The Start of Us

By: Lauren Blakely

 Chapter One

HarleyNo regrets.
The neon blue sign is both an invitation and a warning.
It is also the reason I chose this shop for my first tattoo.
That, and the fact that it has great online reviews. Because, let’s be honest, if you’re going to stick a needle in your skin, you want to make sure you’re not going to a butcher.
I peer through the window of the West Village tattoo parlor, scanning the walls for images of its art. They are everywhere, crammed frame to frame. Up, down, across. Tigers, dragons, butterflies, dolphins, hearts, flowers, and oodles of abstract illustrations that look like calligraphy. Some are comical, some are beautiful.
Soon, one of these drawings will brand me. Remind me of who I am.
I’m not the kind of girl who gets inked. My skin is virginal, untouched by needles and piercings. I’m jittery because this is permanent. I’ve only ever been temporary. I’ve never done anything that lasts before.
I’ve never needed to.
Now I do.
My nerves race around the thoroughfares in my body like they’re mapping the route to chaos, and I need to calm down. I can do this – brand myself like cattle so I don’t slide back to the way I was.
A gust of cool November air scurries by, making me shiver and reminding me to get out of the cold, and just fucking do it. This is a defining moment in my life – the line between the past I leave behind, and the new girl that somehow, some way, I have to become.
I pull on the brass handle, open the door, and walk into a tattoo parlor for the first time ever. I’ve entered a zone of coolness, a land of hip artistry, where everyone is badass and bold. It’s eight in the evening on a Wednesday and the shop is open for another hour, so it’s packed inside. There’s a gal lazily blowing bubbles on her chewing gum as she kicks her foot back and forth while waiting on a leather couch in the entryway. Black ink snakes up the small path of exposed skin from her collarbone to her earlobe.
Indistinct metal music plays overhead.
Two artists are working in the back of the shop, set up in little chrome cubicle areas, like at a hair salon, each with their shelves and tools, marking up customers. A large man is spread out on his belly as a guy with dyed black hair gives him a back tattoo. I wonder if the black-haired guy is Trey, the tattoo artist I scheduled with. The other artist is hunched over, working on an ankle of a pretty redhead.
As I wait I check out the portfolios on the counter, flicking through pages of designs. So many designs my eyes feel like they’re swimming in black and blue lines, birds and butterflies. But I don’t need to be looking through the portfolio. I know what I want on my body. I’m just passing the time until Trey is ready.
“Hey. Can I help you with anything?”
I look up from the drawing and into the eyes of the black-haired guy. Swarms of dragons adorn his arms. With his sleeves, jet black dye job, and pierced lip, he clearly belongs here. I don’t. From my Mary Janes to my short plaid skirt, it’s as if I have a blaring sign on my head, “Never been inked.”
But then I remind myself I’ve been in plenty of unusual, weird and potentially awkward situations, and have handled them all with finesse. I was paid top dollar to be confident, to be sweet, to be sophisticated. I channel all my skills into this moment.
“I have an appointment. With Trey,” I say, chin up, voice strong. I am ready to be marked.
“That’s him. Back there.” He nods to the other guy who’s finishing the redhead, covering her ankle in a bandage. “I’m Hector. I’ll walk you through the paperwork,” the black-haired guy tells me.
I show him my ID and then sign the papers. When I cap the pen, Hector’s no longer alone. A young guy in jeans, combat boots and a t-shirt stands next to him. His jawline is stubbled, his body is toned, and his right arm is covered in tattoos, his bicep a canvas for an abstract swirl of ink that looks like three lines wrapped together. I fight the urge to smile stupidly at him, since he’s beautiful and probably the recipient of a lot of stupid smiles. With light brown hair that’s thick and messy, green eyes that remind me of a grassy hillside after a summer rain, and a face that you might see on magazine, he could have model perfect looks. But there’s a scar running across his right cheek and I’m drawn to the imperfection in him amidst all that surface pretty.
The scar looks new. Like he obtained it recently. Maybe in the last few weeks. I wonder how he got that scar and what it says about him. You can’t have a scar on your cheek without it telling a story.
“Hey. I’m Trey. You must be Harley.”
“Yes, I’m Harley.”
He holds out a hand to shake. His firm grip makes me glad I’m going to spend the next hour with his hand on my shoulder.
“Nice to meet you. Come on back.”
I follow him several feet and he gestures to a dentist-style chair. As I sit down, I notice his t-shirt. It’s black with a picture of a white and red sign on it. In the sign are the words “I’m the tattoo artist your mother warned you about.”
I try to suppress a grin, but I have no such luck.
“What’s so funny?”A smile plays on his lips too. Nice lips, full lips. I wonder what it would be like to kiss someone I wanted to kiss. I have no idea. But I don’t even know that I’d want to kiss Trey, so I’m not sure why that thought flashed by.
“Your shirt.”
He glances at his chest as if he needs to jog his memory. “Yeah. This one usually gets some sort of reaction.”
“My mom never warned me about tattoo artists,” I say. “That’s why it’s funny to me.”
“Ah, well. Then you have no preconceived notions that we’re all trouble.”
But everyone is trouble, I want to say. And everyone has preconceived notions. And the reason my mother never warned me about tattoo artists is that she never warned me about a thing.
He pulls up a stool and straddles it. “So are you ready to get your first tattoo, Harley?”
I’m startled when he says my name. It’s not the name I’m used to hearing from men, and for a moment, a cold rush of worry sweeps my skin. But then I remind myself he’s allowed to know my name. He leans in closer and speaks again, his voice low and gentle. “It’s okay if you don’t want to. Some people come in for their first tat and change their mind when they sit down,” he says, his green eyes fixed on me, searching me, sensing my reticence. He’s trying to read me, to give me me an out, and there’s something so sweet about his offer, even though he’s misread my silence.
I shake my head. “I’m ready. Can you do a red ribbon? The one I emailed you when I made the appointment?”
“Yeah. I can do whatever you want. It’s all ready for you. I sketched it last night. Let me show it to you.”
He swivels around and reaches for the design on his shelf. His arms are strong, his muscles on display in his t-shirt, and I watch him, giving myself permission to stare while his back is to me, his t-shirt riding up as he grabs the transfer paper, revealing a sliver of his back.
I never knew a back could be so sexy.
When he turns around he shows me the design. It’s a small red ribbon, like the photo I found online and sent to him. He’s drawn it brightly as if it’s shining. I love the simplicity of it – that’s why I wanted it.
I nod approvingly. “It’s perfect.”
“Anything special about red ribbons?”
“They’re special to me,” I say and leave it at that. There’s nothing more I want to say about this ribbon. Nobody would understand why I want it, why I need it to remind me of my mother. Because when tomorrow comes and I have to begin my penance, I need to remember that I love her.
“That’s as good a reason as any. If you’re doing something permanent to your body, it should be special. Special to you,” he says, repeating the words as he looks at me, his eyes locked with mine. Something passes between us, something unsaid in the silence. “Where do you want it?”
I push up the sleeve on my t-shirt, bunching it up, then point to my right shoulder. But the sleeve falls down.
“Let me help,” he says, rolling it up and cuffing it. “It’s better like this. It won’t fall down.”
And then the strangest thing happens. My stomach flips the tiniest bit as he touches me for the first time, and I’m not sure if I should flinch or bat my eyelids at him because I don’t usually feel, and so I don’t know how to respond to a real feeling in my body instead of a manufactured one. I’ve worked hard not to feel, so I tell myself this is a fleeting moment in time, it’s passing a hot guy on the street, it’s looking at a beautiful work of art, and having a quick, visceral response to the painting. Because he’s beautiful. Or really, smoking hot would be a more apt description for Trey the Tattoo Artist my mother never warned me about.
And maybe because this night is a divide in my life, because tomorrow marks the start of going on the wagon, I decide to simply let myself enjoy the view as he preps my skin.
He pours rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball and cleans my shoulder. “Just need to make sure it’s sterile,” he says as he tosses the cotton ball in a trashcan. He grabs a disposable razor from a box on the shelf, holds it up to show me. “Now this might sound weird because it’s not like you have a hairy shoulder, but I need to shave it anyway.”
“Shave away,” I say and the words come out halfway inviting. I wonder if I intended them to sound flirty. I usually know when I’m being flirty because I can slip on and off that guise so easily.
But maybe I want to flirt. Maybe I want to feel. Maybe I could get away with one night of flirting with a boy my age. A boy I find attractive. Not an assignment. Not a job. He brings the razor to my skin, but before he shaves me, he places his hand on my shoulder. Holy shit. His skin is warm, and he feels good touching me. Not like the clammy, octopus hands I’m used to.
“It’s just to make sure there aren’t any tiny hairs that could get in the way,” he says, then flashes me a smile, one of those knowing smiles that only hot guys can get away with. “You actually have quite a smooth shoulder, Harley. It’s a perfect canvas.” He leans in so close I can smell his hair, and it smells like oranges, like some kind of fresh and clean shampoo. As he shaves the nearly non-existent hairs on my shoulder, I’m keenly aware of his nearness.
And how much I like it.
And how much I don’t know what to do about that liking of it.
Then he tosses the razor in the trash can, pulls on a pair of rubber gloves, wets my skin with a damp washcloth and soap, and presses the transfer paper against my shoulder.
“So do you go to school around here? You at the university?”
I nod. “Yes. I’m studying English. I’m a sophomore.”
“Cool. I’m finishing up my history degree. And working here.”
“How long have you done this?” I ask as he removes the needles and tubes from their sterile pouches.
“Started yesterday.” He brandishes the needle at me, and everything in me halts, my skin prickling with worry. Then the gold flecks in his eyes twinkle, and I sure hope they mean he’s kidding.
“You’re joking, right?”
“You don’t mind a virgin tattoo artist?” He says in a low and sexy voice, and my face flushes instantly. Virgin. Like me.
“Not at all,” I say, trying to recover my cool. “Happy to be your first.”
His eyes widen and he hitches in a breath, and that’s when I realize I’m affecting him too. There’s some kind of real flirtation here, unexpectedly, out of the blue, the night before I have to stop any kind of flirtation.
“I’ve actually been doing this for four years. I’ve done a ton of tats, and yours is going to be a thing of beauty. I promise,” he says, fixing me with his eyes. “I’m going to start now. You ready?”
I nod resolutely.
“I’d tell you to hold my hand if it hurts, but I think we both want to make sure my hands stay on the design.”
“So if it hurts I’ll just pretend I’m digging my nails into you and transferring all the pain.”
I’m rewarded with another sweet smirk, and the knowledge that I like this kind of back and forth when no one is paying for me, when I’m not pretending to like someone, when there’s no exchange of power or money or goods. When we are just a guy and a girl spending an hour together on a Wednesday night in the Village in Manhattan, and holy fucking shit, that hurts.
I bite down hard on my lower lip, almost certain I’ve drawn blood.
“Breathe,” he says. “You can do this. Your skin will get used to it.”
His voice is soothing, his smell delicious, his hands steady, so I close my eyes, and let him work. “Do your thing.”
At first, I feel as if I’m being stabbed by nail scissors but then the stinging abates, and I am left with only the consistent buzzing against my skin, like a tooth being drilled. It’s not pleasurable, not by any stretch, but I’m doing it, I’m getting a tattoo, and for some reason I’m glad this guy is my first.
First.
That word flicks through my brain. As I close my eyes, I picture Trey kissing me, and for the first time I want a kiss.

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