When I was 16 years old, I was a complete snot. If I could go back in time and punch myself in the throat, I totally would. I suppose I wasn’t any worse than your typical teenager, but neither was I a shining example of good behaviour. I feel bad for my parents who had to put up with this on a daily basis.
That year, I was obsessed with Blink 182’s Enema of the State and the idea of getting a tattoo. One summer night, I was sitting in the basement of a friend’s house, sipping on a margarita one of my buddies had pilfered from the party our parents were having upstairs. We were messing around on the Internet (because back then, you capitalized it) and looking at pictures of things we probably shouldn’t have been. My friend joked that he wanted to get a pair of tits tattooed on his back so he always have something to look at, and I, being the mouthy piece of work that I was, decided to one-up him.
“I bet my dad would let me get a tattoo,” I said, puffing up my chest and daring someone to challenge me.
“No you can’t. He wouldn’t let you do it in a million years.”
“Watch me,” I said.
I walked rather unsteadily up the stairs and found my dad, who was standing with a group of three or four other men. They all had beers in their hands, but none of them had had much to drink. I slipped my arm around my dad’s waist and looked up at him. “Daddy?”
My dad laughed. “Whenever she starts a sentence like that, I know it’s going to cost me money.”
Instead of pulling my usual dance-around-the-subject schtick, I decided to go in for the kill right off the bat. “Can I get a tattoo?”
He took a sip of his beer, then rubbed some foam off his face where it had gotten caught in his mustache. “Sure. Why not?”
It had been too easy. My very conservative, very by-the-books father had capitulated without the fight I had anticipated. Suddenly I was faced with the very real possibility that I would soon have a design permanently inked somewhere on my body. “You’re not even going to ask Mom?”
He shook his head, his decision already made. “Nah, you can do it. Pick out a design and we’ll go next weekend.”
One week later, I had settled on a design and picked out a tattoo shop across the border where I would have my ink done. It wasn’t anything extravagant; I wasn’t that brave. Out of anything I could have picked in the entire world, I chose a small blue and purple butterfly with a black outline. Basic, boring.
And, I rationalized, not very painful.
As with every new thing I ever done, the week before my appointment was spent researching everything about the tattooing process. I decided to have the butterfly placed on my inside of my right foot where it wouldn’t hurt as bad, and I figured a good artist could finish in less than five minutes.
When the day arrived, my dad and I traveled thirty minutes across the state border, because we lived in the buckle of the Bible Belt and back then, tattooing was illegal in my home state. I couldn’t even sign myself in at the front desk because I was too young, so my dad had to write my name on the clipboard. A man with huge gauged ears that reminded me of a picture I had once seen in a National Geographic checked us in and told me it would be about 45 minutes before they could get to me.
My hands were already sweating just standing there in the safety of the lobby. I couldn’t handle staying there much longer. I could hear the faint metallic buzz of a tattoo machine in the background, and it made me sick to my stomach. Without saying anything to indicate he knew how scared I really was, my dad suggested that we walk down the street to get lunch at a nearby diner.
The hamburger I ordered sat like lead in my stomach, but I plowed through it so I could keep my mouth full and my hands occupied. For all the bravado I displayed a week before, I was a quivering mass of nerves, and my hands were shaking so badly that when I picked my glass of sweet tea, the ice cubes clinked audibly against the sides. At one point, my dad looked over at me and patted me on the hand. He didn’t say anything, probably because he didn’t want to embarrass me, but the gesture was comforting. He paid the check, and we walked back to the shop.
As soon as we walked through the door, a relatively normal looking man wearing a shirt with the name ‘Brian’ on the breast called my name and asked me to come back. My dad started to follow. Brian held his hands up, pantomiming the universal “Whoa, dude. Back off!” motion. Dad levelled his gaze and said, “That’s my baby girl. She’s only 16 and I’m coming back with her while you do this.”
He didn’t have to say it twice. Brian led us to a small alcove that held a chair that looked like it came straight out of Buchenwald, a small stool, and a host of autoclave bags containing the tattoo machine.
I was shaking so hard I couldn’t sit still. Whereas I thought would be in the chair for no more than five minutes, my appointment lasted nearly thirty. Brian was very professional and told me everything that was going to happen, but that didn’t really help. Every pass of the needle felt like someone was dragging a dull, rusty safety pin across my skin. At that point, nothing else in my life had been that painful. I squirmed and whimpered, but I never cried.
Finally, Brian completed the inside coloring and covered the area with a sterile gauze pad. When I slid off the chair, I knew that I had sweated through my shorts, and the outline of my butt would be visible against the black leather. While he had his back turned, I surreptitiously wiped it down.
As we were walking out the door, my dad patted my back. “You did good, Poodle.”
I smiled up at him. “Thanks, Daddy.” At that moment, I didn’t feel 16. For the first time, I felt like I had held adulthood in my sweaty palms.
And it hurt.
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