Literary Orphans

None of These Tattoos Are Mine by Jen Fitzgerald

born_to_die_by_milanvopalensky-d6cizj1

“I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”

Joan Didion

 

We know from cave paintings that marking the body, ritual scarification, and tattooing have been practiced since ancient times.  The need to resist the body’s desire to remain pristine is a way of asserting our will over the world.  When we are young, our bodies are the borders of our world.  As we grow older, our former world begins to resist us as the outer and latter world opens up. We hope to remain entirely ourselves throughout this journey; all our glorious incarnations carried along.

 

 

You Can Buy A Piece of Me:

Of course I’m late meeting Jeremy.  He lives in Queens for Christ’s sake.  He’s been blowing up my phone like I could get the ferry to move any faster.  He doesn’t need to know that I was copping with Lola in Spanish Harlem.

“The guy isn’t gonna wait much longer Jen, we are already an hour late.”  He always sounds more sexy when he’s mad.  I can picture those pale blue eyes just burning up.

“Alright, alright, I’m coming.”  A few minutes later he picks me up at the train in Sunnyside and we are in his 3000 GT heading to 6th Avenue.  I smile that cute smile that always gets him and makes him forget how mad he is.

“I hope he can still take you,” he says while pulling into a spot.  I’m more concerned with these bags burning a hole in my pocket.  The Village Tattoo Shop’s neon sign lit up the street.  Jeremy was all excited about getting me inked, my first tattoo was gonna match his, a Celtic Trinity with knotting.  I was just happy to be getting it for free.

The guy’s name was “No,” like, the opposite of yes, No.  He’s a Latino guy, huge, like 350 lbs.  His teeth could have used some attention but I figured as long as his hands were working, we were just dandy.

I put on my best “nice little white girl” voice and say, “Oh, I am so sorry we are late.  It’s all my fault!  It took forever to get here, I live at the end of Staten Island near Jersey.  I hope you don’t mind if I use the ladies room before we start?”

No smiled and said, “Of course, it’s at the bottom of the steps.”  I barrel down those steps like a wife meeting her husband come home from the war.  I close the door quick behind me and pull out a bag.  I decide it’s best to just do the whole damn thing since I have no clue how much this is going to hurt.  No spikes this time around; makes the relapse a bit easier to swallow.  At least I’m not as bad as last time.  A few sniffs with the trusty straw, flush the toilet for affect and head back up to the needle.

I sit in the chair without a care in the world. “Are you nervous?” No asks me. “Naw,” I say nonchalantly and put my feet up.  I am wearing my checkered pants and my “too cool for school” bright blue, patent leather Adidas.  I feel the dope kicking in.  My lids lower a little and there’s nowhere in the world more comfortable than this ripped leather chair in this dirty tattoo shop.  Even the buzz of that jumping needle can’t wear me down.

“Damn girl, you so pale I could use transparent ink and still see it on your skin.”  No says this while putting the pattern on my ankle.  He looks at Jeremy, “This look okay to you man?”  Jeremy nods and I don’t care that he asked him first.  He thinks himself one of those “man’s man” type of guys; got to control the situation.  I’ll give it to him for now; dope makes that easier.

I hardly noticed that we’d started.  No looked a little surprised that I didn’t even flinch.  After the first full hour of that needle hammering my ankle he looked up at me and said, “You must have a high tolerance for pain or something, your man was almost crying after an hour.”  He chuckled and Jeremy rolled his eyes.

“You wish,” he said, then kissed the top of my head. “My girl’s tough.”  Sure I was tough.  Tough like a wounded soldier on a Civil War battle field; morphine jammed into my leg to forget about the missing arm.  I try not to nod out, that would set off the alarms for sure.

Three and a half hours later I’m done.  I’ve got a piece of Jeremy on my leg.  He likes it that way, I can tell.

 

 

Om, Shanti, Shanti:

I love yoga, I breathe yoga, I can’t get enough yoga.  I think I might actually be Hindu.  You see, I am not one of those yogis who goes occasionally, thinking that the exercise is great but keep the philosophy to yourself.  I am yoga. I am the embodiment of Lord Rama.  I take everything very seriously.

“Kathleen, I will take you to get your first tattoo.  I will even get one with you.”  My posture has greatly improved because of “downward facing dog” and I stand exceptionally straight while telling her this.

“What are you going to get?” she asks.  What am I going to get?  What a ridiculous question.  OF COURSE I am going to get the Om symbol, the most holy symbol in the Hindu faith.

“I am getting an Om.”

“What’s an Um?”

“No, not UM, OM!  The yoga symbol.”  I chant a long, drawn out Om while holding my index and thumb fingers together.  She rolls her eyes. “Whatever, you are so weird.” By now she is used to her sister’s ever-morphing strangeness.

I do some research before receiving my sacred marking.  I choose the ankle because Oms are not to be shown off, not to be placed in an always visible spot to be scrutinized by non-believers.  Also, symmetry is key and this will offset my Celtic Trinity from years back.   Greg will be so impressed.  Who is Greg?  He is my personal yoga teacher. All serious yogis must have one of these, so naturally I retained his services quickly after our initial meeting at the New Age Health spa in Upstate N.Y. He appeared to be in his 30s; I was surprised to find out he was over 50.  My friend and I took one of his classes and I impressed him with my bridge and inverted table.  I was the only one in the room agile enough to succeed in this yoga feat.  He clapped his hands as I hung like a pot rack and yelled, “Welcome to yoga!”  The rest of the class was full of W.A.S.P.s that could barely sit Indian style.  My friend and I are going to an Ashram with him in a few weeks.

When I met Greg, I was with John.  John turned out to be a dud, and now I am with Mike.  He reminds me of Jeremy and Jeremy is someone I can’t seem to forget.  It is just so hard to find someone as enlightened as me.  The fact that Mike is a raging alcoholic makes me doubt his spiritual conviction.

 

The Om only takes thirty-five minutes to permanently find its home on my body.  Kathleen got a Celtic Cross and laughed at herself for being so scared of the anti-climactic pain.  I talked myself through the moment of doubt I experienced after seeing it for the first time.  This Om represents a higher self and the Hindu philosophy which will always be a part of you. You are important, Shanti, Shanti.

A few weeks later, my friend and I meet Greg at his home in Long Island.  We will spend the night at his place and then head out to the Ashram early in the morning.  I am sure to wear only clothes that will show off my sacred tattoo and therefore my piety.  Greg takes us out to all the local bars and clubs.  I had just broken up with Mike and planned to reinvent myself at the Ananda Ashram.  My reinvention was thus…

1st Bar: 2 pints of Guinness

2nd Bar: 1 Pint of Guinness, 1 shot of Jameson, a round of pool.

3rd Bar: 2 Jameson and ginger ale.

4th Bar: Actually a club, 2 Long Island Iced Teas, 3 Kamikaze shots out of my friend’s boobs.

5th Bar: Also a club, 2 Kamikaze shots, 1 Long Island Iced Tea and a Red Devil shot out of my friend’s boobs.  I decide it is a good idea to go out to the parking lot, drop my pants 100 feet from a bunch of cops and pee leaning up against a van.  I am promptly escorted back to Greg’s house in car ride of partial consciousness and browning out.

Greg loves my Om tattoo and tells me so as he pulls off my skirt.  My friend is passed out on the floor.  In whatever consciousness I can salvage, I think of how spiritual this will be and how I will be united with him as if in some Hindu ritual.  My body is an alcohol-saturated temple.  I am definitely not being taken advantage of; that would be so un-yoga of him.

 

 

Quote Me:

I have recently transferred to the College of Staten Island’s as an English Writing major.  After completing a first draft of a 280 page memoir I decided to leave criminal justice, lose over 20 credits and officially start my training as the future world’s best writer.  While I had really enjoyed my years at John Jay, the commute was trying and my life’s calling was screaming to me from the mountain tops.  I was very obviously a writer.

I would jump genres, dazzle with my eloquent prose, and obtain small quirks that would lead people to call me “eccentric” and “interesting.”  The English award I received after completing grammar school should have indicated my talents a long time ago but I was too concerned with the perils of entering junior high.

Writers are so non-descript.  I contemplated having a t-shirt made up so I could be immediately recognized for my genius.  But to do so would be boastful and of poor taste, so I began drawing up ideas for a tattoo.

Dave and I have been married for almost a year.  He loves that I have two tattoos and wants to get me another.

“I want to get a quill with a drop of ink, over a sword with a drop of blood for the saying ‘the quill is mightier than the sword,’” I said to Dave one morning over coffee.  I showed him my drawings.  “I want it on my wrist.”

“Are you sure you want it there?”

“Yes, I want it there.  It’s my body,” I say indignantly.

“I know it’s your body, but I wouldn’t get a tattoo that you hated because you would be forced to look at it all the time.”

“This is what I want.  If you don’t want to get it for me I will just buy it myself.”

He huffed and said, “I didn’t say I wouldn’t get it for you.  I just want you to be sure.”

“I am sure.”

 

In some act of divine intervention by the cliché gods, when we got to the shop we found that the design I wanted was too large, so I settled on just a quill.  After placing the outline on my wrist the tattoo artist called Dave over to make sure it was ok.

“Yea, it looks good.  What do you think Jen?”

I smiled, “I love it.  Thank you.”  The tattoo artist immediately started digging into my skin with the needle.  I went into a bit of a daze, staring at the floor because this hurt.  Like, really hurt.  When triggered, the bundle of nerves in a wrist will send pain shooting down the hand, out to the fingers, and back up the arm.  I thought, briefly yet fondly, about heroin’s numbness.

Nearly an hour later I had what I thought were the markings of a writer. I would no longer have to feel awkward using words like ostentatious, loquacious, and delicatessen.

 

 

Pulse of My Heart:

 

Pregnancy makes you take inventory.

When I was 7 months pregnant I decided to take a break from neurotically cleaning my home to neurotically clean dormant social media and web stuff.  I eventually made it to an extremely old MySpace account.  Amazed that I remembered the password, I rummaged through friend requests and notifications and then checked my inbox.  Then air stopped moving for a moment.  There was a message from Jeremy, with a subject of “looking for an old friend.” It ended with:

…I often wonder how you’re doing and if you still think of me when you look at the trinity on the front of your ankle that we got for your b-day.  I’m in the Marines now for some time. I’m stationed in Japan.  I’m doing very well just doing a lot of training getting ready to go to Afghan. Hit me up.  I would love to talk.

 

We hadn’t spoken in years.  He had moved in and out of my life like a wraith since we met in rehab when I was 16.  What did this mean?  Why now when things were so solid?  I immediately called a friend who grounds me.

“You will never guess who found me.”

“Who?”

“Fucking Jeremy.”

“Oh no, how do you feel about that?” she asked cautiously.

“I am shocked but I realize I am finally immune to him.  It was crazy to see his pictures and stuff but I am happy where I am.”

“Oh, Thank God!  I was really worried there for a minute.”

I laughed, “Did you seriously think I was going to leave Dave while pregnant for an ex-junkie?”

“I didn’t know Jen, I know the history there.  I am just glad to hear you say that.”

I was completely different than the Jennifer that Jeremy had known.  It was the only way I could be from then on.

 

Sometimes, despite its efforts to remain pristine and infinite, the body falls out of sync with the mind.  We normally think of this as the other way around— the mind bucking the body.  When the two diverge, no matter whom turned first, there is rebellion and a state of unease. But when the body shifts and creaks and spreads of its own volition, the mind feels distraught.  This is part of what it means to be a woman, a betrayal.

The scar from where my daughter was cut out of me will always be raised, long, and bright.  My mind is forever altered by the first 13 months of sporadic sleep.  My psyche is tethered to her well-being as she was once tethered to me.  It is all permanent.

 

Only 6 months old, she sat on my mother’s lap in the tattoo shop.  Her chubby fingers groped at a favorite stuffed donkey as the needle vibrated over my skin.

 

A Chuisle Mo Croi

01∙11∙10

This was the easiest tattoo to get.  Not the pain, but the choice.  My body marked itself with a palindrome birthdate, that itself marked an existence that would have come to be regardless of time’s flipping and wavering.

One day I will show it to her and hopefully be able to tell her about the others.  Maybe I will find the means to explain the ways in which women are marked as they move through stages of life.

It gives me pause to think of the stark contrasts between her first visit to a tattoo parlor and mine.

 

 

The Turn:

All the selves move forward with me.  The older I get, the more aware I am of my younger selves. It is like I owe them, like I have to bring them along as awareness blossoms.

 

Stop changing who you are in hopes of being loved.

I’ve been so many different people just to survive.  Now I am on the tail-end of a large-scale betrayal of self that I partly invited and partly manifested.  Things were getting easier, I was forming bonds.  I felt understood and thought my labor, my hard work could translate into meaningful relationships.  I bent and contorted to be anything other than myself because she had never been worthy of praise.  Action, movement, distraction.  I got a lesson in the heart’s impermanence.  I got a lesson in old behaviors.  I got a lesson in resilience.

 

Breathe.

I am becoming myself for the first time by reconciling all the faded representations of me.  Or will this be another proto-type?  There may never be a final me.

Let life unfold.

Be open to the lesson.

So much of who I am is wrapped up in a community that I become hyper sensitive to its nuances and humanness.  When you identify yourself in terms of those around you, your worth is measured by their hands.

 

Just be yourself entirely and everything else will fall into place.

Be open to possibility that, that person is worthy of love.

I am different from the community of writers with whom I feel creatively connected. I will always be different.  It’s not their fault, and it is not my fault.  When I pretend I am not different, I barely hold on.  When I make it abundantly clear that I am different, I am treated as such, intensely.

 

I thought there would be more people like me here…

Do you know what it is like to go to a famed writer’s conference and quite literally be treated like maintenance staff by some fellow attendees because your working class background had the nerve to give you a tactile hold on the world around you?

Do you know what it is like to be interrupted incessantly during a planning meeting so that someone can point out your Staten Island accent? “Aww, you said TAWK!”  My voice marks me.

When the observer is ripped from their viewing to be viewed, it is sudden and uncomfortable.  When the observer is ripped from their viewing to be reminded that they inhabit a different social place, they will either wither or burst violently into bloom.

Do you know what it is like to boil over with the latent rage and lash out—break open?  I had my Gatsby moment, my unforgivable. It can’t be forgiven because I am not yet the self who can apologize for having a breaking point. This truth carries its own scarring.

I can’t take back the things that mark me, even when I have marked myself with them.  So I will own them.  I want to commemorate the publication of my first collection of poetry by getting a cleaver tattoo on my forearm.  It is fitting, being that the collection is centered around the Meat Cutters of New York City, but mostly it is fitting because I mean to hack off.

Not every part of me will continue on past this turn.  I don’t know what is around the corner, but I know who I have to be to get there.

I could give up; I could allow the insecurity and uncertainty to win out.  Oh, how easy!  I could spend evenings counting all the ways that giving up is better than unabashed confrontation of the self, the history, and the unfortunate realities. I could end every night with a sigh of relief at the choice I had made!  Maybe I’d be an engineer or get another bartending job.  Life would be happy enough.  I could paint or something—seek a new, solitary creative outlet.  I could let simplicity be king.  But then quickly, I deny myself even the luxury of a cop-out train of thought.  That is the sort of death I will never be willing to die.

O Typekey Divider

Jen Fitzgerald is a poet, essayist, and a native New Yorker who received her MFA in Poetry at Lesley University. She is the host of New Books in Poetry Podcast, a member of New York Writers Workshop, and was a Bread Loaf 2014 Conference attendee. Her first collection of poetry, “The Art of Work” is forthcoming with Noemi Press in Spring 2016. Her work has been featured on PBS Newshour and Harriet: The Poetry Foundation Blog and in Tin House, Salon, PEN Anthology, and AAWW: Open City, among others. She is at work on her memoir.

unnamed

O Typekey Divider

–Art by Milan Vopálenský & Esmahan Özkan