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The International Writers Magazine - Our 24th Year: Love, Life and the Marines

Seeking Happiness
Maria Dastolfo

It wasn’t like someone drawing the words on your back with a finger while you tried to spell it out in your head. I was definitely trying to spell out the words in my head, "Seek Happiness" but I couldn’t decipher the pain of one letter from the next, the needle moved too fast for that. Every once in a while there was a sharp sting, but I still couldn’t see it in my mind

The guy tattooing me wasn’t very talkative. He sat behind me with his hands on my skin intent on his task while I stared at the art on the wall and ground my teeth against the grinding on my back. Sometimes I tried to follow the direction of the pain but the buzz was too loud and the scratching too distracting. So I just closed my eyes and pretended that I could hear the music pumping through the speakers above me.

I took a lot of convincing to finally come through those doors; it was like when I was a child walking into the doctor’s office. Except back then my mother would be the one pulling me through the door instead of Caitlin. She had gotten her tattoo months ago and it was beautiful. A shooting star with musical notes decorating the trail perched elegantly above her hip now. I jealously told her it was an ovary tat and she told me at least it wasn’t a tramp stamp.

"Mine won’t be a tramp stamp," I told her. "It’s going to be on the side of my back, not in the middle. And it’s going to mean something, not just be a random mash of swirly lines." She shrugged and told me it was awfully close to being a tramp stamp. At least with Caitlin I had learned that she could have her opinion and I could have mine, and it was still okay. I was still working on that lesson with other people in my life. I’ve been a doormat for a long time, and I know it. But the problem with being a doormat is unless someone picks you up and shakes you once in a while, you just kind of sit there soaking up all the dirty shit.

The buzzing continued and it was starting to get irritating. The noise was one thing, but the scratching at my back was another. I heard it described once as scratching a sunburn. That was pretty accurate, it was painful but not to the point of tears or even speaking. Just to the point to being irritating. Near the end I just wanted to stand up and say to the guy ‘Hey that freaking hurts.’ That would be ridiculous though, since I wanted the tattoo and I was paying him to give it to me.

I spent a lot of time picking it out, actually. And I figured I couldn’t go wrong quoting the Dalai Lama. Then there was the fact that who would wipe their feet on the Dalai Lama? When the tattoo was finished I tugged down on my jeans and looked at his handiwork. It was beautiful and bold and exactly what I wanted.
"Do you like it?" Caitlin asked me. The urge to throw the guy’s hands off me was gone and I was able to tell her that I loved it. When I was finished admiring my body, the guy taped plastic over it and let me situate my clothes while he rang up my bill.
"The artist was really kind of a jerk giving you your tattoo."
"What do you mean?" I asked. I was so excited to finally have my tattoo that I didn’t even really care what she was talking about.
"Well, when I got my tattoo the woman talked to me the whole time and made me completely comfortable. I can’t believe he didn’t say one word to you while he was tattooing you."
"I guess."

We drove to Bruster’s and got ice cream before going back to her house. Caitlin and I grew up living about 3 and 5 minutes from each other, but we didn’t become friends until high school. I always thought it was how we became friends that made my relationship with her so much different than with anyone else. We couldn’t stand each other, and actually got into a shoving match at one point. Well, it was more like me shoving and her laughing at me.

Back at her house, I was finally able to take the plastic off of the tattoo. I went to the bathroom, tugged my jeans down over my ass, and pulled the blood soaked tape and plastic from my skin. It came off easily because the blood wore the glue from much of the tape. It had actually seeped through onto the band of my underpants.

When I removed it and dabbed at the crusted remains with a wet paper towel I was able to get a good look at my tattoo in private. Seek Happiness. I had that feeling right after something really great happens, like getting a puppy or a new job, where I couldn’t stop smiling. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but think what have I gotten myself into?
At that time, the thought was short lived. The tattoo was mine, and it was a part of me now and I couldn’t be happier. It was only later that the thought came back again. I knew I could hide it for a while, but it would eventually come out what I had done to myself. I imagined it would go something the way Caitlin’s mom’s discovery of her tattoo went. "Why would you mark your beautiful skin like that?" She had said.

Of course, Caitlin and her mom disagreed on almost everything that they considered beautiful. I knew my boyfriend really wasn’t into tattoos, at least on girls. He had told me once that tattoos were cool on a guy but they would just look skanky on me. But for right now, the tattoo was mine and there was no one to tell me it wasn’t the most amazing choice I had ever made.

It was only a few months before that something happened that had shaken all the dirt out of my doormat self. My boyfriend had decided months ago that it was his calling in life to be a United States Marine. "I want that kind of respect from the people around me." He told me. His father had been a Marine and would always be proud of that fact. Pride is a strange thing in that way, you can be proud and completely miserable at the same time.

I’m still not sure if he was looking for pride or happiness out of that choice. For my part, I was convinced that I would only find happiness as long as we were together. The day we went to talk to the recruiter together was sunny and bright. We walked through the mall, hand in hand. His stride was fast and excited and he pulled at me to keep up as we forced our way through the Saturday crowds to the back corner of the mall where the armed forces recruiting office was situated.

The kids play area was right outside, but was almost always unpopulated. As with most malls, it’s more exciting as a hangout for pre-teens and their cliques. We walked into the office for a meeting with a Sgt. Weller. He was young, probably not one or two years older than my boyfriend and I, and he was of course enthusiastic. His cropped head bobbed as he pulled two chairs up to his desk. I sat in a chair in front of the large particleboard desk while he offered my boyfriend one to the side of the desk.
"How soon could I go to basic training?" I heard my boyfriend ask.
"Well, since you have a few months left of college, we would put you into the DEP, then you could ship in June, when you were finished."

What is the DEP? I thought as I listened to the conversation progress around me. The DEP, MCT, CO, active, inactive, reserves were all words that had very little meaning to me, but seemed to make perfect sense to the two men sitting around me. The only words I understood were 4 to 8 years.

When we left, he couldn’t stop talking about everything the recruiter had said. "He was so nice, though I wish they could offer more to help pay back my loans." But for him, the other perks made up for it. My contribution to the conversation was a chorus of nods, hmmm’s, and uhhuh’s.

We made it to the food court and decide to eat lunch there and talk. He never stopped chattering about how awesome it would be to be a Marine. When I finally found enough frustration buried in a tight ball under my ribs, I forced it out over his tirade. "So where do I fit into all this?"

It was the only thing I could think of to say. It came out angry and accusatory, but really, that’s how I intended it to sound. He stopped eating and talking for a minute to look at me.
"Well I thought I you would wait for me while I was in boot camp."
"Of course I would." I said, "But what about after that?"
"You would come with me of course."
"Oh," was all I could say to that statement. Who knew where he would be stationed and how long he would stay there. I wanted to scream that this is not what I wanted out of my life. But like always, my mouth seemed stapled shut as I just stared at my food.

This is not what I wanted, I kept thinking it over and over but my mouth wouldn’t form the words. They finally came out after another ten minutes of silence as a tiny squeak. My boyfriend looked confused, I could only guess that he hadn’t heard me so I forced to words out louder. "I don’t want this."

Now his face was a funny mixture of anger and hurt. "This is my dream, can’t you support me in that?"
I couldn’t answer that question because I wanted to support him, but I didn’t know if I could. I didn’t want to give up what I had imagined for my life.
"I was thinking that I might go to graduate school while you did your service."
"Why didn’t you tell me that?"
"I’m telling you now"
"But I talked to you about this before I decided to do it. I involved you in the decision. It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind."
"I just want to have something for myself when you’re gone. Even if I move with you, you’ll be in training or be deployed to some crazy place most of the time."
Now he just looked hurt, like tears would pour from him at any moment.
"I need you to come with me if I do this. Marry me and you can live on base with me. We’ll never have to worry about paying for housing or anything."

Now, I knew I heard the words marry me come out of his mouth, and I was immediately sold. I would have given up anything to hear those words. It’s a strange feeling wanting something that depends completely on another person. It’s easy to justify giving up anything to convince that person to give you what you want.

After that, the fact that he was joining the military barely registered in my mind. I could be happy; I could take up hobbies and be the perfect military wife.

There is always a problem with giving up dreams, because they never go away completely. When he left for South Carolina, I did not leave with him. Back here in Pennsylvania, I was consumed with regret and relief at the same time. The first few nights after I realized he was gone were spent in my bed staring at the wall and trying desperately not to cry all night. It was too embarrassing, and I was certain I was making my poor roommate feel awkward as hell. Instead I held it in until I could force myself to sleep and in the morning I would get in the shower and cry until my stomach was sick, thinking that no one would be able to hear me over the sound of the water.

It was a hard thing to regain myself. For now, ‘myself’ only consisted of a zombie who went to class and cried in her spare time. During those showers I would stare at the wall and up at the ceiling. Sometimes I sat down and just breathed in the steam from the hot water. Days went by, then weeks, and finally I called Caitlin who met me back in our hometown and drove me to the tattoo parlor with my design in hand. I dropped the paper on the desk for the artist to peruse. He nodded at it. "This will cost $120 to do."
"That’s fine with me."
"Go ahead and have a seat while I draw it up."

We sat in the waiting room and flipped through one of the art books situated on the shelves next to me. I remembered what he had said to me the night we broke up, "Don’t do anything stupid." And even through my tears I was thinking "What the hell does that mean? It’s not like I’m going to kill myself." I wondered now if this constituted something stupid. Caitlin looked completely calm, but she had done this before. My mind was racing with thoughts of what the needle would feel like, what my mother would say, how could I hide it, why did the machine have to be so damn loud? Then finally it was my turn.

The artist called me into the back room. It was decorated with colorful paintings and pin up girls. The ink was all set up on the counter. My teeth started to chatter from nerves. "Ready?" He asked. I tried to sound as resolute as possible when I said yes.

Caitlin sat across from the table to get a better view. I wanted her to talk to me about anything, just so I wasn’t thinking about what came next. I think it was just as exciting for her to be able to watch though, and she was completely absorbed in the process. The whole tattoo took about a half hour, though it felt like an eternity to me.
"All done" the artist said as he wiped my back. The cool water felt good on my raw skin. "Jump down and have a look." I slid off the table, my legs lethargic from the tension in my body, and looked at my back in the mirror. It was perfect; my eyes were glued to the mirror. I imagine it is a little like giving birth, all the pain completely forgotten once it’s over. I twisted my body around to look at the beautiful scrolling letters. Seek Happiness it said. I read as I ran my fingers over the black ink over and over again.

© Maria Dastolfo May 2009
Dastolfo.maria at

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