“THIS YOUR FIRST TATTOO?” the “artist” asked. Already I felt uncomfortable—46 years old (it was literally my forty-sixth birthday), hanging around at a place that I had so hoped would resemble a doctor’s office but looked like the skanky apartments of slacker boyfriends from college, with a ripped pleather couch, sophomoric posters, and foul incense—but his question gave me further pause. It was akin to somebody asking the bride, on her wedding day, if this was her first husband. I mean, how many—husbands, tattoos—did a person need? Yet I was, after all, getting a tattoo around my wedding ring finger. It was, as tattoos go, more matrimonial than most.
The route to this tattoo is lengthy and digressive, and I’ll try to tell it clearly. My father always said that the women in our family didn’t think in a straight line, and therefore our stories were not stories. They had no plot but were instead like roads that dissolved into dust or fell off bridgeless at the river, or like some rococo lawn ornament, pointless in addition to being ornately bejeweled with the irrelevant and unbecoming. The reaction to them was often a deaf ear (my father could turn off his hearing aid) or, at best, a thought balloon with a question mark inside it.
So: In the beginning, there was a word. The word comes from a book by James Salter. The book is Light Years, and the word is “inimitable.” I love the scene where the word appears. In it, Salter’s protagonist has just come back from his first tryst with another woman. Meanwhile, his wife has been at their lovely country home writing a story about eels all afternoon. She wants her husband to illustrate the story, something to show to their little daughters. He is quiet, still reflecting on his illicit lovemaking in the city, and tells her that eels are “very Freudian.” She claims that the symbolism is tediously narrow and, moreover, dislikes intensely the word he uses to explain the symbol: “cock.” “I hate that word,” she says. He asks her, “What one do you like?” She replies, “Inimitable.”
I have to clarify: She doesn’t think that “inimitable” is a substitute for “cock.” She simply prefers it as a word. Me too. Boy, howdy. I prefer it to a lot of other words. In fact, I may prefer it to all other words. Hence the idea of having it tattooed upon myself. I’m a writer. I’m an individual. I like to think of myself as unique. (“Everyone thinks they’re unique,” said my daughter recently. “Everyone thinks he’s unique,” I corrected.) As a wordsmith who likes to think of herself as unique, the word “inimitable,” as applied to me, to my body, seemed perfect. And it seemed that way for a few years. More than a few. I decided, finally, to have the deed done.
Already I feel that urge to digress. Maybe eight years ago I met Salter at a cocktail party in Albany, New York. He accidentally sat on my purse, so I saw that as a particularly opportune moment to accost him. “It’s fine,” I assured my literary hero when he apologized for crushing my black bag. He said he hadn’t stolen anything from the purse—ha, ha, ha—and I told him, in one big gush, that he was more than welcome to anything in there he wanted: the Xanax, the maxed-out credit cards, my son Noah’s London Tube pass I’d saved because his photo was so sweet, the birthday candle from the eighties, the fortune cookie fortune from my last date with my dead boyfriend, the broken cigarettes I secretly smoked, the spray bottle of elk urine I shoplifted from a hardware store in Philipsburg, Montana—whatever, just because later I could say that he, James Salter, had taken them. Understandably, he was backing away from me as I rambled and blathered, looking desperately around at a table of literary notables for some help in escaping me. As a group—Russell Banks, William Kennedy, Frank McCourt—they seemed to shrug, “Good luck, buddy.” Poor James Salter, stuck with the starstruck fan who’d had just enough to drink to feel like telling him all about her idea for a tattoo, which was based on a scene from one of his novels. And, as her father had always noted, with no idea how to properly frame a story: beginning, middle, end.
I imagined the word set in an old-fashioned font, the kind that Remington or Olympia typewriters used to produce. In black ink, it would appear on my back or perhaps the nape of my neck: “inimitable.” (And could I have swiveled around to show my backside to James Salter and the whole table of literary luminaries and pointed at the place, just above that spot where my blouse untucked from my skirt, where I imagined the tattoo resting? God, I hope not. But I fear the worst; I am that kind of drinker.)
However, years passed and tattoos got so popular. Everyone was sporting them—not just bikers and bad girls and grunge rockers but lawyers and grandmas and Republicans. Even my rebellious teenage daughter thought they were too gauchely pervasive to consider (she of the pierced lip and shaved head). And I’ve never wanted to do what everyone is doing. It’s against the whole principle of inimitable, no? My life has been one of constant divergence from the popular line of thought, often to my own disadvantage, frequently just to be contrary, the stubbornness encrypted in my DNA. There’s not one group I’m a member of that’s a majority (except females; I guess there are more of us than males in America). Anyhow, I sort of back-burnered the whole tattoo idea when it seemed you could pick one up at Wal-Mart.
Meanwhile, other stuff was going on. Between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2001, several monumental events occurred. First, my husband and I decided we’d have another baby; everyone in