When a Former Life Beckons

When a Former Life Beckons

SINCE tattoo shops were illegal in South Carolina, where I was living at the time, I drove to Savannah, Ga., to get my first ink. I was 22, drunk on Jack Daniels, and I chose the image from a display at the shop based on what I could afford. Thirty dollars bought me a tiny black flower. Brash and audacious, I lifted my skirt and hopped onto the table.

I can’t remember the name of the boy who offered to hold my hand, but he was the baby of the group, each of them smooth-faced, pretty and vacuous — all swagger and ridiculously transparent. It was almost embarrassing to be with them. Almost, because I knew that unlike my tattoo, they were temporary.

“Wow” and “Cool,” each of them said upon seeing it.

Conventional wisdom suggested I’d regret every aspect of the decision because tattoos are permanent, and mine was the most permanent thing in my immediate life. Stability felt like cement to me then, and not long after I got the tattoo I bought a little truck and vowed never to own more than I could pack in its bed. Because I craved motion, I structured my life as a transient.

Part of an AmeriCorps program, I existed on a small stipend, traveling up and down the East Coast, working for just weeks on a project at any given time. I monitored sea turtles, helped built a log cabin, served food in a soup kitchen and cut new hiking trails with a machete.

I navigated highways on instinct and learned to sleep comfortably in strange places: a remote Georgia island where wild horses ran freely on the beach, a former nursing home in Cincinnati that seemed haunted with its series of doors slamming at midnight, a decommissioned Navy base, and in the beds of men I’d just met.

These temporary strangers entered my life wanting a connection that I, in my young flux, was unable to process. They fumbled with emotions while I learned to find exits quietly at sunrise. I drove away in my truck, caught cabs, boarded flights.

Those who got close enough to discover my tattoo repeated the words of the boys who’d been with me at the time: “wow” and “cool.” They skimmed its surface with a light and hesitant touch, tracing its outline, but none of them ever asked if it had hurt.

And it hadn’t. The sensation of getting that first tattoo was similar to being snapped by a rubber band. It lingered like a sunburn, with tight discomfort. I would not describe it as pain, but I would not describe any aspect of my life then as painful. I was living in motion, too quick a target for emotional or sensory impact.

“Wow” and “cool,” I agreed. It wouldn’t have occurred to me, either, to ask if it had hurt.

Fifteen years later, I no longer dig my clothing from the bottom of a backpack, smelling it for freshness. I own a washing machine, and I gave the truck to a friend who uses it to haul music equipment.

I met a man who, when I tried to find the door (metaphorically) at sunrise, took my hand and suggested that I stay. Every gesture of this man projected permanence, and I studied his solid and steady shoulders. The motion I’d always craved had become dizzying, and I contemplated the design he would make on the skin of my life. I found myself open to something permanent.

My transient phase faded like my old tattoo.

Because the design of the tattoo itself had little significance to me, like those boys of my youth, I rarely thought about it or them. I paid attention in the shower on occasion, if only to notice that what used to be a crisp, black floral outline had morphed into a bluish smudge. I celebrated my 30th birthday, and then I celebrated my 35th. What once peeked from the edges of a bikini bottom was now covered with modest beach shorts.

I lost my swagger. Or rather, my swagger slipped into an easy stride, and I’m not sure when the change happened. My house filled with items too cumbersome or valuable to think about packing onto a truck bed. For the first time in my life, I owned furniture and kitchen appliances. I earned a steady paycheck and bought more-expensive shoes.

Article Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/fashion/16Modern.html?_r=1&ref=tattoos

February 22nd, 2011

Filed under: Tattoos Test

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