Art of Reconciliation
After my wife left me, and then returned,
I wrote a one-act play about it, which we
performed on a Sunday afternoon at the
local bookstore. She, as the “repentant
spouse,” me, a “cocky but forgiving god.”
Later that evening, she rammed my car
through the back end of our new garage.
So what’s at stake in a story? Ideally you should be able to express the core plot in a sentence or two, in about the same space and style as program listings in TV Guide. If this sounds original, fine; if not, don’t worry. Nothing is original. It’s in the telling and in readers’ reactions that it becomes unique. There are always new readers and readers who weren’t ready for this when they read something similar to it before. But now for the teller and for the listener there has to be something real. As someone once said, “Go for broke. Don’t do this like an exploratory operation; it is life and death surgery.”
A Brief History of My Tattoo
It was, say, twenty-three or twenty-four years ago, in my parents’ Upper Peninsula cabin. I had on a tank top and was doing something at the kitchen table with my two young kids. My mother said, “Oh I forgot you had a birthmark on your arm.” This wasn’t very startling, but then she said something that set me wondering for years. “When you were born you had a birthmark on your forehead as well, but we had it removed.” I had never heard this before. Over the next couple of months I looked at my earliest baby pictures and none gave any indication of there being a birthmark on my face. It was one of those surreal moments when you wonder, were babies switched in the hospital? Are these my real parents? I even wrote a poem about it called “The Changeling.” In fairy tales elves exchange one of their young for a more-valued human when no one is watching. The changeling—the elf raised by humans—is always somehow foreign to the environment he grows up in, though he knows no other. I had a niece who, when she was born, had a strawberry birthmark on her brow. It was removed by laser treatment. I have since concluded that my mother in her old age mistakenly attributed this to me.
Thoughts like these were still in my mind as I entered the tattoo shop in Janesville last year. I had an appointment for a tattoo that would cover the birthmark on my arm. The parlor itself was a cross between a third world medical clinic and a neon-lit carnival freak show. Dragons, skulls, and snakes (at least drawings of them) lined the walls. This was not a place for the faint of heart, and I was basically a coward. But a coward who was fed up with a large tan birthmark.
Ever since I was a kid I was razzed with, “What’s that shit on your arm?” I found myself wearing t-shirts when I could have gone shirtless or leaving the towel over my shoulders after showering at the gym. It was a symbol of my difference that in subtle ways caused me to act differently. I was a changeling. At one point as an adult, I thought I would be like the character, Blind Pig, in The Man with the Golden Arm. Because he couldn’t see he decided he would be a filthy, unkempt mess and contaminate the vision of those who could. I wore tank tops and proudly displayed my birthmark. If I wasn’t perfect, people were going to know that the world they saw wasn’t perfect either. But if at heart I wasn’t an introvert, I certainly wasn’t an extrovert either. As time passed I realized something had to be done.
* * *
Did I mention that my mother had disowned me, my wife decided to move out, and that the tattoo artist’s name was Holly. The next day, after her remark about my birthmark, my mother and I got into an argument about religion. She told my wife of the time that I was “no child of hers.” It didn’t mean anything in reality, but coming so soon after her confusion about which baby had a birthmark it was curious. And just eight months before getting a tattoo, my second wife, Talia, decided life would be simpler if she lived on her own. In fact that’s why I finally concluded, why not get a tattoo.
People ask if it was painful. What, sitting for 3 ½ hours perfectly still on a stool and having vibrating needles stabbing into your skin? It’s like being cut with dozens of razor blades at once, but what is difficult to explain is that you’re so anxious it will be botched that you are too petrified to look, much less feel the pain or think about whether or not getting a tattoo is really a good idea. I had gone in for a visit a week earlier and shown this woman the art nouveau design I’d xeroxed out of a library book. She recognized the style of the drawing and seemed genuinely interested in doing the tattoo. She traced my birthmark very carefully and I went home to enlarge the design to its proper size. Now, this afternoon, she was carefully shaving the spot, rubbing it with cleaning alcohol and studying her “canvas” intently.
Holly transferred the design to my arm and began the arduous task of using the electric tattooing needles to push the ink under the top layer of skin. I didn’t know if I should talk or not. I needed her to want to do a good job, but I didn’t dare disturb her concentration. It turned out that a little conversation was fine.
She was a single mother of two young children. They lived in a small apartment above the studio. She’d originally done the bookkeeping for the business and later would clean up drawings people wanted for tattoos. She had studied art in school. She would stop every two or three minutes and carefully pat the spot she was working on with cotton swabs of alcohol. Long streams of blue-green ink were running down my arm. I was afraid to look but comforted by her gentle touch. How right it seemed that a woman was tenderly paying such attention to this mark that had been the source of such lifelong embarrassment. The healing process had begun.
Holly had no tattoos. Her skin was very white, almost translucent in the glare of the room. Her eyes, red rimmed. She had a direct gaze and pleasant smile, though I noticed one of her gums was discolored over a front tooth. She was slight in stature and wore brown coveralls and disposable sanitary gloves. Her children came down twice. The second time her eight-year-old son showed me a cartoon strip that he had drawn because his mother told him I was a publisher. The pictures were funny. At that point the mother cleaned off the tattoo—which was almost done—and the boy and his younger sister in unison said, “Wow!”
My arm was so numb and red you could no longer see the birthmark through the design of the tattoo. She carefully put some ointment on it and wrapped it with strips of gauze. I paid her $350 with a $20 tip for her kids and stepped out into the now cool night air. I nearly passed out. I drove a mile then pulled over into a restaurant for a hamburger and fries. There was a tremendous sense of relief. I had done something that I dared myself to do. But besides the throbbing pain, the intensity of the last four hours and a fear that this was a mistake that would mark me for the rest of my life made me physically sick and mentally disoriented. And, of course, there was the anxiety over what my wife (now having returned to our marriage) would think. She was working in Madison that evening preparing a new restaurant, where she was a waitress, for their grand opening. I did make it home and into bed. Talia arrived an hour later. The unrolling of the gauze was like a scene in a B-movie in which the hero undergoes plastic surgery and holds a mirror in front of him as the doctor unwraps bandages to reveal his new face. I think she was relieved by what she saw. She knew I was going to get a tattoo but I had not shown her the design. I’m sure she feared it would be a cartoon bunny (my nickname).
But the climax came two days later at the opening celebration of the Clay Market Café in Madison (this was it’s real name, not “The Quill Driver”). It was crowded and festive. As I’ve said already, Talia was one of the hosts that night. I had told her I would wait until she was done and we could go out somewhere else for a bite of dinner. Eventually the hors d’oeuvres were gone and customers thinned. Then it was only staff and one or two tables of hangers-on. Talia had told the others about my tattoo and one of her friends came over and asked if she could see it. Since it would involve taking off my shirt, I didn’t think it was appropriate and said, “No.” But one of the waiters said to the friend, “I’ll show you my tattoo,” and rolled up his sleeve to reveal a little design. The new maitre d’ said, “Take a look at mine,” unbuttoned his shirt and wiggled out of a sleeve to reveal some small grapes and grape leaves. By then a small circle of the staff had gathered and I said, “Well if everyone is showing their tattoos, I’ll show mine.” Remember, I am the person who for fifty-eight years had done everything possible to avoid showing the top of his arm to anyone. I unbuttoned my black shirt, twisted my left arm free of the sleeve and (there was no longer any gauze bandage) moved directly under the light.
John slowly begins to roll up his sleeve.
There it was, gleaming under a fresh application of skim cream. The new bluish ink ten times darker than any of the other tattoos. The art nouveau design of a large flowing medieval plant like a knight’s emblem, bold, proud, ornate—yet stunningly simple—positively glowed from my arm. Was it my imagination or were people staring in awe. And was I mistaken or was that a new glint in my wife’s eye as she silently clapped her hands.
The transformation was complete. I’m sure people at the gym think I’m vain when they catch me glancing at the tattoo in a mirror. It’s not that. I’m just delightfully amazed. If you look carefully you can still see the birthmark against which the single-color pattern is silhouetted. I like that. There was nothing wrong with having a birthmark; it just needed a proper frame.