sweet: 2.1
In the Skin
Ruth Awad

In the kitchen of her two-bedroom apartment in Nashville, Tennessee—four hundred and forty five miles away from my father—my mother set up her tattoo equipment. She taught me to tattoo when I was eighteen the same way she taught me to sew when I was three: methodically threading the needle into the tube into the machine, looking up sharply over her work to catch my eyes and keep them on her. Only the stakes were higher now. This was my inheritance, a trade to keep me afloat should I ever need it. I listened to her every word.

“Tattoos are permanent, Ruth,” she said while she stepped on the pedal and cranked up the power supply, adjusting the speed of the gun by the sound of its angry buzz. “Once you tattoo someone, you’ll change them forever. Course they can get it removed, but your mark is still there under all that fresh scar tissue. And that’s not something you take lightly.” She watched the needle shoot in and out.

I wanted to learn how to tattoo from my mother so I could know her, who she’d become since she left my father. Because in the eleven years they’d been apart, I didn’t realize how much I needed her.


A blowout is a shadow around the tattoo where ink has entered the spongy subcutaneous, the result of the needle going in too deep. I learn to keep my hand even, take small dips into the skin, keeping the needle an eighth of an inch in.


I was seven when she left. She wanted to finish nursing school and live out the life she abandoned when she married at nineteen and had three kids by twenty-four. She said, “Being married to your father is no picnic.”

We’d visit her in Nashville during breaks from our school in Indiana. She’d say the same thing every time, over and over and into her glass of merlot, eyes fluttering the way they do when she’s drunk, “Babies, one day you’ll live with me and things will be better.” Same as she wrote in the letters for the birthdays she missed.

A couple years after the divorce, I sat in the bathroom and watched my mother’s reflection smooth dark red lipstick over her mouth. I was slowly getting used to this new version of her. She went out almost every night or had her friends over when she was home. She blotted her lips then fussed with her hair, brushing black-dyed strands behind her shoulders. Her bohemian-print top lifted just enough to show the swirls of ink on her stomach, stretching across her skin like fingers spread apart.

“Is that a real tattoo?” I asked, pulling at her shirt.

“Of course it’s a real tattoo.” She swatted me away at first, then pulled the shirt up to her bra. A rose vine encircled her entire stomach, each rose a different color. Three roses crept up the middle of the vine toward her belly button, the focal point of the piece. She pointed to them. “These three are for you girls.”

I didn’t want it to be for me. I felt put-off by the thing, intimidated. “Dad said tattoos are bad. He said it’s a sin to have them.”

“Your dad’s a fool, honey. He’s just saying that because that’s what Muslims believe.”

“Dad says I’m a Muslim.”

“The hell you are!” She shook her head then looked back to the mirror.

What I knew then was the mother who danced with my father in the kitchen on Sunday mornings, who handmade clothes for her daughters, who never drank or smoked or wore high heels and heavy black eyeliner, that mother was gone for good.


My mother said, “Treat everyone like they have AIDS when you’re getting ready to ink them.” Universal precaution. I learn to see blood borne pathogens everywhere.


I wanted to become my mother. I dyed my hair black. I painted my lips red. And with each new tattoo she gave me, I never felt more her daughter.

“You sure you’re not going to regret this?” She looks up from my forearm where she’s putting a cedar tree, a tattoo for my father who was born in Lebanon. He later came to the States for grad school where he met my mother. “Your dad’s gonna freak.”

“He won’t. I think this will be the piece that finally wins him over.” I didn’t believe the words as they left my mouth. I wanted to merge my two worlds together, my mother and my father. My throat felt dry. I thought about my father, how he had raised three daughters alone. How even though he worked all day at an engineering firm he never forgot to pick us up from school or take us to a dentist appointment when we were kids. My mother’s lifestyle was a relief at times from my father’s strict home and his overprotective nature. Every inclination I had toward my mother’s parenting style my father would view as a slight to him, ingratitude. I had to choose a side. And in seeking out my mother’s approval, I knew I’d betrayed my father.


The outline is the most important part of a tattoo, the skeleton. Everything else is just meat. I learn to steady my hand. I learn the complexity of following a straight line.


I become my mother in stages. At ten I adopt her ankle bracelets that jingled wherever I walked. When I’m fifteen, I begin to circle my eyes with dark liner the way she does. By eighteen, my hair is the same charcoal-black as hers. My father doesn’t like my dyed hair. My father hates my makeup. He mourns my metamorphosis into his ex-wife. He feels that he has lost me to her. And in this way he has lost us both.


Dad looked like he could burn the cedar tree off my arm with just his glare. His cheeks puffed out, the way they do when he’s mad. I had just come back from a trip to Nashville. I shouldn’t have showed him. I should have kept it secret under my sleeves, a silent devotion to him.

“If this is for me, you wouldn’t have done it.” His nostrils flared. “You’re a disgrace to me. You’ve disgraced my country.” He kept his eyes somewhere past my ear. His every word stung.

“I thought…I got it for you. I wanted to show you…” but the sentence floundered in my constricted throat. My chest felt hollowed out.

“No daughter of mine would do this to me. Not your sisters! You want your mother’s love so much, you would do anything to get it. Where was she, Ruth?” He folded his arms across his broad chest. “Where was she for your band concerts? For your school plays? Now she waltzes in when the hard part is over and she can be your friend!” His dark eyes smoldered behind the thin frame of his glasses.

I wanted to slip out of my skin the way snakes do, leave it in a pile in front of him, a sort of atonement.


“The best way to learn how to tattoo is to watch. Watch me,” mom said.


My mother made infrequent trips to visit us in Indiana when we were still in grade school. She’d stay at the Budget Inn down the road from my father’s house. She’d drive all night from Nashville, chain-smoking the whole way. During those times we were allowed to stay with her in the motel for the weekend. Dad dreaded whenever we saw Mom, fearing all his work of stabilizing our lives would come undone.

My younger sister Sarah and I jumped from bed to bed. “Mommy, mommy, can we go out to eat?” Something my father only let us do occasionally.

“Whatever you want, babies.” Her voice was deep as the bottom of a well. I remember looking at her like she wasn’t real. It was too good a thing, her being there. I leapt off the bed and wrapped my small arms around her. I thought maybe this time she’d stay for good.

But at the end of the weekend, after all the fast food we ate and MTV we watched, she’d leave again. My sisters and I watched from the driveway as she backed out and into the night, back to her life without us, with just her fading taillights as a reminder that she was ever there at all.


I tell my clients now, “A tattoo marks a point in your life. Even if down the road you no longer identify with it, it’ll always be meaningful.”


My mother said, “It’s a sad thing to look back on your life and find it’s a mess.” She looked up at the ceiling to keep the tears in her eyes. “I hope you know I’ve always loved you girls. I never meant to hurt you.”

From across the room I watched her sadness contort her beautiful face, the corners of her mouth pulled down toward her chin, mascara trailing her cheeks. I tried to keep my eyes on her feet, her long skinny feet that look just like mine. I hated talking about the divorce. About her leaving us. Nothing she said seemed to be enough, but I couldn’t stand to see her cry like that. I said nothing, letting our hurt hang in the room like smoke over us.

“Who knows what you would’ve grown up to be if I had raised you? I don’t think I could have raised you as well as your father did. I am too weak to say no to you guys.” She drew a rattled breath, her voice shaking, “How was I supposed to know then that I had just made the one choice that would ruin the rest of my life?”


My mother wouldn’t hold still while I tattooed her. She twisted her arm away whenever I paused to dip the needle in the inkwell. “I’m too old for this,” she said, taking a swig from her beer. She knows she’s not supposed to drink while getting tattooed because it makes the job of the artist that much harder, having to wade through all the blood. “I used to get tattooed for hours on end and now look at me. I can hardly sit in the chair for even a little while.”

“Come on, Mom, or we’ll be here all night.” I wiped away a smear of ink on her forearm where I was putting lavender orchids, her favorite flowers. Vines scrolled and spilled over the sides of her arm, the leaves curling at their ends. I put the needle back to her skin. “Unless you want blobs instead of flowers.”

She rolled her eyes like she’d heard or said it all before and then wrinkled her forehead. “Honey, you’re meat-grinding me. Don’t keep going over the same spot.” She examined the place I’d been working, the topmost petal toward her elbow and said, “Remember: more than three, you’re cutting down a tree.”

“I didn’t realize I’d already gone over it.” I felt my face burn. Such a basic rule.

Tattooing her was intimidating, the definitive test of my skill. I tried to will myself some of the swagger I’d had with clients before, but nothing worked. My mother shifted in the chair and hollered for another beer.

I put the machine down and looked at my mother. She seemed so beat down, so sad. I wanted this piece to prove something to her, to say that after all the years she’d been away, I was still here with my resentment and my love. I wasn’t going anywhere.


With each stitch of ink, each permanent mark I get or give, I’m finding my way back to my mother. I’m taking years of grief and pouring them into my skin where the lines make sense. They form patterns. They form maps. I’m getting closer.

Ruth Awad is a poet, essayist, and tattoo artist who is currently in Southern Illinois University's MFA program for poetry. She lives in Carbondale, IL with her two Pomeranians for company. Her favorite dessert is vegan red velvet cake and a diet coke.