No one can say I wasn’t careful... at least where the lasers were concerned. Researching them felt like going back to school — physics class, to be exact. I never had a head for science until this, and the terminology overwhelmed me at first. R20 lasers? Why not R30 or R40? And picosecond nD:YAG lasers? Who wants to think about all those subatomic flashes of time when you’re lying shirtless on the dermatologist’s table having your indiscretions zapped?
Starling, the receptionist, recognizes me from the beginning of this journey. I’ve always liked her quirky name. Young, visibly tattooed, probably in her early 20s, fresh out of university, she isn’t the kind of person I’d expect to find working at the front desk in a doctor’s office. The slight blush and the quickly downcast eyes tell me she’s attracted, even if she hasn’t told herself that yet. I’m singular, but Dr Chong himself is more my type.
“This is it?” Starling asks before directing me to have a seat.
“I think so. Dr Chong is very good, but... this shit hurts.”
She giggles and blushes deeper. I give her a smile and take a seat.
When I got my first tattoo at the age of 18, it felt less like rebellion and more like the relief that comes from embracing your fate. As a child, I had known I’d get tatted as soon as I was old enough. About a week after my 18th birthday, I did. Even with the codeine tabs I took ahead of time, the pain took me by surprise. Five minutes in, I almost passed out—I was hyperventilating. The tattoo artist stopped, told me to breathe slowly, and had me sit with my head between my knees until the black veils over my peripheral vision disappeared. After a while, I got semi-used to the sensation—it was like being eaten by a sewing machine, one needle-line at a time. And about an hour later, we were done. I looked down at the black shapes on my bicep—curlicues and blobs derived from a Miro painting I liked—and was repulsed by the bloody, inky mess under its plastic-wrap bandage.
“You’re dressed for life,” the tattoo artist said.
Sometimes you hear ink is addictive. Although I liked the tattoo after it healed, I wasn’t signing up for another hour or more of ridiculous pain. Until I met Nick, I’d have laughed the idea off had anyone suggested it. We met standing in line at Immigration, of all places, getting our visas renewed. He was the brightest thing in that colorless office lobby, with its dirty grey floor tiles and its rows of molded-plastic seats meant for people a foot shorter than we were.
“You’re staring,” he said.
“If you didn’t want people to look, you wouldn’t have gotten them,” I said back.
He had a five-pointed star on each side of his neck. His forearms swirled with dragons, flames, and... green strands of ivy? Falling in lunatic love with a man who had more tattoos than bare skin is not something I’d have expected from myself.
Within six months, he had talked me into getting a pair of stars similar to his, but not on my neck. I drew the line at my neck. One star on each shoulder blade, the Miro blobs on my bicep: I looked increasingly like a weather map or an astrology chart, and with that in mind, I decided to embrace a cliché and get my zodiac signs, both Western and Chinese. When you live in Hong Kong and you’re madly in love with a half-Chinese Australian hipster-thug hybrid, this kind of insanity begins to make sense.
Things turned to unflushable shit almost as soon as he moved in with me. It wasn’t the nonstop extracurricular shagging so much as the lying about it. He fell in love with a handsome Nigerian grad student whose skin was so dark that ink would have been pointless. But Nick said he loved me as well, still and always.
“We’ll get a tattoo together,” he said, and we did: his initials on my left ass-cheek, and mine on his right.
He didn’t have much real estate left.
Sometimes relationships persist not because they’re healthy but because getting out of them would entail conversations you’d rather not have with your friends and your family. I couldn’t decide which would be worse: the breakup conversation itself or the flood of what-the-fuck emails that I’d get when I reset my Facebook status to single. So I stayed, and I grumbled and lied to everyone. I drank too at night when Nick was out with the grad student he didn’t love as much as me but spent more time with. We even had a threesome once and the worst part was how much I enjoyed it. I got more ink, random blackwork and flash from tattoo-shop walls and photo books. Maybe I thought I could keep him by becoming more like him.
Nick couldn’t make ends meet on his shit salary at the tuition center where he worked, and his tattoos were scaring the parents. The private lessons he did on the side also never panned out: even though he spoke Cantonese, he looked enough like a thug from the Triads that his students’ aunties and grannies didn’t want him around. One afternoon I got home to find him gone. Simple as that. He’d taken his own clothes and some of mine. No note, but it didn’t matter: I knew right away what he’d done and didn’t want to hear what he had to say about it.
Knowing I couldn’t get back the time and the money I had wasted on him, I opted for the next best thing: I’d erase him one tattoo at a time.
“This will hurt,” Dr Chong warned me the first time. “But it won’t hurt for long.”
Something in his eyes told me he’d seen cases like mine before, cases that were about getting rid of something deeper than the ink in the skin.
Now, my regrets and I sat in the lobby, waiting. By dumb luck, all that black ink was the easiest to remove, the most susceptible to lasers. I dread the blistering burn, the pain that lidocaine ointment takes the edge off of but doesn’t fully numb, and the sense that something has been lost.
There will always be shadows where the darkness used to be, souvenirs inside my skin to remind me of Nick and his ink.
The door opens, and Starling gestures for me to come inside.