed and she twisted and she drove her fingers through her wet, clumpy hair. The sensation was incredible, like a child upon first discovering the joy of playing in the mud. As she worked, fingers splayed, the black spread through her hair like oil over an unsuspecting ocean, slimy and slick. She tangled and twirled and added more paste when the gold proved stubborn, drowning its radiance in deep, sticky black until the very last shimmer was smothered.

Finished, she soaked her head in the sink. The warmth felt good on her scalp. As she lifted her head, she gathered her hair, twisting it, wringing out watery black. It sagged wet and heavy on her head, piled haphazardly like coiled snakes. She held the mass up with one hand and put the other on her hip, leaning her shoulder toward the mirror to strike a model pose. The girl in the mirror looked back at her, a haughty twinkle in her eye, but it was too early to tell how she looked. Her hair just sat atop her head and looked dead, like a glob of paint.

She picked up the tube of paste. Rinse thoroughly after application. She shrugged and turned the shower on. Hot.

The water rained down on her, sending streams of inky liquid cascading down her body, over her breasts and hips, into her belly button, racing down her legs to pool at her feet, a temporary shadow worming its way down into the drain. She thought of tears, of running mascara, of ruined faces. It was with those thoughts that she reached a slinking hand outside the shower curtain and groped along the counter for the scissors, pilfered from an art class drawer, the first in a series of clandestine acts of rebellion, of which the nighttime vandalism of her treasured mane was culmination.

Her hair came off in clumps, stringy, viscous clumps that hit the shower floor with emphatic plops, black and bulbous and writhing as the shower water splashed over them. They piled there, oozing toward the drain like so much excrement. The girl gleefully cut off chunk after chunk of her ruined hair, her scissor strikes not so much surgical as violent, murderous, a chaotic series of snips and shears, pulling out the shorn-away clumps like weeds from soil. The black stuck to her fingers, seeped into her cuticles, sank into the whorls at her fingertips, evidence of her crime. The girl reveled in the mess.

The girl dried her hair with frenetic application of a towel, working it over the now-black thatch without care. Rogue follicles fluttered about, harmless pests. Another towel she wrapped around her body, comforting and warm. Then she stepped back in front of the mirror.

The surface of the mirror had fogged over, steam from the heat of the shower, a shroud behind which hid her new self, a veil. There was only a hint of trepidation as she reached a blackened hand up to the mirror. With circular strokes, she wiped a small patch of steam away with the heel of her hand, lifting the veil and revealing her new self, fog-framed. For a long moment she looked at this curious new girl in the mirror. Then, a smile escaped her tightened lips, a sunbeam through storm clouds, a spotlight on a lonely stage, a star falling across the night sky. Her wish was starting to come true.

       It was different, being down in the city by herself. No diamonds, no velvet -- at least not in the daylight. She hadn’t yet dared to explore the metropolis at night.

The sidewalks were dirtier than she’d imagined they’d be, scarred with gum and glass and crumpled beer cans. The occasional discarded condom wrapper, evidence of some back alley tryst, feral clubgoers under the lunatic moon. Or so the girl imagined.

There was also the living detritus -- people, filthy people, sprawled in doorways, alleyways, slumped on grimy bus seats, begging for a dollar, a couple quarters, some money for a cheeseburger. The girl didn’t return their glances, especially when they turned lecherous, scuttling past them instead, feeling their eyes crawl over her bare legs, her tiny braless chest. She felt the gazes tracing up her slender legs, from ankle to knee to thigh, until they disappeared into the pleats of her miniskirt.

She’d sought refuge in a coffee shop off Gower the first time, her first tentative foray into Hollyweird, as she’d come to call it, the day after her nighttime transformation. She’d left her mother -- trembling from the rage, tremens from the delirium -- behind, only just dodging the hurled mimosa. With her art class scissors she had made a long gash in one of the hallway portraits, from eye to jaw, leaving the bottom of her mother’s face sagging, the emptiness beneath revealed. A short walk down the hill -- The Hills, really -- and a quick jaunt on the bus later and she’d found herself in the thick of it. Hollyweird.

Day after day she returned, investigating its coffee shops and trendy cafés, its record stores and movie theaters, devouring all the city had to offer. She sampled robust blends that left her jittery, ethnic foods that gamboled on her tongue. Obscure rock bands, impenetrable art films. It was wondrous, liberating, this teeming urbanity that used to sit just outside her window, a painted model city, never to be touched or explored.

But it was real! More real than the world she’d -- the other girl, the fair-haired child -- inhabited with her mother in that vast house on the hill, rife with chasmal spaces, both literal and emotional, designed with a kind of dissociative feng shui. She was little more than a mannequin to her mother, a repository for powders and perfumes, dresses and dreams. 

She’d taken the scissors to that girl though, shorn her into something, someone new, and did the same to the dresses, slashed them from chic to skimpy. Brought the rest to a clothing exchange, swapped them for others’ castoffs -- shirts from bands she’d never heard of, ripped jeans (accidental or trendy, she wasn’t sure), a pair of black rubber boots. Daily, she stomped around Hollyweird, black hair, ad hoc clothing, hellbent demeanor, looking for... him.

She’d seen him that first day, the boy at the coffee shop, sitting solitary in the shade. Not a boy, really, but not a man, either, with a sprig of hair under his lower lip and a studious countenance as he read something. She caught a glimpse of a name once -- Kerouac. He kept his hands in the sleeves of his jacket as he walked, like a child, but had the confident lope of a man, serious and strident. He was tall, lanky, gaunt, with black hair and white skin just like the girl.

He came to the coffee shop around two o’clock every afternoon. Today, she watched him from the record store across the street, out the large front window, from behind dusty stacks of old punk albums, Bad Brains and The Germs and Minor Threat, which she didn’t know but wanted to, as cars and Metro buses rumbled up Vine Street, traversing the gulf between them. She sifted through racks of used CDs, jewel cases cracked like old windshields, Dead Kennedys and Milkmen both, angry music from an era past. She listened to entire albums at the listening station -- the Asian hipster with Rivers Cuomo glasses didn’t seem to mind -- hearing the rage, unblunted by the years, come barreling out of the headphones and into her ears, flailing chords and snarled vocals. It felt right.

When she left the store, purchase in hand, he was still there. Slouched back in a chair, coffee cup on the table in front of him. Army surplus jacket, tight jeans, same as always. He held the book at chest level, eyes scanning the pages, one hand on bestubbled chin. Today. She would talk to him today.

Something, some sort of insect, fluttered in her chest as she crossed the street.

“Um. Hi,” was all she could muster standing in front of his table, hands jammed between her belt and skirt behind her back. She rocked on her heels, feeling stupid and flustered and hopeful all at the same time, a maelstrom of emotions that only the opposite sex could bring.

He flicked his eyes up at her as if she were part of the page, a character in a story larger than the one on the page in front of him. She shuddered under his gaze as he read her. Could he read through the dye and the haircut?  The miniskirt and black boots?  She felt him study her for a long moment, silent, as if comparing her to something on the page -- seeing through, she was sure, her fictions. Those eyes of his, roiling abyssal wells, melted away her last shred of confidence.

“I’m sorry,” the girl blurted, delicate wings beating wildly against her ribcage. “Never mind.” She turned around and began to walk back to the record store, aching for the solace of cushy headphones and three-chord lullabies. Eyes planted on the cracks in the sidewalk, she traced them like lines on a roadmap.

“Hey,” the guy said. “Wait. You don’t have to leave.”

When she turned around, the guy had put his book down, its spine arching toward the sky like some sort of paper dinosaur, and was beckoning her back to the table. The girl, fingers still slipped under her belt, arms bent awkward and avian-like, shuffled back to the table, pulled up a chair. Its legs scraped the concrete, giving voice to her inner turmoil. She stood beside the table, hesitant.

He looked different this close up, much more man than boy. His face was sort of scruffy, with little tufts of stubble lining the angles of his face. His hair was an unruly thatch of deep black, spiky and thick. The girl couldn’t tell if it was dyed or not. There was a softness to his eyes though, which were an indiscriminate hazel, seeming to fluctuate between an organic green and an earthen brown in ways that were indecipherable to the girl. She cocked her head and marveled at the alluring liquidity of them, much as boys and men used to gape at the sunshiny waves of her hair. Used to.

“You can sit down, you know.” He moved his cup and gestured to the now-silent metal chair across from him. The tumult in the girl’s head was still incessant.

She sat, bony knees knocking together, her posture unsure. They were alone in front of the coffee shop -- no other customers, no panhandlers, no passersby. Perhaps there were people inside the dingy little building, behind the dark panes of glass of the storefront. In them, the girl could make out a shadowy reflection of the current scene -- tall, dark man, willowy little girl, blurred disc of a table between them. Above the window, the shop’s sign was in Spanish.

“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” he offered. “You have a familiar face.”

The girl shrugged. Had he seen her here before, or maybe caught her staring through the record store window? Maybe, maybe not.

“You live around here?”

The girl gestured vaguely behind her. The chair was cold against the backs of the thighs, making the flesh there rise in goose bumps.

“Can you say anything besides ‘Um’ and ‘Hi’?”

“…Yes.” Unable to meet his eyes, she watched his mouth instead. His lips were thin and seemed to tick upwards at the corners, a kind of constant almost-smile nearly hidden behind scruff and solemnity.

“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.” He leaned forward, pushing the book off to the side, finally closing it. His attention was undivided. “What do you have there?” he said, gesturing to the record store bag the girl still clutched.

“Just some CDs,” she said.

“Anything good?”

“Some punk albums.”

“Let me see.”

She slowly removed them from the plastic bag, treasured relics that might turn to dust in the light of day, and presented them to him in a helter-skelter stack.

He lifted and inspected each one with the proper gravitas. “Clash, Dead Kennedys,” he began, nodding approval, “some good choices here.” Then he got to the last one and chuckled. “Dead Milkmen, eh?”

The girl bit her lip, a disarming movement when framed by waves of gold; now, it just made her look wild.

“Are you gonna scream ‘Anarchy!’ if they don’t have hot tea?”

She added a furrowed brow to the bitten lip.

“Never mind,” he said, and pushed the CDs back to her side of the table. “So what’s your name, Punk Rock Girl?”

“Abby,” she said, after a second. The beating in her chest had subsided.

“Abby,” he said, to himself, as if trying to place it. Then: “I’m Gavin.”

He extended his hand over the table, solid and sinuous with long fingers that curled out toward her as if beckoning. His grip was not firm like most men’s, but rather loose, almost a caress as his fingers wrapped around hers, delicate, almost balletic. An artist’s fingers. Or else a surgeon’s. His skin was warm -- from the coffee, she guessed -- and smooth.

“So,” he said, removing his hand from hers, leaning back in his chair.

“So, what?”

“So, what are you doing here? Why are you talking to me?”

Abby shifted in her chair, pressing her thighs together, rubbing her hands over the skin there, feeling it prickle above her knobby knees -- whether from nerves or exposure, she wasn’t sure. From that first time she saw him, all cool and detached in line for coffee, she knew she had to talk to him. He’d had an intensity that called out to her, with his angular posture and his severe expression. She wanted to prod at his edges, tug at his loose ends. But how to explain that, here and now?

The girl bit her lip again, a microcosmic act of self-flagellation. The words she needed were beyond her, slipping through her frontal lobe like sand through fingers. Then her eyes set on the cover of his book. On the Road.

She tugged the available thread. “What are you reading?”

“Kerouac,” he said. “On the Road.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

A spark, a shock, something seemed to jolt him where he sat. “You’ve never heard of On the Road? Kerouac? The Beats?” He held the book up to her, cover first. A highway stretched out in front of her, long and desolate under a hazy blue-gray sky. Nothing like the highways of Los Angeles, the only ones she knew. He looked at her over the top of the book, expectant, his eyes dwarfing the pair of hitchhikers on the side of the road, perhaps watching over them as if some sort of deity.

The girl shook her head just so.

“I guess not too many people read novels these days.” He put the book down, a look of resignation shading his face. “It’s a pretty cool book though.”

She kept tugging. “What’s it about?”

He thought about this for a moment, hand on chin again, worrying at the tuft of hair there. “Tough question,” he said. “I think a book that has an easy answer to that question, right off the top of your head, probably isn’t very good -- whether its vampires or politics or true love. Not that you should never read those books. But they don’t have any truth in them, won’t change you.”

“Did that book change you?”

“Did On the Road change me?” Gavin repeated the question, as if weighing its syllables, its implications. “The first time I read it, sure. You could say that.”

A hidden bell chimed as the shop’s door swung open at them. From behind it spilled out a middle-aged woman, cell phone jammed to her ear and clutching an iced coffee. Her bleached hair was almost white, and it fell in neat swoops across her face, which seemed to be nothing but two huge, tinted lenses and pink, puffy lips. She breezed past them, a whirlwind of perfume and white noise, giving Gavin a stunted wave before disappearing around the corner. The girl’s face contorted as she watched the woman go. 

“Do you know her?”

“That’s Lucinda. She owns a tanning salon below my work. A power-walking, fast-talking L.A. cliché. Nice enough though.” Gavin picked up his coffee cup and swirled the liquid around before taking a drink. A bead of moisture dripped onto the book cover. He didn’t seem to notice. “Why?”

“She reminds me of someone is all,” she said. But she had found a new thread: “So where do you work?”

“There’s a little body piercing studio up the street. I run the place most weekdays. I usually close shop for an hour in the afternoons and come here.”

Body piercings. A studio. The information lit up her brain like a pinball machine. When the clamor subsided, an idea remained, cool and solid as a pinball, an unfired bullet. She had already vandalized her hair, so why not her flesh as well? She thought of more cold metal, gleaming and sharp, this time puncturing her unblemished skin. She thought of it glinting in her mother’s eye when she discovered it, a rogue twinkle in the bloodshot miasma, a bright and shining mark of reinvention, a trophy. Yes. This must be why she had come here, had talked to him.

“A piercing studio? No way, that’s so cool!” She giggled, putting a hand to her ear to sweep back her locks, a gesture -- learned from her mother -- that used to stop boys dead in their tracks, leaving them slack-jawed and unblinking. But nothing was there now, nothing but short and coarse hair that pricked at her fingers. And Gavin was still blinking -- no boy, she decided. 

Tugging again at the new thread, she said, “How long have you been working there?”

“A couple years now.”

“Do you like it?”

“Yeah. Absolutely. You could say I’m kind of a natural.”

And then, here it comes, now or never, out with it. With batted lashes: “Could you maybe do me?”

His eyes narrowed, wells reduced to a drip. “How old are you?”

“Nineteen.” The lie tumbled out of her mouth. More learned behavior.

Gavin then brought his eyes up to hers, turned them on full bore, again shifting and aqueous, seeming to gaze right past those batting lashes, intense, probing. She wilted, casting her eyes back to the cigarette butt-strewn sidewalk. She began again tracing the cracks away from the table.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said in a way that made her bring her eyes back to his. He pushed his copy of On the Road across the table toward her. “I want you to read this. It’s required reading for any rebel-in-training. When you finish, just bring it back to the shop and I’ll do it.”

She picked the book up, leafed through the pages. Margin-packed words that overflowed into long, rambling paragraphs, a messy stream of pages and ideas that weighed heavy in her hand, more than just paper.

“How will you know I’ve read it?”

Gavin smiled, for the first time fully, relighting the pinball machine, sending the ball careening to the bumpers in her chest, the backs of her knees, between her legs.

“I’ll know,” is all he said. “That book may as well be my Bible.” He looked at an analog watch on his right wrist. “Break’s over. Gotta go.”

She weighed the book in her hands one more time, studied the two shabby-looking hitchhikers and their unknown road.

“Okay,” she said. “Where’s your studio?”

Gavin got up, looming over the table and the girl, hesitant. “Couple blocks down, just past Lexington. On the second floor. It’s called Precision Piercings. You can’t miss it. Come by at closing.”

Abby nodded, clutched the book, a sacred artifact. “When do you close?”

“Come by around seven o’clock.” He half-turned toward Vine, cocked his head, closed one eye. “I know I’ve seen you somewhere before. Abby, Abby, Abby.” He uttered her name to himself like a mantra as he walked away. She watched him disappear around the same corner as Lucinda.
When she was certain he was gone, she reached over the table and grabbed his coffee cup. A couple warm, black inches remained in the bottom of the cup. The scent was deep, rich, complex -- not unlike his eyes. She let the coffee slide over her tongue, let it linger in her mouth for a brief second before drinking it down. The flavor was full and boisterous on her tongue, and for a second she imagined not his coffee but his tongue in her mouth. And then the cup, and her mouth, were empty. She opened the book and began to read.

       Even though she’d never been inside one, Gavin’s piercing studio was familiar to the girl. Stark, stripped, sterile -- another laboratory. Bare white bulbs hung overhead, the fruit of some robotic tree, casting clear light down onto squeaky white linoleum. The walls were the color of schoolroom chalk. And the glass -- everywhere glass. Windows and mirrors and long glass cases, little treasure troves along the walls, behind which gleamed all manner of metallic bits designed to be embedded in flesh. Yes, this would do.

Gavin leaned against the tallest case, the one with the bulky cash register perched atop, at the front of the studio. No jacket this time, just the black tee shirt and white, hairless arms. His expression was almost suspicious, as if she were some interloper.

“Rebel, Rebel,” was all he said.

Draped across the girl’s shoulder was a cloth shopping bag. From it she removed Gavin’s copy of On the Road, its spine cracked and its edges frayed.

“So,” he said when she presented him with the book, “did you finish it?”

“Yeah. I don’t know if I got it though.” Abby placed the book on the glass counter in front of him, returning the relic to its altar. She gazed through the glass at the piercings below. They sat in neat little rows, arranged by size, from little slivers of metal all the way up to thick, daunting bolts -- studs, rings, barbells, gauges. They glittered under the harsh bulb-light, museum pieces on display. Look but don’t touch.

Gavin flipped the sign behind him to ‘CLOSED.’ “What’s not to get?” He circled out from around the counter to Abby’s side.

“I dunno,” she said, eyes still on the piercings. “They just seemed to drive around and drink and do drugs and listen to music and talk and talk and talk. I guess they didn’t seem very rebellious to me. Just bored.”

Gavin locked the door, turned the storefront light off. “Maybe that’s exactly what they were rebelling against. Boredom, complacency.” He caught her staring at the piercings. “I mean, isn’t that what you’re doing here?”

She was here because of the girl in the mirror, because of scissors and black dye and needles, the instruments of her own private rebellion. Because she needed to deface, to disfigure, to vandalize. Because she couldn’t stand perfection, because she had at last seen a glint of happiness in the eyes of the girl in the mirror. But she couldn’t just say that to him. Could she?

Instead: “I don’t know.”

“Okay,” was all he said. His expression rippled, a stone dropped in a pond, then returned to placid. “Tell me more. About the book.” Back in front of the cash register, leaning on the counter.

She picked the book back up, flipped through the pages, wading again through that thick stream of words, searching for reminders of her first dive, her upstream swim against the torrent of melancholy madness.

“I liked how he described all the different places. It made me want to see them myself -- New York, San Francisco, New Orleans. I was really sad when they never made it to Italy.”

“I went to Italy once,” Gavin said. “After I dropped out of med school. We went backpacking through Europe. I think that’s today’s version of hitchhiking across the country. There’s not much left to see in America, I don’t think. It’s all the same -- Starbucks and strip malls. You have to go across an ocean just to experience anything new.”

Abby closed the book and then turned her gaze out the window. The city lights glowed like a grinning jack-o-lantern -- a hazy, flickering orange, equal parts optimism and evil.

“I’ve never been out of L.A.” she said.

The ripple again. Something bigger hitting the water. “Really? That’s too bad. There’s so much more of the world to see than this celebrity-obsessed cesspool. What was it he said about it in there?”

Still looking out the window: “L.A. is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.”

“Wow. So you actually did read it.”

“I liked that quote.” Abby opened up the book to a dog-eared page. “I folded the corner of the page over. Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “A book should look like it’s been read, each page, each word pored over and scrutinized, not forgotten on some shelf. I think Kerouac would approve.” He picked up the book, flipped through the pages. “You know, he wrote the original on one long scroll, almost like a roll of toilet paper. Used scotch tape to keep it together. It’s not the paper that’s important. Or even the ink on it. Paper burns; ink fades.”

“But not ideas. Memories. Emotions.”

“You got it.” He put the book down. “You really got it. Looks like I owe you,” he said, gesturing to the glass cases. “Do you know what you want?”

She scanned the silvery rows. The piercings all looked strange to her -- little hooks and posts and knobs of metal that people stuck into their skin to -- to what? Show off? They seemed like little lures to her, bright and shiny, thrust out to attract mates in the dismal sea of sidewalks and streetlamps that she was only now beginning to explore. Or else they were trophies, marks of status by which one could call out to like-minded individuals, twin souls.

Bait or badge? Maybe they were neither of these things. Maybe the girl just wanted to corrupt her flesh, puncture it, penetrate it, deliver to it a cold metal imperfection, defile just a single patch of untouched white. And she had now figured out which one. The navel, the scar left by the removal of the umbilical cord -- this was the shrine the girl wanted to desecrate. She turned to the piercer.

“I want you to pierce my belly button.”

“Are you sure?” Arms crossed, eyebrows raised.

She brushed a hand against her belly. There, something stirred. “Yes.”

“Okay. Cool. Let’s get to it.”

They combed through the display cases, Gavin opening and closing them as the girl examined the pieces up close. He explained that, as it was her first piercing, she’d want a smaller gauge -- a 14 or a 16. Gavin placed prospective pieces in her palm as they went. So small, so light.

“It won’t hurt, will it?” the girl asked, looking at a tiny silver barbell with a red gemstone sparkling on one end. That would catch her mother’s eye.

“I hate to tell you, but, yeah, it will,” he said, plucking the barbell out of the girl’s palm. “At least, that’s what I’ve been told.”

As his fingers touched her palm, the girl’s gaze traced up his arm and the smooth white skin there to his face, flitting from lip to nose to ear. Nothing. No metal, no ink. His skin was as blank as the pages of an unwritten novel, untouched as hers.

“Wait a minute.” Without meaning to, the girl grabbed his arm, turned it over, double-checking. “You don’t have any tattoos? Piercings?”

“Nope,” he said, loosening his arm from her grip and replacing the barbell. “Can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Do you know what hemophilia is?”

She shook her head.

“There’s something wrong with my blood. It isn’t able to clot like yours.”

“So if you got cut…”

“I wouldn’t be able to stop bleeding. At least not right away. If the cut was bad enough, I’d have to go to the hospital and get a blood transfusion. And those are expensive. Even bruises can be dangerous -- blood can pool in my muscles or joints and cause serious damage. I could even die from internal bleeding that I don’t know is happening.” He explained all this as he closed the display case, matter of fact, not a big deal.

“Oh. I guess you have to be pretty careful then. No piercings.”

“You got it. No piercings, no tattoos, no drugs -- not that I’d necessarily want to -- nothing with needles.”

“Do you ever wish you could? Get a piercing, I mean. Or a tattoo.”

Gavin leaned back against the display case, crossed his arms. “When I was younger, sure. You know, in college I even wore a fake tattoo for a few months. Some stupid little tribal thing on my wrist. I had to keep reapplying it every couple days. Stupid, right?”

“How come you kept doing it then?”

He laughed then, the first time she had heard him do so. “Who knows? To stand out, to fit in, to impress a girl. For all the reasons people come to places like this. It doesn’t matter though. I realized I wasn’t doing it for myself, so I stopped pretending. I know a lot of people with real tattoos who are still fooling themselves. Same goes for piercings.”

The girl rubbed at her navel under her shirt, feeling where the needle would go in, come out. How much would she bleed? Was she just pretending?

“I’m sorry,” was all she could muster after a few seconds of strained silence.

But Gavin just flashed a quick smile, lips parting for two rows of perfect white. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s just ink, just metal.”

“Ink fades,” she offered.

“Exactly,” he said, eyes alighting on hers, exuding warmth. “Besides, I find it’s much easier to push a needle through someone’s skin when I’ve never had to experience it myself. And I must say, I’m pretty good at it. Two and a half years of med school at work.” That smile again. Confident, almost cocky -- yet reassuring.

They selected a piece -- a simple U-shaped ring, silver balls on either end. He showed her how to unscrew one end to get the ring on or off, gave her a lecture on how and when to clean it. He brought out the clamp and needle -- clean and metallic like something from a doctor’s bag, somehow more surgical than she was expecting. Then, he led her to the chair in the back of the room -- the girl was reminded of a dentist’s chair. The room even had the same smell -- stale, antiseptic, slightly bitter. A single light bulb burned just above the chair. The girl sat below it, rubbed again at her stomach.

“You ready?” Gavin asked. He lined up the needle and the clamp next to the chair, set the piercing next to them. Calibrating the instruments. So meticulous, just like a doctor. Or an artist.

She just nodded, losing the battle against the rising lump in her throat. The needle was long.

“Good. Just let me go get the disinfectant. You’ll need to lift your shirt a few inches,” he called over his shoulder as he went off to the supply room.

The girl leaned back in the chair, tilted her head back and stared into the bare white bulb, grabbing the hem of her shirt. Her cold fingers grazed her belly, made the flesh there quiver. Or perhaps it was already quivering. She then tugged the shirt up a few inches, revealing a pale strip of skin, almost ghostly under the light. Then a few inches more, the hem almost at her breasts. That insect in her chest was back now, a riotous fluttering beneath her skin. She kept tugging, pulling the shirt over her breasts then up and over her head -- it felt good, like she was removing a layer of herself, getting closer and closer to what lay beneath, something raw and shivering and new. She got up. There was a mirror on the back wall, and in it was that girl again, all white and pink save for the careless mess of black atop her head. She looked… scared.

“What are you doing?”

Abby turned around. Gavin was standing behind her, a bottle of disinfectant in his hand. His eyebrows were narrowed like knives, his mouth a sharp point.

She was motionless for a second, facing him, aglow and cold like a porcelain angel in the halo of the light from the overhead bulb. The insect was flapping madly behind her bared breasts, beating at her ribcage, trying so desperately to burst forth from her, out of its thin-skinned cocoon, ready to leave it behind like a useless husk. It was almost there.

Gavin looked away. So did the girl. She brought her hands to her chest. Cold. Scrawny. Now more than ever she longed for fullness, for curvature. Like her mother.

It was that thought that brought a blush to her face.

“Put your shirt back on.”

She grabbed it from the chair, pulled it down over her head. It felt like dead skin, dirty and wrinkled. Her nipples, hardened from the cold, jutted out embarrassingly.

“Sit back down.” Gavin turned his attention to his tools -- adjusting the clamp, sanitizing the needle, the piece.

Abby sat back down, again leaned back. The lack of his gaze made her feel more naked than she had been before. She stared into the light bulb, burning white into her corneas. “I’m sorry.”

“Lift your shirt up,” he said. Then, quickly: “Just over your navel.”

She did as she was told. He rubbed the disinfectant over her stomach in slow, deliberate circles. Her loins stirred briefly, intensely, but she did nothing. Just stared. White.

He began to apply the clamp. It was blunt and cold as he pinched the skin above her belly button. Perhaps a bit rough.

The lump rose, the wings beat. She spoke to distract herself: “There was another part of the book that I liked. I wanted to tell you.” Her eyes remained fixed on the bulb.

Gavin was doing something with the needle -- it was hard to tell. All she saw was white, blinding white. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. The part when he talks about waking up and not knowing who he was.” She tried to look at Gavin then, at the needle, but everything was blurred, melted into a single white point. “I think something like that happened to me, too. I just woke up one day and looked into the mirror and I didn’t know who--”

The needle plunged. Through the clamp, into her skin, out again. Sharp. Exact. Abby cried out, or tried to -- it was over before a sound could escape her lips. Something formed in her eyes, something shimmering, but Gavin wiped it away. It was done.

Gavin was wiping the needle down when she could see again. Or for the first time.

“You okay?”

Abby nodded -- all she could do. She looked down at her stomach and saw it there, embedded, shimmering not unlike a tear, could feel it. Amazing.

“I finally figured out why you look so familiar,” he said. “There’s a billboard. On Sunset. You know the one?

Although she’d never seen it, she knew the one he was talking about. She nodded.

“It’s you. Your back is facing out, and you’re kinda looking over your shoulder. You’ve got this faraway look on your face, like you don’t know where you are. Or why you’re there. Just like when I first saw you the other day at the coffee shop. Your hair was different though. Long. Blond.”

She looked up at him, into his eyes. She could do it now, without getting lost in them -- but maybe it was because her vision hadn’t fully returned yet. “I cut it off,” she said.

“You little rebel, you.” He flashed that smile of his again -- bright, dazzling, making her look away. Then: “Do you like it?” He motioned toward her piercing.

She looked at it once more. The flesh around the ring was raw and red and throbbing. It felt like something was ready to burst out -- blood or insect, she wasn’t sure, something within, like the hole she had made in herself was a gateway. What else lay beneath?

“I think I want another one,” she said.

Gavin laughed. “That’s how it usually works, in my experience. Check it out in the mirror while I finish closing down. I’ll give you a ride home.”

She watched him go, admiring the blank canvas of his skin, wondering what she would paint there, if he let her. Then, she turned to the girl in the mirror, lifting her shirt to admire his mark on her. As she did, the girl in the mirror did likewise. Something glinted in the mirror and it glinted on Abby’s stomach, too. She lifted her eyes, as did the girl in the mirror. They met, melded. She smiled. The girl in the mirror smiled. They were one and the same.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, John W. Buckley. All rights reserved.