Today’s the day. I know exactly what I want, where I’m going to do it, and who I want to do it to me.
The tattoo shop casts an edgy, looming presence over the sunny morning street in south Echo Park. Its dark colors dramatic against the corporate signage and clean windows of the coffee shops and vintage clothing stores beside it. Detailed images of skulls and roses cover the windows, hiding what’s behind them, like the dark brooding scowl of a bad kid daring you to engage with him. I can feel my pulse kick up a few notches the closer I get.
Even as I pull up outside to park, I see one tatted-up person enter, another black-clad person leave. Mandala Ink isn’t the biggest tattoo spot in Los Angeles—it might not even be the busiest—but it’s by a long margin the best. Maybe even in the whole of California. To get a tattoo anywhere else is to settle for less, everyone knows that. Even me, and I’ve never even gotten one before—but I did months of online research and scoured thousands of pictures of tattoo art before deciding on this artist and this studio. With a waiting list six months long and a strict no walk-ins policy that applies to even the biggest rock stars and film celebrities, it feels almost like a blessing that I’m gonna get my tattoo here. Six months wasn’t enough to change my mind, but it’s done little to ease my nerves now that I’m finally right outside the place.
I get out of the car, pay the meter, and walk purposefully toward that dark door. A little nervous about pushing it open, but even more worried that if I hesitate I’ll turn around and drive away. My adrenaline is singing. I’m finally really doing this.
I push open the door and enter, the buzz of a tattoo needle humming in my ears and the smell of disinfectant noticeable as I step inside. If the exterior was slightly intimidating, the inside is overwhelming. It’s bigger than I imagined. The walls are covered with gorgeous, intricate artwork, from ceiling to floor. Patterns that can hypnotize, faces so beautiful they seem almost real, creatures and characters and crosses so vivid they dance as you look at them. There’s a vintage sofa, a Bauhaus design that could be a museum piece, artful enough to make you want to look at it rather than sit on it. In front of it is a low, carved Asian-style coffee table, littered with art books. A glass counter splits the room in half, and behind the counter there’s a curtain with an Indian pattern in purple and red. Inside, this place is nothing like I imagined, and yet it’s perfect all the same.
A big guy stands behind the counter, talking animatedly with a female customer. I watch as he extends an arm, wide enough to see the entire wingspan of the dragon inked on it, and punches the fist of the customer, sending the spiky-haired young woman on her way.
The customer gone, the big guy turns his sparkling eyes to me. The top of his head’s as bald as a baby, the bottom has a red beard long enough to braid. Is this him? Schurkenwolf? I know a few different artists work at the shop, but the main draw is Schurkenwolf, the owner—and the person I’ve scheduled my appointment with. Most famous tattoo artists use a nickname, but with a moniker that’s German for “rogue wolf,” I came here with no clue what to expect of the man himself…except that he’s probably from Germany.
“Hey there,” he says, in a musical southern accent that is in no way German and immediately dashes all my assumptions. “Welcome. What can I help you with today?”
“Are you—Schurkenwolf?” I ask, intimidated despite his friendly manner.
“Nope.” He laughs. “I’m Ginger.”
“Ginger! You’re the one who does all the micro tattoos I saw on the shop’s Instagram. I love your detail work on those,” I blurt.
The big man actually blushes. “Thank you. You know we don’t take walk-ins as a rule, but I’m happy to offer a brief consultation, and then we can go from there, if you’re—”
“Oh, um, I’ve already emailed with you guys, actually,” I say, stepping forward a little nervously, like I’m in a line-up. “I booked a tattoo with Schurkenwolf, around eleven today?”
He taps at a keyboard and squints at the screen in front of him. “Ashley Carter?”
My stomach lurches and I let out a nervous laugh. “That’s me.”
His smile grows even warmer. “Perfect. Go ahead and have a seat. Be right with you.” He gestures at the sitting area and then disappears behind a curtain into the back of the shop.
I wait a while, flipping through some of the art books and losing myself in the elegant shading of a jungle cat’s fur on a poster to the side. There are mumbled exchanges I can barely hear beyond the curtain, and then a voice grabs my attention.
“So you’re Ashley?”
The voice is strong. Confidently slow and projected with the kind of deep tones that can only come from a tough body.
“Yeah,” I say, finding it hard to pull my eyes away from the wall now. “But you can call me…”
I stop myself when I turn around, suddenly frozen to the spot. A wave of shock flushing all sense of reality out of my body.
He’s big, shoulders broad enough to act as a battering ram, jaw strong enough to take one. Beneath his thick, dark hair he narrows his eyes into an icy-blue glare. A look of incredulous recognition.
“Ash?” he says.
“Teo?” I reply, in such a low whisper he probably couldn’t hear me three feet away.
Still, I don’t quite believe it. Not until he gives me that half-smile I never thought I’d see again, and it becomes undeniable. It’s him.
He’s filled out a little in the seven years since I last saw him, his smooth, boyish good looks gone rugged with time, the defined curve of his muscles adding some shape to that height. His arms sleeved with black and grey tattoos, a menagerie of geometric shapes, animals and flowers, hypnotic patterns joining them together. The memory that I carried around of him for seven years, of that brooding boy with his tight jeans and shaggy hair, who’d wait for me to get on the back of his bike so he could rev me away, gets violently torn up in my mind like a bad photograph. I can’t stop staring at the gorgeous man he’s become.
My mouth goes dry and I panic a little. These few moments that I have to consider so many memories and so much emotion feel like an eternity, but somehow still too short to find my bearings. I’d need weeks—maybe months—to handle the shock of seeing him again. To figure out whether I should feel angry, hurt, forgiving…or nothing at all. Instead, all I’ve got is the time it takes to breathe deeply and struggle to put on a nonchalant smile.
“How have you been?” he asks, moving close to the counter and putting those arms on it. He sounds totally neutral, totally laid-back. I know that seeing me must be a shock to him, too. But I have no idea how he feels about it.
I fight to come up with some kind of casual verbal response. What do you say to the guy who you loved with the devout passion only a teenager loving for the first time can muster? A boy who was your secret, who you kissed by the light of the moon, to the music of owls? To the boy who climbed in your window at two in the morning and stayed just long enough to leave you with a stolen flower, the lingering aftertaste of his lips, and the feeling that all the dramatic romances you’d read about in books weren’t just true, but severely undersold?
A boy who skipped town without telling you on prom night, the night you were going to show the world you didn’t care about them enough to keep your love a secret anymore?
I wonder if he’s experiencing as much turmoil as I am, if he feels like his insides are being chewed up as well. If he is, he’s not showing it. There’s no softness in his eyes, no hint of recognition, nothing of what is owed to the girl he crushed.
Part of me wants to scream, to slap Teo in a futile attempt to hurt him as much as he hurt me. But the other part of me wants to grab him and hold him against me, tight enough to stop the wounds that bled for seven years without him. I’m so overwhelmed and want to do so much at once that I end up doing nothing.
“I’m fine. You?” is all I manage to say.
“Good,” he says firmly.
“So you’re—you’re Schurkenwolf?”
“In the flesh,” he says with an easy grin. “So what are you having done today?”
“Oh. Right.” Automatically, I reach for my bag and pull out the old photo, sliding it across the glass counter to him. His expression softens.
“Your mom, huh? A memorial tattoo.”
I nod. “Just her face. I’d like it on my inner arm. Bicep,” I say, brain struggling to make the words sound like a proper sentence.
Teo picks up the photo and studies it with the calculating detachment of a mechanic looking at an engine. I wonder if he remembers the picture, remembers seeing it framed in silver on my nightstand all those years ago.
He casually places a pad of art paper on the counter beside the photo and uncaps an architect pen. Then he leans over the pad, deep in concentration as he sketches out what the tattoo will look like. I’d heard about this before, the way the flash for Mandala tattoos are usually sketched out right in front of the customer, instead of planned weeks or months in advance. I’d heard some people say they did this to save time, or maybe to keep things more organic, and I’d heard others say the fact that Mandala tattoos are so ‘in the moment’ made them even more incredible. Either way, the tattoo is the last thing on my mind right now.
I stare at him, less self-conscious now that his attention is entirely taken by the art. I take a step closer toward the counter, as if to look at what he’s drawing, but really just to be nearer to him. He still smells the same, a mixture of bike grease and sweetness that’s been baking in the sun. His hair is shorter now, but still that thick, never-tangled mass I could never resist playing with. In his tight black tank I can see the tattoos that cover his exposed muscles. I find buried in the patterns and scripts the motorcycle handlebars tattoo—the only one he had when I knew him—the one I used to trace with my finger back and forth, over and over…
Teo stands up to his full, overbearing height and spins the pad around so I can see the face.
“What do you think? Something like this? It’ll have more depth and dimension when I do the shading, but this should give you an idea.”
I only glance at the sketch—I’m in no state to perform art criticism.
“Looks great,” I say, all polite smile and customer satisfaction.
Teo gestures to the curtain and leads me behind it, where the chairs and equipment are set up. With the professional demeanor of a doctor he pulls out some latex gloves and puts them on, talking at me over his shoulder as he sets out rubbing alcohol, ink, and packages of new needles. My heart is racing, a million thoughts and memories still flooding my mind.
“Take off your shirt and have a seat.”
Once again I freeze as about a dozen emotions fight it out somewhere in the battlegrounds between my head, my heart, and my gut. Is he really going to not say anything? Is he really going to treat me like I’m some random girl who walked in off the street, and not the girl he swore his very soul to?
More to the point, am I really going to do this? Am I about to sit for hours in this strange state of unasked questions, unresolved angers, while Teo draws my deceased mother on me? I haven’t felt this vulnerable, this confused, this paralyzed since that night, listening to the muffled music and laughter of other couples while I stood outside in my prom dress staring at the empty road as the night darkened, telling myself he’d show up any minute and waiting until the parking lot had emptied at the end of the night before finally calling a cab to bring me home.
I bring a hand to the lapel of my plaid shirt and start unbuttoning it slowly, hands acting of their own accord though I keep telling them to stop. He glances back, and I see his eyes flicker downward from my eyes to the bare skin, the thin strap of my bra visible. Despite everything else, I blush a little, remembering different times now. Remembering how it felt to be naked with him, on top of him, those same eyes covering my body like a slow kiss. He turns back to the equipment but I just stand there, feeling flustered and overwhelmed, noticing my ever-quickening heartbeat. But it has nothing to do with the tattoo.
Teo turns to me again and this time shoots me a confused look, as if wondering why it’s taking so long. Suddenly he gets that half-grin again.
“You nervous?” he says.
“You know what?” I say, as I pull my shirt around me more tightly. “I think I am. I think I’m not…really ready for this, I guess. Sorry. Think I’m gonna bail.”
I’ve already turned, pushing back through the curtain before Teo can say anything else. When I’m at the door I hear him call behind me.
“Hey Ash. Wait.”
I turn to see him standing at the curtain, face still hard as ever, expression still unreadable, but a little softness in his eyes now that could just be my imagination.
“It’s been…nice seeing you again,” he says. “And if you change your mind, you wanna come back, just email Ginger and we’ll get you in here right away.”
This time I manage to keep it together. I purse my lips in an ambiguous gesture of acknowledgment, and leave.