I just had this offhand conversation with a perfect stranger (with beautiful tattoos) about why I don’t have any, which, for the record, has less to do with aesthetics or some notion of respectability or fear of commitment (the perfect stranger’s theory), but everything to do with not having experienced or achieved any one thing I’m particularly invested in commemorating forever. And I would have to pick and choose because the rest of my life is sort of an corkboard miscellany inches thick with tacked up, yellowed and frayed weird shit and nostalgic detritus I can’t bring myself to throw away. I carry my history under the skin as well. If you turned me inside out, I think I’d look like Lydia the Tattooed Lady, but fatter, and thus with greater skin area for fresco and the fat itself allowing for topographical maps of experience. It feels almost redundant to mark up the bookjacket, given the fact that it’s already a continent of stretchmarks and wrinkles, a galaxy of moles and an exhibition of irregular scars from kitchen accidents and all the many times I fell down hard and walked away bleeding but mostly okay.
I have thought about tattoos though–a dancing princess from my favorite illustrated version of my favorite fairy tale, an architectural detail, a blue bowl of fire to commemorate all 700 odd pages of the first completed book-length project I ever finished, then finished again, then realized slowly, and with both relief and disappointment, were the 700-odd pages of the completed book length project I’d have to view as a years-long, intensive, self-guided writing program instead of a publishable novel. I tend to think a tattoo would be a great mark of achievement. Like, “I have finally finished a PhD” or “I have published a novel” or “I have finally stopped avoiding mirrors and cringing at my reflection.” I have done none of these things. Perhaps I never will. At least one–the PhD thing–is probably not in the cards unless I manage “I have finally achieved a level of long-term financial security such that I can both afford to not work for 6-8 years and then subsequently not have to worry about about finding a likely non-existent position in a field the dollar-signed-eyed philistines of business and government would gladly do away with entirely.” And honestly, if I became a rich person, would I ever want to bother with a PhD, that I’m not sure I really want as a not-rich person. I mean, “Becoming a Rich Person” in itself would probably be worth a tattoo as well, though perhaps, here, as I enter let’s-not-pussyfoot-around-it middle age, I should probably just suck it up and get a tattoo for “You’ll Probably Continue To Be A Broke Person, Unless You Get Really Lucky or Completely Realign Your Values System” and it’s corollary “Seriously, Comrade, It Would Take Both and You Have Stupid Luck and a Real Dearth of Faith, Patience and Imagination When It Comes To Either Business or Finance.”
When I was younger I managed to avoid the fusillade of needles and tattoo ink that left many of my friends visibly marked by their juvenile interests. I half worried about it. What did it say about me? Was I not really cool enough? I wasn’t afraid of needles. I thrilled at the possibility of transformation. I didn’t fear permanence, at least not any more than I feared appearing weak. It was just never the right time. And when it was the right time, I never had the money. (I almost never seemed to have the money). I remember waking in the middle of the night on a mustard brocade sofa, recently liberated from the overnight drop-off at a Salvation Army and dragged to a friend’s shitty apartment, to watch a trio of crop-headed teenagers in leather and chains regard each other’s recently received tattoos. The one with the leopard hair and the childlike features was concerned about his latest, the word CHAOS writ large across his concave boy’s stomach. He met my eyes, still half-drooped with interrupted sleep and said, What do you think? Like, are the letters too bubbly, like cheerleader bubbly? I told him no, because he looked so worried. But reader, those letters were as bubbly as a pop song about mylar balloon.
A friend of that period, who’d suffered similar interests, mentioned it recently. How is it we managed to come out of it without tattoos? He meant it partly as a joke, but there was some swagger in it, a bit of thank goodness we avoided that, a touch of aren’t we better than? We didn’t. We weren’t. We aren’t.
Some people are less marked by scars and moles and stretchmarks than I am. They probably throw away old letters and take down photos and postcards and weird nostalgic detritus from the fridge long before the corners curl and yellow with age. Maybe they never put those things up to begin with. After all, minimalism. After all, clean slate. After all, OMG, Have you read Marie Kondo? It’s changed my life.After all, we’re Americans. Isn’t that what we’re about? Leave your old shit behind and become anything you want. Maybe they eschew the x-ray vision that lets them view their own interior tattoos because they’re not interested in seeing themselves done up like 19th Century sideshow performers, with their own obsessions and achievements and epic failures rendered in baroque detail up the torso, around the arm, lapping up the neck and onto the hands, past collars and cuffs, impossible to conceal, conspicuous as flame.
I see that mostly when I see myself. My inside-out. The plot. The complications. The embarrassment of digressions. It’s all over the place. It covers ever inch of me, from scalp to sole, a palimpsest layers deep already. How could I find space for more?
So that’s what I told the perfect stranger with the beautiful tattoos when she asked why I didn’t have any.
I said, ” Honestly, I think I don’t have enough room.”