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Inked

By Robin Antalek

Essay

Eighteen years ago on the way to the delivery room the feeling of not being able to stop what was about to happen suddenly overwhelmed me.  This baby that had been making me miserable for twenty-four hours had to come out and the passage of egress was not going to be a gentle one.  When my first daughter eventually emerged from her day long battle waged in the birth canal, cone shaped head and bruises on her face the size and shape of peach pits from the last ditch effort emergency forceps, a smudge of pink between the delicate fuzz of her brow that one of the nurses deemed an “angel’s kiss”, I was assured in a week, maybe less, her face would be healed and the trauma of her birth would leave no visible scars, only memories, where I would be able to chart the ghost marks on her face, badges of what she and I had endured in the moments before her birth.

As the doctors and nurses promised her face did heal, her pallor, unnaturally tan from a bout of infant jaundice, turned a burnished rose and was smooth to the touch as if you dipped your fingers into a pot of cream.  Not even a birthmark marred her perfect brand new baby flesh.  As every new mother does, I inspected her daily from head to toe, kissing the top of her head, her forehead, the tip of her nose, the translucent alabaster insides of her wrists, reassured, at least, for the things I could see on the outside, that she was as normal and beautiful as any baby should be.

As she grew the only visible mark left over from her birth was the angel’s kiss.  If she had a high fever or a terrible tantrum, the smudge beneath her bangs would flare a dusty red, like clay, only to disappear when the fever subsided or her demands had been either met or forgotten.

Through toddler to adolescence her body endured the regular battle scars of childhood: a cut lip, scraped knees, an irresistible urge to color her face and limbs with markers or paint. When she was four she had me draw freckles across the bridge of her nose with a brown eyeliner pencil on a daily basis due in part for her love of Pippi Longstocking.In her early teens, she streaked her hair a rainbow spectrum of pinks, purples and greens from the little pots of Manic Panic she purchased with babysitting money.  She rejected the fashion of the mall and instead, trawled thrift shops and created her own clothing.  As an artist, she silk screened t-shirts and drew on everything: bags, notebooks, canvas, paper, until the designs migrated to her jeans, her hands and her arms with a fine point black sharpie. The hair was just an extension of who she was at the time and I never balked, instead recalling the advice of a woman with five daughters.Her girls could cut, color, even shave their heads if that’s what they desired, as long as they didn’t permanently mark or maim their flesh with tattoos or multiple piercings and I adopted it as a casual guideline.  Choose your battles everyone advised, and so that line in the sand was mine.  Never imagining that I would one day be sitting next to my first born in a tattoo parlor while a stranger bent over her perfect arm with a vibrating needle.

As the person she was soon to be emerged, my daughter’s dedication to her art became clearer.  She wanted to be a painter.  For years she got up at six a.m. every Saturday morning and took a train from our home in Saratoga Springs into New York City to take classes.  The colors that had once been on her hair and her body began to surface in her paintings and by the time she had received her college acceptances in the mail she had been offered a place at each of the top art schools in the country.  So when she came to her father and me, six months after she had turned eighteen, two months after she had graduated from high school, one month before she would leave for college at the Rhode Island School of Design, and said that she had been thinking about getting a tattoo of her own design, I experienced all over again that moment right before her birth of not being able to stop what was about to happen.

She opened her notebook and slid across the table a piece of paper with a beautifully rendered deer, head and antlers only and above the antlers a flock of birds.  It was in her classic illustrative style, black on white, the lines clear and steady.  The subject was no surprise.  She had been working on a series of paintings of deer over the past year and these paintings were a huge part of her portfolio.  They had been featured in a solo show and in several group shows and one in particular, two deer against pink wallpaper, had won several major awards. While the animals were always realistic, each of the paintings were stark contrasts of juxtaposition with the deer posed against fanciful paisley patterned wallpapers in vivid colors.

“It’s amazing,” I breathed, unable to look at my husband seated to my right.  I knew what he was thinking just by his body language.  No way was he going to allow her to mark up her body.

“No color,” our daughter assured us.  “And I want it right here.”  She held up the inside of her left arm.

I think my husband gasped before he stuttered, “That can’t be safe.  I mean there’s a lot of veins and what if you needed to give blood or get a line or…” He seemed to be suppressing his urge to scream so he was drowning her in a sea of horrific medical scenarios. A way he knew to get at our slightly germ-phobic daughter.

Ever pragmatic our daughter responded that she had already researched the health risks.  She could not give blood for a year.  She could not swim or be in chlorine for several weeks after the tattoo.  She would need to apply A & D ointment for at least five days, hypo allergenic lotion for another five days after that or until it stopped peeling or itching.  She had to be vigilant about keeping it clean and out of the sun.

“What about a career?” Her father gasped.

Her goals, which she had set from the very beginning, was to get a BFA in painting, followed by an MFA in painting so she could teach at the university level and still be a working artist.  And she added, nearly every teacher where she had attended pre-college classes and summer sessions had been inked.

She had also, to our surprise, done the fieldwork.  She had visited every tattoo shop in town, looked at their books, interviewed the artists and had already decided where she would get it done.  She had designed a tattoo for a friend and had gone with him and checked out the cleanliness of the needles and the employees, their professionalism, their willingness to answer her questions.  In reality, her father and I could do nothing to stop her.  She was of legal age.  She understood our hesitation, but it was her skin to do with as she pleased.

Eventually, to appease us, she agreed to wait until after our family reunion trip over the summer that would coincide with an 80th birthday celebration for my father. During this “cooling off period” where my husband hoped she would forget about the idea of a tattoo, an artist friend of ours, who sported an even dozen tattoos herself, said to us, “You need to face it: she’s going to get this tattoo. This idea is not borne out of a drunken night of partying.”

Reluctantly, we agreed. The prejudices against tattoos were ours alone.  Our oldest daughter was all the things a parent would want in a child, she had never given us reason to question her decisions. When we returned from vacation she made an appointment and put down the deposit and I heard myself saying to her that I wanted to go along.

The appointment was for noon and our friend had advised no caffeine and to make sure she really ate a meal.  That morning my daughter arrived downstairs with a nervous stomach and nibbled at a bagel.  Slight in frame to begin with, I knew she needed to store some fuel.  When she refused, I figured she was having second thoughts.  I told her she could back out, lose her fifty-dollar deposit.  It wouldn’t be admitting cowardice.

But it wasn’t that she had changed her mind about the tattoo, she was nervous about the pain, considering the sensitive skin inside her left arm.  She didn’t want to pass out or worse, be sick to her stomach.  She still wanted the tattoo.

By the time we arrived at the tattoo parlor, she had managed a banana and nothing else.  One of the guys in the shop told her to take nice deep Lamaze-like breaths, but I could tell her teeth were chattering.

We were ushered into a room, a soft-spoken tattoo artist asked her to take a seat while he donned his back plastic surgical gloves, and then something shifted.  She looked relieved as he swabbed the inside of her arm with antibacterial solution. “Are you sure you want the tattoo here?It’s a career killer.”

I swallowed hard from my seat by her feet, but I said nothing.

“Yes,” she answered without hesitation.

As he readied the needle he asked what the significance was behind the design.  I was shocked that of all the things my husband and I did want to know, we hadn’t asked her this one question.  She brought up vegetarianism, her staunch stand on animal rights, which clashed with her fascination with taxidermy.  The deer paintings were based on a friend’s father’s kills.  She had spent hours in their basement photographing the deer for many of her paintings.  The birds in the antlers, she explained, signified a beginning; an obvious metaphor that I hadn’t been paying attention to, so focused was I on the social implications of my daughter’s future with a tattoo.

He laid a piece of tracing paper with her meticulously drawn deer on the inside of her arm and asked if she liked the placement.  She held her arm aloft so I could see the deer’s proud torso, the flight of birds that alighted around his antlers and gently flew around the curve of her wrist.  A wrist I once could circle with my thumb and forefinger, a wrist I once kissed and tickled.  She gave me a tremulous smile, waiting for my approval.  I smiled back.  “It’s beautiful,” I said.

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Robin Antalek ROBIN ANTALEK is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins2010). The Summer We Fell Apart was featured as a Target Breakout Book in 2010 and was published in Turkey by Artemis Seveler in 2011. Robin's short fiction has appeared in Fifty-Two Short Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, among others. She was a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Short Fiction as well as a two time finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters and Short Fiction Contests. She is also a regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. For news and updates: www.robinantalek.com or Robin Antalek on Facebook.

2 Responses to “Inked”

  1. Erika Rae says:

    Hi Robin – I missed this when it first was up but saw it when it was linked as a related article to my last. I love this! My oldest (of 3) is only 6 – but she is already following this pattern you’re describing. She even makes fake tattoos herself – marker drawings on pieces of paper which she then applies by soaking a washcloth and pressing it to her. She’s an amazing artist for her age, and I think it’s only a matter of time before she gets inked, herself. What I like about this is the fact that your daughter was comfortable enough with you guys to discuss it with you, even though she knew it wasn’t ultimately your decision. When I got a tattoo (oh, it’s teeny tiny – on my back at the hip) I certainly didn’t tell my parents. I also neglected to inform them I was getting my belly pierced. Or my nose. I also didn’t tell them I was going to jump out of a plane. I just don’t have the kind of parents one tells these things to and I’ve always been envious of anyone who does. Your daughter is blessed!

  2. Thanks so much Erika! I wish I could take credit for the amazing humans I turned out – but it was really all luck and spit and maybe, maybe something borrowed from the Karma bank because I certainly never felt like I ever had a clue as to what I was doing ( still don’t). Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I simply never stop talking and therefore never stop reminding my girls that they can tell me anything and I promise to give it a moment of thought before I barrel to a conclusion…. (cue obligatory eye-roll here). Makes me wonder what kind of moms they will eventually be…. I love that your daughter is already hard at work designing her tattoos!

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