Connected by Strings

It was a year full of firsts for me. I quit my job to become a writer. I found a therapist who helped me be nicer to myself. I drove myself and my two girls across three states to visit family. And now, parked in front of the window with clever needles and roses graffiti sign, a new first: tattoos with my sister. It was just after eight in the evening. The innocuous building held different names over the years, but the outside looked mostly the same: gray cinder blocks, crumbled blacktop parking lot.

“Ready?” Brittany asked.

I glanced over to Brittany and unclenched my jaw. I had three tattoos already, but it’s still a needle, and they’re still permanent. “Yep,” I answered. I climbed out of the car, and unbuckled Reagan from her seat. She had begged me to let her come. My youngest, Ashlyn, stayed back with Brittany’s husband, Zac, already asleep on the air mattress in my niece’s room.

Inside, the waiting area was nothing more than a couple black leather love seats and a small table with a stack of Rolling Stone magazines. The walls and tattoo chairs were black as well, and the floor was black and white tile. In fact, the only color in the whole place was that of the obligatory framed tattoo drawings on the walls. The shop was clean, something I assume is extremely important when dealing with needles and skin. A smell of disinfectant mixed with stale cigarette smoke filled the space. Cigarettes. I hadn’t smoked one in years, but it suddenly sounded like an okay idea. Heavy rock blared from speakers near the entrance, unable to fully hide the buzz of the tattoo guns. 

Brittany came up with the design. I wanted to get feathers. We are part Native American, and feather tattoos represent spirituality and freedom. A feather tattoo would be something for us, and something to remember Mom. But Brittany said feathers are generic and overdone, so we went with her idea.

A woman in her early twenties approached us and said, “Welcome.” She was dressed in black to match the walls. I didn’t catch her name. “Do you have an appointment?”

“We do. The sister tattoos I called about earlier.” Brittany took the lead, and Reagan hid behind my legs, clutching the new-to-her stuffed polar bear she’d acquired from my stepdad earlier. We’d stopped by his house to sort through some of Mom’s things, and Reagan found it in the bedroom bay window next to some old throw pillows. We sat on Jim’s couch, leafing through old hat boxes full of documents, photos and pieces of paper Mom kept for some reason or another while Jim sorted through kitchenware he no longer used. I left his house with a pile of old photos and a few antique bowls, and Reagan left with the bear.

When Mom first passed, Brittany had a dream where Mom was teaching her to fold a towel. In the dream, Mom made Brittany promise to stay close to me, as close as Mom always was to her siblings. Brittany called me the morning after having the dream. I knew it was a sign that Mom was still around, somehow. Since Brittany’s dream, we have gotten even closer. She’s more than my sister. She’s my best friend, too. 

“Why don’t you come on back and show me what you want done?” The tattoo artist tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear. We followed her back to a separate room with a couple of art tables. She pushed aside some old Chinese food to pull out a sketch pad. I opened my phone and showed her the two images of stick figure girls. One was talking through a tin can and the other was listening. We live hours apart and mostly communicate through phone conversations. 

We are forever connected by both losing Mom and our common desire to stay close. 

“Cool,” she said. “Let me draw them up real quick. You can wait in the lobby.” 

“Thanks,” I said, ushering Reagan out of the room and toward one of the couches. 

“How long will it take, Mommy?” 

“Not long. You just snuggle with your new stuffy and wait right here while Mommy gets her tattoo, okay?” she nodded. 

“Who wants to go first?” the tattoo girl asked when she returned.

“I will,” I said. “Otherwise I may back out.” I settled into the black leather chair and it groaned when I turned and pointed my left ankle up toward her. She shaved my skin with a cheap Bic razor and added the ink copy of my stick figure.

“Do you like how it’s positioned?” She asked, re-tucking the hair behind her ear. I gazed down at my ankle.

“Looks good to me.” I shrugged.

I glanced behind me to see Reagan had already fallen asleep on the couch with the large polar bear nestled under her head. The kids had been in overdrive the whole trip, and were finally exhausted. 

“Awesome,” said the tattoo artist. 

“Sure.” I nodded.

The tattoo gun hummed to life as she pressed the pedal with her foot. I looked away, toward my sister.

“Does it hurt?” asked Brittany with a sarcastic smile.

“No,” I shook my head. “Just don’t enjoy watching.” Brittany laughed. She was used to needles. She followed Mom’s footsteps toward a career in the medical field, working as the manager of a small general practitioner’s office. I, on the other hand, get a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach at the sight of blood. I took after Mom in different ways.

Ten minutes later, after she cleaned the fresh ink, tattoo girl asked, “what do you think?” I looked down at the stick-figure girl wearing a striped dress and a high ponytail. I smiled. 

“It’s perfect,” I said to her. 

“Cool.” She smiled back. “You’re up,” she said to Brittany. My sister took off her cross-body bag and sat it on the chair next to Reagan, who looked so peaceful snuggled up to the bear almost half her size. I peeked around the parlor. It was empty except for another tattoo artist, a thin, bald man with two full sleeves of tattoos and several face piercings who was pushing a vacuum across the floor toward us.

“I have to clean the floors,” he said as he unraveled the cord. He nodded his head toward Reagan.

“She’s fine. I doubt you’ll even wake her.” I waved him off, swatting the air in front of me. If there was one parenting thing I’d done right, it was sleep-training. Reagan could sleep through tattoo guns, loud music, and definitely vacuums.

He shrugged. “If you say so,” he said and plugged in the cord next to the door, vacuuming the black rugs near the entrance. By the time he finished vacuuming, Reagan was still asleep, mouth gaping with a bit of drool slipping out. The male tattoo artist raised his eyebrows, impressed with my daughter’s sleeping skills. Brittany’s tattoo was also complete. I examined her ankle and the stick-figure girl with a polka dot dress and a high bun, listening to a can. There forever. I smiled. 

After the tattoo was clean, we lined up our ankles; connected the strings. I hugged Brittany, and tattoo girl snapped a picture.

* Essay was originally published in The Virginia Writer’s Club Spring Journal

My first essay collection, When Love Sticks Around, is out now.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels

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