One theme I heard repeatedly from women who submitted stores for Knowing Pains: Women on Love, Sex and Work in Our 40s, was the feeling that they were becoming invisible. They were losing their identity to the label of "Matthew's Mom," or "Jeff's Wife." They spent so much time focusing on everyone's else's needs that they lost sight of their own. They found themselves (surprisingly) missing the admiring looks from strange men on the bus. Colleen (a pseudonym) shares her feelings of invisibility and the awkward steps she took, into a tattoo parlor and the arms of a stranger, to try to become visible again. Have you ever been tempted to take either of these steps? I'd love to hear your story. Enjoy! Molly
When I quit, I had been at the agency for longer than I’d been married. I had thought that I would stay forever; that I would lead the agency when the founders retired. I had been so happy there for so long, that for months and months I denied my creeping unhappiness. Then there was the meeting in which a new executive berated me in front of my solemn, embarrassed peers, while my cell phone rang and rang, ever more insistently. My son had vomited at summer camp and the counselors wanted me to pick him up. I finally extracted myself from the meeting, listened to the camp counselors’ increasingly urgent messages, and went to get him. I swore out loud the whole way to camp that I would leave my job as soon as I could. I was surprised by my sudden vehemence.
I started to think about getting my first tattoo. I saw lots of dancers with beautiful tattoos in my weeknight and Saturday morning yoga classes. Years before, after a bad break-up, I had pierced my navel. Somehow, it had helped me to leave some of my sadness behind. Maybe a tattoo would help me to physically mark the end of my first career.
My husband Jay and I decided that I could quit at the end of September, and stay home for a few months while I looked for something part-time. I would help the kids ease into the new school year. I would exercise; I would dance; I would read at the café around the corner. Maybe I would take singing lessons. I would all do the things around the house that had needed doing for the decade we had lived there. I would make some small repairs to the house; I would get us ready for the big Northern California earthquake that everyone said was coming soon.
But instead, I met a man at the café, and I shook the entire foundation of my life.
Jay and I had been married for 10 years. Recently, I’d been reminding myself how we used to be one of those couples that I now hated to be around – the kind of people who held hands and touched all the time. Where did all that go, I wondered? We didn’t fight, but it was very quiet between us. We talked about the kids, the house or our jobs. Sometimes I felt alone, even in the midst of my beautiful little family.
Ford was almost 10 years younger than I; he managed the surf/skateboard shop down the street from my house. He biked or skateboarded to work; he was always a little bit brown, even in December. He saw me with Jay sometimes; he saw me with the children a lot. He said “Hi” to me every day when I went by myself to get coffee before sprinting to the office to be berated by the new leadership. When I quit, and stopped rushing to work every day, he talked to me more. He said, “You seem happier. Are you happier?” One day during the rainy season I walked past the shop in the pelting rain with my hood up, peering in front of me just as he emerged from the shop. “You look cute today,” he said. I began to look forward to seeing him; I started noticing his work schedule.
I knew, without admitting anything to myself, that I needed to find other ways to occupy my mind, so I started to look in earnest for a part-time job. I told Ford that it seemed I wouldn’t get the job I thought I wanted, and I wasn’t able to muster much enthusiasm for the two offers I did get. He said, “It’s okay; it just wasn’t meant to be. I mean, if you had gotten the job, maybe your boss would have made a pass at you.” He smiled and looked at me, oddly expectant. Maybe I imagined that. I asked him, “Has that ever happened to you? Has your boss ever made a move on you?” He laughed and his teeth flashed white against his golden surfer skin. “No, not exactly… But then, I’ve always been the boss.” He paused, then said, “Make a list of all the things that are most important to you in a job; then compare these two jobs against your list.”
That sounded simple enough. I dutifully wrote down a list of desirable job characteristics; in my head I made a list of all the things that I liked about Ford. A couple of days later I saw him, and he asked about my list. I told him I’d made two lists and I would tell him about the second one, but he had to promise not to laugh. He stared at me and said, “I could never laugh at you.” I pushed out the words, “I made a list of all the things I like about you.” I couldn’t look at him. I blurted out, “I have to go to my dance class.” I ran away with my heart pounding in my chest.
The next day, Ford said, “We should compare lists.” And so we did – we met for coffee on his day off and he asked me what was going on in my life. I told him I was lonely and I didn’t know why. I said I loved my husband, but there were no surprises and not much passion anymore. I loved my children but I felt like I was just a mommy and a wife. I missed men looking at me like they used to. I missed feeling beautiful; sometimes when I looked in the mirror I thought I could feel my life draining away. I said more. My parents had died young. My older sister Jana was letting herself go grey. Sometimes, as much as I loved my sister, I was terrified to be around her, to see her aging in front of me. His cell phone rang and he ignored it. He said, “You’re being so honest with me. I need to tell you that I have a girlfriend. It’s an open relationship and she lives a few hours away.” I thought that meant it was ending; I wanted it to mean that it was ending.
We went for a walk and sat down on a secluded park bench, with winter-bare rosebushes all around. He turned toward me and kissed me. I felt electrical impulses shoot through my arms, my legs, my whole body. His tongue slid in to my mouth, and he groaned. Maybe I groaned, too. I kissed him back like I was drowning; when I came up for air, I ran my fingers along his jaw line, his ear, his neck. He said, “I didn’t know you were so tactile. You’re adorable.” He ran his hands around my face, through my hair. “I’ve been staring at you for months.” I asked him, “Did you think about this? Did you think about kissing me?” He nodded. I surprised myself by saying, “I’ve thought about much more inappropriate things.” He laughed, “That could be arranged.” His phone rang again. He looked at the number and stood up. He said, “I have to go; we’re going snowboarding today.” I stood up slowly. I said, “Sitting down was so nice; what would standing up be like?” I stepped into his arms and he kissed me again; he was shorter than Jay. He didn’t have to bend down; his left hand reached around my waist and pulled me hard into him. He said, “I really have to go.”
I was consumed by waves of intense emotion; I was wracked by guilt. I mustered all of the courage I could find and told Jay that I had a crush on someone. He was stunned. He said, “I don’t know what to say. When did this happen?” He didn’t look at me for several days. I asked if he would go to couples counseling with me. He agreed, reluctantly. I left the house one evening to walk the dog, and to get away from Jay’s hurt, angry face. Ford was leaving work on his bicycle. He stopped to talk to me on a dark side street. I told him what I had done. He inhaled sharply and looked exasperated for a moment. He asked, “Why did you do that?” I said I owed it to Jay to tell him some of what was happening. I continued, “And the only reason that I’m telling you is so that you will know me and understand what is going on with me.” He exhaled and stepped closer. “That’s all I ever wanted. You know, before I knew your name, I made up names for you. Some days I called you Penelope; some days I called you Katherine.” I stared at him. He looked right in my eyes and said, “I love you.” I took a sudden breath. I said, “You do?” He said, “I wish I could take care of you.” I looked around – there was no one else on the cold, dark street. I kissed him. He said, “We’ll talk some more soon,” and he got on his bicycle and left quickly and silently.
I was wildly conflicted; I felt horribly guilty. Jay and I started couples counseling but my heart wasn’t in it. I tried to go through the motions anyway. Jay wanted me to say at our first session that I was committed to the marriage and that I would do anything to fix what was wrong. I couldn’t say it. The therapist said that it was okay not to say it, that it was better not to lie. I felt even worse.
One day, Ford’s best friend from the surf shop stopped to pat my dog outside the café. There was a thin sun breaking through the early spring clouds and I was having my coffee outside. He sat down for a moment. Still petting the dog, he glanced at me sideways. He said, “You know Ford’s engaged to a woman up in Tahoe? They’re getting married in September.” I started to pick up my coffee cup, but stopped mid-motion. My arms were tingling and warm. I felt like when I was last pregnant and sick every morning and evening for months on end. I wondered in a distracted way if I was going to faint. My dog sidled over and put his head on my knee; he looked up at me quizzically from under his furry eyebrows. “You didn’t know, did you?” I heard Ford’s friend ask from some distance away. “No, I didn’t know,” I was finally able to say. He stood up abruptly and started to go into the café. He turned back for a moment. “I’m sorry, I thought I should tell you,” he said.
Later, Ford said, “I told you it was an open relationship. What else could I have said to make you understand?” I stared at him incredulously and said, “But how is it open if you’re getting married?” He spoke as if I were a child who needed some simple directions repeated: “I’ll have things on the side and so will she. It will still be open.” I realized I was staring at him with my mouth agape. I finally said. “But I can’t fool around with you if you’re engaged.” Later I wondered how I could be so self-righteously angry with him for his engagement when all along, I was married with children.
I continued couples counseling and tried harder. The therapist suggested that we do new things together, not just our usual date-night dinner and a movie. I remembered the tattoo. It seemed like years, not months ago that I had considered a tattoo to help me get over my career woes. I suggested that Jay and I get a babysitter and go find a tattoo artist. We went to several shops. We looked through artists’ portfolios full of hearts and skulls, buxom women and R.I.P. tributes. We both liked one man’s portfolio of birds and flowers and Dr. Seuss tattoos; he agreed to sketch a lower back tattoo for me. If I liked it, he would tattoo the outline in a couple of hours, and then fill in the color a few weeks later.
Our therapist asked us, “How are things at home while you’re coming to see me? Do you talk to each other?” Jay said that we weren’t connecting; he wondered if he should start planning for the end of the marriage. One day, I overheard him talking to a friend on the phone, “Oh, she’s okay, it’s me who doesn’t know what to do…” Am I okay, I wonder? I am in a strange place in my mind, where absolutes don’t seem to exist. I am a little crazy, I think. The only time I can remember living in such a prolonged state of magical thinking was when my mother was sick, only a year after my father passed. I knew my mother was going to die, but sometimes I acted like an ungrateful teenager around her. I knew I would lose her, and I took her for granted at the same time.
A few weeks later, Jay and the kids gave me singing lessons for my birthday. I cried at the dinner table and couldn’t stop. My son said, “Mommy, why are you sad?” My daughter said, “Mommy, if you’re scared I could go with you. You know that I can sing much better than you can.” Jay smiled cautiously and said, “We thought you’d like to try something new.” I left the table and went to the bathroom. I blew my nose and tried to stop crying, but soon I was sobbing. Jay followed me and asked if I was okay. I nodded through my tears; I didn’t deserve how kind he was to me, even at that moment.
For a long time, I had wanted to really be able to sing. Jay is very musical, and sometimes he visibly winced when I sang. I always knew the words, but I couldn’t carry a tune. I knew it was painful for him to hear me, so I stopped singing in front of him. I sang along with CDs in my car – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline.
I started the voice lessons; every week I practiced scales, triplets, enunciation, volume control, breath control. I sang flat, I sang on pitch, I couldn’t find the melody, my range stretched out some, I got a little better every week. My teacher taught me how to sing from my chest, to feel the vibration in my body, all the way to my heart, when I did it right.
I decided to tell Jay’s family by doing a short song at his sister’s wedding reception in the early summer. The teacher and I picked an old Johnny and June Cash duet; I would do both parts. She warned me, in a kind way, that I might not be ready. Jay was even more careful with me. He said, “You’re braver than me, but it would be too bad if you sang and it didn’t go well – then you might not want to sing ever again.” I told the kids what I was planning; my daughter offered to help me practice. She said, “Mommy, you’re getting better, but I still sing way better than you do.”
When Ford and I started to speak again, I told him about the tattoo. He asked, “Where and what?” Another day he said, “I want to see it after you get it done.” I looked at him; I couldn’t look away. He stared back at me. He said, “Katherine, Penelope, whatever your name is, I want to see it.” I felt myself leaning toward him; the dog suddenly pulled me the other direction. I shocked myself by saying over my shoulder, “I want to show you.”
I got the tattoo outline. Jay stayed with me the whole time. He brought me snacks and he handed me honey-lemon drops so I didn’t cough at a bad moment. The tattoo artist was pleased with the way it turned out. “I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks for the color,” he said.
I told Ford that the outline was done. He looked distracted. He said, “I have to make some calls to the East Coast this morning.” Later, I walked into the surf shop. There was a strange mood in the shop. The guys were all talking about him. His friend said to me quietly, “He gave two weeks notice today; he’s moving to Tahoe to be with her.”
He never spoke to me again. I stopped looking for him when he arrived in the mornings; I avoided the street when the shop closed each evening. I kept going to my singing lessons. I clutched at every small hopeful sign in counseling with Jay. I got the tattoo colored in. It hurt a lot, and it took much longer to heal than the outline.
I was nervous on the drive to Kali’s wedding. We played my CDs in the car; I tried to decide if I would really go through with it. At the wedding, Jay played acoustic guitar – “The Long and Winding Road” – for the processional, my daughter was the flower girl, and my son, in his first navy blue jacket, was the ring boy. My heart was so full as I watched them all play their parts during the brief ceremony. Afterwards, we walked to the reception next door, and friends and family started giving toasts, passing a microphone from one to another. The groom’s sisters stood up and welcomed Kali to the family as their new sister.
Suddenly I knew I wanted to sing – I took the microphone and stood up. I told the guests that I was taking voice lessons and I wanted their help to sing for the bride and groom. I taught them the chorus of “Darling Companion” and had them sing it with me once. And then I stepped into the body of the singer, just as I’d warmed up at every lesson. I sang, “Darling companion, Come on and give me understanding…” I got to the chorus, and waved to the guests to join me. The room swelled with voices, on key, off key, all together, “Oh oh oh oh, a little settling down with you is what she needs…” The singer in me finished the song alone, “…Love will always light our landing, I can depend on you!”
I ended, and handed off the microphone amidst laughter and applause. I sat back down at our table between Jay and my sister Jana. My daughter, who is incapable of tact, said, “Mommy, you weren’t bad. You weren’t really good either, but you weren’t bad.” That was high praise, but the very best part was seeing Jay and Jana stare at me with their mouths open. Jana said quietly to me, “We were so surprised, but we sang the chorus with you.” Jay said, “You did fine. You brought us all along with you. I can’t believe you did it.”
The tattoo is gorgeous – it’s centered on my lower back. With the color filled in, the tattoo comes to life, all greens, pinks and yellows. The sides of the tattoo are like vines, reaching out across my back. In the middle is the “Om” symbol, the Namaste. My yoga teacher leads us in a chant before and after each class: “The light that is in me recognizes and bows to the light that is in you. Namaste.”
The tattoo curls across my skin. When I stand up, it’s as if the tattoo is propelling me forward. I feel beautiful and courageous. This is real, this is who I am. I am being true to myself. Namaste.
Colleen Gregory (45) is a social worker living in Santa Cruz, California with her two lively children, three aloof cats, and one very understanding husband. She occasionally hosts mosaic workshops, works part-time counseling women and teens, and sings her heart out in the shower and other fine establishments.