CONJUNCTIONS:54, Spring 2010

Elizabeth Thug
Jonathan Carroll



She walked into the place and without saying a word, handed the man the wrinkled yellow slip of paper she had worked and fussed over for hours the night before. There were only two words written on it in careful block letters. After glancing at it (she watched his eyes closely to see his reaction but his face remained blank), he looked at her and then once more at the paper to be sure he’d seen correctly. Then he asked, “Where do you want it?”
      Her shoulders drooped. Her whole body relaxed at his question. She had imagined so many scenarios of how this scene was going to play out, but what the man had just said was not one of them. She’d anticipated derision or perhaps stunned surprise from him; maybe some suspicion, questions like “You want this? Why?” Or, worst of all, a mean little smile that said, You’re an idiot, lady, but hey, money’s money and if you want to pay for this, I’ll give it to you.
      “On my hand.” She stuck out her right one, palm up. With her left index finger she pointed to the middle of the right palm. “Here. I want it here.”
      “OK.” He handed back the paper. “You want it in block letters or in some kind of special script? We’ve got a book of fonts that you can choose from.”
      “Comic Sans.”
      “Excuse me?”
      “I want it done in a Comic Sans font. Can you do that?”
      He pointed to the paper. “Like it’s written there?”
      “More or less. I brought along a Comic Sans alphabet in my bag that I could show you. Can you do it?”
      He chuckled. “Easy. I just spent three hours doing Hokusai waves on a skinny guy’s forearms. I guess I can write two words on your palm, right?” The sentiment was snarky but his voice wasn’t—it was only stating a fact. “Are you Elizabeth?”
      “No.”
      He scratched his cheek and looked at her with more interest. “Are you a thug?”
      She grinned and shook her head.
      “But you want this on your hand forever?”
      “Yes.”
      He spoke wistfully, musing to himself. “People want the strangest things on their bodies.”
      “I can imagine.”
      “One guy wanted a strip of bacon. Another had me do a car battery over his heart. But what do I know, huh? The guy’s got money, I give him a car battery.”
      She nodded.
      “Delco.”
      “Excuse me?”
      “It had to say DELCO on the side of the battery. He wanted it specific.”
      “Specific.” She didn’t know what else to say.
      “And you want ELIZABETH THUG tattooed on your palm?”
      “Yes.”
      “Who’s that, your girlfriend or something?”
      This moment and question she’d expected. She was not a brave woman but would have to be brave now. She spoke quickly because she wasn’t used to being rude and it was difficult for her. “I’d rather not say.” She spoke firmly—the subject was closed.
      He put up both hands in surrender. “OK, I’m cool with that. You want to get started?”
      He was finished in less than an hour and did a great job. The new tattoo on her palm looked exactly as she had imagined—maybe even a little bit better.
      As he worked they talked. He told her stories about people who’d come to his shop. Like the man who wanted the car battery tattooed on his chest was a long-haul truck driver who was going blind. He was terrified of what was happening to his eyes and how he would cope with the rest of his life. He wanted the battery tattooed over his heart so that he could touch it whenever things got really frightening. It would remind him of the good times and that life could be good as well as bad.
      “But why a battery? Why not a truck if he’s a truck driver?”
      The tattoo artist wagged a finger in the air. “Good question. I asked that, too. He said trucks couldn’t run without a battery. They’re the heart of the machine.”
      She wished she hadn’t asked. She liked mystery more than answers. Both as a child and an adult she never asked or wanted to know how magicians did their tricks, how special effects were done in movies, or why men gave her flowers now and then. Her life was unmysterious so much of the time that any chance she got, she avoided clarification and hungrily embraced the unknown. Part of that was because she was so unmysterious. She had almost no secrets. Nothing naughty or fishy was hidden away under her bed or stuffed deep into the closet. Anyone could walk through her apartment with a 1,000-watt flashlight and a magnifying glass, snooping everywhere, but find nothing that would cause her even to blush. Just that thought alone made her despondent. She looked at people around her, friends and work colleagues, and was certain most of them had secrets or secret lovers or secret stashes of stuff that both mortified and delighted them when no one was looking.
      One boyfriend she broke up with said he knew things were going wrong between them the same way you know your shoelace is untied before you look—a sort of loosening and slight shoe wobble that makes you check. “I basically knew it was over when I started feeling that same kind of loose wobble between us, you know what I mean?” She was hurt more by that description than by the fact that he no longer wanted to be together. More mortifying, he was right. Shoes have no secrets and neither do shoelaces, tied or otherwise. No passionate other woman ever lurked in their shadows, ready to leap out and scream, Ah ha! No operatic cris de coeur that led to wrenching emotional scenes in which the truth finally flooded out because too many dark secrets and words had been left unsaid until that moment. No, to him all their relationship added up to was an untied shoe and, by extension, she was a shoelace.
      That was the reason for her tattoo.
      While buying coffee one morning, she’d chanced to glance at the hand of a well-dressed middle-aged woman standing nearby. A photorealistic blue accordion was tattooed on the back of it. She was so taken both by the image and the mystery of why anyone would choose to have that drawn on their skin she covered her mouth with her hand because she didn’t know if she was going to laugh out loud or splutter in glee.
      At once she realized a person didn’t need to be mysterious at all—only their skin did. From then on she studied any tattoo she saw. She sidled up to people on the subway, and once sure they weren’t looking, peered closely at their arms, their legs in shorts, the backs and sides of their necks, their forearms thick with muscles or thin as chopsticks, so long as they were inked.
      Most tattoos she saw were dull, dismal, or trite—cartoon characters, Celtic or Maori designs, advertising logos like the Nike swoosh or once even the McDonald’s hamburger arch. Why? She constantly wondered why people volunteered their skin as a billboard to tell the world they were clichés, unoriginal, or, worst of all—they just wanted to be like everyone else.
      In contrast, the mysterious blue accordion on that woman’s hand was enthralling. An accordion? Why? What did it mean? Was the woman a musician, or was there a deliciously recondite meaning to her tattoo that only she and a few select others knew, but the world would never discover. How could anyone see that tattoo and not wonder about the person who owned it? Mickey Mouse or a dragon on a bicep? Snore. An accordion across the back of a delicate female hand? Brilliant.
      She was so smart yet uninspiring. She worked in magnetic bubble technology. When she told people that, their eyes either turned off all the lights or else got jumpy and nervous, wanting to escape. If you were interested in vortex dynamics of high-temperature semiconductors, then she was your girl. But let’s face it—nobody was and that was perfectly OK. She knew in the world’s eyes she was like a store that sold only one rarefied thing like Iranian caviar or antique French needlepoint. But she did have other interests. Come on—give her some credit. She liked to go swimming, line dancing, and absolutely loved to kiss. When she created a profile for online dating services, just trying to describe herself in an interesting, original way was a challenge. What she wanted to say was, I am smart, have a great sense of humor, like sex, and am up for more or less anything. But you probably wouldn’t think that if you were just to look at me. So here’s the deal—Get in touch, let’s talk, and maybe we can dance. In the end, after much soul hemming and hawing, that’s exactly what she did say but the results of her candor were unfortunate, to say the least. The only men who responded were creeps, bores with dubious issues, or guys who started whining in their very first e-mail to her.
      But seeing that accordion tattoo revived her. It changed her attitude from three-quarters hopeless to hopeful by giving her a concrete plan that she’d put into action as soon as she walked out the door of that tattoo shop.
      How happy she would have been if she’d been able to glance in a rearview mirror and see the look of puzzled admiration on the face of the tattoo artist as she left his place that day. Whoever she was, she must be cool to want that tat on her palm, no matter what it meant. He even wrote the enigmatic words down on a scrap of paper so he would remember: Elizabeth Thug.
      A few nights later at a popular downtown bar, a stranger glanced at her hand. After doing a small double take and narrowing his eyes, he reached over and took hold of it. A nervy gesture and she winced slightly because it still hurt from the tattooing, but she didn’t mind. This was the beginning.
      “Elizabeth Thug.” He said the name without a question mark at the end. He was decent looking. His tie was pulled to one side and his shirt collar was open.
      She looked at her hand as if to make sure they were talking about the same thing. Then she smiled at him and nodded once.
      He waited for her to say something. When she didn’t he asked if she was Elizabeth Thug.
      She shook her head.
      “But it’s tattooed on your hand.”
      She nodded again. “True.”
      “Why?”
      “Why do you think?” Her voice was soft and friendly but gave nothing away.
      He looked at her as if she’d just spoken to him in a foreign language. “What do you mean?”
      “Why do you think ‘Elizabeth Thug’ is tattooed on my hand?”
      He smiled but it faded. He smiled again but it was different this time: confused, quickly gone. “Is that you, or a relative?”
      She said nothing and made a sour face. It said come on; you can do better than that.
      “No?”
      She sighed and withdrew her hand from his so she could lift her glass. “No.”
      He sat up straighter. “Are you Rumpelstiltskin? Do I have three guesses and if I get them wrong, you’ll put a spell on me?”
      “You never know,” she winked.
      “OK. You’re a feminist and Elizabeth Thug was the world’s first female boxing referee.”
      She tipped him a nod for his clever answer. “Not bad. Wrong, but original.”
      He rubbed his hands together. This was fun; he liked it. Liked that she got his humor and hadn’t pushed his answer away like it smelled bad.
      He guessed two more times and was wrong, of course, because the secret was “Elizabeth Thug” meant nothing. They were simply two words that had come to her out of the blue when she was showering one morning. But moments after they arrived in her mind she knew exactly what to do with them. Once she was sure she wanted two disparate words that signified nothing, she tried out many others just to be sure. But she kept coming back to those two and they were the words she had tattooed onto her palm.
      That first evening at the bar with the man was useful and sexy. The guessing game opened things up between them and although she never revealed the secret of the tattoo, he was clearly interested in her. When he asked for her telephone number, she wouldn’t give it. She teased that if he had given the correct answer she would have, but oh well—maybe next time. He asked if there would be a next time. She said she came to this bar fairly often. Maybe they’d see each other here again. And then she left. On the cab ride home she stared at her tattoo and knew she had made the right decision.
      Scheherazade was so wrong; she had it all backwards. For 1,001 nights, she told her king new stories to keep him interested and spare her life. But men don’t want to hear stories—they want to tell them. They want to talk; they want to hold the floor. Males want the world to listen to whatever it is they have to say. That was the single thing she learned from her dismal period of Internet dating—most men really only want to talk to someone who listens. Some want to download while others want your sympathy. Some want admiration but not as many as she had originally imagined. More often than not, men just want to tell you what they’re thinking or how they see the world. They prefer an appreciative audience but willingly settle for an attentive one. She realized after meeting so many men in a short period of time that the best way to start things going on a date was to give the guys a little verbal push and off they’d go—talking about themselves, their world, their take on things.
      “Elizabeth Thug” was a natural outgrowth of that discovery. She presumed correctly that most men preferred guessing what her tattoo meant rather than hearing the truth. If Scheherazade had done it right, all she’d have had to do was get her king talking about a subject that intrigued him and she wouldn’t have had to tell a new story every night for three years.
      A dog, a cat, her sister, her mother. A friend, a car, her favorite bar. These were some of the guesses men made about her tattoo. In the beginning, when she was just getting used to the attention those mysterious two words created, she was coy or ladylike in her denials. No, I’m sorry, that’s not it. Oh, that’s an interesting guess but you‘re wrong. Some men tried to charm the answer out of her. Others were derisive and taunting. Why would I care what it means? She was sweet even to them. She smiled and purred, Because you asked. If you’re not interested, that’s fine. But of course they were interested and all their gruff was a bluff.
      However, as time passed and more and more men guessed wrong, she became impatient. She knew that was ridiculous because how could anyone get it right when there was no right? Still, she grew irritated and positively snapped at some of them when they guessed.
      “The family boat? Are you joking? Would you want the name of a boat tattooed on your skin?”
      This man took a long drink of his double Jameson and then wiped his mouth with a scrunched-up cocktail napkin. “I was just kidding,” he said defensively.
      She looked at him like a teacher who’s just caught a student cheating on a test.
      No boat, no best childhood friend who died tragically, no title to her unpublished first novel. She sort of liked that last guess and considered giving the man her telephone number but in the end said no.
      Her sister came to town and two minutes after they had hugged hello, noticed the tattoo. “What the hell is that?” When she heard the explanation she slapped her hands against her cheeks and hooted, “I love it! You’re out of your mind.”
      The two women went to a bar that night so she could show her sister what happened when men noticed her hand. They were there forty-five minutes and three men struck out guessing.
      “Ooh look—see the really handsome guy at that corner table? Go over and ask him.”
      She looked over and saw a hunk with short hair and a three-day-old beard sitting alone with a beer mug held between his two hands, staring intently into the distance.
      “But I’ve never done that—gone up and just asked.”
      Her sister nudged her shoulder. “Come on, be brave. It’s like cold-calling in telemarketing. Let’s see if you can get him to bite.”
      After finishing her drink for courage, she walked over to his table. He looked up at her slowly and smiled, but it wasn’t warm or welcoming—only a hello-what-do-you-want smile.
      She put up her right hand like an Indian chief going “How!” The good-looking man saw the lettering on her palm and squinted to decipher it.
      “Elizabeth Thug?”
      She nodded.
      He took a sip of beer. “Am I supposed to guess what it means?”
      She nodded again, feeling awkward and uncomfortable now so close to his handsomeness.
      “I don’t want to.”
      She took a sharp breath, a little gasp of humiliation, and turned quickly to go.
      “But wait a minute—can I ask you something?”
      She stopped but didn’t turn around. The bastard could talk to her back.
      “Do you ever scare yourself on purpose? I must do it five times a day.”
      She frowned and half turned to him. What was he talking about?
      He addressed his beer mug but loud enough so that she could hear. “For some absolutely unknown reason, I need to scare myself at least a few times every day. Maybe it’s just the adrenaline rush, right? Maybe I just dig that body buzz you get when you’re scared or nervous. But it’s insane.
      “ATM machines, right? They scare me.”
      She thought he was joking. “You’re scared of money machines?”
      “I am.” He nodded and tapped the table for emphasis. “Worse—I make myself scared of them. That’s the big difference, you see. As I’m walking up to one to get some money, I think this machine is going to eat my card and then what? How am I going to get around without any cash?”
      She stared at him. “But even if that happened, just go into the bank and tell them to get the card out for you,” she said reasonably, still not believing he was serious.
      He shook his head. “Not on Sunday, or ten at night, which is when I usually end up needing money.
      “Or how about this one—I’m riding alone in an elevator in the middle of summer. It’s a small car and not air-conditioned. Every time, every time I’m halfway to my floor, I suddenly think, what if this elevator broke now and stopped? What if I had to stay in here for hours because nobody came to get me out, or no one was in the building? And as soon as I think that, I get boiling claustrophobia. So I say to myself shut up—just stop it. Stop being stupid, but it does no good. Being reasonable never works. It’s like I create demons to eat me alive from inside out.
      “Or I’m on line at the post office …” He began to go on but stopped. “I do it to myself, understand? An ATM machine is just a machine. They’re tested a zillion times before they’re installed, so they never fail. But that doesn’t make any difference—it’s gotten so bad that just about every time I go up to one, I get nervous. Sometimes I almost physically lose my balance because I’m so worried.
      “Why do we do these things to ourselves? Life’s hard enough, right? Why make it worse by scaring ourselves? Or making ourselves miserable by creating stupid imaginary scenarios that never happen anyway?”
      She could think of nothing to say. Instead she just opened and closed both hands and then pushed them against her sides. How did she get into this? She just wanted to go back to her sister.
      He rubbed his head with both hands. “It’s not even masochism; it’s weirder than that. The things we do to torture ourselves, you know? I used to think I liked me, but not so much anymore.
      “Do you know what I was thinking about before you came over here? I’m going to name it. So that every time it happens to me from now on, every time it comes, if I have an actual name for it I can say, ‘George, go away.’ Or ‘George, go back to your room now and quit messing with my head.’ Treat it like a bad little kid who needs to be disciplined.”
      He lowered his eyes and for several moments stared at her hand. “Elizabeth Thug.” His eyes moved up her body. When they reached her face he was grinning. “Elizabeth Thug! That’s what I’ll name it. Thank you. That’s perfect. The next time it happens I’ll say, ‘Elizabeth—get out of here. You can’t do it. Not this time.’ ” His entire expression and body language radiated how much he liked the idea. “Get lost, Elizabeth Thug. I’m only getting some money from the machine, so leave me alone.”
      He raised his beer mug to her, a toast. “You don’t mind my borrowing the name for this, do you? I will worship you for the rest of the week. Elizabeth Thug. That’s exactly it.” With a triumphant voice, his glance dropped to the table, dismissing her. But he did look sort of transformed.
      There was nothing else for her to say or do but return to her sister, who’d watched the whole thing from the bar. What could she tell her? What had just happened? Walking back, she glanced down at her right hand and saw a bit of the tattoo there, the name he would remember and use. The name that actually meant something now, but not to her.