A Better Design
by Arlen Feldman
Maya shyly handed over the piece of paper. Jake took it, examined the picture for a few moments, then nodded.
“Nice. On your back?”
He quoted her a price considerably lower than he should have, because she was very pretty, and went through all of the standard warnings about pain, about keeping it clean, that it would take two or three sessions. She nodded and smiled throughout it all.
A week later, Maya was lying face-down on the chair, her shirt gone, and her bra straps pulled to the side. Jake had transferred the stencil outline he’d made from her original artwork, which was hanging on the wall in front of them. He started the gun.
“Wait,” she said.
He was used to this too. First timers often had second thoughts at the last minute. That’s why he got a deposit—although Maya didn’t seem scared. She was staring at the picture she’d drawn. He waited patiently.
“I think I can do it better.”
Jake laughed. That was a first.
She came back six months later with a new version of the drawing. It was better.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.
She smiled at him. Because of the smile, he agreed to apply the deposit from last time to this. Also, she’d made her own template.
Jake started the gun, but didn’t move it near her skin. Five. Ten. Fifteen…
After the third time, Jake asked Maya out.
Over dinner of burgers and milkshakes, she pointed out all of the things she thought were wrong with the picture. Jake was an artist as well—had to be for what he did—but he didn’t think she could improve on her work. Still, Maya’s talent was lightyears ahead of his.
Jake had been wrong. Every time she redid the design, it got better. Sometimes little changes, sometimes major reworkings. It was growing in size as well. If she ever let him finally ink it, it would now cover her entire back.
There was no talk of payment now, since they were living together. Besides, he’d never got further than transferring the template, and often not even that far.
She’d almost let him do the tattoo before their wedding. She’d actually let the gun touch her skin before calling it off, and if you knew where to look, you could see the faint gray mark. When they lay side-by-side with her naked back to him, he loved to find the mark and trace where the design should be with his finger.
“That tickles,” she would say, but she never stopped him.
Jake couldn’t really see the differences between the versions now. Not that he would have told her that for the world. She still did new versions, every six months or so.
She’d also given up the ritual of coming and lying in the chair. He brought it up sometimes, but she just laughed.
“You could do the design on someone else,” she said.
“Never,” he said. He wouldn’t even consider it, as much as he would have loved to ink that design. It would have been the greatest tattoo he’d ever done.
It had been years since she’d done another version of the design. Her hand shook too much now for her to draw. He’d suggested, once or twice, that, since it was not changing, she might as well get it done. She just smiled, and shook her head.
“I’m too wrinkled,” she said. “It would look terrible.”
The doctor just shook his head, and Jake felt daggers shoot through his heart. He went back into her room, and took her hand.
“Doctor says you’re…you’re going to be fine,” he said.
She smiled at him and squeezed his hand. “You always were a terrible liar,” she said.
They let her go home because there was nothing they could do for her in the hospital. A hospice nurse moved in.
Jake sat next to her day-by-day, holding her hand. Sometimes they talked, but mostly not—they had no need to fill the silence. Every now and then, Jake swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.
“It’s time,” she said finally.
“No,” said Jake, the words barely audible. “I’m not ready.”
She freed her hand and tapped his arm. It was like being hit by a butterfly. “Not that, you idiot. The tattoo. I think I’m finally happy with the design.”
There were arguments about the risk of infection, and arguments about pain, and arguments about every other thing. She wore down Jake and then she wore down the nurse and then the doctors.
It took seventeen hours, in four sessions. She didn’t complain once about the pain. She wasn’t supposed to last a week, but she lasted the two months it took to do the design, and then another two weeks while it healed.
He brought down a mirror for her to see the final picture. It was the finest work he’d ever done, the best design he’d ever seen.
She looked at it and smiled, then frowned. “You know, I think I could make it better.”
“No,” said Jake, as he felt her hand go limp. “It’s perfect.”