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A Scar Where The Heart Should Have Been

Hiking at Villanueva, New Mexico, 1994

I got a tattoo on my recent trip to New Mexico. It was to commemorate the trip, but also to remind me of the years I lived there when I was in my twenties. They were the best years of my life.

Leaving was the hardest thing I ever did. When I left New Mexico, my heart ripped away and stayed, because to bring it with me would have been torment. When I drove away for the last time, I cried all the way to the state line and then I told myself I wouldn’t cry anymore. I wouldn’t think about it, or remember, or feel, because those things hurt too much. I went about my life with a scar where my heart should have been.

The Tattoo Design

The tattoo has some lettering that is special (for reasons I won’t go into here) under a Zia—a sacred sun symbol of the Zia Pueblo people and a state symbol of New Mexico. Inside the Zia is a heart to symbolize the love that I had for the place and the people of New Mexico and the love that I received from them, as well.

When the tattoo was finished, I looked down at it and asked the artist if she could fill in the heart a little more. It didn’t look right. She suggested a darker ink and mixed a color that looked like blood. She went to inking the heart and it looked as though she was going outside the lines—as if the heart had exploded. But I shrugged because my heart practically did explode when I lived there.

It was fitting. I was okay with it. It’s how the tattoo wanted to be.

I’d seen a friend the night before, when I first got into town. I was excited to see him, but also afraid because it had been almost twenty years and I’m no longer the young, attractive, thin, vibrant, playful, and fun person I was when he knew me. I didn’t want him to see the tired, old, fat, worn-down, wrinkled, and jaded person I am now.

But when I saw him, all the fear fell away and we were back there again. I realized, as we were talking, that we were speaking the same language. The group of us who’d worked together had developed our own language the way close friends or siblings do when they’ve had shared experiences over time and developed inside jokes. That language is still a part of me. I say things in daily conversation and people look at me as if they’re thinking, “What’s wrong with you?” They don’t understand. But my friend did. And I understood him.

Sad at a church

Over the next couple of days, I became profoundly sad. I kept crying inexplicably. I’d be visiting a historic church in some Spanish colonial village and it would overtake me. I couldn’t figure out why I was so sad, so emotional. I didn’t even notice that I was also bursting out laughing at some random thought and smiling uncontrollably while driving down a quiet road, amazed by the breathtaking beauty around me. It wasn’t that I was sad; it was that I was finally feeling something. Remembering. I’d found my heart!

During the trip, I was vigilant with the aftercare of my tattoo, but I noticed that the heart had formed a thick scab that looked very much like a real heart. I suppose the extra inking caused a lot of bleeding, but I couldn’t tell because the ink was the same color as the blood.

After an absolutely joyous trip of touring ruins, visiting with my friend, and writing and researching for the novel I’m working on, I returned to Seattle and to dark, dreary, rainy skies, which immediately dampened my spirits.

A Scar Where The Heart Should Have Been

The next morning, as I was caring for my tattoo, something happened. I’d just cleaned it and applied lotion and everything was fine, and then I looked down again and the heart scab was gone. I didn’t feel it or see it go. I couldn’t find it. It was just gone. When it left, it took with it all the ink and left behind only a scar where the heart should have been.

At first I was mad because now it didn’t look like what I wanted, but then I shrugged. Of course the heart was gone. I’d left the place that made me happy. I’d left my heart in New Mexico once again. Now there was a raw divot in the middle of the Zia—a hole. A light pink scar.

It was fitting. I was okay with it. It’s how the tattoo wanted to be.

When I go back…when I really go back for good, and live in the place that fills me with happiness and I find my heart again, I will ink the heart back in. But until then, on my wrist and in my chest, there will be a scar where the heart should have been.

Hiking at Villanueva, New Mexico, 2018

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