Transference by MaryLewis Meador


Photo of two sets of adult feet with one set of child's feet between, sticking out from end of covers
Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

Lucy and Henry are not an unusual couple. They forgive slights, hold some grudges, and share hilarity at mispronunciations, bad teeth, and their small mixed terrier French Fry. Average looking, they are both youthful for fifty, dedicated runners, and occasional eaters of ice cream. When their daughter Olive was born, they were smitten, and keen to keep to their small family unit. As an accountant Henry quantified Olive’s every childhood achievement. June, a florist, had strong opinions on how their daughter mixed colorful outfits. Both considered themselves Olive’s most important people.

But as Olive grew, her needs expanded beyond the walls of their Brooklyn apartment and the friendship of her parents. Now there are boyfriends, girlfriends, and many of Olive’s eccentric oil portraits depicting them all. Lucy and Henry reluctantly welcome the visitors, the easels, and even the paint fumes crowding their small apartment. French Fry, who dislikes the paint supplies, is excited by the unfamiliar humans.

Olive, at eighteen, will study art at RISD in the fall, is no longer a virgin, makes margaritas from scratch, and is secretly learning the art of tattoo. These accomplishments combined with her curly red hair, warm smile, and quick wit, charm most people.

On an early summer day Olive wanders to her favorite café with Amanda Gorman poetry book in hand. Dressed in faded overalls, a purple tank top, and green Birkenstocks, her mass of hair is pulled into a messy bun and her ears are full of piercings. Drinking her latte and reading in the small, crowded space, Olive looks up to see a man walk in. His unwashed brown hair, cheeky smile, and penetrating green eyes make Olive gawk. But it’s his tattoos that make her knees weak. Cadmium yellow, cobalt blue, chromium green, the colors of her paintings leap forth in jungle form. The vines twining his forearms lead to a lizard on his bicep. A hairy spider peaks beneath his jean shorts. Olive pretends not to notice any of this.

“Uh, hello,” she hears. When she looks up the man is standing near her with his coffee and a large chocolate chip cookie.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” he says. He looks around to show her there aren’t other options.

“Sure, ok. I don’t mind,” she says.

“I’m Roger.”


“So, what do you do when not reading poetry?” says Roger.

“I’m a painter, heading to school this fall,” says Olive.

“Ha, my tattoos are my art, but construction pays the rent,” he says.

“You designed them all?” she says, gesturing at his tattoos.

“Yeah, it started after a trip to Costa Rica. One little spider grew into this forest.”

“They’re really cool, would you ever sit for a portrait? I’d love to paint some of them,” Olive says, flushing at the question. “I mean, we don’t know each other, and you should probably say no.”

“Yes, absolutely,” Roger says with a grin.

On a sunny afternoon, Roger arrives in the family apartment to sit for his portrait. Neither Lucy nor Henry pay any particular notice. They assume this man will be around only long enough for them to learn a few quirks and for him to be quickly forgotten by Olive’s wavering attention. But his painting seems to require more sittings than most. Roger, with his tattoos, work boots, and booming voice, crowds the small apartment nearly every night. His likeness has a place of prominence in the main room, so even when he isn’t there, he is. And so are those eerily alive tattoos. Lucy and Henry are disturbed by his flesh paintings. They prefer art hanging on the wall.

When elopement happens just a few short months later, Olive and Roger are giddy, Lucy and Henry bereft, and French Fry indifferent. This causes the first real, and serious, rift in the family. A wall of silence builds between them. When Olive and Roger move to Providence where she attends school and he works on a new park project, there is little communication between Rhode Island and New York.

In their free time, Olive and Roger begin tattooing each other. Olive carefully and nervously adds a red-eyed tree frog to Roger’s forearm, its likeness so real she imagines it blinks. Roger designs an octopus for Olive and sticks and pokes it into reality on her thigh. Next comes a sea turtle swimming down her forearm, this one from a rotary machine. Sea urchins, sea grasses, and dolphins follow. Her body is a stunning ocean canvas that appears to move with the tides.

In New York, Lucy and Henry are startled to find how quiet and peaceful it is to be alone once again in the apartment.

“Do you think they eloped for Olive to make a point?” says Lucy.

“I think they eloped because they’re young, and stupidly in love,” says Henry, putting down his iPad and glasses. “It’s time to see them.”

Lucy and Henry get into their vintage Prius one chilly November day and drive north. After nearly four hours of podcasts and worry, they throw their arms around a somewhat stiff Olive. And are unable to stifle their gasps as they take in her undulating tattoos.

“Honey, what are these?” asks Lucy.

“Oh, my god!” Olive says. “Is that the first thing you’re going to ask?”

“Olive, your mom and I are just surprised,” says Henry as he swallows his distaste.

“These are art, I’m here to study and live my art.”

“Hello Roger,” says Lucy without much enthusiasm as she sees him at the top of the stairs.

“Hello Lucy, Henry,” he says with a nod.

The cramped, overheated apartment is filled with thrift store finds and Olive’s easels. It smells of warming lasagna, linseed oil, and old radiators. Lucy hands over the apple pie she made that morning and they all sit down to dinner. There is small talk, awkward tattoo glancing, and to everyone’s relief, the end of dinner.

Driving home to quiet and French Fry, Lucy and Henry are melancholy and guilt ridden for their reaction to Olive’s new life. After unanswered calls and texts for more than a week, a letter arrives. They read it eagerly, hands shaking.

Dear Mom and Dad,

This seems like the best form of communication, for now. I’m confused and sad about our dinner. Is it Roger? The tattoos? We’re making a life together and I’d like you to be in it. But not until you can fully support us.

I love you,


PS You need to join us, to understand us.

There are colorful ink smudges on the plain white paper and both Lucy and Henry idly rub them as they read and re-read the letter. Snuggling with French Fry, they fall asleep each agonizing about how to repair the damaged relationship, and puzzling over the post-script.

Lucy wakes first with a tingling and itching on her forearm. Odd, she thinks. Light is just creeping through the curtains and she can’t see anything alarming.

“Goddammit!” says Henry.

“What is it?” says Lucy.

“My thigh is on fire. I think we have bed bugs!”

“Oh, no, oh my god, anything but that.” Lucy leaps from the bed and turns on the light.

“Henry, what’s on your leg? It looks like . . . a tattoo?”

Henry puts on his glasses and looks in horror at his leg. Little by little, as though being drawn by an invisible hand, a tropical fish appears on his thigh. And then sea grass grows around it.

“This can’t be happening. What the hell is going on?” says Henry. “Lucy, look at your left arm.”

Lucy glances down and begins to scream. Coming into focus is a long octopus’ arm, winding around her shoulder, ending just above her elbow. Intricate, tiny suckers in delicate apricot and tangerine continue to emerge. It is mesmerizing and horrifying.

“Are we,” says Lucy, “hallucinating?”

Alarmed by the outburst, French Fry barks and runs merrily around them as Lucy starts to cry and Henry furiously rubs his thigh. Fortunately, French Fry remains tattoo-free.

After a long day of worry and scrubbing, they crawl into bed, and examine each other’s tattoos.

“They are rather beautiful,” Henry says as he traces the octopus on Lucy’s arm. “It was painful to see Olive’s perfect skin marred. How can she be so blasé about their permanence?”

“I don’t know,” says Lucy. “But I miss our girl.” In apparent agreement, French Fry licks Henry’s sea grass-covered thigh. As Lucy drifts off she whispers, “And I have an idea about how to reach out.”


The next day in Providence, Olive and Roger are intertwined in their small bed enjoying a leisurely Saturday. Olive distractedly runs her fingers over the furry howler monkey on Roger’s chest.

“You don’t think the travelling pigment works, do you?” asks Olive. She giggles. “I love imagining my parents developing slow tattoos.”

“Can’t be true, but was too hard to resist,” says Roger. “I mean, the way your parents scowled at our tats, don’t think they’re planning on getting any of their own.”

Olive sighs and snuggles closer. “It’d be perfect justice!”


A few weeks later a letter arrives in Rhode Island. Olive nervously opens it and two small stick on tattoos fall from the envelope. One has a pair of reading glasses and the other a pickleball racket. Putting the tattoos on the kitchen counter, she and Roger take turns reading the note.


Dear Olive and Roger,

You gave us a needed lesson and so we return the favor. Our tattoos are gradually disappearing. They should be undetectable soon, though the feeling of art on our bodies will linger much longer. Please indulge us and wear the enclosed tattoos. Not to worry, like youth, they fade quickly.

We love you. We support you.

Mom and Dad


Amused by her parent’s request, Olive presses the pickleball tattoo on the soft inside of her wrist. Though Roger resists, she presses the reading glasses on the inside of his. They fall asleep spooning, their temporary tattoos pressed together.

The following morning, Olive rides her bike to a day of classes and painting. Roger drives to the park pagoda he’s designed and constructing. They both feel unusually exhausted by the end of the day. That night, while eating dinner, neither can shake a sense of creeping anxiety.

“This is weird,” says Lucy. “I’m worried about my parents. My heart aches, and I don’t know why. I hope they’re ok.”

“Oh shit, I feel it too, deep in my bones.” Roger winces. “And I feel like . . . calling them?” his voice fading a bit. Olive and Roger look at each other with alarm.


Photo of pair of hands tattoing someone's arm
Photo by Benjamin Lehman on Unsplash.

MaryLewis Meador
MaryLewis Meador writes, teaches yoga, and lives in central Virginia with Pete the dog, Twig the cat, and her husband.

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