May 18, 2008
By Adela Wu, Arcadia, CA

Scratched John Pakker sunglasses from the local Goodwill, fishnets and chains—yeah, they were all the rage… especially if one wanted to give off the tough-girl, don’t-mess-with-me persona. Rebecca with the dark red lipstick was the model of the high school punk rocker bad girl. She had the black nail polish down and the clip-on lip ring, except her chopped brown hair wasn’t dyed some obscene color; that’d be too hard to hide from her parents. The clothes and accessories and pilfered beer were easy enough to bury under the bed or the drawers. But a new mohawk just like Rex’s and a real industrial piercing? No. No way, unacceptable. Not in a minister’s house. Not in a devout, pious little family’s home.

The tattoo parlor was open earlier on Saturdays. Rebecca kicked a crushed can, sending it skidding across the shop’s parking lot. The door screeched open, and she could see only a trucker-like man with not a single hair on his head working the counter.

He glanced up, “How can I help ya, sweetie?”

“Yeah. How much are navel tattoos?”

The man looked wary, “You got enough money? Those are pricey.”

In response, Rebecca simply dug into the tight pocket of her skirt, fishing out a wad of frayed bills, some twenties with the majority of them being ones and fives. She scooted the pile towards the man.

He laughed as he counted up the money, “What? You working a drug deal or the corner? You’ve got enough small bills to line a cooler.”

“Well?” She didn’t want this small talk.

“You got lucky, girl,” He turned towards her, “I’ll give a navel to ya for a flat rate of two hundred just ‘cause I feel generous today. What do you want? A heart? A Chinese character? Just tell Kels what you want.”

Kels was a scrawnier man beside a studio chair whom Rebecca had not noticed when she entered the parlor. His rat’s tail beard moved up and down whenever he talked, his fingers were stained with black and blue, as if he had soaked them in a vat of ink for forty hours.

“I want a pelican,” she said, staring up at Kels from her reclining seat, “right around my belly button.”

Kels looked incredulously down at the teenage girl, “What? You sure?”

She was sure. She had looked it up just last night, in the back of her old Sunday school studies book, in the “Animal Imagery” index complete with colored sketches. The pelican was pictured as a mother nursing her starving young, piercing herself to feed the chicks with blood, a gruesome symbol of charity and ultimate sacrifice. It was the perfect tattoo, and it would be in the perfect place. Right on her midriff, never to be exposed since her father forbid two-piece swimsuits…still hidden from her parents’ view. Except this time, instead of fake removable lip rings, this was going to be so much more permanent and part of her. She would carry the stinging beads of ink, the pelican and the reminder of her own sacrifice forever.

“I want it.”


She stared out the large dirty window, her head tilted awkwardly to the right, as Kels’ whirring ink piercing tool filled her ears. The sun’s rays shone weakly through the film of grime and around the various flyers and advertisements pasted haphazardly on the glass. Someone had stuck on an old bumper sticker as a joke. Rebecca read the backward words to herself, “Men are like Slinkies; they’re fun to watch fall down stairs”.

She turned away. “Men are like crack,” she drawled deliriously, “They’re so bad for your body, but they’re so damn good.”

Kels glanced up from his work. She saw a hint of a leer forming.

“Psh. Screw you,” Her dry-as-sandpaper laugh crackled, “I’ve got Rex. I’ve got Rex.” She swung out her right arm, reaching for and grabbing the neck of the bottle of beer next to her. As she drunk deeply to numb the pain on her navel, she closed her eyes.

Olive oil bottles. Ingenious. Well, then, she should have expected Rex to think it up. After all, he had always established that he was the smarter, the better one in the relationship. They’d go to raucous house parties, smash up stuff, dance, take the kitchen cabinet’s olive oil bottles and drain them, pour as much beer as they could fit. No one could really tell the difference in color. They were so much easier to smuggle out. Who could nail teenagers carrying bottles of Lucero Olive Oil?

Rebecca squinted down at the lines on her stomach. The head was materializing and almost done. It didn’t really look like a pelican from her point of view. More like a popped balloon, a misshapen fetus, a twisted monster head or something.

She picked up a sharp file-like instrument from the work tray next to Kels. She had no idea what it was used for, but fiddling around with it gave her something to do while the tattoo man was basically stabbing her a million times down there.

Rex had probably used a file just like this to carve “Reb&Rex” on the bark of a withered old oak tree that was in a secluded corner of the park, their favorite spot. It was over a pretty large drop down to a cement gorge in the valley, but they could see all of the land, the hill country, and the western foothills from there.
“Reb&Rex” was also the tag on her cell phone’s background. She’d begged her father to buy her one. She had said cell phones were necessary for a high school student so that family would know where they were. He’d agreed to that argument, always the monitoring authoritarian, but Rebecca had had to pay for it all by herself, though Rex was the one who urged her, bullied her to get one.

They would then leave love text messages and mumble sweet nothings into the speakers at each other. They drove the phone bills through the roof, and Rebecca soon switched to diving through used clothes bins and thrift shops, her weekly allowances now amassed to pay for the sheer communication portion of her relationship. Because she came home more often with mismatched shirts and pants, ratty sweaters and skirts, her mother and father started praying for her, the wayward daughter. They wanted her to revert back, back to the obedient child who used to be prim and proper.
But, mere prayers and regular scolding couldn’t change her back just as mere tears and regular begging couldn’t bring lost love back. She had fallen too far. She looked the part of the total tough girl on the outside, but inside she was small and scared. She lost herself for a boy. A boy! But she loved him. She had given her “true love forever” to him. She fell hard, face first into obsession with Rex, the first boy who dared to whisper into this minister’s daughter’s ear, to dare her to step out of her shell.
She unsteadily grasped it, tipping the bottle back against the roof of her mouth.
Kels was working on the outstretched wings of the mini pelican, growing under his expert touch, on her stomach.

The secluded corner was silent. Everyone in town was away at church this early morning for the Sabbath, but Rebecca stood in her special little place in the park alone. Her parents would be irate if they found out.
She gingerly untucked the ends of her Sunday blouse out of her knee-length skirt; she didn’t want to prick herself in the hand with the file she accidentally took from the tattoo parlor. The whole pelican was there, her own belly button marking the exact center of the pelican egg cradled by the mother bird. She bent her beak to her chest, Rebecca saw, as if the pelican was just about to gouge herself.
Rebecca let her shirt fall back down, covering the inking, and turned towards the round, round sun in the distance, shining upon her like a holy light almost. Her chest felt bathed in wet warmth, like the heat of Rex’s old embraces behind the old oak tree the city just tore down. She closed her eyes. She held the file in one hand, its sharp point glinting in the sunlight, with her arms spread wide, like a great bird in flight, a pelican with outstretched wings sailing over the yawning depths of the gorge in the valley.

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