Kelly Davio’s previous Waiting Room columns for The Butter can be found here.
In my mid-twenties, I sat for my first and only tattoo. It’s a sizable piece on my left shoulder: a wax-sealed envelope nestled in a bed of primroses. In my mind, it was a reminder that, regardless of the bad news of life—the rejection, the failure, the royal screw-ups—good news would come for me, too. There would be acceptances, success, and plans that came off well. It was a simple little affirmation, and it was a beautiful design.
Having wanted the tattoo for some time and having researched what seemed like every artist in the greater Seattle area, I felt proud of my new ink the way I suppose a project manager feels proud of coordinating a team’s efforts. All I’d done was pick the right person and sit without squirming for the three hours it took him to get the ink into my skin; the artist did all the hard work — from the drawing and stenciling to the placement and execution — but I still loved showing off his efforts. Strangers would stop to comment on the beautiful way he’d used color, or ask who’d done the tattoo. I was always happy to direct people to his shop and evangelize his talents.
As I got older, paler, and more likely to nestle myself away in the traditional Seattle all-season hoodie than to wear a spaghetti-strapped top, those conversations stopped. At times, I even forgot my tattoo was there. Unless I caught sight of it in the mirror as I got dressed, I had little occasion to think about my reminder, my emblem.
Yet when I got sick, I learned about one of the lesser known side-effects of illness: having to get naked (or mostly naked) in front of strange people on a startlingly frequent basis. In fact, it’s a rare treat to go into any medical office and not be told “it ties in the back” as someone chucks a sad old gown my direction.
And so for the second time in my life, my tattoo’s become a topic of conversation. Only now, nobody’s telling me that they like the line work or asking for the name of my artist. Now, people want to hear a good story.
I suppose “What does your tattoo mean?” seems like a good ice-breaker—at least it’s more original than asking how the week’s been just to break the silence. “It means I have a tattoo” seems like a perfectly good response to me, as does “What does your receding hairline mean?” But then, I want to be a good patient. Somebody whom people don’t want to jab too indiscriminately with needles or clobber too hard with metal implements.
I suppose I can’t be too hard on these nurses, assistants, and physical therapists with their passing curiosities. Americans have been trained to assume that every tattoo has a story—a story we’re invited, simply by having seen a glimpse of someone’s body art, to hear. We lived, after all, through the pop cultural growing pain that was Miami Ink, a show that taught us that every tattoo should be accompanied by a harrowing story. Miami Ink‘s producers seemed to prefer narratives that involved unlikely survival—the kind of thing fit for a Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” feature. Tragedy was acceptable, too, especially if the word “family” could be repeated with high frequency. To my eye, the images people chose to have inked on their skin and the narratives they told about those images bore little relationship to one another. At best, they employed an entirely private system of symbolism (“this skull with bloody daggers coming through the mouth represents the special bond I had with my grandmother!”).
I admit to having watched enough episodes of the show to understand what people are after when they ask about my tattoo. I try to give them a good story. I work in “strength,” sometimes “courage,” all while wondering when the forced, clinically necessary intimacy of having to undress for strangers—strangers who will prod upon the body with gloved hands and any number of implements—became so confused with actual intimacy.
A person’s literal nakedness shouldn’t imply emotional openness. It doesn’t give someone the freedom to ask anything, so why do I always offer up a story on demand? Why not tell the phlebotomist to shove it, or tell the nurse practitioner, in manner of Jennifer Aniston in Office Space, that “I don’t really like talking about my flair”?
Because, unfortunately, I need them. In this balance of power, they’re on the heavy end of the scale. They’re still the ones with the white coats. They hold the needles. They write the orders. As long as they make me strip bare before the scalpel, the reflex hammer, and the electrode, I’ll tell them anything they want to know.
Kelly Davio is the co-publisher and poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former managing editor of The Los Angeles Review and is a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, and others. She earned her MFA in poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is a freelance writer in the Seattle area.