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