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Pain, then pleasure: My tattoos as symbols of divorce

(Courtesy Nicole Jankowski)

The cashier at the checkout had the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen and four black birds tattooed on her forearm. As she ran my orange juice and cauliflower over the scanner, she reached out to touch my wrist.

“I love that,” she said quietly, pressing her forefinger to a black bass clef inked on my inner arm.

“Ah, yes. Thank you. I’ve got quite a few,” I said. “They all happened post-divorce, you know.”

“I have four. Mine happened after my divorce, too,” she said. “Two years ago. My mother was starting to worry. ”

She smiled her big smile and we both gazed down at the outlines of the birds on her arm. They were floating up, as though they were flying off the edges of her skin.

“But the tattoos were good for me.”

I knew what she meant.

I was 33 when I started dreaming of my first tattoo. It happened just as my marriage was disintegrating and my ex-husband and I lay in our shared bed each night, heavy with the weight of words unsaid. I stumbled into a tattoo parlor, boldly and without much thought, by myself on a Thursday afternoon. I walked out an hour later, with that bass clef on my arm. My ex-husband didn’t approve, but I was well past needing his approval.

Just like that, I was hooked.

My husband and I were nearly friendless — and I got desperate

I was a housewife, a mom of small children who had never done a shot of liquor. But I went out and got my nose pierced in the sunny back room of a tattoo parlor, where a woman named Vera told me funny stories about her 2-year-old daughter and then took an emergency call from a woman who had a problem with her labia piercing.

Six months later I stood alone, beside a lawyer who mispronounced my last name, and asked for the judge to grant me a “final dissolution of my marriage.” Later, I had a treble clef etched on my right wrist. I sat on the wooden stairs in a house that was suddenly all mine, while my children slept in beds in a house across town. I cried for the things I had lost, for the hope I had found and for the all emotions in between.

Then I had a line from a T.S. Eliot poem (“Do I dare disturb the universe?”) tattooed on my back shoulder and “The sun also rises” on my arm.

Everywhere I went — to bars at times of the night when, just a few years earlier, I would have been sound asleep, to church where I tried to make peace with my new sense of faith — people commiserated, telling me about their breakups and divorces. And they told me about their tattoos.

In my informal polling, it seemed that for every two people who had been through a difficult divorce, one had gone out and got some ink when it was all said and done. Old and young, men and women. For many, including me, the tattoo was part of healing and moving on.

The tattoo is so many things in divorce. At time when there is so much uncontrolled agony, the tattoo needle is a calculated choice. It’s a pleasured pain, a measured hurt. Unlike the angry words that are hurtled back and forth at times when you least expect it — stopped at a red light, sitting at your daughter’s band concert — a tattoo is a controlled pain. You can choose it. Unlike divorce’s sting, which can linger, when the pain of the tattoo needle wears away, it is gone for good.

The tattoo becomes the symbol of all the things that have been cast off in divorce — a former self, wasted time or an unhealthy relationship. It can also become a declaration of autonomy: In marriage, you’re sharing your body and life with someone else. In divorce, these things come back to you and you alone. Sometimes the tattoo is the stamp of this new relationship, the one we mend with ourselves.


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