The artist looks at the blurry decades-old tattoo on my back. Over my shoulder I say to her, “It hurt so much. It felt like he went too hard, but maybe not? I don’t know. I didn’t know anything at the time.”
She touches the blown-out ink. “You have tough skin,” she says. “A lot of artists don’t know how to work with skin like yours. This guy certainly didn’t. He went so hard and deep to try and get your skin to take the ink that he basically spent two or three hours cutting you. God, of course it hurt.”
“Is tough skin ok?” I ask.
“Of course! You just can’t tattoo it like normal skin. No, tough skin is great. You have the best skin for being out in the world, out in nature, for doing almost anything.”
A few hours later I text a girlfriend. “The universe has given us an incredible joke: I have tough skin! Me!” There are not enough exclamation points in the world to convey how ridiculous this is, or how perfect.
Here are some things I have heard over the course of my life:
Your skin is incredibly soft.
I hate you, your skin is so perfect.
Jesus Christ, you are so goddamn thin-skinned. It makes me crazy sometimes.
Do you ever age?
I worry about you. You’re too tender to be out in the world. It’s like you’re a turtle who took off her own shell to offer herself up for soup.
Later I sit alone on the steps at the back of my house and think about my skin. I think about how it is slowly losing collagen, how it creases and folds in ways I did not expect, how time has worn almost imperceptible grooves into it like the slow water erosion of limestone.
I think about how I spent a lifetime feeling thin-skinned and delicate, easy to wound. How ridiculous it sounds to say, “I have tough skin.” I have never had tough skin, not even for one moment of my existence.
But I have. For all of it. Not just some moments but every single one, millions upon millions of them.
I run my hand along my shoulder. Was I wrong all this time? How could I live an entire life inside my own skin yet fail to understand it?
The sun is hours from setting. My arms are still warm to the touch but prickly now, goosebumps rising from the cool breeze blowing off the Bay. I think about how close I came to leaving this feeling for one I found in London. I think about my time there, how far away it all seems now, how much like an unfortunate dream whose specter will haunt me only at moments when I least expect it. In the warm California evening I can no longer imagine the feeling I had that drew me to London. I can remember only how my skin felt as I walked down the street with the cherry tree and I imagined maybe the city could one day feel like home.
That was a story I told myself, that London story. I told it because I did not know how to change the stories I’d told for so many years, the stories of California and Colorado, of east coast and west, of where I’d been and where I wanted to go, of myself and my skin. I cannot erase those stories or leave them behind. I can only write over them with new ones.
I stand up from the steps and turn to go inside. I am buoyed by a strange euphoria, a calm satisfaction, an unfamiliar sense of invincibility. I feel self-contained for the first time.
My skin is the best for being out in the world and doing almost anything.
Maybe this was what it meant to find my way home.