I flipped through the flash book deliberating on designs far too ambitious a first-timer. Try this instead. Embarrassed by my lack of knowledge and thrown by the unfamiliarity of the setting, I clung onto my discomfort. You don’t know how you’ll cope with the pain. The persistent buzz was hammer-like. The music insistent, harsh. Once in the fresh air, I turned the appointment card over in my hand.
He has two tattoos: a geometric symbol on his forearm and a honey badger that spans his bicep. I’d trace the shape of them as we lay in bed for hours, time unwinding. I remember the sickly smell of unwashed sheets and the taste of his mouth in the morning. After the first time we had sex I wrote about it:
poem in which she unfolded
& each part / separate / began to live /
there was a satin rage/ in the deepest part/ those romantic ins & outs of her /
a luxurious house for the last excess / of a sumptuous evening / which carried her off into
the darkness / half-undone /
she felt the pressing mouths of shadows / until something like morning /& found herself
so altered /& infinitely more
At that time desiring and being desired was all I needed. I could feed on those moments of physical intimacy forever. I spent my teenage years trying to reconcile with the way I looked. I wanted to be lithe and pinched and for clothes to drape in the way they did on my friends with angular frames. My body next to theirs was cumbersome and unruly, my facial features arranged clumsily. My mind and body felt so far apart and bridging the gap was exhausting but when he pulled me close in the dark I was somehow realigned. I’d been reading ee cummings
i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Later, I read my poem at an event. It was the tailend of summer and on the walk home it rained and then the rain turned into hail and we ran through the streets holding hands.
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
He confessed to knowing nothing about poetry. Once we got to his flat he lifted the wet fabric of my t-shirt and kissed the small of my back. He said I love you and that seemed poetry enough.
At eight, I watched my school friend beg for her ears to be pierced. When her mother finally conceded, we gathered in the kitchen to watch.We all counted backwards from ten before she pushed the needle through her daughter’s flesh. There was a wash of blood on the countertop. It seemed to me like an extraordinarily tender act of violence.
By the time I was fourteen, most girls in my school year had their ears pierced as a reward for good behaviour. They’d saved up their pocket money for earrings bedecked with turquoise plastic, which they carried in their lobes like talismans. I came home from a party with magnetic earrings; two ugly diamanté studs which caught the light and pinched at my lobes until they turned red and began to swell. My mother was horrified, even when she realised they were fake. She’d lost herself to a feral anxiety and there was nothing I could do to soothe her pain.
My body has never felt like my own, my self-image always shaped through the lens of the person looking at me. Sometimes, this was women; my female friends and the mothers of my female friends would comment on my appearance. If you plucked your eyebrows you’d be prettier. Why don’t you fake tan? You should wear more foundation. Make-up made my face tight. My tanning ritual left creases of shimmering copper behind my knees. Still, I did it anyway, because to try was better than appearing to make no effort at all. My own mother was scared of these rituals, she protected me from them. She grew up with very little and couldn’t understand the indulgent excess of middle-class beauty regimes. When you aren’t rich, in time or money, something has to give. One day, before my leg hair became dark and coarse, I stole a razor and mimicked the action of shaving. When I cut myself badly I showed my leg to her and she cried. You’re my baby. She was only trying to keep me safe but my body belonged to her too.
In my late teens, the first boy I loved told me I should never wear my hair up so I didn’t. He told me I was strangely attractive and he liked that I wasn’t conventionally beautiful and I was pleased. Then, when it was over, he told his friends to sleep with me just so they could see what it would be like. I didn’t have the language to articulate how deeply hurt I was or to tell him why it was wrong. You should see it as a compliment, a male friend told me, it means he still thinks you’re hot! Adrienne Rich said ‘we need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body.’ Gradually I was learning that to govern my body, I first needed to take ownership of it.
When I left for university that year, my mother cried again. It felt like a betrayal to leave her. I knew she was unhappy. I could feel the pull of home and I was carrying the weight of her fear in my bones. On the first day living in halls, two girls decided to get tattoos just because they could. Only one went through with it. After it was done she hurried into the kitchen and hitched up her skirt to reveal a butterfly on her thigh, all swirls and blocks of pastel colour. You’re so brave, I told her and meant it.
For a long time tattoos represented the possibility of the person I could be. Glamorous, rebellious. At twenty-one, I met a woman with tattoos on her fingers. Stuck somewhere between adoration and lust, I was guilty of projecting my own wants and desires onto her. Once, after we had sex, I wore her sweatshirt to the library because it smelled like her perfume and in it I felt like a version of myself I hadn’t yet uncovered. I fantasised about what our relationship might be like: the furtive glances in lectures and her hand under my skirt in the corner of dark bars; lazy weekends drinking red wine and talking about books. Weeks later, at a house party, we sat on the bathroom floor as I hysterically sobbed. She was patient only to a point. You just like the idea of me. She went to smoke and that was the end of it.
Recently I visited a friend only a short train ride away. It was a quiet and delicious journey and I was alone although not lonely. I wondered why I hadn’t taken the trip sooner. I looked out the window at the coastal view, read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and listened to Joni Mitchell’s Blue to underline my sadness:
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away
In two years together he and I only went to the sea twice. In early spring we took the metro to South Shields, a coastal town which lies at the mouth of the River Tyne. At the arcade, we played the fruit machines until his Tupperware of copper coins was empty. We exchanged our tokens for pockets of penny sweets and ate them until our teeth ached. The sea breeze was wild, it made the tops of our ears blush and our noses run.
Songs are like tattoos
You know I’ve been to sea before
In the summer of the same year we looked out on a vast expanse of glistening sea on the Dalmatian coast far removed from the murky grey of the North East shore. We were only in Split for the weekend. Not able to afford a boat trip to the surrounding islands, we caught the bus to a nearby beach, a secluded natural pool cradled by a pine forest. The heat made us sleepy and slow. The sea was calm in the shallow bay, I didn’t swim so much as let the water hold me. I stayed there until the salt made my skin prickle. It was only when I pulled myself onto dry land that I noticed my shin was knitted with tiny black spines. He took his bankcard from his wallet and scraped away each individual sting. It left a scar, a splash of purplish blue.
When he held me for the last time he pulled me close. I’m sorry. He’d shaved his beard. He seemed like a stranger although not quite. There is a new urgency to sex when don’t think you’ll see someone again. As our bodies contorted into familiar rhythms, I was more conscious of his touch than before. In The Floating Poem, Unnumbered Adrienne Rich writes
Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine—
In bed, I traced the familiar shape of his tattoos. Then he left.
At twenty-six I was tattooed. My tattoo artist was a woman because it makes me feel uncomfortable to be permanently marked by a man. On the day of the appointment I inspected the outline of the transfer in the mirror. I knew my mother would be devastated if I modified my body. I knew she would feel that I was doing it to hurt her personally. But I couldn’t tell her, especially considering the circumstances. When she was barely fifty, her body failed her. I was travelling in Europe with friends when I got the news. Small details are very clear – sediment in base of a cup of €1 hot chocolate, the quiet panic in my dad’s voice as he reasoned with me over the phone. Although she’s made progress, she’s never fully recovered.
The worst part was before the machine hit, the anticipation of the white-hot pain far greater than the reality. I was relieved when it makes contact. Sharp, sore. The longer it went on, the more I disassociated, floated away from the physical experience and focused my attention elsewhere. Afterwards, the area was hot and tender. My tattoo artist instructed me to put a thin layer of ointment on it every day. It’s a wound, take care of it. As it heals the urge to pick the peeling flakes of ink was unbearable. I thought about my mother, and about him, and about the all the years I’ve felt my body belonged to someone else. Wait for the immediate itch to stop. So I waited for the acute pain to become a lasting, dull ache.
Lauren is a writer (from and) based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Her writing appears online in various journals including Poems In Which and Hobart. Her latest essay was published in Monstrous Regiment’s ‘Bi-ble’ anthology. You can find her on social media: @LaurenVevers www.laurenvevers.com