I have been thinking about deception and how oftentimes we know things, but ignore them. Or, even tell ourselves that we misunderstood when really, there is no way that we could have misunderstood. Is that our psyches protecting us from harsh reality? Or simply copping out?
There was this time, years ago, when I was out with a good friend, Kristen. She was close as a sister. I was in my late twenties. She was in her late thirties. I was visiting her in the small Illinois town where she lived. Sometimes I needed that break from my marketing job in Chicago. I was running myself into the ground with clients and ad launches and never-ending super-short deadlines. I needed a slow down, a get away.
We were just kicking around town. Bored, not sure what to do. She suggested something spontaneous…how about getting tattoos? I took a pass on that. It wasn’t the permanency of a tattoo that bothered me. They had just become so trendy. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. But I told Kristen I’d go with her while she got one. We’d never discussed a desire to get tattoos before. But, literally, three minutes after she proposed it, we were parked in a parking lot of the sleepy downtown.
The place was tiny storefront, shoe-horned between a three-story antique mall and the local schmancy coffee shop. We walked in. The shop was no wider than the Tastee Freeze we’d bought our malts from earlier. The room we walked into was about half the length of the building. The floor was covered with one foot by one foot squares of gold-flecked petal pink linoleum tile. A couple of chairs in an uninviting gray sat behind the wood counter that marked off the waiting area from the part of the room where the tattoos were done. There was about a three foot section of counter that should have lifted to allow us to pass into the tattoo area. It didn’t seem to work and the one man working there motioned for us to duck under the counter and come on back.
“Gotta get over to Gamble’s and get some spray for that,” he said as way of apology.
“Haven’t you heard? Gamble’s closed about a month ago,” said Kristen.
“No shit? Hm.”
We stepped under the counter. The wood paneled walls were covered in thin cases containing sample tattoo designs. Lots of skulls and Harley-Davidson logos, moon goddesses and crosses. I was struck by the random image of a frog.
The place was grimy and the tattooist even grimier. I couldn’t tell if the color of his skin was mostly due to the sun or dirt. I wanted to grab Kristen and run, but I didn’t. She told him that she wanted a crescent moon on her right butt cheek and laid down on her side in the reclined chair. He turned his Budweiser ball cap backwards, giving us a quick glimpse of his graying buzz cut. He then rubbed his hands up and down the thighs of his ripped jeans a couple of times and got to work.
He started gabbing to us. Kristen politely chatted back, dishing about the secrets and scandals of the small town. I kind of tuned out to what they were saying, as I kept straining to get a glimpse of the back room without appearing to. If the front was so nasty, exactly how bad would the back room be? I could see what looked like a stack of bald tires, with a broken guitar resting on top. A plastic clipboard was hanging out of the hole in the guitar, a few ragged pages being blown by what must have been a fan out of my view. A door at the very back of the building was propped open by a couple of paint cans, opening the back room to the alley. Dusk was creeping up on us.
I tuned back in after hearing Kristen mention her husband’s business. He ran a used car dealership. She brought it up as though it were just another place in town, not partly her own. I caught a look from her that said, “Don’t say a word”. I didn’t say anything.
“Oh yeah, John Barstow’s place? You know about him and that girly, right? The piece that works the desk? My girlfriend knows her. Pam, it is! That’s her name. They think they’re hiding it. Right!”
John was Kristen’s husband. Pam was the dealership’s receptionist.
Kristen did not react. Honestly, she did not flinch.
She moved right along to the next topic. My face burned and I felt white, hot anger on her behalf. I thought that she must be keeping up appearances. The guy obviously did not know that she was John’s wife.
The next forty-five minutes crawled by slower than a slug on Sunday. He finished her tattoo. She paid in cash. We walked out the door to her car. The summer night had settled upon us and the sky was a vivid, nearly electric blue. The stars gleamed as if they’d been turned up a notch. When I think back to that night, I see that sky as if it were a snapshot thrown down before me. I remember it vividly as any moment of discovery that changes your life. Those moments are burned into our brains as a freeze frame. And while this wasn’t a life-altering moment for me, it was for Kristen.
I looked over to her, ready to catch her or scream with her or just feel with her. But she acted as though nothing had happened, as though we’d just been out for a summer ice cream run and were headed back home to watch movies and drink wine.
I must have stuttered or shook my head or something. And then, I just played right along. We went back to her house and did watch movies and drink wine. We had a lovely night.
I thought and thought and thought about it afterward. I listened for a fight from where my friend and her husband slept in the next room. There wasn’t one. I convinced myself that I simply must have misunderstood. How could I have heard what I thought I heard without any kind of reaction being made? I must have been mistaken.
Again, this was many years ago. Today, I know that I heard what I heard. And I know that denial is more than just a river in Egypt. But, maybe that wasn’t even it. Maybe it was more about a woman who couldn’t share her deepest, most personal hurts with anyone. Not her husband. Not her family. Not her friends. She needed someone to stand next to her while she sussed it out, but she couldn’t let anyone in on the aftermath. She had to know the truth of the situation and sought out someone who would know it, but couldn’t bring herself to bring on an aftermath.
I know that I heard what I heard. I later learned, from her, about secrets that she kept. Secrets large enough to make me question if I ever knew her or if I ever really would. If I could turn back time, I would stop us in that parking lot, under that brilliant sky and ask her what that tattoo artist meant. Even if she wouldn’t or couldn’t give me an answer, at least I would have tried.
Hilarie Pitman Pozesky is a writer of personal essays and is crafting a memoir about how uncovering one’s family history can be liberating. She’s a woman with an ardent urban sensibility, who happens to come from a long line of pioneers and farmers. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband, two goofy sons and her goldendoodle/muse, Ruby.
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