October 2, 2013

The Tattoo: A Love Story.

At bedtime, I hold my daughter in my arms, waiting for her to tire.

Instead, she points at the blue design on my right bicep, then looks at me with an almost-smile. “Tattoo,” I say. The almost-smile blooms and she points to my left bicep. “Arm,” I say.

She points back and forth, back and forth. “Tattoo. Arm. Shoulder. Other shoulder.”

She points at the design again. “Tattoo.” She smiles. Sleep, I think.


Sixteen years ago: I am 23 and in love for the first time. He doesn’t love me back, though he sometimes says he does when he’s filled with rum, which is often. Weeks go by between the time he says he will call and the time we see each other. Sometimes I walk by his house on my way in to town, hoping he’ll see me and come running out. I pretend to gaze up at the mountains that cradle our little Alaskan town instead of peering at the house, looking for him.

I drink too much, like I’m trying to keep up. His friends kiss me, and I let them.

I scour the dictionary and find words like nepenthe, which is the word for an ancient potion taken to forget grief. I scrawl the word over and over, surrounded by inky swirls and spirals. The curls reach out to each other, but never quite touch.

All summer and fall, I listen to old Fleetwood Mac songs. The songs live in me, the way music burrows into you when you’re young. I walk by his little blue house, running my fingers through my burgundy-stained hair. The soft lyrics of “Crystal” stream into my ears:

I turned around and the water was closing all around
Like a glove, like the love

that had finally, finally found me

The song slinks into my body, expands in my blood. The words and the music make my skin tingle, even as the song coils around my heart, squeezing until it aches. I listen to the song over and over. I think about the time when he traced circles on my belly, and how that must have meant something, all those soft, endless circles. It had to have meant something, even though he doesn’t call, and there are rumors of other girls.

I’ve dreamt about falling in love since I was nine years old. I am 23. Doesn’t it have to mean something?

For weeks, I listen to the song:

Then I knew

In the crystalline knowledge of you
Drove me through the mountains
Through the crystal like a clear water fountain
Drove me like a magnet, to the sea, to the sea
To the sea

One fall night, I take a hit of acid with some friends. We head to a nearby park where a cove of pine trees surrounds a baseball field and tennis court and swings.

In the dark, we wander around and wait for the acid to kick in. I tilt my head back and up, past the webs of pine tree branches. Clouds begin to glow and swirl. They join and part, join and part. Stars flicker and zoom. “What’s that sound?” I ask one of my friends. “The creek,” they say. The rush of nearby Gold Creek slides in from the background, spilling through my head.

We run around the playground, tripping on the pulsing stars, the wide open spaces, the huddles of pine trees. Somebody, possibly me, announces that I have a tiny Stevie Nicks in my pocket.

Hours later, I walk home. Past the blue house, past the cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried, and up the steep zigzag of narrow streets lining the base of the mountain where I live with my parents.

I climb the stairs, past my parents room and up to mine, but I can’t sleep. You have poison in your brain, I think. My mind turns against itself, a broken machine. You might never come down, it whispers. Maybe, I think, there are worse things than a broken heart. I turn and turn and turn, sobbing quietly. My parents are going to know I’m high. You might never come down.

The night expands and sighs. Minutes feel like hours. I think about the boy. I think about how the acid won’t let me go. I think and I think until somehow, my brain finally relaxes, surrendering into sleep.

The sun lifts up into the sky, a sweet, bright miracle. When I get out of bed, it feels like I’m walking through a heavy, sticky web. But I feel more like myself, and for the first time in a long time, feeling like me doesn’t feel so bad. I head for the shower, ready to scrub the evening away. I play “Crystal” on my little black boom box.

How the faces of love change, turning the pages

The water flows down my parched skin. The words from the song begin to leak into me. The web around me, made of fatigue and acid, glistens and falls, disappearing down the drain.

The faces of love. I think about my parents, who love me so deeply, who I’m so scared of disappointing. Tears start to drip down my cheeks, mixing with the water from the shower. They won’t always be here. We won’t always be together. I think about how just for now, we are.

Someday there would be new loves in my life, faces I can’t imagine. Lovers, children, friends.

I cry and cry, naked and soaked. All the fear of the night before slides down and out of my body. All the ache of not being loved back. This lovely song I’ve been listening to, over and over like a prayer, is not a love song about a person.

And I have changed, oh but you, you remain ageless

It is a god song. I don’t know who or what god is, but I know as sure as anything that at least for me, at this moment, it’s a god song.

Something melts into my skin where the drug leaches out. Something that feels like love. Like protection. You will be okay, a small, sure voice tells me. It is my voice. It is the voice of the song and of the ocean, the voice of the clouds mingling and parting. The voice of god.

Then I knew

 In the crystalline knowledge of you
Drove me through the mountains
Through the crystal like a clear water fountain
Drove me like a magnet, to the sea, to the sea
To the sea


I translate the word Crystal into Hindi and bring the design to a friend, who shoots the ink into my arm. Because I am 23 and impulsive, the tattoo ends up saying Kdystal. But I love the tattoo anyways; the curves of the letters promising that I’ll always remember that wet time of gratitude, of love and god. The gift of pulling back from a broken heart. Of perspective. Of being present in my own naked skin. Of being encircled by something: something invisible and kind.


A few months after I get the tattoo, I leave Juneau. The boy falls in love with someone else moments after I leave on a ferry boat. I am still cracked open and trying to put myself back together. When I reach land again, I drive and drive, hoping that maybe when I get to the other coast, it won’t hurt so much.


Sixteen years have dripped by. The boy no longer walks this earth. He is out in the ethers. Maybe in those clouds that so easily moved from one to another, coupling and separating, free of sound and pain.

I can’t feel the circles he traced on my skin anymore. Maybe they, too, have lifted from my skin, risen up to the sky.

Oh, the faces of love change, turning the pages

My babies, with their beautiful round faces and shimmering blue eyes.

My husband, who loves me back, as imperfectly as I love him.

A warm tribe of friends who I can’t imagine living without.

And far too many people I couldn’t have imagined living without who are now gone. They are up in those clouds, or in new bodies. Nowhere, or everywhere.

The blue ink on my arm has faded, and the color smudges out just beneath my skin. It’s so much a part of me, I often forget it’s there. People ask me what it means and I tell them, “It’s sort of a long story, but it’s a Fleetwood Mac song. In Hindi.”

And it’s about not being loved the way you want to be loved, and it’s about gratitude and god. It’s about surviving mistakes.  And learning that time is the only true nepenthe.

It’s about cracking open enough that the sun can’t help but find you.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise





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