iv: The Tattoo

I’m currently working on a longer piece (meaning I started it on my birthday, wrote 3000 words, then haven’t touched it until now) on my body at 32. This is part of that piece.

I was 19 when I got my first and only tattoo. My best friend in college, Carolina, had gotten a few around her waist— all in places that would be hidden by a bikini, but still visible to her, an internal rebellion of our Catholic, conservative, Latino families. She had adventured from rosaries to balloons. I had never, ever thought about getting a tattoo in my whole life. But, my whole world had shifted, and I needed to do something drastic.

It was six months after the assault, when I woke up and realized that I had lost my virginity but didn’t remember any of it because I had been given Asahis and maybe something else. My “boyfriend” (a tough word to use, when he wouldn’t acknowledge me anywhere, wouldn’t meet my parents, and would really only be affectionate when we were in private), was 10-years older and a microbiology grad student and TA at the university I attended. He held me when I cried, and when I told him I was sad I didn’t remember what happened, he tried to tell me a version of the story, as if that made it okay. Years later, I would seeing him walking by the campus while I got ice cream on a break from teaching, and have a panic attack in the middle of the street, a fellow teacher crouching down next to me and asking me what was wrong.

That is a few years away, however. Now, I am still 19 and desperately still trying to figure out how to make my body my own again, instead of this thing that I hate and am terrified by. I have been cutting my thighs for months, unable to manage the pain, anxiety, and PTSD of sexual assault while still trying to claim everything is okay. In a few months, I will watch a performance on sexual assault for incoming freshmen, and when the woman explains that, “just because I didn’t kick or scream doesn’t mean I wasn’t violated. Sometimes we just put our heads down to survive,” I will go wide-eyed and run outside and vomit into a bush because I realize that what happened to me was terrible and that’s why I haven’t been okay in months.

But that’s a few months away, like I said. Now, I am in a tattoo parlor in Pasadena that Carolina and I found because there was a coupon for it online. They were well-rated and so we drove out there, nervous-giggling that I was finally going to do something crazy like get a tattoo. I found a generic cherry blossom online and printed it out, bringing it with me. The cherry blossom was supposed to be a symbol of femininity and feminine power, according to Google, so I chose that. I don’t know that it really mattered what I got, but finding some way to take ownership of my body sounded nice.

After briefly speaking with the artist— a mid-twenties young man with a goatee and large holes in his ears who was caring and kind and whose name I can’t remember— he wipes down the spot on my left hip where I have chosen the tattoo. It’s a place still hidden by a bathing suit because, despite everything that has happened, I too am still a girl who can only internally rebel against my parents’ wishes.

The tattooist begins to draw the outline of the blossom of my body, and then begins to tattoo the outline. It’s more annoying than painful— a thousand mosquito bites at once pricking the skin on my hip. I close my eyes and try and breathe through it, but after a moment I begin to feel light headed. It’s less so from the pain, and more from the realization that something very permanent is happening to my body, and the last time something permanent happened to my body, it was very bad, and I don’t know how to handle that.

That tattooist notices my face, and pauses to grab me some water. He tells me to take some deep breaths, and tells me that this is perfectly normal. Normality makes me smile. It makes me feel good. I smile, thank him, and tell him he can continue.

He begins to add in some pink, before saying, “Do you mind if I add in more color than planned? Your skin takes color so beautifully. I think it would look amazing.” It is the first time I have let my body be objectified in a way that feels safe and pretty, in a way that I control and own. I say yes.

After the tattoo only bleeds for a few days before it settles into the little, weird flower I have now. My best friend says it looks beautiful. I shrug it off and eventually forget it exists. I don’t hate it. I don’t love it. It was just a moment that let me make my body mine again.

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