The Girl With Two Tattoos

It had taken three days to reach the water. Two thousand miles to the east, Justine’s home sat sandwiched between a jumble of muffler and sandwich shops, pawn brokers and a quick loan outlet. Everything she had, and had known, for nineteen years lay within the walls of the worn, dreary bungalow she had left behind; a stepfather, an overweight mother who drank too much too often, and her thirteen year old sister, who crept out of the house every night to meet Junior, fourteen years her senior.

A steady breeze off the water filled Justine’s body. Across the cold ocean bay, the cliffs of Malibu were barely visible, and the waves were littered with black suited surfers riding the troubled waters.

Justine gazed past the skaters, jugglers and sleeping bums, who stretched out lazily along the Ventura boardwalk. She could feel every inch of her body. She yearned to break out of its confines, leaving her thin frame behind, and fill the blue, green and brown world that stretched out forever before her.

Somewhere nearby, “Ace” should be waiting. As her mother reminded her, all too often, Ace was an artist and a father who had never made good; and who had left a part of himself behind, to grow up amidst decaying houses and litter filled streets. Ace had seen Justine once, on the day of her birth, and then fled through the the dull gray streets of Indianapolis, following the interstates until they ended at the Santa Monica pier.

She had written him often, but was never sure she had his real address. Her aunt had given her snippets of information, which she had pasted together over the years until a complete, if tattered, image filled Justine’s mind. Ace would be thin, like her, and his brown hair would fall over his shoulders. His square jaw would sport a light beard, salted white with wisdom, and he would look long and thoughtfully over the ocean as he slowly and carefully smoked his cigarettes. Ace would be a man of few, but weighty, words.

He was nearby, finally, and her eyes eagerly searched the fading house numbers as she worked her way down the boardwalk, past the medical marijuana clinics and souvenir shops. “765”; the numbers leapt from the green clapboard siding above a dingy tattoo parlor. Justine stopped; her breathing faltered for a moment as she looked into the dim storefront.

“Help you?” A thin, grizzled man hissed from under a skin covered by a complicated swirl of half naked women, snakes and dragons.

“I’m looking for Ace. Is he here?”

The man twisted his vine covered neck and nodded at a squat bald-headed man in the corner. The short man’s head nestled in thick folds of fat above his stout shoulders. A cigar smoldered on the table by his side. In the chair before him, a boy about Justine’s age sported a half finished angel below his cleanly shaven scalp.

Ace let out a long, uneven belch.

“Help ya, sister?”

Justine stood absolutely still. Behind Ace, a collection of old photos were scattered across the wall. Her eyes drifted over the pictures and stopped. On the bottom row, a faded photograph of her bungalow peeked from beneath a flashy car, inhabited by a slender, attractive woman who vaguely resembled her mother.

“Just looking,” Justine whispered.

“All our artwork is over there,” the fat man croaked, glancing towards the dark recesses of the store, at rows of folding cases; each one filled with dozens of sample gargoyles, flowers, stars, and cursive designs.

“Go ahead and choose something that fits ya.”

Justine wandered to the rear case, filled with fanciful numbers of every color. Along the bottom row were multicolored reproductions of playing cards. Her eyes moved over various forms of numbers, one through ten; a Joker, a King, a Queen, a Jack and, at the bottom corner of the case, an ebony Ace of spades.

Justine looked at Ace as he worked. His short pudgy fingers busied themselves about the kid’s neck; his paws all the shorter and pudgier because of the long slender needle they held. Sweat beaded on Ace’s forehead and, intermittently, Ace would sniff loudly and swallow. Justine felt sick.

She listened as the boy traded comments with Ace.

“Effing bastards,” Ace responded, yet again, to the boy’s observations. Beyond that, all the busy fat man could muster seemed to be guttural grunts and monosyllables, punctuated by an occasional belch. Finally, the boy was done.

“Whatcha picked out, sweetie?” The man asked as he wiped down the chair with a faded rag.

Justine pointed to the Ace.

“Sit down, baby, and let’s get started. I gotta get outta here by two.”

Justine stepped over to the chair. Ace was so close, the stale smell of beer and body odor made her start to gag. She controlled her reflex and sat down.

“What brings you to LA?” the bald man croaked.

Justine sat motionless and silent.

“Well, honey, where you want me to put this?” the gravel voice began. “You really don’t want to ask where most chicks want it!”

Justine’s stomach tightened. For a moment, she thought she wouldn’t be able to contain the urge to throw up. She pointed to the rear of her left arm.

“Gotcha!” was all Ace offered, as he began to work; his slender steel needle flowing quickly across her skin.

Justine thought about the thin man with the long brown hair. She imagined him looking thoughtfully over the ocean as he slowly smoked his cigarettes. She imagined that he was thinking of her, of the daughter he had never known.

“Both arms,” was all she said.

Just before two, Justine rose from the chair and paid the bill.

“Don’tcha even wanna see it?” the short, squat tattoo artist pleaded, mirror in hand, as his daughter turned, without a moment’s pause, and headed for the exit.

The black suited surfers were still riding the waves as Justine sat down at the water’s edge. A flock of seagulls hovered against the wind, waiting to see if she would offer food. A few children played in the sand as their parents watched nearby. Justine gathered her shirt tightly around her in the chilly air.

For some reason, she didn’t feel alone anymore. The ocean stretched past the horizon; heaving, stretching and contracting to an invisible power. Somewhere ahead of her lay another land, filled with people she had never known, who did not live in squalid houses or wear dingy clothes. A people whose language was never course or filled with violence.

She was barely aware of the stinging Ace of Spades as her mind filled with the constant chant of the sea. Only the hot sun, hanging in the cool air; the clear blue sky and playful spray of the waves could reach her now. As she looked across the water, it seemed as if the breakers were roaring out in cadence to all who watched, the sound of their raucous play infusing the atmosphere with life. Justine could feel the same rhythmic cadence in the throbbing heat of the sun and the buffeting chill of the wind. Even the birds seemed to rhythmically hover above her. She could sense them all waiting on her, and suddenly she realized He was waiting for her to come.

As Justine rose and slipped off her sandals, she felt the ocean rise to meet her, the cold Pacific waters greeting her warm body as she entered into their joyful play. She was going home, and she knew she never had to leave again; that there was nowhere else to go. Entering into the ecstatic movement of the waves, she felt a hand upon her shoulder, invisible and yet stronger than anything she had ever felt before. She realized that He had been there all along, waiting with His creation for her to return to Him, to finally rest in the love that He had for her from the beginning. He had been waiting for her; watching over her since the day Ace had left her behind; trading her for a dingy California tattoo parlor. At that moment, she gave herself to Him and Justine felt Him take her to Himself, drawing her on to a place she had never been before.