The office: a white box, pasty with stucco walls and paneled ceilings, with new LEDs that seared paper-white light into every crevice of the floor. Here there were forty-five sweaty and over-qualified employees clad in white button-downs and blouses, dragging themselves from their cubicles, to the water-cooler, to the bathroom, and back. 9:00am to 5:00pm. Monday through Friday. 260 days a year. Unfortunately, I was one of those people.
I kept a ceramic fish I painted at the pottery-barn, blown-glass paperweights, and a scented air-freshener on my desk that squirted little bursts of mist smelling like old yellowing books every seven minutes. 68 times a day. And every time I heard the air freshener go off, I leaned in to sniff pretending I was huffing paint thinner or cocaine. I had never done any drugs before, but I fantasized that one day someone would come up from behind and just inject me with something in my arm, so I wouldn’t have to do it myself. Sometimes I was sure that someone was running up behind me, but I didn’t want to ruin the surprise so I would close my eyes and tense up, waiting for the needle to pierce a vein, but sure enough, it was usually a jogger who wooshed by me in pastel spandex. Other times, it would—
“Oh, hey Mandy,” I said. She was new in the office, and today wore a mustard-yellow pantsuit. She cropped her black hair short and had a nose like a button, and her half-moon cuticles on her painted fingernails were starting to peak out from under the color so they looked like little oceans at night. The truth is, I loved her.
“Did you do something new with your hair?” she asked.
“Yes, just a new thing I’m trying out.”
“I like it, it’s a good look for you.” God, she was beautiful.
We stared at each other for thirty-two seconds in silence, and I felt beads of sweat form on my upper lip. She left and I watched how she didn’t let her feet drag across the floor, gliding down the hallway. She knew where she wanted to go. I envied her.
I had, in fact, done something new with my hair. The day before I had asked the barber to surprise me, and so he shaved the sides of my head and gave me a faux mohawk with green frosted tips.
After Mandy had complimented it, the others around the office started to notice as well as they’d walk by my cubicle. I’d come out of that mist of white button-down shirts and suit jackets, and congealed into a person. I felt my heartbeat when two people at the copier casted sideways glances at me, or the receptionist who looked like my mother winked at me and gave me a thumbs up as she passed, and felt eyes burn the back of my head staring at the thirty green triangles eight inches above my skin. I walked by Mandy’s desk and her forehead shone a bit from oil and I fell in love with her.
In the bathroom I examined the spikes that made two hemispheres of my head. I walked in and out of the frame of the mirror, practicing how I’d walk by Mandy on my way back to my cubicle. I let my hips bob up and down, twist around, but that didn’t feel right, so I shuffled out of the bathroom and sat down in my desk.
My fellow employees talked about my hair for five days. On the sixth day, there were no more sideways glances, eyes burning the back of my head, and, most importantly, no more compliments from Mandy. Sexy Mandy. My new look had become outdated. Only the receptionist kept winking at me. As quickly as I had solidified from that stifling mist of sweaty shirts and blouses, I was dissolving again, another particle in the cloud.
That evening I drove to the local tattoo shop to get my ears pierced. When the tattoo-artist put the needle through my ear I yelped like a little Shiba Inu. He sighed and I held back tears. His name was Matthew.
“Nice hair,” he said.
“Oh thanks, it’s new.” He was chubby with a goatee and a leather vest, and his nipples showed through the cutoff sleeves and I could see they were pierced.
“Yeah, it looks like you have little wings on your head,” he said wiping my ears with rubbing alcohol. His hands were big and warm like a pillow.
Afterwards I looked in the mirror and saw the silver metal balls in my ears and grinned, trotted to my Corolla, shivering in the fall wind, and drove home. The next morning, Mandy passed my swollen lobes: “Andy, did you pierce your ears?”
“Oh yeah, I did.”
“You’re a real edgy guy, Andy.” My mouth was watering.
She glided away in her deep blue pantsuit after my silence, and stopped by another cubicle. Jim’s cubicle. Bastard. She crinkled her nose into a button when she talked to him, and laughed at something he had said. I tried to imagine him choking on his words and spitting a little bit on his shirt.
Again came the furtive glances my way from coworkers by the copier and the water cooler, and again I drank more water to bob around the office. When I’d say hi to people I’d turn my head pretending to stretch or notice a fly, and scratch my ears lightly to direct their attention to my swollen lobes. I passed Mandy and managed a sexy wink at her, and she smiled at me. She had a green thing stuck in her teeth. I imagined myself licking it off her teeth and in return she’d suck on my earlobes and tell me I was the one. I walked back and sat down at my desk though, and the receptionist passed and blew a kiss at me. I felt like Frosty the Snowman, narrowly escaping death-by-melting under the spring sun.
Sure enough I started to melt again. But I escaped in my local tattoo parlor, and Matthew gave me a Frosty the Snowman tattoo on my forearm. I could make him jiggle by twisting my wrist around in circles. So the next day I made him jiggle for Mandy, and she laughed. In that moment she closed her eyes and I thought she was transporting herself somewhere special and new like Japan. Or Virginia. She could have been eating sushi and walking in Mount Vernon, and I’d be with her too.
But by the time I looked up, Mandy was gone. She was talking to Jim, that bastard. I clenched my fist and made Frosty jiggle, and laughed despite myself. The receptionist passed me as the lights flickered and in the shift of light she became my mother, and I remembered the redness on her face when I said I wanted to be handsome.
By the time spring had it’s first bloom, the skin on my arms was an inky black up to my sleeve, and I had rings coming out of my nose, tongue, lip, and eyebrow. I had a tattoo on my knuckles that said “love”. Frosty the Snowman was lost in the river of ink that had flowed—stabbed—into my skin. If I looked closely at my forearm and clenched my fist I could imagine him jiggling and I’d grin.
People around the office had stopped talking to me about each new change, but I’d still see them walk by with coworkers and “whisper whisper whisper.” Only Mandy (and the receptionist) came by to talk with me. One day Mandy walked by and said, “Hey, Andy.”
“How do they feel?”
She nodded. She was referencing my latest: little silver balls lodged into my dimples in my cheeks. They made it hard to chew. I’d thought after this new piercing I’d have the confidence boost to ask Mandy out on a date, but she made me dumb and speechless and I fell in love with her all over again. That damned Mandy.
That day as I left the office, I saw Mandy walking to her car. Jim stood in front of her car door, blocking her from getting in, that douche. But as she approached, Jim lunged! Their faces were caught in a furious battle. Go Mandy, Go! Fight him off! I wanted to yell. That rat bastard Jim attacking Mandy like that! When they pulled away he grinned triumphantly, possessively.
“Hey!” I yelled angrily to him, defending my Mandy.
“Hey!” they both yelled back. Mandy turned now and looked like sunshine. They waved at me simultaneously and then got into the car. Jim was taking her hostage! Or something. I had to act fast, so I lunged behind their reversing car to stop it in its tracks. I expected the car to halt and for Mandy to jump out quick to run away, but instead the car reversed over my leg and snapped my femur. In a hot blaze of pain I screamed against the black tar and heard car doors opening and slamming shut, horrid screams amidst my own and calls for 9-1-1. I looked down at my leg and saw blood spilling on the asphalt parking lot and white sticks that looked like ivory protruding from my thigh.
I closed my eyes and let the spring sun cook me like an egg on aluminum foil. As I began to sweat, I felt my skin melt into the black tar, rivers of ink thinning out from me and filling the cracks and divots of the bituminous pitch. The hot glow behind my eyelids began to dull to black...
I opened my eyes and saw white. Cold linoleum flooring and a pale curtain surrounded me in bed. The place for the diseased, broken, dulled. I glanced down and my leg was bound in white plaster. I wiggled my toes and felt stabbing up my leg and I felt hot tears sear down my face.
I fell back into my pillow a tired lump and twisted my arm and felt a tug in the crease of my elbow. Sweet joy! Injection at last! I smiled and felt tingly, fantasizing about the cocktail of pain medication and sedatives, deliciously swirled in my veins and pumped through my heart. Oh joyous day. I nearly forgot about my legs then, caught up in a euphoria of injection. I only wished I had seen them slip the long needle into my vein and watch the first liquid medicines trickle into my arm, spreading through my body and—
“Hey, Mandy.” Sweet, sexy Mandy stood at my bedside. Could this day get any better?
“Oh, Andy, I’m so sorry.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Yeah, I’m feeling pretty alive right now.” She was wearing the same mustard-yellow pantsuit, and made me sweat. I smelled like hot plastic and salt, and I hoped she didn’t smell me. Her forehead still shone a little, and I could see wisps of hair on the corner of her upper lip; she intimidated me with her perfection.
“Why did you dive behind my car?” she asked after my usual silence.
“I thought you were in danger?”
“Oh, just Jim. That bastard.”
“Jim and I have been dating for the past three months, Andy.”
“Oh, sorry, Mandy.”
“It’s OK. I wish you hadn’t done that, though.”
“I’m sorry, Mandy.”
“I forgive you, Andy. I hope you feel better soon.” I felt the medication swirl inside me and heaviness on my eyes, but I tried to keep them open to look at Mandy.
“Maybe you can wheel me around the office when I come back.”
“That was a joke.”
“Oh, yeah. It was funny.”
“Thanks. I’m actually trying out this one...” My eyes were closed now and I felt sounds drift away as I closed my eyes and let my fantasies of medication lull me to sleep. When I opened my eyes Mandy was gone. She had probably walked out of my room briskly in her own way. How could I emulate her purposeful walk now? On a wheelchair maybe, but that seemed like cheating. I would move too fast, too easily.
I left the hospital after a few days, but I had three weeks before I had to go back to work, so I spent most days at the tattoo parlor. I’d roll inside and Matthew would greet me. He owned the shop, and I loved him. There was one chair inside and I occupied it most hours of the day as he pierced or tattooed my body. Sometimes I couldn’t feel my toes and he’d assure me that my toes were in fact there. I was grateful for him. The walls were covered with either flaming skulls or beautiful portraits of butterflies. He loved butterflies, and he knew the Latin names of every species. He liked Eurytides marcellus the most. It looked like a zebra, and I liked zebras. He would tell me the names as he dug the tattoo needle into my skin, and made me repeat them back to him: Battus philenor, Papilio polyxenes, Papilio troilus. I’d let him tattoo them onto my chest and stomach, the portrait with their latin names written underneath, and I could push my pecks together to make them fly. It made me think of Frosty the Snowman, buried now in the lake of ink on my forearm. After a while, I had a garden of butterflies on my torso, and I loved them all.
He also would give me piercings, and I’d yelp with sweet pain the Latin names of butterflies as he slid the needle through my skin. I had silver balls in my nipples and belly button, on my temples and in the cartilage of my ears. The weeks after my leaving the hospital, Matthew and I had spent most days in this ritual of ink and metal, portraiture and biology.
Then one day, I asked him to tattoo my eyes, and he obliged. I laid down on the table and he held my eye open with a metal cleaver, and we recited the characteristics of butterfly metamorphosis together. I bit my lip and he injected a glob of ink between my sclera and conjunctiva and turned my eyes purple. I stood up and blinked and looked at myself in the mirror. I saw two black bug eyes, and suddenly I shed black tears.
To celebrate the newest addition, Matthew closed the shop and drove me to a butterfly garden he walked in on weekends. It was on the way up that my vision started to cloud, and I had to force my eyes to stay open so the black cloud wouldn’t spread.
“Matthew?” I said, “I don’t feel well.”
“What’s up? How are your eyes?”
“They’re clouding up, Matthew! Please help me, the road is a dark purple.” I knew something had gone wrong. I guessed he had nicked a microscopic piece of my sclera as he injected the ink, which was now leaking into my vision.
“Shit, Andy, I don’t know what to do!” he yelled out, “I’m sorry! I must have nicked you.” He started to cry now. “I’m so sorry, Andy.”
“It’s OK.” My vision turned a dark purple and I couldn’t see passed the front window of the car. Matthew charged into the parking lot then of the butterfly garden, and asked me what I wanted to do.
“We might as well go in, right?” I said.
“But what about your vision, Andy?”
“Well you’ll just have to push me in.”
“Maybe we should take you to a hospital?”
“It’s no use, just let me in.”
And so Matthew rolled me into the building, and I saw the outline of fake trees and vines on the walls leading towards the front desk, clouded in a thick mist of purple. We paid and rubbed our hands with disinfectant wipes. As we entered, the blanket of humidity descended, and I could hear fake sounds of the jungle. All I could see was purple.
“Are there lots of them?” I ask.
“So many, Andy, Eurytides marcellus is here!”
“Shit I wish you could see them.”
“It’s OK. Can you leave me here a while?”
“Sure.” He left and I sat in my wheelchair, letting the small drops of artificial rain fall on my skin. I sat perfectly still. Eventually I felt a tingling on my hand for a few moments, and felt a tiny wind blow as the tingling left my skin. A butterfly! It must be! I remembered the garden of butterflies on my torso and slipped off my shirt to let them breathe in their natural habitat. The tingling returned to my hands, and I felt the sensation work its way up my arms to my chest, on my legs and shoulders, and I froze in place to let the sensations cover me and envelop me, resisting the urge to shake the tickling off myself. I must have looked beautiful.
I sat for an eternity, and I felt myself sweating, melting into the chair and dripping into the ground like water off a long leaf, rivers of ink filling the damp gravel and mixing with the sweat and humidity of the garden. Billions of molecules evaporated like hot rain floating back into the atmosphere as footsteps came yelling, “they love you, Andy! They love you!”