Shakespearean verse, complete with loving intention. It held the sweetest of sentiments, just not quite eternal. Nick, who is middle-aged, proper English, and wears serious glasses (even when he’s not injecting thunderous lasers of light into your body), does not appear to have any tattoos himself. It’s one of the first things I ask him.
‘No,’ he says.
He passes me a form. It reads:
Do you drink alcohol?
Do you smoke?
Do you spend time in the sun?
The editor in me thinks he could sum this up with one question:
What mistakes are you currently making?
I’m not the first to make this particular mistake. Egyptian mummies show signs of attempts at removing tattoos, dating as early as 4,000BC. The process took a bit more conviction back then, perhaps partly because tattoos were used to mark convicts. The affected would vigorously rub salt or asbestos on to problem areas. If this failed, each layer of skin would be peeled back until ink was struck. Later these methods matured to the injection or application of pigeon excrement, garlic, wine or lime.
I take my shirt off and Nick pushes his index finger across the thin black lines, tracing each word.
‘Whoops,’ he says.
‘Whoops,’ I say.
‘Normally this takes about ten sessions, but this is so thin we should be able to get rid of it in one or two goes.’
I suck air in. Nick motions to the treatment room. The chair is similar to a tattooist’s chair–black leather, adjustable, difficult to know whether you should sit or lie down. I sit with my feet dangling over the side.
One in five Australians has a tattoo and one in four of these people regret at least one of their tattoos.¹ That means that out of every hundred Australians, there are about five people who have changed (or at least their minds have changed) and feel they’ve made a mistake. This is part of the reason that Nick can afford the $150,000 machine sitting next to me. He hands me a rubber hose and then flicks a switch. It blows freezing air.
‘Hold this close to your tattoo,’ he says.
Cooling the skin stops the ink from spreading once the lasers begin penetrating. Nick moves over to another machine. It looks like it could be a child’s toy, perhaps a till for playing shop. It’s obnoxiously large with two buttons and a playfully fluorescent screen. He flicks this on too.
‘Will it disappear completely?’
‘We’ll try our best.’
Nick is non-committal with guarantees. In the consultation he told me there are no promises in this game. Removal depends on your ability to heal.
‘Some scarring is likely.’
Why do people make viruses?
Why do people marry?
Why do people make mistakes?
Autofill leads me to believe that these are common questions for people, at least those that have entered Why do people ma into Google. The order of the questions leads me to smirk as I pace around the room, gripping the rubber hose tightly while directing the freezing air onto my chest.
Why do people make mistakes?
I select my question. The internet tells me:
Making mistakes is a normal part of life. Everyone makes mistakes. Taking responsibility and facing up to our mistakes is a great way to learn and avoid doing the same thing again.
My blood will suck up this mistake. The heat from the lasers breaks up the dense ink particles so they can be absorbed into the lymphatic system–typically responsible for filtering bacteria and removing toxins from the body. I imagine a meteor hitting the earth and breaking up into millions of pieces, these pieces of dust losing each other and dissolving into the universe.
Nick comes back into the room; he’s had a phone call to take. I’m hit by a sharp pang of concern that it’s only an iPhone 4 he tucks into one of his front pockets. He picks up a bright pink Bic razor, takes the plastic cap off and raises it towards my chest. Up and down he tickles along the tattoo, hair filling the gaps between the blades. To free up space he stops from time to time to wipe the razor blades on the white towel next to me, the black hairs forming a misshapen circle. I try to remember whether I put deodorant on.
‘Shall we?’ he says.
A thought pushes into my brain. I attempt to block it out but it keeps coming. It’s a memory of Juliet. She’s sitting on a cloud of white sheets, veiled by mosquito nets. She’s holding her left arm out flat on the bed; straining her bicep so hard I see the shadows of blue veins. Her right hand is holding nail polish remover. She unscrews the lid and begins pouring the nail polish remover onto her bicep. Her jaw clenches. Once she’s finished pouring she takes a bath sponge and rubs it into her arm.
I’m standing outside the nets, my right hand ready to part them. She keeps scrubbing and the skin is crumbling away like cheese through a grate. When she’s done her skin is raw, but the tattoo stares back as proud and bold as ever. She cries. Especially when I say things like:
‘It’s not that bad.’
‘I think it looks okay.’
‘If you still don’t like it in a couple of months you can get it covered up.’
In the early Indonesian morning with the dusty sun hovering over the villa, Juliet jumps in the honeymooner pool. She holds her arm under the water, letting the chlorine seep in. After twenty minutes she gets out, ties her blonde hair back tightly and pats the tattoo lightly with her towel.
‘I can’t live the rest of my life like this.’
When she leaves for a walk I look at my new tattoo in the mirror. I’m smiling. The air smells like sugar and a dog is barking.
Nick hands me a pair of safety glasses and upgrades his own. He holds the gun up to my shoulder and fires. I don’t feel anything. He moves over to the tattoo.
‘I’m going to test it out on this little corner here to see how your skin reacts.’
Again his finger hits the trigger. I flinch. It hurts. It really hurts.
‘You’ll only feel pain when I hit the ink. It absorbs the lasers. If I hit somewhere else on your body you won’t feel a thing.’
He lowers the gun to my stomach and starts firing. Again I feel nothing.
A smile overtakes Nick’s face. He moves back to the ink. I see his eyes narrow behind the dark glasses. Part of me expects him to recoil each time he fires but he continues, each movement across my chest causing his face to furrow further, each blast causing my shoulders to rise and chest to withdraw. It is a series of the tiniest and hardest pinches I’ve ever felt. They hit me like continuous spots of boiling oil bouncing out of a pan. Nick has told me previously that the pain will hit at every trillionth of a second. A smell of burning hair fills the air as I hear my skin crackle. I can’t be sure I’m not imagining it.
He rolls back in his chair and takes his glasses off. I use this as a cue to take my glasses off too. He breathes out audibly. I keep my face raised while Nick puts the laser gun back in its holster. He wipes his forehead like he’s been sweating.
‘You can treat this like any other wound. Try to keep it clean and protected for at least the next forty-eight hours. After this you’re fine to return to life as normal.’
It’s up to my white blood cells now. These white knights will rush in and carry the particles of ink away. They’ve been trying to do this all along but everything has been too dense. The ink particles too stubborn. Now the white blood cells rush in, invigorated.
‘If it hasn’t disappeared in eight weeks give me a call and we can have another session.’
I look down at the white lines bubbling, breathing in and out. It reads:
and Juliet is the sun.
But inside she’s been broken up. She’s fading away.
‘The closer to your heart the pain is the faster it works,’ Nick says.
He takes a tube of pawpaw cream and puts some on his index finger before running it along the lines. I pay $150 on my credit card on my way out. Some scarring is likely.
Benjamin is (slowly) completing a Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. He recently developed a heavy interest in croissants.