She planned to cover the surviving leg in tattoos; only the foot would be left bare. A band of posies around the ankle for the border. This was not a girlhood memory of circle games; it was a reminder of lying in a field with the most vibrant red flowers she had ever seen. Had they appeared so alive because they were at eye level or because she’d believed she was dying? It had been painful to look at them for too long. When she squinted, though, they looked like pencil sketches, good ones, where the colors are depicted by reflections moving across the surface. They had distracted her from the bleeding.She sketched these flowers onto the heads of all the doctors and nurses strewn around her room. She was young, the surgeon encouraged her. Rehabilitation would be child’s play for her at twenty-three. She was very lucky. When he told her that the right leg would have to go, she plucked the petals one by one from his flower-head. In her mind, she daintily arranged them over the ruined leg until it tingled with a grey light that aroused visions of red.
While she was recovering from the surgery, she drew posies, although she was not an artist. A candy striper asked if she would like some crayons.
“They’d be so much prettier red,” the girl said, and tossed her ponytail over the pink and white uniform.
Regina replied, “Get fucked already.” By the time she was discharged, she had perfected the design.
As the tattoos progressed up her left leg, they bore the familiar cadence and rhythm of Kudzu vines. The ring of posies inhibited the ink from creeping onto her foot, an impediment not unlike the guardrails along the highway that fend off the invading vine. The tattoos led through the twists and bends, skulls with scorching wings distorting the curve of her calf, cradled hearts and serene gods crisscrossing double lines, dangerous passing. From knee to ankle suffocating under the design, yet more like a leg than before. An artist’s rendering of a leg. More discernable to a passing stranger than a bare leg, more noticeable than a kudzu-less tree on the highway. Her legs had vanished, one severed above the knee, one recreated below.
When she was six her family had traveled to Georgia from Tennessee for a vacation, she had scanned the ivy-like vine that shielded the mountain face. It embraced the trees’ trunks and branches, as well as leaves. “Kudzu,” her mother had said and asked if she would “like a butterscotch, was she feeling sickly?” She always took the candy on these mountain roads and pressed it hard to the roof of her mouth, sucking until a hole formed expansive enough to stab her tongue through, but the silhouettes cut by the vines had kept her attention, and she hadn’t felt nauseous since crossing the Tennessee border.
That first night, Regina and her father gravitated to the deck of the beach house they were renting to listen to the ebbing waves and Percy Sledge rolling through the windows. Her father mouthed the lyrics; All the things that we’ve been through, you should understand me like I understand you. Regina pretended not to notice that her father’s attention was on a young couple out in the waves. She sang to herself, I see the moon, the moon sees me. The moon sees somebody I want to see.
He swallowed the two fingers of Jim Beam.
“Can I ask you something?” Regina paused for a reply, but took his silence as a sign to continue. “Why did you marry mom?”
Her father tapped the rim of his glass to cue his daughter that he was ready for a refill. “You can leave the bottle, Sugar.” He waited for the liquid to be pored before acknowledging to her question.
“Why do you want to know that?” he asked. Regina shrugged, but she was thinking about the couple, trying to imagine what had captured her father’s attention. “Well, I guess it was the right thing to do.” He chuckled, dropping the glass back onto the table harder than necessary. He poured another, a full one this time.
“Why do people get married?’
“Shit, Regina. Why all the questions? Damn.”
“I don’t know.” Regina picked at a scab on her ankle. She doubted her dad would notice if she left without his answer.
“Your mother has never been much to look at, in the face, you know. You’re going to have huge breasts just like her.” He laughed, “You’ll appreciate it someday.”
He didn’t continue, so she pulled herself up from the deck. As she opened the door, and her father asked, “Was that what you were after?”
Her mom checked in on her at bedtime. The circles under her mother’s eyes had grown darker throughout the day. Regina said, “I don’t want to get big breasts.”
“What brought that on?” her mom sighed.
“If I get breasts, I’ll cut them off.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you’ll bleed to death.” She kissed her forehead and turned out the light.
Motionless in that field with the crumpled bike fifty feet from her, her only view had been the imperceptible throbbing of the posies and her own blood drowning the rocks by the side of the road. In the intimacy of those moments, she remembered her mother’s warning, bleeding to death, and she laughed. It rose as a watery cough, but by the time the driver of the car was close enough to hear, she was hysterical. In her mind she was laughing, but all the man heard was choking murmurs, then silence.
He assured her that she was okay, that help was on the way. He also said, “Too dark to be on a bike, any other car wouldn’t have seen you either.” He prayed a few times, but never got past “Dear Lord, please…”
She wanted to defend herself, an explanation; she needed to move, to feel her legs pumping beneath her. And it was better in the dark. But all she could say to the man who had removed his shirt to press against her bleeding right leg was, “My mother was right.”
The man did send flowers to the hospital, followed by a letter offering to buy her a new bike, but since he’d never visited the hospital, the irony of his offer was lost on him. He begged her to write back, which she did.
Dear Mr. Tyler,
I have dreams where I am riding my bike in my old neighborhood, and my mother is calling me in for dinner, only the bike keeps going in circles. Isn’t that strange? Are you married? I would like to meet you.
They continued writing to each other after her release from the hospital.
She wrote; Where did you sleep last night? I dreamed it was with me.
He answered; I don’t sleep much these days.
She wrote; Do you ever touch yourself?
He begged; Please forgive me.
Her movements took on new forms. In the beginning, it took her forty-five minutes to walk the six blocks to the bus stop, but she was getting stronger with her counterfeit leg. As stumbling became walking, she let herself believe that she might come to a time when she did not have to think about the act of moving forward.
On her bus to work, she noticed a man across the aisle sketching her on an oversized pad. She had been trudging along her route, just a few minutes earlier, and the same man had been following her through the streets. She was sure she’d felt him staring at her. Her first impression was, “He thinks I’m beautiful,” which made her laugh out loud. She knew better than to make eye contact with him. He would start by telling her to “be safe out there,” followed by “God bless you” and then “Could a pretty girl like you spare some time?”
His hands and pant legs were covered in residue, a layer of charcoal dust thicker than the fabric of his jeans. It was conceivable that at one time he had been good-looking. The features were still there, but gravity had taken its toll. Once strong, broad cheekbones now had wrinkles above and below to conceal their form.
Did he consider himself an artist, Regina wondered, or was this just something he did to make pathetic women feel attractive enough to go to bed with him? She watched the way he rotated his hand across the page to draw arcs and curves, eyebrows, breasts and lips. She was tired of his incessant flipping of the pages, constantly starting over.
Regina clawed at the rope to signal her stop. “You thought I’d be easier,” she mumbled. She would wait for another bus.
She had applied for this job after the accident, so her co-workers had always known this version of her, no other. She was one of the older employees; most were straight out of high school and would never leave Cincinnati. When she started, all the girls feigned pity and invited her to lunch or tried to involve her in the office gossip. But after her repeated brush-offs, everyone but Janey had given up; Janey who displayed the most garish crucifix above her bosom that Regina had ever seen.
“Morning, Regina. I’m going for coffee. Would you like something?” Janey hummed “A Closer Walk with Thee” while Regina booted up the computer and connected her headset. “I have a whole order here from everybody, so it wouldn’t be any trouble to add on a bagel or a danish for you.”
“Don’t have any money,” Regina said.
“Oh, I’ll spot you and you can get me another time.”
Regina swiveled to scowl at her. “I don’t like to owe people,” she said, and then flashed a courteous smile. Regina willingly made her cold calls as they kept her away from her coworkers. She understood the excuses mumbled by her targets on the other end of the phone. Of course they didn’t want to buy organic cleaning products; she didn’t want to sell them either, but both sides played the game. The women she worked with weren’t as obvious.
“OK,” Janey said. “Your hair looks really nice today.” She bolted before Regina could tell her to piss off.
She had caught a glimpse of the portrait as she was escaping the bus. It was her mouth he was drawing, over and over, as if no amount of sketching could capture its glimmer and magnetism. She should have pressed the metal leg against him. “This is what you really want. Don’t be such a coward.”
She should have taken the page. She could have mailed it to Mr. Tyler. He would see- in her mouth, in her lips, in the way they twitched–this one trace of her.
Tending to the fresh tattoos involved twice-daily applications of Neosporin and gauze. She had been told that the tattoos would itch, but that she couldn’t scratch, under any circumstances. She was only allowed to pat. It was the buzz just below the surface of a sunburn as it begins to peel, only this time the offending skin couldn’t be pulled away without sacrificing the detail. So she would pat, pat, pat until the irritation subsided. The maintenance of the tattoos paralleled the care of the right leg, the bandages and antibiotic cream, but the itch was different. The stump didn’t itch around the wound; rather it tingled below the amputation, and not a blessed thing to scratch. There were seizures under her right kneecap, the kneecap that had probably long since been incinerated. The tattoos taught her to pat. She would pat the remaining knee, the sofa cushion, the top of her head, until she calmed the crawling.
She had fooled around with the man who had rendered her first tattoo. She took him home, detached her leg, sucked him off, and asked him to leave. It was a liberation. He could go back to the tattoo parlor and tell his buddies about her, “What a freak. Metal bone thing. Like bionic-fucking-woman or something,” while she would still be uncoiling herself in bed with a chilled bottle of vodka. Everywhere she fingered the bottle, the frost melted, and after a swallow she would peer through a newborn eye.
She chose a different tattoo parlor for the next one. The man behind the drawing board avoided facing her, talking to her foot instead. She flexed the muscles in her right thigh while she described what she wanted; “a depiction of Mary,” Regina said, “but with my face, my features.”
“Are you sure you don’t just want a normal one?” His head was so bowed that she could make out the barbed tail of a dragon beginning at the base of his skull. She considered tracing the contours with her fingertips, slinking lower with each vertebra.
“And what is normal?” she asked.
“You know,” he mumbled and pulled out a sheet covered in a multitude of Madonnas: praying with a rosary, praying without a rosary, gazing toward the heavenly kingdom, eyes flooded in anguish, but all with the same face.
“Like this, the way she really looked.”
“I don’t see the pose most men expect from a virgin.” She met his eyes. “You keep that picture in the back?” He put the examples away and made the first mark on a blank page, copying Regina, every piece of her face in detail. As her replica materialized under his hand, she abandoned her plan to take him home with her.
Close-up it was obvious that this was not the portrait of Mary hanging in galleries and swinging from rearview mirrors. Her brow was too pronounced to be noble, the lips too pinched to be nurturing, and a nose so broad that no God would have appointed her to suffer the birth of his son. However, from a distance, the unmistakable graces were there, the veil and the ethereal glow. Veil and glow, that was all anyone needed to see. No one would ever get too close, close enough to realize that her face was not holy.
At night, she lingered on the nose of the tattooed Madonna, the inked allegory a lulling bedtime story. The kids in school had made fun of it. They had called her Pug, after the dog in their first grade reader. She was never certain if it had been a reference to her square nose or if they were just calling her a dog. At eight-years-old, she began asking for a nose job. She would scrutinize her reflection and crush her nose into a point. All she wanted was to have as much removed as a doctor would allow. She would slice noses off of magazine women and paste them onto her school picture. If the photo cuttings were large enough, she would bind them to her own face.
She finally wore her parents down after she turned seventeen. They were sick of her morbid fascination with the details of the operation, the removal of pieces. They made an appointment.
The surgeon said, “I see what you don’t like. It has no shape, no substance to speak of.” He had an opening for the following day.
“I need some time to think about it,” she said.
“If it’s the money,” the doctor said, “we can work out a way for the insurance to pay.”
Regina didn’t mention the surgery to her parents again. She didn’t want to admit that deep down she had believed that the doctor would tell her that there was nothing wrong. That nothing needed to be amended to make her beautiful.
Every morning on the bus, she would scan the seats for the sketcher, not certain if this was an effort to guard against his advances or to invade his territory. After a few weeks had passed, with no sightings, she felt assured that he had moved on to a different route and new victims. But, then, there he was with his right cheek stained black.
She perched on the edge of his seat.
“Why do you do this?” she asked.
“Why do you do that?” He pointed to her inked-up leg. When she didn’t retaliate, he continued.
“Practice,” he said. “You never know when people are going to get off. So you have to choose.
What’s the most important piece to get down before you lose them? If I get the right piece of someone, just right, I don’t need the rest.”
She didn’t speak for the remainder of the trip, but let him sketch her in silence.
He followed her onto the sidewalk in front of her office. “It’s not the best,” he said and presented her with a page torn from the spiral binding. “I keep that.”
She didn’t bother to look at the image before responding with, “I only want the best.”
When Mr. Tyler finally consented to meet, Regina chose a restaurant less than a block from her apartment. She made her intention blatantly clear in her latest invitation. “It’s near my place, won’t even need a bike to get there if we need to.”
She arrived early to pose herself and interrupted the restaurant’s switch from lunch to dinner. Waiters were shuffling the tables from paper to cloth covers and lighting the candles that sit dark through the buffet shift, as if the possibility of a flame could make the vats of food more appealing. She was left with the mingling of paper and candlelight, functional and seductive, pragmatic and illusory.
By this point, the tattoos were halfway up her thigh. She wore a skirt cut high enough to hint that a tiny tract of uncovered flesh could still be discovered. While she waited, she occupied herself with a guy who she sensed was giving her the once-over. He was with a girl, model wife material, high ponytail and white tights. The girlfriend was blathering on about the artwork in the restaurant, blind to his fixation on Regina tracing a finger along a permanent garter eight inches above her knee.
Mr. Tyler approached the table with his head down. The features she could make out were jeans, blazer and the beginning of a widow’s peak. He was not the man she had created. There were no grounds for his eternal repentance, there had been no willful harm, no legal repercussions, but his guilt was her opportunity. Her chance to meet the man who had inspired her reanimation.
Regina stood to meet him. Mr. Tyler sat down immediately and asked her to, please, do the same. She had decided not to wear the leg today.
Regina let the unspoken sit between them.
“Are you worried I’ll fall over? Don’t. I’m used to this.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I mean-”
“Do you tell everything about yourself on a first date?” He was thirty-five, thirty-eight at most.
“I’m sorry if you thought this was something else. I don’t think…” He struggled to find the words to explain why he was there.
“I’m teasing, Mr. Tyler.”
“Call me Frank.”
She stretched her left leg onto an empty seat at the table next to them and pointed to a tattoo of a tandem bike racing across her thigh. Above the driver were the words “Mr. Tyler” and under the second character, “me.”
“I didn’t know that I was supposed to call you Frank then. Sorry.” She pulled her leg back and tucked it under the table, but not before noticing the guy with the girlfriend peering up her skirt. She pressed her legs together and faced away from him. “Listen, Frank. I didn’t get my first kiss until I was twenty-one. And then it was some drunk guy who spilt a daiquiri all over my lap. And do you know what he did next? He licked it off my leg, and then kissed me.”
“Would you like a drink or something?” He raised his hand to signal the waiter, but Regina grabbed his wrist and held it to the table.
“When I saw him the next day on campus, I tried to kiss him again, and he shoved me. Literally shoved me. And I thought, that’s it. That’s the way it’s going to be for me.” She let go of his hand. “Not any more, Frank.”
“This may sound like a stupid question, but,” Frank hesitated, “does it hurt?”
“It hurt more to have it.”
Frank Tyler offered to drive her home after dinner, but Regina refused with a simple “No, thank you.” He wrote his number on a napkin colored by the marinara sauce from his chin and told her to call if she needed anything, anything at all. As soon as he was out of sight, she gave her number to the guy with the girlfriend. She could have scrawled it on a used napkin, like discarded trash, but instead she stopped, leaned her crutch against his table, and said, “Write this down.”
As soon as she dragged her body through the door, she pulled the vodka from the freezer and turned on some Percy Sledge. She drank straight from the bottle and turned out the lights. The hours were spent polishing off the vodka and then uncorking a bottle of wine that had been collecting dust for over a year. She danced around the apartment, stumbling occasionally.
“You’re no beauty,” her father had said, “but if you’re lucky you’ll have one good feature. Guys don’t need much, just something to get their attention.”
She opened the window that faced the street and cried, “How’s this, dad? Which leg’s going to do it for them, huh?” One of her neighbors screamed down for her to shut up.
“So I’m drunk,” she shouted back.
A roar of “stupid cunt” from somewhere below her.
She didn’t know how she had come to rest on the bed with the phone in her hand, but she had automatically dialed her parents’ house. She hung up before it could ring. She had only called them three times since she left the hospital, since they had left her and gone back to Tennessee. Her mother always asked how she was holding up, such a stupid question, and her father would ramble in the background that he would talk to her next time.
She dug the napkin out of her pocket and followed the numbers. The woman who answered delivered the phone with only a slight hesitation.
“Frank. I need coffee.”
They drove past at least four Starbucks before parking by a small coffee shop near Fountain Square. Regina suspected that this was some sort of moral obligation he felt to only support owner-owned coffee shops, no corporate beans allowed.
“Are you a vegetarian, too?” she asked.
“Used to be,” he laughed, “but I missed hamburgers.”
Regina was convinced that when all of these nameless places closed for the night, Mr. Tyler would, beyond question, order a venti latte if he had an itch for one.
The place was abandoned. With the wealth of lonely tables, Regina still chose a spot in the back; a table decoupaged with ticket stubs from concerts and festivals, Phish and The Dead. Regina asked Mr. Tyler to order her a chai and sat down.
“I thought you needed coffee?”
“The spices relax me. I need that more.” She was sobering up. “You can take me home now if you want.”
“They’re open for another half hour.” Frank put her mug down, splashing foam onto the table. “So what do you want from me?”
“I don’t want anything.” Regina managed a shaky smile. “I was bored.”
“I’ve begged your forgiveness. I’ve offered you money. Well?” No answer. “I’m paying the bill and taking you home.”
“I like knowing that there is someone who thinks of me,” she said. “Admit it. You can’t get me off your mind.”
“I do think about you. But when I do, it doesn’t make me feel good.”
“Doesn’t matter.” She nodded her head toward a couple at another table playing checkers and footsie. When he switched his focus away from her, she asked, “Would you sleep with me?” Frank didn’t respond. “Not pretty enough for you, right?”
Frank drove her back to her apartment without conversation, but when she turned to open the door, he took her hand. She saw he was shivering and breathless, which overwhelmed her. He traced a scar on her thumb, the only scar that remained on her body from their collision, inevitable and cataclysmic.
“Regina, sit down.” He waited until she settled back into her chair. “Why would you want to?”
“To know what it would feel like.”
“To sleep with me?” he buried his discomfort in a laugh.
“To have you inside me. Someone who can’t stop thinking about me, even when I’m not under you.”
“If I go up there with you, it’ll just be once,” he said.
“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Regina pressed her lips to his bare neck.
Frank fell asleep right after. She kept vigil over his surrendered body, slumbering like a newborn and just as vulnerable. It would be so simple to erase a piece of him, balance the equation. She brushed his eyelid as it danced through a dream.
“Mr. Tyler. Wake up.” He jolted up and wiped a bit of saliva from the corner of his mouth. “Don’t you need to get home?” she asked.
“What time is it?” he asked, searching for his watch.
“Morning. She’ll be worried.”
Regina collected his wallet, keys and glasses from the banana box that served as her nightstand.
“Your stuff.” She handed the items to him one at a time to him, lingering on his palm with each touch. As he left the room, Mr. Tyler hesitated in front of a photo tacked on the wall. It was a Polaroid of Regina on the deck of the beach house, perched on top of the banister, legs swinging over the side.
“My dad always said I was too tall for a girl,” she took the picture down, poking the point of the tack between her teeth.
“It looks nice.”
She tucked the photo into the front pocket of his pants. “It was.”
Regina walked him out of the apartment building and onto the street. Though he was facing her, his eyes were focused on his car at the end of the block.
“You can call me anytime, Regina.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Tyler.”
“Frank,” he said and gave her a brotherly shoulder squeeze. She remained on the sidewalk to see if he would glance back to her for a bungling smile and wave, but he just climbed in the car, adjusted the stereo, and drove away.
Regina walked with no destination in mind, but it felt good to travel in a direction. It was a humid day, and she could breathe in the ocean right there in Ohio. It was the scent of that summer on the coast. The smell of the breakers hanging in front of her revived a memory of standing in the waves, the rapid rush of the beach washing away under her feet when the tide receded, tiny fish burying themselves in the sand below her.
“Gina, you need more sunscreen,” her mother had scolded. She wouldn’t listen. She went deeper until she was certain that the next wave would be the one to consume her. But they never did. The gentle swells just lifted her into the air with each surge.
He was at the bus stop, eyes shut, face tilted back in the sun. She sat beside him, mindful of not disturbing his meditation, and studied the page open on his lap. Without opening his eyes, he offered the book to her and Regina received it with the reverence bestowed upon holy relics. A few were smudged by the weather or the swipe of his hand across a newly drawn cheek. Every expression distinct, one mournful, one uncertain, one proud, but all her.
Regina pored over every sketch until she found one she knew had captured her. Stripping it from the binding didn’t leave a hole. No one would ever know it had been there at all.