by Amanda Shayne Aszman
Around the time my endorphins abandoned me and I considered slapping the chick with the needle, I wondered whether it was the English major or the romantic in me who had thought surely a tattoo would fix my problems. I still haven’t figured that one out. But there is, without a doubt, now 500 dollars worth of symbolism on my back.
My trip down body-modification lane really started a year ago, as our plane descended through Washington’s chronic cloud cover. I wriggled myself upright in my window seat and looked out at the craggy mountains, and just like that, hostility nuzzled through my core.
My trip down body-modification lane really started a year ago, as our plane descended through Washington’s chronic cloud cover.
Psh, I thought, there goes my tan. Welcome to the land of vitamin-D deficiency. What kind of state gets named after a president? And how can I ever belong to a place where I seemed to see more bikini coffee stands than libraries?
In the window seat beside me, Billy smiled. He didn’t notice my stark-mad glare. He was just so happy that our seven years together had finally resulted in spousehood, even though it had meant dragging me from Ohio to a military base in the Pacific Northwest. I dropped the evil eye, reached across the armrest to hold his pinky, and smiled back.
You see, relocation was a big step for a hardcore homebody like me. I’m talkin’ there-and-back college commuter, New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s, and Friday night dance parties with my much younger sister. I spent time with friends, of course, but it was always with regret that I left the comfort of home. Nothing beat the warm kitchen chaos served up daily in a family of six. Nothing beat the bounty of my little sister’s laugh, or the familiarity even of tossing old insults with two teenage brothers. Home hugged me, held me together the way no other place could.
So when I began to pull my roots, I pulled them one by one. Some were short and hardly pinched, too shallow to cause much pain. On graduation day I grabbed my Bachelor’s degree and prodded my family to the car while my classmates reveled on the lawn. Sold my Saturn and packed my bags with severity. If I couldn’t wear it or read it, it stayed behind.
But other roots were more invested in their ground, scraggly long and tangled up in the deep. At our wedding I hugged everyone a little too long, laid my head on their shoulders and imagined my life in a place without them. At the airport I smiled at my parents and dug my nails into my palms. I clung to my sister till the last possible moment. I can still see us there on that airport bench, where she cried into her hands, wanting to hug me and hide from me all at once, and where I held her in a ball until Billy nodded gently at the clock. Our braided roots unraveled in the air as I walked away, unable to look back.
I cried all through security.
I never gave Washington a chance. The moment I left the airport, I clutched my umbrella and criticized her thunderless rain. In a few days’ time, I despised our ever-dripping windows, and the way the never-ceasing drips formed puddles and invited their creepy friends, the molds and the mildews. I spent my days copyediting from inside our apartment, a space so small you could vacuum every furry crevice without switching outlets.
Billy never discouraged my verbal abuse of the Evergreen State. In fact, we both enjoyed pelting her with sarcasm.
“What the hell is that?” he’d say on those rare cloudless days, pointing at the sky and shrinking in mock horror.
I’d shield my face from the sun and respond gamely, like an adventurer down under. “Don’t worry! It’ll go away soon!” We’d laugh and laugh at that one. Never got old.
In my refusal to adjust, I held on to my homesick roots, kept them curled inside.
In my refusal to adjust, I held on to my homesick roots, kept them curled inside. Together we called home five times a day, intent on sucking some morsel of comfort through the phone. Under the illusion that dropping a package in the mail might sluice out the guilt of leaving, we shipped home gifts for my sister — stuffed orcas and Space Needle rain globes, boxes of Almond Roca — worth less than their postage.
By the time the holidays hurtled in, I was a mess. Anxiety thrived inside me, something like static bumping through my organs. The second I woke, my body jumped into survival mode; my heart raced the rest of the day. I could never catch my breath and was forever yawning and gulping for air like someone near death. And if I wasn’t cursing the price of a plane ticket home, or begging my stomach to settle so I could sleep or have a damn sugar cookie, I was sobbing on my husband’s chest, frustrated, so fed up with myself and everything around me. I wanted to feel normal again. I wanted air. I wanted release. And during one desperate moment I swore I spotted it outside the window.
I’ve always had a thing for trees. Is it weird to say I respect them? Thanks to Disney’s Pocahontas, I used to walk through the woods back home and pretend the rustling leaves were speaking to me, whispering Grandmother Willow’s wisdom. Listen with your heart, you will understand. Trees are majestic and serene, yet strong enough to grow around obstacles, consume fences and cars, even fellow trees. They’re natural givers of shelter, food, oxygen. Remember The Giving Tree? I wanted my own dutiful supplier of oxygen, my own generous tree to fill me with its peace.
Can you see me, then, straddling that chair, adrenaline pumping mad as a green-haired artist stabbed my back with color? See how the leaves fell against my spine in tiny knifing burns, how the roots pooled blood? This was the answer. How could something so painful not be equally powerful?
Can you see me, then, straddling that chair, adrenaline pumping mad as a green-haired artist stabbed my back with color? See how the leaves fell against my spine in tiny knifing burns, how the roots pooled blood?
Now see me five hours later, bleeding ink and crouching in the tub while my husband rinsed candy-colored water down the drain. Five hours, and I felt no different. There was the pain of an open wound, of course, but the transformation went no deeper. For the next week I experienced only the usual, physical healing: scabbing like a plank of wood, flakes of autumn leaves on all my clothes. Nothing magical about it.
I realized then that my problem runs deeper than the second layer of skin, that my heart is what needs to change. I can hate Washington because she’s not Ohio, or I can let myself love her. I can blame her because my family isn’t here, because life often feels like a bad vacation, or I can accept her. Maybe I’ll find peace. Maybe I’ll even find myself happy here.
There are moments now and then, when I look backward into the bathroom mirror at the limbs twisting up like flames, a whispering assails me. Your roots are not mobile by nature. You will wither, collapse, float apart on the wind. Put them down where the rain will help them grow. They will bring you the things that you need.