Nice Catholic girls don't do those kinds of things.
That was pretty much the response I got from my mother the first time I told her I wanted to get a tattoo. Tattoos, according to Jo Kail, were something bikers got. Something strippers got. Want to spend the rest of your life serving cocktails to grabby wankers at Billy's Topless? Get a tattoo and you're well on your way to living that dream.
Not that she had much to worry about. Thanks to a minor Hepatitis B outbreak in the '60s, followed by a ton of judicial overreach, getting inked in New York at that point in time was illegal. You could still get one, of course. New York is New York, after all. But a banned art form tracked down only by means of word of mouth and whispered referrals was not an easy thing to acquire for a girl still in braces and a parochial school uniform.
The braces did go away, eventually, the uniform, too. And in '97, the city finally acknowledged the idiocy of having a law no one had bothered to enforce in years. Buh-bye, ban!
So why, despite the end to all barriers, did it take 20 years for me to finally cross "Personally Expressive and Meaningful Tattoo" off of my "Fuck It" list?
I mean, it's not as if I'd pulled any of my other teenage rebellion punches: I smoked, I drank, I cursed, I hung out all night with boys of dubious intent. Proud to say, by the time I was 18, I'd gold medaled in just about every "Make Your Poor Mother Crazy" competition there was.
Lack of opportunity wasn't the issue, either. There were plenty of people along the way who'd have pointed me in the right direction had I asked.
Alison and I met freshman year at NYU. The moon tattoo on her arm, she'd gotten in high school. The rose on her ankle bloomed sometime during second semester. Alison was my mischief meets mayhem spirit animal. But somehow, in the midst of midnight dorm room drunk crashing and hikes in search of ingestibles of a highly intoxicatable nature, the idea of getting some ink of my own just never came up.
And a few years later, I watched as my former Catholic school cellmate, Kelly, got a delicate Irish-green four-leaf clover etched just above her right hipbone. An hour later, we left, nothing on my skin but the freckles I'd walked in with.
Debbie was my workplace smoking buddy. She had art on her wrists, ankles, torso, lower back. I may have asked her for a referral at some point. I never followed up.
I couldn't decide what I wanted, I said. Something personal, something cool, fierce—like a hawk. Or maybe a Chinese character symbolizing strength or wisdom or whatever it was the young, pretentious me wanted to project. Or, you know, maybe just a cat. But I was in my mid-twenties, by then. I had a career, an apartment, and, honestly, much more sophisticated ways to rebel against the irritating guilt trips my mother still had the ability to lay on me. So as I rolled headlong into my newfound adulti-ness, the whole notion of tattoos just sorta disappeared off the leaderboard.
Life took over. I worked. I partied. I argued with my mother. I met someone. I cohabited. I got married. Argued with my mother. I worked. I vacationed in Maine, in Vegas. I worked. I got a new job, got glasses, got divorced. Argued with my mother. I ran. I ran more. I argued with my mother. I cared for my mother. I buried my mother. I took Welbutrin. I moisturized. I dated. I stopped dating. I scowled at millenials. I called people "nice girls" and "good kids." I woke up early. I checked the weather. I carried a cardigan in case it got cold. I colored the gray. I purchased orthotics. I fell asleep on the couch every night before ten.
It's like coming out of a coma, the day you ask yourself how you got here, when the thing you just did or said or thought became a thing you did or said or thought all the time. This wasn't where you imagined it was going. This wasn't the person you thought you would be. In fact, if you didn't know better, if it wasn't such a ridiculous idea, you would actually swear you had become … your mother.
There aren't enough antidepressants in a universe of Walgreens to get you through that moment unbroken. Something drastic had to be done.
Quit the job. Travel the world. Have crazy sex. Have crazy sex with younger guys. Take flying lessons. Take surfing lessons. Bungee jump. Cliff dive. Steal a car. Get arrested. Get all fucked up and get a tattoo.
Was it the kids in my office with their minimalist line art finger tats that buoyed this piece of flotsam back to the surface of my consciousness? Was it the woman on the L train with the beautiful blue/green hummingbird on her arm? I don't know. But, boom, there I was every night on Pinterest, defiantly searching for self-expression in my carefully curated board of sepia-toned tattoo pics: sparrows and mandalas and uplifting Rumi quotes undulating down supermodel-lovely spines. Over wrists and forearms, shoulders and neck napes to hips to lower backs to butt curves to oh my god did my thighs not look like that anymore.
Pathetic post hoc teenage rebellion? Last-ditch attempt to cling to fleeting youth? Fine, whatever, throw it all at me. Midlife crisis is what it is. But fuck it, I was not going to be her. From the "It's Too Risky" worldview to the perpetual "Take an Umbrella" neurosis, she was not who I was or ever wanted to be. And this tattoo—it was going to be my stake planted firmly in the ground of "Not My Mother" land, cause no fucking way Jo Kail would have ever done this.
I wear a charm on a chain around my neck, a gift from my nonna, my mother's mother, who came to America from a town in Sicily so small it barely pings on a Google map. My mother was proud to be Sicilian, would go on about it until eyes rolled and subjects were changed. Gold, round, scallop-edged, my little 13 charm was both a symbol of my family's culture and a token of good luck. I had worn it always: when I flew, for tests, for job interviews, for dates. For 15 years straight, I didn't take it off.
I don't know why it never occurred to me before. It was the no-brainiest of no-brainers. Intricate mandalas and crescent moons and flowers were beautiful, but the 13, that was me. It was my heritage, it was my grandmother, it was—OK, fine, it was my mother. The identity I'd argued with, raged against, flipped off, it had been hanging there, unacknowledged my whole life.
I gave in.
And now that 13 sits centered between my shoulder blades, inked permanently into my skin, a delicate circle of lines and arabesques and all my mother's old world good fortune.
And Jo Kail, god bless her, she might just have approved.