You decide you need a tattoo.
Tattoos are artistic, rebellious, fun. That’s why you need one. It’ll really stand out on your plain, minimally freckled skin. You need people to look at it and think wow. Or maybe that’s cool.
Actually, you would really, really love it if someone thought oh god, what did that girl do to her skin? Yes, your grandmother specifically would have that reaction. Your mother is a different story. You really don’t know how she would react to seeing a tattoo on her daughter’s skin.
She likes art, your mother. Always dragging you to art auctions and asking you what you think of this piece or that, only to buy one without asking you. That’s what happened last night. She went from painting to painting — sometimes leaning so close that you could have sworn some of the paint particles were sucked into her nostrils.
An art curator spotted you two and walked over. “Do you have any questions?” the woman asked. Of course, the art curator wasn’t talking to you. They’re never talking to you.
She was talking to your mother — and probably hoping that her sparked conversation would get your mother to not only buy the painting but to also back away from it. Which your mother did.
She smiled at the woman dressed in red and black. Pointing, to a spot on the painting, she asked, “See this here? Do you know if the artist meant for the brush stroke to be this thick or was it a slip of the hand?”
“I already told you, Mom,” you tried, but the curator spoke louder and faster than you, explaining that the mark was intended. And your mother listened to her.
But perhaps the art curator would be more likely to talk to you if you had an intricately designed tattoo flowing down the length of your arm. Who knows? Maybe your mother would even comment about how proud she was of your commitment to art. She might even start showing you off as if you were her own little piece of art for others to admire.
She could get mad — like really mad. If she did you could always point out how hypocritical she’s being — she doesn’t always ask your opinion when investing in art so why should you? To which you know she’ll immediately respond with I’m the mother, Clarissa, and you’re the child. To which you could respond with I’m not a child anymore, because you aren’t. You’re fifteen years old, which technically makes you a teenager, but the argument wouldn’t be worth it. She’d win. She always does.
And yet, she wouldn’t win completely. Because you would have that tattoo—that permanent tattoo—and there would be nothing she could do about.
Unless she wanted to pay to get it removed.
But you know she wouldn’t. She’d want you to live with the consequences of your actions, and her with the money. As long as you got to keep your tattoo, you’d happily let her. So you decide to go through with it.
You think about what you want. You start with flowers: roses, daisies. Scratch that. Try animals: birds, frogs. In what you think is a major breakthrough into your subconscious, you realize you’ve always had a thing for dolphins. They’re playful and smart, just like you.
They could be your spirit animal!
Your best friend, Jeanine, asked you what yours was last Friday at lunch but you didn’t know. You didn’t say so, but you didn’t even know what a spirit animal was. Jeanine said she took a quiz online and it told her hers was a horse. She explained how horses are strong, responsive, and social animals, and how she’s always seen herself as that. You told her you agreed. You haven’t met a person who Jeanine can’t win over.
* * * * *
On Monday you tell Jeanine about your dolphin tattoo idea. You try to casually mention that it’s your spirit animal, even though it isn’t true. What’s one little white lie? Jeanine won’t notice anyway. She’s too caught up with student council these days, having been voted in as their class president.
Today is the first time in a week she’s even been able to be at lunch to sit with you. You’ve been forced to sit alone in the library because you don’t have the courage to ask to sit with the girl, Shivani, who you’ve talked to in math, and her friends. What would you say to them? You couldn’t possibly talk about proofs and angles at lunch. Of course, had you known about spirit animals you could have tried to bring that up.
You took the online quiz two nights ago and your result was a chicken. Who wants to be a chicken? You definitely don’t want to admit to Jeanine — or anyone else for that matter — that deep down you are just one of the flock.
Despite your Cheshire-Cat smile and your enthusiasm and your explosive hand gestures, Jeanine wrinkles her nose. “You really want a tattoo?” she asks.
You nod, mouth still hanging open.
She frowns and looks at the corner as if considering the idea. She looks back up at you. “But, why?”
You shrug your shoulders like it isn’t a big deal. The truth is you can’t admit why. You can’t admit that you feel like your best friend isn’t even taking notice of you anymore. She wants an answer though. “Because it’d be cool.”
Jeanine frowns more. “But it’s not you.”
“What do you mean?” A dolphin is totally you. That online quiz was wrong.
“I just can’t see you ever getting a tattoo,” she says, “Like it’s not something you would do.”
She sighs. She gets this look on her face that reminds you of how she looks when she’s explaining Jesus to the four-year-olds in your Sunday School class. You have the urge to scowl at her even though she hasn’t spoken yet. “You’re not that type of person. You’re not spontaneous.” She must notice the look on your face because she hastily adds, “And that’s a good thing, Clar! I can always rely on you.”
You stare at her, not saying a word. You should have known she’d react this way. You just hoped that she wouldn’t be practical for once. That, for once, she wouldn’t shoot down one of your ideas. Did she ever think that maybe you don’t want to be the person other people rely on to be normal — to be boring? What’s the harm in getting one little tattoo?
“I think you’ll regret it,” she says, and then changes the topic.
You want to tell her she’s wrong. She’s very, very wrong. And you’re willing to prove it.
“Clar?” Jeanine calls your name, “Did you hear me?”
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“I said I might have to run to a student council meeting in ten minutes,” she says, pulling out her phone.
“Oh, are you sure?” you ask her, not wanting to be left alone again. You think about how you could never be on student council. It’s not that you couldn’t put forth the time and effort, it’s more like you would never be elected.
“Yeah,” she says, but she isn’t looking at you anymore. She is too focused on the text conversation she is having.
You wonder if she even realized what you asked. When did your friendship become one-sided?
* * * * *
That night you research tattoos online. You read every article, every blog post, every thousand-word picture. This is the most dedicated research you have ever
done. You are well on your way to becoming an expert and have already memorized the addresses of the three closest tattoo parlors.
You decide it is time to risk telling your mother about your plan. You broach the topic at dinner, take-out again since she came home late from the museum. As you twirl the Lo Mein around your fork, you bring up tattoos.
“Hmm?” she responds with a mouthful of Kung Pao Chicken.
You consider dropping the conversation before it’s even begun, but, no, you want to know. “What do — have you ever known anyone who has a tattoo?”
She swallows her food. “Sure,” she shrugs, “A lot of my friends in college had them.”
“Why didn’t you ever get one?”
“Wasn’t really my thing,” she says, “I preferred to keep the art separate from my body.”
“But you liked them, right Mom?” you push, “I mean, they really made a person stand out, right?”
“Not really, Clarissa,” she says, piling more food onto her fork, “People got them for themselves. Not for others. That’s why it’s on their skin.”
You stop talking after that. You don’t want to ask yourself the question you know you should.
After dinner, you go upstairs and throw open your computer. You close all the tabs with the addresses of tattoo parlors. You’re about to close the one with all the different pictures of dolphin tattoos when one of them catches your eye. It’s different from the others — no color or shading — just a rough outline of a dolphin. Who could have possibly paid for something like that?
When you click on the picture you realize they didn’t. The title of the webpage is “Do it yourself tattoos.” Also known as stick-and-pokes.
That doesn’t sound safe, it sounds rather painful, but you can’t help it: you’re intrigued. It won’t hurt to just read how it’s done. The page tells you that you need a needle, thread, a pen, a lighter, rubbing alcohol, anti-bacterial soap, and NON-TOXIC waterproof ink. After reading the list, you realize that these are supplies you already have in your home. You consider going to get them. No. You shouldn’t.
But then you notice a comment at the bottom of the page. The person has yelled at the blogger, cursing them out for doing something so stupid to their skin. The comment thrills you inside, like a jump to your heart. This is a risk you want to take.
You wander around the house, collecting the proper supplies. It’s lucky that your mother’s calligraphy ink is both waterproof and NON-TOXIC like the list says. You dab a spot on your ankle with rubbing alcohol. Then you hold the needle over the flame until the needle almost blends in with the fire, changing color according to the temperature of the flame.
Taking the needle and the pen, you wrap the thread around both, securing the needle as an extended tip to the pen. You lean closer to the computer for a better look at the example picture. It looks like the thread goes right up to the tip of the needle. You hope you’re doing this right. When you finish setting up it is time to really get started. You glance between the needle point and your ankle.
You are so not prepared for this. How are you going to freehand a dolphin with nothing but a needle and ink? Carefully placing the pen with the attached needle down on one of the paper towels you have laid out on the floor, you pluck a working pen from your desk and attempt to draw a dolphin on your ankle. It takes a couple tries before you are satisfied with the outline you’ve made. Picking up the needle, you realize that this is it. It’s now or never.
Trying to focus on how great it’ll look when you’re done, you dip the needle in the ink and hold it over the spot on you ankle. Needle still hovering over skin, you think, what the hell, and dive in. It hurts and you yelp, slapping a hand over your mouth, hoping that your mother won’t burst through the bedroom door. When there’s no movement out in the hall, you look down at your ankle, studying the puddle of ink that has soaked into thin grooves on the surface of your skin.
You tell yourself that it’ll be easier a second time, that your ankle will become numb to the poke, so you position the needle again and insert it into your skin. This time the poke makes you jump in place and you drop the needle-pen combination on the floor where it rolls under your bed and out of sight.
You can’t do this. You realize you’re not brave enough to do this, maybe not even brave enough to get a real tattoo. After all, hadn’t you just learned that at a tattoo parlor they stick you with hundreds of tiny needles at once? You don’t fetch the needle and pen from underneath the bed; just forget about it. It’s over.
You inspect the wounds you just made and thank god they aren’t bleeding. But you can still see the ink there. It’s barely a smudge. Two little, measly black dots. There’s no way people are going to look at you and think wow because of that. You hunch over, pulling your foot closer to your face for a better look at the spot. They probably won’t even notice it. You can barely notice it yourself. If they do, all they’re going to say is, “Is that a freckle?”
And what are you going to say?
Actually, it’s a birthmark?
Maybe you’re a chicken after all.
Lindsey Olsson graduated from Elon University with a degree in creative writing. In the past, she’s written fiction stories for an online nonprofit magazine and has presented her work at conferences of her peers. She works as a substitute preschool teacher in the area.