Out of My Element

Cecile Johnston

I almost got a tattoo. I've gone into a parlor more than once, with every intention of coming out in newly-inked skin. The beauty and diversity of other people's tattoos, like the people themselves, fascinates me the way gemstones do – so bright and colorful, and the more you look, the more there is to see. For so long, having a tattoo seemed to me like such a sinister thing - something that happens in darkened cubbies, large loud men holding needles, hard-drinking mustached men in Harley t-shirts boasting of various exploits, proving to all within earshot how tough they were, while getting their skin pierced with rough-riding slogans, wanton women, skulls and daggers. Their consorts would be loose, hard-eyed women who would lurk in the corners, their tattoos testaments to the ragged roads their lives had run.

That preconception started to change in the late 70s, when I was 16 and working for an artist in the Chelsea section of New York. I went into her bathroom and saw a lovely, framed black-and-white of a very personal daisy chain tattoo right about where Lady Chatterley's lover thought a daisy chain should go, and I was – not shocked exactly, but you could say it opened my eyes. I perused the magazines she kept in there, and couldn't stop thinking about the images in them. I asked her about it, and it turned out she had several tattoos, all beautiful, all in very personal places. They didn’t indicate a dark secret life; they were more simply an addition to the sense of bohemian elegance she already carried, regardless of the strange literature in her bathroom.

The magazines in question weren't just about tattoos. Not only was she the first person I knew who had tattoos – she was also the first person I knew who hadn't grown up in India to have her nose pierced, and in fact she had piercing magazines with photos that, once seen, could never be forgotten. These images are moving toward mainstream now; ears pierced with rows of rings all the way up through the cartilage are normal, and most small towns have at least one kid whose ears sport disks an inch in diameter or more. Navels, lips, eyebrows – maybe these made a statement in 1979, but 26 years later they don't turn heads. There are glossy, full-color magazines with expensive advertising sold on newsstands about piercing and tattooing these days; a far cry from the small-size, small press, black-and-white of those zines. They were different. Very different. Even now they would be hard to come by. They didn't just depict personal piercings that made me cringe; they showed a world where pain was a desired experience, something transcendental, where the individuals willingly subjected themselves to ritual-like activities that would alter their bodies forever. There were meat-hooks involved. But instead of being horrified, I was riveted. I quickly stopped telling friends about it because they reacted with a "Wow, I wanna see the freaks!" kind of puerile voyeurism. I didn't necessarily want to go to the extremes of the individuals in the photos, but I admit I would have loved to have talked to them, to find out more of what their experience was like, to have felt something like the kind of exhilaration that transcends even excruciating pain.

At 16, in 1979, even in New York City, I couldn't find anyone who was willing to pierce my navel (and it never occurred to me to do it myself). I had no idea where to find these people, what to ask them, how to even begin to approach their experience—and their nerve. At 43, in Vermont, I could easily get it done – but at 43, with three pregnancies behind me and winter clothing to contend with, my navel will be lucky if it ever gets to see the light of day again. My overall appearance is pretty mainstream. It’s not exactly J. Crew-style, but it’s clean-cut. My ears are pierced only once (I had a second set of holes in them when I was 15, but they've been neglected for decades), and I have no tattoos anywhere. But I almost did.... Almost. And the door isn't shut to the possibility.

Tony, my boyfriend at the time, was an unusually gentle man. He was raising three kids on his own, and we met one Sunday afternoon when my bicycle got a flat tire and the business he worked for was the only one open for blocks. My young son and I were a couple of miles from home, and he was kind enough to give us a ride. His head was shaved and he wore a fu-manchu style mustache, spider webs tattooed all over his elbows. He had a couple of other tattoos, as well, a grim reaper underlined with a banner that read, "Death is Certain, Life is Not" in gothic lettering, and another I can no longer recall. He worked installing car stereos and alarm systems, and we discovered that we had friends in common when I told him where I lived and he said, "Oh, you're Cecile!"

After recovering my composure – what were the odds that he would just happen to know that? – I asked him who had told him. And so we began an affair that lasted a little less than a year, although its impact was much bigger in my life than that brief period of time would imply. Tony had an intuitive sense of the level of physical intensity I was seeking, and was able to satisfy that craving sexually. There were other cravings that no one could have satisfied, cravings I didn't even know I had, and it wasn’t his fault he couldn't be the one to soothe the raging of my soul. He tried, and he genuinely cared about me. After we got to know each other better, he asked if I wanted a tattoo, knowing I'd say yes. He offered to pay for it, and we drove through the hours of twilight and finally darkness, through places where poverty is denied by hungry, hopeless people brandishing expensive watches and clothing loudly announcing the designer's name on the chest, until we arrived at this seedy and desperate town, a small place outside Fort Knox.

Our ride down from Louisville that night had been through a series of increasingly desperate towns, towns whose children knew early on how to roll their own cigarettes and what a "fifth" was and who to go to when they needed something stronger. The businesses in those towns were diners, bars, and girlie clubs with aging Cadillacs and Buicks parked outside, proud with faded luxury in defiance of their decrepitude and mudflap girls hanging from the wheel wells. After a while, we entered the town where Tony's tattoo artist's shop was located, one of three on the short main drag, among other businesses primarily made up of liquor stores, gun shops, and strip clubs. A few forlorn revival churches were scattered here and there among them in case someone in the midst of their revelry – or on a rough Sunday morning - felt a sudden need to be saved. Drunk soldiers and their girls of the night staggered between street lamp spotlights, their contortions exaggerated in the weird dying flicker of the fluorescents like ghoulish strobe light dancers. A tall, masculine woman dressed all in blue with bright blue eye shadow stood near her blue streamlined truck telling everyone passing by that she was going to kick them into next week. People just laughed or ignored her, some of them calling her by name or just calling her Blue Lady. Her friends, I guess.

We walked up to the tattoo parlor door, and on the front was a hand lettered sign reading "You Must Be 18 and Sober to Get a Tattoo!" We went in. It was everything my imagination had said a tattoo parlor would be – right down to the enormous guy in the Harley t-shirt holding the needle, and the skinny, bare-chested guy in the chair drinking out of a paper bag while getting an eagle emblazoned on his breastbone. The girl standing nearby had really big hair and a lot of makeup. She looked like she was in a bad mood. They were behind a plate glass window so customers entering the shop could see what was going on and the owner of the shop could watch anyone coming in. I started leafing through the standard offerings: samples of what was available displayed on posters that can be flipped like the pages of a book mounted on the wall between sheets of Plexiglas. There were "girls" & "guys" sections – the former mostly roses and cute cartoon characters, the latter mostly babes, snakes, flags, and other rugged, angrily edgy fare. In spite of the presence of a few dragons, none of them appealed to me. I'd imagined a dragon stretching across my lower belly, hip to hip in a fierce, fiery girdle. I was sure, then, that I wouldn't have other children, so I wasn't concerned with future scarring. But looking through the offerings, I was discouraged; nothing came close to what I wanted. I wandered a little bit around the shop when the owner decided to take a break and came out to see me.

I hadn't realized when he was bent over the dentist's chair tattooing his current project just how big this man was. He was huge. His forearms had to be as wide as my waist, and my head barely came up to his chest. His Harley shirt stretched over his bulk, and I had a moment of wondering just how big a bike could handle this man. I was 22 years old, in a place where I knew only Tony, and in a culture I knew absolutely nothing about. I couldn't have been more scared if Dueling Banjos had come on the radio right that second. I'm betting the tattoo guy knew it, too, because he walked up to me and said, "I'd love to tattoo you, baby. Where do you want it?" I got out of there fast, knowing I was completely out of my league, knowing they probably got a good laugh out of my discomfort, still wanting a tattoo. My last impression of that place was the photo of the nude girl on the door, standing with her back to the camera and her blonde hair streaming down, stopping only at the place where the tattoo on her behind read, in lettering exactly like on the bottle, "JACK DANIELS".

I never expected my mother to get one first. Under the circumstances, anything was understandable, forgivable, maybe even to be expected, but nothing could ever heal the wounds that caused her to alter the thin flesh above her heart forever. I doubt any other circumstances could have made her even consider such an action, but losing my brother wasn't something any of us had ever considered, either.

I'd spent the weekend with Tony visiting his parents in Grayson County. They were nice people, dairy farmers who bought milk from the store, which never made sense to me. They must have thought I was strange, at the very least, because I ate biscuits without the gravy and was 'allergic' to eggs. Tony's brothers were Southern Baptists, and I was a fallen woman in their eyes, but then again, anyone who didn't belong to their church was fallen. By then, I'd lived in Kentucky long enough to get used to being "fallen." I guess I could have been forgiven if I had gone to be saved, but I never had it in me. There was a pure white cat with all black kittens on their farm, and that cat was lucky it couldn't understand the racist jokes it provoked that horrified me and my polite New York "we don't tell that sort of joke" sensibilities. I understood the jokes, all right, but I didn't understand a social life where it was acceptable to tell them, at least without a disclaimer about how I "would never tell a joke like this ordinarily, but..." Once again, Tony had taken me out of the city and out of my element. We spent the weekend walking the woods, checking the tobacco, cucumbers, and jimson weed, looking over the little wood house he'd built for his wife and their children before she'd left them and he'd moved to the city. I don't remember if we talked about a future.

On Monday morning, we arrived back at my apartment to a note from the sheriff's office on my screen door. The note said to call my family; it was an emergency. I shrugged it off – Tony had to get to work and I had to get my son to daycare and start looking for a job. We parted ways, and Tony said to call if I needed anything. I took the note with me, got on my bike and rode my son to his daycare center, and called my mother from a pay phone. My stepfather answered, and told me that there was bad news. My brother Robert had died suddenly. He was 20, and alone.

Robert was supposed to come visit me the following week. My small world crashed. I couldn't think for a while after that, but somehow I managed to call Tony at work and tell him what had happened. I waited near the payphone on a street corner with cars passing by, crying. A nice woman at the nearby bus stop asked if I was okay; I told her I just found out my brother had died; I don't think she believed me at first. When Tony arrived a few eternal moments later, I burst open, flooding into his arms in screaming, breathless tears. The nice woman was still waiting for the bus, but she handed Tony some Kleenex for me.

Tony took me to the car, loaded my bike, helped me get a plane ticket, and drove me and my son to the airport. I wouldn't see Tony again for a month, and I would be a different person when I returned. Eventually I would pull away from him. He let me go graciously, with a promise not to let anyone hurt me; it was a promise I was hard pressed to keep, but eventually I did. I pulled away from everyone who tried to love me in those times and for a long time afterward. The devastation of death out of order had never sunk into me – it's one of those things that you can't know if you haven't been through it. Now I stopped believing in the possibility of anything I cared about lasting. I had no choice but to accept the finality of death. Even a tattoo only lasts until death. And it was this that prompted my mother to have Robert's name written, permanently, in his handwriting, in mirror-image, above her heart. She said she wanted it to hurt. But I know that nothing could have hurt enough, because no sacrifice would reverse the pain she was in, and even that tattoo wouldn’t outlast the pain of losing my brother. I put the thought of getting one out of my mind for a long time afterward.

This summer I went swimming with four of my girlfriends to a little swimming hole in the woods near my home. It's a cold, clear, private place – just right for five lighthearted, laughing women to skinny-dip on a hot day. On our way there the subject of the conversation turned to tattoos.

Dawn had just gotten one. I said I'd always wanted one, but the right one, the money, and the right time had never come together. I knew Roberta had a few, and so did Monique. Jennifer was keeping quiet. She had said once that she didn't have any, but something was going on. Finally, she confessed. She'd gotten a small, discreet tattoo in a personal place when she was very young and had more or less forgotten about it – didn't really admit it to anyone now. Even her mother didn't know. But tattoos are hard to hide when you're skinny-dipping with your friends, and out of the five of us, four had them, so it didn't feel funny under the circumstances. I couldn't believe it! I was the only one among us whose skin was bare of art. When I told this to my sister later, she laughed; out of any five random women, she said, I'd be the last one she'd think wouldn't have a tattoo.

This past summer marked 20 years since we lost Robert. This fall marked 19 years since I came to Vermont from Kentucky, and the only thing permanent in my life has been change. I finally bought a house in a desperate effort to put down roots; it's the first time in my life I've lived anywhere for more than three years. I ended a bad marriage; I still haven't found someone who I trust to be lasting in my life, who can understand, accept, and fulfill my need for a passion that may appear dangerous on the outside but is also thoughtful and loving. I can wait for that. I have my children and I want desperately to believe they will outlast me, that their well-being is inked into the fabric of the universe more securely than their names could ever be on my skin. But that knowledge is something I know I can never have.

The tattoo I want depicts a dragon wrapped around itself: a symbol of eternity. Her mouth is open, singing, her eyes shut. She's a gentle, beautiful dragon, but sleek and strong at the same time. There's a full moon behind her, and maybe she's pregnant. She'll go on my lower back, where my labor pains took me to my knees and brought my babies forth. And I know she’ll last long.


about the writer


Cecile Johnston is a seamstress, mother, career chameleon, voluptuarian, expert listener and problem solver currently residing in Cabot, Vermont but in love with the whole planet. She encourages you to donate organs, blood, or marrow to those who need it and plant flowers when you get a chance.