art by Peachboy
A Body Tale
I sometimes imagine my corpse lying naked and exposed on a mortician’s table. With some strange man poking and prodding at my body—that in itself would not be anything new. Would this stranger take the time to read my body—see my story laid out before him in my face, limbs and torso. Would my tattoos and piercings be markers for the life that had once inhabited it—or have they become so commonplace that they would not even get a consideration.
I got my ear pierced once, twice, three times in the right ear. The right ear because I like my right profile better. I got my right ear pierced three times on different occasions. The first time because I was a budding faggot recently released from the confining arms of family and was finding my way into a myriad of new embraces. La vie en rose. The second time because I was bored with life and thought a new stud was just what I needed, something to get the blood moving. The third time just because things always come in three. There are the three wise men, three men in a tub, the three little pigs. What I’d give to have someone come huffing and puffing to my door to blow me.
An American psychiatrist has written that ear piercings are acts of self-mutilation, linked to personality disorders. But what do psychiatrists know? Van Gogh cut off part of his ear because he was a man of passion. Ok so an ear piercing is not as drastic but I too am a man of passion, more subtle perhaps, but still a man of passion. A boyfriend once described me as a dormant volcano. Probably because he only inspired minor tremors in me. The big eruption lay awaiting more impassioned hands. I am still waiting.
I got a tattoo for Christmas, in one of those punk places where the punk guy tried to get a rise from my middleclassness by farting and picking his nose. Little did he know that this faggot had developed one thick skin. And so I sat quietly and watched my skin colour. I rather liked the sensation, a gentle massage of my arm with just the occasional prick when the needle went too deep. I got a tattoo of a little black cross on my left arm. I don’t know why my left arm, to balance my pierced right ear or because I subscribe to the left. Just like in movie theatres I always sit on the left. I got a tattoo of a little black cross for Christmas, the birth date of our beloved baby Jesus. He too got a cross, from his father, years later when he was 33. One made of wood. I’ve always liked wood.
Perhaps I got this tattoo as a testimonial. I was born into a devout roman catholic family, with an aunt who was a nun and an uncle who was a priest. I was shuffled through four of the holy sacraments before I was old enough and before I was able to say no more, that god did not exist. I was baptized and confirmed, the holy ghost entering my being through osmosis. I received communion and was coerced into confession, making things up for fear of having nothing to say. Yet I am fascinated by and drawn to collect crosses and crucifixes, adorning my walls with their art. And so I marked my skin with a little black cross to attest to this contradiction. I tell people that my family is catholic and I am but a moment in the history of the universe.
I got my nipple pierced, the left nipple because it contrasts nicely with my tattoo on my left arm. I’ve always liked nipple play. I’m not talking about a simple suck or lick, but hard-biting, back-bending play where you are forced to pull your lover’s head away by the hair. The piercing itself was three to five seconds of absolute joy terror. That thin line between pleasure and pain. And I floated out of the piercing parlor on endorphins. And I floated all the way to my boyfriend’s house to tell him that his one emotion was not enough.
The dyke piercing my nipple said to think of it as a rite of passage. And so I did—a passage from one end of the country to the other, from east to west, from good-bye Montreal and Toronto to hello to Vancouver. Goodbye to the naivety of youth, to the many ghosts that haunt, to the lovers, boyfriends and anonymous cocks. Good bye to it all and hello to new experiences, to new sights and sounds and sensations and all the rest. My covered wagon is still somewhere in the prairies following slowly. You can never really escape baggage, only delay its arrival.
I got a second tattoo. This one some years later in a trendy boutique that was welcoming and aseptic. For a while, I was thinking of having queer written on the body. But I don’t know. Maybe it was the result of getting older, or a west coast sensibility but the energy that fuelled my queer zealousness waned. Instead I got a tattoo of a leaf on my right calf. My right calf because it balances the tattoo on my left arm. And I like the illusion that a leaf fell perchance against my leg while I was out hiking. I got a tattoo approximating a birch leaf. Why a leaf, because I have always felt safest amongst trees. Why a birch leaf, because I have always been drawn to birch trees. With its bark, white and pure, and that peels away like skin after a bad sunburn.
Maybe this tattoo is one small measure to feel rooted. I have long given up on my fantasy of becoming a tree. To have chloroplasts inserted into my cells, so that like a plant, I could photosynthesize and become self sustaining on sunlight, water and some dirt. So like many others, I too look for ways to become grounded. The same way I grow tomatoes on my balcony. The same way I travel to desolate places. The same way I carry a piece of wood in my pocket.
That is likely it for piercings and tattoos although I sometimes feel the tug of a third tattoo, the unrelenting power of triads. Disclosure of the scars that mark my body is matter for another body tale.
Peter Toppings works in community health in Vancouver, British Columbia. A long time community activist, he has authored articles on LGBTQ health issues for a variety of not for profit organizations. He navigates life’s journey as best he can and draws strength and inspiration from nature, the arts, and social justice movements.