At seventeen, I get the boy who took my virginity tattooed on my right thigh. I’ve always wanted a tattoo, and I planned to get my siblings’ handprints, overlapping and merging into one inkblot, stamped on my skin. Now I want the boy from prom. The boy who rode towards me on waves of dry ice, who raked a hand through my matted hair, who took me behind the gym, who pressed me to the salmon-colored stones so I could feel the bass thump deep in my skull, who fought through my tulle skirt with a hooked middle finger. I sketch his face on a post-it and drive myself to the strip mall.
At twenty, I get the girl from Introduction to Marine Biology tattooed on my left thigh. I draw her in a gingham bikini and scuba goggles, tiny bubbles looping around her body like DNA. There’s only one tattoo artist in our college town. He wears a creaky leather jacket and has seasonal allergies and a malfunctioning alarm system. The girl’s face ends up a little too round, her eyes a little too big. But her open mouth—a warped circle of red ink—feels just right. When I see it on my thigh, I remember the warmth, the shine, the wetness. Her parted lips, her pearly nails at my throat.
At twenty-two, I get the shy grad student who instructs my lab tattooed on my shin. I go back to the only tattoo shop in town and tell the artist that this is my boyfriend, and I want him riding a jet ski. I can’t tell him that the week before, I let the graduate student drive me home from the lab. I sat in the passenger seat, vibrating with anticipation, skin dyed blue by the glow of police lights. He pulled down his jeans in my driveway, kept his hands on the wheel while I wriggled on his lap. He cried when we were done, told me about his girlfriend.
For my twenty-fifth birthday, I get my boss at the Aquarium tattooed across my rib cage. She lies naked, gripping a bucket of chum, lips cinched into a snarl. The artist is inexperienced. My boss ends up looking like a Mannerist Christ— boneless, forlorn.
At twenty-eight, I get two men and a woman from a marine expedition in Nova Scotia tattooed on my shoulder blade. They are arranged in a triad—all three in profile, hoisting a sailboat above them. We shared a cabin, worked together with samples, fishing nets. Me and the woman in one narrow bunk bed, the men in another. We are enviable, one of the men told me, wiggling a finger between the four of us, a piece of plastic tubing looped around his neck. Do you mean inevitable? The other man asked. I didn’t particularly like them, but I liked that all our hands–all eight of them–were rough from our work. I glance at the tattoo over my shoulder and imagine that I’m in the sailboat, telling them where to go.
At thirty, I meet a woman in the bathroom of a club called IVY. She is kneeling beside a toilet, skin grainy with glitter. A “BRIDE TO BE” sash pools at her crotch. My hair still smells fishy, and my feet are still getting accustomed to the stillness of solid ground, but I sit and hold her as she cries. The next week, I take her to a tattoo shop. I want her inked on my bicep with a shadowy sink and a scrawl of bright graffiti in the background. I want her drawn with her hands to her wet face. I want her powder blue nails pressing her into cheeks. I want her dimple. I want her crooked tooth. The bride-to-be sits with me for the whole six hours, through the relentless hum of the needle. She loves the tattoo. We laugh about it on her porch, on her bed, at the Aquarium, at the dock.
At thirty-two, I hold the bride-to-be’s hand while she gets a tiny pink heart tattooed on her wrist. We’re living in Arizona, amid the cacti. I work in an office. No ocean for miles. It takes too long for the tattoo to heal. She is fascinated by the dark crust, the tiny wobble on the heart’s point where the artist’s hand faltered. Two weeks later, she sobs in my arms and claws at her wrist because she regrets the tattoo.
At forty, I get the bride-to-be tattooed for the second time. On my stomach, she is sailing away in a red convertible, a colorful scarf slipping from her hair. Sometimes, I trace the outline of her raised palm with a nail and remember how she always kept a hand splayed on my chest when I kissed her.
Now, my skin is sagging. The artists start to complain that their needles snag in my flesh. Straight lines are difficult to pull, they say. Blowouts stain my arms like watercolor. Inevitable with older skin, they say.
There are still men and women for me to sleep with. “What does this one mean?” They like to say as I lie naked across my sheets. At “this,” they poke a tiny face, squeeze a hand the size of a fingernail. The waiter with a buzzcut licks my old boss’ half-moon cleavage. The yoga instructor traces the tight curls of the boy who took my virginity. The co-worker with a high-slit pencil skirt touches my bride-to-be’s face so lightly that it tickles.
I wriggle away, play coy. I don’t tell them that when everyone goes to bed, I peel the tattoos off my skin and make all my lovers dance for me.
Aleksia Silverman is a content strategist and freelance writer based in Florida. She graduated from Bowdoin College in 2019 where she co-founded and edited fiction and creative non-fiction for The Foundationalist. Her work has appeared in Tart Magazine’s newsletter and The Winnow Magazine. She likes her rejections like she likes her tea: ice-cold and unsweet. Sometimes she tweets @AleksiaMira.