Leaving Her Inhibitions Behind

By Mimi Johnson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 3, 2008

I have made my mark.

I don't mean fame-wise. And it's certainly not a professional mark. No one I work with will ever see it.

The mark is on my backside -- a tattoo right over my tailbone. I'm 53 years old, and from the great beyond, I can hear my mother calling, "Honey, why?" My only answer is that I get a kick out of it. For good or bad, this mark is mine.

It comes at a time in life when marks get made whether I want them or not -- crow's-feet, age spots and baggy eyelids. So why not stake a claim to one of my few remaining smooth spots?

The idea was hatched at knitting club -- gentle ladies, sipping wine, talking decorously over the rhythmic ticking of needles.

The conversation wandered from weddings to strapless dresses to tattooed shoulders (and backs, and bosoms and whatever). The consensus held that young women would regret these marks someday. I was right in the thick of the disapproval, telling of a friend who bore a lizard on her flat tummy, and noting that pregnancy would balloon it into an iguana.

My friend Christine wasn't buying it. She said quietly, "I want one." While others were making noises of disbelief, she added that she was going to get a tattoo.

I chuckled. She looked right at me with raised eyebrows and said, "Come with me. You know you want one, too."

I was stunned. I was delighted. I had no idea someone else suspected that I really did want a tattoo. It seemed fated. I would make my own mark. It would be small, it would be discreet, it would be someplace where no one would see it.

Well -- almost no one. I do have a husband. I didn't feel I had to ask, but good taste seemed to dictate advance notice. At first he grinned and waited for the punch line. I smiled back. Then he blinked. "Seriously?" I nodded. He seemed to take that in awhile, and then said, "Well, just remember you have to live with it for the rest of your life."

Honestly, I see no downside to how this might play at the end. If I go out in a hideous accident, at least it might help him identify my body. If I age into some sad, vegetative state and a young health-care aide comes to roll me over from my fetal position, what's the harm if she spots the tiny mark and thinks, "This old bird had her moments"?

It took a few weeks to find just the right design. If anyone overheard, they might have thought Christine and I were discussing home decor, with our debates over color, size and style. Eventually, just like picking out upholstery fabric, we each found what we wanted. So one sunny afternoon we took off, looking, no doubt, like two ladies-of-a-certain-age going to lunch -- at a place displaying skulls and crossbones in the window.

The place was literally buzzing. There's nothing quite like that sound -- a squadron of mosquitoes running single file into a bug zapper. I swallowed hard and tried to look calm as a courteous (and very colorful) young man greeted us, assuring that all his practitioners were held to the highest standards of health, safety and artistic quality. I didn't read the waiver before signing. No one but me could possibly be held accountable.

Even if I was a little mesmerized by the elaborate options on display, the concept was no different from shopping anywhere. The bigger, the flashier, the more expensive -- just like Tiffany's. My heart skipped a beat when a woman popped out of a room with a tiny stencil in hand to ask, "Who's the Sagittarius?"

It was over in less than five minutes. Did it hurt? I've had tougher and more expensive experiences in a dentist's chair. On our way out we each bought some Tattoo Goo, a salve to promote healing and preserve color.

That night I slipped my jeans down for my husband to see my new zodiac symbol. Watching over my shoulder, I was delighted to see his face spread in a wide grin. He noted with relief that it was small, and his voice dropped as he added that he found it "cute." He volunteered as Tattoo Goo applicator.

Only the following week did I suffer a few seconds of regret. I was at the Halifax airport, returning from a brief trip. As the security agent went through my "liquids," he pulled out the round tin of goo with a frown and looked at my middle-aged face. In a flash I was certain he would ask why I was carrying such an odd product. With a sinking heart, I imagined dropping my pants for this stranger. Instead he wondered if women were using the goo as hand cream.

I nodded. He smiled with a shake of his head and handed it back to me. Fleeing like the liar I was, I headed for my gate, all my marks safely undercover.

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