My husband hunches over the table, picking at his quesadillas. I’m gulping the last of the water, dropping my plate in the sink with a clatter. An idea hangs in the air between us like a burnt smell. We’re arguing—or rather, we’re not arguing—about tattoos again.
My husband Ben loves the tattoos I already have because they were part of the landscape of my body before he arrived; they’re familiar to him now like old friends. Sometimes at night, when I peel off my shirt to put on pajamas, he leans over without warning to plant a kiss on the sun or the dove in the center of my back, or the little stick-figure girl at my waistline—just, he tells me, to say hello. At our wedding in 2009, it was me who kept tugging up my V-backed dress to cover the sun, which was peeking out, and Ben who tugged it back down, murmuring that the members of his conservative Christian family loved me anyway; a tattoo wouldn’t change that. Besides, we were marrying at his grandfather’s pond, not a church, on a muggy August evening, and I was barefoot, and my best friends had just read a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi and scripture from the Apocrypha. “They’re already scandalized,” he breathed into my ear, grinning.
Now, whenever I bring up the subject of the next tattoo—my fourth and, I swear to him, my last—Ben goes all quiet and sad-eyed and painfully inarticulate, and I seethe in confusion. It has taken a few of these non-conversations for me to draw out his discomfort: he claims it’s not the tattoo itself but the act of tattooing, some stranger’s hands on my skin, the needle and ink, the bloody process. That’s understandable. Tattooing is art, and it’s mutilation—creation through destruction.
My husband is a farmer and an agricultural engineer, tall and lanky, his arms and the back of his neck browned by the sun, his hands large and rough. In his scuffed work boots and greasy jeans, with a Leatherman strapped to his belt and a Bluetooth in his left ear, he looks utterly capable: nothin’ broke that he can’t fix. The engineers he works with, most of whom spend their days behind desks, joke that he’s the company’s resident hero. But Ben is also a sensitive man, and deeply kind, and in this moment, stripped of his hero gear, in athletic shorts and a white undershirt, barefoot and hunched over our kitchen table, he seems small, vulnerable, more like the thin-armed farm boy I first met in high school. He brushes his mop of dark curls off his forehead with his thumb and looks at me, tears trembling at the corner of his wide brown eyes. “I know it’s your body,” he says finally, “but it hurts me to think of someone hurting you.”
His earnestness is sweet. It ought to break my heart. Instead, I feel guilty and annoyed.
“Come on, Ben,” I say with a sigh. “How do you think I got those other tattoos?”
It started, of course, with a wound. I was barely twenty-one, recovering from an emotionally violent breakup with a young man I’d loved since I was sixteen, first as a best friend and later as a lover. I’d invested enormous intellectual, emotional, and physical energy in that relationship, my first, and had gradually wrapped my sense of self around its success or failure. Unsurprisingly, when the relationship collapsed, so did I. Exhausted, disoriented, a little crazy, and very angry, I pawed through the rubble. I wanted my body back. I wanted myself back.
So I took up running, adding miles and shedding pounds, forcing myself forward and whittling away at what felt like weakness. I ate less, then very little. My body grew lean and hard, more angular, less welcoming. I dreadlocked my thick, silky brown hair, so fingers couldn’t touch or tangle there anymore.
I was groping for ways to heal myself and move on. Like most creative people, though, my instinct is to remember. Whether we want to or not, we return to our memories again and again, picking at them like scabs, keeping the wounds open until we can find some meaning there. We obsess over the right words, pictures, and gestures to express it. We have to make something of our experiences. Then we can move on.
Two months later, with a broad-toothed comb and two bottles of conditioner, I untangled my locks and got my first tattoo instead:
a tiny stick girl, lifted from a painting I admired by artist Chico Fejardo-Heflin. She’s perched on a scribble of grass, bending to reach for a star that’s fallen to the ground. She has pigtails and a little purple triangle for a skirt. Beneath her feet, I scrawled the word “barefoot,” in reference to a Rumi poem I loved: I want to be where your bare foot walks / because maybe before you step, you’ll look at the ground. / I want that blessing. To me, it suggested courage in vulnerability, and despite the risks, I wanted that back too.
My good friend Corby, a PhD student and former youth pastor who has buzzed hair and her own piercings and tattoos, took me to Ground Zero, her favorite parlor in Muncie. With trembling hands, I slid my sketch across the counter to a young artist named Nate. Nate’s forearms were inked in images of Americana, like busty pinups and anchors; black script crawled up his neck. The waiting area of Ground Zero itself, where we stood, was painted black and covered floor to ceiling in designs: eagles and snakes, menacing winged creatures, and naked pouting women. Nate held up the sheet of paper with my little stick girl and peered at her. “This is it?” he mumbled. I nodded. “Where?” he asked, and I pointed to the left side of my back, just at my waistline. He scratched behind his ear. “’K.”
He led Corby and me into a back room, spare and sparklingly clean, and I straddled a chair with my shirt hiked high and my pants tugged dangerously low, exposing the long white expanse of my back, my flesh, and, it seemed, my personality, my heart in the form of a small scribble, bared for a stranger with a needle and ink. I sucked in my breath as Nate’s needle dug into my skin. I was paying a man to cause me pain.
Nate didn’t say much. He worked quickly, wiping away blood and excess ink as he went. I gritted my teeth against the bite and scrawl of the needle, but it didn’t hurt as badly as I’d imagined, and when I finally peered over my shoulder at the fresh tattoo—raw, red, still bloody, humming with pain and hot to the touch—I grinned at what I saw.
Over the next two years, I drifted through a series of casual romances. There were coffee dates and movie marathons, drowsy late-night conversations about music and travel, theology and social justice. There was also bad kissing and occasional melancholy sex. There was intimacy without vulnerability and action without intent. I washed up on the shore of one relationship and, soon after, washed away. When Ben and I reunited during our senior year of college, it was because my grandfather, who was losing his life but not his sense of adventure to cancer, called me to ask if I would drive his Ford station wagon across the country to his daughter in Washington. “Take a road trip,” he said, the last bit of ornery still there in his scratchy voice. “And take a friend.” By the time we reached Washougal, Ben and I were holding each other like life rafts.
I got two more tattoos the week before graduation. A sun, blocky and childlike. A dove with multicolored wings, underscored with the word “hope,” a fragment of Pablo Neruda’s “The Flight”: From the birds I learned / passionate hope / the certainty and truth of flight. Both images were adapted from that same Fejardo-Heflin painting. Both spoke to the idealism and anticipation of that moment, my life aloft and entirely possible. And, like the original stick girl, both scarred. Cat scratches and skinned knees, Exacto knives and hot irons, even rashes—I’ve always scarred quickly and easily. Wounds stay in my flesh like love notes scrawled in wet cement. I found comfort in the tattoo scars, the symbolism in their simple design. They anchored me in my sense of who I was and who I wanted to be as I grew up: someone uncomplicated, hopeful, both brave and vulnerable, the rescuer, the rescued. At lost moments, I would reach around and trace my fingers over the raised skin slowly, mindfully, as though I were walking a labryinth back to myself.
Ben didn’t exactly ask me to marry him. We asked each other, then sat in my parents’ backyard, foreheads pressed together, trembling and making plans. My journal entry from that day is an ink and pencil drawing of a tree with a girl climbing out on a limb. I’m getting married is all it says.
My father officiated the brief, quiet service in front of a tiny crowd of about thirty family members and close friends, beside a small pond at the edge of the woods just before sunset. To Ben and me, this was sacred space. It was where we had spent summer and fall fishing with his little brothers, where we met late at night after I’d taught class and he’d harvested corn, where we got quiet or dreamed, where what we were together changed. Neither one of us was particularly religious, but we were hopeful. The pond was the kind of place that made it easy to believe. Someone set up folding chairs and lit tiki torches, a close friend played Bach on her cello, and we sang the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: Here I raise my ebenezer. Hither by Thy help I come. An ebenezer is a pile of stones, my father explained then. It’s an altar—in Hebrew, even haazer, meaning “stone of help.” It’s what the prophet Samuel built after God gave Israel victory over an enemy army. Yahweh roared down on the advancing Phillistines, scattering them so the Israelites could strike back, and then Samuel rolled a stone to that place and said, “Remember. God helped us here.” It’s what we do at a wedding too, my father said: we pause and raise a little pile of words and gestures, however inadequate, to a moment when by grace, our lives change—we change—for the better.
It’s a long time before we talk tattoos again. The subject is littered now with the broken bits of past conversations. Tonight, though, my husband is packing a bag for a business trip to Nebraska. I’m folding newly washed clothes. Our conversation is light, teasing; we’re dancing around the loneliness of the next few days. I toss him a fistful of the tall white socks he wears under his work boots, most of them worn and cherished to Velveteen Rabbit holeyness. Unless his entire big toe is hanging out, Ben refuses to buy new socks. I have married a man afraid of change.
Then, stuffing a stack of shirts into his duffel, he says, “I think I’m getting more comfortable with the idea of you getting a tattoo.”
And I hear, I think you should get your tattoo.
“Yeah?” I say. My heart thumps merrily, and I hand him a pair of boxers.
“Yeah.” He pauses. “I just wouldn’t want to be there when you do.”
So early the next morning, after I kiss and rekiss him goodbye, after I wave from the driveway until his car turns the corner at the end of our street, after I go for a run and finish the dishes and stand absently chewing my nails while the coffee finishes brewing, I schedule an appointment at a parlor in Peoria called Freedom Ink. I spend most of the morning at the kitchen table working up a full sketch of the tattoo I’ve imagined for two years, a mash-up of the Fejardo-Heflin painting, my own drawing, and bits of cherished texts: a tall, bendy tree blooming with new leaves and tiny stars; a stick-figure boy in the lowest branches, on tiptoe, reaching for a star; the words “wishful thinking,” taken from a Frederick Buechner book of the same name, scrawled just above the boy’s head; and the words “renew thyself,” a nod to Thoreau’s Walden, looping along the trunk of the tree. Renew thyself completely each day; do it again and again and forever again.
I sketch the tree with its boy into the space beside a little girl, under a sun and a dove—and there it is, my ebenezer. My humble pile of words and pictures.
That afternoon, I park my beat-up Buick in front of Freedom Ink, a tiny studio tucked between a record shop and an insurance agent. My bare thighs peel away from the leather seats with a sucking sound as I step out of the car, clutching my sketch with sweaty hands, trying to breathe deeply in the soggy heat of an Illinois summer. I’m wearing old shorts and a loose tank top I can tuck into the lining of my bra.
A slouchy hipster named Zach meets me at the door. He’s dressed in dark skinny jeans, a black T-shirt, and a newsboy cap turned just to the right. His thin arms are sleeved with tattoos. His hands are large, his fingers strangely slim and delicate.
“Here for an appointment?” Zach squints at me from behind thick black glasses, and I flash back to Nate at Ground Zero, then to Kyle at The Black Rose, and feel the adrenaline, familiar now, begin to thump through my veins. Four years and three tattoos behind me, and still my hands shake as I pass my artwork to Zach.
“1:30,” I say, and shrug, crossing my arms to steady my trembling.
Zach peers at the paper, steps behind a counter and does a little tapping on a computer. “Okay,” he says, adjusting his glasses. He points me to a shiny brown vinyl couch where I can wait. I perch on the edge of the couch, my knees bouncing, and flip through albums of flash fanned across a coffee table: the standard sailors and Betty Boops and eagles. Also, a set of infant footprints. Eric Carle’s Hungry Caterpillar. Every wall in the parlor is flooded with flash. The whole aesthetic of this place—simple, clean, cartoonish—calms me. Never mind that I’ve willfully entered a house of pain; I’m comforted by the thought that here, people seem equally devoted to beauty and memory.
Soon, Zach calls me to the front corner of the studio. Straddling the chair, I lift my tank top, make small talk, and ask cheerfully nosy questions about his career. Zach wipes my back with a clean, moist towel and arranges the template. As he peels the paper away from my skin, I wonder what Ben’s doing just now, and suddenly, I’m dizzy with loneliness. Then the needle hums to life, and I grip the back of the chair and surrender.
When he calls, I’m standing in my underwear before our bedroom mirror, struggling to apply hemp balm to my back. The inked skin has scabbed over, edged in tender pink. Ben’s heading east, crossing through Iowa. He’s tired, but I can hear a boyish smile tickling the edge of his voice. Five more hours on the road. He’ll be home this evening.
I’ve saved my suprise for two days, but now I can’t wait. “Guess what I did?” I blurt, giddy.
“What’s that?” he says.
“I got my tattoo.”
The yawning silence that follows seems to suck all the oxygen from the room.
That night, Ben heaves himself up the stairs and lowers his duffel bag to our bedroom floor. I hover while he does everything slowly: unlaces his workboots, strips his socks, pulls his polo over his head. He won’t look at me. Finally, he asks, “Can I see it?” I practically rip off my shirt. He sits on the bed next to me and touches my back with his fingertips, lightly tracing the scabs, following the tree branches, lingering on the boy. Then my husband covers his face with his hands, lies down, and wails.
I pace the house. I wash our cheap, chipped dishes over and over, taking deep breaths. I’ve hurt him, but how? A shrill, tiny voice inside says the man is angry because I didn’t ask permission; a sane, quiet voice says my husband the hero can’t see beauty in a wound I chose, a broken thing he can’t fix. Now I’m terribly, indelibly changed, yet somehow the same—same troubling past, same dark instincts. Maybe he married me to fix me. Maybe this self-mutilation means I’m still broken.
Hours later, I brush my teeth and creep into bed. Ben sits up. He shuffles to the bathroom and returns with my bottle of fancy lotion, the kind that boasts healing Dead Sea minerals and comes from a kiosk in the mall. My mother bought it for me one ferociously cold winter when my hands cracked and bled. After a few days, the skin did heal. I still use the lotion on my wind-worn knuckles sparingly, one fingerful at a time.
“Please,” Ben croaks, then clears his throat, “lie on your stomach.” His brown eyes are red-rimmed and dull with fatigue. I consider refusing. I want to tell him to get over whatever wound he thinks I’ve inflicted, and quickly, but because his chin quivers, I do as he asks. He lifts my T-shirt and squirts fat ribbons of cold lotion across my scabby tattoo, and I stiffen.
“What are you doing?” I mumble into the pillow. It’s a long moment before he answers, longer still before he touches me.
Then my husband lays his fingertips against my skin and begins to lotion the tattoo gently, in small careful circles. “Making friends,” he says.
Ben lotions my back every night for weeks to come with a kind of ritual, obedient quiet. It’s an act of reconciliation, but even as he tries to make peace with what he can’t change, he’s changing. And changing me, changing my tattoo. Sometimes wishing, Beuchner said, is the wings the truth comes in on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it. I can’t explain why we get grace even when we don’t want it. I do know we should submit to it whether we deserve it or not. Two years ago, when I drew a girl going out on a limb, I didn’t think much about the boy who’d be climbing out there with her, risking his neck too, reaching. And Rumi’s poem isn’t about a barefoot narrator, vulnerable and open to experience. It’s about a barefoot, beloved friend whom Rumi asks to go before him so that he can follow without fear. Because maybe before you step, you’ll look at the ground. I want that blessing— vulnerability as sacrifice. We help ourselves and each other in ways that make sense to us. My husband lotions the tree and the little boy and the stars long after their scabs have fallen away and my skin has renewed itself again and again and, I hope, forever again.
Listen to Sarah read her essay:
Rumpus original art by Annie Daly.