Jul/Aug 2020  •   Nonfiction

In My Skin

by Mary Zelinka

The perfect tattoo... the one I believe we are all struggling toward... is the one that turned the jackass into a zebra.
—Cliff Raven, tattoo artist, 1932-2001

October 1982—Wildflower

Friends who are older say 35 is a hard birthday, but I am thrilled. I wasn't sure I would make it this far.

The last time I tried to kill myself was four years ago, just months after I left my second husband. I awoke from a 24-hour-plus sleep induced by a handful of tranquilizers and a glass of vodka with my dog Beau Beagle, his tail gently thumping, staring into my eyes. As I groggily traced the thin white stripe on his forehead, I realized I wanted to know what was going to happen next. No matter what it might be, I still wanted to know. I knew then that suicide was no longer an option.

I still occasionally have hanging-on-by-my-fingernails kinds of nights, but I have more confidence now that I can get through them. Thirty-five is a Grand Achievement. I need to mark this moment so I'll always remember.

Like with a tattoo.

I'm not sure where this idea comes from. The only women I've ever seen with tattoos were in old photographs of freak shows. The one time I saw a real woman with a tattoo was in a grocery store in a small coastal town when I first moved to Oregon. It was on her face—a rose covering her whole cheek. The biker who was with her gripped her arm like she might get away. Her eyes looked dead. I had seen that same look in my own eyes before I left my husband in Colorado.

Still, there is something glorious about the idea of permanently altering my skin with a celebratory image.

The Albany phone book doesn't have any listings for women tattooists, so I go to the library and look at those from larger towns. Madam Lazonga's Dermagraphics is listed in Seattle, about six hours away. (It will be years before I learn that Madam Lazonga's work is world-renowned.)

Abe, the man I am seeing, drives up to Seattle the night before with me.

A small brass bell dings politely when we open the front door. Over-stuffed mismatched furniture fills the room and dark floral fabric stretches across an arched doorway.

A woman's voice calls out for me to look through the notebooks on the coffee table to see if there is anything I like. Abe and I sit on the lumpy couch and open the first notebook to an 8x10 color photograph of a pierced labia. Abe quickly turns the page to a penis and then slaps the book shut. "Let's try a different binder," he says. He looks as pale as I suddenly feel.

I open the next notebook to a nude woman, whose entire right side is tattooed with a vine. It circles her ankle and twines sensuously up her calf, knee, thigh, slender hip, waist. It curves just below her armpit to climb her shoulder blade, then loops over her shoulder and curls beneath her breast. The woman, the tattoo, are so beautiful, I blink back tears. I glance at Abe; he looks horrified.

"You don't have to do this," he whispers.

But I absolutely do, I think. In the same way I knew suicide was no longer an option for me, I know the rest of my life depends on getting this tattoo.

Madam Lazonga emerges from behind the fabric. She looks wiry strong. Young, maybe my age. Full tattoos, what I will later learn are called sleeves, cover her arms, and bits of color peek over the scooped neckline of her top. She's wearing a long swishy skirt made of scarves or something. I have never before been so aware of my own ordinariness.

She asks what I have in mind.

"I want just a little wildflower blossom on my butt." My hands shake as I pull the wildflower guide out of my purse and open it to a small pink blossom with a yellow center. I don't really know one flower from another, but I admire wildflowers because they can survive anywhere. "Maybe the size of a quarter."

Madam Lazonga glances at the picture and takes a deep breath. "Well, you can't have 'just a little' blossom on your 'butt.'" She sounds irritated. "It will look like some kind of sticker." She picks up a piece of paper and a pencil and starts drawing. "There has to be some movement, some grace to it."

She hands me what she has drawn. There is my blossom, though now larger than a quarter. Swirling lines surround it, some with leaves, some without. It looks like a Japanese drawing.

The following Monday after work, I stop at the gym to work out. In the locker room afterwards, as I strip down to shower, a couple of women squeal, "You got a tattoo!" and rush over to get a good look at it. The other women, the ones who look away, will never speak to me again. It occurs to me later this isn't as hurtful as it would have been before my wildflower.


There is an intimacy in getting a tattoo. You may never see your tattooist again, yet they will leave something of themselves in your skin. The whole act of getting a tattoo is a curious mix of tenderness and pain.

But not tenderness like you experienced as a child, though he, too, was very gentle as he used you sexually over and over and over.

And not pain like when your husband told you no one would ever love you as much as he did and then slammed you against the wall, or spit in your face because you are so goddamn stupid, or flicked his dinner at you forkful by forkful in front of his friends at Thanksgiving because it was funny can't you take a joke, or raped you because you are his wife you bitch.

You blocked out pain then. You got so good at suppressing it that much of your teens and 20s passed by without you. Yet it is still with you all the same.

When you get a tattoo, you are awake in a way you don't remember ever being before. The tattooist's voice washes over you like a kindness. You hear the whine of the tattoo machine. You breathe in the biting odor that makes you think of mimeograph ink. You feel the needles stabbing across your skin, inking in the outline. You feel the color scraping into the design. You feel the stinging as blood and excess color are wiped away. You feel.

You will have the tattoo forever, but not the pain of it. And your tattoo will be beautiful.


December 1993—Bracelet

I'm in Jeannie Lynn's tattoo shop in Eugene, just 45 minutes from my home in Albany. Last year I got an anklet tattoo from her, a vine with symbols—a peace sign, planets and stars, an Amazon hatchet (Down with the patriarchy!)—scattered among the leaves.

What I had really wanted was a bracelet tattoo, but I wasn't brave enough. An anklet is easily hidden beneath jeans, or tights if I wear a skirt, which I hardly ever do. More women have tattoos now; several women at my gym have a flower or butterfly over one of their breasts. But nothing visible. Even if I wore long-sleeves, a bracelet would peek out occasionally. Once I have a visible tattoo, it will be harder to pass for mainstream. But then I realized this is no longer important to me.

I've drawn a picture, and since I'm not an artist, it's basically seven stars evenly spaced along a line. Jeannie Lynn asks what this means to me. I tell her it's about my significance. Sometimes I feel like I don't matter and am going to be swept away into the void, and other times I think I have purpose and every right to be here. Yet, no matter what, I know I'm safely tethered to this lifetime. The "seven" is what I am in Numerology, which actually I don't believe in, but there's no point in taking any chances, you know?

As I'm chattering, she's sketching what will become my bracelet—two wavy lines weaving around each other, sometimes intersecting, sometimes becoming one line, with the seven stars placed at random intervals.


April 1995—Salamander

Jeannie Lynn is inking a salamander on my left shoulder blade. It's a constellation—a few stars strewn about the outline of the salamander. I love how constellations are named for these incredibly ornate illustrations, but in reality they could never be connect-the-dot pictures.

This summer I'm leaving my job at a manufactured housing factory so I can go full time at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence, where I have been working overnights part-time for almost six years. I'll be earning about a third of what I had been making at the factory. Also, I'm going back to college this fall. I had dropped out when I got pregnant and married my first husband. I will graduate 30 years after I "should" have.

I had planned to do all this in a couple of years when I turned fifty. But my friend Ina died of a brain tumor recently, and when she did, I thought, what's so magic about fifty? So when I got back from her memorial, I talked to my director about increasing my hours at the shelter and gave notice at the factory.

Ina is the first close friend I've had who's died. Whenever she and I went to the zoo, the birds in the aviary came out of their hiding places, walked up to the glass, and looked into her eyes. Once when we were on a hike and stopped to eat lunch, a salamander crawled out of the stream, marched up her leg, crossed her chest, then curled up on her shoulder and went to sleep.


June 1995—Aspen Leaves

My son Bob and I are at Skibo's, a tattoo shop in Greeley, Colorado. We've spent the past week backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park. Bob wants a lizard across the back of his wrist, and I've brought two aspen leaves to be tattooed above my right ankle. After our tattoos, I will start my trip back home to Oregon.

The tattooist's entire body, from his chin down, is tattooed. Only the back of his left hand and a small spot on his left thigh (he says) is left. He lectures me about taking aspen leaves out of the National Park. He is as upset by this as if I had plucked them from his own scalp. I feel terrible. Finally he agrees to copy the actual leaves for my tattoo.

Bob thumbs through the notebooks to find the perfect lizard while Jim tattoos my leaves. Eric Clapton's blues guitar wails through the speakers. The tattoo machine whines. Bob grins at me and says, "I can't believe I'm getting a tattoo with my mother!" He shakes his head.

Seventeen years ago, when Bob was nine and I was leaving my second husband, I gave up custody of him to his father, my first husband. Bob and I made this decision together, as though it were perfectly normal for a mother to give her child equal say in such a monumental decision. It gives me no comfort to know that when I gave Bob up, the simplest tasks, like taking out the garbage or going to the grocery store or doing the laundry, seemed insurmountable.

Even now, knowing what I do about the impact of domestic violence, I struggle to forgive myself for the numbness I felt then. In my work I see women all the time who have experienced unspeakable horrors and yet remain fiercely protective mothers. It is my deepest sorrow that I had been unable to muster up that kind of strength.

The pale green new aspen leaf represents Bob, and the older, golden leaf, me. A stem binds the leaves together.


April 2003—Palm Tree

A local tattoo shop is doing a fund raiser for the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence, giving us a percentage of each tattoo during the entire month. I've brought in a drawing of a palm tree.

My mother loves palm trees and has grown several from coconuts in the backyard of my childhood home in Miami. She admires their resiliency—saying they survive storms by bending with the wind. I think she identifies with palm trees. Certainly she bends with my father's storms. I used to bend, too, but it didn't work out for me. Now I resist.

When Mother dies this summer, my brother, in a rare moment of camaraderie, will shinny up a palm tree with his machete clamped between his teeth to thwack down a palm frond for me. Mother and I had discussed what we would take into space to show another lifeform about our planet when we read Carl Sagan's Contact. Mother chose a palm frond, like Ellie in the book. In case she winds up needing it, I will place one in her casket.

At Mother's funeral, my sister will be angry because I want to be a pallbearer. She says I won't match the others, who are all men. After she sees my anklet, aspen leaves and palm tree tattoos beneath the hem of my dress as I carry Mother's casket, she will tell me they're vulgar, something a low-life would have.


September 2007—Dragonfly

I'm in Grand Junction, Colorado, for my grandson's custody hearing tomorrow. Zachary, now seven, has lived with Bob and Bob's wife, Kimberly, for almost two years. His mother lives in Germany and had sent him to live with Bob when she couldn't handle him. Zachary has been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADHD, leaving the possibility of a bipolar diagnosis to be determined when he gets older. He arrived at Bob's with rotting baby teeth and had lost so much weight a doctor prescribed a special diet.

Bob and Kimberly are gambling everything in their bid for custody. If they lose, Zachary will return to Germany, where it is doubtful they will get to see him again until he is eighteen. I feel powerless.

The day stretches out. Bob and Kimberly are at work and Zachary is in school. I'm at Grand Mesa Body Art. I tell the young man, whose name is Zach, I want a dragonfly tattoo to honor my grandson, who is also named Zachary. He tells me his grandmother's name is the same as mine, Mary. We smile at each other.

I point at a dragonfly in his nature book, and he asks about colors. Normally very particular, I tell him to choose. Zachary's fate is out of my hands.

I lie face down on the table, my jean leg pushed up to my knee. With other tattoos, I've watched if my neck could twist enough. I could watch now, but I don't. I'm trying to trust that everything will turn out all right for Zachary.

Zach asks about my other tattoos. When I say Madam Lazonga tattooed a wildflower on my butt 25 years ago, he turns the tattoo machine off. "Vyvyn Lazonga! No kidding! Can I see it?"

I slide off the table, unzip my jeans, and present my left cheek. Zach calls the owner of the shop over and the two of them study my wildflower as though it was fine art.

The dragonfly is bigger than I would have liked, and its wings are too yellow. But there is a curious translucence to the wings, a fleetingness. The body of the dragonfly looks strong, the legs almost defiant. My heart constricts at the tattoo's strange blend of strength and vulnerability.


March 2008—Dolphin

My throat is so tight against tears I can hardly breathe. I have never had a tattoo hurt this much—it's like the needles are penetrating straight through my skin and muscle and stabbing directly into my heart. I gasp for air.

"Do you want to take a break?"

"No, I just need it done." It comes out as a sob.

Jeannie Lynn turns off the tattoo machine and looks at me. "Tell me about this dolphin." She takes off her gloves and hands me a paper towel. I blow my nose into it.

"It's a Fred Neal song. Searching for the Dolphins. Linda Ronstadt sang it a long time ago." I choke out the lines: "I'm not the one to tell this world how to get along / I only know that peace will come when all hate is gone."

I look into her eyes and blurt out how my father died three months ago. How he had disowned me. How my sister and brother didn't tell me he died and I didn't find out until two weeks later. Sobbing, I confess, "I am filled with hate right now!"

Jeannie Lynn scrunches next to me in the chair and wraps her arms around me. I weep into her shirt. Beneath this shirt I know there is a beautiful Hawaiian-looking flower covering most of her chest and left breast. Years ago, after she finished my anklet, I asked if she was tattooed. Grinning, she pulled up her shirt.

I weep so hard I choke. I've never cried this hard. I will never stop. Perhaps closing time will come, and Jeannie Lynn will leave me weeping in this chair and go home, and tomorrow morning when she comes back, I will still be here weeping.

But finally I do stop, and when I pull away from her, the front of her shirt is wet with my tears. My hair is damp with hers.

"You know, I think it makes sense that this tattoo should hurt," she says quietly. "Maybe that's part of finding your peace again."

Over the whine of the tattoo machine, we tell each other stories of our fathers and cry.


October 2009—Rock Art

I've brought Jeannie Lynn two pictures of Native American rock art. Some experts, based on the history of where the art was found, believe one of the symbols, a spiral, meant "We have left this place." The other, a square spiral, "We have established another home and are not coming back."

Jeannie Lynn does so many tattoos, I never expect her to remember me, and she never does. She always recognizes my bracelet tattoo though, because she says it's one of her favorites. She just doesn't remember that it's my skin it's inked into.

I tell her this tattoo is about leaving my family. As I begin to describe the spirals, she drops her pencil and exclaims, "The dolphin! Your father! We cried!" She throws her arms around me.

The spirals are together, but not connected. The square spiral sits above the round one. A three-sided rectangular box surrounds them, the top open. The lines are thick and hard. It takes up most of the back of my left calf—visible only if I were walking away.

We cry through this tattoo, too, but not as hard as we had during the dolphin.


October 2017—Starfish

It's my 70th birthday—35 years since my wildflower. You see visible tattoos all the time now. If my gym is any indication, more women than not have art etched into their skin. Jeannie Lynn is retired, so it is Diana, her apprentice, who is inking a starfish on top of my left shoulder.

Starfish can lose a limb and survive—even regrow a new one. I've never lost a limb, though whole chunks of my heart have been ripped out. They didn't grow back, but I am still here. I like to imagine my heart salvaging scraps of hope and stuffing them into all its wounded places.

The starfish's legs grip the ball of my shoulder, and Diana shades it to look three-dimensional. It's like I have a starfish buddy riding on my shoulder.


December 2017—Lake Skaneateles Leaves, 26.2, Maple Leaf, River

While I was getting my starfish, Diana told me that as you age, your skin becomes thinner and you risk "blow outs"—where the ink spreads, making the tattoo blotchy. She said my skin was still pretty good, but if I wanted more work done, I shouldn't put it off indefinitely.

During the days my starfish is healing, I think about the tattoos I would regret not getting:

A red maple and a yellow maple leaf. After I left my second husband and Bob went to live with his father, I spent two weeks at Lake Skaneateles in New York. It was fall, and all the trees were in full color. It had been years since I noticed things like that. The first tentative stirrings of hope and possibility fluttered through me.

"26.2" for the one and only marathon I ran. It was a cold, sunny day in Seaside, Oregon; February 1991. Four hours, 43 minutes, 53 seconds.

Another golden maple leaf. This one from the tree in the backyard of the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence's original shelter, which is now our administrative office. I've worked with survivors for over 30 years. I hope I get to keep working until I am impossibly old.

Diana drapes the Lake Skaneateles leaves over my right shoulder. The other two tattoos join Zachary's dragonfly, my mother's palm, and Bob's and my aspen leaves. Diana free-hands a river wrapping around my lower right leg tying them all together, so they won't look like a bunch of stickers.


March 2018—Spiral

I had talked myself out of the spiral tattoo initially because I wanted it to be inside my left arm, above my wrist. My skin there is turning crepey and in another ten or twenty years the spiral will probably look like a saggy blob. But then I decided it didn't matter; I would know what it was.

This spiral has different meaning than my rock art spirals. It is about the journey. The promise.

Whenever I suffered heartbreak as a child, my mother quoted a Grace Noll Crowell poem at me:

This, too, will pass
O heart, say it over and over
Out of your deepest sorrow
out of your deepest grief
No hurt can last forever
Perhaps tomorrow will bring relief.

I hated that poem. I still hate it. Some hurts do last forever. Some hurts will irrevocably change who you are. As will some moments of joy.

If you think of those pivotal experiences as the center of the spiral, as they inevitably shift over time, the spiral becomes wider. You see this image over and over in nature. The unfurling of a new fern—a tight little circle, then slowly loosening until the new frond emerges. Or in a cut-away of a chambered nautilus, each outgrown chamber left behind as the creature gradually transforms.

My spiral is navy blue and about the size of a Susan B. Anthony dollar. It's not quite round, not quite square. And it is beautiful.