You Know That’s Gonna Be on You Forever

When I was much younger than I am today, I hid under the covers. Every night, my mother wrapped my small body in my glow-in-the-dark star comforter, a “papoose” she would say, “my little papoose.” She kissed my forehead and turned off the light. I would remind her to leave the door open, falling in love with the sounds that trickled from the living room: lighter clicks, muffled television shows, the gentle hum of the microwave, yawns, little wet sniffles. Each night, the moment she left, I would listen to those sounds, wrapping the comforter tightly around my head and pressing my open mouth to the thinning fabric. Exhaling long and forcefully, feeling the heat from my own lungs spread over the skin around my lips, I would lie there for hours. Safe in strained breathing, where no one could see me.

Whenever some great transformation has taken place, some extraordinary revelation of character, or personality, writers like to ponder the catalyst. What happened here? What changed this girl? Why isn’t she suffocating? Where’s the cause, guys? The cause!

I don’t sleep with a glow-in-the-dark star comforter anymore. My mother doesn’t tuck me in, doesn’t call me her papoose. Instead, each night I wrap my arms around pretty women, or friends, or a leather-bound journal, and I fall in love with the cold air around my lips. I touch and I feel and I listen to my breath and I smile and I think about being open.

So, Where’s the cause, guys? The cause!

The body is a work of art. The skin is a magnificent organ, a membrane between the inside and the outside, a porous, sensitive thing. It rises and falls with the cold, gives physical meaning to that part of that song that “just…just gives you goosebumps, man.” Blood and sweat tear through it, pour across it. Freckles, moles, pimples, cuts, scabs, scars, bruises, laugh wrinkles, stress wrinkles, sunburns. Tattoos. Skin identifies you, allows you to touch, feel, caress, and harm. Skin forms beauty, self-love, self-hate, judgement, bias, and closeness. Skin can be changed. Skin can tell you of some great transformation, some extraordinary revelation of character, or personality. Skin can pull the covers from over a small girl’s face.

Let me tell you about a catalyst.

 

“I know from experience that there’s always something terribly flawed about people who are tattooed… Psychologically it’s crazy. Most people who are tattooed, it’s the sign of some feeling of inferiority, they’re trying to establish some macho identification for themselves.”
― Truman Capote

***

Independence Day

It feels like a prolonged static shock. My hands are slippery and sweating beneath my thighs, clammy against the red rubbery chair I am sitting on. My mother asks me how it feels, I tell her not too bad, that the wiping is honestly the worst part. The artist, a massive, sweaty man with a goatee and a wife-beater, laughs. I laugh too. I try not to think about the needle pushing in and out of my skin, tearing it apart and forcing itself inside. I don’t want to think about that.

We are in a trailer in Beckley, West Virginia. It is the 3rd of July and I am 17 years old. There is a squinting, skinny 15-year-old sitting next to me. He has tattoos on every part of his body I can see, some barely distinguishable from his dark skin. He carries his face as though his features are too heavy, his mouth slightly parted and his forehead weighing down over his eyes. Our moms talk to each other. I am able to discern that he is getting a red pair of lips tattooed on his neck, and that after that his mom “ain’t lettin’ him get no more.” I have trouble believing her, and I smile at the kid. He doesn’t smile back.

His mother asks me what I am getting and I tell her a date on my back. She softly presses her lips together and nods at me, not saying a word, and I know then that she has seen death before. I try to thank her with my eyes; I am not sure if it works.

It is quiet for a minute, the nasal buzzing of the tattoo gun forcing itself into our conversation. I read a sticker on the cabinet in front of my face: “You bet it fucking hurts.”

I get my first tattoo: a small, delicate “07.04.08” perched on my upper back, between my shoulders.

In a few years, my arms draped around one of those pretty women, I will tell her it is for my brother. I will tell her about the way he used to shake his hands up and down when he got excited about my IQ, or fireworks, or how much he hated the police. (“Fuckin’ pigs,” he would say.) I will tell her about how he used to cut the filters of his cigarettes in half so he could get “more nicotine”, about how he almost burnt a house down during an episode, about how they sent him away. I will tell her, most importantly, about the last time I saw him, on the Fourth of July, 2008, when he told me he was happy, that he wasn’t usually happy but he was tonight, when he said “You’re my sister, you know? I don’t see you enough. You’re cool, and we’re hanging out, and you’re my sister, so that’s cool.”

I will tell her about how he killed himself that December, 8 days before Christmas.

And as she traces the numbers on my back with the tips of her fingers, thinking of something to say, I will tell her that I put that date on a strong part of the body, that it is centered, balanced, and tough.

I will not say that the amount of ink that went into that tattoo probably weighs less than a gram. Or that I carry it, that gram, every day. Or that when I weigh myself, I imagine that it is there. I won’t say that when I am winded, I pretend that it’s the reason, or that I carry it on my back, with my brother and his face, glowing beneath the fireworks, and I am stronger.

So as she traces the numbers with the tips of her fingers, wishing she had something to say, I will think about how nice the cool air feels around my face, and I will push the covers away.

 

“She had a flower tattoo on her wrist; “What does that mean?” he asked her. “Absolutely nothing,” she said, “it’s just a flower.”
― C. JoyBell C.

***

Cherries

The song is called “Shivers”.

“I’ve been contemplating suicide,
but it really doesn’t suit my style.
I guess I’ll just act bored instead,
contain the blood I would’ve shed.”

It has a slow, dry drum beat, a lulling, repetitive bassline, and yearning, raspy vocals. The first time I heard it, it crawled into my ears and clung fast to my eardrums, so close to my brain I swear I could here it whispering You’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay. I followed those drums and I was okay.

The artist shows me the page of designs she drew up. They don’t look much like the Divine Fits album cover I brought in, but I love them immediately. I point to the one on the bottom corner, the single cherry, etched in black with what looked like red paint splashed across the fruit, “That one.”

I show it to the boy who came with me, who is sitting in a puffy chair and doesn’t have any tattoos and doesn’t really know why I want this one. He smiles and nods, “Oh hell yeah.” He is a good friend.

A cherry is plump. A cherry is full, satisfied, juicy. It sits on the cover of one of my favorite albums, bright red against a yellow background. Track 10, “Shivers”. A cherry grows on a tree, patiently, waiting to fall, waiting to be plucked. It contains.

I have one waiting on my left wrist. Perched above the branches of blue veins that crawl beneath it. It says, “I am proud of you. I am proud of the things you have contained.”

***

I never know what to say when people tell me I’m never going to get a job. I usually shrug my shoulders, smile, mumbling through stretched lips, “we’ll see.” It’s the best I can do. They say it’s not discrimination. They say I chose to make myself unhireable, to make my body this way.

“Oh dear, Chelsea, that one’s big.”

“Yeah.”

I guess in some ways they’re right, I did choose to stick this ink under my skin. I chose to change myself. On my shoulder, ribs, back, calf:

“At least ya can hide it easily.”

“Yeah.”

Finger, wrist, ankles:

“You’re never gonna be able ta hide those”

“Yeah.”

People don’t like the word “judge.” They are so quick to act repulsed, to screw their faces up until they are convinced we believe them:

“I’m not judging you.”

“Now I’m not one to judge…”

“It’s not my place to judge what you do with your body, but…”

What they don’t realize is that judging is natural. An evolutionary advantage, even. What they don’t realize is that in order to grasp yourself, you have to grasp others. It is a flailing, awkward, desperate thing. It is horrible, crude, and damaging, but it is natural. I judge, and I am judged. The problem exists, however, in what we judge, how we judge, and how open we are to allow our minds to be changed.

Many people with tattoos will tell you that their body does not define them. I will not say that, because that would not be true. I am what I put on my skin. I am art, expression, creativity. I am unique, angry, meaningful, hurt, and healed. I care and I don’t care. I like myself. I like my insides, and I have crafted my outsides to match. I am almost exactly what you see. You just have to look for long enough.

 

“I can read lips. Especially if they have words tattooed on them.”
— Jarod Kintz

***

Hot Showers

“I want the hands to look kinda sketchy – not like that sketchy but you know like obviously drawn. Kinda like a Gorillaz cartoon, ya know?”

The man at the counter smirks; I already don’t like him. Later, I will talk to my tattoo artist about how they need a new front desk guy. He will agree, and we will proceed to refer to him as “the dick.”

The soon-to-be-dick looks at the pictures I brought in, a few cheesy Internet photos of water running through cupped hands, “Ryan can probably do that. When do you want an appointment?”

Two years before this moment, I cut my hand in the shower. I had turned the knob all the way to the end of the red strip on the faucet, and I was sitting on the floor, letting the heat run all over my body, coating it, stinging it, turning my skin pink. I looked at my pink ankles, studied the healed patch of tiny white lines covering them, and felt the steam coat the inside of my lungs. I turned slowly, delicately wiping water from my eyes, and took my cheap dollar-store razor between my fingertips. I broke it. I broke into tiny pieces, aiming to free one of those thin sheets of metal from its clutches. I just wanted to look at it, I told myself. I pushed down on one end of the plastic and pulled up on the other, attempting to pop one out. It worked, but too fast. I wasn’t ready. That silver treasure I wanted so badly sprang up with a snap, and my thumb was in its path. I barely felt it; perhaps it was the steam. I held my trembling hand up, watched the red liquid spring thick from my skin and mix with the water, thinning and running down my arm until it dripped, dulled and brown, onto the floor, soon to be washed away. Everything was quiet, still. This is beautiful, I remember thinking. I remember thinking that again. And again. I remember gently picking up the paper-thin culprit, eyeing the tiny patch of orange rust on the corner, and, vision blurred by steam, skin pink with heat, I made more beautiful things.

It was what some would call a relapse.

 

I learned to quit again. I taught myself about love, and Zen, and I would sit in that same shower, cupping the hot water in my hands and watching it slip between my fingers and over my palms. I told myself that that water was beauty, that life was always pouring beautiful things into my hands, and how silly it was of me to try and keep it for myself. I felt the water soak into my skin, passing over me and through me, listened to it trickle into itself and down the drain, and I stopped picking up the razor. I remember thinking, in those days, that beauty cannot be remembered any more than it can be described.

“What colors do you want to use for the water?”

“As many as you can fit, I want it super-colorful, kinda dripping through the fingers and down my leg, like a watercolor kind of thing, can that be done?”

“Absolutely.”

***

My grandmother once told me that if I ever got a tattoo, I’d get “cut right out of that will.” She laughed when she said it, the edges of her emerald necklace pressing into the skin on my chest as she hugged me. I smiled and hugged her back. “Well I wouldn’t want that to happen, now would I, Nannie?”

A few months later I felt myself being whisked around, her persuasive hand tight on my arm. “Chelsea, what’s that?” I was confused, startled, and flexed my arm against the push of her palm, “What’s what?”

“That thing on your back.”

My hand instinctively flew to cover it, my lips stumbling over something like “It’s temporar—” but her face wasn’t as hard as I expected it to be. I felt a warm touch on the back of my neck as my mother came to my side.

“It’s for Hampton, Pat. It’s the last day she saw him.”

Her knuckles loosened around my arm, if only for a second. Her aging eyes bore into my mother’s, then mine, eventually coming to rest somewhere in the space above her hand on my shoulder. I watched the tinge of red begin to creep about her bottom eyelid, a small pool tenderly forming around her blue irises. She wiped it away, fingers quick and urgent, and pulled me swiftly into her arms, “No more, Chelsea, ya hear? No more.”

I gently rubbed her back, let my chin rest on her shoulder, “No more, Nannie.”

She still doesn’t know about any of the other ones. Sometimes I ponder the fact that she will never again see me in short sleeves. If I could tell her, if I could convince of anything, I would tell her about a catalyst. I would tell her about a cause.
I would say, Nannie,

I don’t sleep with a glow-in-the-dark star comforter anymore. My mother doesn’t tuck me in, doesn’t call me her papoose. Instead, each night I wrap my arms around pretty women, or friends, or a leather-bound journal, and I fall in love with the cold air around my lips. I touch and I feel and I listen to my breath and I smile and I think about being open.

 

“Tattooing, when understood in its entirety, must be seen as a religious act. The human being brings forth images from the center of the self and communicates them to the world. Fantasy is embodied in reality and the person is made whole.”
― Spider Webb

Chelsea Walker, non-professional poet, 19 years old, student at University of North Carolina at Asheville. Specializes in spoken word, free verse, and creative non-fiction. Work often concerns sexuality, overcoming hardship, and anything beyond the realm of the norm.

This entry was posted in Creative Non-fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to You Know That’s Gonna Be on You Forever

  1. Chelsea, there is a lot to like about your poem…I am particularly drawn in by the style – the way you have constructed the poem and your intelligent insight. It is a wonderful poem and I am happy I read it.
    Ron

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