Shoulders, nose, arms, cheeks.
Sunblock wasn’t the done thing when I was growing up. I remember going out into the blistering sun to feel the heat winding and settling like a living thing, watching the skin turn brown like toast and then flushing pink. I remember peeling back sunburn as gleefully as I’d unwrap a present. New freckles showed up on a near-daily basis and I’d look for constellations in the bath as the water cooled around me.
Last week I went to the park. The sky was cloudless and perfect. I wiggled my toes in the grass and thought about summers past, with bicycles and ice cream and barefoot hopscotch on sizzling pavement. I remembered going to bed the same time as the sun, falling asleep under just a cool sheet, hair still tangled and lips still sugary-sticky, waiting for something I couldn’t put my finger on.
The breeze washed over me and brought me back to reality, with all its bills and complications and a body that seems significantly older every time I take note of it. Summers just aren’t the same as they used to be.
Still, the sun draws the freckles to the surface. They brighten and spark like living memory, tingling on my skin like sugar on the tongue. You are still here, they seem to say. All is not lost yet.
Knees, face, feet, head.
Grace is not one of my virtues. Before I learned to be mostly still, I careened through my surroundings like a whirling dervish, bouncing off the nearest surface in my heedless haste. Most of my scrapes and scratches didn’t leave any lasting evidence, but my skin bears a few reminders of carelessness past.
The knees are splotchy pink, peppered with a million clumsy hopscotch falls and failed fence climbs. If you look closely enough, you’ll see the faded road rash from being pulled down onto the pavement in walking my exuberant dog. That dog is long gone, blurry in my memory, but the scars remind me of a best friend I used to have. The sting of hydrogen peroxide hovers just below the surface, just barely dulled.
There are small acne scars on my chin and cheeks. They are still the bane of my existence, but the little divot on my forehead makes me smile at the remembered outrage of a bout with chicken pox in my late teens. My very first driver’s license photo had one perfect dot on my face, a humourless punctuation mark to my expression.
My ankles and feet betray a weakness for footwear that eschews comfort in lieu of style. Red stiletto heel, black suede peep-toe, faux-snakeskin pumps, I love you all. The blisters were worth it.
The punchline to all of them is hidden underneath my hair, just at the crown. I fell down a flight of stairs onto the corner of a piano. That right there is a lifelong dedication to physical comedy.
Eyes, hips, thighs, breasts, belly.
I remember the very first stretch marks I ever got. I was eleven years old and in full bloom, my body making unfamiliar shapes like I was being sculpted by invisible hands. Girls curled their lips and whispered behind books about how I was stuffing my bra while the boys snapped at its straps. I didn’t understand why this thing I hadn’t asked for suddenly made me public property to be discussed and poked and prodded. Didn’t understand why older men sometimes stared a little too long. Why I was supposed to be ashamed.
My body became something that was always hidden from view. I got dressed in the dark.
At first what I noticed was the itchiness along the side of my hip. Mosquito bite, I figured, scratching at it absently. When I looked, I saw angry red stripes. After spending a solid two weeks convinced I was dying of scarlet fever or some such ailment, I worked up the nerve to ask my mother what they were.
“Stretch marks,” she said gently. “They happen sometimes when your body grows so fast.”
I asked if they ever went away. She told me that they didn’t, but they do fade. Just one more indignity to add to the growing pile of resentments I had toward puberty. The lines kept coming, marking me in all the places I hated. My body was growing so fast that it was literally tearing me apart. I felt like crying and keening like a wild animal.
They’ve all faded now, just like my mother said they would. Just little grooves that don’t quite have a colour anymore. Not quite pink, not quite white. In just the right light, though, they’re shot through with silver. Tigress stripes.
Different lines are coming now, evidence of laughter and worry borne out around my eyes. I wish I could tell you that I’ve made my peace with the idea, but I haven’t quite yet. Some days, they’re a sign of a life being lived to the fullest. Some days, I contemplate making a savings account for Botox in ten years. My body has a mind of its own and I can’t seem to keep up.
These are different from all the others. I chose them, decided exactly where they’d be and what they would look like.
My lower back bears a black phoenix. I was nineteen years old and hadn’t yet heard the phrase “tramp stamp”. My grandmother had passed away a few months before and in a twisted way, getting the tattoo was a small and unconscious rebellion. If you’re going to die and leave me, I guess I’m going to just get a tattoo and show you that I don’t need you.
A symbol of immortality in the colour of mourning. It’s exactly the kind of thing she’d have laughed at, my way of storming off while proving the exact point she’d been making. It was like the time I was three years old and marched into the kitchen carrying one of her prize ceramic dogs, delightedly saying “Nanny, I’m not allowed to touch this, am I?”
The tattoo itself didn’t hurt terribly. Less than an hour of what felt like cat scratches. It healed easily and settled in like it was supposed to be there. It felt anticlimactic.
My right side is covered in cherry blossoms, bright pink and white flowers blooming up my hip to my back.
I was spinning out of control when I got it. I was depressed, heartbroken and totally adrift. The size of it, taking one eight-hour sitting to complete, was pure masochism. I’ve never been into self-injury before or since, but at that time, I wanted to hurt. I wanted to turn all the ugly things in me into something beautiful. Once it was finished, I literally passed out from adrenaline and pain and exhaustion. This, I thought, is a tattoo.
I love them both as much as you can love anything you made for the wrong reasons.
Now that they’ve become part of the landscape, the whole of my body feels like it tells a story. Each mark is like a hieroglyphic, or a landmark, or a passport stamp. It’s topography of life. I’m learning to think it’s beautiful.