Quinn and I flew out to Baltimore a couple of weeks ago; a dear friend was getting married in DC, so I thought I'd turn it into a little longer vacation. Chris was partway through a three-week trip to Ethiopia for work, and I figured a change of scenery would be good for Quinn and me. I didn't realize we'd get snow this late in the spring, or that by "65 and cloudy" the weather channel would really mean "38 and sleety." But I digress. It was still a great trip.
On a whim a few weeks before we left, I called a tattoo shop I'd heard rave reviews about to see if they had any openings while I'd be in the area. It was unlikely, as this place books out months in advance. I'd called last fall to see if something in their New Orleans shop would be available over Thanksgiving, and had been told the earliest they could do was February. So I didn't have high hopes.
These weren't just any tattoos I wanted. They would be my first "real" tattoos. My only others are the four pin dots around my torso that I got for radiation. (The technicians use the dots to ensure you're lined up on the machine exactly the same for each session.) I'd considered tattooing my bald head before my hair grew back, but I couldn't think of what to put there. (A giant middle finger? Pink ribbons aren't really my thing.)
These tattoos would be the last step in my reconstruction process, taking my boobs from something like nipple-less Barbie boobs to ones that might resemble real breasts again. The new tattoos might hide my scars a bit, I thought, might make me less self-conscious around my husband, which is a weird thing to be after nearly a decade together.
I debated whether to move forward on this process for awhile, given that I'm Stage 4. Is it worth spending the money? I wondered. What if I'm not around very long to enjoy them? It's a morbid thought process, I know, but these are the hoops my brain jumps through now whenever I think about planning more than a year in the future. The permanency, the foreverness, of tattoos kind of had me rattled. But then I thought, Why the hell not?
And if there is such a thing, the nipple gods must have been smiling down on me the day I called Little Vinnie's Tattoos (yes, really), because Vinnie said he'd be able to fit me in the afternoon of March 26th, a day after I'd be arriving in Baltimore. I booked it.
I made arrangements to borrow my friend's car and drove the thirty minutes to a strip mall in rural northwestern Maryland. I didn't know what to think as I stepped inside the tattoo parlor. Heavy metal music was playing on the speakers. A couple of guys in black leather motorcycle jackets sat waiting on a bench. There were pictures of skull tattoos covering the walls. This was unfamiliar territory for me.
Vinnie, when he emerged from the appointment before mine, introduced himself while his daughter-slash-assistant prepped the room for me. My heart was racing. I considered taking a Xanax. Vinnie was dressed in a tweed vest and wearing a fedora with a feather in it. Also, wing-tip shoes. He had kind eyes. I smiled and began to relax despite myself.
I sat in a leather recliner in his office (I guess that's what you'd call it?) while he mixed ink colors--a little drop of blue here, a fleshy-beige there--until he seemed satisfied he'd gotten it right. With a marker, he drew circles on my skin to make sure I was okay with the placement, then wiped them off with an alcohol swab and began to free-form my new areolas.
My appointment ran late, but the actual tattooing only took about an hour. Vinnie was--as promised--an artist. He talked to me about his sister's diagnosis, how angry he gets about the business of breast cancer (even though he was charging me $800 for two quarter-sized tattoos, which my husband Chris thinks is ridiculous, but you can't put a price on art, I tell him), about the non-profit he's forming in order to take his artistry to women in Mexico who cannot afford reconstruction at all.
I'm not going to post photos of my new nipples online, even though I felt like I should show the world after spending that kind of money on them (worth every penny). Part of me wants to flash them on Bourbon Street in exchange for beads, but I don't really need that kind of validation (or, God forbid, rejection--wouldn't that be embarrassing!)
Mostly, I feel a little more like myself again. Step by little step.