by ANAÏS ESCOBAR
A few weeks ago, I woke up on Monday morning and hit snooze a few times before finally getting out of bed. Between work and school, I have six-day weeks these days, by which I mean the next eight months until my program’s over. I checked my messages because there’s always a tweet or email or text that comes in while I’m sleeping, and I checked my calendar as I always do even when I know the only thing listed lately will be work or school. Work was there, but so was something I had forgotten about: my tattoo removal appointment.
Forgetting was surprising because I’ve had this appointment every month for the past four years, barring one six month stretch a year or so when I stopped going. Once a month I’d get an alert on my phone the morning of the appointment and I’d remember to wear something sleeveless under my cardigan; this made for easier access to the tattoos on my arm. I’d sit and read in the waiting room while I waited for my appointment. Everyone else around me would be waiting for plastic surgery consultations, women telling the friends they dragged with them that they should get a consultation, too, that they would look great with bigger breasts or smaller thighs. I’d keep my eyes down and try not to think about my own thighs until they called my name and I’d follow the nurse back to the exam room.
They make you wear glasses to protect your eyes from the lasers. I try not to think about what they’re doing to my skin but I suppose that’s the whole point of this. I’ve had four different nurses who have done this procedure on me in this place and this one is the most polite. She hands me a hose attached to a machine that produces very cold air and I hold it over my skin, alternating between the two tattoos being removed. She doesn’t talk much because there’s nothing to say. I press my molars together as she begins tracing my tattoos with lasers; first one for the black then different ones for the different colors. It doesn’t hurt as much as the first time I had the treatment but it still hurts more than when I got tattooed. When she’s done, my faded tattoos are swollen and red. She puts antibiotic cream and gauze on them and schedules my next appointment. I receive the next appointment as a text to my phone and I leave; afterwards, I always cry in the car.
What only those who are close to me really notice is that I haven’t worn anything sleeveless in four years. I make excuses about not liking how my arms look or feeling cold but that has little to do with it. It has to do with a kind of heavy heart and shame that come with feeling scarred, with the visible reminders of how you fucked up along the way. I put on long sleeves and cardigans over every dress, every tank top as soon as I came home.
No one expected me to be a prodigal daughter. I got straight A’s in high school, I participated in every extracurricular activity, I got into every college I applied to. I did all this but I was angry and even more than that, I was depressed. Depressed about my parents’ divorce and their selfishness in the wake of it, depressed about everything. I went away to school and fell apart but I didn’t tell anyone right away; the answer would have been, “you should sleep more, Anaïs, are your grades ok?” Our relationship always hung delicately on my belief that I could be, but wasn’t, enough. My grades, along with everything else, were definitely not ok.
I withdrew from school for a few semesters for medical reasons, not telling my parents at first and depositing the tuition refund I received into my bank account. Even most of my friends didn’t know I wasn’t enrolled in school anymore. I laid low, working now and then, mostly trying to feel closer to how everyone else seemed to feel; I didn’t. I drove through a lot of the continental US and I flew to different cities with my tuition refund. When I ran out of money for rent or for anything, my family helped me out but they didn’t want to talk to me. I had rough sex in an attempt to feel something and when that stopped being enough, I got tattooed.
The first tattoo I got was a black heart on the inside of my left wrist followed soon after by a wonky star in between my shoulder blades, done by an ex-boyfriend in our bedroom with India ink and instructions from a zine. The heart remains, but the star was covered two years later by a hamsa. Another friend apprenticing to be a tattoo artist gave me a delicate blue butterfly on my ribs that is barely bigger than a quarter. Sometimes I’ll forget that one is still there and catch a glimpse of it in the mirror, brushing at it before I realize that it’s not going anywhere.
The two tattoos on my arm are the stubborn ones, the ones I’ve been removing, the ones that have faded but not disappeared. One is the outline of a 1950s era woman holding a pistol. I saw it on a patch this girl in my queer theory class had that said, “Not gay as in happy but queer as in fuck you.” I loved it. I tracked down the image and sat with two friends as it was permanently etched onto my inner arm. A few months later, I had an Andy Warhol sketch of an ice cream cone tattooed on the outer part of the same arm. I had a print of this exact ice cream cone in my room growing up, a gift from my parents. They might not have been talking to me but I was trying to talk to them. I didn’t wear sleeves yet.
I eventually got tired of being everywhere and nowhere at once and I moved home. Despite my grades, I transferred to a college near my hometown and found myself living with my grandparents. They knew about my tattoos from visiting me during a hospital visit a few months before but didn’t mention them for almost two months. We pretended everything was fine. We circled each other that summer and I never took off a cardigan around them. I even wore a zip up jacket to the gym every day. It was finally mentioned when my shirt slid off my shoulder while I read a book on the couch.
“What’s on your arm?” My grandmother frowned.
“What do you think it is?” I snapped.
She didn’t say anything but she didn’t have to: she was disappointed. She left the room and came back with my grandfather who also already knew about my tattoos but pretended to be newly surprised and concerned. It was then I realized that not only had I changed; their love had changed. I heard them later that night on the phone telling my parents about the tattoos, about how they never expected this of me. I slept in a long sleeve t-shirt that night.
I’m from South Florida and so it was easy to find a plastic surgeon that offered tattoo removal. I had my consultation with a very blond woman who poked around at my tattoos. She told me they should come off in a year or two at most and we could begin as soon as possible. She clicked her tongue at my ice cream cone, my lady with a pistol.
“Such a pretty girl,” she said. “Shame.”
“She’s not like that,” my grandmother replied. “I don’t understand what happened.”
I sat like a specimen pinned to a dissection pad and pulled up my sleeve. I started to cry and they both patted me on the back, telling me I was still beautiful, that I would be again. I told them I wanted to begin as soon as possible. I wanted my family to adore me again, I wanted that part of my life erased; I just wanted to feel whole again or perhaps for the first time. My grandmother wrote a check for almost $4000, which would cover removal indefinitely, until the tattoos were entirely gone. As we left, I hugged my grandmother on the elevator.
My first appointment was the very next day. I wore something sleeveless under my jacket and sat upright in the exam room. They told me the first session would be the most painful while I was holding the hose of cold air on my skin. I nodded and put on the protective glasses and closed my eyes as well. I kept them shut tight as they began the procedure. It hit; it hurt more than I can express, more than the original tattoos, more than any other pain I’ve ever experienced. Tears streamed down my face as it went on for twenty minutes, the lasers breaking up the pigment of the ink for the body to push out. My arm swelled to twice its size by the time it was over. The nurse asked me if I was ok as she bandaged my arm and I could barely nod. I cradled my arm inside my jacket as I drove home.
I spent the next four days in bed as my body pushed ink out of me. I had a fever for two of those days and blistering, bleeding pain for all of them. Most of the time, I laid very still and looked at the ceiling trying to remember that I did this to myself, that I would be enough soon. The next month’s appointment hurt slightly less, as each one did over time and the tattoos started to fade. I started classes at the college I had transferred to and I focused for the first time in my college career. I got excellent grades, I got my GPA up, I participated in extracurricular activities, I did what I was supposed to do. I was still unhappy, I hadn’t beat that yet, but this time around, no one could tell. If they could, no one cared because I seemed fine.
When friends asked why I wanted to suddenly remove my tattoos, I told them I had been too rash in getting them, that I was young and stupid. I showed the tattoos to them as they started to fade. Men I dated saw them when I undressed for the first time, surprised I hadn’t mentioned them before. They ran their fingers and lips over the faded lines and I always pulled them away. I tried to think of them as not there at all but of course they were. You don’t try to cover up something that’s not there. Some people I know didn’t know for years that I had them.
I can tell you that they’ve faded. Black lines are now soft grey-green ones, the bright oranges, pinks, yellows are now pastels, smudged onto my skin. My family seems to have forgotten that I’m having them removed at all. Perhaps their shock has softened or maybe they’ve realized that tattoos have little to do with who I am. I graduated from college, I got a job, I met the man I’m marrying in a few weeks, and still, every month I went to my appointment. My tattoos are still there. I stopped being able to explain why I wanted them removed; I wasn’t at all sure why or if I wanted them removed at all. At my last appointment, I stopped the nurse as she switched lasers and asked when she thought these would be done. She looked pensive for a minute.
“I don’t know that these will ever be done,” she told me.
I let her complete the procedure and I made the appointment for the next month. I didn’t think about what she said until the morning I woke up and realized I didn’t want to do it anymore.
Something changed along the way. I’m not sure if it’s that I realized that my family loved me regardless of the choices I’d made or if I was just at a place where I was ok regardless. Maybe it’s just that I became ok with the choices I made. When I met my fiancé, I casually mentioned I was getting tattoos removed and when he asked me why, I couldn’t explain it. I told him what I had been saying for years and he left it alone. The first time we made love, he ran his fingers and lips over my faded ink and I didn’t stop him. I’m not sure if I was finally ready for that or if he made me ready for it but I suppose it doesn’t really matter.
I didn’t call to cancel the last appointment; I just didn’t go. They never called me to follow up and so it is. Those tattoos weren’t going anywhere and even if they had, would they have really? Can you erase entire chapters of your life? Rewrite what happened? You can’t really if you’re being honest with yourself at all. I drank coffee outside my office the morning I decided to stop trying to remove parts of myself and I stood content with who I’ve become as well as all my past versions. I wanted to hug the girl who couldn’t talk to her family, who ran like hell to get away from herself, who thought through some kind of magical thinking that you could save yourself by giving yourself up, by punishing yourself. The fuller my life became, the more comfortable I became in my own skin, the less I wanted to change the past.
I don’t regret getting those tattoos any more than I regret trying to get them removed. I’ve learned to respect where I was as much as where I am, to realize that you can’t have one without the other. They’re just there for now, half gone but there. I have plans to perhaps cover one of them, not out of shame or a feeling of not being enough but from a place where I am actively making choices about my life. If I don’t, that’s my choice, too. I wore a tank top around a newer friend recently and she stopped in the middle of conversation to look at my arm. She asked if I meant for it to look like that. I smiled at her. I guess that I did.
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