Dead Skin

You can’t see her tattoos, but they’re there. The vivid ink on her chest, hips and legs somebody’s covered them up in a simple black dress with accompanying lace around the neck. If you really wanted to see them, you could glance at her V-shaped neckline and see a hit of some black ink on her chest above her breasts, but you probably won’t peek. So they’re my little secret; only I know what’s hidden there.

Her first tattoo, the one everyone can see,  is curled around her right arm, a simple, elegant floral vine of black roses and thorns draping  around her elbow and up her forearm to resemble a creeping ivy wall on an old brick building. It’s faded now. The  sunlight and weight loss and razor blades have taken away some of its initial luster. It looks greyer than ever against her own grey skin.

She got it when she was 14, before I met her. When I asked her about it, she said she thought it was pretty and that’s all a tattoo needed to be.

By the time I met her, she had two more: a pair of treble and bass musical clefs behind each of her ears, and a quote from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar — “I am, I am, I am” — on her right wrist. Those are the only ones visible now, as I look down on her lying there so peacefully. The others are hidden under her clothes.

We took the same American literature class our freshman year of college. She was a genius and a bookworm and knew 10 times as much as I did about anything we read. She explained Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Kafka to me better than any teacher ever could. She made it come alive. Together, we wrote reports on those books’ characters, hilariously dramatizing each of their lives with paper dolls we’d cut out of magazines. Sometimes we presented them in front of the class, and she’d laugh and laugh. We all did — she was infectious.

Sometimes she’d be gone from class for days at a time, and I had to find another partner to work with. It wasn’t the same: no one else had her sick, morbid sense of humor. I loved that about her. She told me dark stories of her family, about her dangerously absent-minded mother and father who called her the dog’s name and locked her in the closet for safety when they’d leave to buy cigarettes; her older brother who consistently hurt himself each Independence Day when he leaned too far over his fireworks; her twin sister who loved to switch places with her and burned the back of her hand on the stove so she could have the same birthmark, too.

“Fun family,” I’d say. She’d only shrug and start reading aloud from Hamlet.

Once in a while, she came back to school with bandages on her arms; later on, she’d start coming back with tattoos.

The first time she let me see all of them was the night we slept together. We were 18, and she was the first girl I’d ever seen naked. Some people call it sex, others making love but what we did was sadder and gentler.  When she took her shirt off, I saw her new tattoo of an eagle in flight — the one that’s visible in the V of her dress freshly inked and still red around the edges above her small breasts, between which the great bird’s talons grasped at something that wasn’t there. She let me run my hands across her stomach and down the small of her back, feeling the divots in her skin from injuries past, and then down her forearms where the white scarred lines crossing her wrists were barely noticeable under all that ink. I didn’t understand how a creature so beautiful could have so many scars. I hugged her tightly against the bed and melted into her body.

We started holding hands after that. And she got a new tattoo on her inner thigh: a fully bloomed, Georgia O’Keefe black iris.

Three years later, I asked her to marry me. We exchanged vows at city hall, just the two of us, no one else around but the police who shared the building. And instead of wearable rings, we opted to get matching ring tattoos on our ring fingers it was my first tattoo, her eighth. She held my other hand when the needle first entered my thin skin, as I writhed through the pain that was so foreign to me and so normal for her. When it was her turn, she didn’t bat an eye.

Her addiction to tattoos came with her attraction to pain, and her constant crippling fear of life around her that pervaded her every thought. She never escaped it. The first time she went to the studio, she winced — but never cried — at the sharp sting of then needle stabbing under her skin. It wasn’t like the pain at home: this pain she could control.

When she went home, as a teenager, she pretended she didn’t exist. Her mother and father ignored her, caught up in a drug-induced haze that terrified her and her siblings, who too often found themselves cornered, facing death threats in the kitchen when her out-of-her-mind mother managed to grab hold of a knife. They would stop happily for ice cream on the way home from school and greet their father at home, as he screamed that he would kill them if they were late again. He hit her sister so hard, so often she tried to kill herself. Years later, she did.

Tattoos caused her pain but they gave her power.

I met her just before the eagle on her chest appeared. That was born from her father’s arrest for domestic violence and child sexual abuse; her mother had skipped town months earlier to avoid the same charges. After nine years of torture, she was free. Her ties with all of her family were gone, violently severed by police, homelessness and suicide — but they were gone.

Her story was embodied in all her tattoos, for better or for worse — much worse. The abuse she received from her addict parents, the unforgettable image of her sister’s dangling body in the closet, her own nearly-completed suicide attempts  — all told in ink on her body.

It had been two years since the miscarriage and one since the second suicide attempt that I noticed the blue jay tattoo under her left breast, a memorial to the little baby boy we’d never meet, was warped slightly above a round belly. Questioning her gently, I saw tears well up in her eyes as she said four months had already gone by since she’d found out. “I was afraid to tell you in case I lost it again,” she whispered with a teary smile. She rested her head on my shoulder, her shirt shifting to reveal that inky beacon, the hidden eagle underneath it.

We cried that night until our wells were dry.

A few months later, as we sat side-by-side on the couch caressing the sleeping infant on my lap, I kissed her on the forehead. “What’s this tattoo going to be?” I asked her with a playful smile. She lifted her shirt and pointed to her stretchmarks. “I already have one.”

She never got another tattoo. And except for those roses and thorns, she’d kept her left arm tattoo-free — for me, she said.

Her left hand was the one she surrendered to me in marriage, the one that bound us together in love till death do us part; it was the one I held tightly in the hospital when she delivered our premature daughter, sweating and sore after bringing to life only the second human being she had ever loved; the one I yanked the bottle of painkillers from when I found her sitting alone with them on the bed just after we got married.

Her left hand was the one that connected the two of us as a single being, and it was the one I found resting limply, peacefully over the side of the bathtub next to dulled razorblades, reposing in a growing pool of blood that seeped down into the hot water and dripped onto the tiled floor, when she finally completed what she had tried to do for years.

Those more permanent, fatal tattoos are still there, too; if you lean closely and look through the makeup, you can see them on her pale wrists. The undertaker was reluctant to dress her in a short-sleeved dress because of that, but our daughter chose the outfit, and you can’t argue with a four-year-old.

She asks to see her mommy, so I hoist her onto my hip and lean over the casket. We stand there for a minute, silent together. Then her miniscule fingers reach toward her mother’s dress to smooth out a wrinkle on the stomach; my balance sways, and I struggle to prevent her from accidentally leaping back into her mother’s motionless, folded arms — the same way she used to when they would play together on the couch back at home.

“Look, Mommy’s tattoo!” She points to the wedding ring band that was slightly rubbed away on her left hand; I stoop down to let my girl touch it. Her bright face looks back up at me. “You have that one, too!”

“I do have it, you’re right.”

She furrows her fleshy brow. “But then how come I don’t have it, too?”

I only smile. Placing her gently back on her own two feet, I take her hand and lead her waddling body down the aisle of the funeral home. She keeps turning back to look at her mother as we walked out, too young to understand exactly who the woman is lying there in that box. Darling, I hope someday you will have it, too.

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