ink under skin, let me in

one: the origin of love.

2010. I sit in silence, running my toes through the mottled peach carpet of my parental living room. In front of me is my first boyfriend, a depressive boy two or three years younger than me. He sits, black hair tangled, knotted through his hands as he alternates between clawing at his face and pulling said hair. Tears stream down his face.

Three days earlier, on New Year’s Eve, I drunkenly made out with a friend of ours – a friend who was also, at the time, in a relationship – and as tends to happen in these situations, my world exploded, for a time. This boyfriend had received the news with an eerie calm, helping me clean the house after the incident occurred, tending in equal parts to my hangover and my self-loathing, and had, in fact, not been incensed that I had cheated – only that this friend had made out with me instead of him.

“What about me?”, he’d asked. “I’m not attractive enough?”. I hadn’t the heart to tell him I’d have traded places in an instant, if I could.

2003. Some six and a half years prior to this aforementioned incident, I had a grand plan. This plan was to commit suicide.

The depression of youth, combined with an overarching sense of isolation and displacement from my peers, my teachers, my family, began to be too great a burden, and I began to believe it was a burden I wouldn’t be able to carry. I’d toyed with the idea for a while – imagining the pain and beauty of the ceremony, my mother, weeping, dressed all in black, the looks on the faces of my tormentors; the vicious boys who’d beaten me, grabbed at my flesh and screamed in my face: “FAT!” and “FAGGOT!”, time and time again – and began to squirrel away painkillers of varying strength as they came into the house. In the beginning it had seemed like a game. A game of chicken with death itself; cockteasing the end of my own life, always with the feeling that no matter how bad it got I wouldn’t really do it. Six months on, it felt less like a game, and more like life. It got bad, as it tends to when you flirt with stupidity and loathing. My fantasies became less about the aftermath – about proving that somebody loved me – and more simply about blackness, an all-consuming quiet, a great Alone.

One day into this period, a small package arrived at my door. A handwritten letter, purple scrawl for eight pages wrapped tight around a burned disc, with the words on it: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. And below that, “listen to track 2!!”.

I did so. And as the song played, something in me lifted. Nothing huge, but still: something. Something that spoke to me of emotions I hadn’t, at 15 years of age, yet felt. Something that told me: this will pass.

At the end of the letter, still in purple ink, was a hand-traced drawing of the Hedwig tattoo: two halves, opposite, trying to connect. The promise that the whole was better than the sum of the parts.

Back to 2010, and the boyfriend, crying.

“I’m so fucking sad,” he manages between sobs, tears freefalling to the ground. I make no move to comfort him, but something in me figures: this is good. I get it. Tell me I’m shit. Tell me you hate me for cheating. Just let it out. Let it out so we can talk about it, and hopefully move on. Because I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.

He stares at my arm, wrapped in plastic, ointment sheen across a black-inked wound in my flesh: an image of two halves, opposite, trying to connect. Then he says:

“I just – I wanted a tattoo so bad, and I can’t fucking believe you got one before me.”

two: lycanthropy.

“Let no foot mark your ground/let no hand hold you down.”

I’d always imagined I’d wait ‘till I met Patrick Wolf in person to get this one, and get him to write the lyrics on my arm – or a piece of paper, at least, to get transcribed. Of course, when I actually met him, I was too star-struck (and a little too inebriated) to do much else but gush, awkwardly, about how much his music meant to me, and attempt to pose like a real life human being for somebody’s camera. It was fine, I’d thought. He’ll be back and I’ll just meet him again.

Six months later one of my best friends was dead by his own hand. Not long after this, I found myself in a tattoo parlour, staring at the transcription on my arm; waiting for the needle to descend.

“Are you okay?,” Cloe – my tattoo-parlour bastion of moral support – asks, squeezing my hand.

“Yeah,” I reply, and shut my eyes. Bring on the pain. And, later:

“Did he like Patrick Wolf?”.

“No,” I reply. The truth of it is, he’d never heard Wolf’s music, and probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it if he had. “But it’s not for him. It’s for me.”

A month or two later:

@_PATRICK_WOLF does anyone have any PW tatts? I’d love to see photos! X

@a__forest Lycanthropy lyrics to remind me to have strength & courage. Picture attached.

Two days after that:

Congrats! “Patrick Wolf” now follows you on twitter!

and

@_PATRICK_WOLF retweeted one of your tweets:

@_PATRICK_WOLF ink under skin, let me in “@a__forest Lycanthropy lyrics to remind me to have strength & courage”

three: christopher robin.

Drunk on too much beer, I slur to a friend as I pull down the neckline of my shirt:

“Watch this. Watch this!”

The friend, also drunk, obliges. Etched into the skin of my left pectoral is a robin, perched on a branch. As I lift my arm up high, the robin squishes together, becoming puffed up, eyes slitting together in anger and heady disappointment like an avian mother; perpetually displeased. The friend laughs, sending tiny flecks of foam out into the night and across my chest.

“Now watch,” I manage, and lower my arm. Slowly, surely, the robin returns to normal, red-crested and noble, face stretching back out.

“It’s Weight Watchers,” I say. “For birds!”

“Why a robin?” Tania, my tattooist, asks, a cheer in her voice as she lays out the colours. “Any particular reason, or you just like them?”.

“My mum and I used to read Winnie the Pooh together. It got to the point where everyone in the family’d call me Christopher Robin, like the character.”

I remember long Sunday mornings at the age of 6 or 7, snuggled on the couch with her, a hot mug of milk and Vegemite toast, reading A. A. Milne’s classic kids’ novel – and overwhelmingly the feeling of warmth, of safety, of support.

My mother, upon seeing the tattoo: “What on Earth have you done to yourself?”.

four: baby bear.

A woman, chewing gum, clacking red press-on nails across her black vinyl bag: “What’s that on your leg?! That tattoo? What is that? Is that a bear?!”

“Yes,” I reply. “It killed and ate Goldilocks.”

My boyfriend at the time, about to go down on me, pauses for a second, twists my leg around to look the bear in the face. Then: “Rawr!”.

A friend of a friend: “It’s funny because it’s a bear, but you’re not a bear. Like, as in, you’re not a gay bear.”

Me: “I… I know.” And, to myself: “You’re not a boxer, but you’ve got one of those on your arm.”

five: daisy buchanan.

He clutches onto me in the dark of the midnight air, tears fat and hot, rolling down his face to pool on my chest, in the crevasse between each nipple. He’s holding on to me for dear life, body wracked by sobs, and I am still: still and calm, and heavy, a quiet dread descending through every fibre of my being.

Things haven’t been going well. We’ve moved in together – thankfully not alone, nor into the same room, but still, the same house – and this has exacerbated the numerous issues in our relationship, widening each one like an infected wound that refuses to heal, only growing wider, deeper, stinking and hot, and it is all too painful and all too clear: we do not belong together. I think: are you going to make me do it?.

And finally, blessedly, he speaks: “I’m not ready to break up with you yet.”

Six hours later. It is in the dead of Winter, and I wake with the sun in an unnatural cold. My window has blown open during the night and wave upon wave of sub-temperature air floats in, raising thousands of tiny goosepimples across my naked torso. I am alone.

Slowly, my body coming to life, I retrieve my phone, and message Tania. I’ve been waiting for this one for a while.

I remember lying in darkness, next to my best friend, someone I hadn’t seen for six months, and admitting, a wave of shame sinuating itself around my neck: “I think he loves me more than I love him.”

I remember, a month after we moved in together, how he’d shut his computer when I’d walk into the room; the familiar sting of a cacophony of message notifications, like I wouldn’t notice: Grindr, Manhunt, Adam4Adam, each one a mocking symphony of computerised noise that seem to scream: “YOU AREN’T GOOD ENOUGH FOR ANYONE.”

I remember, two weeks after we broke up, desperately doing sit-ups in the dark of my room as he came home, bags full of expensive shopping: champagne, dip, triple-cream brie, olives. “I’m going out,” he’d said, to nobody in particular. “I’m having a picnic.” Two glasses, two plates, two sets of cutlery, too.

I remember fighting with him: “you owe me $200 which you haven’t paid me back – but you’ve got money for fancy cheese and alcohol?”, and him storming out, slamming the door after sneering: “Happy Valentine’s Day”.

Still, I remember holding him close, his frame much smaller than mine, body to body, my arm wrapped tight across the cage of his chest, feeling his heart beat, the comfort of his body expanding and falling, expanding and falling.

I remember thinking: I honestly think I could marry you.

And I remember a passage from Chapter 5 of “The Great Gatsby”: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.”

six: molotov heart.

Two days after a boyfriend breaks up with me, I message Tania.

“Got any spots free? I’d love to get that heart we talked about. x”.

She replies straight away, and we lock in a time for the following week. It’s not long before I’m sitting once more under her needle, the colours blooming out under layers of skin, the dull ache setting in, and…

And after several hours, I pay and leave, sporting that familiar pain shooting spiderwebs across my forearm. I lift the wrapping, marvelling in the swirls and whorls of colours and shapes that have taken house under the layers of dermis to form a heart, in brilliant, saturated colours, a dripping Molotov wick spurting out of a valve, and a lit match nearby, at the ready. The message is clear: set me on fire.

And I think: this is new. This is something just for me; something you can’t touch. This is mine, and mine alone.

And I think: wear your heart on your sleeve. Show it off. Let it be a decoy.

And I think: Please, though. Please keep the one in your chest safe.

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