July 1, 2013 by The Citron Review
Each year my daughter asks the same man to take a needle and a gun to her body. A record of my story, she likes to explain. And it’s true that the constellation of ink is like a mythology stitched over her skin: the black voice of half gods making a ladder to the sky out of the mindless, self-inflicted agony of the ordinary.
At eighteen, her first tattoo appeared (just before my first affair). It hides behind golden storybook hair. The man etched a tiny heart behind her ear, a whimsy, I always think in half disgust. My affair barely dented her “the world lives on love” sentiment.
I grew up in a different time when tattoos weren’t even the bastard child of art. My daughter though, at twenty three, gushes about her skin being her memory. I hold my bitter old woman tongue. Swallow thoughts of scars, wrinkles, and sags: skin is memory alright.
Her second tattoo, a bee on the shoulder, reminds me of when her child body played hide and seek with the world–armada of petals, wings, and limbs–a thousand vessels twirling across the shadow soaked lawn. Watching her, I asked myself, What would I give for her eyes right now? Or her stoicism when a bee crawled over her lips, wet with Coca Cola, stinging her over and over.
Last month, I asked, “How many tattoos now?”
“Are you becoming one of those people with half sleeves, a fantasy land of trash?”
Her voice bit down, “Do I have to?”
But really she asks a different question: Do I have to be you?
Her answer: No.
Despite all of her tattoos, she does not believe that the greatest act of love is the repetition of pattern, the trace of generational identity, or the record of any value other than her “you only live once” philosophy.
The judgment of her answer: I am not beautiful or wise enough to be immolated.
Tonight, she calls just after dinner. I live in a thin honey comb of apartments, spliced between stranger’s lives, trying to piece together the story of the stains on the walls. She leaves me alone with a single fact: she is pregnant– yet another conspiracy between her body and her life.
Her final question: “Will you go to the clinic with me?”
That question in translation: Should I keep this baby?
And, of course, my act of accompaniment would become an irrevocable, “No.”
In the silence after her voice, my hands shake as I try not to call her father. These past six months he has campaigned to begin again, a beginning with a twenty eight year history, emotional work that turns barbed wire to bits of strung diamonds. Hope. Holding hands. We’re stronger now on the other side. Intolerable cliché.
I know her third tattoo is the product of our separation. (I confessed after affair four). The man traced a lotus flower on her wrist, then she wandered all over Europe, then she dropped out of college. We both became cast offs, but she chose her Bohemian life–a kind of wandering vagrancy that keeps her “alive.” I am the only one left without beliefs.
I lie down on the bed, wondering how she will manage a baby in her broken down house on the dark side of a mountain, where she claims to love the quiet while she “lives her art” and makes ugly paintings that some senile gallery owner tells her are good.
I used to lie awake, imagining the bouquets of viruses pushing against the other side of her skin.
(Now, I lie awake because I cannot stop my skin’s memory of my husband).
Restless, I shut the door behind me. I walk, trying to put away my last night with my husband. The bedroom was August hot and the air dry, crackling, almost burnt. Dog days of summer, he said, rolling away from me. I stopped dreaming–as if the lights went out behind my eyes. My sleep became a long blink in which darkness crawled over me.
The streets curve up the mountain. At the top sits an abandoned Victorian: no dogs or lights, just a walled garden in the back. I haul my body onto the wall, tightrope walk to the corner where the valley spreads below. Only the leaves rustle against the stars. In me are reverse alchemies–love to terror, terror to love’s lace. All followed by dogs of self hate.
“We are walking on stars,” I whisper to my daughter through two small towns and a mountain, remembering the star on the arch of her foot. “Out of our minds, out of our bodies, our babies calling us back to our tired spines of hope.”
When I come down off the wall, I drift down toward the lights of an empty diner.
A milky way spiral stamps the underside of the waiter’s forearm. “There is a common language of shapes and symbols, stretching across many cultures and times,” I imagine my daughter rambling. I draw this symbol on a napkin, see my own loneliness scattered with the crumbs of cake and the dregs of a glass of wine. The reflection in the window says, In the law of returns, scavengers end up feeding on ghosts.
The walls of the diner tremble when a truck pushes down the narrow street. As the headlights pass over the window, I am filled with panic that it will crash right through the glass. The entire world will break into shards. In that moment, I feel my husband pushing deep inside of me; I feel my daughter somersaulting in my stomach; I feel the tiny specks of her daughter, dust already scattered across cells. In that spiraling ribbon of inky darkness, I glimpse the shape of my life.
I leave. I walk through the night to call my daughter and tell her about this last tattoo.
Honor McElroy grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She lives and works in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Her other work has appeared in The OAH Magazine of History.