Camellias in Black and Gray


I know I want Lea the way I do long before she pulls me into her room, but the way she shrugs the button-up off her shoulders still undoes me. She closes the door, reaching up and over her head to tear a wad of gauze off her back. She makes the white pad dance between two fingers before turning on her heel. “Do you like it?”

When I see “it,” sparks skitter across my skin. I stare for too long and the misstep makes her voice hike up one nervous tick.


“I love it,” I rush to say. That’s the safe, expected response to the camellias—three blossoms total—bursting from the angry skin on her shoulder. It’s easier to say than “that’s sexy” or to gush that the piece sits so perfectly on her flesh and bone.

I know nothing about tattoos, but I decide the detail is exquisite anyway. The lines in the folds of each petal are clear and steady. There are tiny puffs of pollen peeping out from each flower’s heart. The leaves are veiled gray to help the flowers pop. It works.

Aside from a bit of shading in the slope of each petal, the flowers are filled only with the color of Lea, the kind of brown so lush that makeup companies can only describe it with awkward and ambiguously edible clichés. Mahogany Caramel. Sienna Truffle. Sycamore Espresso, Roasted Medium Dark.

It’s the kind of skin that inspires my mother to ask if “the morena” is still there long after Lea leaves for the night; to brush off my indignation with a laugh. It’s just a joke, she says. Don’t be so sensitive, she adds. Later she’ll hand me a bar of papaya soap and cluck her tongue and wonder if Lea’s mom wants some. We have extra. Doesn’t she know she can always ask?

These are the matters that haunt my mother: our various shades, our modest accomplishments, the bleach in our soap. I despise her obsessions, but I’m just as grateful that they distract her from a daughter whose only interest is spending hours on the couch with that morena, legs tangled for no other reason than for my body to touch hers. I don’t know what Lea’s distracted by, but as far as I can tell, she’s just as blind.

We’ve known each other forever, from kindergarten class to chatrooms. We’ve pantomimed heartbreak for boys who didn’t matter; cackled as we bared our budding chests to strange men online, shimmying side to side. It should be enough to have those moments, those precious bits of girlhood no one else could reach. But I want more. I want to consume her melancholy, audacity, and joy. I want to strip the petals off her back and let them sit on my tongue until they dissolve. I don’t want anyone else to ever have a taste.

I think mom would be livid if I followed Lea’s lead and pierced my skin with ink. What would she think if I let myself tip forward to drink my morena in?

“Where’d you get it?” I say. She says something about some old classmate of ours apprenticing in Lower Haight, and I have so many more questions. When? Why couldn’t I come along? Why haven’t I met her? It is a ‘her?’ I bite them back.

There are days when I think Lea’s noticed when I’ve laughed too loudly at something she’s said, or how goosebumps prickle along my arms when her shoulder brushes against mine. But in the end, I’m good at staying hidden. Invisible. A rebellion as quiet as the camellias on her back, fierce but hidden from view.

Lea looks over her shoulder and hands me the gauze. “Put it back on?”

I nod and place it back on her shoulder, adding a kiss of pressure as I run my fingers down the tape. Lea’s wearing a strapless bra to keep the pinch of elastic away from the tender canvas. I’m ashamed I noticed, embarrassed that I didn’t notice sooner.

“What does it mean?” I ask.

Lea scoffs as she shuffles her shirt back on. “It just a bunch of flowers.” Her fingers fasten the buttons. “Does it have to mean anything else?”

“No.” I watch inch by inch as tan toffee Lea disappears from view. When I look up, she’s wearing a smile that makes me wonder if I’m as invisible as I thought. “I guess not.”


Danielle Batalion Ola is a Filipina writer who was born and raised on the island of Kaua’i. She’s found her way across mainland America to Brooklyn, NY, where she writes stories both real and imagined with the support of her tiny dog, Stitch. Find her online @_daniola.