It was Halloween night on the famed Sunset strip in Hollywood; 2 a.m., and the bars were closing, the freaks and ghouls staggering on the sidewalk, in search of home or an after-party.
I was one of those freaks and ghouls. At my wise age of 18, I was stumbling amongst them in platforms, knee highs, and an Alice in Wonderland costume. Sam, my much older boyfriend — 30 to be exact — was grabbing my arm, hoping to get me home in one piece.
The party was over, time to go home, but in the distance, the bright neon lights of a tattoo shop blinked in the night. Open until 3 a.m., it said.
"Sam, let's go there. I'm ready for my first tattoo," I slurred.
"You're drunk," he said as he yanked me towards home.
I rebelled, got my arm free and stomped off towards the parlor, knowing he would follow shortly behind. I entered to the sound of buzzing tattoo guns, ferocious tiger designs and Chinese symbols plastered on the walls. The sweet smell of yesterday's party filled the room.
"I'm getting your name, right here on my wrist," I said
"I don't think that's a good idea," he responded in an almost fatherly way.
This was one of the smarter things Sam had ever said to me. But I was naïve, stubborn and wanted what I wanted.
"I want to be with you forever," I said and turned away to tell the artist.
The tattoo artist, inked and pierced from head to toe, looked down to me like he gets this all the time — drunk girls who want their boyfriends' names tattooed on them. Nothing original. But still, I picked out a font and cleared the $40 payment. And then he said to me just before he started, "Just remember, tattoos are permanent. Are you sure you want this?"
Well, permanent was exactly what I wanted. Two years prior, my father had died of brain cancer. He was sick for a year and then suddenly gone. Everything I had envisioned us doing together, him walking me down the aisle, being the grandfather to my children I hoped to have one day, all of it taken away, quicker than I could snap my fingers. I was so terrified to be alone, and desperately craved a sense of security and safety.
What I thought to be security in the arms of my boyfriend wasn't that at all. The truth was, nothing about Sam was safe. He was a much older man, and I was falling in love for all the wrong reasons. I was looking for someone to take care of me and seeking an escape from the pain of my recent losses. Sam, a struggling musician, showed me a bit of light at the end of my 18-year-old tunnel. He swept me off my feet, began writing songs about me, inspired by my hair.
"Golden locks, golden rays, golden locks to light our way" were the lyrics to his song that was going to make him a star.
My hair and I were his muse. I felt very important. It was all one long VIP party, the perfect escape — until the first time he hit me.
But there I was, sitting in this cheap plastic seat, about to get his name tattooed on the top of my left wrist. Right where everyone could see it. I thought of all the bad in him, the bad in our relationship, but the idea of losing again scared me even more.
"Yes, I'm sure," I said back to the artist.
And then he began, SAM in a romantic cursive font. It stared back at me when he finished — a stamp of my devotion, and a symbol of love I wasn't sure I believed in.
Waking the next day, I thought it had been a dream. My head was pounding from a dreadful hangover and I was still wearing my sexy little Alice costume. There on my wrist was a gauzy bandage, and then I knew it was real.
I was in denial. Sam was an angry man, but he was a good actor, too. When I first met him, he was charming, kind and wanted to impress my family and friends. Soon after, he started to show his true self. I was speaking to a male friend at a party, and he grabbed my hair to pull me away from him. The embarrassment alone was enough to traumatize me, but it's what followed after that shook me even more. He slapped me outside the bar and pushed me up against the wall, leaving a bruise on my arm. He apologized the next day, and I forgave him. We both said how drunk we were and promised it would never happen again.
So I stayed, and I didn't tell anyone about what had happened. I was mortified and knew what their responses would be. I never surrounded myself around that group of friends, who had seen us that night; I couldn't bear the thought of their disapproving eyes. It began happening more, once a month and then every other week. The emotional abuse, was, by far, the hardest to overcome. He would taunt me, and use my weaknesses against me.
"You're all alone in this world," he'd say. "I'm the only one that cares about you. Your family and friends don't give a shit."
He was a damn good manipulator. He got me to believe that my friends and family were negative people in my life, just because they would try and get me away from him. This was all part of his big strategic plan to make him my whole universe. And it worked, because even though I was the one with the black eye, I would still be the one apologizing.
A year after the tattoo was inked into my wrist, the one of our battles was in its beginning stages. We were at home after a night of drinking, and he was starting one of his darkest transformations. He stood in our tiny studio apartment kitchen, about to pour another shot of whiskey, with fury in his eyes.
"I saw the way you were looking at that guy tonight. You're a fucking slut!" he said as he slammed down the now-empty shot glass.
I was silent, tucked back into the corner of the room, hoping the wall would hug me and keep me safe.
He pulled a knife from the kitchen drawer, and raised it to his arm, slicing a small portion of the skin on his forearm. "This is how you make me feel," he said.
I watched in fear as his blood dripped down, and thought about my dreams with Sam. This man couldn't protect me; he couldn't even protect himself.
He started drawing closer to me, the blacks of his eyes, staring through me. I stood up to try and leave and he pushed me down again. He dragged me towards the kitchen, scraping up both of my knees, and then he spit on me. It smelled of cheap whiskey and disrespect. He walked past me to get another shot.
And then, straight from heaven, a knock on the door. Little did I know, but my friend Aaron was passing by in the neighborhood and needed a place to stay, and it couldn't have been better timing. I gained strength, and ran to open the door. Aaron saw me bloodied and bruised and right away he knew he had to get me out of there.
Even though countless friends had tried to help me leave before, I was never ready. No one is ready to leave until they have decided it is time to. It was very different that night, it was time. Aaron saw what was happening in the midst of it all. His rage, my weakness. I couldn't hide anymore, and I didn't have to. The evidence was clear. I was caught. I was in an abusive relationship.
After this midnight escape, months passed. I stayed strong with support from family and friends, and I stayed away from Sam. I moved back with my mom and tried my best to hide the tattoo from her. One day, of course, she did finally see, as I slept in and let my arm lay freely without a big bracelet to cover it.
"What is that on your wrist?!" she shouted at me.
I tried to cover it, but knew it was too late. Was she angry, yes, but more sad than angry. After some back and forth arguing, which ended in me admitting to my stupidity, she agreed to help me remove it.
Removal is a painful, expensive and lengthy experience, but it can be done. It took 12 sessions to remove the tiny tattoo. One session, once a month, for a year. With each session, it grew more painful. Not only did the strength of the laser increase as my skin adapted to it, I was literally watching, yet again, something disappear from my life. After each treatment, his name faded more and more, and I healed and released him a bit more with each time. And then the name was completely gone, and only then did I truly have the courage to move on.
I said goodbye, and I made my peace with dreams of permanence. I realized, finally, that nothing is and ever will be forever. Not even a tattoo.