Mom’s wearing her favorite blouse, the one she cut and hemmed into a toga that shows the scarred patch where her left breast was, when she steps beneath the hooks. The blouse is disappearing piece by piece. She made the new adjustments because she’s still shy around her new friends. The thought of exposing her right breast, the whole one, is more unnerving to her than the sharpened metal.
Jackson’s hands will push the hooks through her skin, the same hands that moved the tattoo gun over Mom’s scarred chest. That’s how they met. She found him in a phone book, walked in without an appointment and asked him to brand her with the words Fuck Cancer. Tattooing scar tissue is supposed to be painful. Jackson says she didn’t flinch.
I don’t know how to handle this. Jackson pinches up the skin beside her shoulder blade and laces a curved metal J through it like he’s baiting a fishhook with deli meat. I have to look away. I feel lightheaded, and I need to compose myself before my part in this. She’s asked me to pull the cords.
She wouldn’t stop comparing it to her ’94 Camry.
“Every time they do anything I just feel worse, and now this. It’s like that damn car. Every time I had to fix it it came back a little bit worse.”
According to the Internet forums I studied, my mom was in mourning for her breast. Like losing a person, she would work her way through the five stages of grief. Comparing herself to a junker was a kind of denial. She wasn’t ready to take it seriously. So I waited, and waiting was a mistake.
Things got ugly when she brought up the Camry again. I just sat dumbly, nodding my head, a son of infinite sympathy and patience.
“I’m saying this for you, son. I want you to understand what they did to me.”
I took the edge in her voice as a sign of growth. She was angry. Things were moving along.
“What if they took your testicle? How would that make you feel?”
The forums readied me for this, too.
“It’s not really a good comparison,” I said. “I mean, that’s a common mistake, thinking there’s a connection – two breasts, two testicles. But as a reshaping of the physical form, a closer comparison would be for me to lose my penis.”
“Goddammit,” said Mom. “Fine. So what if they took your penis?”
I imagined myself in the mirror, naked and paused, my maleness replaced with a scarred, ragged plain.
Mom asked me again, but I was too embarrassed and horrified to answer. She didn’t mention the Camry again. She’d found a better metaphor.
“Hey. Your mom’s pretty cool.”
One of her new friends, a young guy whose name I can’t remember and who sports two full sleeves of tattoos. I glance at him and nod.
“I never thought she’d be doing this, to be honest.”
I hear a shift in the collective air in the room, and finally force myself to look. I’m surprised by how little blood there is. Jackson has an assistant, a small woman with hair dyed so black it shines blue, holding the cables taut. The skin, though not as stretched as it will be, is held up and away from the body, gravity keeping the blood flow at a minimum. And then there’s Jackson, who, with the care of a father dabbing at an infant’s mouth, wipes at what little blood there is with a downy hand towel. He’s wearing long latex gloves that run up to his elbows, and beside him sits a gray bucket filled with soapy water.
His assistant looks over at me. Both her hands are holding cables, but she manages to give me a thumbs up anyway. I feel stupid for dressing up. I’m so painfully the square, in my khakis and blue checked button down shirt, that to the rest of them my presence alone must make me seem like the world’s most supportive son. I force a smile and return her gesture.
Eventually Mom got sick of talking about my penis, which I took as a sign of improvement. Then she came home with the tattoo.
“Don’t get weird,” she said, unbuttoning her shirt. “It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.”
She pulled back her left shirtfront enough to show me the scar that had been forming over the last nine months. Now, surrounded by a bright pink halo, there was the tattoo.
It didn’t register at first that it was permanent. I thought she’d written it on with a pen. I sort of nodded and mm-hmmed, not sure what else to do.
“It’s still a little sore, and I have to put ointment on it, but I think it came out well.”
I looked at it again, and it clicked. “Wait. That’s a tattoo?”
“Of course it is.”
“God, Mom. Who did that to you? That’s completely irresponsible. Who would put a tattoo over scar tissue? It could hurt your recovery.”
“His name is Jackson, and he was very careful. He taught me a lot about body art.”
“I asked you not to get weird about this.”
I could feel myself shrinking, the embarrassed ten-year-old reasserting himself. The kid had a plan, and since I didn’t I let him take over.
“Jesus, Mom. You look ridiculous. You just look insane. You’re supposed to be healing, not sticking more needles in yourself.”
She started to button up her blouse. “I do not look ridiculous.”
“If you’re lucky that thing will get swallowed up by the scar and you won’t have to live with yourself.”
She threw me out, then.
I remembered to slam the door. I think I even yelled at it, something about never coming back. Everything a ten-year-old should do.
They’re about to push the last hook through. Jackson has moved quickly, but he pauses now, hook in hand, to ask her questions, offer her water. The fear, I think, is that she’ll pass out. It’s a bad situation if they have to remove the hooks from a hundred and ten pounds of dead weight.
Mom’s doing fine. She won’t look at me, and I don’t blame her. I feel a little dizzy, and my face is sweaty and cool against the back of my hand, which I keep pressing to my forehead and cheeks.
The hooks are attached to cords leading up to a large metal plate, mounted to a ball joint on the ceiling. This plate allows her to pivot. It’s supposed to help keep the stress against her skin at a minimum. If she begins to sway, the hooks will drift with her as the plate spins. Attached to the plate are several pulleys. Mom’s pretty light as it is, but the pulleys make it that much easier for someone to lift her weight. Jackson described it to me as the same system they use for those wall climbs you find inside sporting goods store. Everything is safe, he said. He’s done this a hundred times.
I’m not worried about the equipment. I press my hand to my cheek again. I’m worried that, when they put the cables in my hand, when it’s just me and the hooks, I’ll lose my nerve, pass out, and down we’ll fall.
I’d come back after our fight, of course. I felt horrible. I’d only meant that the tattoo looked silly on her, out of character. Why did I use the word ‘ridiculous?’ A one-breasted woman, wasn’t that ridiculous? Wasn’t that what I’d really said?
I spent a lot of time on the forums. There were other women who’d gotten tattoos. Maybe not like Mom’s, but it was a difference of degree. Fighting cancer put a little hell in them, I could respect that. So my Mom was a little feistier. So what.
One morning I stood in front of the mirror, letting the shower run, and pushed a testicle between my legs. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. It kept popping out, like a volleyball in a swimming pool. In the end I had to buckle down and pull the entire scrotum back. If anything it meant a more dramatic change, but it wasn’t so bad. In some ways it improved the scenery.
Then I went whole hog. With a quick one-two rock of my hips I flipped my manhood out toward the mirror before snapping it back snugly between my thighs. I tried to imagine waking up in a bed that wasn’t mine and being greeted by that. Only worse, the bloodied bandages and thickening scars. Was that really how she felt?
I’d think of myself unpenised, and then act like the kind, supportive son, still waiting for her to snap out of it.
“It’s just a kind of meditation. It’s like deep, deep prayer.”
“I have articles you can read. The Sioux do it. And the Tibetans. People do this all the time.”
“God, Mom. Fuck the Sioux.”
“Jackson says it’s perfectly safe. He’s done these before, for lots of other people.”
“Oh, well, if it’s Jackson. Were those people coming back from cancer?”
“I’m doing this.”
“This isn’t you, Mom. This doesn’t fit.”
“I never heard God in that hospital bed. All that medicine, it makes you stupid. Maybe he tried to get through, but how would I know? Remember that night you visited me, and I talked to you like you were PaPaw? That medicine.”
“Why don’t we just go somewhere together. Let’s take a trip, okay? We could go to the Grand Canyon, or the Smokies, or Mammoth Cave. You pick.”
“I’m going to do this.”
“It’s too much, Mom.”
“It’s safe. It’s safer than surgery. It’s safer than chemotherapy.”
“You didn’t have a choice, then. This is just stupid. You aren’t dealing with anything. You’re running around, but you can’t just get tattoos and piercings and expect to feel better. You have to deal with this, Mom. You have to stand still a minute.”
And then she laughed at me. Really laughed, like she couldn’t help it, and there was this awful look of sympathy, apology, even as it got louder. She tried to hold me anyway, the way she did when I was little and tripped over my shoelaces, landing in dogshit. She held me tight as she could, and even as my ears burned at the sound of her giggling something inside me would cool. One of a mother’s tricks. One of her powers over a son.
I told myself I was supervising, keeping an eye on the suspension, but as Jackson checks the hooks a second time I realize I’m still a boy, tagging along behind. I keep expecting him to jerk the cords, or to shake them like reigns, but instead he beckons me over. Jackson says he’ll stand at the ready. He tells me to go slow, to pull with smooth, fluid motions, the way you’d pull an oar.
I pull. Even as I remind myself to go slowly I’m surprised at my own strength. The pulleys make it so easy, like dangling a strand of yarn in front of a cat. My mom makes a noise, like a gasp and a giggle, and she’s suddenly weightless, her feet dangling a half-inch off the ground. The skin on her back stretches like a rubber sheet, and suddenly it seems ridiculous to think it could tear, to think that any skin has ever torn. Her tattered blouse begins to droop, and she lets her arms and legs do the same. I can see her sides, exposed and trembling with quick, short breaths. I remember that I should breathe, too.
I pull. She rises a few inches this time, her weight shifting so that her torso flattens, becomes prone. Her head lolls forward. The skin at her sides, pulled taut and paper thin, moves more slowly, her breath steadying. I’m not sure how high to go, but I pull her further, a full, slow foot this time. She’s in my hands, but my feet are firm against the floor, and my cheeks are warm with blood. On the ceiling the plate slowly spins, adjusting to slight movements from the hooks that cradle her below. My mother drifts, a leaf on spider silk, and I am holding her, my grip firm and still.
Originally published in Annalemma