I was 19 when I got my tattoo. When I talk about it now, or forget that it’s there and someone sees it and asks, I laugh and say “well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” The problem is, I don’t remember what the idea behind it was. I only have the meaning it took on afterward.
I was living with two sisters at the time, in an old farmhouse outside of Kalamazoo. They were passionate fighters, dreamers, and artists, and I could barely hang on to the trail of buzzing sparks of light they left behind them and wrapped me up in. But I did so, doggishly, and learned to believe that everything was a sign that meant something else, and I had to focus and dig until I felt the true meaning of everything around me.
During that time I was moving out of one stage and into another, and the two still intermingled. I’d followed The Grateful Dead after graduating from high school, embracing the free spirit I was during that time. Upon my return I cut my hair during a heatwave. Then cut it more. Then dyed it. Then cut it more. I started listening to Leonard Cohen and reading Anne Sexton. I wrote poems about The Way and driving fast in the warm wet nights, listening to the sound of crickets and Dave Matthews Band.
The sister I was closest to, Heather, discovered a new tattoo studio nearby, and took it as a sign that I needed a tattoo. I believed her. I decided that I would get a large, bright sun with wavy golden rays and radiations of darkness and love coming from its center. I’d get it on the base of my spine.
When we arrived, I sat in the waiting room while Heather got her belly button pierced. I picked up a book titled Faeries, by Brian Froud, and opened to the cover page, where I changed my mind about my tattoo. When Heather joined me I showed her the picture and looked into her eyes, which was how we communicated that something we were about to say held great significance, but we might not know what that was.
“I want to get this instead,” I told her. “And I’m going to get it on my belly.”
She held my gaze with love and mischief, and told me it was my turn to get up on the table.
Before he began, my artist asked if I was sure, warning that it might not hold up when I got pregnant some day. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m never having babies.” So he began.
That tattoo took three hours to complete, during which time Heather sat beside me and kept me company, making me laugh and testing the artist’s patience. At times I would say outlandish things to try loosening him up, like “ow, don’t press so hard there, I’m on my period and you’re moving my tampon all around!” Heather and I would laugh and the artist would stop, lean back, and shake his head. We were growing on him.
We left with instructions to buy Noxzema to help with the healing, and the next day I drove my van into town for some. I felt out of sorts, unfocused, and kept gently placing my hand on the bandage covering my new raw tattoo, which I found helped to center me. As I was leaving downtown, the van stalled out on the train tracks I was crossing, and steam started pouring from the hood. I watched in disbelief for a moment until I heard a honk, and then I opened the door and stepped into the street to indicate that I was in trouble. A man got out of his car to help, another ran over from a building to the left, where he’d been doing some repairs and had seen me break down. He told me that he owned the lot, and that I could leave my van there while I got help. Together we pushed the van off the tracks and to safety. I thanked these kind strangers, and then walked back downtown in the bright late summer heat to find a payphone. As I walked, I held my belly.
Instead of calling my mother, who owned the van, I walked into a skateboard shop and asked to use their bathroom. I said “I just got a tattoo yesterday, and I need to rub some Noxzema on it.” I knew the boy working there, had openly flirted with him more than once, but today I was distracted and my thoughts were clouded. He asked what I’d gotten. I said “a giant…fairy,” and we both laughed.
Back outside, I sat in the sun and tried to think of why I hadn’t gotten a sun on my back as I’d intended. I closed my eyes, rested my hand tenderly on my stomach, and leaned back, resting. Soon a shadow fell across me and I opened my eyes to see one of my oldest friends standing over me, smiling. I hadn’t seen Frank since the summer before, on the day I learned that my dog had been killed by a UPS truck. He’d happened to be in the same room with me at the busy camp where I worked when I got the news. He held me while I cried, and whispered to anyone who came questioning, “Fern,” to which they widened their eyes and walked away quietly, so well known and respected was the love I had for my dog.
When I saw Frank I thought If my van hadn’t broken down, I wouldn’t have run into Frank! It must have been a sign. I thought it was a sign that I missed my friend and needed to be better about keeping in touch.
I told him about my van, my tattoo, my life. He took me with him to visit another school friend, Tony, who was at the apartment of some girls I didn’t know. They let me use their phone and again, instead of calling my mom, I called Heather and Suzanne. I layed on the living room carpet in a patch of sun, tracing my finger around the bandage on my abdomen, while I told them I’d be home as soon as I could find a way back. They gave me a message to call my mother.
As I dialed my childhood phone number, I walked into the bathroom. There was a large poster of a glistening, half-dressed football player opposite the toilet, where I sat as the phone rang. When my step father answered, I stood up and looked into the mirror over the sink. I listened to him sigh and tell me that my sister had died that morning. I told him the van had broken down and was sitting in a vacant lot in downtown Kalamazoo; he said we’d figure it out.
When I came out of the bathroom, Frank looked at me, I looked at him, and he said “oh, honey” while I walked past him and out the door, down the stairs, and into his car where I sat in the back seat and sobbed. He’d followed me and sat in front seat holding my hand. When Tony came down and asked what was wrong, Frank just said, “Annie.”
I took it as a sign. I decided that I must have gotten the tattoo for Annie. That she’d known her long illness was coming to an end and she wanted to burn herself onto me in a way she’d never been able to from her wheelchair or through her seizures and blank stares.
Years have gone by. I did have a baby, and then another. The tattoo remains intact, no matter how my body changes around it. That’s the thing about tattoos – they don’t go away. Memories of my sister fade and are forgotten for a while, a long time even. The tattoo loses meaning and I forget that it, too, is a part of me. And then, I’ll step onto a beach wearing a bikini. I’ll pull my shirt up and over my head in front of a man for the first time. I’ll stretch up high to reach a pitcher on the top shelf. And I’ll hear the “whoa, what is that?” I’ll look down and strum my finger across my tattoo and say “oh, heh. This? It’s a giant…fairy.” “Wow…..”
“Yeah. It, uh…seemed like a good idea at the time.”