My heart threatened to pound out of my chest as I stepped inside Iron Heart Tattoo Parlor in a quaint little subdivision of the city called Beaverdale. Inked skin decorated every open space on the walls. Skulls, elaborate floral patterns, insignia I did not recognize; nothing that jumped out at me, screaming High school English teacher in a Catholic school and mother of three teen boys. I still could not believe I was doing this. I am a gosh darn cheetah, I am a gosh darn cheetah, I repeated to myself as I walked around shaking, loosely quoting from Glennon Doyle’s Untamed but too Catholic to take the Lord’s name in vain as she had. I had resolved myself to this only about a month ago, when things felt complicated. Although some of life’s complications had simmered, the lingering feelings the situation created stayed with me, clinging to me like the webs spun in the corners of my garage. I wanted to do something that was in MY control, instead of waiting to see how things out of my control were going to play out. In the myriad of things people try in an attempt to take back control, a tattoo felt somewhat safe, yet I could feel the permanence of what I was about to do in the pit of my stomach.
A man stepped through a swinging, saloon-type door, on his phone, and tossed me a quick, “Be with you in a sec, hon.” Heat shot up my neck and into my face and my heart, already racing at an astonishing pace, doubled in time. Could I really do this? I had submitted my images and font to Ironheart’s “Contact Us” form a few weeks prior and someone from the studio had emailed me saying that an artist named Dre had put my ideas together into a great design. In moments, I would get to see it.
“Ok, sorry about that,” a kind-looking man with tattooed arms and gauged earlobes said to me as he ended his phone call. “Do you have an appointment?”
“Yes. I’m Kate Leo and I have a 5 o’clock appointment,” I responded, my voice shaky, as I started to take my jacket off. Although it was still cool for April in Iowa, my racing heart and flushed face had triggered a cascade of sweat under my arms and down my back.
“Great! Dre’s just finished up with another client and he’ll be with you in a second, just have a seat right there,” he said, gesturing to the wooden bench that sat perpendicular to the counter where the register stood. I grabbed a photo book filled with art drawn on other people’s bodies and looked through it, none of it registering. Was it the pain I was afraid of? Fear of what others would think? I had told no one I was doing this, other than my husband, my teenage sons and a few coworkers who also had tattoos. I had asked them what I thought were all the right questions: How did you decide what to get? How bad did it hurt? How do I care for it after? Do they fade much? Am I going to look ridiculous, either right now or as an 80-year-old woman, with this on me? Do you regret any of yours? I flipped the pages of the photo album faster and faster, my breathing accelerating, feeling lightheaded. There was still time. I had only put down a $20 deposit. Should I leave? Curiosity of wanting to see how Dre, the artist, had put my ideas together got the better of me, so I shut my eyes and inhaled, held my breath and counted to four, exhaled and counted to four again. My heart slowed a bit and my head gained some clarity.
“Hey there,” a tall man said as he stepped from behind the saloon doors. “I’m Dre. You’re the book and the pen, right?” he said, referring to the images I had sent him.
“Yes, that’s me,” I responded, trying to sound confident. “Will those images work? Will they fit on my arm? What did you think?” I knew I was blubbering, but felt too nervous to stop.
“Let me show you how I put it together,” he said, pulling out a tablet. “I really like the pen you found but the ink line comes down a bit, so I offset it with the book here,” he pointed to the image, “and I think you will want it on your arm like this…may I?” he asked, gesturing to my left forearm. I nodded and he took my arm, outstretched it over the tablet and drew the shapes and angles on my arm in the direction he thought made the most sense. “What do you think?”
“For some reason, I was thinking it would face me. Would that be weird?” I asked shyly. I have no idea why, when I pictured it before, I was always able to look at the design facing me, not upside down. I had even drawn what I thought it would look like on a sticky note and taped it to my forearm, wearing it around for a day to make sure I liked it.
“Nah, you want it to face out so when you are standing with your arms down, everyone will be able to see it and know what it says. I can do it the other way if you want, but it will be upside down most of the time,” he finished. He had such a gentle way about him with an air of expertise that I instantly trusted him.
“No, let’s do it your way. I like it.”
“You sure, girl? It’s your body,” he asked, searching my eyes for a decision.
“Yes, I love it. Let’s do it. I seriously can’t believe I am doing this. I must be having a midlife crisis,” I said, blush creeping across my cheeks. Still dressed in my slacks and preppy blouse from teaching all day, I kept thinking a tattoo might not match the rest of me.
“Nah, girl. You’re having a midlife life,” Dre responded with a wink and a smile. “C’mon back and let’s get the image on you and see what you think.”
We headed back into the parlor and to Dre’s station. He had already printed off the design on an applique, which is pressed to my forearm and then had me go examine the blue image in the mirror to make sure I liked the positioning and angle. “I love it,” I said, turning to him. “Let’s do this.”
Having come to terms that I was going to be a tattoed, middle aged high school English teacher and mom, and feeling relatively OK about that, a new wave of panic swept over me. The needle. Dre said it would be best if I laid down, kind of like I was at the dentist, and spread my left arm out over a cushioned support where Dre could easily work on the design. He started up what sounded like a little drill.
“I’m gonna do just a little bit, so you get a feel for it, and then stop. You tell me what you think,” he said gently. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I felt a slight pinch and then a scratching, like someone rubbing me repeatedly with a fingernail that had been filed to a sharp point. Not an amazing feeling but definitely not pain. He continued to scratch for a few more seconds and then stopped. “Well,” he said, looking over at me, “what’cha think?”
“Wow – it is not at all what I expected it to feel like. It’s not bad at all, really. OK, keep going. I can do this.”
Dre continued to work and we chatted about family and raising kids in this day and age, how he became a tattoo artist, and how just a few weeks ago, he had inked the side of an 80-year-old woman’s head. His easy demeanor and kind way made the time pass quickly. Every now and then, he would pause our conversation and say, “It’s gonna be spicy here for a second” and then continue our conversation. At the edges of the design, as he left the center of my forearm, it did feel a bit different, but it never hurt. Spicy was the perfect word.
As he continued to work, he commented, “You know you have not flinched or even tensed once. I have a feeling you’ll be back. Now that you know you can handle the pain.” I looked over at him and he glanced up, giving me a quick wink, a twinkle in his eyes.
Dre blotted, touched up, and inspected his work and wrapped my arm in a tight bandage. As he finished securing the wrap, I heard a familiar voice in the lobby.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d get here in time. Is she still here?” Tony, my husband, walked back into the area where Dre was just finishing up.
“Yup, she’s right back here and she’s doing great,” the gentleman who had checked me in said, leading Tony over to me.
“What are you doing here?” I exclaimed, completely shocked to see him.
“I wanted to get here early but my meeting ran long. I just wanted to be here with you and support you while you did this,” Tony said, looking at the bandage on my arm and giving me a quick kiss. “I’m too late to see it, huh?”
“Dre just wrapped me up, but I took a picture when he finished,” I said, grabbing my phone. I pulled up the photo and showed Tony, asking “What do you think?”
“Looks great,” Tony responded with a smile. “Do you like it?”
“I am still in shock that I did it. This is 100% surreal to me right now but I think I love it,” I said shyly.
I walk with Tony and Dre up to the register and pay for my new arm ink. I thank Dre over and over for being patient, kind, gentle and just basically amazing with me. Tony grabs my hand as we head to our cars.
“I still can’t believe you did it, but if it makes you happy, then I am happy for you. I can’t wait to see it,” Tony said encouragingly.
An hour later, I carefully unwrapped the bandage and inspected my arm, the black words and images reddened at the edges. The word “inhale” in a typewriter font, followed by an open book and then under it, the word “exhale” in the same font and a fountain pen, its ink snaking its way down my forearm, as Dre had suggested. Reading and writing – two of the most consistent and therapeutic things in my life. I feel a sense of calm and think to myself, I love it. I really truly love it. I am still petrified to show it to people, but it’s mine and I love it. Falling asleep that night, I thought about Tony, my husband of 19 years, showing up out of the blue at Iron Heart. Tony, who had listened to my constant ranting and processing over the past few months when things felt complicated. Tony, who is always calm and thoughtful and asks great questions like, “What is your goal?” before I make any rash decision. Tony, the love of my life. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought to myself, reading is my inhale and writing is my exhale, but Tony is my rock. And Dre- I will definitely be back.
Kate Leo has worn many hats in her lifetime: daughter, sister, friend, student, teacher, wife, parent, adult caregiver, and most recently, writer. An Iowa native, Kate has her bachelor's and master's degrees in English Secondary Education and is a certified reading specialist. Kate knows the power of reading and writing and wants to encourage her students to write for an audience beyond the teacher. Kate hopes to share short stories that mirror the experiences from many hats she's worn. Kate is the author of the blog "Write When Life Happens" on Substack.