The Form as Serial Improvisation

You meet your first husband at a Fourth of July BBQ. He doesn’t speak to you the entire evening, but you catch him staring at you each time you toss your hair to the side and take a drag of your cigarette. It’s a little creepy, this staring, but you slip him your phone number anyway and only as you are leaving.
           After two weeks, he calls to say he’s having a few people over for drinks. He knows what happened, but doesn’t say so. He doesn’t have to. It’s a small town. It was on the news.
           It would help to have a beer, to laugh and tell jokes with new friends. You go and sit a long time on the futon in his living room, drinking, smoking, listening to music. After everyone leaves, he gets up to make breakfast while you collect beer cans in a big black trash bag. You eat cross-legged on the floor. After you’ve taken three bites of egg and two bites of hashbrowns, he leans across the plate to kiss you.
           You throw up.
           When you come out of the bathroom, he’s already apologizing. It was too soon. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…not after…what you’ve been through.
           You tell him to shut up. You take him into the bedroom and push him down on the bed. You pull his pants down around his knees. You pull up your skirt. You don’t kiss him and don’t let him kiss you. You’re not gentle. This is, after all, not love making.
           He is still apologizing when you pull down your skirt and walk out the door.
           You don’t tell anyone you sleep over at his apartment two nights a week until November when he asks if you’d like to get married. You’re not at all surprised. You agree, but not because you love him.
           At the wedding, Mom cries and thanks God for sending someone to love you. Dad cries and reaches for Mom’s hand.
           It is June.
           In July, they file for divorce.
           You spend your first year of marriage living in Big Sis’s basement. She has bought a house in the suburbs and your rent helps pay the mortgage. On your second anniversary, you move to a college town where you’ve been hired to teach Freshman Composition. You make friends with your Office Mates and recite their names while you’re getting ready for school. You make students call you by your first name and hope they brag to their roommates My teacher is cool.
           Your husband isn’t interested in hearing about your classes. Even when a student’s cell phone rings in the middle of your lecture on syntax and you have the audacity to answer it. It was his mother. Everyone was laughing. He isn’t laughing. He isn’t even paying attention. He’s watching NASCAR. He turns up the volume while you are talking.
           Eventually, you stop talking.

You try, without success, to have an affair with one of your colleagues. You send him inappropriate emails in the middle of the night while your husband is sleeping and hope his wife doesn’t read them. He never responds, so instead you pretend he’s already fucked you in the highest, farthest reaches of the library, frantic and rough against a stack of musty books. You check them out as souvenirs and bring them back to your apartment.
           Your husband doesn’t find them. He doesn’t even notice. Instead, he starts humping you in his sleep: a good excuse to withhold sex. You make him sleep in the spare bedroom or on the couch as punishment. His whimpering keeps you awake every night and you decide, after much consideration, not to beat him with a rolled-up newspaper.
           When he gets drunk at a BBQ and pushes you to the ground in front of your friends, you kick him out of your apartment. You pack his clothes and CDs into boxes and file for divorce. You cut off all your hair and send him your ponytail through certified mail.
           You never speak to him again.

You meet your second husband on the Internet. When you agree to come to his apartment, Big Sis thinks you are insane. She insists that you call her five minutes before you get there, and she calls after you’ve been there ten minutes to make sure he hasn’t hacked you into pieces.
           He doesn’t hack you into pieces.
           He greets you with a kiss on the cheek and offers you a drink. You spend most of the evening on his couch. It is good to talk to him face to face; he has this way of putting you at ease. You don’t tell many people about being kidnapped, but the people you do tell have pretty much the same reaction: first there’s shock, a hand over the mouth or to the chest, always I’m so sorry. Your first husband asked you not to talk about it. Your second husband’s first response is something like Shut UP! That did NOT happen to you.
           You laugh. It is a strange first date.
           He reaches over to hold your hand halfway through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. You notice his tattoos: Japanese-style half-sleeves, Koi fish, flowers and water on each arm. Your palm sweats and you hope he doesn’t notice. Maybe he thinks his palm is sweating.
           After the movie you make out on the couch like a couple of teenagers. You try to unbutton his pants, but he doesn’t let you. He kisses you on the forehead and brings you a cup of green tea.
           You drink it and feel better.

The first time you meet the Tattooist feels like an interview. Except it isn’t clear who’s being interviewed. You’ve brought a bad printout of peonies that you want tattooed around your ankle.
           He takes one look at the printout and throws it away.
           “Peonies? What color? How many?”
           “I was thinking pink. Three.”
           “How ‘bout red?”
           “How ‘bout pink.”
           He’s silent for a long time. He doesn’t look you in the eye. It’s awkward. You don't look down at your feet.
           “Fine. Come back. Same time. Next week.”
           When you return to the shop, you come alone. Tattooist has everything ready and waiting for you. He shows you the pen and colored-pencil drawing he’s made: Your Three Pink Peonies. A padded black bench is set up in the middle of the room with towels and pillows already in place. His workstation has been prepped: capfuls of black, yellow, blue and red ink, blue sterile tape on the lamp and tattoo gun, Vaseline and paper towels spread out and ready to go.
           He tells you to lie down.
           You freeze.
           He pats the bench with his right hand as if you were a puppy. C’mon girl. This is where I want you. You take a deep breath and, against your better judgment, do as he says. You lie back on the bench, close your eyes, prepare for the worst.
           He starts shaving your leg.
           The one thing you weren’t expecting. Does he shave all his customers? Maybe your leg is especially hairy.
           Tattooist tells you not to worry: Everybody Gets Shaved.
           You try not to squirm or wince or cry out while he tattoos you. It is important that he not think you are girlish and weak. To your surprise, Tattooist is talkative—even friendly—but it is difficult to keep up your side of the conversation. Very sharp needles inject ink permanently into your skin. You bleed and the blue antibacterial solution he keeps spreading on your skin might as well be lemon juice or grain alcohol. You concentrate by keeping your muscles tense. Tattooist says this actually makes the pain much worse. Stop resisting. It’s better to let your body feel how much it hurts.
           When he wipes the ink off and says, You’re through, you get up to look in the mirror. Three pink peonies arc downward around your ankle, lifting almost off your skin as if in three-dimensional relief. Your ankle becomes nearer to you—your own, more life-like—than it has ever been.
           You begin to imagine other tattoos: lilies, lilacs, daisies and ivy trailing from your left shoulder to your right hip and down your right leg; a protection prayer, in a language even you can’t read because it's private—secret. Autumn leaves cascade down and around your right arm and snowflakes and stars down your left leg.
           You begin to imagine your body being beautiful.

©2008 Dr. Lacy M. Johnson All Rights Reserved.