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When Liberty walks into Ed Hardy's Tattoo City, she is already not as she was when she came into this world. She drips with jewels the way a tropical bird drips with colored feathers. She is dotted all over with little golden rings. It is as if she is covered inside with a fine spiderweb of lacy wires, and the precious gems and bright metal where the web is anchored peek out here and there to decorate her. There is a diamond nose ring, a delicate circlet through her belly button, amethyst and garnet studs in the tender tabs of flesh inside her ears. Her body is embroidered. She is crewelwork, filigree.
But it is not enough. The piercings are beautiful, but they are over too soon. They are too easy, too common; they don't leave enough of a mark. They don't do what she needs them to do. They don't say what she needs them to say. She is not entirely sure even what that is.
Bzzt, bzzt, bzzt, she hears. Bzzt, bzzt, bzzt. One of the two tattoo artists is finishing up a job. In an open cubicle, a very young man lies on a padded table with his pant leg rolled up. He is covered knee to ankle with a great, gaping trompe l'oeil wound. Crushed bones, tattered muscle, tendons, sinews, blood, and machinery show up on his flesh as though he has been skinned. The artist is rubbing more pinkish color onto a strip of muscle with a tattoo gun that looks like a tiny pistol. The young man is not squirming. Liberty wonders if it will hurt so little when her turn comes. Maybe by now he is used to it. He must have been on the table for hours receiving that monstrous tattoo, the outline first, then the color added, creeping into the picture like a flame along the edge of a newspaper.
"Just a minute," says the guy at the desk, who Liberty now realizes is not a second artist but only the helper. Under his T-shirt his arms are solidly red, blue, and green, the decoration stopping abruptly at his wrists, tattoo sleeves.
"That must hurt," Liberty says, jerking her head toward the guy on the table.
"He was in an accident last year. He's got all this metal in his leg."
"It's like he wants the outside to show the way his leg is on the inside. To honor it."
"So what can I do for you?"
Liberty unfolds the elaborate antique valentine. The helper calls over the tattooist. The guy with the metal in his leg just lies there.
"I wanted it a little smaller," Liberty says.
The artist shrugs. His name is Igor and he is from Denmark. It says so on a little flyer on the wall with the other brochures and qualifications of all the artists who work at Ed Hardy's Tattoo City.
Igor is holding up his rubber-gloved hands like a surgeon. He wears a Greenpeace T-shirt and his arms are covered with pictures of beautiful dark-haired women in swirling ocean waves. Would I see myself in there, Liberty wonders, gazing at his skin, wondering if a face like her own is there among the tides and eddies, if the inky water circles around hips like hers there on his biceps, and is then surprised that she has had the thought.
"You would lose a lot of detail," he says. He speaks formally, almost without contractions, in his Danish accent. "Honestly, I would not cut it down much. I like it very much. It is from where?"
"Just a street fair." Liberty is flustered with the flattery of the tattoo artist approving her choice. "Around last Valentine's Day, down by Saint Columbus's. This guy had a whole card table of them."
Igor tells her, "I love old prints and papers."
"Do people bring in a lot of them, to get copied?"
"People bring in everything."
Still holding his hands up, Igor watches while the helper at the front desk turns over the time-softened card. It is faintly perfumed, even now.
"Where?" Igor asks.
"I was thinking right here." She runs her fingers over the papery skin between wrist and elbow on the inside of her right forearm. "Will it hurt there?"
"It will sting anywhere you get it." He studies the lines, the cherubs, the roses, the curlicues. There is a romantic verse beneath the illustration. "You want that, also?" he asks, pointing, and she nods. "Wearing your heart on your sleeve, huh?" He grins.
He heads back to the padded table. "I can begin in one half hour," he calls over his shoulder, not to Liberty but to the guy at the desk. Bzzt, bzzt, bzzt.
"You can sit down," the guy says.
"I really might want it a little smaller," she says again. She has envisioned a floral, feminine accent to her golden skin and glistening jewels, not a big, full-blown butchy tattoo.
"No, you don't want to do that." It's the guy lying on the table speaking, and Liberty notices that his teeth are clenched and his voice is strained. He hurts after all. "Little tattoos just look stupid. You're going through all this, you know, pain, and you don't want to end up with just a colored freckle."
"Well, I didn't mean like a freckle," Liberty calls over to him.
He goes on talking. "It's important. They spread. They're always gonna spread. They get fuzzy. Get it as big as you can. They spread inside of you, too. They become more and more part of you."
Igor continues with his work, oblivious. Bzzt.
"First one?" the tattooee says.
"Oh, yeah." Now that he is talking to her, she feels it is okay to look at him more undisguisedly. His arms and shoulders are covered, not like the guy's at the desk, not like sleeves, but with the classic pictures, the topless hula dancers and the hearts with banners. The face of an old-fashioned nurse with a red cross on her cap peaks out from a blooming rose. The blue and green shades on the Polynesian scenes are already dim and faded. He is so young, Liberty thinks, even a little younger than she is; these tattoos are almost from childhood. Illegal.
She can think of nothing else to say to him, so she asks Igor, "Should I go and get a drink? Tequila or something?"
"It won't help. It will only make you bleed more."
It will only make her bleed more. She sighs.
The guy at the desk says, apparently by way of soothing her, "He's the best. He's teaching me."
She turns to look at him. "Really?"
"Yeah. I'm his apprentice. I've already done twelve tattoos."
"My first was on my brother."
"What was it?"
"A winged serpent. Red and orange. Fiery."
She's tensing up. For her piercings they could always see her right away. She keeps talking.
"Do you like it?"
"Oh, yeah. It's so much better than the bank. I work at Bank of America. Days. 'Cause they don't pay me to work here, it's in exchange for my training."
"What do you do? At the bank?"
"Dunning calls." He makes a face. "I fucking hate it."
"But you like the tattooing?"
"Really? What makes you like it so much?"
He pauses but then decides to answer her. "Everyone's so grateful, you know? They look in the mirror when they're done, and you can tell they're thinking, 'Right on, man, I did it.' They just keep telling you thanks and saying how beautiful it is."
He's flushed, his eyes open wide. "Well, you know," he finishes. He looks away to fumble with some useless paperwork on the desk and Liberty notices how close shorn his dark hair is, how soft it looks.
"What made you want one?" asks the young man from the table.
Liberty turns her head to look at him. She had forgotten about him.
"I don't know," she says, and she doesn't. She knows that part of why she likes the piercings is that they belie that her skin is undamaged and whole, that she herself is unpunctured. She knows that everyone is punctured. She thinks the piercings are sexy, and she hopes the tattoo will be, too.
Liberty is quite beautiful. She is tall and dark and warm looking, with heavy brows and heavy hair. All her baubles look right on her, they fit her, as though she is a princess from some ancient nation.
She has a sudden sense that she should check into the safety of this operation, and walks over to the apprentice's desk.
"Can you tell me something? Do you guys use disposable needles?"
"We make all our needles by hand," he says. "Because machine-made needles can have barbs, you know?" He demonstrates barbs, holding two fingers up together and bending one. "And you don't get a clean line." He is obviously proud to say this. "We have to throw them away after. There's a law."
"What's in the ink?"
"Hey, Igor! The lady wants to know what's in the ink."
"I do not know. Something organic." Igor nods to the kid on his table, who doesn't see him because his eyes are tightly closed. Then he takes off his rubber gloves and washes his hands in a little stainless-steel sink next to him. He puts on new rubber gloves and gets a box of Saran Wrap from a drawer. He pulls out a big piece of it and wraps it in several layers around the decorated leg, anchoring it with white cloth tape. The guy sits up, opening his eyes. They're blue.
"Jack, do you want the instructions?" asks Igor, holding out a yellow Xeroxed sheet. Jack's the guy with the metal in his leg. And those, Liberty thinks, are the directions on how to take care of a new tattoo, like the kind they hand out at piercing parlors, with the part pierced checked off. "Earlobe...cartilage...eyebrow...navel...labia...clitoral hood...Prince Albert...triangle...apadravya..." She had once asked what the incomprehensible ones were, but the woman on duty at the time had been snippy and would only say that they were for men.
Jack does not want the instructions. Liberty watches him once his pant leg is rolled down to see if he is limping. He is not. He sees her watching him and says, "It stops hurting as soon as they finish. It itches for a while, though."
Igor is still cleaning up. "So not small?" Liberty says to Jack.
Jack shakes his head vigorously. Jack, Liberty realizes, is a little goofy, or at least in a goofy mood. "No," he says.
The apprentice is smiling wickedly at her. He is relishing this moment. Liberty thinks he must relish it every time.
"You're up," he says.
She shakes herself all over, as though she is just waking up, and heads over to the table. She is wearing overalls over a cardigan sweater and she takes down the bib so she doesn't have to lie on the buckles and pushes her sleeve up over her elbow.
"No friend coming?" asks Igor. "Some people like a friend."
"I want to surprise them." And there is no one she really feels close enough to, not to bring along for this. She's between boyfriends, and her girlfriends, while helpful in times of breakups and reassuring during discussions about food, anorexia, and female body image, are all careful not to appear too needy to each other, not to break an indefinable but nevertheless collectively understood barrier. Liberty is the most pierced of all of them. They would not think she would need them for this.
She feels flirtatious, probably from nervousness. It was not good to sit and think about it, to hear the needle and anticipate.
"He didn't need a friend," she says, nodding at Jack.
"It wasn't my first one," he says. "Igor, can I use your bathroom, man?"
When he comes back Igor is still tracing the complex valentine onto special paper which he runs through a machine with a roller that turns it into a soft purple outline.
"I'd like kind of muted colors," says Liberty. "To match the old paper, you know, not just tattoo red and tattoo green."
Igor nods and Liberty is unsure whether he understands or is simply dismissing her. She would not mind an advocate of some kind.
"I'll hang out," says Jack. "You want me to?" His backpack is already slung over one shoulder but he swings it off and puts it on the floor.
"You're gonna make sure he doesn't write 'Mom' on me?"
"Or something." So Jack straddles a chair in the tiny cubicle. Igor has dipped the paper with the soft purple outline in water and he presses it to the inside of Liberty's arm, then carefully pulls it off. It leaves its print, like in a color-by-number kit, on her flesh.
"Okay?" he asks.
Liberty looks, but not too closely. The decision is made and she can't bear to start fussing with niceties.
"Okay," she says.
Igor begins. With the first short burst of cutting pain he has drawn a short black line and now she has to stay until the end.
It is like a knife. Liberty is surprised at how simple the feeling is. It is like a knife, nothing else, a small sharp knife cutting into her flesh the outline of the heart, the cherubs, the flowers and curlicues, the brief verse, all in black. Bzzt, bzzt, bzzt, she hears again. Only now it's her.
She can't watch -- she never watches her own piercings, either -- but she knows it doesn't look like a paring knife, this instrument that is deliberately, and not particularly quickly, drawing in her own blood on her forearm. She had expected a prick, a needle sharpness. She had known there would be something, but she didn't know how high the level would be. She thinks this must be what the beginning of a stabbing feels like. She doesn't want to open her arm to Igor. Her body strains away, but she forces the forearm to lie still and the tension between these two things stiffens her neck and shoulders.
She remembers that during piercings she is always instructed to take a deep breath and then let it out slowly and completely when the needle goes in. She tries this, but her breathing gets faster and faster and finally Igor says, "Do not hyperventilate on me now. It is not good for you to pass out."
"Sorry," she says, and laughs nervously, tightly, with pain, at the very low end of hysterical. Every second that the needle is off her is a respite. What Jack said is true; it only hurts when the needle is on you in this stop-and-start operation. As soon as the fine silver point is withdrawn, the pain stops. Bzzt, bzzt, bzzt.
During a pause, Liberty looks at what has happened to her skin. The valentine is about halfway outlined in black. One of the little cupids is missing his face, and the curlicue lines still need to be done, along with the second half of the double heart, and some flowers. But one whole heart, most of the roses, a couple of cherubs, and the verse are finished.
Hail, Bishop Valentine, whose day this is;
All the air is thy diocese.
This is what it says on Liberty's skin.
"Has anyone ever just said they can't take it and gotten up and left?" she asks.
"Sometimes," says Igor. "But not very often."
"Yeah...I guess you're kind of stuck."
Igor resumes the cupid's face.
"You can say 'ow' if you want," says Jack.
"Ow, ow, ow," Liberty obliges, her legs and free arm squirming. "I guess I don't have to say ow. I could say something else. Zen, Zen, Zen..."
Jack, she notices, is now taking deep, slow breaths with his eyes closed.
"What are you doing?" she says, irritated. Everything is irritating. Bzzt, bzzt, bzzt.
"Tonglen," he answers. "It's this really cool form of Buddhist meditation."
"What is it?" asks Igor.
"The idea is that you take on other people's pain and you send out good energy to them," he says. "You imagine all their pain and anger and humiliation or whatever, and you imagine yourself breathing it in. And then with the out breath you imagine that you're sending them good, calming energy."
"What if you don't like the person?" asks Liberty.
"You have to start with someone you like. People you don't like are harder. Usually you start with yourself, and then you expand on it."
"So what is the point?" says Igor, smiling. "Does it make the person feel any better?"
"I don't know, man, okay?" says Jack. "Jeez. It's about compassion."
"I guess the idea is kind of to increase the sum total of kindness in the universe?" says Liberty. "Right?"
"Something like that."
"Are you taking on my pain?" she asks, squirming.
"Thanks. But I still feel it. Zen! Zen! Zen!"
"That looks great. Are there any you can't do, man?" asks the apprentice, who is watching admiringly from a little distance away. Liberty has forgotten about him, but since no one else has come in after her, he is free to watch.
"Anything racist," says Igor, which is not exactly what his apprentice meant. "I will not do anything racist."
"That hadn't even occurred to me," says Liberty. Her body has calmed down a little. The pain is now just below her threshold of what is bearable, instead of just above it, like it was before. Her neck and shoulders are still aching and she hates leaving her vulnerable wrist on the table to be poked at more, but she might have gotten a little used to the feeling after all.
"Oh, yes. There are many packs of young Aryans who come in wanting swastikas. They like to put things like 'Die Nigger' onto their skulls." Igor withdraws the needle. "Time for the colors."
Liberty sits up. Her overalls fall down to her hips and she sees the apprentice starting with surprise, staring for a second at her torso, her silky belly, and then blushing. But he collects himself.
"How you doing?" he asks.
"Do you think," she answers, "I could have a glass of water?"
Igor is busy mixing inks in Styrofoam cups. He mutters, "Can you, Shermie?" to the apprentice. So that's his name. He fills one of them at the sink and gives it to Liberty.
"I'm sorry it's Styrofoam," Igor says.
"Oh...I don't care."
Liberty takes deep, slow breaths.
"Nice," says Jack, pointing to the gold ring studded with a white sapphire through her navel. "What do you think, Igor? You like that?"
Igor shrugs. "Yeah, it's nice."
"You don't like it? You're not into the piercing thing?" Liberty asks. She is particularly proud of the belly button ring. It was her first body piercing. She was told that gold navel rings were signs of royalty in ancient Egypt.
"When you come down to it," says Igor, "it is just a ring. This is art."
Jack wiggles his eyebrows at Liberty. "Igor," he says, "is a purist."
"This will feel different than the outline work," Igor is saying. "This will be more of a numbing sensation."
He takes the cup from Liberty and she lies back down. "Tell me if this is the kind of color you want," he says. Liberty can feel the night, the dark blue of it, not unlike Jack's eyes above her, creeping in, cool, around the edges of the door and through chinks and cracks in the tattoo parlor drywall.
She gasps when Igor touches her with the wider, rougher bit that he has put into the machine. Its surface is a tiny oval paved with needles. It feels like the gravel forced into her skin when she was eight or ten and fell off her bike in the driveway, only deeper, and it doesn't help at all that the gravel now seems to be made of dark rubies and emeralds. The dust of precious gems is particularly hard and sharp ground into the flesh.
"Not numbing, huh?" Jack says.
"Is this the muted you mean?" asks Igor. Liberty turns her head to look. The strip of color in the heart is a brighter, more vermilion red than she had wanted.
She gulps. "Well, actually, I was thinking of something a little...smokier."
Igor mixes some other inks in another cup and tries again on a new strip of skin. Liberty tries to will herself to become used to this feeling, too.
She looks. The color is a deep, muddy garnet. "Oh, yeah. That's perfect!" she says with real pleasure. He begins, and the heart is filled without further event, as are the purple and lavender wings of some insectlike fairies. But Liberty cannot keep her breath when Igor begins on the olive-green flowering vines. She clicks her shoes together and begs Igor, "Why does it hurt so much again?"
"It's a new area," he says.
"It might be because the vines are so narrow, and the skin's already irritated near the outline," Jack offers. "And you could have a nerve line there. Everybody's different."
"You guys don't have any anesthetic or anything at all, ever?"
"Oh, no," Igor says. He shakes his head. "You should experience it. After all, how many times are you going to do this?"
"Once," Liberty snaps.
Igor and Jack and Shermie the apprentice all laugh. "That's what they all say," says Jack. "You'll be back."
"Zen!" cries Liberty. "Zen, Zen, Zen! Jesus fucking Christ! Zen!"
Shermie steps up close to her head. "Tell her about the weirdest tattoo you ever did."
"Yeah," says Jack. "Tell her about the weirdest tattoo you ever did."
Igor grins slightly, working away on the rose-laden vines. "This guy came in," he says, "and he wanted the stigmata."
"Wow," says Liberty, really quite impressed with the weirdness.
"Wanted it all tattooed right on him, right, Igor?" says the apprentice. "Hands and feet and everything. He wanted some drops of blood on his head from the crown of thorns."
"Did you do it?" asks Liberty.
"Oh, yes. Everything except the lashes on his back," Igor answers. "I did not have time for them that night and then he said he would come back but he did not. I charged him six hundred dollars. The wound in the side was very challenging, to make it look real."
"Jesus God. Why did he want that?"
"I do not know."
"I wonder if he was trying to pull some scam."
"I did not ask him."
"Maybe it wasn't a scam," Jack says. "Maybe he felt like he really wanted the wounds of Christ. It could happen. I believe stigmata could happen, sometimes."
"I do, too," says Liberty. Her voice is higher than usual. She doesn't want to talk. She is concentrating on containing the pain, keeping it somewhere in the very center of her brain and not letting it out. "But not if you get it tattooed on. That's kind of fraudulent...."
"In medieval times they would have thought that was okay. They thought the point was that you wanted to share the same, you know, physical pain as Jesus. It was cool if God gave it to you, but it was okay to do it yourself. You know how they used to flagellate themselves."
He stops, then bends over to unzip the backpack at his feet. He fishes among dozens of yellowed paperbacks, books like those Liberty sees for a quarter each at the Salvation Army store. One is the Poetics of Aristotle, she sees, one is The Magician's Handbook, with a top hat and deck of cards on the cover. He finds the one he wants, fans its pages beneath his fingers, hits one of many corners folded down. He quotes: "The love and suffering of these souls 'oned' with Jesus Crucified, so overflows that the very wounds and marks of their Crucified Lord appear in mortal bodies. Here we seem to find the clue to one of those marvels of God's power that has most strongly impressed the imagination of human kind; certainly no other supernatural manifestation of an external kind has proved so arresting as this; an altogether extraordinary love of the Crucified, joined to an equally extraordinary desire to be like Him, to feel what He felt, and endure in the body what He endured, as far as such is possible for a creature. Love explains all."
He stops again, puts the book in his back pocket as though he wants to keep it handy, and smiling with pride chirps, "Father Benedict Williamson. Supernatural Mysticism. Nineteen twenty-one. Love explains all."
"That is very nice, Jack," mutters Igor.
"Igor, I'm not sure I can handle this," Liberty hisses, very fast.
He takes the needle away. "Well, what do you think? It is up to you. We can take a break or I can try to finish it up."
"No, I guess," says Liberty. "I guess just finish."
"You're getting there," says Jack.
"Almost there," says Shermie.
Igor makes the cheeks of the cherubs pink, the points of their arrows powder blue. Bzzt.
Igor stops. Igor is finished. The tattoo is finished. It is a second before Liberty knows it. "You're done?" she asks, and her whole body turns to mush, her very finger joints watery with relief from the tension she hadn't realized they were holding. She sits up -- "Not too fast," says Igor -- and looks at her lower arm in wonder, the way she would look at a Fabergé egg in a museum.
The colors are deep and soft and solid. The angels and fairies burst out from her skin, flying up and down and around. The flowers hang down heavily over the hearts and the lacy edges flutter over her wrist. The verse is large and clear in old-fashioned handwriting. She smiles up at Igor, laughing, almost bashful. She's glad it's big. Who would have wanted a tiny, delicate tattoo? That would have been no different from another gold ring.
She is unprepared for the feeling of accomplishment that surges through her. She did it. By God, she really did it.
Liberty suddenly realizes that she likes getting tattoos.
"Thank you. It's beautiful," she says. "It's perfect. Thank you."
"It'll never look quite like that again," says Shermie. "They never look as good as the day you get them."
The instructions on the yellow sheet say not to sit in chlorinated hot tubs or saunas until she heals. They say the area will itch, like a sunburn. They say wash it, don't scrub it, in a few hours and cover it with Neosporin. Liberty writes Igor a check for a hundred and twenty-five dollars.
"I have to say it's the prettiest one I've seen," Jack says, staring at it closely with his head tilted.
"I liked doing it," says Igor, shaking Liberty's hand. "Come by and let us know how it is doing." He turns to a drawer beneath the sink. "Let me take a picture," he says, smiling. "Maybe we will put it in my book." He produces a Polaroid camera from the drawer and snaps Liberty's wrist and inner arm, still seeping blood, before he wraps them in plastic. She gazes at the picture, standing and buckling her overall straps, while the lines of her new tattoo become clear.
"Remember," says Jack, "you go out that door a brand-new person." This close to him she can smell him, his own scent mingled with the antibacterial soap on his leg, and see that on his hands are inscribed the words "Hold fast," one letter on each finger.
"Why?" she says. She points to them. "Why 'Hold fast'?"
His face is startled. For some reason he had not expected such a question. "For sailors. To remind them to hold on, hold on really hard to the rigging, not fall overboard."
She looks up at him and his eyes are very blue. It seems as though he makes everything around him blue just by looking at it. Liberty understands now why Jack waited with her when his turn was over, why he tried to ease her pain. The cuts and burning have opened her up, and she has never felt so full of love and welcome for all human beings who step across her path, never felt so undefended and so unneedful of defense. She will tell anybody anything. She will listen to anything anybody has to say. She will help whoever asks her, she will give anything for which she is asked. In her mind, while she looks at his eyes, she kisses Jack, opens her mouth underneath his, and in those eyes she sees that he knows this, that he is there, too.
She walks out into the night, full of joy at the pink flowery wound across her wrist. The air is clear and liquid and she feels she is at the bottom of an overturned bowl of stars. Years later, waking up next to Shermie, an apprentice no more, when their lives have already ebbed and flowed together, shifted and reshifted and shifted again, she will remember the warmth that pulses through her this night, so that she glows golden in the cold dark blue. It seems to her that everyone she knows is so full of love and suffering, so very full, that it overflows into wounds, and at last she is not an outsider, and never will be again. She knows now what she wants all the intricate jewelry, all the wounds real and artificial on her body, to say. She wants to say, "I do love. None of us are whole, but I do love. Love explains all." She needs to fall in love now, to find someone to love with all her soul.
Copyright © 2003 by Pamela Rafael Berkman
Table of ContentsContents
The Falling Nun
Men Have More Upper-Body Strength
Holy Holy Holy
Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown
Reading Group Guide
A Touchstone Reading Group Guide
1. In "Tat," Liberty has a religious experience of sorts during her time in the tattoo parlor, and gets a glimpse of a universe where "it seems to her that everyone she knows is so full of love and suffering, so very full, that it overflows into wounds." What is it about getting her tattoo that leaves Liberty feeling so at peace? How does Jack, in his role as a guide, help Liberty experience this feeling?
2. "She moved toward him, and away from him, and toward him, and away from him, and in going toward him she was also going away from him, and maybe he was doing the same." This description of the dynamic between Elizabeth and Vinnie in "Gold Glitter," while specifically sexual in this instance, could easily describe the dynamic between other characters in this collection as well, as they constantly test the boundaries and either shy away from or take risks with their interpersonal relationships. In what ways is this quote representative of larger issues? Keeping this hot/cold, push/pull dynamic in mind, do you think honesty or commitment is possible for the people in these stories?
3. In a sense, it seems that Ronnie in "Veronica" is actively trying not to believe, chanting what almost seems like a prayer in and of itself: "I don't believe, I don't believe." Do you think Ronnie is a believer? Is there any resolution to the girl's struggle by the end of the story? Do you think Sister Veronica's confession will add to Ronnie's confusion, to her further disillusionment with her faith, or will it somehow help to relieve it?
4. "There is such a thing as sisterhood, isn't there?" questions the narrator in "The Falling Nun." How are relationships between women presented in this book? What do the women in these stories need from each other that they can't get from men? Anything? Does sisterhood, in fact, exist at all? Which friendships between women seem fulfilling and healthy, and which are somehow lacking? What are the complexities in each type of relationship?
5. As Ramon kisses Miranda in "Bethlehem" she "feels something intangible, like light, a glow, a soft diffusion, traveling from Ramon's mouth to hers." In what ways does this quote shed light on Ramon's function in the story? Is he reminiscent of other characters in this collection? Has Miranda found salvation in the end? What is it about Ramon that allows him to succeed in the face of obvious clinical depression when doctors and prescriptions have failed?
6. "Witch" pulls the reader into the fantastical vision of the narrator, a vision that straddles the "make believe" world of witches and potions, and the "real life" world of ballet, school, and parents. To what extent did you question the narrator's view of the world around her? Keeping in mind that her twin grows up to be a "normal" woman, who is ultimately disapproving and frightened of her sister, discuss whether this is a modern-day fairy tale, or if it is a journey into the mind of a madwoman. Are the two mutually exclusive?
7. In the story "Snakes" the narrator speaks of a "metal box, deeply, deeply buried beneath the flesh...and I could take nothing else inside myself but what went in this box." What do you make of the box imagery? What are the "other things" in the box that she vaguely refers to knowing about? How does this tie into her mother and her paralyzing fear of snakes?
8. Early on in "Men Have More Upper Body Strength," what elements set the tone for the rest of the story and highlight the gender dynamics that are at work here? Did you find it surprising and/or refreshing to see women, who are often portrayed as victims, acting as predators?
9. Brigid's motivations in this story have nothing to do with sex or desire: "She felt nothing that reminded her of arousal. She wasn't going to come and she knew it. She wasn't even turned on. She didn't care. That had nothing to do with anything." Why do you think Brigid unleashes the total force of her resentment and rage onto Boniface, not only raping him but wanting to punch him in the mouth and humiliate him?
10. In "Holy Holy Holy" it seems that serious faith is somehow humorous or "a good party story," which is how the narrator describes her Catholic school days and the prayer that the temp offered for her carpal tunnel syndrome. What is it about religion that strikes the narrator and the other party guests as absurd or funny? How does the quote from The Revelation of St. John the Divine, which is one of only two quotes to start off a story, shed light on the ending? Why does the narrator break down crying?
11. What is the significance of "Playing Crucifixion" for the boy in this story? How does this strange game tie into his feelings for his father and his longing to know John Robert Flynn, a man who, like Jesus, made "the Supreme Sacrifice"?
12. Discuss the parallels between "Tat" and "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown," the first and last stories in this collection, looking not only at obvious character overlap but at the larger ideological and spiritual themes that they share. What exactly are these two women searching for in seemingly different ways -- Liberty through piercing and tattoos, and Molly through cutting? Does the idea of flagellation and achievement through suffering materialize in other stories as well?