She had no tattoos when she left him. Just white twenty-two-year-old skin. It wasn’t her skin, necessarily, that he thought about while at the gym or when eating at a Chinese restaurant or when pumping gas at the station off Santa Monica Blvd., where homeless men with brown paper bags offered to clean his windshield for a dollar. But he missed touching her skin. Not missed—ached—from its absence. The ache compelled him to drive up to Portland and plead with her to come back. Actually, he only made it as far north as Monterey—his bold, Dusty Hoffman gesture thwarted by a faulty carburetor. Then the ache turned to anger. So he burned her letters, tossed the photos, and pledged to forget her. And he did.
Now ten years later he sat on her sofa. She’d loosened her blouse and his eyes locked on the butterfly tattoo on the nape of her neck.
“You have five tattoos?”
“Yes, I know, crazy. I thought I was immortal. I have to wear these long sleeves at work,” she said, lifting both arms.
Her arms: that’s not where his mind went earlier in the evening at the art gallery when she first told him of her tattoos. He pictured a “tramp stamp” on her lower back; they peek out above blue jeans when young women bend over. Do these women realize that men inevitably think, Oh, that’s what I’d be looking at if I were fucking her from behind?
He hadn’t recognized her at the gallery. He did notice a woman with cropped black hair watching him with unusual interest as he circled the room. But when she approached him and said—“Andreas, it’s me. Stacey.”—it took a moment to register.
The years had hardened her. She looked more militant, like she’d been practicing martial arts. And her chest, before so full, was flattened; her weight had shifted down to her muscular legs—once an apple, now a pear. All-black attire augmented her stern appearance; slacks and a blouse tightly holding her body, even the butterfly covered. She stood rod straight, laughed only once, and neither smiled or moved when Andreas pinched her sleeve and said, “Are you going to show me your tattoos?” But when he said goodbye and tried to break away she dragged him into a cab, insisting that he join her at her Pacific Heights apartment for a drink (“Leave me? No, no—I insist!”).
She leaned closer to him on the sofa. “It’s good to see you again, Andreas.”
“It’s nice to see you as well.”
She rose, went to the kitchen and called back, “More wine?” They had already finished a bottle. “Is red again okay?”
“Fine.” He reached over and lifted a framed photo off the coffee table: black and white, Stacey and a man hand-in-hand on a beach.
She returned and refilled his wine glass. “Oh—that’s him. We still haven’t set a date, but the plan is sometime next spring. Or summer, perhaps.”
“Do you love him?”
“Do I love him? What a question,” she said. She sat down again, poured some more wine in each of their glasses and took a sip from hers.
For years he had fantasized of one day meeting Stacey again. It played out like a movie: Andreas bumping into her at a bar or restaurant, a leggy blond on his arm. They’d talk only briefly, pleasantly, and he would say something like, “The years have been good to you, kid.” And then Andreas and the blond would continue on to the opera, or a Springsteen concert, or some other sexy venue.
“Does it matter?” Stacey continued.
“Not to me,” he answered.
“Okay…then just be happy for me.”
He took his glass to the window and looked out. Perhaps some wounds remain open. Outside there was a yellow metal balcony, a fire escape. He supposed she had a view but he couldn’t see it; fog had rolled in covering San Francisco like white cake frosting. He could just make out the street below, catching glimpses of red taillights from passing cars. He took a healthy swig, then shifted the glass to the other hand and swirled the wine for a minute. It felt heavy, awkward, so he held it with both hands.
“I’m surprised no one’s scooped you up,” she said.
“I told my fiancée that you prepared me for him. My only other nice guy.”
“How could you just leave?” he asked. “Just tell me that. One day you’re there and the next you’re gone. Just gone.”
“You knew I was going to leave!” she said, surprised and agitated. “That was always the plan. You changed the agreement, and…I just couldn’t handle it.”
It was true: he had changed their agreement. He knew she was going to leave. He even helped complete her grad school applications—stretched out on the futon in her bedroom; her parents asleep down the hall. They’d listen to David Bowie CDs. But one night, after she returned from a weekend retreat with some of her new-age friends, Stacey said:
“They told me my third-eye is wide open. I know your eye is shut.” He took this as a signal to propose, his third eye clamped closed.