Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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Family Story

By Patti See

At 30 I started wearing lipstick, and at 31 I started running again.  At 32
I decided to leave my husband. Thirty-three is almost here and I’m stumped how to mark the occasion.  Jesus was 33 when they got him and so was Alexander when he wept because there were no more worlds to conquer.

The night before my birthday, I sit at Griffin’s kitchen table drinking beer.  His teenage son shows me his newly pierced eyebrow.

“Cool,” I say, a word that never goes out of style. 

Griffin says, “We were in and out of the piercing shop in ten minutes.  This very tattooed woman shot my son with a piercing gun.  It took longer to pay than to do the actual deed.”    

Since Jack and I separated, Griffin’s kitchen is the only place I feel at home. My apartment is temporary, two large rooms where I sleep and sometimes eat.  We decided that it would be best for our ten-year-old to stay with his dad and his house, but the arrangement has turned me into a visitor. 

Ethan suggests I pierce my belly button.  I shake my head.  I say, “I gave up piercing almost fifteen years ago.”  I show them the five earrings in my left ear. I spent twelve years in Catholic school where it didn’t take much to stand out in a crowd. 

“Maybe it’s time for a new one,” Ethan says.  He disappears and returns in minutes from his Rasta van with a navel/eyebrow piercing kit, still in its original packaging.   He lays its contents on the table before me.

Griffin says, “Most fathers expect a hidden stash of crack or Ecstasy in the glove compartment.  My son has piercing paraphernalia.”

“What?” Ethan says.  “I got it free with my dread kit.”

I know a pierced navel will certainly not make me any more or less that goofy Rachel Unger.  I have been a marked woman for some time now.

I hold the belly ring, still in its plastic.  I start to unscrew the tube.  “Can I?” 

“Sure,” Ethan says.  “Take a look.” 

He tells me that his girlfriend Tina pierced her belly button with a safety pin. 

My toes curl inside of my running shoes. 

He says, “She had to take her ring out after about a month so her mother wouldn’t see it.” 

As a teenager, I was so expert at hiding my piercings behind my long hair that my parents didn’t notice until they saw my graduation picture.  They know less about me now.

I pull out the three-inch needle.  “That’s the widest I’ve ever seen,” I say.  I can’t even prick my own finger to test my blood for glucose.  I pick up the clamp, a vice grip for skin, and attach it to the fleshy part above my navel. 

Griffin raises one eyebrow.  “Perhaps for this birthday you can just look at the needle and pierce next year.”

Ethan answers the phone before two rings.  Ten p.m., his girlfriend.  I’ve been here before for his thirty or ninety minute conversations. 

I let my t-shirt cover the clamp.  Surprisingly, it’s not uncomfortable, less than a clothespin stuck to my finger.  I read the kit’s numbered directions. 

1) Clamp the flap of skin you want pierced between the holes on the clamp.  2) Press the piercing needle through the holes on the clamp, piercing the skin clear through to the other side. 

Blood rushes to my face.  It’s the beer or the directions.  The words are too complicated for me.

3) Now with the needle still piercing the skin, open the Ball Closure Ring and thread it through the hole behind the needle as you remove the needle.  4) Once the needle is removed and the Ball Closure Ring in, close the ring with the ball

In minutes Ethan is back.  He says, “You ready to do this?”  I know from his eagerness that he’s got to call back Tina.

“Let me see the needle again,” I say. 

Griffin says, “Don’t do it if you’re not sure.”

“No, I want to,” I lie.  “I can do it.  I gave birth, you know. What’s a little pin prick?  I cut my son’s umbilical cord before I passed his placenta.”

I imagine Ethan’s toes twitch in his sandals.  He hands me an ice cube for my belly, which I hold against my flesh until it turns white. 

We all wash our hands.  For the first time it strikes me how comical this is.  I should tell them I lied about cutting Sam’s umbilical cord. 

I say, “This is going to be nothing.”  I rub the ice cube on my flesh caught in the vice grip.  “I just have to keep Tina’s mother from seeing.”  I laugh.  Seeing the needle is making me giddy.

Ethan holds the needle like a pencil or a fork.  His hand shakes.  He says, “I think it’s better if you do it yourself.”

“Sure,” I say. 

He swabs my skin and the clamp with alcohol, which appears out of nowhere.  I hold the needle to my flesh and put the sharp point into my skin slowly enough for a tiny drop of blood to form.  I don’t feel any pain; the needle is that sharp.

The phone rings and Ethan scoops it up.  “Nope,” he says.  “We’re just about to.”  He sets the cordless phone on the table in front of me. 

I hold the needle, inhale, look at my stomach.  Since I was thirteen I’ve done 500 sit-ups a day.  Twenty years of daily exercise based on my fear of getting fat or at least soft.  Right now, I don’t think of infection, the initial or later pain, the scarring of this piercing.  Instead I ask, “Do you think I’ll still be able to do sit-ups in the morning?”  This may be my way out, explain to a buff sixteen-year-old that I want to continue to be my version of buff.

Ethan says, “Hard to say.  It takes an average of three to six months to heal.  You pierce an eyebrow or a tongue, the body fights to heal it.  The belly button the body doesn’t really care about.”

I’m on my fourth beer so it sounds like Ethan has done his research.  I hand him the needle.

“No,” he says, perhaps more sure than he’s been of anything this week or month.  He says again, “No.”  He hands the needle to his father. 

Griffin stands over me with the needle.  He shakes his arms like a conductor, like some 50’s comedian getting ready to perform an onstage operation. 

He asks, “You’re sure?”  I’ve had this clamp on for half an hour.  Of course I’m not sure 

I say, “I gave birth.”

“You said that before,” Griffin says.

“Yes,” I say, “I’m sure.” 

This is one of those moments everyone has: the time you almost held onto a rope tied to a car on an icy dead-end street; the time you almost tried cocaine.  Your mother called you home or a phone rang and you changed your mind. 

I’ll be thirty-three years old tomorrow, Bastille Day.  Perhaps this is my tri-life crisis, as if a looming mid-life crisis isn’t bad enough.  This would be a better story if I pierced my navel and it changed my outlook on the next sixty-six years, if I awoke reborn as a tube-topped, chaps-wearing, spit-into-the wind Harley babe who no longer pines for a family to accept her.

Griffin says, “You’re sure you’re sure.”  He has pulled Band-Aids and plucked slivers from three children and two wives.  He pokes the needle through in one thrust. 

“Mother fucker,” I scream.

“Through,” Griffin says calmly.

Ethan picks up the phone, whispers.  “Okay, Tina, the needle’s through.  Now we just have to get the ring in.”

I say, “Let’s take a break for a minute.”  Ethan nods and walks into the living room, murmuring into the phone. 

“You did great,” Griffin says.  “One push and it was through.”

I look at the needle through my flesh.  No pain, no blood.  My swollen belly button with this needle through it looks like a hotdog skewered sideways on a roasting stick.  I laugh. 

I say, “I can’t believe I said mother fucker in front of a child.”

Griffin rolls his eyes.  “Two children, really.  Tina listened to the whole procedure.  Ethan was narrating like this is the goddamn golf channel.  He slowly approaches the abdomen.”

I laugh until my stomach feels like I’ve been punched.  I say, “I couldn’t pierce it myself. Thanks for doing this.” I get overly dramatic, think that this piercing seals us: a family connected not by birth but by choice.

Griffin looks at the needle and says in his best cool-guy stance, “It was nothing.  No problem.”  

Ethan returns and puts the phone in front of me on the table.  “I’m sorry I swore,” I say, loud enough for Tina to hear.

Griffin pulls the ring from its zipped plastic bag.  His hands shake.  He says to his son, “You’ll have to do this.”  He hands it to Ethan. 

The waistband on my shorts is doubled over to my underwear line.  Ethan’s wrist settles on my belly as he works.  I haven’t had a sixteen-year-old’s hands on me since I was sixteen.  I am tipsy enough to overlook this weirdness, sober enough not to mention it. 

Ethan releases the clamp and tries to feed the ring through the hollowed end of the needle.  He squints.  “You okay?” he asks.

“This doesn’t hurt,” I say. “Surprisingly.”  After more poking with the ring, Ethan’s fingers are covered in my blood. 

Griffin pulls the top of the needle while Ethan inserts the ring. 

“I can’t see anything,” Ethan says.  His upper lip is wet with sweat.

Griffin goes to the kitchen drawer and returns with a flashlight.  He aims it at my belly.  When I see my blood spread around by so many hands, I have to turn away.  To calm myself, I watch their reflections in the four-foot windows beyond the table.  They stoop over me.  Griffin’s cigarette smolders in the ashtray beside a bottle of bourbon.  This image reminds me of a late night western: two outlaws pulling a bullet from a comrade.  

“Almost there,” Griffin narrates for me or for Tina, wondering, five miles away.  “He’s almost got it.” 

“You know,” Ethan says, “if you’d have gone to the piercing shop downtown this whole thing would have been over in thirty seconds.” 

“Uh-haaa,” I say.  He’s not my kid but there’s still a lesson to be learned from this.

“Through,” Griffin exclaims. 

Ethan screws a tiny bead to my belly ring and picks up the phone in one swoop.

I say to all of us, “Sure a piercing shop would have been easy, but what’s the story in that?”

Patti See's work has appeared in Salon Magazine, Women's Studies Quarterly, Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, Wisconsin Academy Review, and other magazines and anthologies. Her book Higher Learning: Reading and Writing About College was published by Prentice Hall in 2001 with the second edition forthcoming in spring 2005. Patti teaches developmental education and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


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