There was something I still needed to do… something else on the finish having cancer checklist… what was it…? Oh yeah, nipples. I had the strange fleshy little mismatched cones that I suppose could have passed for nipples as long as you didn’t need to use them, but they had no color. The nude nipples sat on vertical crescent shaped scars that where most definitely not even. Lefty had an off center smudge of left-over nipple skin. It was all kind of a mess. I almost wished I had just left them in their Frankentits stage – flat and scarred, righty pure and white with her off center slash looked like empty smiley face. I thought maybe the tattoos would clean them up. Put them in order. At the very least it would be nice to stop scaring myself in mirrors, when I was naked, – “what the?!”
I knew I should also do it for “closure” but “closure” would cost me an uninsured $600 a side, plus Dr. TG’s office charged a $350 “facility fee.” So I went ahead and ignored the nagging feeling until I got this email FW “A Tattoo That Completes A New Breast.” There are two very good reasons I almost didn’t open this email. One, – it’s really irritating to be on the list of – “Oh hey, look – an email about breast cancer – let’s not even worry about reading it and FW it to Catheryn.” My Mother especially lacked discriminatory powers: FW “The Carrots Breast Cancer Cure,” FW “Top Signs You Will Get Breast Cancer,” FW “Pregnant Mother Forgoes Chemo to Save Unborn Child.” And the worst FW Some Quote in pastel font with dancing cartoon tulips and pink ribbons “Women are like teabags you never know how strong they are until they get into hot water.” Send to the 8 women you care most about…cuz one of them’s gonna get the breast cancers…
Number two, – apparently this was a vlog that had gone viral and oh the pressure. These memes about women who had organized happenings or flashmobs, come on – how many people sent me – FW – “Courageous Breast Cancer Patient Organizes OR Flashmob – Rocks Out To Beyonce’s Get Me Bodied.” Beyonce even sent her two tickets to a concert – oh my God, wasn’t it enough to worry about having cancer – now I had to worry about celebrity endorsements?
And free concert tickets? – I would have sung about a car. Whatever.
I opened it anyway and found out that Vinnie Myers – a tattoo artist who was so amazing they called him the Michelangelo of nipple tattoos (what was he going to hang me from the ceiling?) His shop right there in Finksburg, Maryland. Now I had no idea where that was, but it was Maryland– it couldn’t be too incredibly far from my family, it’s not a very big state. And I’d be willing to bet, even if he was the greatest of all high classical renaissance artists – his shit would probably be cheaper than Beverly Hills.
Next time I go home I thought. I’ll take my Mom, she’d always layered in a thick hint about how bad she felt about “not being able to be there” for me. Maybe enough water had passed under the bridge and I’d grown enough that we could bond over the whole thing. I decided to combine my summer visit home after the beach with a trip to the tattoo parlor. Mom was excited. She said, “Oh! we could go and get our nails done after!” She then launched into a story about a woman who needed nipples but had had a bilateral mastectomy so they didn’t know what color to make them so she took her sister and they matched hers. She loved that story, I can’t tell you how many times she’d told me that story.
When the summer came I called Little Vinnie’s and found out that Vinnie was booked through January but I could go to his protégé Trent. I thought – why not – in for a penny, in for a pound. That and the total bill would be $600.00!
I was at the beach with my cousin and sister in law the week before my appointment when my besties brought up a very good point. “Are you sure you want to take your Mom?” Christina asked. It was late at night and we were a couple of bottles of Chardonnay in. The dishwasher was running and everyone else was tucked in bed. The time for honest advice.
“Well, you know – she’s always felt bad that she couldn’t help more, you know, come out to California I guess.”
“Okay.” My sister in law is smart enough to know I will start filling in my own blanks.
“I know she will probably say something awkward and make some really bad jokes and….” I trailed off. I thought about driving out to some strange tattoo parlor and having a man stick a needle into my ugly scarred fake breasts while I was trying to make my Mom feel more comfortable.
The dishwasher chug chug chugged.
“Do you want her to go?” Christina asked.
“No.” The tumblers in my head fell into a solid place. I didn’t. Going alone would suck and I was tired of it, but I didn’t want he to go. I felt relief.
“One of us will go.” Christina offered.
I felt bad at the same time I realized I felt very lucky.
These women cared about me, they wanted what was best for me, this is what honesty and tough love felt like. How lucky was I?
I knew they were both busy with their jobs and kids, my sister in law with a breastfeeding newborn to go on a field trip to Finksburg. But I found myself saying “Yes, yes, that would be great.”
True to her word my sister in law made the trek out to Finksburg with me. There was a moment of panic when we were told that babies weren’t allowed in tattoo parlors. This made sense to me but my sister in law insisted on going anyway. “JP and I will hang out in the car.” I couldn’t say no. I mean I could, but I really didn’t want to.
Little Vinnie’s was located in a strip mall way north and west of Baltimore between a vet center and a Curves. The walls were bright yellow covered with drawings of snakes and flames and your prerequisite deer antlers and skulls. There was even a pool table in the center.
I was filling out paperwork a yellow leather bench when an older couple came in. The wife was positively giddy. She had the same mischievous look on her face as the ladies I had seen on the web talking about how they went to a tattoo parlor for “little Vinnie’s.” like it was almost naughty. These mostly older women sporting mischeivious grins had come from as far away as Saudia Arabia, Spain and Brazil. I thought there was something quite lovely about it. These women who had survived breast cancer, got to break free of the sterile hospitals and Dr’s offices and go to a genuine pool table having antlers on the wall tattoo parlor.
A slight gentleman in a vest, bowtie with hipster porkpie hat and mutton chops emerged from the back room. I knew from the interwebs that this was the famous Vinnie. The couple introduced themselves, they had come from Seattle. Soon everyone was laughing and talking loudly over each other like they were at a party.
My tattoo artist Trent had the same hipster uniform, vest, tie, collared shirt. No hat, a close shaven head. When I told him about my sister in law outside in the minivan with a baby he laughed and pointed to a picture of a pretty woman cover in tattoos with three little girls – “I’ve got three tell her to come on in.” I assured him that Molly was a physician’s assistant who had actually worked for a plastic surgeon who did breast reconstructions. He said not to worry, as long as the baby didn’t start crying.
So there we were. My sister in law, Trent, the baby and my nude nipples in a little room in a tattoo parlor in Finksburg, Maryland. He squeezed out ink into a long row of tiny pots; turquoise, yellow, green, peach, baby blue, pink, red and a bunch of flesh tones. Molly and Trent laughed and told me that back in the day women had three choices – salmon, beige or pink. Trent pulled on black latex gloves and used a pink Sharpie to draw a pair first to check for placement. He had me stand up and he and Molly stood back, cocked their heads and narrowed their eyes. JP looked uninterested. The right one needed to be a little bigger to cover more of the scars and skin – but they couldn’t be covered entirely, unless I wanted nipples the size of pancakes. Please, just make them look like nipples. I had heard the stories of women who had roses or angels, the woman in Oprah magazine who had decided to take all of the money from reconstruction and create a gorgeous winding floral artscape on her chest. The idea came from the man she was dating who she would later marry. And then there was the nurse at the hospital when I was waiting with my father during one of his cancer treatments, apparently the nurses knew I was ‘the breast cancer daughter.” “My friend got shamrocks – here and here she said loudly with a finger on each nipple. “Loves ‘em!”
Trent fired up the needle which startled the baby. Molly went ahead and breast fed him. No one said anything but I’m sure the irony was not lost on any of us. It didn’t hurt, – I didn’t have nerves in my fake nipples. He took his time adding those little brown bumps – and shading. He and Molly chatted about how they used to just make the tattoes with a little metal circle template. I zoned out and inspected Trents work on the walls. He specialized in calligraphy. I noticed on the wall a drawing of a pair of angel wings with a halo – under it were the intials CB and a date of death. Well, that wasn’t creepy at all.
It didn’t take long at all and before I knew it I had a matching set of gauze pads over some hot red nipples and a little pink bag with a sticker that said “Tattoo the Tatas.” They look fine. Not great, not epic – not high renaissance but I don’t startle myself in mirrors and I’ve checked the box.
If you were wondering how my mother reacted to being uninvited to my tata tattooing – don’t worry, she was fine. I called her the day after my late night kitchen conversation. I was riding home from the park on my sister in law’s blue beach cruiser bike with my ear buds in when I just launched right into it, “Mom, I think it’s best you don’t go with me for the tattoos.” In an effort to stay true to the original spirit of bonding I added, “you know, as much as I put on a brave face, some of this stuff isn’t easy for me.”
Mom said, “You’ve handled yourself really well through all this, I’ve always thought that I’m glad it was you and not me.“
For a split second the beach cruiser swerved towards the curb. I deftly steered back towards the road. I knew what she meant. I knew she thought it was a compliment, I knew I would follow the sandy asphalt back to the house where there was a kitchen with a dishwasher, chardonnay and love.Tweet