The Universe at Work
“How about you?” he asked, pale brown eyes looking me over, a blank canvas.
“Nah, I’m good,” I said, half-turning, pausing in my escape. I knew he’d have a comment.
“You mean, you don’t have any?”
“Nope.” This time I pointed my feet toward the parking lot, slid my keys out of the outside pocket of my shoulder bag.
“I’ll get you my info next time I see you,” he said to my back.
“Yeah,” I said over my shoulder. “Thanks.”
And that’s how the universe works, for or against you, depending on where on the pendulum’s arc you are. My sister had wanted his info, not me. She was the one looking for a new tattoo, not me. He was new to the area, just getting his business up and running, looking for clients. I’d only mentioned it to Ellen in passing. That was after I had overheard him talking to another tattooed man on our daily commute, about trading work on each other.
Ellen convinced me that I should approach him the next time he sat near me on the train. That was almost every day, but I’d chickened out. We’d exchanged our usual pleasantries on the ride home, ended up beside each other on the escalator out of the station, and he’d stepped aside to let me exit the turnstile first. Then, he’d casually leaned toward me, squinted in the bright sunlight, and asked: “Hey, do you know anyone who wants a tattoo?”
You see, that’s the universe at work. Me, I’m too shy to have asked this tattooed stranger for his info, this flirtatious man who acknowledged me each day. I would have worried my forward manner might have sent him the wrong message. So, the universe stepped in and made him ask the one question that linked us. How else could he have known?
So, I called Ellen to let her know that the nameless, bronze-skinned, athletic tattoo artist was game to etch her defunct band’s first album cover art between her shoulder blades forever.
“Awesome! I can’t believe you talked to him.”
“Me either,” I said, annoyed at how well she knew me, at how unlikely it was that I’d strike up a conversation with an attractive man who intimidated me. I felt a twinge of resentful nostalgia. “Actually, I can. I’ve always gotten roped into stalking guys for you. Remember poor Nate Gale in high school?”
“Poor, my ass. He was fine with it.”
“You had me track his every move until he was terrified of us both.”
“Yeah,” she laughed, warm as a shaker of salt. “He was so cute.”
“And don’t even get me started on Billy Peele.”
“Oh, shut up. He loved the attention. He changed schools because his parents split up. It had nothing to do with us.”
Ellen and I were opposites in our approach to the world. I had constant doubts about whether I was worthy, she, with her unrelenting confidence that she deserved everything she wanted and more. How were we raised by the same parents?
“Anyway, he’ll give me his info for you tomorrow.”
“And what if he asks for your info in exchange?” she said, knowing full well this would keep me awake that night. “Lighten up!” she laughed, then hung up before I could respond.
But the handsome, tattooed man wasn’t on the train the next day, or the next, or the next. A week passed with no sign of him. He began to seem like a figment of my imagination. After all, I wasn’t usually drawn to tattooed men. I had no idea why Ellen wanted a permanent reminder of her failed band on her body. I had no clue why the man on the train had a portrait of an old woman on his forearm, or why he would want a string of words spiraling down his bicep, or a fire-breathing dragon, running across his wrist, onto the back of his left hand, forever.
Tattoos aside, I had noticed that he had the kindest eyes I’d ever seen, and a habit of looking at me even after our casual greeting had come to its inevitable conclusion. There was his lop-sided, shy smile that contradicted every preconceived notion I had about him the first time he stepped onto the train. He had a well-defined chest straining his fashionably worn t-shirt, tattoos rippling down his arms, radiating the essence of cool as he scanned the rapidly filling train, and gave me a half smile. He had taken the seat beside me.
He’d spent the ride listening to music, head back, eyes closed, tapping his foot to a rhythm that didn’t match the train’s rapid-fire pulse. It allowed me to take in the artwork decorating his body, to formulate questions about him and try to make the ink before my eyes answer them.
After that we’d always smiled and said hello, but never more, and sometimes we shared a seat. His conversation with the fellow tattoo artist was the first time I’d heard more than a few words out of him, the first time I’d detected a non-native cadence to his speech. His vowels were a tad too long, his pronunciation of the word “orange” missing the letter O completely. “Ahrange,” was how he’d said it, when he was explaining the colors he wanted added to one of his tattoos. It had been one of the conversation openers I’d tucked away, in case I ever got up the nerve, to ask where he was originally from. There were so many transplants in the San Francisco Bay Area, that I was more of a novelty for being a native, than he was for not being one. It was a good starting point for getting to know more about him, or would have been, had I ever seen him on the train again.
After a few weeks of no-shows, the other tattoo artist, an older man covered in aged, blue tattoos lightened by decades of sun, took a seat next to me. I let most of the ride into the city pass us by before getting up the nerve, but eventually did. After all, this old man didn’t intimidate me nearly as much.
“I never see that other tattoo artist anymore,” I said. “The one with the big portrait on his forearm? He was supposed to get his info to me. For my sister.”
The man smiled and nodded, rubbed his arms, making a thin, papery sound. “Kyle.”
“Do you know how to get a hold of him? My sister’s pretty impatient.”
“No. I was supposed to get some work from him myself. I’ve left messages, but he never called back. Last time I called the number’d been disconnected.”
Defeated, I reported back to Ellen. She shook her head slowly, sipped her beer, and eyed me. “You missed your chance.”
I laughed off the ridiculous notion, that I’d had a chance. That I’d even wanted one. Still, that night, as I ate my single-serving salad and leftover spaghetti, I wondered at the real difference between Ellen and I. She took risks, put her heart out there, knowing full well it could get crushed. That, amazingly, when she got rejected, time and again, she never was crushed. She just shrugged it off, set her sights on a new guy, and set off in hot pursuit of him.
Ellen was never single for long, while I could go months, years even, between relationships. Each failed romance made me pull deeper within myself. John had cheated on me, Paul was clingy to the point of suffocating, and Evan was so attached to his mother that I was a distant second. My relationships all started great, all lasted for years, then all withered and dried to dust as I watched. But, unlike Ellen, I was good at being alone. I liked working late without apologizing to Paul, running each day without wondering what John was up to in my absence, working steadily through my Netflix cue without having to negotiate with Evan and his intolerance for comedies, one of many gifts from his mother.
I’d been comfortably, proudly, alone for over a year. I never doubted myself when I was alone, free from the scrutiny of some man who always wanted a version of me that didn’t truly exist. But as I scanned the train platform for the tattooed man each morning, and failed to see him each day, I had to wonder: what other chances I had missed with my polite shyness, my anxiety around attractive men, my eagerness to look away from a handsome man’s notice?
These thoughts were still hounding me when a tall, broad-shouldered man stepped onto the train, wet trench coat billowing out behind him, buoyed on a cool gust of air. He surveyed his seating options, then sighed and stood in the aisle, allowing the steady stream of high-heeled women behind him to fill the few vacant seats. All, but the one beside me. I looked at him with Ellen-like intensity until he felt the pull of my gaze and turned his dark green eyes in my direction. I pointed at the empty seat beside me. He smiled, one dimple creasing his flushed cheek, and made his way toward me.
“I love you,” he said, sinking down next to me. He ruffled his graying, but still dark hair, then looked at me, a moment longer than necessary. I felt the wall coming up, the sense of inadequacy rising, but pushed it aside. Perhaps this was also the universe at work. If so, I had nothing to fear. More importantly, just like Ellen, I had nothing to lose.
“Oh, well, in that case, I should introduce myself. Jeanne.”
“Matt.” The stuffy train often turned to stifling during winter, dry heat pumping into the car combining with the warmth from a mass of bodies. He removed his coat, rolled up his sleeves, revealing a Chinese character tattooed on the inside of his wrist, the tail feathers and talons of some bird of prey on his forearm.
“Eagle?” I asked, gesturing.
“Owl.” He pushed up his sleeve, revealing the great brown bird. “I wanted a red-tail hawk, but my wife has a thing about owls, so they won out.”
I took a deep breath of the hot, unsatisfying air, and sighed. So much for the universe pulling for me.
“She has one just like it.”
“Cool.” I stared out the window, at the gloom of the tunnel walls. The train was on the bottom of the bay. As a child, I’d always been disappointed that you couldn’t see fish outside the windows during this stretch of the ride. A hand on my shoulder startled me out of my daze. I looked up, into the grey eyes of the old tattoo artist.
“Kyle’s number,” he said, holding out a ragged piece of paper with an East Bay number scrawled on it. “He’s in Berkeley now.”
I took the number, nodded my thanks. The train screamed on its tracks, pulled hard to the left, began its climb back up to daylight.
“And who is Kyle?” Matt asked, nudging me with his shoulder.
“A tattoo artist.”
“Oh, what are you going to get?”
I tucked the number into my back pocket. “I haven’t decided yet.” I started scrolling through possible images. Animals I liked, scenes that brought me peace, and words I’d always loved. “Maybe the solar system, or a constellation,” I said. Something to remind myself about how the universe is always at work.