it's complicated

The Silly Tattoo That Got Me Through My Worst Breakup

Photo: J.V. Aranda

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Here’s what I know about the parasaurolophus: It’s a duck-billed dinosaur that lived in the late cretaceous period. It had a huge crest on its head, which may have been used to make a loud honking call, a warning to the other grazing dinosaurs of approaching predators and threats. And its powers extent well beyond its time: Since my childhood, it’s kept me calm in situations that felt like danger.

I was never one of those kids that was obsessed with dinosaurs — I couldn’t rattle off dino fun facts, never wanted to dress like one for Halloween. I didn’t really think about them much at all, really, until one night when I was around 10, stuck at a party at one of my dad’s friend’s houses. I stumbled upon a dinosaur book. All of the adults were pretty drunk, and I was left to amuse myself — a situation that might’ve been fun to some other kids, but left me feeling alone and panicky. Wandering the house, I found a dinosaur book on one of the shelves and pulled it to flip through the pages.

After a few minutes, everything felt better. I had something to focus on — scientific information that felt cold and utterly removed from my reality. The dinosaur book wasn’t exactly mesmerizing, but it was the comfort I needed.

It stuck with me. At a young age, I was already someone with too many fears — fear of being left alone, fear of the dark, fear of the unknown. As I got older, I became obsessed with symbolism as a way of shedding those fears, creating my own eccentric language of safety and protection. The best, most soothing charms were always dinosaurs — I would position dollar-store plastic dino finds by my windows, just in case. There were stegosauruses, apatosauruses, a T-rex, but the parasaurolophus, in all its weird glory, was always my favorite. It’s the one I turned to again, years later, after the breakup that almost broke me.

* * *

My first date with my ex was at a diner, where we spent the entire evening talking about books. I typically take a while to warm to people, but I liked him right away — I liked that he exuded both a charming confidence, and a kind of awkward self-consciousness, and that he seemed at peace with this contradiction. And I liked how I felt around him: like someone intelligent and free and interesting. I was 22 when we began dating, and dating him felt like settling into a comfortable adult version of myself.

Then, nine months in, he broke up with me on my lunch break.

The reason he gave was that I had become too demanding, but I suspected it also had something to do with his parents, who had recently informed him that they did not approve of me. In hindsight, the idea that he would cave to their whims so easily didn’t exactly speak to his strength as a partner, but at the time, I was devastated. I was also blindsided — I had no idea that it was coming, and no idea that the breakup would almost immediately plunge me into a deep and scary depression.

I stayed angry with him for exactly 48 hours before turning around and blaming entire breakup on myself. I was too demanding, I told myself; my insecurities had made me into someone impossible to be around, and I must have pushed him away. Over the next few weeks, I walked around in a hazy fog of my own heartache. I avoided my apartment because I couldn’t bear to be alone with my thoughts, but also hated to be around anyone else. I “borrowed” sips from the bottle of vodka my roommate kept in the freezer, hoping to dull the sensation of existing in my own skin.

One night, I wandered aimlessly around my neighborhood in a blizzard, listening to music we had listened to together on my headphones, and wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. In the darkness, with wetness creeping into my boots and freezing my toes, I found myself walking through a massive snowdrift that had covered the sidewalk. I wondered what would happen if I just let my body slip down into that snow. It was both so soft and so cold that it stung. Would it cover me by morning? To this day, I’m still not entirely sure how I made it home.

The turning point came soon after that: I wrote my ex a long and mortifying letter, begging him to give me a second chance, and even hand-delivered it to his mailbox. When a week later, I still hadn’t heard from him, I knew something had to give.

But the details of that next step eluded me. I’ve tried post-breakup reinvention before. I’ve stood at the bathroom sink with scissors, angrily chopping away at my hair, only to find that the “new me” was just as heartbroken as the old one. This time, I wasn’t interested in the quick fixes — buying all-new underwear, trying a new hair color. I wanted something lasting, something that made me feel like me rather than someone else.

So when I walked into a tattoo shop a few days later, I showed the artist a picture of a parasaurolophus. I didn’t tell him the full story — that I had recently had my heart torn out of my chest by someone I had loved, that I had once indulged in the fantasy that dinosaurs would protect me from harm, that I was trying to recapture a version of myself that was intelligent and free and interesting. Instead, I told him that the parasaurolophus had been my favorite dinosaur when I was a kid, and that I just thought it looked cool, and would look even cooler on my arm.

“That’s awesome,” he said, looking for the perfect shade of green. “Some of my favorite tattoos are just for fashion.”

I nodded. “Yeah, totally.” A decade later, the green dinosaur on my right arm is still one of my favorite things about myself. My good-luck charm is right there on my body, permanently a part of me. It’s the most complete I’ve ever felt.

The Silly Tattoo That Got Me Through My Worst Breakup