Inked -- What I Did for Love

tattoo making
tattoo making

What is an appropriate present for your 20th wedding anniversary? Over 19 years John and I had enjoyed dinners at our favorite sushi restaurant, weekends in Ojai, bonsai classes, the Cemetery of the Stars Tour. But facing year 20, I was stuck. Creatively challenged.

The longer you love someone, why is it harder to find the perfect anniversary gift?

John's friend Tony had dozens of tattoos, including a thick rope of barbed wire wrapped around one calf. I told him I was considering a tattoo. Could he help?

I saw his hesitation. John's wife? San Fernando Valley mother of two, J. Crew wearing, Lexus SUV driving Ann? Tatted up?

No generic roses or butterflies, I said. My tattoo would be simple, a surprise for John, something to show him how much I valued our life together. That part of him would be with me. Literally. Seared into my flesh.

Tony asked where I wanted it.

A discreet place where no one, except John and possibly my chiropractor could see. I tapped my derriere region.

"Your butt's a good place for the first one," Tony said. "Won't hurt as much. The barbed wire -- when they hit my shin -- whoa, I saw stars."

Tony recommended his favorite tattoo artist and volunteered to come with me if I was nervous.

Nervous? To have a stranger stick needles and ink into my skin? Put something on my body I couldn't take off, even with Clinique makeup remover or industrial strength bleach? This would as permanent as marriage -- minus the option of divorce.

Tony met me at the tattoo parlor in Van Nuys. Collections of stock tattoos lined the purple walls. Hawaiian sunsets, skulls, Jesus in various poses, Japanese kanji characters. I'd heard about people picking kanji characters thinking they'd selected "Peaceful planet" only to discover later their tattoo translated as "Vomit dog breath."

Tony introduced me to Dusty, the tattoo artist. Late 30s, with a salt and pepper ZZ Top beard, brightly colored tattoos on his wrists and peeking through his shirt collar.

Behind the metal chain between the counter and waiting area, another tattoo artist was inking a black tribal band on a young man's bicep. The young man's girlfriend stood next to me, watching. Thank goodness I wouldn't be on public display. In a minute Dusty would take me to a private back room.

I showed Dusty my drawing. A small heart with John's initials inside. Dusty began to make sketches, adding a flowing banner and making the heart larger -- I assumed it would be quarter-sized, now it was as big as a coaster.

Dusty unlatched the chain and moved a chair close to the counter. Grabbed a pillow.

"Lean on it this way," he showed me.

Lean on the chair? On the pillow? In front of everybody? What happened to my back room?

"You can pull down your pants," Dusty said.

Middle-aged women don't get tattoos. We plan wine tastings, drive in car pools, buy Spanx. I took a deep breath, maneuvered myself against the pillow and chair, and pulled down my jeans. And panties. One butt cheek was exposed to Dusty, who I had known for all of 15 minutes.

"The outline's the worst part. Filling in is a breeze," Dusty said as he cleaned the tattoo area with green antiseptic soap. Then he ran a disposable razor over my skin, more soap, alcohol, and he applied the stencil. Held a hand mirror up for me to observe.

"Super." My voice sounded unnaturally high.

The first prick of the needle felt like a mild bee sting. The girlfriend whispered to me. "Does it hurt?"

"Not bad," I said. Great, was she looking at my ass, too?

Concentrate. I was doing this for John. As I listened to the buzz of Dusty's needle, I was kissing John, our first serious kiss, almost falling into a hedge in front of my apartment. Marriage, childbirth, our life together scrolled by -- five, ten, twenty years. The tattoo needle didn't burn, it sang.

Don't stop, Dusty. Do the other butt cheek. Put barbed wire around my arm, a Daenerys Targaryen dragon on my wrist.

Tony smiled, reading my mind. "Once you start, you're hooked."

Angel wings on my shoulder blades. A Hello Kitty tramp stamp.

"You swear it doesn't hurt?" the girlfriend asked again.

"Honest. Why don't you get one?" I said.

"I'm only seventeen. But I know what I'd do." A grin at her boyfriend. "His name. Here." She pointed to her forearm.

How long had they been going out? Weeks? Months? The girlfriend rubbed her forearm, imagining the place where her boyfriend's name would be.

On the drive home, my butt felt like a pin cushion. I had Dusty's list of instructions (Noxema, twice a day) and I would follow them by heart. By heart -- I laughed out loud and couldn't wait for John to see what I'd done. "You got a tattoo for me? How can I top this?" he'd say.

"It's not a competition," I'd tell him. "Only an anniversary gift."

And he'd nod at me, tracing his fingers lightly over his initials on our tattoo.