I wanted to touch it the way mothers with grown children often ache to hold babies. A purple peace sign inked like a badge of hope on that tender spot between pelvis and belly, a place where passion easily ignites. The woman, who I hardly knew, lifted her tee-shirt higher, offering me a better view. My hand reached out, then pulled back. “Sure, touch it,” she invited. And as I drew my forefinger across the compelling flatness, I knew that I would have one.
“But why?” my best friend asked. “Can’t you just frame a picture of a dragon and put it on your wall? Does it have to be etched on your body with needles?”
When I grilled my doctor about the health implications of permanently injecting ink into the skin, he said, “Have you ever seen a tattoo on an old person? That might cure you of wanting one.”
I imagined the cadavers of the future now that tattoos have gone mainstream. I pictured pre-med students decoding vertical rows of Chinese symbols inked on dead butts.
Growing up, Joey, my hairdresser at the Golden Scissors Salon, was the one person I knew with a tattoo–a murky green anchor outlined in black on his forearm. With his shirtsleeves rolled up, I was riveted to the place that anchor lay buried in dark curling wisps of hair. It looked ugly and brave.
“Did it hurt?” I remember asking. At Joey’s I got to drink Fanta from the bottle while my mother chain-smoked Tareytons in the parking garage.
“No more than a hair cut,” he said, snipping the detested straight-across bangs that my mother had resolutely prescribed.
When I was twelve, I came home from the Golden Scissors once and drew a Scorpio on my arm in black pen. I copied a picture from the World Book Encyclopedia, but after much tugging of resistant flesh, it looked more like a lopsided cup with arms. Still, I took to the park with the twin toddlers I babysat every Saturday afternoon. As I crossed the grass, I tried walking in that tired, casual way I noticed mothers walk. I hoped people would think I was a mother, too, that at twelve I’d gotten knocked up with twins. A tall order for a Catholic girl with straight-across bangs and a drawn-on Scorpio tattoo.
For years, the Scorpio was my symbol, a power strangely bigger than me, but one that encompassed me, as well. It was my secret conviction, my anti-Christ. My answer to church, where every Sunday I sat stiff-backed on a wooden pew doing my best to look beatific with a dash of compunction. How politely I resented those imposed weekly visits to a house of worship where beliefs, like the cardboard-tasting host, were force-fed.
In the fellowship of Scorpio there was no one to pray to and nothing to swallow. A birthdate between October 23 and November 21st was the only membership requirement. Still, it felt earned, important. And while it wasn’t quite enough to spiritually sustain me, it was all I had.
For Mother’s Day this year I received a hand-painted mug that my kids made at Clay Dreams and a hundred dollar gift certificate for Ink Jam Tattoo. “That should get you a good-sized dragon,” my husband said. He knew I’d been considering one.
“Will it hurt, Mommy?” my seven-year-old son asked, wide-eyed. He panicked at words like “splinter” and “bee sting.” Vaccines did him in
“A little,” I answered. “Not much.”
“So why are you doing it?” he asked.
“I just like tattoos,” I lied. “And I really like dragons.”
Later, I asked my husband if he honestly wanted me to get one.
“Do you want to get one?” he responded.
When I was turning 16, my mother asked how I wanted to celebrate my birthday. I wanted a party, but this was unimaginable at my staid house. My parents would never abide the hormonally-charged chaos that was the hallmark of such teenage events. Almost as much as I wanted my parents to stop hitting me, I wanted a basement room with a pool table and a lock on the door. Oh yes, and a boy to kiss on the other side.
Instead, I asked to go out for Chinese food. My friend Karen’s parents were divorced, and every other Friday night she and her sister went to Peking Garden with their Dad and ordered the Pu Pu platter. I had never eaten Chinese food. My family had only gone out to dinner once together. It was the Saturday after my mother’s hysterectomy, and we got burgers at the East Side.
So, instead of turning sixteen with rounds of spin-the-bottle, awkward kisses laced with blackberry brandy smuggled into the house in madras purses, I spent the evening with my parents in the Peking Garden. Dim lights. Red velvet curtains. The sweet scent of cooking grease thick in the air. The three of us shared the Pu Pu platter as an appetizer. My mother said it was too much for just me. It was like being given a bike for my birthday that would also belong to everyone else in the family.
But what I really remember about that night was the white paper placemat with scalloped edges. In the center was a circle of twelve Chinese Astrology symbols with the relevant birth years and a few lines of description below each one. Across the top danced a red dragon with crazy black eyes. A single curl of fire blazed from his mouth. I skimmed a finger down the columns until it landed on 1964. When I stopped to read, it was like finding treasure I didn’t know I was looking for.
Born of the Dragon, the most powerful and lucky of the twelve signs, you know exactly what you want and are determined to get it. Your natural charm and charisma will make you the center of attention.
Just like that, I converted. Being a Scorpio may have spiritually buoyed me, but discovering I was a dragon, well, that was finding God. I carried the placemat home and tacked it to the corkboard in my room. Two years later, I took it down, smoothed out the curled edges, and brought it with me to college, my certificate of survival.
What is it I survived? Abuse by parents who piously bent the knee each Sunday, but whose public proclamation of faith was unrivaled by the level of meanness they displayed in private; meanness that regularly knocked me to a heap on the kitchen floor. Yes, I did survive abuse, but something bigger, too: their attempts to keep me from myself. My mother called me worthless, an ungrateful brat. She pushed my head to the mirror offering proof. But while I sometimes saw that worthless brat reflected back at me, there were enough other times when I stared into the mirror and saw a dragon.
I floated the idea of getting tattooed to a group of mothers on my suburban playground. Almost immediately a pant waist dropped, a clog was shaken off. Like a spring flower show, out came a rose in comic book red and a yellow daisy floating across a stretch-marked hip. There was a heart on a back and a dove in shades of gray soaring over the slope of a weary breast. “It killed,” the forty-ish mother of three admitted, prompting the exchange of tattoo war stories and why stories from the casual gathering of well-inked moms. Everyone had a reason for doing it.
When the mother of three asked why I wanted a tattoo, I couldn’t tell her the story behind my decision. It’s a story I couldn’t tell my best friend when she asked why, either. I certainly couldn’t tell it to my children.
I was nineteen when my father caught me with a boy in our vacation rental in New Jersey. He had woken at 2 am to take pain medication, and there I was on the orange shag carpet. Underwear was kicked down to my ankles. Strange hands groped my hips. Hollering at the boy to get the hell out would be the last words my father used around me for almost three weeks. When he did speak again, the two of us were suffering through breakfast. In that silence made louder by the crunch of chewing cereal, my father leaned across the table and said, “Your body is sacred. Don’t you ever let anyone touch it again.”
“Does that mean you’ll stop hitting me?” I asked.
Six months later, with hardly another hundred words between us, my father died.
At his funeral on a December morning, this steely-eyed dragon wore her scales like armor. It would be years before I felt anything but relief at his death. Years before I understood that sacred meant my body was mine to love, despise, share, cherish, touch, pierce, abuse, esteem or even ink.
Since I can’t draw, I designed my tattoo in my head. It would be an amalgam of the dragons I’ve collected since my 16th birthday. He is Futs Lung, a benign creature who guards the treasures of the underworld. He has four legs with five claws on each foot. In one of his hands he holds a single white pearl. He is lucky and invincible.
Jim, the tattoo artist, told me to bring in pictures that he could customize, and I feigned relaxation when, the day before my appointment, the kids and I shuffled into his studio wedged between a health food store and a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall near my town center. I hadn’t seen the place before and was relieved by the cool sterility of the counters, oddly incongruous with the smattering of pre-fab tattoos known as flash papering every free inch of wall. It was like a biker bar run under the jurisdiction of Mass General Hospital.
While my son oohed at the flash, my girl begged for a butterfly. I neatly placed my collection of dragon paraphernalia on the counter, as if setting out my kid’s lunch boxes the night before school. But halfway through my lengthy characterization of what exactly he should draw, Jim nodded coolly as if he got it. Tattoo parlors, I quickly learned, are not places for the fussy or the loquacious.
The next day as I was waiting at home for my noon appointment, I suddenly felt the permanence of what I was about to do. It would be like the difference between wanting a kid and actually ditching the condom. I called my best friend and admitted to being scared, but not of the pain. (Funny how a couple of rounds of drug-free childbirth reframes the concept of what hurts.)
“So why are you doing it?” she asked again.
I still couldn’t tell her. Some things you can’t make clear, even to your best friend. How was she supposed to believe in the protective powers of dragons if she’d never had one? How was I to explain that when a parent steals your body and then comes hunting your self-worth, you take whatever safety you can find, even if it is mythical? And that you never forget what that protection meant, whether it was real or imagined.
“Thanks,” I told her, “for asking the right question.”
I went alone. Jim showed me the design he’d sketched. It was just right, but instead of saying so, I merely nodded. Then he nodded.
After a pause he said, “No other colors?”
Jim traced the picture in red onto wax paper and applied it as template to the chosen spot: just below the fleshy back curve of my hip. There it would be sacred, mine to hide or share. And I realized that if in years to come, I ever explained to my daughter what my tattoo meant, it would be enough to tell her that it’s a reminder–a reminder that my body is my own.
Next, face down on a vinyl table, I thrilled to the buzz of the needle passing over my skin. When it grew sharp and irritating, I journeyed to the place my mind goes to escape pain. I became a dragon. I was red and green and the textured blue of the sea. I was the cold gray darkness of the underworld and the hot orange of fire. I was as completely untouchable as the black that seamlessly met the inky night sky, until I was the muted shades of dawn, the color of morning and blessed relief.
Then for the briefest moment, one as easy to ignore as a needle’s faint buzz, I was again a sixteen-year-old girl who feared she’d been locked into her life. A girl whose fist had always been clenched in rage or terror. Now that fist was opening; and inside it, instead of a palm slapped empty, left wanting, lay a single white pearl of luck and invincibility.