‘Pink Lipstick and Face Tattoos’ by Matthew Martino

Non-Fiction, Short Stories

My father likes to joke that he and my mother have known each other since the womb. It certainly feels that way. My parents met in summer school when they were just sixteen. He’d failed English and she’d failed math. Who would’ve known that English would become my best subject, and math would become my brother’s?

It was the summer before their senior year of high school. How Grease of them –– but Danny and Sandy have got nothin’ on my parents. One morning, my dad asked my mom if he could borrow her lipstick to draw something funny on the back of his friend’s t-shirt in class. No one remembers exactly what he drew, but knowing my father’s sense of humour, “something funny” probably means “a giant penis.” A few days later, he mustered the courage to ask my mother out on a date, and he bought her some new makeup. They’ve been together ever since.

If either one of them would have done just slightly better in school, I wouldn’t be here today.

“Thank God I never showed up to class,” my father likes to tell my brother and I. “Or I would never have had you two idiots.”

I’ve never been in a relationship, but I always think of my parents whenever my friends have trouble in their love lives. When my best friend Rose had a hard time dealing with the fact that the cute guy in her Western Civ class liked country music, I thought of the countless car rides with my parents switching back and forth between the classic rock radio station and the pop station. When my neighbour was about to leave on a three-month service trip to Ecuador, unsure if his relationship would last through the summer, I thought about my father’s endless business travels. And when my driving instructor—who didn’t quite understand the concept of boundaries— would babble on about her boyfriend’s fear of commitment, I thought about how my parents dated for nine years before they finally got hitched. But I only told her that to shut her up — my parents’ extended engagement was due to being broke rather than a fear of settling down.

Now, as I sit facing a middle-aged couple in a crowed metro cart making its way down the orange line, I can’t help but think of my parents. The man and woman in front of me are nothing like my mother and father. My parents don’t reek of weed at 10 in the morning, but I suppose some days are harder to go into work than others. The man has a buzz cut, day-old stubble on his chin, and a large spider web tattoo covering his left cheek. He turns his head to reveal a series of Chinese symbols imprinted on his neck. I’m sure they have a lot of meaning for him. He’s wearing a stained black hoodie with the drawstrings missing, and a pair of oversized Levi’s jeans. The woman sitting next to him is wearing a one-sleeve tank top and grey leggings, while her long, black hair looks like it hasn’t been touched by a comb in months.

Just then, the man whispers something into her ear and she begins to laugh. That’s when I see that the woman has no teeth. Her four front incisors are completely missing.

“You’re so bad.” Her voice echoes throughout the subway cart.

He takes his finger and gently rubs the dried mascara from under her eye. “You look better without all this shit anyway.”

I’ve always loved to people-watch. As a small child, I wanted nothing more than to sit at the grown ups’ table, not because I wanted to feel like an adult, but so I could to listen in on their conversations. My parents never had any trouble taking me to upscale restaurants as a toddler because I always sat silently in my highchair, observing the commotion around me. When I began taking the train at the beginning of high school, I wouldn’t listen to music to pass the time— overhearing the gossip of nearby passengers was more than enough entertainment. My parents taught me good manners –– I know better than to stare at strangers. But on this particular morning, my eyes remain fixed on the couple giggling in front of me.

Part of me is so captivated by them because they look just like the two lovers sitting in the diner at the beginning of Pulp Fiction. I gently place my hand into my pocket to clutch my phone, as I recall that the opening scene of my favourite movie ended in a robbery and a few murders.

The other part of me is fascinated by this couple because of the way that they look at each other. For almost the entire ride now, she’s been leaning her head on his shoulder while he’s been twirling her hair. Every so often he stops to whisper in her left ear, or to kiss her forehead, and she runs her fingers over the black and grey stubble sprouting from his chin. He looks at her as though she is the most beautiful woman in the world: a Greek goddess in the flesh, more striking than the most beautiful Victoria’s Secret model. She likewise gazes lovingly up at him as if he’s Brad Pitt in his mid-nineties prime. But most of all, they are looking at each other in a way that my parents haven’t in years.

All my life, I’ve thought of my mother and father’s relationship as the perfect example of what a long-lasting marriage should be— even though my parents are far from perfect. My father is stubborn. My mother overreacts. Yet for some reason when they are together, she makes him that much less of an ass, and he makes her just a little bit calmer. I’ve always been convinced that the kind of love that my parents have can only be found in summer school. The kind of love that my parents have can only come about after nine years of dating. And yet the couple in front of me looks like they’ve never stepped foot inside a school, let alone have known each other for nine years, and I think they’re doing just fine.

I know my parents are happy, and although I wouldn’t wish a face tattoo on my worst enemy, I’d like to think that even after 24 years of marriage my mother and father could still learn something from the couple sitting in front of me. After all, if a woman with no teeth can find her prince charming, then there’s certainly hope for the rest of us. Maybe we all can.


MATTHEW MARTINO was born and raised in Montreal, and is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Communication Studies at Concordia University.

Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Martino. All rights reserved.

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