I almost got a tattoo this summer. But the place wasn’t right. I don’t mean placement — that’s all fine — but the physical setting. The city where you get printed. The decision for the place of a tattoo is as important as the design. The setting of the tattoo’s story dictates the life it will lead. Getting inked in New York on Doyers and Bowery, after you’ve eaten dumplings from Joe’s, is a different story from walking out Hard Rock Tattoos in Tennessee, your spur-of-the-moment decision in the midst of Bonnaroo. This is the tattoo’s birthplace.
But Paris was all wrong. Paris was gray and hot and lonely and starving. Paris was a broken washing machine and the spider that never left the bathroom. Paris was blisters and long lines and the lady with the red nails smoking in the café.
Paris was wrong because I have no scar from Paris. It’s these pink and slippery accidental lines — not inked labels — that my skin collects like passport stamps. I have exactly one for each place I’ve lived. And when I glimpse them in passing mirrors, rub fingertips along their ridges, I go back. Tattoos may whisper, give me a faint notion of who I was when I got them. But my scars all speak — in voices scratchy and slender and loud and high pitched — and they all tell stories.
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Belews Lake, N.C.: I’ve lived in North Carolina for over 20 years, so it’s surprising that its waters have only stamped me once. A faint white trace. I was 8. Water skiing behind my cousin Chuck’s boat. He motioned for me to cross in and out of the wake; my first time. Too timid to commit, I ended up with one ski on each side of the lip in a split. The outside ski tip caught under the water. I went down, skis went up. When I bobbed to the surface, I hit my mouth against one of the skis. Split my lip. If you don’t commit, you always fall.
Woods behind the Academy in Exeter, N.H.: I told my friends I’d fought a bear. But the truth is it was a high school cross-country practice. I was exhausted from a sleepless night, and I tripped over a giant tree root. My hand got caught on some sharp rocks. My team ran on while I pedaled my coach’s bike back to the nurse’s office, hand held out to the side, leaving a trail of blood in the miles of dirt. I got six stitches and an extension on my lifeline. Fortune tellers are particularly vague when reading my palm. I leave a lot up to the stars but when I’m unsatisfied with the answers, I look to my scarred hand. Even ripped, it pulled me out of childhood.
Yale lacrosse frat, New Haven, Ct.: I watched a girl, drunk in heels, stumble and almost fall on her way out of the backyard. In her stupor she barely showed surprise. Onlookers laughed; I shook my head. I was sober and not having much fun. The friends I’d come with wanted to leave, so I decided to go with them. Suddenly, I found myself on my knees — one knee. My left leg had plunged into a hole in the ground, lined with open pipe. Onlookers laughed and I was surprised that there was any blood left to drip down my leg — the whole supply had to be circulating in my cheeks. I hobbled home. When you understand what it was that knocked the drunk girl to her knees, you’re not so quick to judge.
Rocks on a beach, Marseille, France: My mom thinks I did it on purpose. Or that I’d been drinking. But who puts a shard of glass in their pants and grinds it up in their knee on purpose? I was not drinking — the glass was sharp, it was dark and my legs were numb after skinny-dipping. But she is right in that this is the ugliest of my scars, and also the one I’m most proud of. An inch-long ridge of purple tissue, it splays across the bend of my right knee. I look at that raw crease and close my eyes and I’m taken by a sudden rush of wind, the back of a motorcycle winding down roads to a dark and empty coast, laughter and waves echoing off rocks, salty midnight kisses. Love doesn’t hurt so much when you’re numb.
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Getting a tattoo suddenly seems silly. How do you earn the right to choose which places and stories color your life? I drink my coffee and look at the blank skin where I wanted to get my tattoo. I am half-relieved, half-wanting. Tattoos are perhaps a way of trying to write the body into a piece of fiction. But scars, raw and ugly, can’t be anything but honest.
Contact Mary Howard Holderness at