Under My Skin
One of the last gifts my brother Joe gave me before leaving this earth was mononucleosis. He slipped it into the glass of water we shared during my first visit back to upstate New York after moving to Louisville with my high school sweetheart, Mr. Rock-n-Roll. Joe and I were sitting in our mother’s kitchen for the first time in two years, snacking on pepperoni and cheese cubes. I felt more like twelve than nineteen as I reached over and punched his arm.
“Hey Joe, remember when we played freeze tag on the roof of the house?”
He shrugged, apparently still pissed about our trip to the mall earlier that day where he introduced me to his girlfriend, Ms. Brooks Brothers, a prep who popped her collar and oragamied her jean cuffs. Joe was seventeen, almost a man, and didn’t appreciate the ghetto fabulous attire—daisy dukes and a black sports bra—I’d picked up in the big city and wore like a uniform. Trailer trash, I believe was the term he used for my presentation. Either that, or “Cover yourself, please.”
“Do you remember when we gave that kid Jai Housie Snickers bars for jumping off the roof of the house?” I said.
“Remember that four-foot snow wall we built in the middle of the street? “
“Remember when Nipper fired his rifle right over our heads?” He slapped his leg and heehawed.
I stole a swig of water from his glass. Mom, who’d been washing the dishes yelled, “Cut it out! Don’t you know he’s just getting over mono?”
“Don’t you know we’re not making out?” I took another sip.
Growing up Joe and I had shared a bedroom along with his twin, A.J., then battles with branches and homemade nunchucks, and finally a love for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. When I moved in with another family at the beginning of my senior year of high school, Joe stopped by every few days to share lingering glances, sighs, and shoulder bumps because saying the word goodbye felt too final. Swapping childhood tales at the kitchen table felt like those good old times when Joe and I still shared Motley Crew tapes and that autographed Tony Hawk t-shirt, instead of giving each other cross-eyed looks that said, Who the hell are you?
Two weeks after that trip home, I was back to hating my job in Louisville as a maid in a hotel. I’d convinced myself that quitting college to clean hotel rooms would make me “humble,” whatever that meant. I couldn’t admit how I really felt—scared that I was no longer part of my family. They worked hourly jobs in factories, prisons, and group homes. Upon graduation my parents tried to convince me to take the civil service test or join the army to set a good example. One year of college had already shifted my worldview; I feared that getting a degree would have irreversible effects.
But cleaning didn’t make me humble. It didn’t impress my family either. Week after week I cleaned ninety-one toilets and made up ninety-one beds while guests avoided eye contact. I could practically hear my parents’ headshakes and eye rolls during our not-so-regular phone calls. So when Mr. Rock-n-Roll punched my alarm at 7:00 AM one Saturday morning before my shift and said, “Quit and we’ll get tattoos today,” I never went back.
We headed to Tattoo Charlie’s, the local parlor with the pithy motto: tattoos while you wait. How else could you get a tattoo? Did they think you’re going to leave a limb and come back later? One of Tattoo Charlie’s dudes escorted us to the flash posters with rows of naked women, thorny roses, and skulls.
I settled on a cobra with its tail wrapped around a dragon’s skull the size of a coffee cup for my right shoulder. I was a fan of dragons and desolation, and I liked the way the tattoo would make me seem older and harder than I really was. It seemed like something Joe would do. Mr. Rock-n-Roll chose a skull ripping through flesh for his left bicep. Our skulls sort of matched.
Scott, our tattoo dude, was licorice-whip thin and had a wealth of knowledge regarding needle born illnesses like Hepatitis C and HIV. Cleanliness was his motto. He liked working on virgin skin, and promised that this would be one of many happy tattoo memories in our future.
Three days after getting inked I was desperate for another job. Our supply of ramen noodles and Mr. Fritters was dwindling, and my skeletal resume, which listed work in a fabric shop, Burger King, and my recent maid service, held little promise. So when the manager of Dairy Queen offered me a cashier gig, I said yes.
On the way home from the DQ interview a fever set in, along with fatigue, body aches, and a sore throat that put me to bed. The next day I couldn’t swallow. I was terrified that Scott had mistakenly gnawed into my skin with an infected needle, meaning that the tattoo scabbing on my shoulder was a Hepatitis filled cesspool I needed to scratch off. But just as my fingernail scraped against the first scab I remembered Mom’s warning about Joe and the mono.
I called the free clinic to report my suspicions then staggered onto the number six bus to see a doctor who confirmed my diagnosis with a blood test: mononucleosis with enlarged liver and spleen. Take Vitamin C around the clock until you get diarrhea and stay out of car accidents so you don’t rupture your organs was the doctor’s advice. She promised I’d get better in a couple of weeks.
The first time my family saw my tattoo was six months later at my rock-n-roll wedding. The mono crisis had completely passed. My aunt took a photo of my tattoo as I prepared to slip into my wedding dress. The lime and leaf greens stood out against all that white. Family members rustled up fake smiles and compliments while I blushed. Joe was the only one who didn’t see the tattoo that day. He showed up to the wedding high and two hours late.
Seven days later he held a gun under his chin for three hours while the police paced at the bottom of the stairs with my father. His drug habit had spiraled out of control after Ms. Brooks Brothers said her goodbyes. His twin talked him out of it, allowing the police to take him to rehab where we shared two months of weekly letters about finding hope.
By the time I headed back to New York for another visit, the tattoo was old news, so I didn’t point it out, though I’m sure Joe must’ve seen it. I was more interested in finding an escapade for our future selves to laugh at. My latest hobby was skydiving, which seemed like an easy sell to Joe, who sped down the street on his motorcycle. We planned our first jump for his twenty-first birthday.
His latest fashion trend was clothes he bought with Marlboro UPC codes. It took three-hundred packs of cigarettes to buy the crimson sweatshirt he frequently wore. He was saving for a jacket, which required one-thousand codes, when he finally ended his life, just four months before turning twenty-one.
We sprinkled all of those UPC codes over his body before we buried him—hundreds of squares of paper like black and white snow covered his thin frame and red flannel shirt. I took the Marlboro sweatshirt back to Kentucky. A month later I wore it across Europe while on tour with Mr. Rock-n-Roll so that some piece of Joe would see the world. The back and shoulder sections blanketed the tattoo, while the extra long sleeves covered my fingers like gloves.
The fall after I got the tattoo, I discovered that the outline swelled whenever I was sick or stressed. I’d trace the outline of the snake and dragon’s skull with my finger, reminiscing about the mono I’d confused with hepatitis three days after getting inked. I’d like to believe that it swelled during the months after Joe died, too.
I used to believe that memories, especially memories that developed into stories, were linked in concentric circles, or daisy chained together so that one memory lead to another memory in some neat little package labeled complete thought. But sometimes memories are more like rain—they fall randomly into consciousness until a puddle forms and we see our reflection on the surface. I view my tattoo in the mirror, and the puddle forms the image of Joe on that day seventeen years ago sitting at my mother’s chipped kitchen table, shoving his face full of cheese.
Like tattoos, viruses are forever. They combine with our genetic material until they are a part of us. Some say viruses are on the edge of life—possessing just enough components to stay on the fringe. Like memories they need a host to truly exist. The mono stayed dormant for seventeen years—the age Joe was when he gave it to me in the first place. Recently, it fired back up again, yanking me to bed with fatigue, a swollen liver, and body aches. I wanted to whisper to those tiny virus-filled cells, Hey Joe, are you in there?
About the author:
Lisa Ellison is an emerging writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has a B.A. in English from the University of Louisville and an Ed.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from James Madison University. Her work has appeared in The Rusty Nail and Blooming in the Noise.