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Can a tat­too be a ro­man­tic deal breaker?

even now, I’m not sure how I let it hap­pen. Was it the slow ero­sion of my self-con­fi­dence? My life­long aver­sion to con­flict? My be­lief that, com­ing out of a di­vorce, I needed to make this re­la­tion­ship work no mat­ter what?

What­ever the rea­son, my boyfriend was able to con­vince me to re­move the styl­ized flo­ral tat­too on my left shoul­der. To his mind, tat­toos be­longed to the likes of sailors, bik­ers and whores; he made it clear that the one on my shoul­der marked me as the lat­ter. While he deemed the small owl on my an­kle “per­sonal and cute,” I couldn’t con­vince him that the flower hadn’t been done for “a boy” in my past—my pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ships were fod­der for count­less re­crim­i­na­tions—and he was re­lent­less in his dis­ap­proval of it.

He also in­sisted that his fam­ily never find out about it, so my first visit to his par­ents’ pool was pre­ceded by fran­tic shop­ping trips for a bathing

Caught in a fail­ing re­la­tion­ship, Athena McKen­zie found strength in ink.

suit that would cover the of­fend­ing ink. I ended up wear­ing a man­nish triathlon sin­glet that did noth­ing for my fig­ure or my con­fi­dence. He shook his head sadly when he saw me wear­ing it, let­ting me know that it was my own fault I couldn’t have some­thing pret­tier—a hu­mil­i­at­ingly per­sonal ver­sion of “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

Dress­ing up for par­ties or sum­mer nights out lost all its joy. There was al­ways a fight—even if only the top of the tat­too peeked above the edge of a tank top.

In ret­ro­spect, his be­hav­iour was a red flag. But I was fo­cus­ing on the pos­i­tives: our mu­tual love of art and pho­tog­ra­phy, the way he sup­ported my de­sire to be a writer. Stuck in the mind­set that an­other failed re­la­tion­ship was the worst thing that could hap­pen, I bowed to the pres­sure and agreed to go for laser re­moval.

When people talk about re­gret and tat­toos, it’s usu­ally in ref­er­ence to get­ting one. Any­one with ink has heard the pedan­tic re­frain “Oh, you’re go­ing to hate that when you’re older.” But you rarely hear any­one lament a tat­too’s re­moval. As soon as I sat in the der­ma­tol­o­gist’s chair, though, I knew I was mak­ing a ter­ri­ble mis­take. The bite of the laser was the metaphor­i­cal kick I needed. I loved those loops and whorls; when I’d had them done six years be­fore, see­ing the sharp con­trast of the black ink was one of the few times in my life I liked my pale English skin.

To have the tat­too re­moved en­tirely would take at least four more ses­sions, but I knew I wouldn’t be back. Strangely enough, my boyfriend stopped his cam­paign. The tat­too, dis­coloured and smudged by one laser treat­ment, was ef­fec­tively ru­ined. Maybe that was enough for him to feel like he’d won the bat­tle. Or maybe he knew he had taken me to my limit.

The faded de­sign be­came an em­blem for all the prob­lems be­tween us. By the time we fi­nally split up, years later, I had learned that there are worse things than hav­ing an­other failed re­la­tion­ship—and los­ing yourself is one of them. Los­ing your loved ones is an­other. I had be­come com­pla­cent, let­ting dis­tance come be­tween me and my fam­ily and friends, can­celling girls’ nights out and va­ca­tions with fam­ily.

Liv­ing alone in a small loft off Queen Street West in Toronto, I slowly re­dis­cov­ered how I wanted to move through the world—with­out the judg­ment I’d felt for the pre­vi­ous eight years. Soon into the fledg­ling stages of a new re­la­tion-

I learned that there are worse things than hav­ing an­other failed re­la­tion­ship — and los­ing yourself is one of them.

ship (a long-dis­tance ro­mance con­sist­ing of ec­static vis­its and end­less phone calls late into the night), I made a vow to be true to my­self and not to back down when some­thing was im­por­tant to me. When there was the rare con­flict, it was af­firm­ing to have that con­vic­tion. I learned that stand­ing up for yourself can ac­tu­ally make the bonds be­tween part­ners stronger.

While it’s true that get­ting a tat­too post-breakup is not novel—it’s prob­a­bly up there with throw­ing a clichéd Sin­gle Again! party or in­dulging in a Euro­pean trip of self-dis­cov­ery—I de­cided that the most ap­pro­pri­ate way to em­brace my new re­al­ity was to re­pair that tat­too. It would, how­ever, need to re­flect the evo­lu­tion in my life. As I’m a writer, it seemed fit­ting to add a line of text. My longdis­tance paramour (a term that still elic­its his won­der­ful laugh) is also a writer, and we ex­changed ideas of what the text could be: A lyric from a favourite song? A quote from a beloved novel? Or some­thing from the po­etry we ex­changed on a daily ba­sis?

I went to the tat­too par­lour by my­self on a quiet week­day af­ter­noon about six months af­ter the breakup. The st­ing of the artist’s nee­dle brought tears to my eyes, but it wasn’t from the pain. Sit­ting in that chair, one not all that dif­fer­ent from the der­ma­tol­o­gist’s years be­fore, I felt like I was re­gain­ing some­thing I had lost—some­thing that went much deeper than the ink on my skin.

In the end, I added the line “so quite new,” from an E. E. Cum­mings poem: “I like my body when it is with your body. It is so quite new a thing.” For me, it per­fectly en­cap­su­lated what I wanted to cel­e­brate and im­mor­tal­ize: start­ing over, be­ing true to my­self and ac­knowl­edg­ing that be­ing with some­one should al­low you to feel good about yourself.

A few years later, I still get a rush when I catch a glimpse of the dark scrolls in the mir­ror. And while it’s not es­sen­tial, it feels right that my “paramour,” with whom I now live, also loves it. I like what that rep­re­sents. n

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