The touch of strangers still startles me. Unknown fingertips brushing the soft inside of my bicep, grazing the back of my shoulder, closing firmly around my forearm. I flinch, gasp, or freeze inside, pulse trilling. It happened yesterday, in a café on Christopher Street. Instead of taking the money from my outstretched hand, the young barista seized my wrist, pulling my arm toward her. I let her but blinked in surprise at the sudden warmth of her grasp, in this city where personal space is a delicately regarded boundary.
“I love that!” she exclaimed, eyeing the portrait tattooed on my bicep. “Who is it?”
“Billie Holiday,” I answered, gently disengaging from her hold. “The jazz singer?”
“Oh, I love her!” She tsked appreciatively and turned to her coworker behind the espresso machine. “Shauni! Come look at this lady’s tattoo.”
The line behind me shifted with impatience as the two young women inspected my arm.
“That’s so different,” one noted. “Does it mean something?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “It means something.”
Being a tattooed lady has something in common with being a pregnant lady, in that it makes people want to touch you and makes them feel permitted to do so. Being a memoirist has this effect, too, and though the touch it garners isn’t tactile, it probes much deeper than hands.
People reach for me on the subway, the sidewalk, in cafés and gyms. The pull of an illustrated body overrides even classroom hierarchies, and sometimes my students lean so close to inspect the images decorating my shoulders that I can feel their breath on me. Not only do my tattoos erase the invisible membrane between our bodies, but they also dissolve what manners prevent strangers from commenting on others’ bodies.
“I like this one,” they tell me.
“They’ll be there forever though, right?”
“What about when you’re old and wrinkled?”
“Do they hurt?” A few disgruntled times I’ve answered, “Constantly,” but mostly I am magnanimous. Yes, they will be there forever. Yes, I will be a wrinkled old tattooed lady. Yes, that’s OK with me. No, they don’t hurt, though they once did.
I understand the impulse, the flash of logic that allows them to reach for me. I have willfully altered myself, exposed something that draws their attention, and thus invited it. The same flawed logic drives men in the street to whistle, hiss, honk, or comment on the bodies of passing women, though, and I offer them no such pass, perhaps because a strain of menace streaks their entreaties.
Manners aside, have I invited it? I have. Tattoos express multiple desires: to be seen, to distract, to repel. But I also have marked myself in order to remember.
Billie Holiday’s voice first spoke to me as a girl. Though a gregarious child, I became an anguished adolescent—sensitive, empathic, secretive, and sexual. The marriage of pain and sweetness in her crooning hit notes I couldn’t approximate in language, or any bodily expression. Books were my obsession, but music more succinctly captured emotion than any combination of words I found. The nights I didn’t spend reading by flashlight, I curled around the radio, finger over the record button, filling blank cassettes with songs I’d replay obsessively. But Billie’s voice was best. She sounded haunted, and at twelve and thirteen, I felt haunted, visited by surges of feeling invisible on my outsides.
I was already calling myself a writer, furiously scrawling poems in notebooks, romanticizing my angst, toting Kerouac and Anaïs Nin around in my backpack. I guarded my vulnerabilities but longed to externalize them in some coded form. Writing was the obvious choice, though music seemed a shorter route in many ways. Learning an instrument appeared too laden in technique, so I asked my mother for voice lessons.
My singing teacher’s name was Shirley, a name she embodied perfectly. Round and blond, with an upturned nose and equestrian penchant, she ran scales with me every Wednesday after school in a stuffy room above our town’s only guitar shop. My musical skill paralleled my writing skill: though gifted with range, volume, and feeling, my pitch needed work. I loathed practicing to the cassettes we recorded of exercises. I hated listening to my own voice stagger up and down the scales, loved only the rush of breath from heart to mouth. Shirley wanted me to sing from the books of singers, women who sprawled across their book covers in long skirts, kitten heels, and artfully applied lipstick. After a few months of compliance, I found my own songbook: Torch Songs. It was full of numbers made famous by Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, and of course, Billie Holiday.
Shirley encouraged me to sing opera, but instead, I sang “Black Coffee,” “Don’t Explain,” and “Stormy Weather.” For a few months, I actually practiced, squeezed my eyes closed and belted “God Bless the Child” in the shower before school. Somewhere, there is a VHS recording of a recital at our local Unitarian church, for which I sang “Summertime” (my choice) and Judy Garland’s “Smile” (a compromise with Shirley). Then, I discovered an even more succinct way to manage my feelings—drugs—and quit singing.
. . .