Jessica argued with me the whole way there about that Ironic song by Alanis Morissette. She was convinced the first line of the chorus was, “It’s like rape on your wedding day.”
“She’s clearly saying ‘ray-ne’,” I told her over and over, sounding the word out. “You can clearly hear the ‘n’ sound.”
“No, no, listen,” said Jessica, grabbing her phone and rewinding and playing me the line again.
“I don’t hear it,” I said for the fiftieth time.
“It’s there,” Jessica insisted. “I swear to God!”
We were driving in her four year old mini-SUV. Jessica was my co-worker. She was a year older than me and I was fascinated by her. I idolized her, to be honest. She had tattoos, she had piercings, and she was cool as heck. She was hot, skinny, freckled, all wet black hair and tanned cheeks and smoky eyes and white teeth. She smelled like California sunshine, if sunshine had a smell.
I, on the other hand, was on the wrong side of overweight, didn’t wear make-up because I’d never learned how to put it on, had a minor case of acne and constantly had scratches on my arms and wrists because my skin was so dry. I worked in mud and hay and animal shit and hanging out with Jessica always made me feel really dumpy.
I was raised in a super religious household. Practically Amish. I’m the second youngest of seven. All my older brothers and sisters are disciplined and professional successes. Most have families of their own. My youngest brother has cerebral palsy. He and I are only two kids that still live with my parents. We all go to church three times a week. I take care of my animals. I have a lamb that I’m planning on showing this summer. Tattoos, piercings, and anything other than Bible study and honest work are considered tools of Satan.
Which was too bad, because I’d always wanted a tattoo. Even a little one. It seemed like a great way to mark yourself, to plant a stake in your identity, one the whole world could see.
Still, it had taken weeks for Jessica to convince me to get one after I told her my secret desire one day while we folded clothes.
“You can get it somewhere your parents’ll never know,” she’d said, whispering for some reason even though we were alone. “On your foot or something. Or your waistline. You should do it!”
“I’ll pray about it,” I told her. And I did.
So Jessica had convinced me to come along with her today. Jessica was getting a nose piercing and I was getting a tattoo. Supposedly. My first.
Jessica and I work at a Forever 21 together. I got the job so I could pay the entry fees for my lamb showings. I’d been working there a couple months. My parents were nervous about me starting there. They were nervous about who I would meet and who would influence me. But they’d agreed to it, because I was old enough to have a job of my own. I went to the mall and randomly sent out apps and Forever 21 was the first place to respond. I met Jessica on my first day.
I didn’t tell my parents about Jessica. They thought I was walking to the library right now. I prayed for forgiveness for lying to them, and I hoped God would understand.
I was nervous. To put it mildly. I was afraid of how it would feel. Jessica said it would feel like someone scratching a sunburn, or a sustained bee sting. I figured I could handle that. I’d been bitten, kicked, stung and burned by all sorts of things throughout my childhood.
We got to the tattoo shop — a small glass facade that’s part of the main street in Brighton, in between a barber shop and a Triple A— and I started thinking about my Mom and my Dad and Harlan, my brother.
The door tinged as we went in and my heart was pounding.
Jessica knew the guy behind the counter and gave him a hug. She had her nose piercing done in like two minutes. I’d been hoping I would have more time to decide or possibly back out. I prayed to God that this would go well.
Then it was my turn.
The guy — Clyde — showed me books of tattoos. I took my time, seeing my parents’ disapproving faces, but something propelled me forward and I finally picked a little infinity sign when Jessica and the guy made it clear they knew I was stalling. I got it just above my ankle. That way I figured I could hide it if I wanted.
I shut my eyes and Jessica held my hand while Clyde started. It didn’t hurt that bad, and it only took about five minutes. I felt like I was in a dream. I kept telling myself I’d wake up and I wouldn’t actually have the tattoo and everything would be fine. I let it happen.
“There you go,” said Clyde when he was done. “Welcome to the club.”
He gave me some lotion to put on it, I paid him 50 dollars (he said it was usually more because he’s an experienced artist, but he gave me a discount because it was so small and because it was my first one) and we walked back out again.
We’d only been in there fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. It only took that long to change a small part of my appearance forever.
Jessica drove me home and I was all nerves. I felt like the entire universe was pressing down on me. Jessica’s nose ring looked great. She was laughing a lot about whatever it was she was talking to me about and she got Starbucks on the way back. I didn’t want anything.
Jessica dropped me off down the street so my parents wouldn’t know. I’d had her pick me up here, too. I felt bad about all this deception. I felt God watching me.
“By the way,” Jessica said just before she pulled away.
“I know it’s ‘rain’ on your wedding day,” said Jessica. “But I think Alanis originally meant to have it be ‘rape.’ And her management made her change it because it was too edgy. But Alanis made it sound just enough like ‘rape’ in the recording so people would know.”
She pulled off without another word, tires flinging dust everywhere. Her mini-SUV roared down the road and out of sight.
I turned toward home and started putting one foot in front of the other. My permanently altered ankle, my left one, somehow felt heavier than my right.
I thought about everything, about God’s will and how truth always wins. I’d always been a unconvincing liar. I’d always been obedient. But everything always comes back down to the unbreakable laws of nature, the laws God set up Himself. All the arbitrary nonsense humans pile up over them for whatever political or ego-gratifying reasons, they all fall away like flower petals the second harsh reality arrives. All that’s left is the bedrock that God provides — the attractive breed, the strong survive, the powerful win, and everything else deals with what’s left.
I knew what all this meant. I knew why I was so apprehensive. That reality would be my parents if they found out I’d lied. They’d find out, sooner or later.
I had to confess. That was the only way to make this right. God was making the answer plain to me. I’d lied to them. I’d never lied to them before, not like this. I liked Jessica, but she was a bad influence. She didn’t care about me, not really. She kept me around because it was amusing for her, and because I made her feel more attractive. I said a little prayer for Jessica, that she would find guidance.
I was surprised to find that, despite feeling bad about lying, I didn’t feel bad about the tattoo. It was mine, part of me now. God had allowed it to happen. And if He had allowed it to be etched into me, it couldn’t be all bad.
I made it home, went inside, prayed that God would help my mom not be too mad when I confessed. My mom was in the kitchen, going through the mail.
“How was the library?”
I prayed to God to help me with my words and to help my mother understand. I didn’t lie to her. I was twenty years old and not a girl anymore.
“I didn’t go. I went out with Jessica.”
My mom put her priestess face on. My siblings named it that. It’s the face she makes when she’s judging us with God’s righteous thunder. I tried not to cower.
“A girl I work with.”
“At Forever 21?”
Mom’s priestess face made it clear she knew exactly what was going on.
“What did that girl make you do?” she asked.
“Nothing. I wanted to.”
“What did you do to yourself?”
God helped me say the words.
“I got a tattoo.”
My mother’s priestess face stayed on. She inhaled through her nose.
“Show me,” she said.
I did, pulling my sock down. The tattoo was sore, very much like a sunburn.
Mom looked at me and my heart felt like a rose in a furnace. Her look was utter disappointment. I wilted under it.
“Oh, Ruth,” she said. “You’re going to regret that for the rest of your life.”
She came over, reached down, grabbed my leg. Shook her head. Inspected the little infinity sign like it was a burn or a scar. (It was a scar, technically, but you get my point)
“Look at what you did to your pretty skin,” she said. “Just wait until your father sees this. I hope it doesn’t get infected.”
I looked down at the gleaming smear on my ankle, the starkness of the black ink. The permanence of it. This little symbol would be with me for every memory I created from now on.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to get emotional, either toward anger or sadness. I wanted to give her nothing.
I wanted her to see I was my own woman now, regardless of how she felt about it. That’s why I allowed this to happen even as my inner doubt screamed at me. That’s why God was with me in that tattoo parlor. That’s why He’d allowed it. He wanted my Mom to see that I was a woman, too.
“Go to your room and pray,” my mom said. “Think about this. I don’t know if you’ll get to show your lamb this summer after all. Even if you can pay for it yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I held it together. God was with me, just like He was with my mom.
I went to my room, sat on my bed and tried to calm down. I didn’t cry. I took my socks off and looked at my foot, still getting used to seeing the little sideways 8 on my ankle. I could feel it, a little patch of heat. I took the small bottle of lotion out of my pocket and took a dab and smeared it on the tattoo. It was cool and soothing.
Hours went by. I fell asleep.
I awoke to a knocking. I didn’t know how much time had passed.
The knocking was soft, painstakingly polite.
The door cracked open and Harlan stuck his head in.
“Ruth?” he asked, quietly.
“Can I see?”
My mood softened. I was all fuzzy from my impromptu nap.
Harlan opened the door, careful not to bang his crutches on the frame, came through, shut it again.
“Are mom and dad mad?”
“Dad’s not home yet,” said Harlan. He’s 14 and actually really smart with computers. He can’t walk without his crutches and he has trouble talking sometimes but I can always understand him. “I heard Mom talking to you. I think she texted dad and told him. She’s reading her old King James in the living room. She doesn’t know I’m up here. What did you get?”
“Just a little infinity sign on my ankle,” I said.
I showed him my foot, sticking it out over the bed.
He took two tentative steps into the room, eyebrows clenched in examination, leaning on his crutches and craning his head forward, kind of hovering, like he was trying to see into a box from which a dangerous creature might spring.
His eye fell upon the little symbol on my ankle.
“Why’d you get an infinity sign?” he asked, his eyes not leaving my ankle.
“I just saw it in the book the guy showed me,” I said, turning my foot as we both admired my new accessory. “I just thought it was kind of a symbol for God, cause God’s infinite, and permanent, and this tattoo would be permanent, too. It just seemed like what God wanted.”
Harlan examined it. His lips split into a wide smile.
“Badass, Ruth,” he said in his quietest voice.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
I smiled back at him and in that moment I knew God would make things all right.