breaking up is hard to do

I Wanted to Break Up. Then He Got a Tattoo of My Name.

Photo: Halfdark/Corbis

“I have a surprise for you,” said my boyfriend, taking my hand and sitting me on his bed. Oh, goody! A gift! I thought. But instead of handing me a present, he lifted the bottom of his T-shirt and pulled it up to reveal a white bandage. I felt my heart begin to beat wildly against my rib cage. Oh God, no. Grinning, he peeled back the tape on the bandage to reveal jet-black curlicue script spelling out my name. Abbe. Inked into his skin. Forever.

The tattoo was located at the bottom of his abdomen, at “the man muscle,” that crest of definition leading from a man’s hips down into his jeans. This wasn’t his first tattoo. Others included a symbol of a favorite band on the back of his broad neck and the Fightin’ Irish symbol crudely drawn on the back of his leg. He looked at me expectantly, and though I felt like screaming, I told him I loved it and lightly ran my fingers over the raised flesh. Later I watched the tattoo rise and fall with his breath. I tried to be proud of it, to think of myself as the kind of woman who was so irresistible that men wanted permanent proof they had known and loved me. But I didn’t feel that way; it felt like a noose.

I had entered into our relationship knowing it was probably doomed. He’d been the bartender at my Aunt Sally’s wedding; overserving minors is never a great start to any relationship. He lived in Boston and I was headed back to my Ohio liberal-arts college in the fall. I was 20, he was 12 and a half years my senior, though, to some extent, frozen in a man-child amber.

For a while, though, it worked. We fell into a deep, trancelike love that winter, my visits to Boston connected by hours on the phone, the air thick and heavy with sleep on the line between us. But as February eked into March, I became preoccupied, like the college junior I was, by my heavy course load and the swirling dramas of campus life. When I visited him over spring break I was already pulling away, thinking of ending it.

Then he presented me with the tattoo. It was, in a way, a masterful stroke: How could I break up with someone who had my name tattooed on him? In the beginning, I loved telling people the story, watching their eyebrows shoot up in impressed surprise. “Wow, you must be really good in bed,” guys would say, while girlfriends would reply, “He must really love you.” I’d nod in implicit agreement, as if to say, I am, and, He does.

I enjoyed the feeling so much that I let it take over. Rather than break up, as the fall of my senior year began, I simply started dating someone else at college and found myself carrying on two different relationships in two different parts of the country. Throughout that year, I tried unsuccessfully to split from the man who had my name inked into his skin. If we were together, our screaming matches would devolve into sex, the tattoo a real physical presence. If we were apart, a fight would often be followed by a text message, a photo of the black script on his skin, a move I interpreted as “I’m sorry, I love you, don’t leave me.”

So I didn’t. The tattoo laughed at me, taunting me with its permanence. I’d long known our coupledom didn’t have staying power. But the ink of my name on his body? That was forever.

After graduation my job search took off, and there he was, still working the same shifts at the same bar. I was looking for bigger things, and, I’d started to realize, he and his tattoo didn’t really fit into the vision of the life I saw for myself. Our relationship was like the last vestige of collegiate rebellion I was hanging onto, something from an earlier version of myself. In the same way I now knew that yelling at him to get a career wouldn’t suddenly implant ambition in him, I’d also started to understand that the tattoo was his problem, not mine. I wasn’t beholden to that choice he’d made; it also wasn’t doing me any favors.

When I finally broke up with him two and a half years after he’d presented me with the tattoo, three years after I’d started thinking we should end it, I looked him square in the eye, told him the truth, and walked away. I felt lighter, as if the thin, black, curlicue script had finally released me from its hold.

I do still think about the tattoo, though. My ex and I met for dinner last year, after five years of not speaking. Emboldened by a glass of wine (or four), I asked if he’d had it covered up or removed. “Nope,” he said, lifting his shirt and showing me the familiar curves of my name on his hip. “Why would I remove it? You were a huge part of my life.” He seemed content with the everlasting reminder of our love marked on his body, and in that moment, I felt almost grateful for it, as if he were a historian or an archivist, protecting and preserving our onetime slice of happiness for himself. 

I Wanted to Break Up; He Got a Tattoo of My Name