The next morning, when Cindy and I slid out of our beds, if we both could have our wishes, we would have been born in Santa Cruz. “They say we can stay as long as we want.” The skin on Cindy’s forehead had completely relaxed.
I pulled a clean t-shirt from my pack.
“They meant it,” Cindy added.
They were all at work. We showered, carried artichoke leaves and carrot pulp to the compost pile out back, and cleaned the kitchen. I wrote in my notebook. Then we went to the beach to work on our tans. It was past noon, and the grayish sand beach, a block from the house, stretched from an access road to the water’s edge.
“The Beach Boys lied about California,” I said. Wind knocked around stray papers and no one stretched out to sunbathe. A few people tossed stones into sluggish waves. The sky was as grey as the water.
Barnacles covered the splintery boardwalk, which seemed too old to be in California where everything was supposed to be new. We passed a head shop with a bong display and a souvenir place crowded with pictures of artichokes before stepping inside a small tattoo parlor.
The owner, a cheerful, burly man, introduced himself by pulling his lower lip away from his teeth to show us his name, “ART,” tattooed on his inner lip. “You Gotta Have Art, especially if you live in Santa Cruz,” he said.
Art guided us behind a tie-dyed curtain, to the back room of his shop, where he unbuckled his belt, unzipped his fly, and dropped his jeans to display the swirl of red and green dragons tattooed on his upper thighs.
“Oh-my-god,” said Cindy.
“I’m the best tattoo artist in California.” He tucked his muscle shirt into his jeans and buckled his belt.
Art had invented a new electric needle that pricked the skin 60 times a second. “I’m famous in the trade.” He wore a yellow bandanna around his head, and I wondered if his scalp was tattooed, too. “Just $25.”
“That’s a lot,” Cindy said.
“For a piece of Art that lasts forever?” Art smiled and opened a loose-leaf book filled with snapshots of rock n’roll celebrities sporting his tattoos: Country Joe, Jerry Garcia, and Sly. “Did you do Charlie Cyr?” I asked. “Not yet, “ he answered.
I don’t know exactly why, but since we were there and impressed by his stable of stars, Cindy and I figured there wasn’t a good reason not to get a tattoo. After all, it wouldn’t be coal dust from the underworld marking our skin, like Lyle’s tattoo back in Kentucky, but an artistic hand who had actually touched the stars.
We selected patriotic half-dollar-sized hearts to match the tattoo Janis Joplin wore on her right breast. Red and white with a blue star in the center.
“You’ll never regret this.” Art washed his hands. Bottles of alcohol lined his workstation.
I went first, leaning back in an old ceramic barbershop chair padded with dark red leather. Art told me to take ten breaths. As I eyed the paraphernalia cluttering the shelves near the window, the famous electric needle plunged close to the center of my chest, where delicate mammary tissue met my bony upper ribs. I didn’t scream but dug my fingernails into the chair’s armrest to distract me from the hot pain radiating over my shoulder and into my tongue. I was too uptight to complain out of a fear that Cindy would renege and I’d be the only side of our duo with a tattoo.
“Does it hurt?” she asked.
“A little.” Without touching it, because my skin did hurt like hell, we admired the perfect heart tattoo with its white letters flying across it like a swatch of freedom. ‘U.S.A.’
I switched seats with Cindy.
She must have picked up that I faked it because before Art stuck the needle in her flesh, she squeezed my hand with more strength than I imagined she had in her. Positioning his head an inch away from her breast, Art jabbed the inky needle into Cindy’s skin, not breathing, it seemed, until he finished filling in the colors and letters on her heart.
I wiped her forehead, told her she’d be okay. “It’s almost over,” I said. Art swabbed away tiny bubbles of blood that rose like a rash around the outline of her tattoo.
“Tears are part of my business,” he said as he stepped back. “Beautiful. Now stay out of the sun or the colors fade.”
“No sun? You didn’t tell us. What about sunscreen?”
“Sun hitting the tattoo turns the red color dark blue.”
I gave him forty-five dollars. We had made a two-tattoo deal.
Cindy and I rushed out of the shop. At the end of the pier, we descended wooden steps to the beach. “Why did we do that?” She stroked her tattoo with ice.
“I don’t know.” My heart was exactly the same as Cindy’s but a bit closer to my collarbone. “We might not like them when we’re thirty.”
“Or next week!” Cindy noted.