My skin means many things to many people. I know this, and the knowledge is not comforting.
There is a passport embedded in its color; its whiteness has protected me like a cultural flak jacket, and I am learning, now, to see where this skin has centered me. Some people confuse this with money– “it’s not because you’re white, it’s because you’re middle-class,” I’ve heard other white people say. I know better, and so does my meager bank account.
My skin means meat, means sex to too many of the men I meet. “C’mere baby, show me some more of that,” I hear called out to me on my way to the Castle if I’ve made the mistake of parking in the garage. My skin means sex, and if my skin isn’t showing, it means I can be harassed into showing it. “Show us your tits, bitch! Oh wait, I know why she’s covered up, she’s really a MAN! She’s a MAN, baby!”
But to me, living within it, my skin means something else. There is one patch of skin that is armor, that is safety, two inches by three, that holds my sense of self.
I was nineteen when I was raped. I thought maybe this is a tale I should have shared back in April, in the “month appropriate” to these tellings, when we’re supposed to keep this knowledge at the forefront of our minds. But sexual violence, rape, and domestic abuse don’t stop at April’s end when their awareness month is over.
I had heard from those around me at the time that I had asked for it, I “let” him pressure me into it, it was “buyer’s remorse,” I should have expected it. I learned from my friends the hard way that it’s “only” rape if a stranger drags a woman into a back alley and holds her at gun point– but only if she was wearing long pants and a baggy sweat shirt. If a woman wears anything else it isn’t rape because she was “asking for it,” you know– saying no with her mouth and yes with her body. No one told me this to my face. It was implied in the lists of “shouldn’t”s and “should’ve”s, in the eye-rolls, and the ever-present “get over it.” “No,” said the subtext, “your experience wasn’t rape.”
I was raped when I was nineteen. I wanted to flirt. I wanted to show I was independent of an ex who was attempting to keep me under his thumb. (“You need me,” this ex said. “You wouldn’t be able to get by without me. We depend on each other, like brother and sister. I don’t like you hanging out with guys by yourself, any guy. You shouldn’t date so soon after the break-up with me. You’ll never find anyone better than me. Of course your love life is miserable without me.”) I wanted to play. I wanted to discover. So I flirted. I told him no, this other man. He asked me point blank, looming over me, dripping sweat onto my body, if I thought it was rape. After I had told him no, no don’t do that to me.
I curled inward. I did not notice the world going grey. I did not notice the smells fading out. I did not notice going numb until I was numb. I didn’t want to have a body anymore. I wanted to crawl out of my skin, leave my bones, and wriggle into a tortoise burrow where I could safely decay, away from people, without further harm. I could consent to turkey vultures, torn shreds hanging from their naked beaks, but I could not consent to human touch.
There was another side for me to come out of that burrow. I learned ink can be a blessing to battered flesh. I had wanted a tattoo for many years, stated my want since I was small. I had drawn my spider at fifteen, an Australian black widow, a red back spider, and kept the design for four years, waiting until I could put it on my body, half wondering if I ever really would. It was part impulse that pushed me to do it then. I had talked about it, rolled the idea around, but the decision came like instinct.
I’ve heard said by ink aficionado friends at college, who have all gotten tattoos themselves, that if someone tells you that getting theirs didn’t hurt, they’re lying. I will tell you, though, that getting mine didn’t hurt. Because it didn’t. Not in the moment, not at all. Perhaps in part it was the location: the fleshy tissue of my left breast, over my heart. Perhaps it was also the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off Lisa’s hand, inking my body, the lines exactly as I had wanted, color blooming under her needle. There was no pain. There was no hurt of violation, there was no fear weighing on my chest, there was no panic at thought of his sweat dripping, pouring onto me. They were notable in their absence. There was no pain at all. Not until I stood up, when my line of sight to the design was broken– then my skin burned, and my neck was sore from craning so far forward. I remember smiling, though. That smile crept slowly from my mouth into my eyes, I think, and then into my nose.
Because the world was sharper. And I could smell. It was all smells, the whole world. The first thing I noticed was the smell of the money I paid. Then I noticed the smell of car exhaust in the parking lot. Clipped grass. Wet limestone. Rain in the air. When I arrived home, I opened the jug of sour milk, inhaled, and retched. And then I took out the strawberries, the salt, the spinach. I had to stick my nose in everything.
There was everything to stick my nose into. And I was alive again, to smell it, to taste it, to see it and feel it and hear it. Because I have a patch or armor, two by three inches in the shape of a spider embedded in my skin, and it protects my heart.