“How big should I make it?” I asked my tattoo artist, a fashionably underfed hipster in a tiny, spotless shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was probably ten years younger than he looked—the image I was hoping for with my first tattoo. I had just graduated from college and was living on Avenue C in the late ’90s. I was still far too baby-faced to look the part I thought I was playing. I wanted to look like I had experience, like I had a story.
He said, “Big enough so the people at the other end of the bar can see it when you lift up your shirt to show it off.”
It was good advice for a twenty-two-year-old. Now, almost two decades later, I’m more apt to wonder how it looks as I wade into the YMCA family pool, following my two-year-old daughter and my five-year-old son, where I’m less inclined to show off my body than submerge it from sight. Like most of the fathers in my company, my body is succumbing to the undertow of the parenting years: a slack at the chest, a collection at the waistline—story that I’d rather lose. My tattoos now show not the look of experience, but of inexperience, of youth.
I’ve gotten three tattoos while being only a son, and one as both a son and a father. As a son—which is to say, as someone who has tumbled into the world and seeks his place in it—I still like my tattoos. Getting them has felt as essential as the body they’re inked on. My tattoos have stamped something permanent onto my life, which has otherwise confirmed itself to be uncontrollable—even unknowable. It’s an exhilarating power, and, I believe, the primary allure of getting tattoos. In the face of so much mystery I can say, with this ink on this skin, I know this much—I am this much—at least.
The image itself doesn’t so much matter, which is why so many tattoos appear to be so meaningless. I have a heart with an arrow through it on my arm, and a star on my shoulder: why do I have them, instead of not have them? It is assertion, and assertion alone, in response to some other questions I often ask: why do I have to be so white? Why male? Why such average height, why this mop of hair? I don’t know, but I can say that one day, at the foot of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a young man wore a surgeon’s face mask and, holding my arm, inked perfectly straight lines and acute angles on my shoulder. The tattoo is both the most meaningless and precise thing about me.
Incidentally, it also gets the most attention at the YMCA from the swim-diaper set. Every so often I feel a poke on my shoulder and turn to find a toddler saying, “Star!”
“That’s right,” I say, and smile. The parent glides over to fetch his or her child, and gives a smile to say “sorry.” I smile back to say “no problem.”
We’re all smiles, and mine is the most awkward. When I became a father I felt as though I had re-entered the world—tumbling still, and now holding a newborn. Even now, I don’t know my place in the world, but I know my purpose—fatherhood—and to this purpose, my tattoos are all dreadfully embarrassing. I’m embarrassed for all of us, bobbing into the YMCA family pool with our marks of youthful inexperience, images that look more to the taste of our kids than to the parents we’ve become: dragons, fire, dice, swirly lettering, abstractions in black, and yes, stars. Why have them instead of not have them indeed. Now I often think of the question my own dad asked me when I pulled up my shirt to show him my first tattoo.
“It comes off?” he said.
“No, Dad, it’s a tattoo.”
“But it’s not real.”
“Well…” My stepmom searched for her words. “You’re… expressing yourself.”
My dad said to himself, aloud, “And on Father’s Day.”
So it was. We had all met at the beach for a June family reunion. Instead of letting people notice and say something (or more awkwardly for me, not say something), I thought I’d just make the announcement about my new tattoo.
My parents have been less than enthusiastic about my tattoos, which I can understand, now as a parent myself. A decision like this must look like guaranteed regret. When I showed them my fourth and final tattoo, the only one I have gotten as a father, my stepmom said, “Well, I… I liked your arm the way it was.”
“An illustrated man,” my dad declared, again keeping his distance from voicing an opinion.
Oh, well. You learn to live without approval from your parents. I had hoped that this was a tattoo they might have liked, however, as it involves our family. My sister, an artist, drew it as part of the wedding invitations she made for my wife and me. There is a single-story pagoda-like structure in black, at the edge of water, whose currents are shown by dark grey swirls. Above it, in teal, are tiny check marks, Xs, circles, diamonds, and a crescent moon all appearing to be in motion—a kind of swirling cosmos that corresponds to the water below it. In this swirl there are three small rowboats in black, their oars set in their locks but hanging slack. One rowboat is gliding toward the house, one is at the house, one is headed upward and away, at the edge of the cosmos.
The pagoda to me is home, and the boats show the three stages of a cycle that was apparent to me on our wedding day, held at the farmhouse where my wife grew up, and continues to be apparent as I have become a father: it’s a return home to leave it again, and it’s a departure from home, even as far as the edge of the universe, that foretells a return.
“You can never go home again”—yes, but also true is that I never really left, not in any permanent sense. In raising children, I constantly reflect on my own childhood. In being a parent, I constantly recall my own. Having my own kids has also brought me back to the family I came from because there’s a new relationship I’m now obliged to foster—that of the grandparent and grandchild. My parents want to feel like they “know” my kids, and, being grandparents who spoil them rotten—by which I mean give them junky little plastic toys, dubious gummy treats, and unrestrained joy and affection—our kids want to know more of them.
In our wedding ceremony, the minister gave a “blessing to the parents” in which she said, “They are of you, and now they move beyond you.” What I have learned in the years since is that “moving beyond” doesn’t mean I’m no longer “of.” In fact, being “of” my parents has only intensified in having supposedly “moved beyond” in marriage and parenthood. My past, my upbringing, my youth, my sense of inexperience has all become more vibrant in adulthood, in contrast to the tattoos that represent them, whose colors have begun to fade.
“I want a tattoo,” my son says, looking at the one my sister drew. A part of me is happy to hear it. I’ve learned to live without the approval of my parents, at least as it pertains to my appearance, but now I’m struck by how much I want the approval of my kids. Another part of me, the protective father, is, well … concerned. I don’t want my son to do something he regrets.
“Okay,” I say, “but not until you’re a grown-up.” He’ll be of me and not beyond me for many years to come. “You can get a temporary tattoo. One that comes off.”
My two-year-old daughter hasn’t said much, but in the YMCA family locker room recently, as I wiggled her into her swimsuit, she touched my chest and said, “Daddy, you have a name.”
I smiled. On my left pectoral muscle, just above the heart, where a name tag is sewn on a shirt, in Times New Roman typeface, black, all lower-case, about 40-point font, is my first tattoo, a word that described me then and, sometimes in spite of my most sincere wishes, describes me now: tender.
As a young man on Avenue C I wanted something to show great virtue and great fault, something that shows conflict, and the conflict I have now, eighteen years later, is to determine whether it was an act of virtue or fault to get it. I was—and am—sympathetic, gentle, impressionable: tenderhearted. I also was and am perpetually unprepared for the world, especially in parenthood, as each new phase highlights my embarrassing inexperience with it. I’m not so baby-faced anymore, but I’m as tender-footed as my kids are. As a twenty-two-year-old I was attracted to the irony—what kind of man has “tender” tattooed on his chest? I knew it would be a provocation to my future self, and, duly, as a father I am provoked.
Does all this spell “regret”? Yes, and no, and not simply either. I would never get this tattoo now; my taste for this kind of daring irony has since far softened. Yet, it suits me perfectly, then as now, and I’m glad my former self had the temerity to mark me. As a friend of mine said, “People regret tattoos because they once thought they looked cool but no longer do. This is a tattoo you know you should regret. So you probably won’t.”
“Yes, I do have a name,” I said to my daughter, in that chirpy parenting tone, proud of a toddler’s perception. But I said it under my breath, as I hoped not to explain it further, not while I fussed with the diaper, socks, pants, shoes, shirts, towels, goggles, lock, and the bags, and not with all these other people around.
BRIAN GOEDDE teaches writing and literature at the Community College of Philadelphia.
I tried to talk my sons out of getting tattoos. To me, tattoos seemed like something for circus performers or punk rockers: a way to mar lovely, pristine skin. They were ugly, in design or placement, sometimes both, like the one of a snake I’d seen creeping up the cheek of a man’s face at the beach. I’d been noticing more and more tattoos during our summer beach vacations. Military sayings like Semper Fi stretching across a young man’s shoulders, the black words stark against his sunburnt skin. An intricate lacy sleeve of bright flowers and ivy covering a barista’s arm from wrist to shoulder. The odd trail of pink stars on the calf of the mother holding her toddler’s hand.
Snakes. Someone else’s words. Flowers and ivy. Colored stars. They were all unnecessary and permanent, I told Tim and Sam. What design could you get that you’d never regret? Don’t forget. You have a tattoo forever. But kids are all about the here and now. Tim, who was sixteen at the time, talked about getting a tattoo of Pittsburgh’s skyline or the small black-and-tan outline of our family dog. Sam, who is nearly four years younger, wanted a tattoo of the Coca-Cola polar bear, but with a bottle of Mountain Dew instead of the cola, claiming to be a rebel. I didn’t know if they were serious or just trying to provoke me, but I hoped the urge would pass before they turned eighteen and could get one without my assent.
The idea first came to me while skimming through a small tabloid newspaper while I waited at a restaurant. Maybe it was the colorful ads for punk band concerts and head shops or the small brown tattoo of an owl on the back of the hostess’s calf that my daughter Meg pointed out. Something made me turn to her and say, “I’d like to get a tattoo someday. One of Tim’s birthdate or name or something.”
Meg snickered, then said something like, “Oh you’d never do that.” But my sister Kim said, “Yeah, that would be a nice thing to do. To remember him.”
After getting a haircut one bright afternoon in August, I walked the four blocks to a Starbucks for a mocha, a drink that, in my grief, had become a staple—something about the warmth of it in my hands and its decadence. Allowing myself that indulgence was, in a weird way, a self-kindness that was still hard for me. I had to remind myself I was worthy of it. Like I reminded myself kids with good parents were dying every day. From cancer or car accidents maybe, though not drugs. Maybe I had been a good parent. But despite the number of drug overdoses—in Pittsburgh and everywhere else it seemed—it was still something I didn’t believe.
Kayla was standing beside the tattoo parlor three blocks down from my hairdresser, her head shaven except for a small blue tuft above her forehead. One side of her skull boasted her newest tat: a black tarantula beside the pink open bloom of a flower. Weeks before, I’d seen her photo on Facebook and thought, as a mother would, Oh Kayla, what are you doing to your body? That tattoo was just the latest in a series that spread across her chest and legs and arms. What led her to get one after the other after the other? Wouldn’t she someday regret at least one of them?
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi, how are you?” I walked up and hugged her. I remembered the card she sent to me after. I remembered all of them.
“I’m good. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m doing okay.” I noticed the blue lipstick around the filter of the lit cigarette dangling in her hand. Blue lipstick looked so natural on her. The tattoos probably helped with that. “Hey, I’m thinking of getting a tattoo. Of my son’s handwriting. Can they do that?”
“Oh, that is so cool. What a great idea.” She dropped her cigarette to the cement and ground it out with the toe of her shoe. “Come talk to Ed about it.”
Ed was tall and in his forties, with a long gray ponytail and tattooed arms. His stencil machine could make an exact tattoo of Tim’s handwriting for just fifty dollars—what seemed a pittance. Before the parlor door even closed behind me, I knew that I would do it. It would go on the inside of my right wrist because he was right-handed. I could peek at it whenever I wanted to. It would be my secret.
I made myself go into his bedroom, hoping to find his handwriting on a school paper in his desk drawer or a page of his Narcotics Anonymous workbook, if I could bring myself to read through it again. I’d read it the day after he was found, but remembering anything from those first days was like pulling something out of the ocean’s center, bottomless and dark. Some memories were just gone. I was thankful for that.
As soon as I stepped onto the dark blue shag carpet, I took a deep breath. This room still held things from his good years, before he got sick, before things went so far they could never be the same. Baseball trophies, bobbleheads from Pirates games with his brother and dad. The faceless brown bear I’d named Bruno before Tim could talk. The thin white poster board covered in pictures of him. Of us all together. After the viewing, I’d propped it up against the mirror of his dresser, unable to pull the pictures off.
And now I wanted the tattoo there on the inside of my wrist. To look down and see it throughout the day and night. We had lost so much of him. He left his belongings on buses or at friends’ places where he’d stayed briefly those days he had nowhere else to go. And items I suspected he’d sold for drug money—his Xbox 360, my favorite Laurel Burch earrings, Meg’s nano iPod. Other things had probably been stolen by roommates when he lived at three-quarter-way houses after rehab, things we’d bought him before realizing just how much shit we were in, things that were cheap but desirable to someone who had little: the e-cigarette we bought him to keep him from the real, more dangerous kind, the black rainproof jacket with the warm fur lining, the silky soft throw because he loved the feel of soft things against his skin. All those things had gone missing, along with the son I’d known.
When I couldn’t find anything with his handwriting in his room, I remembered the Mother’s Day card he wrote to me when he was seventeen and still living at home. It was a bright shade of yellow, an oddly cheerful color for him to choose then; he always seemed to be somber, even sullen. The front of the card read “from your son. Mom, because of you, I grew up a healthy, well-mannered person who always tries to make the right decision,” and the inside read “As far as You know anyway.” Those words mocked me, since I knew he was already smoking marijuana then. Arguments about it had replaced civil conversations between us, despite the therapists and doctors, despite my pleading. Below the typed words “Happy Mother’s Day!” were the handwritten words, “From Tim!” that he’d scratched out and replaced with “Love, Tim!” when my husband Ken pointed out “From” was unnecessary. Tim sometimes needed to be reminded of what was obvious, lost as he was in the outer-space regions of his teenage mind.
My tattoo would be monochromatic and simple: the words Love, Tim! in black ink. What my son wrote to me. His printing. His words. I imagined seeing them whenever I turned over a soapy dish in my hands or spread lotion that smelled like oranges and ginger across the dry palms of my hands. I’d linger in those tasks, seeing the black, block handwriting that wasn’t yet there. I could feel him write the words, his hand twisted around the pen, face tight with concentration. He had hated his handwriting homework, even before the torture of writing cursive letters began, but now those shapes he hated drafting seemed to be all I had left.
On my fifty-fourth birthday, I felt like a switch had flipped inside me. I had to get the tattoo that night. The urgency I felt was a wave pushing me along. I didn’t resist.
“Hey there. What can I do for you?” Ed said. He was the only one working at Jester’s Court Tattoo that night.
“Hi. I was here before. I’m Kayla’s friend. I wanted to have a tattoo made from this card.” I opened it and pointed to Tim’s words.
“Oh yeah, I remember. Just words, right? We can do that. It’ll be fifty dollars.”
We stood together looking at the card, and I explained how I wanted to include the exclamation point but not the thin underlining that Tim had drawn under his name. Meg and I had debated in the car whether to include those extra markings. At first, I thought I’d just include his name, but then decided that Love was an equally important word, since I knew in my heart that it was true. Despite how things had ended.
One of our last phone conversations had convinced me of that love, relieved me of a little bit of my guilt. That talk had been an absolution, a gift, though I didn’t see it at the time. Love, however powerful, was not, it turned out, strong enough to cure or rescue or tame. But love lived on in spite of death, of heartbreak, of a parent falling short. I had learned that much.
Meg liked the punctuation mark because it showed the exuberance and energy he had then. I liked the idea of a marker that showed who he once was, before the addiction took full hold. Thinking of him adding the exclamation point made me smile, although it made me feel sad, too. Every memory had those two opposing sides: happiness and sorrow. Glad to have known him, so sad that he was gone. I lived a dichotomous life now.
“Take a seat here and get comfy. I’ll be back in a flash,” Ed said, walking to the stencil machine. When he returned and handed the card back to me almost gingerly, like he knew its value, I slipped it carefully back into the plastic sleeve I’d brought it in and laid it beside me on the chair. He rubbed my wrist down with alcohol and then a milky lotion to help the stencil ink stick to my skin. He showed me the stencil first, then peeled the back of it off and held it parallel to my wrist, ink side down.
“I want it tilted so I can read it.”
He shifted the paper, waited for my okay, and then pressed it onto my skin for several seconds, rubbing it once with his thumb. When he peeled the stencil back, Tim’s words were left behind.
The needle, when he took it out of sealed plastic wrapping, was longer than I’d imagined and reminded me of the IV needle the nurse had pushed into my skin the night I went into labor with Tim nearly two weeks early. I’d felt so unprepared to parent him.
I watched Ed feed the needle into the top of the small machine and turn a stubby knob until the needle was in place. Holding the gun in his hand like a pencil, he dipped the needle into a cup of black ink the size of a thimble. I heard a thick buzzing noise as he tested the machine, operating it through a small pedal on the floor near his feet. He bent over my wrist and I heard the buzzing again as he began at the top of the letter L. I watched as the needle punctured the skin on my wrist, leaving ink on top of the purple stencil markings. When I asked Kayla what getting a tattoo felt like the day I stopped into the parlor, she said like a cat scratching your sunburn. For me, it was just a subtle scraping, dull and somehow distant, like it was imagined or in the past. Maybe I wanted to feel Tim so badly that I welcomed the feeling of his words being etched into my skin, my body that had held him for those eight and a half months, kept him safe. Maybe the tattoo really didn’t hurt much. Maybe it did, but I was too numb to feel it. Or maybe I wanted to feel pain to feel him again, I don’t know. I only know the needle felt light and quick.
When we left the tattoo parlor, my wrist wrapped with bright purple tape, I was euphoric, a feeling little known to me since Tim’s death. I felt lit and warm and accompanied in a way I hadn’t when I walked in. My skin was now home to a secret kinship, a shelter for a part of my tender, vanished son, suddenly found.
When I’d seen him last, his hair had grown shaggy and wild again like when he first started using. He mostly wore black cotton t-shirts that hung on him like a tent and bore the silhouettes of Notorious B.I.G. or Big Pun. I’d grown used to those XL shirts that swallowed up his five-foot-eleven frame, his narrow hips and shoulders, as if he wanted to hide, his pants so long and wide-legged they billowed up around his bright green and white skate shoes. His clothes were more than a fashion statement: He didn’t want anything pressing in on him.
For weeks, I babied the skin of my right wrist, following Ed’s instructions carefully: wash three times a day with an antibacterial soap, pat it dry with a paper towel, then rub in a fragrance-free lotion and let the tattoo get some air. I enjoyed the ritual of it, the patting dry with a gentle touch, the feel of the lotion, cool and soft.
When I first considered the tattoo, imagined the script carved into my wrist, I kept going back to my penultimate conversation with Tim. I said before it was a gift, though I spent much of the call pleading with him to listen, to hear me, when—I see it now—he was no longer capable of it. The addiction had suppressed his ability to listen, the way that other diseases suppress your immune system, leave you unable to fight. Maybe if I tell you what he said, you’ll understand. Even without having been in my shoes those six years. Maybe it will be enough to recount his words that day.
I had been at my office with a stack of pages to edit, but I was getting little done. Most days were like that for me then. A struggle to focus, to care about work when my son’s life—and therefore mine—was becoming a natural disaster. He’d been texting me for forty-five minutes, seeking my approval, my acknowledgement that his plan for the immediate future held merit.
Here’s what he was planning to do just weeks after his second overdose and week-long hospitalization: move into an apartment with Jake, a young man about his age whom he met at rehab. Two addicts who thought the occasional use of marijuana or can of beer would be no problem. Two addicts still living in denial, unable or unwilling to face the reality of their disease.
When the phone rang, I considered not answering. I had so much work to do, and debates with him took a circular path, his reasoning so illogical there was no possible resolution. Afterward, I had trouble retracing the tangled branches of his thought. It was, I suppose, a symptom of his drug use, his brain struggling to follow its own thoughts, the connections numbed or diverted. But I knew I had to try.
“Hi, Tim,” I said, doing my best to not sound annoyed and probably doing a poor job of it. I was lousy at hiding how I felt, especially with him, especially when I felt afraid or angry—two emotions he always seemed to bring out in me.
“Hey, Mom.” His voice always sounded monotonic, flat and emotionless, his mind forever planted firmly somewhere in the middle of happy and sad. I wondered if he ever felt anything anymore without drugs.
“Tim, I think you need to go back to rehab now. It’s what you need. Not moving in with Jake.” When he didn’t respond, I kept going. “You almost died. Again. Tim, you need help.”
“Mom, it’s okay. I’m done with that shit. Jake and me are gonna get an apartment and it’s gonna be fine. I got my job now, and he’s working. We can afford it.”
“Jake is an addict, Tim. He’s a nice guy and a friend, I know, but he’s not good for you. Remember what they said at rehab? That you need to change your friends, your habits, your hangouts. It’s the only way. You need to find friends who are clean and have been that way for a while.”
“It’s fine, mom. He does a little marijuana now and then, but that’s okay. We can do that. A lil marijuana or a beer ain’t gonna hurt. I’m off the hard stuff, I promise.”
I swung my chair away from my desk until it faced the window. Hearing him talk that way was scaring me. Most of my knowledge of addiction came from the Sunday family sessions at rehab, and I remembered what the counselor said every week: Addicts had to leave their old friends behind. Old friends led to old habits and old habits led to relapse.
“Mom, did you hear me?”
“Yeah. You know you can’t drink at all anymore, Tim. Or use any drugs.”
“Mom, it’s okay. I can do it once in a while.”
“No, you can’t. Mel was clear on that. You can’t. You have to stop it all. And you have to get new friends.”
“Mom, I can’t. And I don’t want to. I have a job now, and I want to be out on my own. I can do this.”
I stood up and looked at the sky, at the single bird gliding toward the building just a hundred feet away. Tonight, when I was locking my door and heading out, the whole flock, black and busy, would be gathering on its rooftop. “Tim, you can’t. It’ll happen again and this time—” My voice fell into my throat and I started to choke up, my voice suddenly thin and wispy. “Tim, you can’t. You won’t survive it again. You…you will die. And I can’t take that, I can’t.” I started to cry. “I can’t let that happen, Tim. I love you. You have to do what you can to stay clean.”
“Mom, I love you too, but it’s my choice. I can’t go back to rehab. I just can’t do it again. I’m gonna move in with Jake, after I get a few more paychecks.” He paused, and I watched the lone bird land on the rooftop, his black silhouette clear against the darkening sky.
“And Mom, no matter what happens…if I die, it’ll be my fault, not yours.” The quiet between us thinned and stretched out, but I was too terrified to speak. I could hear the ticking of my office clock, the blood rushing in my ears. I began to sob openly, holding a wet Kleenex to my face.
“Mom, I know you and Dad love me. You guys are the only reason I’m still alive.”
Looking back, I knew. The way he was talking, there was only one way things could turn out. He wouldn’t go back to rehab. He wouldn’t stay clean. He would make what few choices he could, decide the few benign things that drugs had left him control of, like it or not, without my help.
Today I wonder, was he saying goodbye to me? Did he know it, too? To leave me with those words I’d cling to just weeks later, words full of his love for me and Ken, proof that he knew all we had done to try and save him.
I don’t know the answer. But the word Love—the way he wrote it—on my wrist above and just to the left of his name—is how I remember that call, his words, uttered to me with all the certainty his numbed heart could feel, a mark of his love for me, true.
PENNIE BISBEE WALTERS, who works as a technical writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is currently working on a memoir about loving and losing a child who suffers from the disease of addiction. Her poems have appeared in Voices from the Attic.
I take my first shaky step and see my eight-year-old son standing on the same thin rope one hundred feet above the ground as he takes a step in my direction. “Raphael! Are you okay?” I ask, panic edging my voice.
Raphael looks directly at me from what seems like an insurmountable distance across the tight rope. He stands still for a moment, balanced. “Mom, I’m okay. You need to just think about yourself now,” he says.
I see my son’s intent gaze, long eyelashes, café-au-lait–colored skin, the face of my father, the face I know better then my own. I am barely holding steady and realize that in order for me to make it across and hug him briefly, as instructed, for this trust-building exercise, every last part of me needs to be focused. I need to let go and be in my own moment in order to reach Raphael.
We are on a challenge ropes course at Camp Tawonga, near Yosemite, at a special family camp weekend for multi-racial, Jewish, inter-faith families. I’ve tried a couple different family camps and it’s hard to find one that fits our family: LGBT, “Keshet” (rainbow), inter-faith, biracial, single parent. I’m hoping for “spiritual renewal,” to find kinship, perhaps some answers, by connecting to similar families, or maybe just some rest, when Raphael spends time with his father or other kids. But much of the time Raphael is clingy, not wanting me to be far away, often not wanting to participate in the camp activities. So when he enthusiastically demands we do the ropes course, I know I have to go.
We have on harnesses, but for me, it’s still terrifying. I’ve only stepped up because Raphael asked it of me, knowing that this exercise is not something his dad would ever participate in—the heights, the tightrope. His dad and I have been separated since Raphael was eight months old, but he agreed, warily, to travel with us for this family camp weekend. It’s still a time in our lives that we sometimes attempt to be a family, though not together as a couple. Perhaps he too is hoping to find examples of families like ours to look to for a model to co-parent together. He is down below, looking up at us, standing alone.
Raphael and I walk towards each other. I am utterly present; to do otherwise, I’d fall. My worries slip away—financial, mother-son tug of wars, ongoing tension with his dad. The still uncut umbilical cord propels us closer, step by step. With one big step, we meet, hug, and somehow find the coordination to move as if in one graceful motion as we edge past each other to the opposite side, and then go down to the ground. We hug again, longer. “I love you,” we say to each other.
It’s October 9, 2015, about eleven years later after the ropes course we did at Camp Tawonga. In the near future, Raphael will move out of the recovery house that he will have been in for almost two years, since January 2014, when he was just short of eighteen years old. During that time, he’s graduated from a local high school, found his first real job, gotten sober, and managed to turn his life around; he’s excited, following the plan of moving out to an apartment with two other graduates of the recovery program.
I’m suddenly terrified. The scaffolding of the young man’s recovery house, the “New Life House” will still exist as a place to go for support, but in reality it’s time for him to go out and live his life. He’s only nineteen, soon to be twenty, and I’m fucking scared.
I have spent the last three weeks spinning out of control myself, worried perhaps I won’t graduate from school, the long awaited book and MFA maybe not completed. Perhaps I won’t be able to support myself in the world as I get older. Perhaps I’ll lose my mind like my mom. Seeing my mom as we knew her vanish adds to my sense of shakiness, utter lack of control, as I prepare for Raphael to go out in the world.
My mom talks about fairies that might come rescue her from the assisted living residence she calls prison and take her home to the Bronx where she hasn’t lived for more than sixty years. Recently she was questioned by a social worker to determine if she still had dementia and qualified for her long term care plan: “I can’t tell you how old I am. But I can tell this—I do exist,” she said.
Five years ago, when I was fifty-one, I decided that I needed to make a visible statement and get a tattoo. Hineni: I am here. I had the Hebrew words tattooed on me. My brother in his Mr. Spockian way said, “I am here? Is this a map?” (Like “you are here.”) I have a Hamsa (to ward off the evil eye) on my back and Hineni in Hebrew letters is inscribed below. Very tiny Hebrew letters, because after all, I don’t want to be a target.
For years I contemplated a tattoo and went over what I’d want and where. I researched the rules on Jews and tattoos and found out that it’s urban legend about the ban on tattoos, and in fact, in Israel, some very high percentage of people, ages, say, nineteen to forty, have tattoos. And you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I went to a tattoo artist who turned out to know me and my son from a co-op preschool that our kids went to in Sierra Madre many years ago.
The place I went to get my tattoo was called Shangri-La, and it looked like that, vines of bright scarlet, purple, and orange bougainvillea intertwined with Province Blue Morning Glory, and sweet-smelling jasmine. The studio was in the backyard of the tattoo artist, and I felt as if I were walking into another dimension. After I approved a mock up of the tattoo based on my ideas, she started her work, turning her needle buzzing quietly into my skin, while she explained that the natural endorphins would kick in after a bit of pain.
At first I did feel intense jabs of pain. (I’d asked a woman getting a tattoo in Old Pasadena which hurt more—getting waxed or getting a tattoo—and she had said waxing for sure.) But the pain was sharp enough that I gasped and I asked the tattoo artist to tell me a story about herself and how she decided on her profession. Her dad, a biker and also a rocket scientist, suggested it to her as a way of making a living; she’d been trained as an artist and illustrator.
And then miraculously those endorphins did kick in as she was asking me about myself. I told her all about me, about the recent episode getting my nose broken by a sheriff’s deputy when I couldn’t immediately find my metro ticket, and about losing everything because of my marriage break up and unblended family. (I didn’t yet know what more I might lose or have the potential to lose because of addiction). But at that point I’d decided I had survived. By the time, I got to the point in my story where I was saying that I was now okay, “and that’s what happened,” she’d put the finishing touches on my tattoo.
In the last three weeks, I thought that now I had the freedom to go off the deep end myself because my son seemed to be doing beyond well and my step-daughter had stopped talking to me and everyone else for a bit. So I felt free to obsess, agitate, and generally neglect my own wellbeing. I’ve thought about using heroin—for real—and for the first time. I’ve “self-harmed.” I dug a hole in my leg with my fingernails as I tried to feel, to give a face to the pain that wracked me following an argument with my girlfriend. My first cutting like incident at age fifty-six. Is there a support group for older onset cutters?
I’m glad the black and blue mark, the jagged scar/scab, remains so I can remember. I did that. I went there. I knew I was bleeding inside and I wanted the red, the injury, to be visible. Then perhaps the pain would stop: I would be seen. But perhaps I’m only seen as insane. I’ve also contacted my old ex—“mi Chiquita”—via text, and I’ve cut it off, seemingly for good. She’s my heroin and I’ve had to stop.
I started looking at violent Internet porn, something I’ve got control over, unlike my dreams. Throughout my life, I’ve often dreamt of being raped and I have an orgasm while still resisting. It reflects the real-life complications of my sexuality, how many times I have been aroused in my life by what seems to be something, somebody so wrong, and yet some kind of twisted sexual friction is created, a Pavlovian response that I imagine began when I was around eleven or twelve and was sexually abused by my piano teacher back in the woods where the Jewish Temple was being built.
We’d recently moved to the hated suburbs outside of Seattle—Bellevue—from the inner city where I had been a tough tomboy: “Sammy Boy.” Now we were outcasts in the WASPish land of what we called ultra-suburbanite snobs. In those days we stayed out all afternoon and evening playing increasingly complicated games with the local kids where I tried to teach them about spying, starting a gang which was a cross between my “West Side Story” (which I had memorized in entirety) and my old rough playground.
I went back to the woods with another piano student, a girl from the neighborhood who was developing already, popular with the sleazy guys for her breasts and willingness. We walked into the woods with our nineteen-year-old piano teacher, who was crater-faced with bright, inflamed pimples. I can’t remember how we first began these walks out to the woods, the same woods where the older kids would sneak out late at night to play spin-the-bottle and smoke pot. Did we think it odd that our piano teacher wanted to go back into the woods alone with him; did we do this after our piano lessons? We walked through the path in the woods and it was probably already dusk. It gets dark early in the winter in Washington and we must have walked back there, the trail behind our neighbors’ house in the fading light, surrounded by moist, lightly rained upon ground and trees. The hammers of the workman who were building a Jewish Temple could be heard in the distance, but they would soon cut out for the day. Did we take a flashlight?
I remember once out there sitting down with him and perhaps one of us asked him about what was the lump in his pants—or did he guide one of our hands to it? Or did he just start talking about “his handkerchief” as he moved our hands and we felt it through his pants first? I began to get a funny sick feeling in my stomach. “Touch it, it’s soft,” he told us. He moved our hands on his pants where the crotch went from being soft and full to feeling much harder after he moved our hands back forth and then he pulled it out—a big wide fleshy penis; it seemed enormous and swollen, the color reddish purple, not exactly like the large pimples that covered his neck and face. I imagined he touched us too because I remember starting to wonder, to even be curious to see what it would be like to have that penis inside me. “It would bust you wide open, so we have to wait,” our piano teacher told us.” Some days we stayed out there kind of late, almost dark, dinnertime, but I always made it back before my dad would come looking for me.
I can’t remember what happened exactly that last time, only the sound of my dad entering the woods, his flashlight, annoyance in his voice as he called out for me, and the sudden rush of shame and fear as the three of us stood up and walked quickly out of the woods.
I’m guessing I was sexually aroused because I sense that was when those dreams and those feelings started. And thinking about the possibility of having been aroused as a child, when I was being sexually abused—a memory which makes my stomach churn, now even as I picture the bright blistery pimples on his face—offers a clue as to why I might turn to something completely wrong, like the violent porn I had begun watching for the first time.
Until someone more knowledgeable than me said, “Stop—it’s an extremely difficult addiction to break.” After the post-menopausal drought of libido, and the despair I had been feeling but not understanding, my body was beginning to respond to the rough, sometimes even brutal sexual images, almost like a drug. All my past years of being sexual with the wrong” person, getting driven by those intense pulsating hormones and endorphins that immediately turned to shame after an orgasm and resulted in so many twisted, dangerous, near-rape and actual-rape experiences. This was coupled with my inability to keep feeling sexual with someone who felt safe. My feelings changed so quickly to shame and inertia that I’d rather just sit and watch videos, eat, ruminate, or anything else other than try to rouse my shut-down body.
The thing that has held solid for me now for so many years is writing, and I finally thought I’d made the space to concentrate on it. But I found myself focusing on everything else but the writing. I was yanked away by the rip currents of my mom leaving us as the mom we knew. Moving her close to her children in Southern California from where she had lived more than forty-five years in Washington, propelled her into a much more advanced state of dementia. Now we have to wipe her butt, try to get her to take her medication, and leave her as painfully as leaving a pleading toddler.
I’ve just simply been thrashing about. I still long for something that I don’t believe I have—complete freedom to write and the belief I’ll be okay. In reality I could decide to believe that I have that kind of choice and abundance. Then again, I might never write another intelligent word or decent story that anyone will read. Over the years, I’ve painstakingly eked out some writing here and there while attending to the more urgent needs of others: son, step-daughter, work, aging parents. After witnessing how fragile life could be, watching my mom start to lose her mind and my son almost lose his life, I decided I couldn’t put off seizing my time to write. But it’s hard, this business of focusing on and believing in oneself.
For many years, I held an image of sitting in the woods, head leaning against a long-haired woman. She was comforting me, perhaps stroking my hair and singing and our child was in my lap.
I held onto this image as I lost baby after baby and endured rage after rage and suffered my own rages and bouts of craziness flailing about in my desperation to “be seen.” (And what the hell does that mean anyway?) What was that urgent despair that demanded I be a mother, I carry a baby, I create this safe haven, this nurturing and nurtured family? That I didn’t actually create—or rather what I did create was so distorted, it didn’t look like that safe home in nature. But I did create something, something solid, a strength my kids know exists. They know I’m there day after day; my family and my friends know that in my so-very-imperfect mode of being in the world—messy, interrupting, inconsistent at times—I’m a person who loves unsinkably, solidly loyal. Now it’s time to look that love in the mirror.
I’ve felt secure enough in my son’s recovery, his sobriety, to believe that I was free to go back to my old ways, the self-torture, rumination, all the anxiety I was raised with by my family, in particular my dad. Instead I discover I must be vigilant. Lack of gratitude will cause life to simply slap the shit out of me. If I don’t enjoy or at least appreciate every moment I have on the earth with a living, vibrant life-loving son out in the world, well, I’ll get kicked in the butt. Even if I can’t always sing with gratitude, I need to stop this genetically ingrained journey to the hellhole of regret and worry. And when I remember Raphael staggering about with his eyes rolled back of his head, saying he didn’t have much more time, then I need to remember how lucky I am that he does exist, that he’s found a spirituality, a core of inner strength, and support system that I alone could not create for him.
I want there to be some kind of “letting go” ceremony. “It all happened too quickly,” one friends says, lamenting the absence of her two sons finally gone off to live their lives, university and beyond. I remember my son saying to me so long ago on the tightrope walking that rope’s course we did together, “Mom, I’m okay, I will be all right. Worry about yourself now.” I’m not so sure I’m ready to let go. I’m not so sure I’m ready to worry only about myself.
CARLA SAMETH is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several anthologies and has appeared in online and print publications including Mutha Magazine, Narratively, Pasadena Weekly, Tikkun, La Bloga and forthcoming in Brain, Child. Her story “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which originally appeared in Narratively, was also selected for Longreads, “Five Stories on Addiction.” Carla was awarded a merit scholarship from the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program in 2014, and is currently an MFA candidate with the Queens University of Charlotte in Latin America. She has helped others tell their stories as co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project, through her business, iMinds PR, and as a writing instructor/mentor with WriteGirl working with incarcerated youth. Carla is working on a memoir of her non-traditional journey as a single mother to two children, born four months apart, now twenty years old.
I could sort of make out the outlines of the tattoo on my husband’s arm on the small photo on my phone. He took it in front of our bathroom mirror, holding up his right forearm in front of his face. I had to turn my head to the side to see that there were sun rays and a sword and a heart—some Masonic symbols that I don’t understand and perhaps I am not even allowed to understand. The tattoo stretched from wrist to elbow and wrapped all the way around his arm.
When we got married thirteen years ago, Drew did not have a single tattoo. I don’t think we ever talked about his desire to have one. Now he has four, with a fifth one in the plans. The first ones were modest, easily covered up by shirts and forgotten. I was away on a business trip this time and I knew that it was “tattoo day,” but the size and scope of this latest ink caught me off guard. I scanned myself for a reaction: how am I supposed to feel when my spouse turns from a baby-faced, soft-haired man into a bald, tattooed dude? I know how his mother feels about his tattoos and, when I think about my own sweet, soft-skinned baby boy getting inked when he is older, I completely sympathize with her. But Drew is not my child—he is my husband. So I should be supportive, right? I want to be—and I am—but I can’t help but stop for a moment to acknowledge the unease in the pit of my stomach. Is it the tattoo itself that makes me pause? Or the change that the tattoo signifies? Does it signify a change? How do I know?
Drew and I met at work a year or two after graduating from college. We were in the same class and, in fact, he is in some of my graduation photos, sitting a couple of rows in front of me. But we never met while in school. When he got a job at the same newspaper where I was working, I was dating one of his good friends. When my heart was broken, Drew was right there, ready to comfort me with late night conversations and trips to the mall and movies. We spent long afternoons in his car, driving around rolling Pennsylvania hills and forgotten small towns. We ate bad food at bad chain restaurants and then over drinks we shared the contents of our wallets. His: foreign currency—just in case—cash, credit cards, EMT certification cards. Mine: Hungarian ID, cash, and a handwritten note from my college roommate: “The map is not the terrain.”
I don’t think it was love at first sight—we even joked about how we weren’t each other’s soul mates—but it was definitely comfort and friendship at first sight. I didn’t want any more friends with privileges or long-distance boyfriends who never called. I wanted someone who was there and who wanted me. Drew was—is—a grounding force: solid, steady, warm. He has a way of simplifying life down to its essential elements: “You love me, I love you. We are a family. What else do you need to know?”
We first kissed on a summer afternoon in my apartment. He brought in a bowl of apricots from the kitchen and told me to close my eyes. He split the fruit in half with his fingers and slowly fed one to me, wiping juice from my chin with his thumb. I heard the clink of his glasses as he put them on the table. The next bite was not an apricot.
We got married in Budapest the following January. We giggled through the ceremony and our vows, and the next morning in our honeymoon suite overlooking the Danube, we drank champagne for breakfast and watched as people on the street below us hurried to work. We felt content and close and didn’t take this whole marriage business too seriously.
What do we promise when we say “I do?” Sure, we promise for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. But life rarely comes down to such stark choices, especially early in a marriage. We never really have to make a conscious choice to stay married when the other person is seriously sick. Or when money runs out. Extremes happen, sure, but rarely.
When they do happen, it’s obvious that it’s one of those big, life-defining moments where one’s job is to stand by and be supportive. Your husband calls to tell you that he is in the emergency room because he burnt off half his arm in a firefighting accident. His father has a brain tumor. His father dies. He gets the job. He doesn’t get the job. These are clear-cut cases. You know what to do about them. You know the right amount of alcohol to pour into your evening cocktails. You know that a rare steak and chocolate cake will bring comfort. You know what words will spur the other person to action or to a different way of looking at the situation. You know when to shut up. Or take your clothes off. Or just get lost for a couple of hours. You know that whatever the thing is, it will pass.
What nobody mentions before marriage is the vast gray area between rich and poor, sick and healthy. That there can be shifts and trembles and almost unnoticeable movements and changes in your life together. When your spouse is going through something personal, a little crisis or journey—one that you are not necessarily invited to. And that’s okay, because you do not want to be invited to everything, but still. This person lives with you and you’d like to know where he is going. Will the tattoos lead to a Harley? To a girlfriend? A sports car? Or are they just tattoos? Does he even know for sure?
Looking at the picture of his new ink, the skin around it still raw and red, made me think about my own scars—the ones on my belly from an exploding gallbladder, the ones around my breasts from my breast reduction surgery, and we are not even going to go into the scars and flab and rolls of fat left behind by pregnancy and childbirth. It’s easy to forget about those, and even easier to forget about the invisible scars left behind from what everyone goes through in life: becoming a mother, losing loved ones, trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in a career, figuring out friendships, lost loves, family. It’s easy to not look at my own path, to just blindly go on, day-by-day, not glancing back at the big picture. It’s easy to not stop and consider how the shifts in my life made an impact on the person I promised constancy to. The heart and the dagger and the rays of sun on Drew’s arm made me look at all of that, and I realized that I am fooling myself if I think that he is living with the same woman that he married.
I also realized how it’s possible to know someone so well, and yet not at all. How everyone’s life is full of topsy-turvy roads and blind spots and how sometimes the person we think we know best is the one who will surprise us the most. Sometimes the person we love wants lots of tattoos.
Our son is five and has a very vivid imagination and his pretend-play is very complex, detailed. He always wants us to play with him, but usually it’s hard to follow where he wants a particular scenario to go. He just wants us right there, sitting on the floor with him as he lines up his toy soldiers. I am really not playing with him; I just serve as the audience. He leans on me, touches my hair, or gives me a kiss between battles. He sits on my lap for a while, then just holds on to me with one hand while he rattles on and on. It’s obvious that he has a clear picture in his mind about where things are going, who will win the battle, who will capture the castle.
That’s how I’ve been thinking about our marriage lately. Our careers have taken off. We are out of the trenches—or in-between trenches—when it comes to parenting. We have a comfortable life. There are no life of death decisions immediately in our future—hopefully. But on any given day, I remind myself, one of us is on the floor, lining up soldiers. We are off, battle plans in our heads, fighting on, figuring out the next steps. All that we can do for each other is ask questions, listen, and sit there, in case the other one needs a soft, comforting embrace, a hand to hold.
Even before his latest tattoo, Drew’s been gently teasing me about getting one too over a small scar on my right shoulder. The scar has mysterious origins—for a long time I thought that it was from a childhood immunization, but my mother told me that happened on my other arm. It looks like a pink bite mark—two distinct, uneven spheres right next to each other. I know exactly what my tattoo would be: a pink peony, the flower that bloomed every spring in front of our summer cabin when I was a child. They somehow became “my” peonies, and even after I moved far away from home, I would get timely reports from my grandparents and parents about the size of their early buds, their expected bloom date, their dark pink color, their fragrance filling up the garden.
So I would have this pink peony over my scar on my shoulder. I think about it every now and then, talk to Drew about it, but deep down I know that I am never going to do it. Whatever Drew is expressing through the pictures on his body is his alone and I know that eventually we’ll both understand their meaning in his life—what they are covering up, what they are exposing. I help him apply lotion on his arm in the evenings and make sure that he can be free to go for his next appointment with the tattoo artist to finish the work. That is all I can do.
In return, I know he will tuck our son in bed and bring me tea—or wine, depending on the night—so that I can write these words, perched in bed, listening to the two of them laugh and read. I know that later he will come to bed, smooth his hands over the scar on my shoulder, over my breasts, belly. The skin on his forearm will be still rough under my fingers as it heals. We’ll hold on tight to each other so we can battle on. “I love you. You love me. What else do you need to know?”
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, and Kveller. She has a son, a husband, and, as of press time, still no tattoos. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @hunglishgirl. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.