Scarred

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    I was just getting to know my roommate and I really liked her. We had lived together for five or six months and we were entering that stage of friendship when annoying personality quirks are no longer masked or pose a threat to mutual benevolence. She was from a small town in Wisconsin that left her with a cute accent, the pride of cheese curds and Packers football, and American oddities like saying “bubbler” instead of water fountain. When her childhood best friend came to visit, they chose to permanently mark their newfound adult freedom. 

    The last night of their whirlwind tour of Minneapolis had come and gone, and there was my roommate, standing in our communal bathroom with the waistband of her pajamas edged down below her hips. 

    “Liv, please just help me out.” I had warned her against this. She talked to me about it without knowing that I had formed a dogmatic opinion of tattoos. They were permanent, and they were scars.  

   On the fleshy part of her lower back swam a navy blue outline of a fish—a tattoo she and her best friend had just inked. I didn’t understand. She handed me a moldable metallic medicine tube of healing cream and bent over the sink so I could get a look at it. I struggled with the safety seal, tore off the plastic wrap pressed over her skin, and began to drown the fish in a layer of white cream.  

   I said, “I just don’t get tattoos.” The tattoo was already there and I really liked her, so I had to be careful as I crafted my passive-aggressive tisk-tisking.  

   “What happens when you’re 80 and someone is wiping your wrinkled butt in some nursing home?” It was a funny image that served us well. I made my disapproval known and she could continue to enjoy the emotional afterglow of the best friend tattoo right-of-passage. 

   Two weeks ago, I was 45 days away from turning 40. I sat in a tattoo artist’s chair. It wasn’t a mid-life crisis—I had already survived one of those—and I wasn’t drunk. I had carefully researched tattoo parlor reviews, asked all my friends for design suggestions, discovered that vegan ink was “a thing,” and had narrowed all my options down to a decision.   

   On tattoo day, I took a shower in my hotel room and looked down at my right arm. I was about to intentionally scar it forever. Is it possible to pity an arm; to anthropomorphize a part of my body and give it a soul? 

    “I am sorry. I didn’t think to give you the right to choose.” Maybe some day when I am 80 and receiving a sponge bath in a nursing home, some nurse’s aid will look down at its faded ink, click her tongue and sigh.  

   I have other scars already. A sunburn turned a birthmark into a sprawling, brown, puffy continent along the right side of my back. Tiny spider veins appeared in the summer of 1992, when my feet pounded sidewalks in search of my goal weight—teenage anorexia is visible in the web of broken capillaries. In my late 20s, I ran out of birth control pills and had my first baby. Stretch marks. Then I learned that years of taking those pills masked a genetic hormonal disorder, as I broke out in acne for the first time in my life. My once smooth face had permanent scars. Now I was designing one. 

   I considered designs to symbolize the start of my 40s. I called the recommended tattoo parlors in the artsy part of my town and sent the image files. “We don’t do one word projects.”    

   My life-changing one word was too elementary for them.  

   So instead, I had a reservation with Vlad, from Ukraine, who had moved to Bali for the booming tattoo business. Vlad personified the stereotype of the stoic Slavic male. He walked up to me, silent, and nodded once to let me know that it was okay that I existed. His thick frame, messy hair and full beard contradicted the black and red velvet Moulin Rouge décor of the Artful Ink Tattoo Parlor.   

   As Vlad began to lead me upstairs, the Australian girl who checked me in said, “We’re sorry. There is only room for one person to sit with you during the actual process.”  

   My husband and son went to the coffee bar. My nine-year-old daughter, Ava, and I slipped our shoes off and followed Vlad.  

   He led us up the steps to the second floor, past four or five customers sprawled out on various types of tables and chairs. At the top of the stairs, a beautiful girl with long dark hair laid on her side with earbuds in; her eyes closed tightly into a grimace as her entire thigh was being covered in floral art. They were alone. And for my one-word tattoo, I had brought my entire family: my husband and kids.  

   Vlad led me to his work area. Next to us laid a shirtless woman adding a flock of flying birds to the delicate area between her breasts. I sat down in something similar to a black dentist chair, my legs slightly elevated. His tools were neat and more modern than I anticipated.  A man who preferred silence and the hypnotic buzzing sound of the tattoo needle, Vlad answered my nervous questions with few words and zero eye contact.  

   “Where should I put the tattoo, exactly, on my forearm?” 

   Vlad pressed a blue-print of the design on the inner side of my wrist. Ava jumped up by my side, took my hand, and tried not to make Vlad too unhappy. She understood the meaning of the one word, and why I chose to mark myself. 

   About five years ago I began to take long drives, alone, along the sea. The scars on my body began to form words. Old. Trapped. Broken. Forgotten. I hoped that as I drove the words would disappear and I would be scarless again.  

   The scars never dissolved. Somehow I knew they were permanent--like the fish tattoo. When I am 80, a stranger will wipe them clean for me and wonder what story lies behind them. They were permanent tattoos that refused to let go of me. I think that is why I wanted to follow my roommate twenty years too late. I needed a scar that I chose to inflict; a reminder that I was no longer the same person on the invisible inside. I chose one word that summarized the years of mistakes, lessons learned and a new motto: “Trust.”  

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   Ava had given me font choices, including her own scribbled hand-written versions which did not make the cut—mostly because they always included a playful heart. But, to my surprise, one font she found was the most beautiful of all, and we chose it together.  

   Ten minutes. Ava leaned over my leather chair to see the needle carving into my skin. Stepping back, she could read the pain on my face. Vlad still had no emotion. The shirtless lady would throw me a sympathetic smile from her own black leather dentist chair. Ten minutes and my arm was changed. Vlad wrapped my forearm in a layer of cellophane that would soon gather sweat under the hot Indonesian sun. I was sent downstairs to pay and pick up my tube of healing cream. The Australian girl did her best to appear disinterested. 

    “Oh. I like that font,” she said. 

   Ava proudly grabbed my hand, and we walked out of that tiny tattoo parlor and back into the beehive chaos of Bali. Small, square, homemade straw bowls filled with pink and yellow flowers and burning incense lined the sidewalk, hoping to invoke favor from the gods. Dozens of scooters fought for the same piece of road, driven by Balinese in shorts, flip flops and a young child on the back. We walked to a café, drank smoothies, and waited for our taxi. My arm’s cellophane wrap sparkled in the sunlight. 

{Trust that the One who holds the stars holds your heart; your pain and dreams; your past and future.}

 

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