Take Me Home (A Belladonna Ink Story)
Thanksgiving arrives in one week and one day. Feeling hemmed in by parental expectations? Are they disappointed by your sapphic proclivities? I can help! The only pay I want is the holiday meal!
I didn’t know what I was looking for until I saw her Craigslist ad.
I love my family. I’m lucky to have them—well, most of them. But my aunt? I’m so tired of her giving my mom crap because I happen to be a lesbian. So one pink-haired tattoo artist pretending to be my girlfriend will annoy my Christian fundamentalist aunt right back and make my Thanksgiving perfect.
Only . . . Brooke turns out to be cuter and more complicated than I expected. And before you can say “yorkiepoo,” we kiss . . . and abduct a dog together. I want to keep them both—but Brooke isn’t the kind to be kept. Lucky for me, I’m the kind to chase what I want.
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“Here’s a novel idea,” I say into the phone. “Don’t invite Aunt Daphne.”
I know what my mom is going to say before I even hear the sigh. “If Daphne isn’t there, Connie won’t come.”
“As if you want her there either.”
“If Connie doesn’t come, my dad will go with her to her family in Connecticut.”
“And we wouldn’t want that.” Thankfully my mom can’t see my eyes roll, or I’d catch hell. As it is, my tone is probably a touch too wry, and she responds with her own exasperation.
“I know you don’t always agree with his politics, but he’s my father and your grandfather, and it’s the holidays.”
“I just don’t want Daphne to ask if I’m ever settling down or if I’m content in spinsterhood. Seriously, who even says ‘spinsterhood’ anymore? Can a word count as a word anymore if no one uses it?”
“By that logic, it’s still in since Daphne used it.”
“Yeah but that was almost two years ago.”
“Then what are you complaining about?”
“Trisha’s had a baby.” And since everything Trisha does is magical to her mother, Daphne is just fine with Trisha’s works-as-a-server husband. Not that I’m a snob or anything, but how does a twenty-year-old expect to be a stay-at-home mother when her husband works at Applebee’s? Unless he’s giving head under the table, his tips can’t be that great. “I don’t want to hear about how brilliant that chubby-cheeked thing is and why Daphne thinks he’ll be the first man on the moon.”
“We’ve already had a man on the moon,” Mom replies bluntly.
“Does Daphne realize that?”
I get a special treatment of the sigh twice in a row. “If you don’t like it, stay at the kids’ table.”
“But I was finally going to move up,” I say instantly, but it’s not such a terrible idea. Sierra, my seventeen-year-old sister, is pretty fun. “What would really shut her up is if I brought a date.”
“You’re welcome to if you want, but please do keep in mind that it’s only a week till Thanksgiving. Let me know as soon as you figure out who you’re going to bring.”
“Sure, sure,” I say, and I’m not paying attention as we give our good-byes, because my mind is fully wrapped up in the holiday.
Daphne knows I’m gay, inasmuch as she knows physics. She’s heard of it, but she absolutely has no interest in mucking about with it. Her head will spin if she actually has to look at me holding hands with a woman.
So naturally I click through all my usual online dating sites. OkCupid is a bust of course, since my inbox is currently filled with men asking if I’m really sure I’m a lesbian—and if I am, is there any way they can watch? Just once? Ugh. My queer girl dating app nets one possible, a girl I’ve been messaging with for a couple of weeks, who I know is living away from her family. And she’s a student, so maybe she can’t afford to go home.
Out of impulse, while I wait for her to message back, I click over to Craigslist and the WSW section. I don’t expect much, and I’m not sure why I check, except maybe I’m more of a glutton for punishment than I want to admit.
Unexpectedly, I hit pay dirt.
Seeking an inappropriate Thanksgiving date?
Goddamn, that title is made for me.
Fate is a thing. I rub my palms together before clicking the link and wiggle my butt deeper into my couch in excitement.
It’s not my parents who are pestering me about kids, but just about everything else looks spot on.
Thanksgiving arrives in one week and one day. Feeling hemmed in by parental expectations? Are they disappointed by your sapphic proclivities? I can help!
I’m twenty-four and all but six months of those years have been spent outside of prison walls. I’ve been told I look anywhere between seventeen and thirty with healthy applications of makeup. I have my own car, which has sweet-as-hell flames painted on the nose. Best VW Rabbit on the West Coast. I work as a tattoo artist, so depending on the family, I can either talk long and loud about my work or pretend to be a stripper.
Other things I can do:
Talk about how I only eat clean, whole foods even while I scarf down an embarrassing number of calories.
Ask your married family members if they’re really sure they’re straight.
Talk about the mundane trap that is the bourgeois middle-class life and how no one will shackle me down.
Launch into conversations with how I plan to have seven babies and discuss in detail the homebirth I’ve attended. Will you give me bonus points for saying “placenta” as the cranberry sauce is served?
I’ll consider taking part in a catfight, but only if it evolves naturally. No jumping without provocation will be done. I also draw the line at groping anyone, but if you want to kiss me after your grandfather says amen, I’m cool with it.
The only pay I want is the holiday meal!
“Perfect,” I say to my empty apartment as I punch the air.
Please include your favorite Muppet in the email subject line so I know you’re not a robot.
I type Rowlf, of course, in the subject line and then my email is simple and short: Why?
I’m hoping for a mysteriously quirky vibe.
She doesn’t answer until morning, which I deem an acceptably restrained time. That doesn’t paint her as a desperate weirdo. In bed, I hold my phone over my face and click open the email as I try to scrub sleep out of my eyes with my other hand. I stayed up way, way too late watching Homeland. I’m gonna need a triple shot if I’m going to make it through my 10 a.m. meeting without drooling on the conference table.
My why, she responded. Faraway family, and friends who are either vegetarian or being ironic and making turduckens. What’s your why?
God, she seems snarky and perfect already. I grin, then flip over and bury my face in my pillow to squeal. This is the most splendid plan I’ve ever had. I take all of my shower and commute to think about my response before typing it out while sitting in my Lexus.
My why is only three words: Christian fundie aunt. Wanna play? I tell her my name and invite her to my favorite coffee shop on Sixteenth, a couple of blocks down from the San Sebastian beach.
Her email comes during my two o’clock status report. I’m Brooke. I work at Belladonna Ink, the new place on Main. I can’t meet that early. I’ll be at work. Either you can come to the shop or I’ll meet you around eleven. Mickey’s on Seventeenth?
It’s a bar popular in San Sebastian, so she probably really is a local. Me? In a tattoo parlor? This feels so naughty. Maybe I should get a little butterfly somewhere discreet, like my ankle, and then I could brag to Daphne about how my new girlfriend had tattooed me up.
I’m in. I’ll be there at six.
By the time I push open the door to Belladonna Ink at 6:01, I’m so excited I’m shaking like a schnauzer. The entryway doesn’t look like I expected. There’s not a speck of red velvet anywhere, and the walls aren’t covered with frames full of possible tattoos. Instead, what looks like a reupholstered pew stretches along one wall. The cushions are rainbow-colored. Maybe I’d have gone to church more if we had pews like that. Maybe not though. The cookies were pretty crappy at the Baptist Church my mom preferred.
The lighting is surprisingly bright. A receptionist is perched behind the glass display counter filled with jewelry for all parts of the body.
She slips off her stool and leans toward me. “Hi, how can I help you?”
I start to talk, but only a squeak comes out. I clear my throat and pretend I can’t feel how hot my cheeks are. “I’m here to see Brooke.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Sort of.” I wrap the strap of my purse around my finger. “I told her I’d be coming by after work.”
“Oh cool. Let me just tell her you’re here.”
She disappears down the short row of cubicles created from half walls. Most of them are open-plan, but of course she heads right to the only one with all the curtains pulled tight, when I am dying of curiosity.
Naturally, I looked up Brooke’s profile on Belladonna Ink’s website, but her avatar is a pen-and-ink sketch of a deer with a mug of coffee. Cute drawing, but it didn’t give me much of an idea of Brooke as a person.
The receptionist pops back out. “Should be with you as soon as she’s done with her client.”
She’s in there? Right now? Putting ink into someone’s skin in a way they’ll keep forever? Mind. Blown.
I take a seat on the bench and try to distract myself with my phone. Mostly I look at the art on the walls. Eclectic and quirky, it seems like twenty different styles are covered. I wonder how many have been converted into tattoos. Surely not the Jackson Pollock style in rainbow pride colors? I tilt my head as I stare at it. After a few minutes, I’m sure I can see a landscape in the chaos, except it’s populated by small wooden creatures acting like humans.
I’m always terrible at those 3-D dot pictures. I overthink them.
“Hi, Keighley. I’m Brooke.”
She’s standing right next to me, one hand out. I jump up and shake probably a little too hard. A lot too hard, because she winces.
“Oh, sorry. I’m . . . I’m overeager. I might as well admit it.”
“You hate your aunt that much?”
“Yeah. Pretty much yeah. Is that terrible to admit?”
Brooke smiles. “Only if she doesn’t deserve it.”
“She does,” I manage to mutter, and I should get major props for that because I’m so distracted. So utterly distracted.
You see, Brooke is beautiful. Not only in a “not bad, if she’s nice, we’ll see” kind of way. But in the “stop on the sidewalk and stare as she goes by” kind of way.
She’s on the taller side, probably three inches taller than me. That puts her at about 5’9”. Her hair is clipped short in back with a thick sheath of long bangs falling over one eye, but it’s the electric pink color that really makes it pop. Her cheeks are round, and she’s painted her rosebud mouth with lacquer gloss the same candy pink as her hair. Her sleeveless T-shirt shows off one arm that’s completely covered in high-res black, gray, and red art. It’s so intense, I can only take it in by micro glances. Buried on her inner biceps is Alex from Clockwork Orange in his famous bowler hat.
“You’re not going to do me a ‘bit of the old ultraviolence,’ are you?”
She laughs a little. “Course not. Want to come back to my booth? I’ll buy you a soda.”
“I’ll take a Coke.”
She grabs one from a machine and an Orange Crush for herself, then leads me down the aisle. The cubicles are only rib-high, with taller curtains that can get pulled if more privacy is needed. Maybe it’s rude to peek, but I look anyway. The guy getting a chain inked around his wrist seems about what I expected, but I think maybe the ultra-pale-skinned girl getting a dream catcher on the back of her neck will regret that soon.
“Have a seat.” She waves but doesn’t specify.
There are three options: a folding chair meant for guests, a stool with wheels that looks like the kind kept in doctors’ offices, and the tattoo chair. It’s currently adjusted to the configuration of a dentist’s chair, so I opt for the wheelie stool. Brooke sits on the tattoo chair, but sideways. She kicks and her big black knee-high boots swing.
I turn the can of soda in my hands a couple of times. It’s chilled, but doesn’t have that near freeze I like. I crack it open anyway. Take a sip. “So you don’t have any family nearby?”
She shakes her head. That bright-pink hair flips back far enough that I can finally see both her eyes. They’re dark blue, or maybe close to gray. It’s hard to tell under the fluorescent lighting and behind the rings and rings of black mascara and liner and shadow. “I’m from Tennessee originally.”
I hear it in her voice, in the hint of sugar that rounds out her vowels and chops the middle I out of originally. “What made you move out here?”
“I didn’t really belong there. And once I saw California, I never went back.” She has a surprisingly enticing smile. That pink gloss matches her hair color exactly. Had she planned it? She had to have. “I wasn’t exactly the Southern belle my mama had hoped for.”
“Are you still in touch with her?” I can’t imagine what it would be like to not talk to my mom.
“Not really.” I think maybe she’s evading, but I’m not sure. “I’m okay. Gives me more time for my tattooing and my art.”
“What kind of art you do? Other than the permanent kind.”
“I paint. Just like a million other people.” She waves a hand. It seems like she’s not into talking about herself. “What do you do?”
“I’m an accountant. A CPA.” I flash a jazz hand. “Super exciting, I know.”
Brooke laughs. “I bet you have a retirement account. That sounds pretty exciting to me.”
“I do. Sometimes I spend Saturday night figuring out what age I’ll be able to retire at. If I’m being really far-out, I’ll drink wine and try to convince myself that retiring at fifty is possible.”
“You’re living the dream.”
She has a sense of humor. Excellent. “Is it really about a vegan or turducken Thanksgiving?”
She shrugs. “Kind of. Thanksgivings are great with friends, but they’re always kind of disjointed. No one’s totally sure where to go or how it all works. This year is even worse. Skyler is going out of town so we have no host. I don’t even think anyone’s gotten a turkey yet.”
I make a noise that’s kind of like a laugh. “That is not going to be a problem with my family. Everything runs like clockwork, down to Aunt Daphne’s picking on my mom about her hair color.”
“Is Daphne the fundamentalist?”
I nod. “I really have no problem with religion. I promise. It’s just her style of preaching how born-again she is, but then having an affair with her married personal trainer.”
“She thinks no one knows.” I roll my eyes. “But if I even held hands with a woman in front of her . . .”
“Kablooey town?” Brooke suggested.
“Like living on the Bikini Atoll.”
“You want an A-bomb holiday?”
“Maybe?” I nudge my toes across the tile floor. “Probably not, since Mom would be upset. But I at least want to make her way uncomfortable.”
“Got it. Anything in particular you would want me to do?”
I shake my head. “Be vaguely lesbian. Act like you’re interested in me.”
“That certainly won’t be a problem,” she says, and I think maybe she’s flirting with me. Possibly. “I just have one question for you.”
I lean forward. My blouse doesn’t have much in the way of cleavage, but I do that little upper arm shoulder scrunch thing anyway. “Yes?”
“What kind of sweet potatoes are going to be served?”
“Oh,” I say. “Um, the usual, I think.”
“But what kind is normal to y’all? Whole chunks or blended and smooth?”
“Blended. With an entire bag of marshmallows on top.”
“Exactly the right answer. I’m in.”
I clap my hands together, since overexuberant doof is my middle name. “Awesome! Send me your address and I’ll pick you up. Probably around two. We eat kind of early so there’s room for pie. And for Uncle Tony to get good and drunk.”
She shakes her head, and I wonder if maybe a drunk uncle is too much. “I’ll drive. Or if you don’t want to ride in my car, I’ll meet you there, or around the corner or whatever. However you want to play it, but I need an exit plan if things get too crazy.”
“Oh.” Heat hits my cheeks and the back of my neck. “Sorry. I should’ve thought of that. Here, let me give you my number. You can text me and we’ll sort it out.”
She hops off the table as she also pulls out her phone. “No, it’s fine, really. And I wouldn’t mind riding with you, except I promised Skyler that I would drive on my own.”
“Skyler? Who’s that?” Maybe a girlfriend—or a boyfriend. It’s the second time Brooke’s mentioned them. I don’t know if maybe Brooke is bi or pan. I wonder how serious they can be if they aren’t spending the holidays together.
“My boss.” She points to the artist doing the dream catcher while I type my contact info in her phone, trying not to touch the crack down the center too much. “Last year she made the turducken. And a pake.”
“A pie in a cake.” Brooke’s shoulders lift, and she looks at her boss with fond amusement. “Expectation bending is a thing of hers.”
“But you like traditions.”
She looks back at me, surprise wrinkling her brows. “I don’t think I’m exactly Leave It to Beaver casting call material, dude.”
I point out her sleeveless T-shirt. Once I manage to drag my gaze away from her beautiful arm ink, I notice the shirt’s the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. “You have your moments. Maybe a few years post-Beaver, but you do like trips down nostalgia lane.”
“You got me there.”
She sticks her hand out, and I grab it to shake, but all of a sudden she pulls me in closer. Brooke smells like peppermint and coffee. Her lips slide over my cheek in a whisper-soft kiss. “See you in a week,” she says.
I float away. Does this count as a blind date? Maybe not. I’m not sure I care. If we end up madly in love with two adopted kids and a handful of cats and dogs, driving a Suburban, the story will be even better if it’s not a date.
Once upon a time, Mommy was very upset with Great-aunt Daphne . . .