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June 10, 2008

Is Love Skin Deep?

One guy's scary body art puts his girlfriend to the test.

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I met the man I love on the dance floor of a Bulgarian disco in New York City. It was the beginning of December; he wore a knit cap, a black sweater. We drank beer, boogied the way we thought Bulgarians might, and shared a taxi back to Brooklyn.

A couple of weeks later, on our third date, he made me dinner at his place. By then, I was really liking what I saw: a handsome, short-haired, glasses-wearing guy who owned his own business and attended the ballet with his mom. I was admiring the way he decorated his apartment with both framed photos and living plants when suddenly his lips were on mine. Kissing him was even more warm and wonderful than I'd imagined. Then he pulled off his sweater, and something came between us.

Technically, it was someone: a tattoo on his upper left arm of a vibrant, crazy, and most unmistakably skinless man. Not a skeleton, mind you; a man with no skin — just organs, graphically rendered in sickly red, orange, and yellow swirls. I was shocked by the aggressiveness of it. He'd seemed so ... normal. Gentle, even.

"What is that?" I blurted.

I regretted it right away. With those three words, our makeout session came to an abrupt end, as he pulled back, giving me the chance to sneak another look at that thing on his arm. Yes, there was no getting around it: a man made entirely of muscles and guts, with piercing green eyes.

"What, this?" he asked. "It's a tattoo."

Uh, yeah. It was actually the biggest, brightest, scariest piece of body art I'd ever seen close up. "But what ... is it?" I inquired, a little more gently this time. "What does it mean?"

He tried to explain: It had something to do with his interest in the medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch. And there was a mention of total respect for the tattoo artist. Oh, and, "These designs are exactly what brain synapses look like..."

I wanted to like it — to dig the anatomical accuracy and artistry — because I liked him. But the truth is, it was a turnoff. Skeletons and synapses? No thanks. While my mind reeled, he kept talking.

"...And I can't wait to finish it."

Turned out, he hadn't had time yet to complete his masterpiece.

When my friends heard the story, they reminded me that not only are tattoos totally common (more than a third of 20-somethings have at least one), but ink is, for many, a big turn-on. Bottom line, they said: A tattoo, no matter how weird, should not be a deal-breaker. The guy had too many other great qualities. Plus, it was still winter — there were plenty of months of sweater weather ahead of us.

As the weeks wore on, I tried befriending the skinless man who slept between us. One night, after a few glasses of wine, I gave him a name: Telly Savalas, after the late, bald actor who starred in a detective series when I was a kid. Let's face facts: It's not like the tattoo was going anywhere. I was naming the elephant in the room.

Our meet-the-parents moment came in the midst of a serious heat wave. Even sandals felt stifling; long sleeves were out of the question. Although Telly peeked out just a few inches past my boyfriend's T-shirt sleeve, I was a nervous wreck, keeping tabs on which side of my mother my boyfriend walked on. Blessedly, my folks didn't say a thing.

By August, my boyfriend had amassed the cash to carry out the tattoo artist's original vision: bright swirls snaking down past the elbow that would demand multiple lengthy sittings. I hated the idea, but kept my mouth shut. One night I even popped by the tattoo shop to watch the process. It was as uneventful as he'd promised, but the patrons and artists were spectacular — their arms, legs, necks, and even faces decorated with designs that made Telly look tame.

As the work of art neared completion, strangers couldn't help but take notice.

"Dude! What is that?"
"Can I see?"
"Where'd you get that?"
"Why'd you do it? Did it hurt?"

The questions came from all sides — in the subway, on the street, at restaurants and movie theaters. My boyfriend just blew them off. "Imagine complete strangers feeling entitled to touch you," he told me. "Plus, I did it for me. I shouldn't have to explain myself."

I was surprised, and a little irked, by his reaction: Why walk around with something so nutty if not to provoke a response?

I started thinking about our future. After all, a tattoo in your 20s is one thing, but what about in your 70s? If we had kids together, would they be terrified of that monster on Dad's arm?

In April, we went to visit my grandparents in Florida. Our first morning there, after arriving late the night before, I padded into the kitchen for coffee and a chat with my grandmother. We'd been talking for about an hour when my boyfriend finally surfaced ... wearing a lightweight cotton oxford shirt, the long sleeves casually rolled to just below the tattoo. My heart swelled with gratitude.

We kept up the long-sleeve charade for two days — until the mercury hit 90 degrees. "Sarah, tell him to put on a T-shirt," my grandmother said. "We know about the tattoo."

Just like that. Then we took a swim in the backyard pool, and the world kept turning. Now, after more than three-and-a-half years, I still don't quite understand what Telly means. But I do admire what he represents: a certain fearlessness, a questioning of social convention, and the confidence to do something completely bizarre for no good reason other than that you want to.

In fact, Telly has actually taught me a few things. A little about anatomy, sure, but more about the ways I can be superficial. I'd long trusted that my boyfriend's love for me runs far deeper than the way I look; now I can say unequivocally that I feel the same about him. It's a truth that, every once in a while, bears repeating.

And Telly's not so bad, either.

Sarah Robbins has written for magazines including Real Simple, Self, and Prevention.


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