Recently, I got a tattoo.
Full disclosure here: It was a henna tattoo, which meant that it lasted longer than a slow-moving Category 5 storm, but shorter than the aftermath if it’s a direct hit.
Still, the intricate pattern of swirling lines and dots covering my left arm from watch-line to the tip of my little finger raised eyebrows. And not just because I’m celebrating one of those big birthdays that end in a zero this year.
No, this was an elaborate work of art that stopped conversations. For once, my almost 60-year good-girl persona was being ruffled.
I was temporarily the bad girl. And I liked it.
“Did you do something to your arm?” Stewart had asked in alarm when I deplaned after a month in India and a stopover in Dubai on the way home. “It looks infected.”
“It’s a tattoo,” I replied, holding out the artful henna markings for closer inspection. “It seemed like a good idea last night out in the desert.”
There, I explained, on a final vacation outing in the UAE, I had succumbed to the pull of an endless starry sky, the still night air and the enigmatic eyes of a mehndi tattoo artist, peering at me from beneath her burka, a woman I wouldn’t recognize if she were to pass me in the street, but with whom I bonded over snaky coils of ink applied swiftly and surely. She had studied me long and carefully before bending to her task.
In Arabia, much thought is given to the henna tattoo patterns. Before their weddings, brides’ hands and feet are adorned with elaborate floral henna designs.
“In fact, a new bride isn’t allowed to do housework until the henna wears off,” I explained to Stewart, with just enough lilt in my voice to convey my approval of the custom.
“You don’t do any housework now,” was his retort.
Growing up in rural Louisiana in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, I was inculcated with certain life truths, one being that only trashy people inked their arms or wore thongs in public, the latter being footwear, not underwear.
To this day I eschew flip-flops, and have counted my blessings that my three daughters never opted for permanent markings on their dermatitis (there was the time I took my 13-year-old to get her belly button pierced as a reward for making honor roll, but I mean who would ever notice a tiny hole in one’s navel? Her father never did…)
Anyway, my spontaneous moment of carefree indulgence lifted a curtain on life’s possibilities. Suddenly, people were snagging my attention with comments, mostly admiring ones, about the artwork on my arm.
“Is that a tattoo?” asked the guy in front of me at CC’s. He looked like a younger Michael Jordan, tall and athletic and hip. “Cool.”
Wow. Michael Jordan lookalikes never chat me up in the CC’s line.
People asked where I got it. What it meant. Who had done it. I am a person who avoids center stage for the wings, and here I was in the spotlight.
And I discovered that it can be quite liberating out there in front of the footlights. In New Orleans, we revel in the freedom to be whoever you want, to look however you want, and, within broad limits, to do whatever you want. We love our eccentrics.
But I had never been on the receiving end. I found I enjoyed the climate there.
Stewart sometimes says that, when he retires from the legal community, he’s going to wear a ponytail and an earring. I used to chalk it up to an attempt to recapture more carefree college days, when his hair touched his shoulders and he could execute a perfect scissor kick on the soccer field.
Now, however, I think he may be on to something. After decades of mortgages, child-rearing and clock-punching, we’ve earned the right to be a little eccentric.
New Orleans will admire us for it. And we will never lack for friends in the CC’s line.