Kara and I grew up in a fish restaurant. Our mother went to work there when we were just little, she was only a “fill in” but she somehow managed to “fill in” for about 30 years. She was like Heather Locklear on Melrose Place, a permanent part of the show but always with the special guest star title. We would spend our Thursday nights sitting at a little table, helping to bag the silverware. The silverware would come to us piping hot from the dishwasher and we would add one fork and one spoon per plastic bag. The smell of fried food and old grease would work its fingers into your hair and clothes and leave you feeling like you needed an hour long scrubbing. Sometimes we had company at that little table: cooks, waitresses, and table bussers all taking a minute to eat their plate of fried food. Plates heaped with catfish, frog legs, oysters, and shrimp. The table littered with oily fingerprinted napkins. It was the kind of place where mom knew your drink order and had it on the table before you had finished with the buffet line. For years Trey was known as, “two waters, no ice, no lemon.” One of the cooks was a man named Jerry. In the eyes of a fourth grader he was a hulking man, huge, with a mane of salt and pepper gray hair. He rode a motorcycle and blue and black tattoos snaked his arms. I remember him sitting across from me and asking, “Are you scared of me?” I answered, “No,” in a way that surely screamed yes to him. “You shouldn’t be.” I remember him as kind and I remember being enthralled by the tattoos.
In the over active imagination of a child I thought that the tattoos were part of some secret life Jerry had. Was he is a motorcycle gang? Were these prison tattoos? Maybe he had been a sailor and they were part of his adventures. As I got older the love and allure of tattoos stayed with me and I always knew that someday I would be marked by them as well. I will not lie. I have some of the most stereotypical 90s tattoos in the world, but each one of them as ugly as it may be tells a story.
Never again will I be 20 and on my weekend honeymoon. Walking into my first tattoo parlor all nervous and excited, knowing that what I was doing was rebellious in the eyes of my parents. As if my entire existence hadn’t been somewhat rebellious in their eyes. I stood in the parlor and flipped through the artist books, pretending that I knew what to look for. Eventually I chose flash off the wall, secretly acknowledging that the tattoo wasn’t what was important it was the experience I was after. A yin yang wrapped with roses forever etched on my thigh while the artist discussed her time as a plus size exotic dancer.
Never again will I be 21 and in Detroit Michigan, having driven there with two babies asleep in the backseat while their father and I listen to Pearl Jam on the CD player. Walking into Ink Slingers was a totally different experience. I had picked the tattoo I wanted from a picture on one of Kiaya’s shirts. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and Eyore doing hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil forever marking my shoulder. It seemed like such a good idea at the time; a tribute to lost childhood perhaps, a cliché most definitely. The artist was grumpy and spoke very little to me as I sucked up the pain and tried not to move. We drove back to Paducah the next night my right shoulder on fire and covered in plastic wrap. Each crinkle a reminder that I was a revolutionary in only my own mind.
Never again will I be 23 and in the middle of a failing marriage desperately clinging to the life we had. We used the barter system for the tattoos. Daniel, trading a stereo system for two tattoos that night. My first tramp stamp a Chinese symbol for love, although it probably says “Eat at Fred’s” if it were translated correctly. Characters for K and S on either side were the only initials safe to use because the children would always be mine. Hank was the artist that tattooed me that day singing along with the radio the entire time unaware that I was grabbling with divorce and bad decisions. We had a party at our house that night and ended up three people deep in a bed trying to keep warm. Someone I thought was my husband, but was not, curled up next to me and slipped his hands into my pajama pants, “Shhh…” he whispered, “I need my hands to be warm.”
Never again will I be 25 and best friends with a girl who introduced me to A Prayer for Owen Meany. When I closed the back cover of that book it was as if the sky opened up and all I could see was bright sunlight. Lisa and I got matching tattoos of armadillo feet with a tiny O.M. next to them. The matching tattoos forever bonded us together as friends. The second Owen Meany tattoo came a short while later, tattooed by Derek, who sneezed through the entire sitting. It was a silhouette of an armadillo that Lisa calls a possum because she didn’t like me having more Owen related tattoos than her. Come to find out she was on to something because when a flash of the burrowing mammal is caught I almost always hear, “So, what’s with the possum?”
Never again will I be 28 and falling in love with someone who was difficult and fascinating. Lisa was in town and we discussed, ad nauseam, why I should not be wrapped up in this man. We walked into the same parlor that had given us the Owen Meany tattoos and I picked a piece of flash off the walls. A black butterfly that was supposed to stand for imperishability of self, but in reality is just a black tribal tattoo. It was like being 20 again and walking into my first parlor. I was there for the experience more than the tattoo. I needed to prove to myself that I was me and I was rebellious. I was an adult and in charge of my own bad decisions. The tattoo was really just another afterthought what I really needed was a little self-affirmation of my independence.
Never again will I be 37 and dealing with the grief of losing my mother. Walking into the parlor with a new found friend and clutching the folded up letter written in Mom’s girly handwriting. Arm outstretched for Hank as he sings along to Tupac while I wrestle with what becomes of Kara and I now that Mom is gone. The enormity of my first tattoo that was visible to the outside world. A public acknowledgement of just how exposed my heart feels with her loss.
My tattoos are not attractive and I occasionally think about cover-ups but the thought is fleeting. The most beautiful back piece in the entire tattoo world could not make up for the independence I felt when I got the ugly Winnie the Pooh tattoo in Detroit. I see little posts on Facebook about how the tattoos will look when I am 80 and I don’t worry about that. First because an overwhelming amount of women in the nursing home will be rocking a dolphin ankle tattoo that reads “Daytona 1994.” Secondly, the tattoos mark time for me, they remind me of the past and the tattooed words I dream about signify the future. They are ugly as sin but they are my sin to wear.