Aria pointed at the little flower on her ankle with a short, chubby finger and asked her mother in her unpracticed, fragmented English about what it was. “Pretty,” she said, her ‘r’ little too rounded and her voice broken up by her childish laughter. She stumbled back and plopped back into the tub, splashing into the bath water with a giggle.
Her mother lifted the toddler out of the tub and wrapped the soft pink towel around her. The older woman’s eyes caught on the flower on her daughter’s skin, the bright pink petals stark against her pale complexion. It was almost lifelike with its crisp green leaves and the pockets of yellow, powdery pollen collecting in the center. A small vine extended from the bunch of leaves, winding around the inside of her ankle.
She ran her finger over the mark, horrified of the other marks that would someday rise on her skin as ugly reminders of the love swirling in her still pure-heart. She felt the burn of all the marks that claimed her skin and her heart pounded at the thought of all the love that had darkened her own soul.
She was six when she asked about the dove that lived in suspended flight behind her ear. Her fingers flew to the mark, so gently that she was sure that it must have burned her hands. The dark ink did in fact burn into her skin, a painful reminder of the love that she had lost.
“Someday,” she promised. Someday, when she was older, she swore to tell her daughter about the man she had loved first, the one that had stolen her heart before anyone else had even had the chance.
“It isn’t the same as Daddy’s mark,” Aria probed. Even at that age, already very curious and impossibly observant.
“No, it’s not,” she replied matter of factly.
When Aria was eight, she watched a new mark form on her father’s forearm. It wasn’t the same as the butterfly on her mother’s ankle. No, it was the same music note that rested just above the shoe line of her teacher Ms. Lambert. She pointed it out to her mother one night when the three of them were sitting at the dinner table. Aria remembers watching her mother nod and her father’s expression drown in guilt. Later that night when she got up for a glass of water, her mom and dad were shouting at each other. Mommy was crying and Daddy was slamming things. When she woke up the next morning, Daddy wasn’t sitting at the table with his cup of coffee and his newspaper. In fact, she never really saw much of him after that.
She liked his new apartment, they ate mac and cheese every time she visited and he let her stay up to watch movies even on school nights. He sent her birthday cards and she watched as more marks took form on his skin. There was the bunny rabbit that the woman who bagged their groceries also had and the heart that she had seen on her dance instructor’s leg.
She was walking home from school with Jessica. It was something her mom told her she was grown up enough to do, now that she was twelve of course. Jessica, who was already thirteen and whose parents allowed her to wear eye shadow to school, happily displayed the mark that had branded the skin behind her thick curly hair. A simple tree drawn out of a single line with a small boy sitting at the bottom. It was more beautiful than anything she had ever seen and she wanted one.
But unlike Jessica, she still saw the boys as carriers of cooties. Don’t get her wrong, she wanted to be kissed –like she had seen her father so fondly kiss his new wife –but there was no boy in her grade that seemed worthy to share something so pivotal with. Jessica, of course, had kissed Tommy. A few days later, her delicate daisy popped out of his arm as if it were pushing through the early spring snow, but Jessica laughed and brushed it off. When Aria asked her if she loved him, she reassured her that she didn’t.
“It was just a kiss,” Jessica said. But that mark on Jessica’s neck told her otherwise. Tommy had that same tree peeking out of the top of his sock.
On her sixteenth birthday, the outline of the wolf took shape on her collarbone and she felt this foreign sense of unease and excitement fill her stomach. Hollis, the senior on the football team who sat next to her in Spanish, had that same Wolf. But he didn’t bear the flower that claimed her skin. No, he wore the black raven that Amelia Stevens, the student body president, was born with. Aria felt this unbelievably kind of jealousy burn inside of her. She had always been sort of jealous of the cute haircuts and designer backpacks other girls on the Cheer squad had, but this was something much stronger and lived much deeper inside of her than that kind of envy. It was then that she learned what it was like to love someone who would never love you. Sometimes, her mother had told her at dinner that night, love is only a one way street.
And it was that night, with her daughter crying in her arms that she told the story of the dove that lived behind her ear. About the boy named Christopher who loved her from the time she was seven up until she was twenty-one. And it wasn’t that he had gotten tired or that fourteen years of unconditional love had made his bones weary.
They had gotten married the day after they graduated, already planning for a life that they wouldn’t get to have. He was going to serve in the military like his father had and she was going to stay home at go to school. When she graduated, they would buy a house on the corner with a fence and have a big family. He just never made it home.
“Maybe someone up there needed him,” she whispered, a single tear sliding down her cheek. “But, baby, sometimes love is too strong for it to last forever.”
Her father, he had been his best friend, the best man at their wedding even. “You’re father took care of me,” she whispered. “We had both buried someone we loved that day. It wasn’t too long after that we had you.”
That boy she thought would be her only love graduated from high school a few months later and she never spoke to him. Not that she really cared, there was a new tattoo taking form just above the line of her jeans. A fish made up of intricate lines and bright colors. And this time, her flower was on the hand of the man she had fallen so hard for. It was a whirlwind, all of it moving so quickly it made her head spin.
When it all came crashing down, Aria found herself in her bathroom with tears spilling down her cheeks and bile rising in her throat. When she had composed herself enough, she sat with her back against the wall and a broken razor in hand. With a delicate hand, she did her best to maim the fish that reminded her of the boy who had stolen her heart. When she woke up in a hospital bed, all that it left her with was a nasty scar and a mangled fish, the bright colors still haunting her.
His fingers danced along the lines of the tattoo that sliced through her pale skin. He couldn’t help it really, it was just another excuse to touch her. Another reason to feel that static when his flesh touched hers. He felt her shiver beneath his touch, the goosebumps rising on her skin and the shakiness of her breath tell-tale signs that she felt it too. He watched her twist their engagement ring around her finger and nibble on the inside of her lip as she always did when she thought. She didn’t talk about the boys that had filled her heart before he had, but he was sure there was a tale of heartbreak behind each tattoo.
Years later, her own daughter would ask about the big wolf on her collarbone and the fish that still burned if she touched it. And just like her mother had, she wrote it off with distance glazing over her eyes. “When you’re older, I’ll tell you.” When she was older, nursing a heartbreak of her own, Aria held her daughter in the way her mother had when she felt the taste of lost love.
“My first love had blue eyes,” she smiles sadly. “Those eyes were some of the kindest, yet iciest eyes I’ve ever seen. They were magical when the sun hit them. I fell in love with his eyes and the adventure that was held in them.”
And just like that, the wolf began to hunt and the fish began to swim as the story behind each mark took shape and the boys who put them there came to life before them. Love, she told her daughter, takes all kinds of forms, but the best kinds are the ones that have no explanation at all.
“What do you mean?” She asked.
“If we could explain love,” Aria smiled. “It wouldn’t be as rare as it is.”