by Garrett Zecker


I got my first and second tattoo two days ago. I'm thirty-six. Almost everyone's got an unremarkable tattoo story like mine. We go under the needle against the lifelong instructions of our mothers, our religious institutions, our adolescent philosophies. My rationale to refrain until middle age wasn't interesting. I simply couldn't commit to something permanently inscribed in my flesh. I lacked that critical something that makes others care for something so deeply permanent. 

I entered the anonymous New Hampshire storefront with my best friend Catherine. She asked if I knew what I was getting. Absolutely. Her eyes sparkled. On my wrist, I envisioned a waning gibbous moon at eighty-eight percent illumination. On my left forearm, the word תמשל. Steinbeck roughly translated 'timshel' to 'thou mayest' in his novel East of Eden. They both represented my moment of illumination and liberation. Catherine knew they were a permanent commentary on stepping into my new life.  

We filled out paperwork, exchanged identification, and went through a short interview with the artist. Catherine and I talked on a black leather couch while we waited. We flipped through a heavy iron-framed art catalog. A demonic smoking skull under a robe grabbed our attention, full breasts saluting the naked air. I suggested a last-minute change to this new artwork, and we laughed. I went to the bathroom. She was gone when I came back. I waited on the couch, and when she returned it was my time to get a tattoo. 

The artist was interested in תמשל. She scratched the ink into my dermis, concerned that I didn't know the meaning of the Hebrew word. "You'd be surprised how often they think it's our fault," she joked. "A guy came in and brought George the Mandarin character for 'sword.' He did the tattoo. An actual Chinese speaker came in later and told us the character said 'person.'"  

The artist's beautiful illustrations decorated her station on little pieces of paper taped to the wall. The simple text design she was inscribing on my arm made it feel more like I was getting paperwork stamped by a municipal clerk. The needles didn't hurt. My attention bounced between Catherine and small talk with the artist. She finished by applying ointment and a bandage to my new tattoos. I paid, tipped her, and we left. 

"I know you wouldn't have admitted it in the chair, but were you scared?" Catherine asked as we walked back to the car. 

"It wasn't as bad as I expected. Like striking a match against my skin." 

"Can I see what she did? I didn't get a good look from where I was sitting." 

I lifted the bandage to show her the 'timshel' on my left arm. She smiled. I lifted my bandage over my right wrist to show the dime-sized moon. 

"Want to see mine?" 

She pulled her sleeve up. A bandage over her right wrist. She lifted the little white pillow and revealed a dime-sized moon, a sliver of shadow on the right-hand side. While I was in the bathroom, a copy of the same moon was tattooed in the same place as mine. 

"That's –" 

"Yes." She said. I was quiet. "The night you became you. Your best self, along with my best self. This is us." 

"Us," I said. The us seemed so immediate, like it was always whispering to both of us and pulling us toward one another. 

We drove away in the windy January day, a disorienting diagonal sun low in the evening sky. 

The next morning, we made coffee together. The Mortified podcast played while we brushed our teeth and fixed our hair. We laughed as people read from their adolescent journals. This was our new selves, together. Laughing. We looked at our wrists side by side and kissed the moons together like closing a book. We kissed our lips together. 

Many people don't experience the most precious things getting under their skin. That sort of thing can take a lifetime...or thirty-six years, anyway. "