What I was about to do had once been out of character for me, but years of living in Berkeley has changed me. I knew there were those who wouldn’t understand my choice, but several women at the hospital where I worked had my back, saying “Go ahead, try it!” I thought, I must just take the leap. Four years into the twenty-first century, and I was fifty-nine, happily divorced, and in need of some excitement. Though sixty is just a number, I didn’t like the sound of it.
It was Lulu’s idea. She was fifteen and had been begging me for months. “Please, Mom,” was her plea. “Crystal’s mom did it; they both did, so let’s do it together. It could be one of those mother/daughter bonding things!” Crystal’s mom was a single parent like me, though at fifty she was apparently dealing pot as her day job and partying all night, so I didn’t find Lulu’s argument all that persuasive. I also knew that once we went down this path, there was no turning back. The effect was permanent, and Las Vegas was the only safe place to do it.
Nevertheless, I love my daughter and have never ignored a bonding opportunity, so I read the business card Lulu handed me. It said Green Dragon Tattoo: Body art, piercings and cover-ups. My mind shifted at once to thoughts of criminal activity, and I felt a surge of excitement as well as a touch of terror, until I realized that cover-ups only meant they could make their work disappear. Maybe that’s supposed to be reassuring.
Lulu had done her research. Tattooing is legal in Nevada for anyone age sixteen and over, while California’s legal age is eighteen. It was clear from her constant urging that a tattoo was what my daughter wanted for her sixteenth birthday. A trip to Las Vegas and the Green Dragon Tattoo Parlor would fulfill her dream. Given that half of Berkeley High freshmen arrive with numerous tattoos and piercings, this was a modest request on Lulu’s part. Though I didn’t feel driven to start a movement to lower the legal age to sixteen, I preferred that she have it done by professionals. Since I was leaning toward agreeing, I wondered if I could make it more palatable by getting one for myself. My sixtieth birthday was a week after Lulu’s and I wanted to celebrate Big Time. Perhaps a discreet work of body art would be the perfect entrée into this new decade. It seemed like a great way to honor our mutual birthdays.
As I considered the decision, my voice of reason persisted: getting a tattoo seemed dangerous. I would be the first in my family to have one, the first among my friends. Certainly no one at the Zen Center had a tattoo, at least not that was visible to me as we sat together meditating every morning at five a.m.
Had I been unduly influenced by Lakeshia, a nurse at work who had a stunning shoulder tattoo from the Ashanti tribe? She encouraged the tattoo idea and told me that expressing herself with a tattoo at sixteen had kept her from doing drugs and having wild sex. Would it have a similar effect on Lulu? I’d been raised to believe that a tattoo was the precursor to drugs and wild sex. But then, I’d also been raised to believe that smoking a joint led immediately to heroin addiction, and that hadn’t happened. Weighing the risks for myself, I figured I was probably safe. As for my daughter, I found it unlikely that body art would thwart her development or lead her down untoward paths. She’s a smart kid.
When I thought about the tattoo, I was sure I didn’t want matching rose curly-cue designs, like Crystal and her mom had chosen. This tattoo was meant to help Lulu express herself, not claim allegiance to me. So, after due diligence, I made my commitment and began to plan our trip to Las Vegas.
Lulu joined in the process and went online to check out the Green Dragon Tattoo Parlor.
“These people really rock,” she declared. “It says that if we ask for Talons, Bikerboy, or Josh, we’ll get great service.”
I thought I’d go with Josh.
We pulled into the Motel Six on Tropicana Ave, right across from the MGM Grand and Hooters, checked in, and went to our room. The double beds took up most of the space, but it was clean. Exhausted from the drive, I went right to sleep. When I woke the next morning, Lulu was already up, having gotten free coffee and donuts from the front desk. I took hard boiled eggs, a grapefruit, and V-8 juice from the cooler and insisted she get milk to have with her doughnut.
We found the Green Dragon Tattoo Parlor hidden away in an alley. On the upside, however, alleyways in Las Vegas are more strip mall corridors, and not dark and dirty alleys between apartment buildings with fire escapes for quick getaways. I did, however, wonder what was in the dumpster next to the door emblazoned with a green dragon staring at us with red eyes. Was that a foot in that boot I saw peeking out of a black plastic bag? Lulu ignored all of my concerns and scooted inside to study the rows of tattoo designs lining the walls. I followed her in.
I scanned the room, which had white walls and a black linoleum floor. It seemed clean, even cheerful. A tall good-looking man with a pony-tail and tattoos covering muscular arms grinned at me. “I’m Josh, may I help you?
“Yes, please,” I stammered, despite my relief that he was not Talons, “we’d like a tattoo.” I felt Lulu cringe.
Lulu slid between Josh and me and began a very impressive discussion of Tribal versus Celtic versus Asian designs. For a minute, I thought they were talking about music, but since I didn’t hear any, I just tried to look cool. I fixed my eyes on a spot on the wall, hoping to settle the nausea that was threatening to erupt. I felt like an adolescent stuck in a small space with the wrong crowd.
Josh directed Lulu to the Asian wall. I asked if they had any flowers, quickly adding that I didn’t care for roses. I was escorted to a corner with a small display of hummingbirds, spider webs, black roses, and moons in various phases.
“Take your time and let me know if you have any questions.” Josh said and walked away. I searched and found only one flower I liked, an iris. The problem was that it had a fuzzy stamen, protruding from a dark opening, which looked uncomfortably phallic. I asked Josh if they made adjustments to their designs and he assured me that they could. He seemed amused, which made me feel even more awkward, as if I had asked permission to remove his penis.
“Does the process hurt?” I asked, thinking I was changing the subject.
“It feels like a repeating pin prick,” he said, as if it was nothing.
“I have a low pain tolerance. Do you use anesthetics?”
To his credit, he kept a straight face. “We aren’t licensed anesthesiologists, so no, we don’t, but we can go slow, and of course we can stop any time you want.”
I imagined Josh getting only as far as the fuzzy stamen and black hole and then my backing out, forever marked by this experience. I saw Lulu roll her eyes and wondered if she’d read my mind.
Lulu ended up choosing a columbine graced by a blue and yellow butterfly. She called me over to the desk so I could fill out the paperwork. I explained that she was sixteen, and she showed her ID. I scanned the liability contract and then I signed.
“If you take off your blouse” Josh said, as he directed me to the work area, “it will be easier to do the work. And it’s important that you don’t move.”
His voice was steady. I stripped to my tank top, sank into what seemed like a massage chair, turned face down, and reminded myself that I was doing nothing wrong. Josh worked on me and Bikerboy, a stocky man with a shaved tattooed head, introduced himself and began working on Lulu.
When I shot an anxious “Are you okay?” to Lulu, she snorted. “Of course.”
Josh and Bikerboy were silent, absorbed in their work. Talons apparently had the day off.
I asked Josh to remove the stamen and close the black hole. His voice was convincing when he agreed. The sound of the electric needle steadily pulsating, injecting ink in quick spurts, reminded me of a sewing machine on its fastest speed. I can’t say it hurt; it was more of a hardcore tingle. It was over in twenty minutes.
I leapt up from the chair breathlessly. I felt daring and rebellious, and had to stop myself from shouting, “Here I am!” I couldn’t wait to show Lakeshia. Lulu stood up and we compared our tattoos, silently grinning. Josh and Bikerboy smiled and I felt a thrill when Josh winked at me. I briefly considered asking them to join us for lunch, but reason prevailed.
As we walked to the car, I felt dizzy with excitement, imagining the new outfit I’d buy to reveal my left shoulder and its new tattoo. Or maybe the convertible I’d rent to drive around town with windblown hair, wearing a strapless dress. Was it possible that I was having a mid-life crisis? Or was sixty just the new sixteen?
Lulu was oblivious, lost in her fantasies, but, as usual, cool as her favorite lime slushie.