The tattoo on his wrist was itching again.
It always started this way. Toby always marveled at how it changed, as if his skin were re-writing itself. After the itching came the light. Then a new tattoo would show itself. He had asked his mother once why his tattoo was different than everyone else’s.
“Because you’re different, that’s why.”
“But everyone is born with a tattoo. It’s how we find who we’re supposed to be with. Someone else with the same tattoo is the perfect partner for us.”
His mother had sighed. They had had this conversation several times already and her answer was always the same. This time, however, she had patted the couch beside her and said: “Come and sit next to me.”
Crossing the room, he sat beside his mother, breathing in the scent of lavender she always wore. To Toby, it was the scent of home.
His mother drew up the cuff of her right shirt sleeve. Her tattoo was of a single flower in bloom, encased inside a circle. The petals were just stretching enough to press against the circle. The flower was white and the circle was red. His father had one just like it. He didn’t know what kind of flower it was.
“When I met your father, it was by sheer chance. I was out with a group of ladies from work and he spilled a drink all over me. It was as he was trying to mop up the drink and blot the liquid from my shirt that I saw his tattoo. He didn’t cover his up like most people do and wore it out in the open. When I asked him about it later, he told me that it was like wearing his heart on his sleeve.”
She stroked a finger over her tattoo softly, as if she could still feel his touch on her skin.
“You miss him, don’t you?”
“You know I do, Toby. I know you do, too.”
She was quiet for a moment but when she spoke again, her voice had the soft tone reserved for reliving memories. Jaxon often wondered if she knew he was picturing the memory coming to life in front of them.
“Your father was a marvelous man. He used to say that lotus flowers were special because they grew in mud. He marvelled that something so beautiful could grow in such ugly surroundings. He used to say that the mud was the obstacles of life, the suffering. Only then could the lotus, the wisdom of life, learn to grow.”
As his tattoo’s itch increased, Toby remembered this long ago day. He wondered is his tattoo was part of the mud, the obstacle that he carried with him on his skin. Toby was tired of obstacles and he was tired of men. He was done with them.
When he had met Philip, his tattoo had morphed from a feather into a single eye, seeming to see right into him when he looked at it. He had met Philip off line and they hit it off right away. They often joked with others, putting their wrists together and holding them up, saying: “We can see you!” The first year was full of bliss and then they moved in together.
Then the trouble started.
First Philip told Toby who he could talk to, what jobs he could do. Then he started telling him what friends he could have. Slowly, Philip cut away everyone that mattered out of Toby’s life. It happened so quietly that Toby hadn’t even noticed.
Then Philp drove a wedge in between him and his mother. When she passed away, something broke inside of Toby, something primal and raw. His tattoo had changed, but only slightly. Now it was an eye crying one pearlescent tear.
Moving out and moving away from Philp was the hardest thing that Toby had done. However, when he did so, his tattoo had morphed into a single cube of ice, shining on his wrist. It was cold to the touch. Toby marvelled at the time how the tattoo always mirrored his mood.
Desperate for some kind of companionship, he started to troll the bars. When he met Andrew, who sported his own ice cube tattoo, it didn’t occur to Toby to wonder if this mirrored Andrew’s heart as well as his personality.
On their second date, Andrew criticised how Toby dressed. He even went so far as to compare him to the paper bag princess. His best friend Jessie met Andrew on the third date and, afterward, poured Toby a glass of wine and gave him some advice.
“The guys a fucking loser. Lose him.”
“He’s nice underneath all the criticisms. Really he is.”
“Really? He has a fucking ice cube tattoo. Doesn’t that worry you?”
“Hey…” Toby rubbed at his wrist. “Mine’s an ice cube.”
“Yeah, this week. Who knows what it will change into next.”
“I don’t know if I can be alone.”
“You’re going to have to learn, sweet cheeks. You have to love yourself first.”
“Andrew told me that he loved me.”
“Oh and so soon, before he really knows you. Now you listen to me, Toby Gerald Danes.”
“Really, Jessie? All three names?”
“Yes, all three names. I want to get your attention. The guy is bad news. So was Philip for that matter, but you wouldn’t listen to me then. You listen to me now, okay?”
But Toby didn’t. He fell in love with Andrew and the prestige he exuded, the amount of money he spent on Toby. In the end though, there was something missing, something that Toby needed more than all the money in the world. True love.
Sure, Andrew said he loved him, but he didn’t treat Toby like anything close to the love that he read about. He was always reading something and the love some of the characters felt for each other lived off the page within him. He realised that he wanted real love in real life. He tried to see if he would find that with Andrew.
When Andrew slept with someone else, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen.
Philp and Andrew had been the last in a long string of failed relationships. He just didn’t have luck with men, couldn’t find one that would accept him for who he was and love him completely. He was done.
“Oh, so you’re going to turn into an old man then?” Jessie said.
“What do you mean?” He took a sip of his wine, the bottle sitting on the coffee table between them.
She sat up and looked at him. “You always go on about true love, but you’re just going to give up? Now that you’ve ditched the loser, you’re going to turn your back on love? What’s that about? Look at your tattoo.”
Looking down at his right wrist, he saw his tattoo: a broken heart that had been mended, sewn together with thread. Beside the heart was the spool of thread and the needle. “So? What about it?”
“You’re working on loving yourself, I get that. I totally do. That’s why your tattoo changed again, you’re trying to heal your heart. I know that, but part of healing is getting out there and trying again. You’re always talking about finding love. Why not be open to it?”
“I’m busy loving myself, thanks.”
“That will only get you so far. Look at me and Gavin, we love each other deeply and I never would have met him if I didn’t go out that night.”
Toby knew that Jessie had a point, but he didn’t say that. Instead, after Jessie left, he went back on the computer to try again. He had stopped meeting men in bars a long time ago. They were normally just interested in one thing and one thing only. However, the men all looked the same and he turned off the computer. He needed to get out.
He was showering when his tattoo changed again. It was a simpler one than his previous tattoos, just a small red circle with nothing in the centre. What did it mean? He thought. Shaking his head, he dressed and got ready to go out.
Toby didn’t go to a bar, but to a coffee shop. There was just something about being around other people that made him not feel so alone. Of course he brought a book with him. He was reading The Princess Bride again for the tenth time.
He was about to sit down when a man bumped into him and spilled an iced coffee drink all down the front of Toby’s shirt. The man was apologetic and was blushing furiously. While cleaning off his shirt front, Toby noticed his tattoo. It was a lotus flower.
He remembered what his mothed had said: “…lotus flowers were special because they grew in mud. He marvelled that something so beautiful could grow in such ugly surroundings. He used to say that the mud was the obstacles of life, the suffering. Only then could the lotus, the wisdom of life, learn to grow.”
Without thinking, he reached out and touched the man’s tattoo. “Why don’t you keep yours hidden?” Toby asked.
“I like to wear my heart on my sleeve.” He said. “It’s easier that way. Would you let me buy you a coffee or something to apologize? I’m a really nice guy, honest.”
“You don’t make it a habit to spill drinks on strange men?”
He looked at Toby and smiled. There was a light above his head that made him look as if he were wearing a halo. “You’re not so strange. My name’s Mike. What do you want to drink?”
“Just a coffee, black.”
“Okay, be right back.” Mike said.
Toby sat down at the table, his book in front of him, but instead of delving into the words, he was content to watch Mike as he ordered a coffee for him. Toby felt a moment of lightness that he couldn’t explain, as if his body had finally learned to breathe again.
His wrist began to itch again and he looked down at his tattoo. A single flower was growing in its centre, blooming slowly and reaching out for the edges of the circle. When Mike came back to the table, Toby noticed that Mike’s tattoo mirrored his own now.
Toby saw him looking. “Silly thing keeps changing on me.”
“No,” Toby said. “It’s not silly. Mine does the same thing.”
He showed Mike his own tattoo and Mike reached out to touch it. They watched as both of their tattoos shimmered and the lotus flowers began to shimmer, as if ruffled by a soft breeze. Toby knew what caused that breeze.
His heart had finally healed enough to let love in and it looked as if Mike’s had done the same. As they watched the tattoos, a leaf began to grow beyond the edge of the circle.
Toby wondered what kind of life they could grow together? Only time would tell and this time, he was ready.