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(More Than) One Tattoo


My Sister. The Beautiful One., originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

My sister got at least two of her four tattoos around the time she rebelled against my parents and dropped out of U.C. Santa Cruz to come back east. The entire Santa Cruz experience had been an experiment unto itself in our WASPY, Ivy League family, and my sister had a way of making every day, garden-variety rebellion—such as my decision to spend a semester in London rather than France my senior year—about as ordinary as a bland vanilla crème brulée without the burnt-on, carcinogenic sugar topping.

Two years at Santa Cruz had only inured her to the lily-white legacy my family had bequeathed her. And now, armed with a gun under her passenger seat, a collection of high-heeled espadrilles that would leave Imelda Marcus drooling into her foul frosted lipstick, and an ancient Saab powered with enough torque to get her at least as far as the yawing dustbowl of the Texas panhandle, my younger sister was poised on the edge of the mother lode of all rebellious acts—namely, to squander the remainder of her inheritance on a make-up artistry school in the scorching white sands of Miami Beach. The tattoos were merely an afterthought.

“They’re addictive,” she shrugged. “As soon as you get one, you want another.”

The first was a bracelet she’d designed herself, based on a piece of family china. To this end she’d brought the pink and black heirloom with her into the tattoo parlor, where she had threatened to smash it over the head of the presiding artist if he failed to catch the finer nuances of the design. Apparently he complied, because there is no bleeding in that beautiful, intricate patchwork of interlocking patterns that adorns her milky white, freckled wrist. A long time later she told me that it was the only one she had ever regretted. Perhaps it was because there was no sentimentality attached—either to the tattoo or the china.

For the ankle tattoo, an Aztec design she’d borrowed from a glossy Southwestern advertisement, she may have eschewed her first hairy, mustachioed artist. After him things get a bit murky in her recollection, but she imagines a tough-but-tender, black leather-clad bull dyke administering it. Later on, in the humid swelter of a South Beach afternoon, she picked up the daisy on her ankle. Who knows why it was Goldilocks yellow and cornflower blue, or why, for that matter, she chose to have that wistful harbinger of summer needle-knifed straight onto her anklebone? I only know that she mentioned once that the pain was kind of addictive too, and she mourned its loss.

The pièce de résistance is the small symbol on the top of her foot. I have never determined what it is, exactly. I’m not sure that my sister has either. By the time it was finely etched into her tender flesh, she was bored with the whole thing—tattoos, and makeup artistry both—and moving forward, like a fast mounting wave reaching its foamy crest, in her rebellion on rebellion.

Despite the many years she had spent thumbing her nose at polite society’s road map for her life, she was curiously circumspect when the time came to inform my father of her collection of body art. She admitted, when she finally did tell him—casually, almost carelessly—that she had given in, gratuitously it must be admitted, to the sordid temptation that remains one of life’s great rites of passage.

The conversation occurred over the phone. I can imagine my father drawing in a long breath and taking a pull of single malt whiskey before slowly exhaling his measured reply.

“Well, in my day only two kinds of people got tattoos—whores and sailors,” he said. “I suppose times have changed, though, and nowadays it’s an almost acceptable sort of thing—”

Here he took a pause so pregnant my sister assumed he had fallen asleep. Had he had choked on the malt whisky? Or had the whisky acted as an oyster to further irritate his response? Whatever the reason, it was her choice to wait silently for his hard-bitten judgment. Rebellion, in its best guise, is always against people rather than things. Now largely superfluous, the tattoos held power only to the extent by which their reality antagonized my father. It was his full-blown rejection she was seeking: nothing less. It was a blunt shock to her system, therefore, when his coup de grace blasted in full bore at her end of the receiver.

“—as long as you only have ONE tattoo!”