You have a friend who does stick-and-poke tattoos. After the breakup, you tell her you want one. You want to hurt.
She understands. She tells you the pain will feel good because at least you’ll be in control. It hurts only as long as you want it to.
A. wanted your first tattoo to be something you shared with her — not a matching image, but a story that began on her body and spilled onto yours. Maybe something with a swan, she said. Or a bunny. Maybe something broken that would be mended when your tattoos touched. But she never made a final decision because you always had an excuse: I don’t want to be in pain. I don’t want my parents to be angry. I don’t want to regret it. You told her maybe someday.
She already had a Saint Francis on her forearm. She’d gotten it in Italy, designed it herself: the saint surrounded by a halo, standing with his arms opened to the birds, proclaiming the word of God to them.
You worried your unwillingness to be permanently marked was an indicator of a deep-seated fear of commitment. After all, you’d gotten into five graduate programs and chosen the one farthest from her. You could have stayed in West Virginia, just a few hours from the small college where A. still had a year left before graduating. Or you could have gone to California and lived near her parents, making it easy for her to visit. But you chose Oklahoma for the simple reason that you felt like it was where you were supposed to be.
It was the first time she got upset with you. You weren’t even dating yet, but she felt you were abandoning her.
In your Catholic high school you wanted badly to be a rebel. Instead you were the beloved pet of the English department, always fetching copies and asking for more books to read. Still, during religion class you liked to play the heretic. You positioned your backpack to prominently display your pro-choice buttons and ignored your teacher’s lecture on “natural family planning” while you wrote lines from e.e. cummings on your forearm.
At night you would scrub the ink from your skin with a purple loofah, only to write the same words again the next day. You did this for months. Your friends would ask, Will you get that tattooed when you turn eighteen? You always laughed. No, never. What would I do then when I get bored?
If it became permanent, there would be no need for renewal. And if something isn’t regularly renewed, it is forgotten.
You met A. during your senior year of college. You wanted her to be more than a friend, but you weren’t sure exactly how much more. You began reading her favorite books. At the very least, you wanted her to be impressed. You were embarrassed that she was so much better read than you. Her favorite poets were Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Butler Yeats. She could recite entire passages from Hamlet and had read most of Virginia Woolf’s novels before finishing high school. She was the first person to make you doubt your intelligence. Maybe that’s why you were drawn to her.
Because of her you read Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger. It was her mother’s favorite book, she told you, and she had learned to love it at an early age. She showed you a picture of herself as a kid reading it on a carousel. This was your favorite picture of her.
You sat cross-legged on a table in the art building and read Salinger while A. sawed the faces of saints from plywood. Religious icons were her specialty. She even wanted to go to seminary. This, too, made you insecure. You’d been toted to church as a child and had read the Bible as part of your Catholic schooling. You’d been baptized, taken first Communion, gotten confirmed, but you’d never considered yourself religious. Religion had always been an obligation, a fight with your mother that you’d grown tired of having. You worried your indifference to religion would turn A. away, that she wouldn’t want someone as unholy as you.
In the art building you would watch her saw holy faces into jigsaw pieces, carefully cutting and staining each one before rejoining them into a whole. You never grew tired of watching her work. You loved the hum of the machine, the sawdust that stuck to her sleeve, and how she bent her head over the wood like something swan.
You knew she was sharing something intimate with you. You were witnessing prayer.
Sometimes you would sit with her in that art room for eight hours, never getting bored. When she was finished sawing faces and the room was quiet, you would read aloud from the book the parts that reminded you of her.
This, you both agreed, was how you fell in love.
You and A. were together for seven months but spent only three weeks of that living in the same town. You started your long-distance relationship wide-eyed and convinced your bond was strong enough to withstand the complications of separation.
Prior to that, you had spent a year pining for one another in a confused best-friendship. At first you had told A. you were straight and still in love with a boy back home, but it wasn’t long before you found yourself feeling jealous of the girl in her poems and looking for reasons to touch A.’s hand. She called you “Bunny” and would leave paper cranes on your desk before class. Sometimes she would remind you with a wink that lesbians have more orgasms than straight women. You would blush.
Her feelings were obvious to everyone but you. Your brain said you could never be good enough for someone like her. You worried, too, that you wanted her for all the wrong reasons. It was the first time you’d liked a girl, and you thought you might just want the attention. You had read about straight women who baited their queer friends for the purpose of sexual experimentation. You never wanted to be the person who made her feel used.
The summer after your graduation, however, you realized this was more than that. In Oklahoma you got a letter from her in the shape of a pink refrigerator, a nod to your habit of hiding unsent love letters in your freezer. You cried when you read it and slept with it beside your bed, rereading it every night before sleep, hoping to decipher its hidden meanings. You spent months exchanging postcards, clichéd declarations of I miss you and I miss you more.
Then she flew to see you. She came bearing gifts: a glittering Elvis icon, something to christen your new home. She had spent hours thoughtfully carving his face and arranging rhinestones on his chest. She had even purchased the Oklahoma! soundtrack on vinyl, spray-painted it gold, and hung it behind his head like a halo. The sculpture was a declaration of her devotion. It was what made you feel certain you could ask to kiss her, and she wouldn’t say no.
Later in your relationship you would point to the Elvis and say, You made me an Elvis. No one else will ever love me enough to make me an Elvis.
You hung him haphazardly on a nail left in the wall by a previous tenant. When he fell to the floor a few hours later, only his halo suffered damage. She offered to replace it, but you refused. I like him better cracked, you told her. After all, Elvis wasn’t exactly a saint.
You glued the pieces back together and carefully rehung him. Like he was a plant, you looked for a place where he would get lots of light. You liked the idea of the sun filling the crack of his halo.
A. delighted in marking you. In the mornings after you made love, you would inspect your body in the bathroom mirror and find a trail of hickeys from your chin to the bulb of your hip. She would place her thumb over her handiwork and say, I just want everyone to know that you’re mine.
Her need to claim ownership over your body should have been a red flag, but there was nothing you craved more than to be her possession. You felt addicted to the validation she gave you. When your neck was circled with soft bruises, you wore shirts with a deep neckline. Why would I want to hide them? you told her. They’re a mark of love. And when she touched you in public — antique shops, grocery stores, park benches — you basked in the thrill of every ass grab, cheek kiss, and hand hold. You wanted others to see.
You realize now this was her way of compensating for her insecurity: Maybe she was scared you would meet a boy, or a girl. Scared she wasn’t pretty enough. Scared she wasn’t smart enough. Scared she wasn’t good enough. Scared one day you would see her without a glow, as something dull and wingless. Of course you only think these were her fears because they were yours.
A stick-and-poke is exactly what it sounds like: a tattoo made by dipping a sewing needle in india ink, then repeatedly poking it into the skin — dot by dot by dot — until an image forms.
There are few benefits to stick-and-poke tattoos. They take longer than ones made with an electric needle, are often more painful, and are prone to fading. But they’re cheap and, the Internet assures you, more intimate.
The first night you and she made love was on her birthday. Before her visit, you asked if she had any fantasies. She wanted to draw on you, she said. And kiss her drawings. And suck her drawings. She told you, An artist signs her work.
She drew a pink flower climbing up your rib cage, a peacock wrapping around your thigh, wings spread across your back.
You went to bed without having sex but woke up in the middle of the night with her arms knotted around your waist. When you turned over, you found her wide-eyed and smiling. As an apology for waking her, you gave her a kiss. And then you kept kissing.
She leaned over you. Her hand pulled at the leg of your shorts and slipped inside. You moved your hips into hers. She asked, Is this OK? without moving her lips from your mouth.
You said, Yes.
In the morning you woke up with faded hickeys and faded wings. She said you looked like Eve.
In Franny and Zooey, Franny, the youngest child of the Glass family, returns from college depressed and muttering the Jesus Prayer over and over under her breath: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. She wants to learn to pray without ceasing. Repetition for her is a kind of baptism.
The Way of a Pilgrim teaches that continuous prayer is learned first through the lips and begins with repetition. The disciple says the words over and over until, eventually, they fall into sync with the heartbeat. Prayer circulates through the body with the blood.
This, you think, is how holiness is made.
You were her first, and, in many ways, she was yours: she had dated other people but had never slept with anyone; you had slept with people but had never dated anyone. In her past relationships, she told you, she had always been the one to leave. This should have bothered you, but it didn’t. You just assumed the others weren’t right for her. After all, she said you were the only one she had ever really wanted.
Before you had sex, you asked if she had been saving herself for marriage. You were scared of pressuring her, but even more scared of appearing to be a lustful heathen. Like the Elvis sculpture, you, too, were housed inside a cracked halo. You feared that, the way she did the broken Oklahoma! record, she would want to replace you with something already whole. And so you loved her with a bent head, hoping she would never discover the imperfection in you.
You were surprised when she said she didn’t want to wait, that saving yourself for marriage was a scam. I guess I just never felt like anyone I dated mattered enough to share that with them, she told you. But you do.
You remember feeling relieved and then selfishly happy to be her first. Just as she wanted to be the one who drew your first tattoo, you wanted to be the first to be important enough to her that she trusted you with her body. It made you feel worthy. Safe. Guaranteed a future with her. It was something she wouldn’t give unless she intended to give you everything. When you told her you didn’t mind waiting, she said it didn’t matter: I’m going to marry you anyway.
Virginity is a liminal thing, especially when your sexuality is a liminal thing. All you knew was that, before you met A., you didn’t like to share yourself. You’d let a few boys touch you. You’d never had sex-sex, but you’d done everything else. So you didn’t feel like a virgin with A., because everything you did with her, you’d already done with a boy. You had abstained from going all the way not for any pious reason but because you’d feared your body becoming the unimportant possession of someone unimportant to you. With A., however, this fear dissipated. She wasn’t the first you allowed to touch you, but she was the first you allowed to love you.
At night you would tell stories together of the pink dresses you would wear on your wedding day and the pink house you would live in. I’ll paint you flowers on the kitchen cabinets, she promised. You never wanted much. Just something small and blooming.
No one had ever made such promises to you before. The boys liked to touch you, but that was it. You weren’t what they wanted. You were too much or too little of something. But you were the only thing A. wanted. Nothing about the future she described felt unattainable. Every touch, every mark felt like a promise of security.
It wasn’t until your last hickey faded after each visit that you began to miss her. She always promised to visit again soon, which you knew would mean a couple of months, probably more. At first she’d told you she would come back once a month, but then you hadn’t seen her for three. The next time it was four. When you asked why, she always had a reason: It’s expensive. It’s exhausting. It’s hard. Eventually you stopped asking because you couldn’t disagree.
There was a grief that accompanied the disappearance of her last mark, the purple promise fading back to white.
On nights when you craved her warmth, you tried to remember all the places she had marked you. You imagined your body as a lantern emitting light where she had touched it, giving you a glow, making you hallowed.
A hickey isn’t so different from a prayer. It, too, begins in the lips. A moment of worship that demands repetition.
What becomes of a hickey repeated over and over on the same spot? Does the bruise become permanent, a dark petal forever pressed to the neck? Probably not. Instead, like the Jesus Prayer, a hickey made again and again is internalized. It sinks through the skin and falls into the chest.
The need to repeat the act dissolves. The mark is renewed by each heartbeat.
You tell your friend who does stick-and-pokes that you want something simple. A planet. Just a circle and a ring. I think I can handle that, she says, as long as you have low expectations.
She shows you the tattoos she’s made on her fingers: dots and lines drawn on nights when she wanted to hurt herself but didn’t want to call it self-harm.
You don’t care, you tell her. You just need a mark, something that proves damage was done.
When you were small and wanted something, you would wish on the stars you could see from your window. A wish is like a prayer, except in a prayer you both ask and offer. You are rewarded only if you make yourself worthy. A wish doesn’t ask you to be good; it asks only to be kept a secret.
Nobody told you those stars were planets. All you saw was a bright-white pinhole spilling what you hoped was the runoff from heaven — as good a vessel for a wish as any.
You’d wish the same wish on the same dot of light every night, thinking if you repeated it enough, something was bound to happen.
When she left for the last time, the distance felt greater. Her being in Oklahoma had been like a dream. Every morning was sex and lavender-infused coffee. She made your bed; you washed her dishes. She held your waist and whispered, Aren’t I lucky?
Usually after she left she would mail you cards, make you playlists, send you long texts at night listing the parts of your body she missed holding in her mouth. But this time none of that happened. A month passed without even a sext between you.
When you asked how long it would be like this, she didn’t have an answer. You brought up the possibility of her coming to Oklahoma to live with you after she graduated, but she didn’t want to plan that far ahead. Can’t we just take it one day at a time?
She wasn’t there to hug you from behind while you cooked dinner, to stroke the inside of your palm as you watched TV. Phone sex felt like the only form of intimacy you had left. You couldn’t remember the last time you’d had it. When you finally worked up the nerve to suggest it, she rejected you. You aren’t proud of your reaction. She tried to explain, but you were too caught up in shame and frustration. I think you should just go to bed, you told her. I feel bad for making you stay up this late.
You don’t know why you couldn’t have just said, I miss you. Probably you couldn’t risk being rejected again.
In the morning you explained that you had been feeling insecure. She told you it was just a difference between your sex drive and hers: We can have more sex if you want. She didn’t seem to understand that what you wanted wasn’t sex but to feel loved, safe.
After that, she didn’t talk to you for two days. When you asked what was happening, she said, It’s just really hard because I love you so, so much, and I know you love me.
The next day she called you: I just feel like it’s become toxic. I think it’s best we split.
You tried to respond. You wanted to say, I don’t understand, but you got stuck on the I. Maybe she misheard it as bye, because she hung up on you midsentence. You didn’t call back. You didn’t think she’d pick up and didn’t want to embarrass yourself.
You feel like you are still stuck inside that unfinished sentence. Was there a right thing you could have said, had you been given the chance? No, there was no magic combination that would have saved you. Even if she had granted you salvation, it would have been only temporary. She was always going to leave, because you were always going to be an imperfect thing.
Those nights in West Virginia when you sat watching her make art, you used to imagine your body in place of the wood. You liked to think of her hands on your hips, maneuvering you beneath her scroll saw, gently dismantling you. How she would lovingly hold each piece of you, smoothing your edges, making them soft, and then, after all the wounds she’d made, restoring you to whole.
You revisited this fantasy the night she broke up with you. On the table you imagined your body, tucked between wood stain and gold-painted halos, in pieces.
You waited a month after the breakup to call. You were still confused. You’d thought she was happy.
Was it all bad? you asked. A choked laugh clung to the wall of your esophagus, like a moth stuck to flypaper.
No, she told you, I always felt loved. But visits were stressful. I knew you’d be wanting sex.
Oh, you said. Your lips seemed stuck in the shape of an O. You didn’t understand. You remembered her hands inside your clothes, her mouth on your neck. I thought you wanted that, too?
Um. A nervous laugh. Well, I’m a people pleaser. I wanted to give you what you wanted. But sex was just a neutral experience for me.
You remember feeling foolish. Feeling guilty. Feeling sick.
Later you didn’t feel in possession of your body. You were a stranger in someone else’s home. No, a stranger stepping quietly into a house she thinks is abandoned only to see framed photos on the wall.
You imagined again all the places where she’d marked you. They no longer emitted halos but had turned ugly, your body like a piece of bruised fruit.
Maybe this is why you are asking your friend to tattoo you. Something about the pain, the repetition, might somehow reconsecrate your body, restore the holiness she extinguished.
Your friend asks where she should do it. Her buttery hair is knotted atop her head. Her eyes are red. She, too, has cried today. You commiserate, telling yourselves those people who abandoned you never deserved you. We’re the best they’ll ever have. They fucked up. But it takes only a few drinks for you both to admit you are still hoping they’ll come back. Neither of you wants to be alone, so you resolve to be alone together, like unpopular girls brushing the hair of each other’s dolls.
Earlier in the day you googled the least-painful places to get a stick-and-poke tattoo. The Internet suggested somewhere soft. You poked your body with a sharpened pencil, searching for a part that wouldn’t flinch. You settled on the back of your left shoulder, just above a pair of freckles. I like that, your friend says. Now your freckles will be stars.
You sit on a busted green ottoman with your back facing her. There is a divot in the center of the seat; you sink into it and feel something hard. She hands you a beer and turns Bob’s Burgers on the TV.
The cold beer makes you aware of the sweat on your palms. You’re nervous — because of the pain or the permanence?
It’s going to hurt. Tell me if you want to stop.
She pokes you.
You think of a finger-prick in the pediatrician’s office. The red-stained cotton ball and the Snoopy band-aid.
She pokes you again.
You think of A. sucking your neck, catching the skin between her teeth.
She pokes you again.
You think of the boy in fourth grade who asked if you wanted red roses, and when you said yes, he gripped you by the wrist and pulled your arm out straight. If you want roses, he said, first you have to plant the seeds. Three times he pinched and twisted the skin of your forearm. You remember how disappointed he looked when you didn’t wince but only watched as your arm bloomed pink. Then, he said, you have to rake the fields. He spread his fingers and dug his short nails into your arm as best he could. White lines surfaced. After that, you just wait for rain. You expected him to spit, but instead he slapped the marks he had made on your arm. Thunderstorms, he told you. At lunch you showed your arm to a friend, and the two of you took turns tracing the swollen white stripes. You asked her, Does this mean he likes me?
After the last phone call, the next day was your birthday. Carrot-cake cupcakes arrived at your door. You ate half of one and vomited.
The call had hollowed you out. She’d scooped any intimacy that remained from your relationship. You started questioning what had been genuine and what had been mere obligation. Had any of it been love? Or had you been that oblivious? You felt confused. You felt crazy.
You wrote her name and address on a box and began sorting through the things she had left in your apartment. Your home was covered in her. Her love language was gift- giving. The first time she’d visited, she’d joked, It’s like I already live here.
You found her pink flannel shirt that you slept in, the perfume she’d left because you’d told her you missed her smell — sawdust and grocery-store bouquets. You found trinkets you’d bought her that she’d forgotten to pack. Books her mother had given her and she’d then given to you. A tin filled with shark’s teeth she’d collected on the beach as a kid. Her favorite rosary, which she’d let you keep because she’d wanted you to feel safe when she wasn’t there.
You felt guilty, seeing those objects shoved in a closet between your AC unit and your vacuum cleaner. You didn’t think they were yours to keep. And having them was only hurting you.
You realize now these were just excuses to justify doing something you knew would cause A. pain. You weren’t returning those items for her sake. You wanted to exorcise her from your home, end the figurative possession caused by her literal possessions. You wanted her to feel hurt; to know that you were no longer her possession. It wasn’t enough just to strip her from your home; you wanted her to know you’d done it. You don’t get to leave, you wanted to tell her, and expect me to stay yours.
Still, you couldn’t return everything. You mailed only the items she’d loved before she’d loved you. You kept the gifts she’d bought you, her letters, the art she’d made. The Elvis sculpture loomed in your closet, a haunted figure. Was the crack in his halo an omen? If you had let her hang him, you thought, it might still be intact.
Even now you like to imagine driving away from Oklahoma and leaving the sculpture in the empty apartment. To leave Elvis behind would be to abandon A. the same way she abandoned you. Proof you never loved her. There would be an initial thrill, the illusion of a weight lifted. But then you would feel a new guilt. To abandon the sculpture would be to tell a lie. Because you did love her. A lot.
You don’t think you will ever rehang Elvis. It seems fitting that he remain inside the closet, where he still haunts you but in an amicable way: a reminder that you are not crazy. She did, in fact, love you, too.
Did it hurt? your friend asks after she’s finished.
The planet tattoo on your shoulder is a swollen circle inside a red halo. You can see the individual dots, like a pixelated image.
It felt like being loved.
After A. received the box, she cut you out of her life. You found yourself deleted from all her social media, and she ignored the frantic apology you sent. You imagined her sitting at a table in the art building where you’d first fallen in love, neatly cutting you from the fabric of her memory with an X-Acto knife and burying you beneath a pile of sawdust.
Your insecurity with A. was never a question of Am I pretty enough? or Am I smart enough? but rather Am I holy enough? You knew she would leave a heretic, and you craved the temporary reassurance of the hickey, because it made you sacred, something holy to her.
You see now that being a heretic was never the problem. The problem was thinking you needed to be holy at all.