“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 our family loves babies, and our first two had always wanted us to have one. So that became our project, getting pregnant, and although it was more difficult than the other two times, it did happen. Then, at fifteen weeks—and only a few days after we’d told our son and daughter—I miscarried. The children, then fourteen and ten, were heartbroken, much more so than either my husband or me. “I wanted that baby so bad,” my daughter cried. And my son, who was the only one home with me when the miscarriage began, merely lay beside me on the bed sobbing.
Next, my husband’s 43-year-old brother was diagnosed with ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease—which may be the cruelest disease of all the cruel diseases, leaving its victim with a mind intact, trapped in a body moving swiftly toward total malfunction and death. Up to that point, his life had looked a lot like ours: children of a certain age, a career in academia, a world of ideas and art. He was my husband’s little brother, the one he’d looked out for and confided in forever. The disease—even at diagnosis this was clear—would take everything from him, every single thing.
His brother’s wish was that we all travel together that summer. We went to Scotland as an extended family, visiting castles and islands and taking in plays. Never mind that we totaled a rental car driving on the wrong side of the road; never mind that he was noticeably declining on a nearly daily basis. It was a last hurrah, a trip meant to be memorable. And it was there, while we were abroad, that we received news from our house sitter in New Mexico that our home had been vandalized. The degree of destruction was unbelievably high and violent: house paint and motor oil poured on the floors and beds; gang graffiti sprayed on the walls; artwork slashed with knives; our belongings crashed and piled, knee-deep, throughout; toys, checks, papers, and jewelry stolen. And the vandals, caught a few days later, were teenage girls, strangers to us but neighbors nonetheless; they lived, literally, on the other side of the railroad tracks. The damage they did to our daughter’s bedroom was the most alarmingly angry, as if they too understood that she was a lucky girl in the world of girls; their rage at this unfairness was manifested in the way they laid waste to the vast and beautiful array of belongings that had been bestowed upon her by family, friends, circumstance, and sheer luck.
And the last thing, of course, that happened in that bad year was the attack on the World Trade Center. To our children, I think, our family, our home, and our country seemed under assault. A certainty about endurance had not been merely shaken but eroded, and not just for them.
When my husband and I married, we bought matching simple gold bands. We wore them for years. Then he broke his ring finger playing basketball, and his had to be removed. A few years after that, mine went down the hot tub drain at the gym. So neither of us had our bands. For a while, we gave each other various rings for Christmas or birthdays, and we wore them when we thought of it, a different one depending on the outfit, but on some days wore no rings at all. We were married, we knew we were married, our children knew it; did rings really matter? After all, everyone who was married wore rings. Rings were, perhaps, once again, the opposite of inimitable. Right? Also, rings don’t even look good on my fingers. I bite my nails, and I have very stubby hands. (My thumbs are hammer thumbs, inherited from my father; whenever a Nelson baby is born, everyone grabs at the little wrists, relieved to see normal thumbs. Mine? They look like South Park characters.) Rings on my fingers are like lipstick on a kindergartner: amusing yet obviously all wrong.
But when I decided, last fall, to resign from my job in New Mexico and commit myself fully to one in Houston, I thought I needed to reassure my family that I was still theirs. The tattoo, maybe, would be a balancing gesture, meant to offset my frequent absences as I commuted seven hundred miles to work. At any rate, it was just after my resignation at New Mexico State University and just before the spring semester at the University of Houston, on my birthday, which happens to be Epiphany, that I walked into the tattoo parlor with my nineteen-year-old daughter. It was dusk; the neon sign had just flashed on. She knew the artist from her art classes at NMSU. His name was Andypants.
“Could I call you Dr. Andypants?” I asked.
“Whatever,” he said.
“Convince me, if you can, that I won’t get hep C,” I pleaded as he led me to his cubicle. He was wearing latex gloves, which seemed medically sound. Yet he also had an ugly black narrative winding up his arms and out his shirt collar—the usual arrangement of swords and exotic foliage, skulls and smoke, foreign calligraphy and unsettling drips and pools of red. But like the hairdresser whose own hair is hideous, he hadn’t done his own tattoos, had he? My daughter insisted that his work was wonderful. He had, after all, put a large Roy Lichtenstein Kiss V, 1964 on her best friend’s back.
I’m going to try to wrap up this tale now. On my birthday, January 6, my husband was out of town; this tattooed ring would be a surprise. He was due to come home a week later, and I was leaving the very next morning for Houston. Along with the word “inimitable,” I also planned to have two other little bands: one of squares, to represent my son’s interest in storyboards and math, and the other a vine, hand-drawn by my daughter, in jade, the color that is also her name. The artist settled us down in his little cubicle and made three transparencies.
“You okay?” he asked, responding to my nonstop nervous, ironic commentary.
“Copacetic,” I lied. My daughter sat beside me and took out her drawing tablet, ready to record the event.
As a fiction writer, I am both cursed and blessed with having an active imagination. It generally tends toward the worst-case scenario (in fiction writing, this is called conflict or plot; in life, this is called anxiety or hysteria). I feared not only hepatitis C but pain and misspelling (I made Andypants look up “inimitable” on his computer, just to be sure). I also worry about any irreparable decision, the damage that can’t be undone. While I sat with my left hand on the Saran-wrapped stand—Andypants bent to the task, Jade beside me offering encouragement—I made myself think about other things that haven’t been undone, the good things that have come to me and are luckily mine, I hope forever. Like a happy marriage. Like truly remarkable children. Or like a tattoo, I told myself. This one, of a scripted wedding band, “inimitable” in brown ink, with a saffron row of little boxes atop it and a green line that looks more like a monitored heartbeat than a vine below. (Everything I own is in these three colors: brown, saffron, green. My children promise me that when I’m old and senile yet nevertheless out blowing money on clothes, I’ll know to consult my finger for my faves.)
“Cool,” my son said, when I showed him the final product.
“Cool,” said my friends, each then tempted to go get her own. (They were surprised and vaguely appalled, as I was, at just how cheap a tattoo is; Andypants apologized for having to charge the establishment’s $40 minimum. “Tip him,” my daughter ordered, costing me another $20.)
My husband’s best friend saw the tat before my husband did. He narrowed his middle-aged eyes at the word. “‘Inmate’?” he guessed.
“‘Inimitable,’” I corrected. And then I had to tell him, at great length, what it all meant.