“I want a wound,” I say.
The tattooist looks at me, his eyes clear of judgement. He waits.
“A big gash, right here between my breasts, cutting down under the ribs.”
His eyebrows work. I can’t tell if he’s trying to picture the design or figure out why I want it.
“Are you looking for a photorealistic gash, like a horror movie trompe l’oeil, or something symbolic?”
Apparently, he was doing both. “When I look in the mirror, I want to see what I feel.”
He nods. I think he gets it.
“OK. Here’s what I’m going to do. Nothing on our sample board matches what you’re looking for, because what you want is unique to you, at this moment. I’d like to draw a design on you with Sharpie. It might not be exactly right, but live with it a bit, then tell me how to adjust it. Hell, take the Sharpie with you and add to it. Come back next week; we’ll add real ink.”
I recall every kind word offered to me over the past few weeks, every hug and heartfelt look, the condolence cards featuring rainbows and seagulls, and for the first time, I feel comforted. I want to hug him. I want to cry. Instead, I force a half-smile and say, “thank you.”
I love the idea of a “tattoo parlor.” I picture an 1800’s room, with fine ladies in big hats, sipping tea, baring their breasts so that some dude with stretched earlobes and tattooed sleeves can brand them with butterflies. I return to the parlor a week later.
Marc greets me with a grin. Not a sympathetic grin, to match my family and friends, but a real one. He is not ashamed to be happy in front of me. He doesn’t try to fall into grief beside me. He just is. I smile back.
“So, how do you feel about your design?” he asks, leading me behind a curtain.
“I’ve altered it a bit,” I reply and unbutton my top. “I’ve extended the point here, to make it sharper, and widened it here, right at the bone.”
Marc looks at the ink and frowns. “Right over the bone like that, you know it’s really gonna hurt?”
“It already hurts.”
He nods, and grabs the antiseptic. “OK. Let’s start.”
As he works, I feel calmer than I have in weeks. He was right. It hurts. My skin shrieks and I finally feel a sense of equilibrium. My inside and outside are one again.
“So what caused the wound?” Marc asks, not looking up.
“My husband was killed in a car accident.” My mantra. I’ve said it a thousand times in my head. The first time, the air stunk of hospital cleaner and the nurse’s body odor. But I’ve said it many times since. My husband was killed in a car accident. I reminded myself the morning after, when I awoke disoriented alone at 9:30 a.m. It took a moment to remember. I shut off my alarm because I didn’t need to go to work. Because — my husband was killed in a car accident. I repeated it washing my hands, seeing my unfamiliar face in the reflection. It’s OK. No one expects me to look my finest right now. My husband was killed in a car accident. I’ve said it so many times in my head, it’s a matter-of-fact statement, flat and emotionless.
Marc glances at me.
For a moment, I regret telling him. It’s been a luxury to go somewhere free of my story, where no one looks at me as the poor widow, so young, what a shame, cluck cluck. I fear I’ve destroyed my sanctuary, but Marc just nods.
“Makes sense,” he says.
I exhale. Marc works, asking no more questions. I offer no more answers. I leave with my instructions to keep it covered, use clean hands to remove the bandage, no soaking. I thank him, infusing my voice with all the gratitude I feel.
I sit in the parking lot, chewing on my straw. The coffee is gone, but the ice has melted. I mindlessly slurp. I left work early because I couldn’t sit still. Now that I’ve decided, I want it immediately. The parlor usually opens at 6 p.m., but Marc was kind enough to open early and fit me in. When he pulls into the parking lot, I feign that I just pulled in, too.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he says.
“No, I just got here myself,” I reply, making a show of rolling up the window and turning off the car.
He looks me up and down.
It’s been three months since I’ve been here. I’ve lost weight. I don’t feel like eating these days. Most nights I skip dinner and settle in with a glass or four of wine. My hair is ponytailed, my new daily style, reminiscent of my college self, only I can no longer pull it off. I simply don’t have the energy to do more with it. My heavy makeup does little to distract from my haphazard look. Some days I think it adds to it. I wonder how Marc sees me. Just another generic 20-something woman? Certainly I’m not his standard clientele, but I have a sense that he doesn’t see me the way the office people do. Because of this, his opinion matters to me. I blush. I am even more determined to get started on the next tattoo.
Behind the privacy curtain, I show him my new Sharpie additions.
He nods, peering closely. “Staples.”
“And this?” he asks, softly touching one of the black marks I’ve drawn over the original tattoo.
“It’s a whip stitch, the kind you use to bind a blanket. The kind my grandma would use when something needed to be patched in a hurry. The stitches won’t last long, but they’ll get you by until you have time to fix the thing for real.”
Marc begins the work of stitching my wound closed, pulling me back together again. The original tattoo stays, black as ever, but after tonight it will be different. It won’t threaten to rip open, spilling out on my bathroom floor when I see it. Now it will be tacked together, carefully and weakly, but enough. The binding will hold well enough to warrant investment in healing.
“It’s been too long!” Marc says, and opens his arms for a hug. His move surprises me, but I accept it. It’s the kind of real hug that transfers something from one person to the other, and I am grateful to be the recipient.
“Yes, a year is too long,” I agree.
Marc looks at me, gravity filling his eyes. “No, I mean it. A year is too long for you.”
Deep in the point of my wound, I know that he is right. I can’t speak, so I nod, dropping my eyes to my shoes.
He takes my hand. “Show me what we have today.”
In the back room, I unveil. I’ve added a bicycle to prop up the dark lines. It’s poorly drawn, but Marc does not comment.
“Tell me about these.” He touches the graying out remnants of previous designs.
I flush. “Oh, I don’t know. I tried adding flowers and vines and shit. You know, to show how I was healing or growing. It was all crap. I thought — I don’t know what I thought. But I didn’t think it would be this hard.”
“And the bike?”
“Oh, I’ve taken up biking.”
He doesn’t respond, so I blurt an explanation. “It’s the only thing that seems to shut up my mind. I head out to one of the trails and just go, just pedal until my legs quit.”
“OK. So are you looking for a literal bicycle here, or something that says stillness and movement, all at once?”
“Can you do that?” I ask.
Marc reaches for paper and pen and starts sketching. After four tries, he hits on a motif of spokes blended with the dashed lines of a highway.
“That,” I say, my voice clear and strong.
He looks me in the eye, then smiles. “OK. Let’s get started.”
I watch him work. He scowls with focus, and periodically pushes his shoulders down, as though he is thinking about relaxing.
I ask, “What do you see when you look at me?”
He says nothing for a moment, then shrugs.
“No, really. I want to know.” My eyes watch his scowling eyebrows while I wait for a response.
“I worry about you.”
That was not the response I was expecting.
He catches my look and reiterates it. “I do. I worry about you. Most people, they don’t get tattoos like this. They know what they feel already, and do their best to hide it. Then there’s the people that try to show it on the outside, so they get tattoos on their arms and backs, places to expose. They communicate pain to the world. You — this — yours is different. Your tattoo is an action, a deed. Those whip stitches need to be reinforced. You told me as much when you got them. Adding a bike to prop it up is good enough for now, but it won’t hold. You can’t silence your thoughts. You need to own them. Anyway, so what I think of you is this: you are trying really hard to make sense of what you feel, so you’re making yourself look at it. I think that’s awesome. But I’m worried it won’t be enough, because just seeing how you feel won’t do it. I hope you learn to drive it.”
I can’t look at him. I know his eyes will be kind, but I don’t want to see them. I want to hit him. I want to cry. Instead, I focus on a poster tacked to the wall, a black and white ink of a dragon swallowing a city. I let him work. This time, it hurts. It hurts more than the other times, even though he’s adding less ink.
Marc works quietly a few minutes. In a softer voice, he adds, “You’re doing great. I’m glad to see you here at all. Progress is progress, and don’t let me or anyone else put you on a timeline.”
He politely ignores my tears.
“Six weeks, on the dot,” I say, as Marc comes out to meet me in the lobby.
“It’s good to see you.” He hugs me.
I love the way he hugs. In the past two years, I’ve learned which of my people are real huggers, and which are fake huggers who hug because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do. Almost everyone is a fake hugger. Real huggers are different and I value them.
When I reveal the latest addition to my wound portrait, Marc’s face lights up. His look warms me. “Tell me about this,” he says.
“It’s a mosaic. I’ve been putting together the broken pieces, trying to create something new. The pieces are jagged, with different patterns and purposes, but they fit.”
“You’re filling in the gaps around the original wound,” Marc adds.
“Yeah. I mean, I can’t reinforce the stitches, but I thought maybe I could build enough solid pieces around the whole thing to keep it together. What do you think?”
He looks me in the eye, straight in the eye. I’ve learned to value people who do this, too.
“It’s perfect,” he says.
I flash to the first appointment and the comfort I felt with Marc. Now he’s done it again. It’s a stark contrast between him and my well-meaning people with opinions on my grief. They tell me I should have donated the clothes by now, sold the house by now, be dating by now. It’s such a shame. Cluck cluck. I’m so young. And that clock is ticking. Cluck cluck. Everyone seems to know exactly how I was supposed to do this, except none of them are me. Only Marc seems to think that the way I’m moving through it is exactly right.
It’s been eight years since my first visit to the parlor. I added a couple of vines and a single flower bud to my skin, but those are minor embellishments to the stronger design. When I look in the mirror, I see all that holds me together. I see the pieces that fit, some seamlessly, some a little forced, but now blended with the years. A dragon tail wraps around my side. A reaching branch curls up toward my throat. Most people never see anything but the tip of that branch. A few people are aware there is a darker display under my clothes. Even fewer have seen it. But those who have seen my full illustration are like Marc. They look me in the eye, they hug me close, and they don’t flinch at the wound or its varying bandages. They see me, inside and out, and I value them for it.