Fiction Fragments: Andrew Robertson

Last week, I spoke with the Darque Bard, James Matthew Byers about his passion for epic poetry.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer Andrew Robertson.


Andrew Robertson is an award-winning queer horror writer and former journalist. In October 2021, his short story “Sick is the New Black” will appear in the gay-themed multi-genre anthology Pink Triangle Rhapsody: Volume 1 from Lycan Valley Press. He is currently working on a novelization of the same story, exploring themes of queerness, addiction, fame, anti-vaxxers and the toxic nature of post-pandemic life in a culture locked in the thrall of social media. He will also be introducing the Mythimals this month by launching his first monstrous children’s book, And Then The Fart Happened, on the Great Lakes Horror Company Kids imprint with illustrations by LizzDom and colour and layout by Dinis Freitas.

Also scheduled for 2021, his short story Sundowning in Klarissa Dreams Redux is headed to space! The charity anthology will be flying to the moon in July via the United Launch of a Vulcan Centaur rocket as part of Peregrine Mission One – Manifest 9: #WritersOnTheMoon. This book will be part of the largest single collection of contemporary artwork ever put on the Moon, and it will fly there on the first commercial lunar flight in history.

Andrew’s fiction has appeared in literary magazines and quarterlies such as Stitched Smile Publications Magazine, Deadman’s Tome, Undertow, and katalogue. He has also appeared in anthologies including Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland, A Tribute Anthology to Deadworld, Group Hex Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. He is the editor of Dark Rainbow: Queer Erotic Horror, which explores the darker urges we all face.

A lifelong fan of horror, he is the founder of The Great Lakes Horror Company podcast and indie press and a member of the Horror Writer’s Association.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Andrew. Back in August 2020, I interviewed horror writer Hailey Piper. Her Twitter profile encourages people to “Make horror gay AF.” What does that statement mean to you as writer? How has your identity shaped your writing over time? Has it evolved, and how? How do you define queer horror, and what sets it apart from other flavors of the genre?

AR: First, I wanted to say thanks for having me on GMM! I’ve been reading all the interviews and excerpts and they’ve been great.

For me, being queer has always meant feeling like an outsider, and when you feel that way, you have a choice of embracing your queerness or hiding it away. When people are othered, it comes from a place of fear in the dominant society, and with fear comes ignorance, and both lead to violence, in words and actions. For most of us, I think that feeling of otherness comes from societies fear of what queerness is, this great unknown, often characterized by over the top characterizations of masculinity and femininity along with a lot of really damaging stereotypes that come from those. Growing up in the 80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and seeing how vilified queer people were as scapegoats for a disease that knew no sexualities, it was really difficult to come to terms with being queer when that seemed to be a death sentence one way or another. You internalize a duality that informs how you act in a given situation, and what you can or should do or say. It’s awful…horrific in fact.

The media did a great job of turning gay men in particular into total pariahs and then the gay community further segmented their own population by favouring the healthy muscular look as opposed to those who could look ‘sick’. You had to fit into the cookie cutter mold or you were stigmatized and rejected. You tend to internalize that feeling of ugliness, along with a lot of the hate that spreads in society, especially when you can be easily clocked as queer. I may have been closeted, but I still dyed my hair blue, wore pigtails and dog collars, and loved Tina Turner and Siouxsie Sioux more than you would expect from a straight man.

The way queerness comes into my writing is through a lot of the themes I write about, like the desire to be seen, to be accepted, or in my recent work in progress, to do things that you would never normally do just to break through to the mainstream and get those ‘likes’ at any cost. There are also themes of hidden identities, duality, self-destruction, transformation, anger, resentment, and revenge which can be pretty common in queer horror. It’s not always at the forefront, but it’s always there however it becomes refined over time.

GMM: When did you begin writing horror, and who were some of your favorite writers who influenced you? Has that list changed over time? Have your tastes in horror changed? What are your favorite subgenres in fiction and film?

AR: I always enjoyed writing, and would scribble up short stories in high school that were pretty well informed by my goth interests, but in university I headed in the direction of journalism, telling other peoples stories instead of my own. That always preyed on my thoughts. It wasn’t until I met Sephera Giron a few years back that I got serious about it again, joined the HWA Ontario Chapter and got published. She’s a great cheerleader. Like the Demon Aunt I’ve always wanted.

For writers, one of my favourites has always been Anne Rice. She created a very queer universe for her characters in the Vampire Chronicles and beyond. Louis and Lestat are very clearly in a bromance turned romance, going as far as to create a small vampire family as poor Louis struggles with what and who he is. You can really relate to that as a gay man raised in the 80s. The Witching Hour made me want to create a universe, so that’s probably my turning point.

I think you can find horror in anything really, like the writing of Harry Crews. That’s a real trip, and I guess the genre is grit lit.

I also absolutely love the confrontational writing of Lydia Lunch, in particular, her classic Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary. That would likely fall under non-fiction, it’s so very autobiographical, but entirely literary. She really controls her own narrative and I’ve been lucky enough to meet her a few times.

Clive Barker’s body of work is also incredible, The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks was an eye-opener, and I’ve loved recent work by Indigenous writers like Cherie Dimaline, and Waubgeshig Rice. As a genre hopping reader, right now I’m also enjoying the Diary of Anais Nin and a few works by Tama Janowitz.

For film, my go to is always, always horror, with a particular love for the Hellraiser franchise, classic monsters, 80s slashers, and found footage films.

GMM: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that “Hamburger Lady” falls under the category of body horror. Tell me about the story and what about body horror appeals to you as a writer? As a reader?

AR: Haha, yes that story is definitely body horror. So much of my work is!

I think that it comes from my fascination with perceived or actual self-destruction, or the wilful destruction of another, and what we are willing to do to survive or succeed. Body horror has always been particularly triggering for me, however I’ve found that rather than pushing me away, it held me rapt. There are so many ways the body can betray us, and so many ways it can disgust us.

That fascination led me to writing in that genre. For example, The Fly was such a landmark film for me in many ways, as was Hellraiser. I love Pinhead! I watched them through my fingers the first time, but couldn’t stop, you know that feeling? We all do! That’s why we slow down near a car crash, to see what could have happened to us. Both films can be read as very queer, and both deal with pushing the limits of the human body and mortality.

There are also so many ways we can transform our bodies. I used to go on body modification sites to see what people were up to, with a sense of morbid fascination and respect for what an individual would do to live their truth. When I discovered what subtraction is I was gobsmacked! I also was obsessed with the artist Orlan and her work in plastic surgery using her own body as the canvas.

The title of my excerpt, Hamburger Lady, is a reference to the song by Throbbing Gristle. I recommend everyone listen to it. The lyrics are actually from a real letter penned by a doctor describing a woman who was a burn victim in a hospital ward, and it’s one of those things you never forget. You wonder at what point keeping someone alive is a punishment meant to exercise the might of science over mercy. My story deals with a future where a disease ravages the skin of those who contract it, leading to the market for skin dealers and donors. I’ll leave it at that for now, but if anyone wants to add the full text to their anthology, I’m game.

Excerpt from “Hamburger Lady”

“My client doesn’t want the whole cheek. She won’t need that much for what’s…well, I’ll say for what’s wrong with her. I mean, we’re friends here at this point, you know the drill. She just wants this part,” Dr. Sawney the Plastician says to Kate, indicating the area by running his damp index finger along what the industry calls the apple of the cheek.

The apple: where women like Kate are meant to put a simple highlight or blush before they go out with men who want to look at them adoringly and see absolutely no flaws at all. Even a light rash or pimple is a bonerkiller. Flaws mean the men aren’t flush enough to pay for the best, and their financial peacocking is what gets them hard. The men want to be envied by all the other bucks and stags at the chosen restaurant, bar or fast food joint, and then with all the chivalry absent from this new world, pay for everything before the two of them have what any of these men are sure is incredible sex fueled by their show of chauvinist financial superiority. It will be better for him. Every time. All these men benefitted for the fallout of the most recent of many pandemics. Women were shoved right back down to where they had been over a century earlier- the second choice for any good job, any decent benefits, any rights at all really. And if you weren’t perfect, you were invisible.

The type of man Kate meets hopes and probably believes he isn’t directly paying for this great sex with all his other nice efforts. He wants to be enough of an attraction all by his handsome self even if he leaves a few hundred on the nightstand afterward. And aside from this beau’s assumptions and assertions, no one wants to bring a bruised produce to his lips if there are better options.

She resists the urge to wipe the moisture off when the Plastician is done. And regardless of the circumstances, imaginary or otherwise, in this case, the apple is still quite attached to the tree.

She can’t believe she’s back at the Sawney clinic in Room Three. The minute she passed through the front door, she felt trapped by her own circumstance. The receptionist with the awful makeup sat there looking surprised as always that anyone would come into this terrible place to give away parts of themselves. The door between reception and the treatment rooms stood in its menacing steel frame, locked until the receptionist hit her button and the mechanism snapped the door open so she could begin what always felt like the longest walk ever to Room Three. They might as well name this Kate’s Room.

As his finger returns to again run across her apparently perfect apple, Kate can smell the onions he had with lunch on his fingers and breath even through his surgical mask. She doesn’t move. She knows her rank. A high-end skin-dealer as skilled as he is means that he can be a bit gross and never hear a complaint from a client or well-compensated vendor. Donors he calls them, like it’s a charity for the poor rich folks.

She can see the sauce from his lunch at the top of his mask, which he wears constantly to remind everyone that he is the surgeon and that it’s his name on the door. Unfortunately, the majority of his skill is used on the end consumer, not so much on ‘donors’ such as herself who make do with whatever they have left after they are harvested and paid. Either way, right now, she can’t even afford an onion or an apple, and can’t be picky about who is cutting off what. But she doesn’t want to give away anything above her neck if she doesn’t have to. Her own clients choose her because, unlike many of the other girls, she is mostly intact. She is, however, terrified of how broke she’s become, and what could happen if she stops paying for her mothers’ treatments at the community hospital.

When she left their apartment for this appointment, her mother looked up through eyelids covered in weeping sores and told Kate that her smile was enough to get her through any day, no matter how bad they became. She said Kate was born with a perfect smile, one that made the sun shine, and that it was her greatest achievement as a mother. Kate’s heart broke but it got her moving. One day they could leave this country and find somewhere to live out their days where things weren’t so bad. But right now, this man in a dirty mask reeking of onions wanted to cut off a piece of her face.

“How’s that going to look, man?” She asks incredulous, thinking of the quivering torso in a wheelchair she had noticed when she had entered the clinic. The torso had been rolling into the neighbouring chamber, Room Two, assisted by one of the Plastician’s assistants. It had been almost entirely covered in a tacky sheet. There was no way that…torso was a complete person, she thought. It had no legs for one thing. And where the sheet didn’t cover the face, it looked like a meatloaf had exploded, with one bulging left eye like a hyper grape darting around a fleshy socket. Its gaze had landed on Kate long enough to freak her out.

She didn’t know if it was a ‘donor’ or someone being treated, but things were so bad it could have very well been someone making the ultimate sacrifice to feed a family or stay out of the mines. The sheet looked sticky, and the torso seemed to be struggling to get one arm with stumpy fingers up to its’ awful face past what could have been the remains of a breast while the assistant kept slapping the hand away. It held something wet and bloody. What was it trying to look at? Was it chewing a hangnail?

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Why I’m Not Making New Year’s Resolutions for 2020

jamie-street--d6kTMGXV6E-unsplashEach year as the holidays get into full swing, I begin thinking about what happened during the year — the good stuff, the bad stuff, the stuff I wished I had done differently. And usually, I begin to feel a bit melancholy about all the things I didn’t accomplish. I had a lot of ups and downs in 2019. But lots of good things happened, like having two short stories published in anthologies with Scary Dairy Press, and my debut novel, Invisible Chains, was released at Necon 39 by Haverhill House Publishing. People I admire and respect had some very nice things to say about my book and I couldn’t be happier. In my own heart and mind, I am now a real horror writer. I became a guest blogger for Speculative Chic where I get to write about one of my favorite subjects: vampires. I dipped my toes into unknown waters by writing a few articles for Medium. And, because of those tangible successes, I’m beginning to take myself more seriously as I embrace the idea of becoming a professional writer (even if I still can’t quit my day job).

I reconnected with old friends, made new friends, and deepened some of my relationships with my close female friends and family who continued to join me on this journey around the sun another year. And in the process of spending time with those people, I learned a lot about myself. I’m looking forward to spending more time with all of you and can’t wait to create new memories. We have many more adventures ahead of us in the coming year and beyond.

Looking ahead to 2020, I’ve decided not to come up with a list of resolutions like I normally do. Statistics show that 80 percent of people will fail to keep their resolutions. I’ve been seeing a trend on social media that encourages people to choose one word to represent the things they want to achieve in the coming year and to create positive change rather than set up a bunch of unattainable goals that set you up for failure.

What is my word for the year? CREATIVITY

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As a writer, this word has a lot of meaning to me in terms of what I’m creating. I have several writing projects I fully intend to finish in the coming year, and I want to take a deep dive into reconnecting with my creative energy. That means finding more time to read, reflect, and experiment with my writing. It also means pushing myself out of my comfort zone by submitting more work and taking more risks.

I want to apply this word to the way I approach my entire life — how I eat, how I move, how I worship, how I grow, and how I love.

I am officially divorcing myself from the toxic institution of diet culture. I have struggled with weight loss and self-esteem issues since I was 10 and I am done with feeling shame about my body. I am going to get creative about how I feed myself by trying new recipes with my son, cooking for friends, and learning to enjoy food rather than seeing it as something I am constantly judging and evaluating like myself.

I’m also going to get creative about how I move my body. Exercise is something I usually view as punishment for the “bad” food choices I make. No more. I am going to try some new forms of movement this year. Activities that feel more like play than work. And, I’m going to make more of an effort to get outside and enjoy Nature. It isn’t enough to just move more. I want to learn to love my body. Not because I finally conquer it and bend it to my will, but because I accept it as it is right now in this moment and treat it with the love, care and kindness I would show a loved one.

Over the past several months, I flipped the script and started listening to not only my own intuition, but also what black women and women of color — women who look like me — have to say about health, healing, mindfulness and spiritual practices. Women like Bre Mitchell whose podcast, Brown Girl Self-Care, examines how women of color can learn from each other to heal themselves and their communities while addressing how institutionalized racism further complicates gender-bias, single parenthood, sexuality, abusive relationships, ancestral trauma, poverty, depression/anxiety, access to healthcare, and other issues disenfranchised women around the world deal with on a daily basis while simply trying to survive. I’m going to allow myself to trust my own inner voice, the voices of women of color, and the voices of my ancestors I have been ignoring. In 2020, my goddess spirit guides for creativity will include Kali, Frida Khalo, and Yemaya. Strong feminine beings who embody raw creative power and the healing magic of transformation.

And finally, I’m going to apply this creative vibration to how I view romantic relationships. At 47, dating has become more of a chore than something I enjoy. Being single doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Instead, I’d like to look at this phase of my life as an opportunity to grow and learn more about myself without worrying about how others perceive me. I’m burned out on online dating and I don’t have lots of opportunities to meet new people face-to-face. As a single parent who works full-time and is pursuing a writing career, I don’t have a lot of free time. And, I’m not satisfied with the asynchronous dating model of texting and waiting for days to hear back from someone who I might not see for months. That isn’t dating. At least, it isn’t what I want. So, I’m going to date myself in 2020 and come up with some interesting ideas of places to take myself and create new ways to show myself some love. If I end up meeting someone who genuinely wants to take the time to get to know me, great. If not, I’m still going to enjoy myself on this next rotation around the sun.

What will your word be in 2020?

When Survival Mode Becomes a Way of Life

It’s easy to recognize when a period of transition begins, but how do you know when it ends? Are there concrete, measurable ways to know you’ve come out on the other side and accomplished what you set out to do? Or is there just a constant sense of unease over never truly recognizing you have simply stepped into a new phase of existence? If you began following a path with no real sense of what you expected to find on the other side, how would you know if you reached your destination?

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Image via Unsplash by Kelly Sikkema

For the past six years, I have been in a seemingly never-ending period of transformation. I have celebrated successes, mourned losses, floated around aimlessly trying to figure out what happens next, and have continued to set personal and professional goals for myself in the face of adversity. I keep expecting things to settle down and become more manageable, but honestly, I think I’m kidding myself. I’m beginning to think this is just my life, and good, bad, or ugly, I’m living it.

2012 was a busy year. In February that year, I celebrated my 40th birthday with three good friends in New Orleans: my cousin Tara, my best friend’s sister, Katie, and my friend Christina, who flew all the way from Amsterdam to celebrate my birthday. The four of us met up in the Crescent City, a magical place I believe to be my birthplace in a past life, and quickly eased into a long weekend of drinking, eating, laughing and dancing. Highlights from that weekend include:

  • Shopping at Trashy Diva
  • Eating beignets past midnight at Café du Monde
  • Getting my photo taken with a demon on Bourbon Street
  • Laughing so hard at inappropriate jokes that my sides hurt
  • Watching a Mardi Gras parade in the Garden District with floats from a Krewe in Lake Pontchartrain who wore creepy old-fashioned Mardi Gras masks
  • Getting a birthday spanking by a stranger in a bar on Decatur Street
  • Watching a man in his 70’s perform kickass R&B for a solid hour straight in a Mardi Gras Indian costume down on Frenchman Street
  • Spending time with women I love and respect

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. That was a magical weekend I hope to recreate in the very near future.

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Café du Monde New Orleans

Soon after that trip, several life-changing events happened. Events I had speculated about while on that magical trip. First, I was accepted to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University, and I began the three-year MFA in June that year. For years, I had struggled with the notion of taking myself seriously as a writer. I had been writing fiction fairly consistently since I turned 12, and then I completed a BA and MA in English in the hopes of finding a career in writing or teaching, but neither of those things happened. Why? Well, that’s a story for another day. The point is, reading, writing, and writing about writing were some of my favorite things to do and yet somehow I wasn’t making a living doing those things.

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Image via Unsplash by Ali Yahya

A few months before my 40th birthday, I decided it was time to take myself seriously and finally write a novel. And, hey, why not earn another college degree while I was at it? That was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. During my second residency, in January of 2013, I decided to end my marriage. I sat up late one night with my good friend and fellow writer, and she and I brainstormed an exit strategy. After that weekend, I applied for a job at my alma mater, and contacted a lawyer friend about the process of getting divorced. Shortly after telling my husband I was leaving, my brother-in-law died. The key to comedy, and apparently tragedy, is timing. One of these days, I’m going to write about that experience: the sadness, the guilt, and the inexplicably delightful black comedy of the whole thing that still fills me with a sense of awe over how bizarre life can be.

Anyway, by April of 2013 I had a new job and had moved back to my hometown. I left a job that was killing my spirit and a marriage that was making me unbearably unhappy, I started a new job, became a single parent, and faced the realities of my father’s rapidly declining health. My mother had recently put my dad in a nursing home because she couldn’t leave him alone at home while she worked. He had developed dementia after fighting several life-threatening illnesses that honestly, he probably shouldn’t have survived. For years, he had battled diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, and levels of stress I can only imagine. Well, to be fair, my own current levels of stress are probably slowly killing me. By some unbelievable twist of fate, my dad received a heart transplant. I’m not sure that was best thing that could have happened. He really wasn’t healthy enough for the surgery, and after the transplant he slowly went crazy, nearly taking my mother with him in the process.

Not only did he become difficult to talk to–because he developed a pathological need to be right about everything–but he forgot to pay bills and drained my parents’ bank account buying books and online services for an imaginary business he believed he had started. My father had spent his adult life working hard to keep people with mental illness tethered to reality, yet at the end of his own life, there was no one to help him keep madness at bay. One day, my mom got a call at work from the police. They had found my dad wandering around a few blocks from home and he had no idea where her was. His hallucinations, unpredictable mood swings, and strange changes in personality were difficult enough to deal with, but after the police brought him home, she put him in a nearby nursing home to keep him safe.

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Image via Unsplash by rawpixel

After moving back to my hometown in March 2013, my son and I lived with my mom for a few months. She had the space and wanted the company. I wanted to save money and needed a safe space to deal with all the changes I was making. We gave each other support in a challenging time. She helped me look after my son, and I helped her deal with the things she didn’t want to face about my dad. There was paperwork, visits to the nursing home, and just accepting the fact that dad was never coming home. She felt guilty for leaving him there, but neither of us could quit our jobs to look after him.

At the same time, I was dealing with financial struggles that followed me from my marriage, an undiagnosed mental health issue with my then 6-year-old, anxiety over starting a new job, anxiety about starting a new job at my alma mater that I vowed to burn to the ground and salt the earth when I had left it, anxiety about being a single parent, anxiety about being single in my 40s, anxiety about what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life, anxiety about how to finish writing a novel so I could graduate from my MFA program…well, you get the idea. Most days, I was just amazed I got out of bed and made it to work without driving into oncoming traffic. Somehow, I was still functioning as an adult.

I dealt with my emotional and psychological discord by crying a lot. In fact, crying while driving to work was part of my daily routine for a while. I wrote. I went for walks. I talked to friends. I lost myself in social media. I watched Hannibal religiously. I took short trips on the weekends, sometimes alone and sometimes with my son. I went to work, built good working relationships with my co-workers, and began accomplishing career goals. Oh, and I finished writing a novel and earned my MFA.

I also tried online dating after being “off-the-market” for more than 10 years. Dating in my 40s while dealing with nearly crippling anxiety, and battling a lifetime of poor body image and excruciating self-doubt was no small task. I amazed my friends by going on date after date after date with a laundry list of strangers. Some of the strangers were interesting, some boring, some confusing, some I liked, some I didn’t understand, and one was so psychologically damaging that I had to seek out a therapist to leave him. After my second session with her, she told me I was suffering from a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome, and that I was participating in a very dangerous relationship with a narcissist with borderline personality disorder.

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Image via Unsplash by Nicolas Picard

When she told me that, I actually breathed a sigh of relief because I thought the reason why that relationship wasn’t working was my fault. I have a complete set of steamer trunks full of issues that stem from my inability to trust people. I am no stranger to betrayal, and because I think my earliest betrayals occurred at home at a very impressionable age, as an adult, I have simply come to expect betrayal as a given. In fact, sometimes I think I actually court it. Consciously or unconsciously, I seek out relationships with people I know will eventually disappointment me. I open myself up to people who see me for what I am: a safe, warm place to rest while they put their own pieces back together. Once they figure their own issues out, they move on or continue to abuse my kindness until I say enough is enough.

I’m tired of living like that. I’m tired of building walls to protect myself from the thing I want the most: love. But not just any kind of love. I want respectful, reliable, unconditional love. Love that takes work on the part of both people involved. Love that’s worth fighting for. Love that comforts me and puts my fears to rest, or at least makes them more manageable.

My anxiety has been very active lately. But to be fair, the reasons why are no mystery. I have been consistently underemployed for the past several years. I went from living paycheck to paycheck with the saving grace of health benefits, to living without paychecks and no health insurance, to living from considerably smaller paycheck to paycheck with no health insurance. That’s where I’m at right now. In the midst of a financial crisis, trying to figure out how to get a better job, better pay, dig myself out of debt, and rebuild my credit rating. Those are all valid concerns for a single parent with unpaid bills and a late rent payment hanging over her head.

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Image via Unsplash by John Baker

You would think that would be enough to worry about, right? But, thanks to the magical gift of anxiety, I’m also worried about being a good person. Or rather, being good enough. Am I attractive enough to be appealing to potential sexual partners? Will I ever meet someone I’d like to build a life with? Am I talented enough to keep writing? Will I ever have a job that pays me enough to not only get out of debt, but also buy a house and go on vacations? Will I ever trust myself enough to dismantle the walls I’ve built to keep myself safe?

These are the questions that keep my from falling asleep at night. The fears that drive me to binge eat, skip going to the gym, and stop writing for weeks at a time. My pattern of bad habits often leads me to fantasize about a self-fulfilling prophecy that ends with me dying alone surrounded by empty bourbon bottles, ice cream containers, and the pages of an unfinished novel or memoir.

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Image via Unsplash by David Zawila

I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what happens next. What I do know is that I am in charge of creating my future. Or, at the very least, I am in charge of making better choices so that my future is a bit brighter. All I’m really hoping for is a better job, stable pay, and access to health insurance so that my mental health needs are met through medication and therapy. I’m not asking for a lot. And, I haven’t given up hope yet either. I believe things will get better. They usually do. I’ll be sure to let you know how things turn out, so stay tuned.

Transformation: My First Tattoo

This weekend I got my first tattoo. This was no impulse body-modification trip to the tattoo shop after too many drinks. I made plans ahead of time with my friend, Dan, to go get tattoos together. Not only did we schedule our sessions a few weeks in advance, but we were both getting tattoos we had contemplated for nearly two decades.

Like myself, Dan is experiencing a time of growth and transition. I won’t go into the details of Dan’s journey, because it isn’t my place to do so. But I will say that his current path has allowed me to gain a treasured friend who is a constant source of strength and inspiration. He insists on showing me a good time when we’re together, and in many ways has gently nudged me to become an even better version of myself. This includes transforming my body through exercise, healthier eating, and now ink.

Dan lives in Pittsburgh, and had gotten his first tattoo from the same artist at Armature Tattoo Co.. First of all, it’s a beautiful shop with lots of interesting artwork on the walls (there’s a mixed media portrait of H. H. Holmes) and on the skin of the four tattoo artists – two men and two women. The shop is well lit, clean, and full of positive energy. I felt comfortable and welcome right away.

Originally, Dan was supposed to get tattooed on Friday night and I was supposed to get tattooed on Saturday night. But when we arrived, the tattoo artist, Jessi, talked to Dan about the fact that his tattoo would need a bit more time for layout and she wanted to suggest some changes to the original design. That meant I was going first. In hindsight, I’m glad things worked out that way, because I didn’t have time to build up any extra fears about getting tattooed. For years, people have been trying to explain what it feels like, but the only way you’re ever going to know is to get one yourself.

Did it hurt? Well, sure. But nothing like I anticipated. I’ve heard people compare getting tattooed to giving birth. Of course, these people have been men who have zero fucking clue what it feels like to have a period, much less the pain associated with labor. I don’t know what that feels like either, because I had a C-section when my son was born. However, I do know what an epidural feels like and the tattoo needle is nowhere near as large a gauge as an epidural needle that gets inserted into the base of your spine.

needle-gauge

To be honest, it was less painful than some of the dental work I’ve had done, and I chose a fleshy part of my body for my first tattoo. There’s quite a bit of blackwork, which was more painful than the line work, but in the hands of a skilled tattoo artist who also has a knack for interesting conversation, the experience was actually pleasant. What really surprised me was the fact that there were certain areas of my skin that felt pleasure in the midst of the pain. My emotional response wavered between joy and catharsis. And, even though the pain wasn’t overly taxing and my session only lasted about 45 minutes, I felt slightly fatigued. I wondered if it was a chemical reaction to continuous pain, regardless of how low-level it was. I mean, was adrenaline being released into my bloodstream in small doses? According to an article on tophealthnews.net, “This Is What Happens To Your Body When You Get A Tattoo!,” I was:

When needles penetrate your body, this is a form of trauma and your body responds in kind. Your Sympathetic Nervous System kicks your fight-or-flight response into gear in response to the pain. The result is a rush of adrenaline.

And, that weird emotional feeling I experienced was probably caused by the release of endorphins.

Endorphins, your body’s natural pain relievers, are also released. These chemicals come directly from the brain, flooding your body. When those endorphins are released, it’s a heady feeling that is sort of intense yet relaxing at the same time.

While fascinating, I wanted to talk less about the science of body chemistry in relation to getting tattooed, and more about why I decided to do it at this point in my life. And, why I chose the image that now decorates my skin.

Like I said, I am not Dan’s publicist, so if you want to know the story behind his tattoo(s), you’ll have to ask him. But, I can show you his before and after pictures from Saturday evening.

You’re probably thinking, “That’s a big fucking tattoo.” And, you’d be right. This first stage of Dan’s tattoo, an artistic spin on Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, took just over 3 hours, and two snacks from the coffee shop up the street, to complete. He has at least one more session to add details to this back piece, but possibly more sessions depending on how detailed he wants the final version to be.

During his 3-hour session, we made jokes about Francis Dolarhyde, the fictional serial killer from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, since the character has an enormous back piece taken from William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon Paintings. We debated about watching Red Dragon, but settled for the first few episodes of season 1 of “Hannibal”.

So, now that you’re super impressed, and potentially creeped out about Dan’s tattoo, let’s talk about mine.

first-tattoo

I first saw the image in a book of essays that deconstruct the various versions of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, aptly titled The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, edited by Jack Zipes. The book is dedicated to the late Angela Carter, one of my writing heroes who happened to write one of my favorite stories about werewolves, “The Company of Wolves.” If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest that you do. She is famous for her versions of fairy tales, rewritten with an adult audience in mind. If you’re looking for something new to read, and think you might enjoy some erotic literary fairy tales, I’d suggest stopping by your local library and picking up a copy of her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.

I found Zipes’ book in the library at Hull University. I was studying abroad through an exchange program during my junior year of college, and lived in Hull, England for a year. While I was there, I started becoming more interested in myths, legends, fairy tales and folktales. About the same time I found Zipes book, I also was introduced to The Morphology of the Folktale, by V. Propp. The next thing I knew I was writing all these papers about rape narratives, and cannibalism, and other sexual taboos in fairy tales. That was nearly 25 years ago.

In that time, the meaning of the image has changed for me. When I first saw the drawing in Zipes’ book, I simply saw a woman being held by a werewolf. Sexy, right? I mean, vampires have their sex appeal, but there’s something deliciously primal about werewolves. Not only is the woman being embraced, rather than ravished in the image, but she appears to be happy about it. In fact, it looked as if she had found peace in his arms.

The original artwork was done by Catherine Orenstein (1990), who later wrote Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale. If you’ve ever read any of my other blog posts, you know that I have a special place in my heart for monsters. In fact, monsters can be extremely sexy. Werewolves embody the aspect of the psyche where our signals sometimes get crossed — fighting, fucking and eating all seem to serve the same purpose in the mind of the werewolf — pleasure-seeking at any cost. And the cost may be your life. But in Orenstein’s image, there’s something different happening. The woman isn’t just being held by the werewolf, she’s accepting it in all of its monstrous glory. If she is in fact accepting the werewolf, that also looks a lot like a shadow or darkness itself, brings to mind the idea of making peace with the darker parts of ourselves. Making peace with our demons.

This isn’t my first attempt at transformation in my life. I’ve been trying to reshape myself since I was 12 years old. Weight gain, loss, and regain has been a constant pattern in my life. A few years ago after I gave birth to my son, I lost 70 pounds on Weight Watchers. During one of my meetings I described myself as having a beast that lives inside me that wants to eat all the time. And, sometimes it gets out and loses control. Not unlike a werewolf. It was at this point that I searched for Orenstein’s drawing, because it had a new meaning. I considered getting it tattooed on my body then, but for some reason never went through with it. That was almost ten years ago.

me-tattoo

Back in April I rejoined WW, and since then I have lost 30 pounds. I’m proud of myself for doing that. And, I have made a commitment to myself to continue my journey. I am learning to accept myself — fat, wrinkles, white hair, and all. And, I am relearning what my body is capable of doing. I started running using the C25K app on my phone. I forgive myself when the scale goes in the opposite direction and shows a gain rather than a loss. I am not perfect. I never will be. And, I’m beginning to understand why that’s so fucking amazing. I love my demons. I embrace them. Make peace with them. And by doing so, I am learning to love myself. Now, when I look at the drawing, I see a woman accepting herself. And now is a perfect time for my skin, the skin I am becoming more comfortable in each day, to tell that story. This tattoo is a reminder of my strength. The progress I’ve made. And the journey yet to come. Of course, there will be days when I still do battle with my darkness, but now I’m going to own it and show it some love.