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As soon as Tia cleared the line of customers, she came to join me.
I tell her to forget it. She tries to press me a little. I shrug.
“Did you have fun Saturday?”
“Thanks for inviting me.”
“Sure, I’ll let you know when we do it again. I have to remember to keep it down next time.”
“Did a neighbour complain?”
“No, but the noise freaks out my cat.”
“You have a cat? Here?” I’ve never seen a cat; is it in the back room?
“I live above.”
“Oh.” Sanitation crisis averted.
“So tell me about your writing,” she suggests, settling into her chair. She knows the flow of customers like sailors know the tide; right now the tide is out and there is nothing to do but wait for it to come back in. I start slowly, I haven’t explained my ideas to anyone yet. But soon, it comes pouring out. I tell her everything I know about Wealhtheow, and everything I want to know.
“It sounds like you’re in love with her,” she muses, her green eyes half-closed.
“What? No. That’s nuts.” Maybe she never really existed.
“You care about her, about getting to know her,” Tia continues, as if she didn’t hear me. “Ha! You should get a tattoo, keep her with you.”
What? Me, get a tattoo? I’ve overheard various explanations of Tia’s tats, so I know this is a good way to divert the focus away from me.
“Why don’t you tell me about your tattoos?”
Tia talks about each dragon, one by one. She reminisces about the cities she’s visited, the artists who inked her, the people she knew at the time. Tia must be older than I thought, to have done so much. She gets up to serve her customers a few times, and then returns and continues her monologue from where she left off. It strikes me: I’ve never even been out of the province. I need to get out of Toronto. I want to turn on the local news and hear about something other than the falling Gardener Expressway and what David Miller’s doing wrong now.
Tia tells me about hanging out in parks in Japan to avoid the train at peak hours. In Thailand, her moped was stolen, and so she drank flaming shots all night in a bar, because the bartender had never seen a flaming shot before. I don’t think I’ve seen one before either. Then she skips to Europe, a bar she visited in Scotland. Tia talks effortlessly, telling stories about the places she’s been and the odd people she’s met. My life’s not nearly as interesting. I’ve never had much to talk about, because I don’t do much. I work, then go home. Coming for coffee is about as wild as my day gets. Tia’s boozed her way around the globe. It occurs to me that I can go on about Wealhtheow even when I have nothing to say about myself. Tia seems to think that’s close enough; she listens so intently her eyes stop blinking. My gut is still squirming with guilt. I shouldn’t have walked out.
Tia finishes showing me her tattoos. She smiles and goes to wipe down the counter, start the dishwasher, and fiddle with the espresso machine, prepping it for the three o’clock wave of university students. I sit and sip my almost-cold cappuccino, looking at the walls. The poster hanging above me seems different. A village is burning; wasn’t it just a single hut there before? The fire has spread; the lizard looks smug. Weird.
Although I’ve always admired tattoos, I have never considered myself the kind of person who would get one. Tia’s comment makes me wonder if an artist could capture the specific image of Wealhtheow I have in my head. She’s a Valkyrie: tall, strong, blonde, mythical. Her fierce face features a strong nose and sharp jaw, and her lips are round; not soft, but sexual. Her eyes are like looking at the sky through crystal. She wears a loose white dress belted at the waist; a dagger with an intricate golden handle hangs from her belt. A warrior. A woman. Wealhtheow.