The first time it happened, my best friend was there. I was first under the needle since my design would need more time. I asked for a custom job; she went for flash. The buzz of the machine thrilled me, and though I made a face as the needle pricked my skin, the pain of the tattoo thrilled me more.
“You okay?” she asked me. “Not regretting it?”
“Not at all. It’s what I’ve been waiting for.”
Our whole lives had led to this moment. We’d asked our other friend where she’d gotten her tattoo when she walked into high school with it on her arm six months earlier. Her mother had signed off, since she was still underage like us. She gave us the name of the place and we kept our mothers out of it. We were seventeen, but no one asked for ID when we showed up. The illegality of the entire event heightened the experience. By the time the pain blurred out, I was already confessing.
“I’m excited for my birthday,” I said. “Two weeks away now…”
The tattoo was almost done. The man behind me, pounding into my skin, shook his head when he realized we were both too young to be here.
“If anyone asks…You didn’t come here.”
We zipped our lips and promised to keep it a secret.
When it got to my shading, the artist passed me off to his apprentice while he started in on my friend. I watched her as he worked; her face twisted and contorted to the pain, which she then played off as if it was nothing. My tattoo was on my back, over the spine under the line of my shirt. Hers was an ankle piece. We didn’t have the same pain, but I felt it like the same.
I never held her hand, but I wanted to. I buried the thought until we were done.
When I went away to university two weeks later, now eighteen and free, my roommate had to help me take care of the tattoo.
“Please?” I asked her. “I can’t reach my back to put on lotion.”
She did it without question; it was a duty to her, something you did for a new friend you were going to be sharing a room with for at least eight months. No passion, no nothing. The touch of her fingers was comforting nonetheless as I healed.
Weeks later, my best friend and I met up over Thanksgiving weekend. We showed off our healed tattoos before ending up in bed together. Our hands wandered, trying to find the right place to grab, to kiss—but never fuck. Before anything could happen, she pulled away with an apology.
“Sorry, sorry. Guess I like guys.”
There were no buses home. We slept with an inch between us in the bed, my tattoo suddenly a raw wound.
I soon found a boy. The first week at university, he appeared behind me and pushed the neckline of my shirt down so he could see my spine.
“Wings,” he said, referring to the tattoo. “Like angels or a fairy?”
“Neither. Wings like a bird.”
He smiled, complimented me, and started to talk about something else like we were old friends. I pushed past the slight revulsion I’d felt when his phantom hand had touched me. He wasn’t phantom anymore, but a nice boy from Ottawa, where he had Hungarian immigrant parents. He liked to smoke cigarettes outside the dorm. He had a room to himself, no roommate, and wanted tattoos, too.
The rest was easy. Once he’d touched me, there was no barrier between us. Eventually, I took him with me to get my next tattoo: a simple outline of a bird on the top of my foot.
“The most painful spot,” the receptionist warned me.
“I know. I want it anyway.”
So the receptionist with large sunglasses gave me the next artist available, a woman named Tammy. I took my sock off in the stall, my quasi-boyfriend sitting outside in the waiting room. He did not come inside. He promised me coffee and dinner afterwards, but the space was too cramped to fit him inside as well.
I was alone with Tammy as she held my foot, got the needle ready, and slipped into a concentrated stare. We didn’t say much at all. The tattoo was a simple outline followed by some text, done within minutes. But I didn’t need much to be hooked.
“How was it?” he asked.
“Amazing.” I thought it was the endorphins rushing through me. I thought it was the sense of freedom of the act, taking back my body through tattoos. But when I went to fuck him that night, I stopped. My body stopped. The raw wound ached, but it wasn’t with physical pain; a longstanding yearning had been opened through my skin.
A woman had put her hands on me, and it was almost as good as the first time.
I wanted women tattoo artists from then on in. I wanted women from then on in. Women were the only ones allowed to put their hands on me.
The summers between university semesters stretched on endlessly. My best friend took me around our small town in her new car with loud punk music in the background. The two of us collected tattoos but didn’t go together anymore. We’d learned. We kept separate lives at separate schools, and then we met up in the middle of the July heat and talked about it. We were never together, never like that almost close call.
I found my next girlfriend at a coffee shop one summer. Her arms were covered in tattoos; she gave me the name and number of the place she got her work done. The two of us went to New York the next week, sharing a hotel room and driving all night through upstate New York as she smoked cigars. When I returned, I made an appointment for a tattoo souvenir to encapsulate the trip.
But it was a guy. No woman in the shop, save for the receptionist. I went to talk to her, to be around her and the buzz of needles, but it wasn’t the same. My girlfriend was also getting distant. I realized I could not open my body in the same town where I was from. Where I was from had led me astray. My girlfriend became an ex and then stopped calling me even as a friend.
And school started again anyway.
Megan was small, wore thick-rimmed glasses, and talked in clipped sentences. I saw her in February after doing psych experiments on campus for a hundred extra dollars. After buying food, I had enough for a flash piece. And I wanted a tattoo again, this time from a woman.
Her hands were small and delicate as she drew an anchor on me. I wanted the anchor before they became as common as dirt. She said nothing about the design or the initials that I got underneath, and I was glad. It felt like a shameful secret, coming to her for a flash piece that didn’t mean much. I wasn’t coming because the tattoo had deep, profound meaning—but because her hands on my ankle and the buzz of the needle made me feel at home.
“You okay?” she asked when I closed my eyes.
“Yes. I’m good.”
We talked about pets. Her first tattoo in a garage. Her strangest tattoo. It was halfway through the conversation before I realized she was talking about her job tattooing, and not the tattoos on her body.
“And you’re done!” She smiled as I stood in the mirror to check it out. It looked fine, but I was disappointed. Megan was too quiet, impartial. I paid her, tipped her well, and went home.
It was only a job, of course. But I still felt gutted.
My new roommate surprised me when she told me she wanted a rocket ship.
“Right here,” she gestured to the small of her back. White skin, pale and unmarked. “I want it from a Ray Bradbury short story.”
Her closely cropped hair swayed as she talked. Her boyfriend was coming over in ten, fifteen minutes. But I was in her room in short shorts and a tank top, my nighttime wear, and all my tattoos were visible. She’d cruised me the moment I met her in a hallway a year earlier, but I’d always thought her gaze that had stuck me in place was because I’d been familiar. We were from the same small town, but had never gone to the same high school. We weren’t strangers, though we’d somehow never met until a tense moment on the university campus when we couldn’t stop staring at one another.
Now, I was pinned to the corner of her bedroom by her body, a blank open canvas. She’d been grilling me for tattoo artist tips and ways of molding and changing the skin into a canvas for the past hour. Then she was cruising me again for my tattoos and asking questions about my first time. Did it hurt? Do you think you’ll regret it? She was nervous, scared, and wanted answers about where to put the rocket ship she wanted.
I wanted her hands to pin me down where her eyes had been.
The tension was so thick between us I figured she had to know.
“What do you think?” she asked, pulling down her shirt again. “A tattoo there? In this kind of sci-fi art?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I think you’d look great.”
Another tense moment. Another heavy stare. She took a step forward and I opened my mouth, ready to spill all the thoughts I’d kept bottled up.
The bell rang. Her boyfriend stood behind the frosted glass.
And the moment passed.
“Oh, he’s here,” she said, delighted. “Did you want to say something, though?”
I shrugged. “Only that I know a place you can go for your tattoo.”
I decided I would get one too.
When I took my roommate to get tattooed, we found a new woman working there. Abigail, a large-breasted woman with a loud laugh. She lingered at the front desk, eyeing the intake form and wondering who her next job was. The way her eyebrows furrowed when she saw my design made me panic.
“Who asked for the tarot card?”
I stood. Abigail smiled.
“Nice. I think we’re gonna have fun.”
My roommate got Megan while Abigail led me to the back room. I took off my pants to expose my shin, the next place I wanted to tattoo. Painful, right on the bone. She didn’t tell me to stop, only nodded as if she admired the choice. She knew I knew what I was getting into. I got up on her table, presented the leg, and twitched under her. The pain was deep, feverish.
But her hand was steady.
I saw her from then on.
Abigail told me about her boyfriend when they moved in, about their first date in the wilderness after being matched on a dating app, and how he had to drive them back and forth from their house in Lindsay since she couldn’t drive. When she was pregnant, I got three tattoos in three months so I could see her before she disappeared on maternity leave. I studied her art in the stall, the way she laughed at particularly bad jokes, and the ’80s New Wave she played on an endless loop. She told me about the shop dynamics, her art career on the side, and then her eating disorder later on.
“And that’s it,” Abigail said. “Your sunflower is complete. Thank you for always getting interesting stuff. I’ll miss tattooing you.”
She was eight months pregnant, her stomach and breasts their own planets around her body. This was her last free date, so I stood and wished her luck with her leave. She would be having a girl named Cassandra. Devon, her boyfriend, was going to show up at any minute to take her home.
“Come here a second,” Abigail said. She smiled at the corners of her mouth, suddenly devious.
I took a step closer.
“Give me your hand. You want to feel her kick?”
She didn’t have to convince me. Abigail got on the tattooist table, lying down so her stomach became a mountain next to her breasts. She lifted up her shirt and exposed her pale skin only partly marked by tattoos and freckles. She put my hand on her stomach and slid it under the roundness of her belly.
I felt the world move.
Cassandra inside the womb. Me touching the tattoo artist who had worked on my body for so long, who told me the pain was going to ebb and flow, and then put on lotion and a bandage when it was all done. I’d been coming to her for years to ease my pain and stoke my desire, satisfied with the one-way touch of her ripping me open to expose me and then healing my wounds.
I wasn’t tattooing her, but I was touching her now. And the world moved, because I was held by reciprocal attention. By the inclusion in her life; the love of a woman I wanted but could never have, but who I could at least touch.
Then Devon arrived. We all went out the door together, parting on the street.
I moved. I completed a degree, then went back to the hometown and didn’t get tattoos for a while. The trips back and forth to the place where I’d found Tammy and Megan and Abigail seemed too far. But to find a new woman when I wanted Abigail seemed like a betrayal. So I waited, and I waited, but I eventually moved again.
And Abigail moved with her family. The six-hour difference between us severed all connection save through the online world. On her Instagram and Facebook feeds, I could watch as her art got better and better and feel a slight connection when she’d message me to ask for photos of my older tattoos for her portfolio. Like exes forgetting items at one another’s places, Abigail was not yet removed from me, since she still needed the art of my body.
For a long time, I was content knowing that I could be a part of her that way. But my body still had blank space and desire inside of it, so I sought something more.
A friend of mine announced she would become a tattoo artist after completing her degree.
“I’ll tattoo you,” she promised. “After I’m done apprenticing.”
Her words hung on the edge of her breath, another promise I felt deep inside my body. I wanted to believe it was real, tangible, and would be coded in desire. We’d been flirting with one another for years, but distance kept us apart. With tattooing, there would be no space between us, the boundaries of our bodies demolished as she’d mark me forever. My pain would bear love.
I said nothing aloud. I was getting used to doubting myself.
Months before her graduation, I packed up my things and got on a Greyhound bus to see her in her hometown. She showed me her art class, her space paintings, and her anarchist dream posters. We shared a bed for a weekend, an inch of space between us. On the last morning, we ate vegan nachos for breakfast and she wrapped me in a hug goodbye.
We never kissed. She never got near me with a needle, either, before we fell out of contact. She joined a feminist collective and I applied to graduate school. With my acceptance letter in hand, I would pack up my things yet again and return to her city to attend a PhD at her old university, though she was no longer there.
My first night in my apartment, I looked at her old tattoo portfolio online. The number I called went to voicemail. I said nothing and hung up.
Another PhD student in my program had a sleeve. Space and stars stretched out across her arm, while a tree covered her back. I saw its roots as she leaned over one day to pick up books from the library.
I asked her out for coffee the next day.
Over lattes, she confided that she was bisexual. I wanted to ask her more about that, and to confide in her my sexuality I had tried to cover deep under my skin, I insisted we talk about tattoos instead.
“Oh, Jen,” she said, referring to her artist. “Jen is great. You should go see her.”
“I’m relieved,” I said. “Because I prefer to be tattooed by women.”
She smiled and nodded. We talked about sexism in the industry, but another part of the conversation hung between us, like the buzz of a needle.
“So how did you hear about me?” Jen asked. I wore short shorts on her table, my thigh exposed as she outlined a mermaid on me. “You were very specific on the phone when you asked for me directly.”
I told her about the stars on my friend’s arms. The tree across her back. Jen nodded, remembering my friend by her body and the art she’d left there.
Jen put on a movie as she worked through my piece. I was struck by how much more painful this tattoo was than all the others. My tattoos had gotten bigger as I got older, filled with more color, more than just outlines or small bird wings on my back. But I’d had my other thigh done by Abigail before she left. I had the top of my foot, most of my back, and my inner arms done as well. I knew what pain was. I understood it and I craved it.
And yet, under Jen’s touch I squirmed. We watched The Talented Mr. Ripley and she told me about her hairless cats to distract me. I thought I’d lost the flare, the spark of desire. What if I didn’t want women to touch me anymore? Could I stand losing a piece of myself this way, blasted off through years of disaffection like laser removal?
“I’m done the shading,” she said. “I’m getting ready to do the colour.”
I remembered the first time, my wings. The shading had been the most painful, and I gritted through it. I was not young anymore. Ten years and my skin was giving up. I still had so much blank space on my body that I had wanted to cover, but it faded away in a blink. I still had lots more to go on my mermaid, but time became a flat outline. I had to pull out.
“I can’t … Should we maybe make another appointment?”
“I have this?” Jen held up a bottle I’d never seen before. “Lidocaine.”
She sprayed the wound on my leg. The pain disappeared. Not once, not ever in the times I’d been tattooed, had any one of them had a bottle of lidocaine. The colour from her needle flowed around the painkiller and disinfectant, creating a pale blue seal over my skin. I could breathe. I opened my eyes. I smiled.
“Wow,” I said.
“Kind of a game changer, right?” She smiled back at me and added more blue to the waves. “A whole new world’s been opened up to you now.”
I nodded, turned to the movie, and let her put her hands on me all over again.
I called the next week. Jen picked up the phone to make the appointment. Over emails, we carve out the next design I will get across my body, like a promise for the future.
My skin is still a blank canvas. There are still places for her to mark. And there are still invisible connections between the women in my life and our bodies that I want to pull taut until they burst.
Evelyn Deshane’s creative and nonfiction work has appeared in Briarpatch magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, and Bitch magazine, among other publications. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. Evelyn’s most recent project #Trans is an edited collection about transgender and nonbinary identity online. Follow @evelyndeshane or visit evedeshane.wordpress.com for more info.