When asked if I have a tattoo, I typically say no. A lie, but one easily supported by my habit of wearing clothing. I do have a tattoo. One. Very large. On my back, side to side, from just beneath my neckline all the way to my tailbone. Believe it or not, I never intended to become one of those people. Tattooed.
It began with a lotus flower. Such a beautiful blossom to thrive in murky, muddy waters. At twenty-three, I’d thought the lotus a perfect metaphor for my life. Internal life, to be exact, as there existed no physical evidence to denote my growth in filth.
I’m one of the lucky ones. Born to wealth, raised with wealth. The best private schools, my pick of universities. New cars. Designer clothes. Nothing I wanted was denied me. Nothing I needed was withheld—at least in a material sense.
Maybe that’s the problem. Plenty modern day philosophers agree: the age of entitlement is upon us. Our nation’s youth has been corrupted by too much of… well, everything. But I’ll leave the preaching to the preachers.
I’m just living my life.
Sure, I could have explored the revelations of my early twenties in various other, less painful ways. A vacation or a new haircut. Had I still been accepting their money, my parents would have paid for both.
But I’d wanted a tattoo.
Which is why, now in my late twenties, I find myself walking around a La Jolla, California art gallery on a balmy Friday night in March.
There’s a photograph of me somewhere. Three feet by five feet. Huge. I haven’t sought it out yet, a little afraid to see myself exposed. It’s one of six photographs by my best friend, Lillian Harris, that are being displayed in an exhibit entitled Fringe.
The irony, of course, is that my lifestyle is anything but fringe.
I work for an architectural firm. I wear blouses with collars and slacks. I put in eight, sometimes ten hours a day, and go home to the downtown condo I share with Lillian.
Until tonight, no one save Lillian has seen my back in two years. It’s always been a private matter. Mine alone. A roadmap of my search for the answer to the little question: Who am I?
There’s an idiom I heard once, long ago. It didn’t make sense then, but it does now.
A wise man once said nothing.
I take a sip of champagne, not tasting it. I’m surrounded by people, enough that my pulse isn’t quite steady. It’s not that I dislike small talk with strangers. I loathe it.
I’ve actually come a long way in the eight years of my twenties. There was a time I couldn’t look people in the eye. It had to do with crippling insecurities about my worth as an authentic human being. But that was only part of the reason. The other is more difficult to explain.
When I was fourteen, I read a book on Native Americans. I don’t remember the title or why I read it. I learned that in the early 1900s, many Native Americans were terrified of having their pictures taken. They believed their souls were in danger when the bulb flashed.
Silly, maybe, to the modern mind. But for some reason, it stuck with me. For nearly a year afterward, I didn’t look anyone in the eye. Not directly. I was convinced eye contact was the equivalent of a lightbulb flashing on an antique camera.
If you saw my eyes, you saw my soul. And if you saw my soul—and were looking in the right place—you would see the truth. At that age, I’d had no clue what the truth was. Looking back, though, it’s as clear as a neon sign. I’d been painfully shy and painfully afraid of everyone and everything. Not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough.
That’s what the shrinks have said, in any event.
The champagne isn’t as cool as I like. The bubbles don’t soothe my raw throat but dry it out further. I should have taken water, but hadn’t wanted to disappoint Lillian.
This is her night and we are celebrating.
I wander through the crowd, not looking directly at anyone but taking stock of all. Where the exits are. How many people stand between me and freedom. Clothes, voices, gestures. I read people like books. I write their stories by watching and listening.
I’m not a voyeur. (Or maybe I am.)
A man and two women stand before a mounted photograph to my left. I can’t see much of the actual image, just a play of darkness and color. My stomach sinks a bit, however, as I realize the darkness is hair, the color a vivid blue.
It’s me they’re looking at.
The image is of a woman who is sensual, captivating.
Forcibly dissolving any association between the image and Self, I focus on the trio.
They are a whimsical chapter in the evening’s imaginary narrative. The man, standing in the middle, has his arms slung companionably across the women’s shoulders. He is well over six feet tall, with casually mussed dark hair, and wears jeans and a long-sleeved black sweater. The women are wearing short, loud dresses and spiked heels. One has fire-engine red hair cut close to her head. The other is platinum blonde, her long locks styled in waves reminiscent of silver screen sirens.
There are tattoos visible on both women. Just a couple—an ankle, a shoulder blade—tastefully done and colorful. I can’t see if the man is likewise marked, but feel it is a reasonable conclusion.
I can almost see my mother’s haughty sneer.
The trio stand out among the other patrons, who although mostly young, are a mixture of Old and New Money. And yes, there’s a difference. Needless to say, Old Money has been rich a long time. Generations upon generations. The Rockefellers, Du Ponts, and Vanderbilts. They are the closest set to aristocracy this side of the pond. But I’m not talking about bank account balances. The real distinction is in the accessories, both tangible and cerebral.
Old Money is subtle—it speaks through quality (not necessarily quantity) of jewelry and a person’s carriage. The tilt of a head, the preciseness of a voice. They’re wearing designer brands but you can’t see the labels. New Money is louder and more boastful. Louis Vuitton handbags, flashy sports cars, and in some unlucky cases, accidental exposure of genitalia.
At least, this has been my experience. I’m aware of treading the line of generalization. But I’ve been watching a long time.
The trio intrigues me. It isn’t even their looks, per se, but how relaxed they are outside their implied cultural element. Having spent a lifetime trying fit in my own skin, I easily recognize those who do.
Simultaneously envious and repelled, I move several steps closer to them.
“I like this one the best,” says the man.
In an arch tone, the blonde woman replies, “Of course you do, Alex. You can see her tits and ass.”
I shudder involuntarily.
The photograph is a nude. Given the extent of my tattoo, it was unavoidable. The background is obscured, just hinting at environment. Washed wood, exposed brick, bright daylight. I’m seated on a wooden crate facing a window. A robe of black silk pools around my hips, giving the illusion of modesty.
There is a slight twist in my torso, a hint of a profile. Enigmatic curve of lips. My breasts aren’t actually exposed, but there’s a definite suggestion of one. The photograph says: I’ve been caught unawares and have just begun looking over my shoulder. I am smiling because I know who is there, and I welcome their company.
It’s an excellent photograph. Evocative without being erotic. Artistic without pretension. The lighting is perfect, soft but penetrating. Lillian is very talented. It also happens to be the only photograph in her series with a human subject, an oddity that somehow blends with her other, mostly grim urban scenes. The remainder of the exhibit consists of paintings and sculpture. Abstract and dark. Fringe, supposedly.
The man chuckles. “Whatever, Nicole. The design on her back is impressive. I wonder who the artist is.”
It’s my art, but I keep the thought to myself.
“I might buy it,” continues the man, Alex.
My brows lift as his statement forces me to alter his narrative. (Though perhaps he doesn’t realize the photograph is marked a thousand dollars.)
The redhead snorts loudly. “Where are you going to put it?”
Alex shrugs. I sense discomfort radiating from him, and am unsurprised when he shifts, dropping his arms to his sides. “I don’t know. What does it matter?”
The blonde—Nicole, he called her—turns to frown at him. “Did you see the price?” she asks.
My narrative reasserts itself. Until Alex shrugs again. “It’s reasonable.”
Anxiety surges, causing my fingers to clench on the stem of my champagne flute. The notion of my photograph being bought hadn’t occurred to me. Sad, but true.
A tingle along my arm cues me to a presence beside me. I recognize Lillian’s perfume and glance at her. She’s smiling and looking at the trio, who haven’t moved.
“You should introduce yourself,” she murmurs, though both of us know I won’t.
I summon my social smile. “The man is considering buying it.”
“No shit,” she breathes, and then she’s gone, striding quickly toward a potential sale. “Hi there,” she says brightly. “Can I answer any questions?”
At her voice, Alex turns. I have my first glimpse of his features. Pale skin, beautiful bone structure. Unapologetically masculine. Sharp and fierce. I can’t determined the color of his eyes, which are shaded by thick, dark lashes. I’m disturbed by how much I want to.
“Who’s the girl?” he asks without preamble.
Lillian is surprised, and her eyes inadvertently flicker in my direction. My body suffers immediate, all-system lockdown. Frozen, even my breath stalls as Alex slowly turns to follow her gaze.
His eyes are the dark blue of the Pacific at sunrise.
I imagine a flash—my soul stolen.
My family is New Money hellbent on becoming Old Money. What this looks like: my parents were raised dirt poor in the Midwest. Akron, Ohio. High school sweethearts who dreamed of a better life. When my father received a scholarship to Stanford, they left everything (nothing) behind and moved west.
My father studied hard and graduated at the top of his class, then went on for his MBA. Once out of college, he landed a job as a corporate accountant and quickly earned regard for both his competence and no-bullshit attitude.
He rubbed shoulders with people who knew people. My mother was a perfect companion, for she excelled at socializing with the wives of people who knew people. She’d been a beauty pageant queen, not to mention prom queen and head cheerleader.
Between his skills and her networking, by the time my father was thirty, he was the CFO of an international investment bank based out of Los Angeles.
Boom. Rags to riches.
My mother handled the transition well. She has always possessed the unshakable belief that she deserves to be rich. My father, not so much. He still prefers corn on the cob to caviar.
But that’s another story.
The relevant fact is that my father consistently worked sixty-plus hours a week until we kids reached our late teens and early twenties. Oliver is the oldest, now thirty. Then comes me at twenty-eight. And finally is my sister, Tabitha, who will turn twenty-six in May.
I love my father. I do. But in his quest to provide a lifestyle for his family that he himself had not known, he was an absentee parent. The raising of the children fell squarely on my mother’s shoulders. Although to be fair, the burden was generously shared with an army of nannies, tutors, and coaches.
There was nothing organic about my upbringing. Every stage of my development was carefully planned, staged, and executed. Piano lessons began at age four. As did dance lessons. Gymnastics. Horseback riding. Golf. Tennis. Polo.
By twelve, I was fluent in French and Italian, and had a handle on conversational German. I also picked up a fair amount of Spanish by virtue of hanging around our housekeeper, Maria, as she dusted and rearranged knickknacks.
Hours upon hours—upon hours—of etiquette tutoring. Cotillions. High tea. Debutante balls. Theater and the opera. Charity events. Black tie galas. Jewels. Remember the jewels? They’re important.
My reward for excellence was anything I wanted. Perform and reap the benefits. Fail and be punished. It should bring to mind the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov. To put it lightly, my mother is a fan.
In short, I have extensive training on how to react gracefully in unexpected social situations.
I am what my mother and Pavlov made me.