[COM 201: 02/18/2014]
The biggest lie I ever heard as a child was that I wouldn’t feel a thing when the nurse injected me with a ten-inch needle. I was always an innocent and precious little girl, but when that faceless nurse looked me in the eyes and made that same flat promise, I transformed into the ultimate brat. I would fold my arms and pout my lips, kicking my foot loudly against the drawers to announce the arrival of my temper. I would give the nurse the worst looks while she flicked the thick syringe, just to inflict her with the guilty responsibility of my pain. She would swab my arm with alcohol and get a grip on my arm, and I would ex-plode.
Kicking and screaming and hollering and waving my arms like I was being held against my will, nurses from other rooms would shoot in the room and tackle me down. Even my own mother was useless in the efforts to qualm my fussing, so the nurses would push her to the side and try to gain control over the situation. I held nothing back when it came to my fear of needles.
That’s a cute story for when you’re 6 years old; however, it’s not acceptable for when you’re 10 or 15 and still throwing the same tantrums on hospital beds, or even today at 18 years old dodging any unnecessary check-ups.
“If she hates getting shots this much,” I remember hearing my mom say to my dad, “I guess we won’t ever have to worry about her getting a tattoo huh?” They both laughed heartily at that one.
I was eight years old the first time I was exposed to the nature of tattoos. My Aunt and Uncle took me and my two cousins on a field trip to a tattoo parlor, where they decided to get matching tattoos to signify their devotion. The trip didn’t turn out to be as fun as we thought it would be, where us restless kids sat idle for what felt like days, forced to do nothing but observe the gory detail of their tokens of affection. I remember mistaking the red ink of the heart for her actual blood and watching in horror as the loud needle grazed her flesh.
“Does it hurt?” the tattooist asked my aunt. She couldn’t even answer. She nodded her head and took another deep breath instead. As an 8 year old, I was amazed how within the matter of ten minutes a grown-up shriveled into the reflection of a 6 year old me getting a shot. For as much as I was completely mortified by the time we left, I was also intrigued. Once it was wiped down and healed, I observed the devoting point of permanent body art.
My best friend Jennifer and I became obsessed with the alternative style of tattoo culture. We’d stay up all night at sleepovers looking up the sickest tattoos and compiling long lists of all the decorate items too I knew I would only dream of inking on myself. We had so many ideas of what we each were going to get that it’s easy to look on back how ridiculous most of them were. I would passionately describe how I would get a Colt revolver down my ribcage to illustrate my devotion to the show “Supernatural”, or even a lizard on my foot for my allegiance to the Lizard King. We occasionally even laughed about the possibility of us one day getting drunk and getting some obscure matching tattoo.
My loosely-Catholic parents were just as loosely-opposed to tattoos. My mom would have a meltdown whenever she caught me drawing on myself with a sharpie. Every time I brought up the subject she would exhale a day’s worth of breath and wrack up some excuse before shoving the idea to the wind.
“Tyler, you’re the most indecisive person I know.” She continued flipping through the channels.
“Tyler, do you think your future husband is going to admire the lizard on your foot?” She continued stirring the pasta noodles.
“Tyler, leave me alone.” She continued leafing the pile of bills.
“But Mom,” I once complained in a Mexican restaurant, “Angelique has tattoos and you don’t say anything to her!” She stopped brushing the salt off of the tortilla chip and looked up at me.
“Angelique is over 18 years old. Just because I can’t stop her from getting any tattoos doesn’t mean that I like them.” She dipped the tortilla chip in the spicy salsa and dropped the conversation. It was then that I finally gave up on my mom ever turning over, and focused all of my energy towards my stoic father, who rarely agrees with much of anything in the house.
“I don’t know Tyler,” he unsurprisingly begun his answer while sipping his Diet Coke, “In the Bible tattoos are referred to as the mark of the beasts.” I was completely baffled. This was the first time I ever heard my dad call Bible.
Against my parents’ wishes, I continued to fantasize with Jennifer about the day that we would finally be free to decide what we wanted to do with our own bodies. Our occasional tattoo fantasies started to take a more serious tone since Jennifer was approaching her 18th birthday and was seriously considering getting inked. We had mulled over the subjects and placements of our desired tattoos for years, but it began shifting to more important matters like finances, shops, and artists. With a clear vision of what she wanted, we visited shops all over the city and got quotes from a range of creepy-looking tattoo artists. And then in the middle of summer, Jennifer walked into a tattoo shop named Through Your Skin and got herself a tattoo.
I was completely jealous. After all the years dreaming up all of these ideas, she finally had the freedom to go through with it. I was still stuck being a minor, and still stuck behind the fear of the overwhelming size of the tattoo gun.
The second semester of my senior year, the epiphany came to me while I was thumbing through a poetry textbook to kill time. Though I happened to stumble upon it, I’d like to think that it actually found me. It sat there on the page, the black text glowing, lying there naked for me to survey its most intimate parts. The entire poem sang to me as if it was destiny, but it was the last stanza that would forever leave its mark on me:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
That stanza, from Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, could not have found me in a more relevant time in my life. I had just committed to Boston University, one of the most prestigious universities in the nation, and I was going to be the first one in my family to seek a higher education. To me the woods signified the temptations of following cheap thrills and not pursuing a higher education, the temptation to give in and to stay in bed instead of facing the day and moving on. But I made a promise to my Grandmother that I would go to college for her, since she never could. It also brought about the promise I made to myself as a child, which was that I would never give in to mediocrity. That stanza articulated the motivation of the promises I made to both my Grandmother and to myself, and the power that they have in motivating to get me up out of the bed in the mornings and from succumbing to the lure of “the woods”.
Just as the line reverberated within the stanza, it reverberated within my own head. It haunted me for weeks after reading it, until I memorized the entire thing, recited it to all of my friends, and eventually scribbled it on the bottom of my special list of tattoo ideas. I swallowed my fears, and I began to start talking seriously with my mom about it. I was on the verge of eighteen, and Jennifer’s tattoo artist—turned—friend already gave me a sweet deal for when my birthday would come. All I wanted was the approval.
“I don’t know Tyler.” Once again, she pushed me the conversation away and continued cleaning her glasses. But I didn’t let it go.
“Mom, I’m turning 18 soon, I’m only asking you because I’d rather you be there with me than stand against me. But I’m getting this tattoo.” It was the first time I’d said those words aloud and meant it. “It’s not like it’s something stupid like a lizard, this is something that matters to me.” All my mom could do was just shrug her shoulders. This time I ended the conversation.
Immediately after the family took me out for my birthday brunch, Jennifer drove me and two of my best friends to the same tattoo parlor. I talked to Jen’s tattoo artist/friend Ron, found a font that best suited my liking, and waited for him to draw up the stencil. My heart was pulsing throughout my body, reminding me that this was all actually about to happen.
I tricked myself into forgetting about that needle–that pain moving across my two backbone and up and down my spinal chord. It was the worst place to get a first tattoo, the worst size, and I was the worst person for it. I reread the stanza and remembered what it was for, and soldiered on through the process.
“Do you want to do it in two sessions?” Ron asked.
“No,” I flatly responded, “I would not have the strength to bring myself back here.” My invincible dedication streak was melting, and I started to get really nervous. He sat me down in the chair and all of a sudden I was back at that doctor’s office, listening to the nurse preparing the vaccination, kicking my foot against the bottom drawer. My Mom was next to me, smiling down on me like she always did when she knew I was about to be in pain.
The noise from the needle vibrated close to my ears, and I tensed my body and clasped my sweaty hands. I took one last gasp of air, and Ron dived in.
“Ready?” he asked.
“As I’ll ever be.” The first touch hurt the most, but then it eased up, and I was relieved to discover that I expected worse.
Two hours and one cigarette later I knew we had to be close to being done. I could feel it.
Two more hours later I was gripping the chair for dear life. The intensity of the pain had become a thousand times more excruciating than any simple shot. Ron knelt over my tender wound, shading in all 103 characters with the thick black needle. My friends were as restless as I was that day I watched my aunt get her tattoo, yet still they watched over me, making sure that I was as comfortable as one could be in this situation. I didn’t shed a single tear, though I did squeeze my eyes shut and dream of a tropical island. Anywhere but in that chair under that needle scratching underneath the inflamed flesh.
After we pushed into the fifth hour, the gun silenced. Ron rang the judgment call and handed me the personal mirror to see the reflection of my back. I took a long and blurry look in the mirror and sighed. Thank god I like it.
I will carry this stanza with me for the rest of my life as a reminder of the promises I made to my Grandmother and to myself while I’m away at college. Sometimes I forget that I have so many things to do before I can say I’ve lived a life. The wires of my priorities become confused when I spend too much of my time focusing on things beyond my age. At least when I walk away people will have a penance of why.
That’s the holiest thing I’ve ever committed to.