When I am thirteen, life is complicated. My mother and I are like oil and water. Night and day. All the clichés. I want to yell and scream and say something terrible to hurt her just enough to make her back off, but I can’t say you’re not my real mother because even I know that isn’t true. She is. Adoption has made her real; I just don’t want her to be. I have no other mother. I try to dream of one, but the dreams never take shape. I try, but I can’t get an image. Maybe she’s not out there.
My awkward and angry friends are French kissing and feeling each other up. Teaching themselves to inhale. Sipping wine coolers outside the school dances. I do all that too, but it is not enough. I am more awkward and angry than most kids I know.
I skate a blade down my arm. When it bleeds, I exhale for what feels like the first time in my life. I want to do it again. And again. I will do this for nearly two decades: arms, legs, belly, feet, fingers, behind my ears, even my back. When I try to stop, I can’t. When I try to hide the damage, I can’t.
I dress like I’m in Little House on The Prairie, covered up to the chin, only all in black. Even in the summer I dress in layers from neck to toe. Tights in August. Coats. I wear pajamas. Rip holes in the sleeves of every shirt to stick my thumbs through. I look like a mummy.
The subway is not air conditioned but I have to take it to school, to my afterschool babysitting job, my summer nannying job. I am used to being groped during rush hour by hands I can’t connect to faces hidden in newspapers or looking out of windows. I hate them but am resigned. Now, there’s always a handful of teenage assholes who want to talk to me, too.
They sidle up to me with a smile that makes my skin crawl.
Aren’t you hot? I mean you are, but you really are like, hot in all that, aren’t you?
No, I say, looking away, wiping the sweat from my upper lip with the sleeve fabric in my fists. I spend my babysitting money on cold Snapples, cigarettes, records, and notebooks, and wait for winter. I duck into every air-conditioned store I can to cool off.
New York City in August feels like moving between hot, wet, smelly towels. Or a sauna. Or a sauna wrapped in hot, wet, smelly towels.
I meet my birth mother when I am twenty-six. I didn’t have to try very hard to find her, which feels insane since all my life I couldn’t even feel her out there. But there she was. Living fifteen miles away from each other, a full two hundred miles from where we’d been separated when I was born.
We fall into step easily, swapping books, eating out, going to museums together, not because we are together easily but because we are so alike – in ways both good and bad – that we can’t help but feel like sisters, twins, even one mind in two bodies. Except when not.
When not is when I am acutely aware that I am a cranky fucked-up twenty-something staying out all night wearing platform boots and rings on every finger paying for everything with credit cards and hoping they won’t get declined and she is forty-three living in a two-million-dollar house and driving a fancy car with heated seats. She sends her kids to private school. The kids she kept, that is.
She says she doesn’t understand my cutting.
All the years I didn’t have you, she says when I tell her in a rushed but tearful confession at dinner one night, all I ever wanted was to know that you were happy. I’m looking for connection, but instead, she’s judging me. I am too cranky and fucked up and twenty-something to retort: You left me. And all you wanted to know was that I was happy? Don’t tell me you’re actually surprised to find me cranky and fucked up and cutting. I want to say this. But instead, I cut more.
Then she tells me she can’t meet because she’s getting four pounds of fat vacuumed out of her ass and I think, she understands my cutting better than she thinks she does. To me, they are the same thing.
A few months after this, I spend the night and open a closet where I find three identical drawers of neatly folded jeans: the sixes, the eights, the tens. One drawer is pre-liposuction. One must be post. And the third: wishful thinking? Emergency? I can’t tell. What I can tell is that I was right: we are more alike than she knows. Not that she would ever look in my closet. When she picks me up, she waits outside like a taxi.
When we are lounging around watching movies when she’s healing from a turkey wattle removal – or is it Botox? An eyelid lift? – she shows me her butterfly tattoo. It’s a stupid tattoo, a fuzzy blue thing on her shoulder that she got when she was sixteen. It makes me feel a rush of love for her because I got my first tattoo, also stupid, a boring black and white gecko on my leg, when I was sixteen. Hidden under my layers. I wanted a mother to show mine to, and now I have one. I wish this mother were my real mother. I pretend she is. Wish that growing inside her uterus were enough to make her my real mother.
We laugh together at our ugly first tattoos.
Why a gecko?
I dunno. Everyone had snakes. I wanted to be different.
At sixteen, that was the best I could do.
I always wanted another one, she says shyly.
They’re addictive, I say. After my first, I got two more in rapid succession.
They are, she agrees. After her first, she fantasized about what she’d get next, but never decided.
My birth mother feels like my co-conspirator. I could never have this conversation with my real mother because we never talk. Talking in our house is not safe. Honesty is not safe. Adoption does not feel forever. I came with a warranty and could be returned. Love, in my house, is legal and not unconditional. Suddenly the realization that my adoptive mother is my real mother and my birth mother is my other mother feels scary.
So many mothers. Only two, but that is twice as many mothers as most people. 100% more mothers. 100% more complications. To make it easier for others, and for myself, I just say “my mother.” Most people don’t know I could be referring to one of two people and I don’t bother to clarify. They both come with problems.
When I’m thirty-three and haven’t been cutting for five years, I decide I’ve had it with the stupid questions I’ve been asked over the years that still bounce around in my head.
Why’d you stick your arms in a piranha tank?
Did you get into a fight with a tiger?
What happened to your leg?
How did you get those scars on your back?
No, that triangle on your arm is definitely not drawn. Definitely not. That’s definitely a cut.
I don’t yet live in the day and age of body positivity, of loving oneself, of embracing who we are. I don’t yet live in a time of respecting others and giving people space and not asking and you can’t say that anymore. I can’t even imagine a time like that ever existing because I don’t believe I deserve that. Adoptees aren’t given any rights: not to identity, not to existence. I don’t know what it’s like to have my own history or privacy, and I don’t believe I have the right to ask for it.
I live in a time when people think they have a right to know every detail about everything they can see: How come you don’t look like your parents? Why are you an only child? You must be so spoiled, right? Fucking come on. Do you really expect an answer?
But then, there’s the asshole on the subway who eyes my tattoos and scars and comes at me with a camera. Smile, he smirks.
I finally snap. I get all up in his face. Yes, asshole. Yes, I was bored and stuck my elbow in a piranha tank to see what would happen. Guess what? They motherfucking bite. Put that camera away before I break it.
I’m four inches from his face. I can see his turkey wattles and I want to give him the phone number of my birth mother’s plastic surgeon, but instead I tell him to wipe his cheek where I accidentally spat on him.
Eventually I tattoo over the scars. Full sleeves. I realize I will be inviting new questions, but they will be less upsetting. One session at a time, the invasions go from tigers and piranhas to anchors and roses and swallows. Sitting on the stool while I am in the chair, my tattoo artist doesn’t tell me that scarred skin hurts more to tattoo until he notices that I barely flinch, even after hours. He doesn’t know that two decades of scarring my own skin means that tattooing, even over scarred skin, doesn’t hurt me the way it hurts most people. He jokes about how most of the people who complain about tattoo pain are men and I notice that the first person to ask for a break, five hours in, is him, not me.
It takes months and months, and hundreds of dollars that turn over time into thousands, but over the course of two years of dedicated effort, I cover the worst of my scars until my arms are covered and my shoulders are covered and some of my back is covered. I can still see the scars underneath, but no one else can.
I love spring. And I hate spring. Every year as the weather gets warmer and the birds sing and the flowers bloom, I want to be outside wearing fewer layers. That’s when the comments start, right on cue.
Did that hurt?
Musta cost a bundle. How long did all that take?
I’m getting one soon! I’m a cancer, so I want to get that sign. Or maybe a cat because I love cats. Or no. A heart. What do you think I should get?
And so on.
I have a lot of tattoos. Some people slide into a seat further away when they see me step onto the subway, and I realize they think I am a criminal or maybe in a metal band, maybe someone who bites the heads off bats for fun. They think I am something I am not.
I am not cool. I am not badass. I am not a biker chick. I don’t do drugs; I don’t even drink! No, I don’t know where to find you good quality weed. Nope, I don’t want to go out drinking tonight. I don’t want to help you pick a tattoo off the wall and keep you company while you pop your tattoo cherry. I am a boring nerdy workaholic vegan with adoption issues and too many scars. I still listen to punk and goth music from the 1980s. I worry. I write. I read a lot. I like little birds; I don’t eat bats. Sorry to disappoint you. I am not what you think I am.
But maybe I was once upon a time, only I didn’t know it.
Because I cut my arms, my legs, my belly, my hands, my fingers, my shoulders, my back. I cut the arches of my feet, between my toes. Sometimes I cut painstakingly: words, shapes, initials, symbols. But mostly I held my breath and flicked deeply and swiftly, hearing a fwip fwip fwippppp—which meant one two three, deep deeper deepest—and then hold the sides together so they wouldn’t need stitches. I’d spend the rest of the night doing that over and over, fussing with wound care and putting on miserable music and lying in the dark and hating myself and wishing I was dead. Afterwards, I’d dress in long sleeves and layers so I couldn’t see the damage.
My scars are everywhere, and, even if strangers can’t see them, I know they’re there. While I might inwardly roll my eyes at the annual onslaught of Ridiculous Tattoo Questions from the hoi polloi, for the rest of my life they will be a reminder that I am here to respond to them, and that is the most annoyingly life-giving gift I could ask for.
When I’m thirty-five I bring brunch home, to my real mother’s, for Mother’s Day. My mother is not a person who likes to be spoiled. To her it is a waste of money. But I want to do something to prove that we are a family who does nice things for family holidays.
I hate Mother’s Day because adoption doesn’t make it an easy holiday to celebrate. This year I am trying not to hate it, but the weather is making it hard. It’s an exceptionally hot day, and I’m schlepping two huge bags on the subway: plastic bags with paper bags inside them full of bagels and cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, the works. Freshly squeezed orange juice, rugelach. A small bouquet of pink carnations. Not my favorite. Hers. I have stuffed a cardigan into the top of one of the bags. When I get to my stop, the doors open and the heat hits me like the hot wet smelly towels of my youth. Only this time I am wearing a tank top because my scars are covered by tattoos, and I am immune to the asshole subway questions because I don’t give a fuck anymore.
But I am not immune to my mother. That’s what the cardigan is for: To hide myself. Which is hidden inside my tattoos. Which are hiding my scars. Which are there because I was scared to be me. Only it is just so fucking hot I don’t want to wear the cardigan.
I am hoping she will not notice.
Oh Aim, she says when she sees the food I’ve brought. The Oh Aim is not one of delight.
Happy Mother’s Day! I say and hand her the flowers.
Let’s go outside, she says, taking them. We can eat out back.
But Mom. It’s eighty-five degrees.
It’s nice out. There’ll be a breeze.
What there is: Please, Aimee. Put it on. What will the neighbors say?
I’m thirty-five, Mom. And it’s hot. I don’t care what the neighbors say.
Well, I do.
An hour and twelve minutes later I am retracing my steps back to the train. Empty handed. Sweaty. I am carrying the cardigan that I refused to wear when my mother asked me to. That I should not have brought in the first place.
From that point on there are no more tattoos, at least not ones intended to cover up scars. If I am going to get tattoos, they are going to have one job, not two. What scars are left, stay visible. I apologize for nothing.
When I get pregnant, my cute little belly tattoo that covers a scar from a childhood surgery to correct a congenital kidney issue morphs into a mushy blob. When I cannot push my child out the usual way, my doctor cuts through the tattoo and into the scar to pull my baby out. Now my belly is a blur of bluish ink and flabby skin in shades of pink, but I don’t care.
That beautiful mess. I leave it as is. Not everyone will get to see my aging mama belly, but if the assholes on the subway have anything to say about it, if my mother or my mother tell me to cover it up or liposuction it out, I’m going to climb up to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge in a crop top and show all of New York City my bare midriff because hell yes I earned this body.
When my child asks at the age of five to get her ears pierced, I think about what consent means and where it begins. I tell her if she really wants them pierced, she has to understand what pierce means. We watch You Tube videos of piercing, not jewelry store guns, but actual piercing shops. We review what healing and cleaning entails. She nods; she is sure.
We make an appointment and take the subway, me and my scars and my tattoos and my beautiful, untouched child. In the store, the piercer hands me the permission slip and says as long as she’s five, it’s okay for her to have her ears pierced. I hand the form to my daughter and tell her she has to think it through one more time. I’m not signing the form. She is.
She signs the form in five-year-old block letters and hands it back. We wait.
Nice ink, the piercer says to me.
Thanks, I nod back. Yours too. It is an uncomplicated moment we have shared.
The piercer turns to my daughter.
You ready? she asks.
Breathe in, she says. And look straight at your beautiful mama.
Hi Mama, my daughter says, smiling at me. I’m ready.