“Hey, Lillie-pins.” I switched my phone to the other ear as I poured water into a teakettle. “What’s shaking, sugar?”
“Guess what? Mom said it was okay!”
“Great! What did Mom say was okay?”
“She said I could get my ears pierced!” Lillie giggled.
“Really? Wow, that’s so cool. So, do you want to do it?”
“Yes, duh, Dad. That’s why I asked Mom. Only you have to do it, ‘cause Mom is scared of needles. She’ll faint.”
“I know. But that’s cool, we’ll take care of it. You want to do it this weekend?”
“Can we? And can I get Hello Kitty earrings?”
“We can, but first you will have to get a starter set. I don’t know if we can get Hello Kitty for that.”
“I know, Dad, and I know I have to turn them and clean them with a Q-tip, ‘cause that’s what Cindy had to do.”
“That’s right. So yeah, let’s do that this weekend. Can I speak with your Mom?”
“Sure, Dad. She’s upstairs, so I will go there.”
I listened as Lillie’s feet stomped up stairs. She continued to talk, though I couldn’t make out her words. I wasn’t sure she was talking to me anyway; Lillie often talks to fill the air.
One day, she’ll make a great talk show host.
The teakettle whistled. I turned off the gas.
“Hey, Lucy. So you are cool with Lillie getting earrings?”
Lucy laughed. “So she told you that? Yes, it’s fine with me, but you have to take her to do it. I’ll faint.”
“I know.” I poured hot water into a coffee press.
“Aren’t you impressed that I’m cool about this?”
I nearly spilled the water. “No, I mean . . . well, yes, I guess I am impressed. Thanks for being easy about this. You sure you’re okay with it?”
“Eh, all the kids are doing it.”
“And it’s reversible.”
“So why not, right?”
“Right. Well, here’s hoping we handle her first tattoo this well.”
Lucy laughed. “Oh God, that will happen before we’re ready, right?”
I laughed. “Yeah, yeah.”
We said goodbye and Lucy returned the phone to Lillie. I talked to our daughter for a bit longer, then said goodbye.
Lucy and I had consulted on something concerning the children, and we had agreed. We had even laughed together.
Well, I thought, pouring my coffee: it only took us four years of separation to manage a civilized conversation.
Perhaps progress comes in dribs and drabs.
I sent an email to Bridget. “Are you around Saturday? How about you join us as we get Lillie’s ears pierced?”
“Are you KIDDING??” she replied. “No WAY do you get her ears pierced without me. But you’d better check with Lucy, Snooks. She’ll kill you if you do this without checking with her.
“God, do you think they have Hello Kitty earrings? With little rubies for noses? God, I’m doomed. Doomed! There are SO many cute earrings!”
I assured Bridget that Lucy had given her permission, and promised that if Hello Kitty earrings existed, she could put them on Lillie.
Now we had a problem to solve. Where would we get her ears pierced?
If we lived in the suburbs, this would not be a question. Every shopping mall has at least one place where young girls can get their ears pierced.
I mean, that’s how we did it when I was a young girl.
When I was nineteen, my red-haired girlfriend Pablo decided that I should wear an earring.
Pablo knew that my best friend Peabo had worn an earring since ninth grade. He was the first boy I knew to have one. My brothers had asked if the single ring in one ear signified that he was gay or that he was a drug dealer.
“Neither,” I said. “He’s just, you know, cool.”
My brother Jesse scrunched his nose. “That’s not cool. I think it’s gay.”
“He’s not gay,” I asserted, rolling my eyes.
Jesse shrugged. “So he sells pot, right?”
These days, Southern boys wear earrings as readily as they wear backwards baseball caps. But when I was a teen in the Deep South, boys with earrings were as rare a sight as snow tires on Subarus.
Pablo took me to Spencer’s to get my ear pierced. She plunked down eight dollars and held my hand as another teenager put a needle to my ear.
“This will hurt,” I winced.
“You’ll feel a pinch,” the shop girl warned me.
“Take it like a man,” Pablo scowled.
The shop girl pulled the trigger.
“Ouch! Shhh-yet!” I responded. “Fuck!”
That was more than a pinch, I complained.
“You look so hot,” Pablo said, her eyes sparking. She took me home and fucked me.
Then she pulled back my hair and made up my eyes. For the rest of the decade, I would bang my head androgynous and glam.
“Dad, this will hurt like a pinch, right?”
I looked at Lillie. “That’s right, honey.”
Lillie raised her fingers to her ears and squeezed. “That doesn’t hurt.”
I combed my fingers through her red hair. “It may hurt a little more than that. But you are a brave girl. And it will be over lickety-split.”
Still, I had no ideas about where to have the deed done. There are no Spencer’s in the city, if those tacky teen stores even exist anymore.
Now and then, Manhattanites feels deprived. Here, there are neither malls nor gas stations, neither Wal-Marts nor Costcos, and now and then, that hurts.
I asked our ten-year-old friend Cindy where she had her ears pierced.
“My doctor did it,” she replied.
“Well, I hate to make a doctor’s appointment over this,” I said, scratching my neck. “Don’t a lot of the girls at school get them done at Halloway’s?”
Cindy looked at me as if I had just appeared from a time machine. “Are you kidding? Everyone who gets their ears pierced at Halloway’s gets infected. Everyone! It’s the worst place, ever. Don’t go there, ever!”
“Okay, okay,” I agreed, chastened.
Bridget and I consulted.
“Should you guys come to New Jersey?” she suggested. “At least we have malls here.”
“We could, but . . . gee, come on! Is it really impossible for a child to get her ears pierced in Manhattan? I mean, what about all those places on Saint Mark’s Place?”
“I think Lillie wants earrings,” Bridget laughed. “Not a tattoo.”
“They do piercings, too. At least that’s what the neon signs say. Come on, we’ll check it out. If we don’t find a place, we’ll go to Jersey.”
Bridget sighed. “I’ll bring my car, just in case.”
Bridget picked us up on Saturday. True to her luck, she parked on Third and Eighth, just across from the Continental Divide.
“You and Lillie walk ahead to see what you find,” Bridget told me. “I’m taking the boys to the comic book store.”
“Really?” Collie asked. “Can we get a game?”
“Shush,” she whispered. “Not in front of your father.”
“Yeah, Collie,” Jason winked. “We . . . don’t . . . want . . . a . . game . . .”
“You people must think I’m pretty s-t-o-o-p-i-d,” I said, taking Lillie’s hand.
We walked ahead as Bridget ushered the boys down steps into the shop.
“Dad,” Lillie said. “You spelled that wrong.”
I squeezed her hand. “I did it on purpose, honey.”
We stopped into a place offering piercings. In the window, a young woman grimaced as a pair of dice was tattooed into her forearm.
I approached the woman behind the counter. She was about twenty and pale, with tattoos visible on her exposed arms.
“Hello, good afternoon,” I began. “My daughter is interested in having her ears pierced. Can we do that here?”
The woman brushed the black bangs from her face and looked down at Lillie. Lillie smiled. The woman looked back at me, not acknowledging Lillie.
“No, no way.” She scratched her nose ring. “You have to be sixteen to have anything done here.”
Lillie looked to me.
“Oh, okay.” I asked. “Earrings too, huh? Well, do you know any place we can go?”
“No.” She went back to doodling a dragon. “Everything is sixteen and up.”
“Okay.” I smiled. “Thanks.”
I took Lillie’s hand and walked to the door. She looked over at the woman getting tattooed.
“Do I have to wait until I’m sixteen?” she asked.
“No, baby. You just have to wait until we get the answer we want.”
We crossed the street and went into a t-shirt shop offering piercings.
I approached a man selling sunglasses. “Hello, good afternoon,” I said. “My daughter would like to have her ears pierced. Can we do that here?”
The man looked down at Lillie. She smiled.
He pointed to the counter. “You talk to Mo, he’s the boss here.”
I looked to the register. “Mo is the man with the beard?”
“Yes,” he nodded, rubbing his bare chin. “Beard.”
“Thank you,” I smiled. “Shukran.”
He smiled, surprised, catching my eye. “’afwan, al-‘affu, sir.”
I waited as Mo tended on a customer. He finished and looked to me. “Yes sir, what can be done for you?”
“This is my daughter,” I said, pointing to Lillie. Lillie smiled. “She would like to have her ears pierced. Can we do that here?”
Mo looked to Lillie and returned her smile. “You are such a beautiful girl,” he said, offering his hand. Lillie reached up and shook it. “Such lovely red hair.” He looked back to me. “This is your daughter?”
“Come,” he said. “We will do this.” He gestured to another man and introduced him to me as his son. “My son will do this for your daughter. Follow him, please, to the back room.”
“You are kind, shukran,” I said. “One moment, please. I want to bring her brothers.”
“She has brothers?” Mo smiled, then laughed. “Good, bring the brothers.”
I thanked Mo again, took Lillie’s hand, and crossed the street. A bell rang as I opened the door.
I found Bridget with her arms full of games, comic books and Star Wars memorabilia. The boys were looking through boxes of comics.
“What, what’s up, Snooks?” Bridget asked.
“We found a place,” I said. I tugged her arm. “Come back for this, we need to move on it.”
“Oh!” Bridget unloaded her arms on a stack of boxes. “Okay, okay—hey boys, come on. We have to help your dad.”
Jason looked up, slightly dazed from so many comics. He saw me and took Collie’s arm. “Come on, Collie, we need to go.”
“Wait, hang on,” Collie said. “Can I bring Han Solo?”
We told him to drop Han Solo for now.
Lillie pointed out a Family Guy plush as we left the store.
“Here are my boys!” I told Mo. “And our friend Bridget.”
“Welcome, welcome,” Mo smiled. He raised an arm. “Please, Yassine will help you.” He spoke to another man in Arabic. The man smiled and pointed us to the back of the store. Mo turned to help a man holding two t-shirts.
“This way,” Yassine said, opening a door.
We followed into a white room with fluorescent lights and linoleum floors. There were mirrors on medicine cabinets, and the strong scent of rubbing alcohol.
I looked to my left to see a shirtless man sitting on an exam table. Paper crinkled under him as he spoke in low tones to an intent bearded man.
As he spoke, the bearded man drew lines on his back.
“Please,” Yassine said, taking a folding chair. “You will sit here. What is your name?”
Lillie looked to me.
“Tell him your name, baby.”
“Lillie,” she replied. She pressed close to me.
“Lillie,” Yassine repeated, dropping to his knees. “Such a beautiful name.” He touched her hair. “Please, Lillie, sit in this chair. We will take only a moment.” He turned to a counter and opened a few boxes.
He returned with a selection of starter earrings. Lillie looked over the sets.
I looked over her shoulder. “No Hello Kitty, but remember, this just gets you started.”
“We’ll get Hello Kitty later,” Bridget assured her. “What do you think of those blue ones? Like your eyes?”
Lillie looked at the box, and pointed to the blue ones.
“Nice,” Yassine said, taking them from the box. “One moment, please.” He stood and went back to the counter.
Lillie looked at me, scared.
“Lillie, do you want to sit in my lap?” Bridget moved her bag from one hand to another, and extended her arms.
Lillie shook her head and sat in the chair. I crouched by her side. I put an arm on her waist.
“I’m here, baby,” I said quietly.
“Are you okay, Lillie?” Jason asked in a sweet, babyish tone. I smiled at him. Collie and Lillie have a secret language. Jason touches her by talking as though she were still two years old.
I pulled her boo-boo blanket from a bag and put it in her lap.
She took it up and put a thumb in her mouth.
Collie watched as the bearded man drew lines on the shirtless man.
“I’m going to wait outside,” he said quietly. He looked pale.
I looked up at Bridget. “Keep the door open, okay Collie?”
“Okay.” He opened the door and stood just outside.
I whispered to Jason. “Stand near the door, okay?”
Jason moved to the door.
Yassine returned and stooped near Lillie. “Now, I will make a mark, a little mark, with a pen. You see the pen?” He held it up. Lillie nodded. “Good. This, it will help me put the earrings in the right place.”
“It won’t hurt,” I added.
Yassine leaned forward, his brow creased. He took Lillie’s chin in his hand and studied her face. He looked from right to left, and back again.
I held her hand.
She looked at me, and then looked forward.
Yassine placed a purple mark on her left earlobe.
Lillie drew a quick breath. She exhaled.
“That was just a mark,” I said. “Just a marker to show him where to put the ring.”
Lillie nodded, not looking at me. Her eyes were focused on an empty corner across the room.
Jason looked at Collie. Collie stared at a t-shirt outside the room, hanging on a wall in the shop. It read, “WTF?”
I looked up at Bridget. She glanced to my left, nodding to the men preparing a tattoo. She looked back at me. I pursed my lips and shrugged.
“There.” Yassine looked at Lillie, then back to Bridget. “Like this, you like?”
Bridget stooped to look at Lillie. She pushed back her hair and studied her ear lobes. “Perfect. Jefferson?”
I looked. The target dots were absolutely symmetrical. “Very good,” I said, nodding to Yassine. I looked at Lillie. “You ready to have earrings, love?”
Lillie put her thumb in her mouth. She looked at me and nodded.
“Okay,” I said to Yassine. “Lillie’s ready.”
Jason leaned out the door. “Lillie’s ready,” he repeated to Collie.
“Okay,” Collie nodded. He looked away from the door and stared at a novelty license plate. It read, “FCKBSH.”
Yassine approached with a gun. “This will hurt,” he said. “Like a pinch.”
He placed the gun on my daughter’s ear. He pulled the trigger.
A jolt ran through Lillie’s body.
I grabbed her tight.
“You okay?” I whispered.
“You ready for the next ear?” I asked.
She shook her head, sucking her thumb. Tears welled in her eyes.
“Oh, baby.” I held her close.
“You’re very brave,” Bridget grimaced, clutching Lillie’s coat.
Yassine leaned close. “It will be better, the next one.” He wrapped an arm around Lillie.
We sat there for a moment as Lillie recovered. My arms were around her. Her eyes were on a far corner. And Yassine held her back.
I thought perhaps I should say a word to Yassine. I didn’t think the hug of a stranger who had just punctured her ear was going to offer much comfort to Lillie. Maybe it would be better if he stepped away.
But then, I thought better of it. Let’s ride this out. Poor Yassine was none too happy to have injured beautiful Lillie.
I looked up. “Ready?” I asked.
I looked at Yassine. “Ready?”
“She’s ready for the next one,” Jason repeated to Collie.
Collie nodded. He looked at another t-shirt. It read, “Come As You Are.”
The bearded tattoo artist watched as Lillie jolted again.
“All done,” I whispered. She began to sob.
I took her up in my arms, thanked Yassine, and left the room.
Bridget patted Yassine’s back and passed us to pay the tab.
I rocked Lillie in my arms among the t-shirts.
Collie tugged my sleeve. “I don’t feel well.”
I looked down. He was so pale. I knew the look. “Let’s get outside,” I said. I carried Lillie, pushing him ahead. Jason followed behind.
Once outside, I directed Collie to a corner of the building, littered with cigarette butts. “If you feel sick, it’s okay,” I said.
“Are you okay?” Bridget asked, coming out after us.
“Collie . . . ,” Jason began.
Collie grew weak as he stood staring at the building corner. The life was quickly draining from his tiny frame.
“Can you hold Lillie’s hand?” I asked Bridget, dropping my daughter to her feet.
“Dad . . .” Lillie complained, weakly.
“Shh,” I said. Bridget reached for Lillie. I picked up Collie, resting his head on my shoulder.
“Come with me,” Bridget said, taking Lillie’s hand. Jason followed, looking back at his brother and father.
“It hurt . . . ,” Collie murmured into my neck.
“She’s fine,” I said. “It hurt, but she’s fine.”
His body went limp in my arms.
I caught up with Bridget and the kids outside the Saint Mark’s Hotel.
“Is Collie okay?” Bridget asked.
“He fainted,” I said. “Let’s go sit in your car.”
Collie recovered in the car. I held him in my arms as Lillie offered reassurances that she was fine.
When he was alert, Bridget drove a couple of blocks to a restaurant that serves macaroni and cheese. We ordered too much for us to eat.
Collie ate more than I did.
Lillie kept running to the bathroom to see her earrings in a mirror.
Jason and Bridget talked sports and comics.
I sipped coffee, loving how happy my children were. I grinned at Bridget. She reached across the table to pat my hand.