His name was Mustang, but he owned a Corvette. It was blood red and always smelled of cigarettes. There was something about the way he drove, one hand gripped around the wheel, the other extended out into the gushing air, fingers clawing through the breeze. He’d take me for rides in the early morning hours when the roads were asleep and seemed to pour into oblivion. “Journeys,” he’d call them. We raced the darkness, the car rumbling with the fury of a lion’s crazed growl as it sped down the thruway.
I used to be a good girl. I had long, golden locks that I twisted into braids. I hummed while I helped Mom in the kitchen. My biggest secret was the diary I kept, pages as bland and dry as stale crackers. I prayed. I prayed even when I didn’t realize I was praying. I always kept my bedroom door open. I never stepped foot out of the house after dark. I never cursed. I never touched a boy. I never lied. Not even once.
I first met Mustang in my school parking lot on the second Tuesday of October, 1999. I was walking with my friend Suzanne, a girl with the most ferocious, untamable curls the color of fire and skin as pale as rice paper. Our Catholic school uniforms reeked of curiosity and Christ, deep blue, knee-length skirts as stiff as cardboard swallowing up our legs like oversized lamp shades. She told me her cousin was driving us home for a change. “Don’t look him in the eyes,” she said sharply, “He’ll get you.” I hadn’t known what she meant by that, and I remember tugging at my white blouse sleeves as though my arms were suddenly too bare. And then I saw him. He was leaning against the bold Corvette, his tight-jeaned legs crossed at the knee, his dark-leathered arms crossed at the chest, and I, well I crossed myself. His jet-black hair was slicked back and helmeted his head in a plastic-like shine. His tiny, silver nose ring winked at me, five o’clock shadow cloaking his features in mystery. I knew he was bad, and as Suzanne glared warningly into my reddening cheeks, my heart drummed heavily against my rib cage.
They were a speckled yellow, his eyes, and they swallowed me up with intensity as our palms pressed together in a hard handshake. “Mustang,” he said as though I already knew his name, voice smooth like running water. It dotted my arms with goose bumps, slithering across the surface of my skin. His irises, with their sun-like shine, poured into mine, and I was blinded of everything around us. All the tip-tapping of turtleneck-wearing, stern-mouthed mothers penciling down shopping lists in their minivans. All the zipping and tugging of bulging backpacks weighing down delicate, burdened shoulders. All the crunching of crisp leaves as weary shoes left crumbles of sunset-colored confetti on the pavement. The corners of his mouth curved into a lopsided grin and he breathed, “Get in girls.”
From the start, I learned to expect the unexpected. But the following Tuesday when Suzanne handed me a menu to Stella’s, a pizza place downtown, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I should have expected the unexpected, but I didn’t know that. At least not yet. On the front of the menu, fitted with a droopy chef’s hat was a cartoon pizza, and his wide, white-toothed, smiling face was covered by thick sharpie. A time was written in black: “7:00.”
“It’s from Mustang,” Suzanne said begrudgingly, raising her eyebrows in skepticism. Her mane seemed extra lioness that day.
At seven that night I obeyed, mildly jolted yet undeniably enticed by the abruptness of his request to see me. Well, his demand to see me.
Mustang sat in a back booth, jaw clenched, chewing on the tip of a straw that hooked over a plastic red cup. He watched me with a subtle eagerness I wasn’t supposed to notice as I hesitantly made my way over. Stella’s was small; the burgundy brick walls and humidity encased us in like the oven flaming in the kitchen behind us.
“Hey sweetheart,” he murmured, glowing with triumphant glory. “Have a seat.” I sat. His leather-suited arms were outstretched on the wooden table, his palms open as though inviting me in. I remember playing with my braid, anxiously running my fingertips along the twisted strands, counting the woven pockets to steady my stifled breathing.
“Hi,” I offered.
“I ordered you pepperoni. Hope that’s cool.” His voice was cool.
“Yeah.” Mine sounded meek in comparison to the rasp that scratched at his throat. I let his eyes study me, blush staining my cheeks. The pull of his gaze was magnetizing, and I could feel myself melting, melting for him. I imagined my skin oozing like soft dough as the bricks blazed around me. I prayed that he couldn’t see me trembling. A smirk curled his lips.
“So, Jane … you like school?” he asked, eyeing me as he sucked on his straw.
“Yeah, I like it.” I felt so small, yet longed to muster up the courage to embrace his intensity, not shy away from it. So I asked daringly with a curiosity that had been wracking my brain all day, “How’d you know I would come?” This amused him, and he suddenly grabbed onto my hands. They were firm, holding onto me with such strength. It felt strange, to have him grip me like that, stroking my clamminess and entangling my fingers with his own.
“Because,” Mustang’s voice streamed softly into my ears, “you want to get to know me. I can tell. Trust me.” My eyelids bowed slightly with the allure of his enchanting words that wrapped themselves around me and drew me in. I wanted this closeness, this security. I needed it. When I didn’t answer, he added, “And I like you Jane. You’re … ” he gave my hands a squeeze, “You’re something.”
When a heavyset waiter with a flower-stained vest approached us, bubbling slices in hand, Mustang turned to him and cleared his throat.
“We won’t be needing these,” he instructed, placing a ten-dollar bill on the table, “I’m hungry for something else.”
I was hooked. He sparked something within me that drove me mad, making my limbs itch with urgency, awaking my appetite. I inhaled him like smoke, my lungs inflated by his every mutter, his every move, and as I exhaled, innocence escaped my parted lips. I wore my hair down, started saying things like “Shit,” and “Fuck,” and “Go to Hell.” He taught me what lust was, thrusting himself into me with a hunger I had never seen or felt before, his touch sometimes soft, quiet with serenity, sometimes rough, blaring with desire. He’d pick me up from school and pin me against the squeaky leather, ripping holes in my white tights, said it turned him on. He’d tell me I was his: his girl, his darling, his lover, that he would go wherever I went in the world. Rather, he would latch onto me and take me with him as we ventured off to unseen horizons. He wanted to teach me how recklessness made a person better. How risk brought more happiness than security ever could. Yet he secured me with the recklessness, with the risk, of his love. Our love. I drank him up as though my early teenage years had been as barren as a desert. And he was my oasis.
The room was dingy, everything draped in a sickening green lighting that made my stomach churn. Vintage pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Beatles and naked women hung crooked on the walls. The tattoo artist’s name, Roger, was relatively normal, but he was not. Having been with Mustang for a few months short of two years, one would think I was used to everything and anything out of the ordinary. Roger, well, he still made my eyebrows furrow. His gleaming bald head was inked with his mothers face. “It’s so she always tells me the right thing to do, man,” he explained in the deepest voice I’d ever heard, booming like a bass. “She always does, man.” Like get more tattoos?
He had me straddling a cushioned chair, arms hugging the padding at my torso. My long curls, now the color of squid ink, were pulled high above my head. The vinegary smell of rubbing alcohol was dizzying as he cleaned the back of my neck with a cool liquid. Once Roger placed the thermal sketch onto my bare skin, my breathing became fragmented, crack by crack breaking my lungs and collapsing my chest into itself. I tapped the tiles with my toes, jittery like espresso swam through my capillaries.
“So, whose decision was this?” Roger asked as he began prepping the sterilized needles he’d retrieved from his autoclave bag. “The lady’s or yours?”
“Mutual. It was mutual,” Mustang, who stood behind us, replied. His hair was slicked back, the ends tied into a small black tail. His shaven face was smooth, jawline defined with maturity.
“Nice, man. Nice.” Roger clicked his tongue a few times, startling me. “Hey,” he offered, “relax, Hun. I’m an ink pusher. I push ink, man. You’re in good hands here.” He placed a calloused palm on the base of my neck and squeezed it. “Now, you ready?” I could feel his beady eyes glaring down at my skin, and the anticipation drove my mind into a frenzy. No. No. No. I gulped down a knot in my throat and gnawed at my bottom lip. Mustang smacked on his gum, fueled by adrenaline.
“Come on babe, you’re good. Just relax,” he cooed aggressively.
I had smoked pot. I had lost my virginity. I had broken into a place or two (three if you count the abandoned Chuck E. Cheese that Mustang and I made love in on occasion), but I had never, never been pierced with a needle over a thousand times per minute. I dug my chipped nails into the padding at my fingertips, pressing my face into the cushion as though this would drown out the world around me.
The gun sounded like a dentist drill, grinding my eardrums. The bitter, coppery taste of nausea drowned my tongue in saliva, and my insides wailed like boiling teapots. I imagined the large-breasted women that lined the walls, in all their voluptuous glory, snickering at my quivering body. “It’s easy,” they hissed. “Come on, little school girl. Come on.”
Roger began etching the ink permanently into me, the pain unforgivingly sharp as though hornets relentlessly dug their stingers into my skin. And they didn’t stop. Then stingrays joined in, tails piercing my flesh. Then scorpions too, venom oozing down my spine. My eyes flooded with hot tears, and I dug my nails even harder into the cushion, hands damp and pleading.
I kept thinking about something Mom had told me years earlier. Pain is what reminds us that we are still living. I repeated these words in my head as the hornets and stingrays and scorpions continued their tortuous pricking, an internal chant that steadied my whimpering heart. A tingling numbness slowly began to envelope my body, dulling the severity of the pain. My mind drifted to familiar places as I pictured Mom’s soft features. Her kind eyes. The wrinkles that wound around her face like rivers, streams of regret and age and wisdom.
There’s something else Mom had told me, something I couldn’t quite shake. She had warned me when I was a little girl that sometimes the heart was tricky. Sometimes it confused love with lust and lust with love. She believed that it blinded us of reality, of truth even though it seemed to be the purest part of us. The heart can trick you into thinking you’re someone you’re not.
The pain consumed me, left me feeling battered. I was in a trance when Roger told me that it was all over, that he had finished. “M-U-S-T-A-N-G,” he read aloud, the letters hanging in the restless air of the room. The back of my neck was raw, felt as though the skin had been shredded to bits. Head heavy, ears ringing, I eased my way back into reality.
Mustang said something through his fang-like teeth, a devious smile on his lips as we got into the Corvette, but the dull humming in my ears muffled his words. “What?” I asked, feeling the cool L.A. air wash over my face. He looked at me with hungry eyes, mouth watering.
“I got you,” he whispered into my neck, placing his bony fingers on my upper thigh. As I peered ahead at the glowing yellow lines, the deserted streets suddenly seeming very small. The monstrous engine roaring, I sunk down in the worn leather seat, watching the starry night sky. How clear it looked, how pure, twinkling like shimmering, white grains of sand. And I imagined that as we drove, the stars rained down on us so that we were treading through the Heavens.