When I was a child, I would lie across my mother’s bed while she got dressed after a shower. I loved everything about this ritual—lying there silently, getting to see her select her clothes, mentally constructing an alien’s face from her nipples, belly button and the curve of her stomach. This quiet joy was perhaps why it took me so long to ask a question that often occupied my mind in these moments; some part of me was afraid breaking the silence would take away some of the magic.
On her left arm, halfway between her elbow and shoulder was a little scar. The skin was puckered inward, like the imprint of a tiny person’s kiss. I’d imagined a dozen different sources for that scar. In one scenario, she’d been deep in the jungle in her native Guyana, when a snake that hung from a tree attacked her and bit her viciously on the arm. A dashing Amerindian boy would have emerged from the brush and gallantly sucked the poison out, spitting it onto the jungle floor. She would have fainted and woken up in his family’s hut, staying with them until my grandfather came to take her away. In another one of my stories, she was secretly a government spy before I was born and the scar was a gunshot wound acquired when she’d been on a mission in Russia. I really loved James Bond movies in those days.
One morning, for whatever reason, I finally asked about the source of the mysterious mark.
“It’s from a shot—a needle. Like the kind you had to get last year at the doctor’s office.” She looked down at her arm as if she’d forgotten it was even there.
I frowned. That wasn’t nearly as exciting as I’d hoped. I looked down at my own arm. “Why don’t I have one then?”
“They don’t give that kind of shot in Canada,” she explained. “Only immigrants like me will have it.”
I knew I was not an immigrant. Well, officially at any rate. I’d been born in Toronto General Hospital and brought home to our apartment in Toronto where we still lived until the year I started high school. My mom had come to Canada as a student. She’d gotten pregnant before leaving Guyana but hadn’t known until after she’d arrived in Toronto. She’d thought her period had stopped because of the stress of coming to a cold, strange country while leaving behind her family and being separated from her secret boyfriend. That boyfriend, Rupert Ramsaraj, had moved to Leeds in England for school not long after my mother left. When my mother wrote him a tear-stained letter telling him of my imminent arrival, she didn’t hear back. She wrote exactly two more letters, the last one mailed just three days before my birth. After that, she resolutely set him out of her mind and launched herself into the business of being a very young, very alone black single mother and student in a still very white and unwelcoming Canada.
She was beautiful, my mother. Her skin a rich, dark brown so smooth peanut butter should’ve been jealous. Her hips, wide and inviting. Her hair always short and natural, tiny curls she fluffed out with a pick that had a little fist on the end. When she got sick I shaved her head for her, and she joked that a lot of her girlfriends had been switching to the bald look anyway. When she died, those same friends came to the viewing and funeral, a flock of kind but bossy women in flowing outfits and chunky jewellery who clucked over me, unhelpfully pointing out how tragic it was that I’d lost my mother at the same young age she’d had me. After the viewing, I’d stood alone looking down into her coffin, my eyes focused on that tiny kiss imprint. I’d asked them to dress her in her best red dress that showed off her bare arms, of which she’d always been vainly proud. Her face didn’t look much like her, but this one mark was still familiar. It struck me that this was the last time I would see that scar. I glanced behind me quickly to make sure the funeral home attendants weren’t milling around, before quickly bending my head down to press my lips to that spot. My lipstick left a shape similar to that of the scar, but much larger. Then I went home and cried and cried and cried.
In the year since my mother’s death, I haven’t done very much. I only take two classes a semester and spend the rest of my time waitressing, even though my mom left me enough money that I don’t have to work as hard as I do. But that money just sits in my savings account, perpetually untouched. I had friends, and I still do I suppose, but have become an expert at avoiding hanging out while sounding like I’d really love to hang out. Every night I go home to the condo my mom worked so hard to buy and stare at the TV for hours. Sitting in the dark except for the screen’s unnatural glow, I eat my dinner, remembering how my mother used to scold me for watching too much television, saying, “Your eyes will go square.” I’d tell her I thought that that would actually be kind of cool and she would roll her eyes. It was strange how much one can miss being nagged.
This morning, I roll out of bed feeling oddly unsettled for no apparent reason. As I get ready for the day, I try to mentally poke at this feeling, like a tongue pushing at a loose tooth, but I can’t find the source. This mood that overtakes me is notable not because I usually wake up feeling good. Most mornings I feel very little and think even less.
Perhaps it is that feeling which makes me give in when my co-worker Saba demands that I go dancing with her after we get off work. Just as with everybody else, I’ve been putting her off for months, feigning interest in doing things but always having something come up that forces me to, regrettably of course, flake out. This time Saba, probably sensing my weakness, is not going to accept a no.
“Come on, you really have to come. My friend is DJing and I have to go but my other friends bailed. I know you don’t have anything to do. You’re coming.”
I try various tactics—I don’t have anything to wear; I’ll be tired after work; I’ve suddenly adopted a cat that will pee on my bed if I don’t come home on time—but to no avail. Saba produces an extra bar-appropriate top from her bag (“I like to have a backup”) and the next thing I know I’m standing in line surrounded by people much cooler than me.
I haven’t been anywhere near a bar since my few high school borrowed ID expeditions pre- my mom getting sick. Considering my hermit status for the past year, I’ve pretty much entirely missed out on my first legal year of bar-going and feel like I look incredibly out of place, even though the bouncer only gives the most cursory look at my driver’s licence before waving me in. For all the attention he paid, there could have been a forty-five-year-old Asian woman in the picture and he wouldn’t have noticed. Inside of the bar, I realize that thanks to my skinny black work jeans and Saba’s shiny shirt I am dressed pretty much like half of the women in here; the other half are in tight dresses and lethal heels. It also registers that it is too dark in here for people to notice too much about my appearance anyway.
The first hour we are at the bar I react to the overstimulation by being very quiet and still. Saba buys me a drink and we sit at one end of the bar. I sip my drink while Saba takes shot and bobs approvingly to the music, watching the dance floor and impatiently waiting for people to start dancing. Eventually, two guys sit beside us at the bar. One is tall and brown and dressed in a collared shirt and dress pants, the other is short and Filipino and wearing a t-shirt for a band I’ve never heard of. They strike up a conversation with us, or rather, with Saba, who seems willing enough to while away the non-dancing time by entertaining their flirting. I mostly smile weakly and sip my drink, only half listening to their conversation.
I sense myself beginning to thaw. I love the sensation of the bass travelling from the speakers, up the legs of my stool and into my body. Yet I still feel apart from the people and action around me, like I’m observing the bar from within a diving bell; or maybe I am looking in at what could be my life in another dimension, as another version of myself who goes to bars and flirts with strangers and has a mom who she calls a few times a week and pretends like it’s a chore.
“Ooh, you’ve got a tattoo,” I hear Saba exclaim, and realize I’ve been staring into my empty glass. She’s talking to the Filipino guy. She is gesturing towards a bit of colour that shows below the sleeve of his t-shirt.
“Yeah, it’s, uh, a jeepney. It’s a kind of public transit thing in Manila, where my family is from. They’re these old military jeeps and people paint them all sorts of crazy colours.” As he says this, he rolls up the sleeve of his t-shirt to reveal the full tattoo, which is large and bright. “It’s a bit much, right? I got it when I was eighteen so that’s my excuse.” He gives a short, self-deprecating laugh.
Saba is talking about a similar means of travel in Kenya but I am not really listening because I’ve become mesmerised by his arm. In the midst of the tattoo, framed by the front window of the jeepney, is a scar. A scar that looks like the imprint of a tiny set of lips. Rationally, I know a lot of people have this. A rather large portion of the population of this very city. But I am still unable to look away.
He looks at me nervously. “Are you … really into tattoos or something?”
Abruptly I look up at his face. “Do you want to dance?”
He looks surprised briefly but says yes. Saba gives me an approving look and links her arm flirtatiously with the tall brown guy. We all head to the dance floor.
We dance for a few songs. I covertly study his face. It’s a good face; not exceptionally attractive but pleasing and gentle. Plump pink lips that he might have been teased for as a child. When we dance close I rest my hand on his upper arm inches away from that spot that draws me in. I lean into his ear and say, “Take me home with you.”
Once again his eyes grow large. “Oh … okay.” When I yell in Saba’s ear that we are going, she also looks surprised but she is too drunk and too into the guy she’s dancing with to really consider talking me out of it. She shouts something about texting her to let her know I got home safe but I know she won’t notice if I don’t.
I realize as we walk quietly down the street that I don’t know what his name is. He must have said it at the bar but I wasn’t paying attention and now it’s too late to ask without breaking the spell. I focus on the sound of the cars whizzing past and the click of the heels of the girls stumbling down the street ahead of us. We turn a corner and then another corner and then he leads me into a shiny new condo building with a doorman who looks bored and tired. In the elevator I can feel him shooting me nervous glances so I look into his face and smile. He smiles back. On the fifth floor which is really the fourth, we get out and I follow him into his apartment.
We walk over to the sofa. We sit down. He moves to get up; “Do you want a drink or a glass of water or something?” he asks awkwardly and so I pull him back down to the couch and kiss him on the mouth. He yields immediately.
It feels good. The sensation of another person’s skin against mine, the smell of another human being; I realize I’m so thirsty for it I could explode. I’m running my hands all over him and breathing embarrassingly hard. I straddle him, my knees pressing into the couch cushions, and he kisses my neck, his hands tentatively skimming towards my butt. Before they reach their destination, I reach down to pull his t-shirt over his head. He gives in, raising his hands over his head as I yank it off.
My eyes and hands are instantly drawn to it. I touch it, gently, running my finger over the ridged flesh. Our eyes meet. “What’s this?” I ask.
“Oh, it’s a scar.” He looks at the little mark as though he forgot it was there. “From a suspicious mole I had removed when I was younger.” He grimaces slightly. “That wasn’t a very sexy thing to say, was it?”
I jerk my hand back.
I’m standing up now. “I have to go.”
“What?” He scrambles up from the couch, his eyes on my face. He runs his hand through his hair, his bicep flexing under the scar. “I’m sorry about the mole thing. I didn’t mean to gross you out.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, not meeting his eye. “It’s not you.”
I’m halfway to the door. Where are my shoes? I try to force myself to breath but my lungs are not onboard with this plan.
“What does that mean?”
I glance back, one hand on the doorknob, the other clutching my shoes. He is still standing by the couch, exposed chest softer and paler than the tanned skin of his limbs, his hand out slightly in an unfinished gesture. It is his face that makes me hesitate. What does he see in this moment, watching me? Is the bewildered look on his face a smaller echo of the lostness that I can feel emanating from me, no longer contained by my skin? I feel terribly, exhilaratingly seen.
I pull the door closed behind me and sprint for the stairs, trample down the steps and spill out the side door into the cool, still night. Slipping on my shoes, I’m disoriented at first but then I realize what street I’m on and point myself in the direction of home. It will be a long walk but I imagine it to be penance for what I did to that poor boy with the tattoo whose kind face I hope I never see again. I’m not too far from the bars and the crowds but this area is quiet and lonely.
I look up at the starless sky and think of my unscarred body. I think of the coming anniversary and my recent birthday. I think about the things that move us and the things that leave marks.
Asha Jeffers lives in Toronto, where she writes creatively and academically out of her sweet, sweet bachelor pad.