by MJ Malleck
Liz knows the tattoo from one covert glance at her phone. She knows how the butterfly’s blue feelers wind around Ronnie’s wrist, how they circle the little knob bone. In the video, it seems her daughter is waving a full wineglass at the camera. If Matt’s texting her, it’s not good.
“Sorry mum, I knew she was on Twitch, but I thought she was gaming.”
Liz can’t just leave the meeting, can’t turn off her webcam to really look at what he’s sent. Thank god she’s muted and her manager is wrapping up. In spite of the loud whoosh filling her ears she hears “spirits . . . unprecedented . . . together apart.” She watches as her boss slides his eyes sideways to something off screen. She hears “good hands . . . economic disaster.” Now her colleagues are waving, and she lifts her hand. A textbox pops up: “The host has ended the meeting.”
Liz closes the laptop, removes her glasses, and brings the phone a few centimetres from her nose. She sees Ronnie sitting cross-legged beneath a pink canopy that dips like a loose bedsheet. There are stuffed toys around her. Liz recognizes the purple dinosaur. She spots other familiar tattoos; Ronnie’s left arm is completely covered. “It’s called a sleeve, Mom,” she’d said.
Liz scrolls to the headline: “Twitch streamer shames viewers for not subscribing during global pandemic. Argues cost of online entertainment less than food.” Bile burns in her empty stomach.
Just yesterday her book club had met on Zoom. They’d hoisted their own wine glasses and played Would You Rather. Would you rather work at home with a poopy toddler on your lap, or be quarantined with a mouthy teenager? Not even a question—teenagers were the worst. Gloria had bent her face forward and pointed at her hateful grey roots. From kids, not age, she’d said. Liz had no grey, but she’d shoved the overgrown bangs out of her eyes in support. All of them missed the salon more than their grown kids.
“I can’t imagine. Think if SARS had been a pandemic; I would’ve killed Ronnie.”
Her friends laughed. They’d survived. They were done; all the kids launched and keeping safe. The kids FaceTimed with her: Matthew and his wife every Sunday from their neat little townhouse across town, and Ronnie every second day from her condo on Bloor Street where she said she was working from home.
Now Matt has sent this disturbing article from his news feed.
It was the butterfly’s curlicued antennae she’d spied first, a suspicious blue line peeking out past the white cuff of her daughter’s high school uniform. She’d gasped and then without thinking grabbed Ronnie’s slender wrist and pulled it towards her. Before she could make out the rest of the tattoo, tears blurred her vision; Ronnie had yanked her arm back and barked, “Mom,” in the way that she had then of rejecting Liz’s every touch. If Dave had been in the house, Liz would have turned angry, even violent, at the first sign of lip from the kids. As a pair, she and Dave were strict. Both Matt and Ronnie were spanked for showing disrespect. But not by the time of that first tattoo, not after their dad had left, and especially not while Liz was in therapy. She’d replaced spankings with curfews and groundings, chore lists pinned to the fridge and gaming privileges suspended—appropriate discipline, reasonable single parenting.
The permanent blue ink had seared Liz. It wasn’t the same as coming home late; it wasn’t sneaking a drink at a cousin’s wedding; it wasn’t cheating on a test. A tattoo was real. It was done. This could not be smacked away.
She’d banged the dishwasher door shut and fled to her room, went right under the duvet— jeans, socks and all—and turned her wet cheeks to the wall.
Ronnie was right behind her, standing beside the bed.
“Look, I gotta go. School.”
Liz sat up and pushed the heavy cover off her chest.
“Mom, it’s not bad. It’s pretty, look. It’s a butterfly.”
Ronnie pushed up her sleeve to show, yes, a butterfly—stained-glass wings impossibly wrapped around her wrist, a pink wormy body laying inert on the soft inside flesh. All Liz saw were sharp needles assaulting her daughter’s skin. She’d imagined a bearded Hells Angel leering at the virgin flesh and sopping beads of blood away with his hairy, calloused hands. She’d moaned and the tears came again, hotter.
Ronnie sat on the edge of the bed, and her weight rolled Liz closer. The girl’s blue-black hair fell straight over one eye, and she left it there.
“Mom, it’s art.”
“I’m a bad mother.”
“No, Mom. I like it. It’s beautiful. Look.”
Liz had wiped her face with the comforter. She looked again. Still flat, still an insect. She saw the elegant curl, the fine lines of the feelers. A dead, ugly insect.
“I’m going to school, Mom.” Ronnie’s voice sounded hard. She stood up and pulled her sleeve down. Her uniform sweater was tied around her waist. Liz knew it was to hide the waistband she had rolled up. “We can talk about it when I get home. You are not a bad mom. It’s something I wanted to do, that’s all.”
She patted the blanket on Liz’s thigh and left the room. Liz had stayed under the covers, sniffling, until she heard Matt banging the cupboards in the kitchen.
“Did you know she got a tattoo?” She wanted to sound accusatory, but her son’s open face made her feel churlish.
“Don’t worry so much, Mom.” Matt had half-hugged her, coffee cup in hand. “Almost everybody does. It’s common as dirt. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Liz wanted to stay offended, but she knew he was right. In the studio where she took hot yoga classes, Liz had seen a set of angel wings spread entirely across a woman’s back. In downward dog, she’d noticed a picture of a knife dripping blood inked onto a man’s calf. Like an anthropologist living among a strange tribe, she’d started to ponder people’s choices. She’d even told her daughter about a fetching black rose she’d seen on the small of a woman’s back as she stepped out of the shower. “Stupidest place for ink,” Ronnie had informed her. “A tramp stamp, Mom.”
Liz had been grateful that Matt wasn’t interested in getting a tattoo, though maybe on a boy they wouldn’t seem so bad. “Not me, hate pain,” he’d laughed. She kicked herself for being negligent, for relaxing, for thinking Ronnie was too young to get a tattoo.
“Why would you want to hurt yourself?” she’d wailed when her daughter came home. After a full day in the world, Ronnie’s face was unreadable, her blouse sleeve already pushed up in defiance. She had proudly turned her wrist to the light.
“Oh, Mom. I told you, it’s art. And it doesn’t hurt that much—not even as much as piercing.”
That was 8 B.C. Before COVID-19. Before there were blue lines and circles taped on the grocery store floor, two metres apart. Back when yogis sweated beside each other, when the intimacy of tattooing was possible. Those dirty parlours would all be closed now.
The first tattoo hadn’t been the start, not really. Everything was a demarcation with girls, and it started in kindergarten. You can’t sleep over, not unless I’ve met the parents, especially the dad. We can pierce your ears in grade five, but only one hole per ear. No makeup until high school. No boyfriends who are in higher grades than you. No nighttime shifts at the gas station. No smoking, anything, ever. Here’s the line—don’t cross it. What else had been ignored that Liz would never see?
The line moved again and again. Sometimes she moved it. She had to if she wanted to stay sane. In grade nine, Ronnie begged for an industrial through her ear.
“A barbell?” said Liz. “What for?”
She wondered what it was that made kids want to mutilate and destroy their bodies? The boy who bagged her groceries had large rubber rings in his ears. Like something from National Geographic, but not even cultural. Just to shock people like her, she guessed. After a week of Ronnie’s silence, she relented. Her book club agreed—a tiny steel rod through cartilage could be tasteful when stacked up to the prospect of gaping holes where ear lobes used to be. The line was redrawn.
About a week after the rod went into the ear, it popped clear of the curl of cartilage.
“Like shrapnel, dislodging itself,” Liz had said matter-of-factly. “Your body is saying‘Get this piece of metal out of here, it doesn’t belong!’”
Ronnie blinked hard and said, “Mom.” She wasn’t bold enough to say shut up, not then.
At five-thirty, Liz’s phone alarm chimes. Around it, strewn on the counter, are little Bulk Barn bags of mystery herbs, three empty glass shaker bottles, and a collection of multi-coloured curries. These are the dregs Liz finds when she opens the pantry to get a teabag out and starts to sort the spice shelf instead. Stuck to the back wall of the cupboard is an ancient envelope of blue Kool-Aid. She pries it free. The kids used to love that stuff, but what flavour was blue anyway?
Her phone alarm rings again. Time to call her mother. Liz doesn’t want to—she wants to keep thinking about Ronnie. If Matt had seen the news article, then anyone might have. Maybe Liz’s boss, or her nephews who game on Twitch. How many subscribers must Ronnie have to make a living?
Liz’s mother had laughed a keen laugh when she first saw the butterfly tattoo on her granddaughter’s arm. Her laugh was for Liz—the sword of irony—pointed at her poor parenting skills.
“Veronica, what is this?” She grabbed hold of Ronnie’s bare arm and held on. “Are you a stripper now?” She joked with the girl but turned her cruel eyes to Liz.
“Oh, Gramma. I know in your day it was like that. Strippers and sailors, right? But look, it’s art. It’s pretty, Gramma. See the colours?”
“Well, I worked in a rubber factory in the war, but I never got a tattoo. Dirty things. Never pierced my ears either.” She shook her head to show off the pearl clip-ons. “What’d your mother say?”
She laughed towards Liz again, hanging onto Ronnie and rubbing her hand over her wrist.
“Oh, she doesn’t like it either, Gramma. You raised her right.” Ronnie laughed and hugged her gramma.
Those two and their easy banter, thought Liz. Peas in a pod.
Liz sits at the dining table, unlocks her phone, and presses her mother’s name under favourites. The phone rings, and rings. Her neck, already throbbing, sends ripples of panic to her jaw. Her scalp tingles. On the tenth ring her mother picks up, her voice wispier than yesterday.
“I’m here, Elizabeth, just wait a minute.”
The handset bangs when her mother drops it. Liz pictures the petite wooden table in the alcove, the one that’s always been there with its built-in red upholstered seat. She sees the metal rectangular address book with the little moveable arrow you slide up and down along the alphabet index until it springs open. On the shelf under the table would be a thick county telephone book and the Yellow Pages. Did they still make the Yellow Pages?
Liz hears her mother call bye, and then her breathing into the phone. “Hello, dear.”
“Mom, who’s there—did I hear someone else over there?”
“It was Dorothea, from across the lane. She wanted a clipping from the hydrangea out back.”
“Mom, you’re not supposed to have anyone near you! We are social distancing, remember? If you weren’t still on—”
“Yes, Elizabeth, don’t shout. When the mailman came, I just waved and stayed inside. Dorothea and Walter are fine. They aren’t going anywhere. There’s only the dog with them. They aren’t sick.”
“Why was she in the house, Mom, if she just wanted clippings?”
Liz hears her mom sit on the chair and hears the crumple of a newspaper opening. She listens to her mother’s even, stubborn breathing.
“Okay, Mom, you know what? We’re going to have to talk about this tomorrow. I’ve got something else I need to do. But tell me what your plan is for supper?”
“I just had tea and biscuits.”
“Biscuits aren’t dinner.”
“I’m not hungry. You’ll find out that the appetite goes when you’re my age.”
“I don’t care if you aren’t hungry.” Liz raises her voice again. “Do you have some of the ham I dropped off? Have a bit of it, and some of the canned peaches in the fridge. That’ll be enough.”
“Okay, Elizabeth. I’ll look in the fridge and see if I feel like ham and peaches. Too much food isn’t good for my figure, eh? My gardening slacks are tighter than last year . . . I’m going to have to watch it now. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Her mother hangs up. Liz rubs her temples and scrunches up her eyes to feel where the headache is coming from. In the living room, she falls onto the sofa. The article Matt sent is sitting in their shared message feed. She pushes the video’s play button.
There is Ronnie, sitting with legs crossed under a tent, yes of bedsheets, with a glass of wine. She waves it at the camera.
“Come into my blanket fort. You can see I’ve got all my babies with me.” Her voice is cajoling in an octave higher than Liz expects. She can see Ronnie’s black bra through her sheer blouse tucked into denim cut-offs. At the edge of the screen, Liz can just make out the elastic band of stay-up stockings cutting into her thighs.
“Well . . . they aren’t my babies! I don’t have any kids, and besides, you all are my babies.” She giggles and gestures to the stuffed toys piled around her. Liz sees Barney the purple dinosaur. The rest are weird toys that aren’t animals or characters, only shapes—circles and squares and triangles, with eyes and noses and mouths glued on them.
“I shouldn’t say that! You aren’t babies. Half of you are probably masturbating already. And for those of you with your good hand still on your keyboard, stay tuned.”
Liz’s fingertip punches the middle of the video, and she immediately swipes the screen up to stop the voice. She swipes, she swipes, the silent screens closing one after the other until no tabs are open. She throws the phone face down onto the couch cushion.
Her journal is beside her bed. She’ll sit at the dining table and write out what to say to Ronnie; she will plan it, then take Tylenol and call her daughter when the pills kick in.
The formula for talking reasonably is OFNR—Observation, Feeling, Need and Request—in that order. Her therapist calls it non-violent communication. She opens her journal.
“I saw a video on Twitch today,” she writes, “that someone sent to me.” I didn’t mean to observe it. And I’m not telling you it was Matt who sent it.
“It made me feel disgusted.” Nope, that’s a non-feeling word, full of judgment and blame.
She crosses out disgusted and writes “ashamed, foolish, embarrassed.” No, more non-data words. Where is that list of genuine feelings my therapist gave me?
“It made me feel sad, worried and frightened.” Yes, I’m fucking frightened. To death.
“Veronica, I need to know that you are being good and doing what’s right. Staying out trouble. I need you to stop humiliating me. Stop crossing the line.”
Honestly, Liz. She hears her therapist’s voice. Ronnie’s an adult woman now. What is it that you really need from her?
“I need you to stop pulling away, Ronnie,” she scrawls. “Let me be your mom, let me
here for you.”
Liz sets the pen down and rubs her eyes. She touches her face before picking up the pen again. “I need to be trusted and respected. To love you and be loved in return. My request is that you—”
She stops writing and tugs the tips of her bangs towards the ceiling until her eyes prickle. Her neck muscles ache, as if she has just taken off a full-face motorcycle helmet. She goes to the bathroom and looks in the mirror. God, her hair is worse than she thought. It’s a dirty mop, strands falling helter-skelter past her ears.
In grade one, Veronica came home from school with a note pinned to her backpack. It was a form letter: “Our classroom has head lice. Please check your child’s hair, and use a commercial treatment shampoo before sending them back to school.” There was a diagram of a louse, a hundred times its actual size. An ugly blood-sucking bug.
Liz had immediately sent her husband to the pharmacy, stripped the bed, and threw all the linen and the stuffed toys—including Barney—in the washing machine. She’d breathed through her mouth as she rubbed camphoric tea tree oil on Veronica’s roots; and as she began to pull the fine-toothed steel comb through the wet and oily locks, the comb snagged and snagged.
Veronica cried. This hurt Liz to hear her. The comb snagged again. Finally, well past eight o’clock bedtime, Liz knew she was done. She asked Dave to bring the kitchen shears and fearlessly cut away Veronica’s wet hair, snipping in an almost straight line just below her ears. As she finished, Veronica, who’d been sitting backwards on the closed toilet seat, sleepily raised her head from her crossed arms and saw her shorn hair on the bathroom floor. She had lashed out at Liz who was still holding the scissors. “Stop! Daddy! I want Daddy. Daddy do it. Daddy do it.” Dave came and carried her to bed, stepping over the mess on the floor.
In all the years of being a mother, nothing had hurt like this secret video. Not late-night tantrums. Not pierced ears. Not a sleeve of tattoos. Nothing had made Liz feel so unneeded, so left out of her daughter’s life.
The sharp Henckels scissors are in the knife block in the kitchen. Liz tears two sheets of paper towel off the rack and goes back to the bathroom. She covers the drain hole in the sink, leans forward, and holds a handful of dry hair by its ends. She pulls it taut and cuts through the clump. It feels just like cutting a bunch of chives from the garden, satisfying. Snip, snip, all around to the middle of the back of her neck. Then she puts the scissors in her left hand and awkwardly cuts the other side. The line isn’t straight, but she likes the irregular, imperfect edge of it.
Liz picks up the pieces of hair in the paper towel, rolls it up in a tight bundle and stuffs it inside the compost bucket on the kitchen counter. She spies the Kool-Aid packet, the blue pitcher grinning at her. She remembers a trick, a fun game, that she and Veronica had done with her little girlfriends at a sleepover.
In the bathroom, Liz pumps a big glob of conditioner into her palm. She crumples the hard chunks of blue sugar into it and rubs together until her fingertips and nails are stained. She spreads the lotion between her hands, leans over the bathtub, and smushes the blue gunk into her hair. She runs her fingers like a wide-toothed comb back and forth. It’s cold on her scalp and the back of her neck. It feels great.
As she reaches for the faucet, she hears the familiar chime of her phone. Shit. It might be her mother, or Matt. She grabs the hand towel from the ring on the wall beside the tub. Shit. White. It will be ruined. She moves fast down the hallway, binding her hair with the too-small towel. All along the carpet a line of tiny blue dots marks the way.
It’s Ronnie. Not her usual FaceTime call. Just a phone call. Liz presses the phone to her ear.
“Hey, Mom. I got some bad news today.” The voice is a pitch lower than the woman on the video, and there is no giggle in it. See, the video isn’t Ronnie after all. “Work laid me off today. They laid off a bunch of us.”
Liz walks off the rug and goes to lean against the kitchen counter. She sees through the wall cut-out into the dining room. Directly across from her is the picture from Matt’s wedding—the perfect family portrait she’d chosen to blow up and print on canvas. It was taken that warm September afternoon, 2 B.C., the photographer arranging them in a row on the lawn behind the church. Liz’s lipstick was too dark, an expensive tube she’d bought to match her burgundy dress. When she put it on, it had felt waxy and heavy. She hadn’t kissed any cheeks that day, hadn’t even kissed Matt or his bride, afraid of staining them. She was ashamed now that she’d kept reapplying that damn colour instead of rubbing it right off.
“Ronnie, I should have seen this coming,” says Liz.
Blue rivulets run from under the towel and wet her fingertips holding the phone. She sets it down on the counter and wipes at the glob, then leans forward to retwist the towel tightly around her hair. Her fingers smell like sugar cookies.
“Well, me too, Mom. I feel like ‘duh.’” Ronnie’s voice comes out tinny from the phone’s speaker.”
Liz wants to tell her daughter that it will be alright, that she is happy she called, that they will figure it out. But she can’t. Behind her closed eyes an image of the giggly Ronnie with the wine glass stops her.
“I mean, they already let people go last week, but I really thought they’d hang onto the rest of us. I heard they’re only keeping the social media team. Those of us doing product placement—well events and movies are cancelled, so where would I place a product, eh? I’m kind of sick of Toronto anyway. This city, it’s like the viral epicentre, you know?”
Just before the photographer had snapped that wedding picture, Ronnie moved away from Liz’s side. She had stumbled as her stilettos punched holes in the grass, held up her dress, and minced towards her gramma who stood alone on Matt’s opposite side. In the portrait the sun made the fuchsia bridesmaid dress glow like neon. She stands there with one arm a strong post behind her grandmother’s waist. The arm that hangs loose, facing the camera, is clean and free of ink. From the spaghetti strap of her dress to her pointed acrylic nails, no tattoos.
“Excuse me, Ronnie?” Liz says.
“Sorry, Mom. Is this a bad time?”
“No, honey. I’m sorry about your job, and I do want to hear more about it. But I’m standing in the kitchen and looking right at Matt’s wedding picture. And I’m just wondering. I mean, I’m just noticing. Why did you stop getting tattoos? I mean, why do you only have one
Ronnie laughs. It is the laugh she shares with her grandmother.
“Mom, didn’t I tell you? Lady Gaga said in an interview she was doing that for her dad. I guess he didn’t like tats either, so she kept her left side clean for him. I wanted to do that too. Same. For you.”
Liz picks up the phone and jams it tight to her cold ear.
“Ronnie, I’ve noticed how much I miss you and Matt living here. And I just talked to Gramma, and I notice she’s really lonely too. I’m sorry that you lost your job, but I could really use your help to figure out how to take care of Gramma . . . how to get us safely through this pandemic. I wonder if you’d consider coming home. We could talk in person.”
Liz takes a breath and waits for Ronnie. She contemplates the drying line of dots starting at the bathroom and ending at her feet. With the tip of her big toe, she smudges the last three dots into a solid line, and then swirls the line into a beautiful blue whirlpool.