Tattoos
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59 Tattoos Alex comes into the back room and closes the door. “I can’t believe it,” he says. “You should see this girl.” We look up from our charts. Alex’s face is splotchy and he looks very young. “What?”Lindaasks.AlexisinhisfirstyearofOB-GYNresidency—notexactly brand-new but not very experienced either. Next year he’ll blossom, suddenly becoming more self-confident and realizing how much he’s learned. Linda, a third-year resident, and I glance at each other. I’ve been a nurse practitioner in the clinic for sixteen years now; I’ve seen lots of residents pass through. Nothing they say surprises me. “She has the greatest tattoo I’ve ever seen. I wish I had a camera.” Oh, I think. I guess this is a revelation for Alex. The women who come into our clinic like to decorate, and sometimes all they have to adorn—all they have to call their own—are their bodies. I remember the first time I saw a patient splendid in her verdant green and bright blue tattoos. When I lifted the drape to begin her exam, I had to stifle a gasp. A bird of paradise twined around the curve of her right arm, blue and green feathers flowed over her elbow. There were tropical flowers of every color and variety imaginable growing from her shoulder to her breasts, cascading over the slope of them, circling the nipples which alone had been spared and, in contrast, appeared to be pale, less exotic buds. Animals roamed across her belly—a zebra with black and white whorls along its back and a tail that spread coarse black hairs over her hip, and a lioness with yellow eyes. On her left arm were a series of incomplete black line drawings longing for color. “My boyfriend won’t tattoo me when I’m pregnant,” she’d explained. I was doing what good health professionals are not supposed to do. I was surveying the length and breadth of her, painted and etched like a canvas. When she lifted her heels into the stirrups and slid down to the end of the table for her Davis text.indb 59 11/12/08 10:00:34 AM 60  the heart’s truth exam, she was a ripple of color, gliding like a snake. A forest of vines inched down her thighs; here and there oranges and apples waited to be plucked. These were not the homemade tattoos some patients have, ugly blue scars from a novice’s needle wrapped in thread, stuck in a cork, and dipped in ink. These were beautiful , dreamlike images. Amazing. I told her so. “Yeah,” she replied. “He’s an artist and he thinks I’m a piece of paper.” I tried to concentrate on her exam. Every time she moved, her skin glowed and the tattooed images temporarily distorted, as if she were a living LCD monitor touched with a fingertip. When her exam was over, she put on her T-shirt and a pair of jeans carefully ripped to expose the eyes of the lioness. Not just another poor white girl from downtown, this lady was one of a kind. The way she walked, holding her head up, I could see she knew it. “Those tattoos are something, aren’t they?” I smile at Alex who’s still shaking his head as he sits down to write in the patient’s chart. Then, egging each other on, the residents make a list. “Remember Tinker Bell tattooed on that pregnant patient’s belly?” asks Rick, another third-year resident. Linda says, “Yeah, and when she was in her eighth month how Tinker Bell looked like some misshapen monster?” I can picture the tattoo—one wing flapped like a blighted arm and the other was rippled with stretch marks—but I can’t place the patient’s face. Linda recalls one young patient who looked demure and shy but who nonetheless displayed, right below her umbilicus, a bloated heart with a dagger piercing it. Three drops of blood hung from the tattooed blade, a girl-gang insignia. Rick counters with “Did you ever see that one of a pair of snake eyes dice?” And there are so many patients with geometric, intricately tattooed bracelets and anklets that we could never number them all. Roses on shoulders and hearts over the breasts are a dime a dozen. I like whispering with the residents about these intimate details that we are supposed to see...


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