The door chimes to indicate a customer, and I stroll out to the front desk. He’s a young guy, maybe late teens, although I suppose he could be early twenties. He looks to be a little shorter than me, maybe a fraction under six feet, with his straight brown hair cut conservatively. Jeans, t-shirt, hoodie and sneakers. Pretty typical for this neighbourhood, but he doesn’t look like trouble and that’s something.
“Can I help you?”
His eyes flick to me, then back to the designs plastered all over the walls. He seems nervous. Fuck, I hope he’s not high.
“I want a tattoo,” he mumbles.
No shit Sherlock. I roll my eyes, though he’s not looking at me. “Any idea what you want?” It always amazes me when people come into the shop without any idea of what they want done. Don’t they realise a tattoo is permanent? Well, I suppose there are ways and means these days of removing them, but still…
He shuffles his feet, and glances at me from the corner of his eye. “I need it on my back. I’ve got…” He drags in a deep breath and I raise an eyebrow in expectation. “Scars,” he whispers. He clears his throat. “I’ve got scars on my back,” he says a little louder. “I need a tattoo to cover them.”
I nod. Scars are tricky to tattoo, but it’s doable. “Sure. Any idea what design you want?”
He shakes his head. “I was hoping you might be able to come up with something for me. I don’t know what will work, you know?”
I gesture to a small table flanked by cheap metal chairs. “Take a seat.” I grab a pad of paper and a pencil and sit opposite him. “Take your shirt off.” I gesture with my chin to the t-shirt and hoodie he’s wearing.
He hesitates, his mouth turning down, before he shrugs and tugs the sleeves of the grey hoodie. He drops it on the floor, then reaches over his head, grabbing a handful of his t-shirt and drawing it over his head. He turns without looking at me, his gaze lowered to the floor.
“Oh wow,” I breathe. I stand and let my gaze wander over the extensive scarring that covers two thirds of his back. “What happened?”
His tone doesn’t invite further questions, but I can’t resist. “What happened?”
Turning, he draws his t-shirt back on and shrugs. “Some guys took a disliking to me,” he mumbles.
I wave him back into his chair. “Seriously? Someone did that to you on purpose? What sort of a fucked up person do you have to be to do something like that?”
His shoulders move again and I roll my eyes. I pick up my pencil and start tapping on the paper pad. “Listen, I can do a design for you. Tattooing scar tissue is different to tattooing regular skin, and it takes longer. The ink doesn’t absorb the same way. But I’ve done it before, and we can certainly come up with something for your back. But a tattoo is personal, man. And a tattoo that big? You don’t want something generic. You want something that’s you, that’s right for you and you alone. Okay?”
He makes a face at me. It might as well have been another bloody shrug.
I sigh and lean forward, resting my elbows on the table. “Talk,” I say, pointing the pencil at him. “Tell me about yourself, and I’ll create something for you.”
His lips curl in a sneer. “Like what? I don’t have some sort of speech prepared. What do you want to know?”
“How long ago were you injured?”
“Is that relevant?”
“Yes,” I reply.
“Because,” I explain, “the more I understand about what you’ve been through, how long it took you to get to this point, and how it changed you, the better your design will be.”
He leans back in his chair, stretching his legs to one side of the table and tipping his head back to stare at the ceiling. “About a year and a half ago. I had to wait for it to heal properly before I could come and see about a tattoo.”
“Did you know them? The guys who did it?”
“Sort of,” he grunts. “We weren’t mates or anything, but I knew who they were.”
“Why’d they do it?”
He glares at me. “They said I was gay. Some kind of faggot who likes other boys.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Do you like guys?”
“Fuck off,” he snarls. “I ain’t a faggot.”
“That’s an awful word. And I don’t care whether you like boys or you like girls or you’re not into anyone at all. What difference could it possibly make to me?” I wait for his reply.
“It’s sick,” he hisses.
“Is it?” I ask mildly. “You might wanna reconsider where you’re getting your tattoo from then, because I’m gay.”
His eyes widen. “You…what?”
“I’m gay. I like other boys.” I smile. “Men, really. Not into boys so much,” I grin.
He stares at me, then glances around the room. I’m not sure if he’s checking to see if there are hidden cameras or people waiting in the non-existent wings or what. “You’re…gay?” he questions.
“Yup.” I turn my arm over, exposing the tattoo on the inside of my wrist. I hold it out towards him.
He stares at it before looking back up at me. “I don’t get it. It’s a card?”
“The ace of spades,” I smirk. “My mum was horrified that I was gay, but my dad, he’d just tell her to get over it. ‘That boy’s as queer as the ace of spades, Ruth, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.’ Hence,” I gesture at the card inked on my arm, “the ace of spades.”
He opens his mouth as if he’s going to speak, then closes it again. His eyebrows draw down in a frown, like he doesn’t quite know what to make of me. “You’re… You’re okay with being gay?”
I laugh. I can’t help it. “Wouldn’t make a bloody bit of difference either way, would it? I could spend my days hating myself, or I can accept it. I don’t like women. I like men. All the denial in the world won’t change that, so yeah, I’m okay with it. I figure God wouldn’t have made me this way if he didn’t want me to be this way.”
He nods slowly.
I take a chance. “How about you?”
His eyes meet mine, but he doesn’t answer.
“What sort of person do you find attractive? Men? Women? Both? Neither?”
He shifts in his chair, looking away from me. “I dunno.”
“Really? You’re how old?”
“Fine!” he snarls. “I like…” He screws his eyes shut. “I like men,” he whispers.
“Cool. Me too.” I smile and he gives me a weak smile in return.
I look down at the pad of paper and screw my mouth up. “How about…a phoenix?”
“What’s that?” he asks with narrowed eyes.
“Don’t be so suspicious,” I chuckle. “A phoenix is a mythical bird which is reborn out of fire. Which seems appropriate, don’t you think?”
“A bird? That sounds a bit…” I can see him searching for another word other than ‘gay’.
“Trust me.” I start sketching, and can feel his eyes watching me.
“Have you ever… had a boyfriend?” he asks quietly.
I nod, continuing to draw. “Yup. I’m no different to other guys my age. They have girlfriends, I have boyfriends. They have sex, I have sex.” I grin, but don’t look up from my work.
“Have you ever been with a girl?”
I grimace. “Er, no.” I scrunch up my nose. “Not my thing.”
“Not even a kiss?”
“Nope. I always knew I was gay. In high school I was eyeing up guys’ chests in the locker room while they were all talking about boobs.” I hear a breath huff out of him like he’s amused. “You?”
“I’ve kissed a girl.”
“Did you like it?” I ask, trying desperately not to break out into a Katy Perry tune.
“It was okay.”
I hum a response. “What about a guy?”
“Naw,” he says, shifting in his seat. “You’re the first person I’ve ever told.”
I lift my head then and look at him. “I appreciate your trust.”
He smiles. “How do you know if another guy is gay? You don’t wanna be making the moves on some straight guy, right?” He leans forward, waiting for my answer.
“This is a big tattoo,” I say, tapping my pencil against the drawing.
He leans back and folds his arms across his chest. Geez, the guy is an open book.
“It’s going to take a while to ink this onto your back. We’ll have lots of time to talk. I’m happy to tell you whatever I can.”
His arms relax. “Really?”
“Yeah. Now what do you think?” I hold the pad so it’s facing him.
“Oh, that is wicked,” he breathes. “Dude, you are crazy talented.”
“You like? Not too girly?” I smirk.
His eyes meet mine. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now, I was thinking about doing it in bright pink.” I laugh and duck as he reaches out to smack my head. “No?” I laugh harder at the scowl on his face, but I see a little tilt to his lips that says that just maybe he’s going to be okay.