In Defense of Intimacy

Nonfiction by Noa Zapin

I fell in love with the woman who gave me my first stick-and poke. It was on my hip, right underneath the place where the bone juts out. She grabbed the top of my thigh and instructed me to hold onto the couch cushion, not her hand. But the whole time I felt myself reaching for her, winding my fingers between hers, getting directly in the path of the needle.

Quickly, I became bored of being tattooed upon, the thrill of her touch had worn off and the light outside her window had shrunk beneath the fire escape. I imagined the thin point pricking me like Sleeping Beauty; falling asleep right here forever on her couch among the stains of coffee and gin from the morning and night before. My weight would pin her beneath me at the point where the small of my back met the junction between her calf and thigh, keeping her      enveloped in the place where our bodies ceased to be merely one or the other.

She was never one for affection. For her, it was a flickering thing that needed to be sparked within her. I often found myself poking at the coals, testing to see how long the fire could go untended. In that way, she was easy to understand. In the spaces where we left things unsaid, I unfolded her like a puzzle, a series of trial-and-error equations.

Her hand crept away from my leg as she brought it to her hair and tucked a loose strand behind her ear. I wished, foolishly, that I had done it for her.

Without the pressure on me, I could focus on the odd sensation, the radiating pain that coursed through me. The ink had smeared not only over the expanse of my thigh, but also in a long line across her chin in a thick streak. I went to touch it, to feel the ink we shared, and then pulled her towards me. When we kissed, my tongue could feel the secrets she kept within herself, in the soft palate, and as I brushed up against her gums, I imagined it like a tangible thing., I tried to pull her thoughts out, the stuff she kept buried within her, one by one.

My palm ghosted against her cheek. “You never have to tell me a thing. I can feel it all right here.” I mumbled against her mouth. The second I said it, I willed the words to curl up and spin right back into my throat.

She got back to work.

Her hand was steady and unwavering. I always forgot she was an artist until moments like these when she would squint her eyes at whatever she was looking at. This was such a vulnerable act, me laying in only my underwear and her just working on me like this. I chewed at a piece of flesh protruding on the inside of my cheek. I wanted her to look at me with longing; instead, she looked at me like a canvas.  My body felt very long and vast as if it was something I needed to discover.

It took such a long time for such a small thing and when she was finished, I could cover the entirety of the crescent moon with a third of my pinkie finger. The tattoo itself wasn’t really important to me, I had only wanted a permanent piece of her trapped inside my skin. Wanted the places where her hands had been to be seen and not just felt. In that way, I was satisfied.

That night we walked around the East Village, our favorite stretch from 11th to Bowery. We sat at our favorite coffee shop, the bottoms of my Converse thumping against the wood of the bar table.

We had fought over cups of coffee about the women she spent time with. She explained herself in long windy sentences, and talked about the meaning of friendship, and love, and everything greater than us. Her cheeks were growing flush with passion and her arms moving with such rigor that she had tipped over her latte and spilled it down the front of my baby-blue shirt. I watched the cotton expand into milky, brown splotches. Instantly, the argument ended and turned instead to a sickly quiet between us. I could only stare at my shirt, watching as the colors mixed to form something so ugly. She was apologizing profusely, muttering, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” in a rushed frantic loop, her voice breathy and so unlike her own.

She seemed so weak then, so stringy. I had always admired her for being a solid thing, something to press up against over and over again with no fear she would topple. But, in the last few months, she had grown sick and her whole existence had changed. Now, there were grooves to her, like teeth gone soft and rotten. I could feel it, especially in the last few weeks when our conversations became strung out like they were right before sleep.

She brought me to the bathroom and ran cold water on my shirt as I bent over the basin. The walls were covered with every page of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. All I could hear over the rush of the water was her voice croaky and throaty, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I counted in my head the things I wished she was apologizing for instead.

When we left the cafe, it had begun to snow. Soft and lazy flakes that speckled from the sky and onto our jackets. We huddled close to each other, our shoulders bumping together over and over again. I felt that we were waves crashing as everything stayed still, but us and the snow.

My tattoo had begun to ache. I made her stop in the street and inspect my skin, pants unzipped in the middle of Saint Marks. She started to walk away from me the second I undid the buttons. But, sure enough, my skin blinked back at me bright and irritated. The crescent moon was taught against my skin, shining like scales in the open air.

The rest of the walk home, we talked about breaking up. Then, we got home, showered,  made tomato soup with grilled cheese, and made love while listening to Withered Hand turned all the way up and on repeat.

Her fingers grazed my bare back in hypnotic sluggish movements. I was already dreading the subway ride home tomorrow, as I always did in the moments before my eyes closed. But, she held me so tenderly, like I was a yolk in the palm of her hand and then it was hard to think of anything else.

My chin pressed a dent into her bare chest. I felt as if I had been hallowed and left with a burning inside of my rib cage. I knew that my organs were there, but all I could imagine was cracking myself open and seeing nothing but emptiness.

“Don’t leave,” I whispered to her between the threads of darkness even though her fingers had gone slack, and her breath had evened out.

When I awoke, I found her breathing into my open mouth, wisps of breath caught in the little space between us. Our limbs were interlaced and stayed so pressed upon the other we must have looked sewed together. This was how I knew she loved me. More so, even, than when she said it. It was easy for both of us to lie straight into each other’s eyes; our sleeping bodies were much more likely to betray us.

About the Author:

Noa Zapin (Creative Nonfiction) is a freshman at the University of Iowa majoring in English and Creative Writing on the publishing track and minoring in Classics. She is from New York and no, she doesn't know how she got to Iowa either.

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