One afternoon in May, my best friend Angela and I decided we wanted tattoos.
I developed a particular affinity toward tattoos my senior year of high school, which I attribute to teen angst and an urgent itch to rebel. I felt this more than ever as I sat in a stuffy classroom with 30-something people I’d known since the third grade, yet hardly really knew much about me. As an enabler of most of my impulsive decisions, Angela naturally already had a photo album of tattoo designs saved on her phone.
By the time the bell rang for seventh period, I had booked an appointment at a tattoo parlor. Within hours, Angela and I were climbing up a dingy stairwell to find the parlor wedged between abandoned office spaces. The place smelled of cigarette smoke and regret, but they served us chamomile tea, which we found endearing.
As we sat on the couch waiting for our turn, there was something about the whole situation that made me want to laugh. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of it all. Just moments ago, we’d been sitting in a hushed classroom with a teacher religiously opposed to spaghetti-strapped shirts. Now we were in a tattoo parlor blasting Jay Chou and offering us cigarettes.
It was even stranger thinking about who Angela and I were when we first met six years ago. Back then, she seemed quiet but self-assured. I felt loud yet insecure. She seemed so real; I had no idea who I was.
Since an early age, my life felt like a performance. I quite literally put on a weekly show at my Christian youth group as a worship leader — I would lead the congregation in song and prayer every Friday. As the initial excitement of performing for a crowd wore off, I came to realize that I didn’t even believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. Still, I stood paralyzed on that stage, singing my heart out, offering empty buzz phrases such as “Jesus, fill us with your Holy Spirit” to a swaying crowd.
Owning up to my disbelief in Christianity was one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do. It didn’t just mean I’d be alienated from my mom, who is a devout Christian — it also meant alienation from my youth group, which at the time, consisted of all my friends and role models. It was my safe space, where I could be a leader. I was ashamed that my doubts were tainting my sanctuary because without it, I only had myself. And it wasn’t easy liking myself when my Christian community so directly opposed the exploration of sexuality, which was something I began questioning more and more each day. I hated myself for it.
Throughout this bewildering mess of an identity crisis, Angela was there to ground me.
She was there for me, behind a crowd at a Christian retreat, expressing the same amount of shock and anger when our favorite pastor called on queer people to repent for their sexuality.
She was there for me, in a small group at an abstinence-only meeting, exchanging bewildered looks when our group leader compared homosexuality with bestiality.
She was there for me, with open arms, when I broke down and told her how afraid I was that my mom would never treat me the same way if I came out as bisexual. She was there for me as the only other queer person I knew of in my grade.
She taught me what compassion is supposed to look like — it’s not something distant or conditional, and it doesn’t preach all-consuming love then ask you to change. The fear of rejecting the teachings of my youth group wore away over time. I realized I wasn’t the one alienating myself; they had long been alienating me, or at least who I really was at my core.
“I’m really glad we can be gay together,” she said.
Angela gave me the support I needed to grow into my own and find sanctuary within myself. Our friendship has been my own little rebellion against the pressure I’ve felt to stifle my identity among most others, in fear of exposing myself. I don’t know whether I’ll reconcile with religion anytime soon, but I’m comforted to know that it’s my choice. And whether I revisit Christianity or become a full-fledged witch, I know I’ll always have someone with whom to share my stories.
She has way too much dirt on me, and as do I with her; it’s mutually assured destruction. And now, at the tattoo parlor, with both our parents oblivious to our whereabouts, we could add tattoos to the list.
A few hours of pain and surprisingly wholesome conversation with the tattoo artist later, I had a cartoon flower on my left rib cage. Now, it reminds me of a time I did something for myself without waiting for the approval of others: a smiling symbol of the freedom I feel when I allow myself to simply exist on my own terms.
Our new tattoos were treated like open wounds, covered with plastic wrap and bandages. Tucked under our shirts, near our hearts, only for us to see — like our own little rebellions.
Jessie Wu writes the Thursday column on exploring the intersection between risk and self-discovery. Contact her at [email protected]