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Is Love Skin Deep?

continued...

As the weeks wore on, I tried befriending the skinless man who slept between us. One night, after a few glasses of wine, I gave him a name: Telly Savalas, after the late, bald actor who starred in a detective series when I was a kid. Let's face facts: It's not like the tattoo was going anywhere. I was naming the elephant in the room.

Our meet-the-parents moment came in the midst of a serious heat wave. Even sandals felt stifling; long sleeves were out of the question. Although Telly peeked out just a few inches past my boyfriend's T-shirt sleeve, I was a nervous wreck, keeping tabs on which side of my mother my boyfriend walked on. Blessedly, my folks didn't say a thing.

By August, my boyfriend had amassed the cash to carry out the tattoo artist's original vision: bright swirls snaking down past the elbow that would demand multiple lengthy sittings. I hated the idea, but kept my mouth shut. One night I even popped by the tattoo shop to watch the process. It was as uneventful as he'd promised, but the patrons and artists were spectacular — their arms, legs, necks, and even faces decorated with designs that made Telly look tame.

As the work of art neared completion, strangers couldn't help but take notice.

"Dude! What is that?"
"Can I see?"
"Where'd you get that?"
"Why'd you do it? Did it hurt?"

The questions came from all sides — in the subway, on the street, at restaurants and movie theaters. My boyfriend just blew them off. "Imagine complete strangers feeling entitled to touch you," he told me. "Plus, I did it for me. I shouldn't have to explain myself."I was surprised, and a little irked, by his reaction: Why walk around with something so nutty if not to provoke a response?

I started thinking about our future. After all, a tattoo in your 20s is one thing, but what about in your 70s? If we had kids together, would they be terrified of that monster on Dad's arm?

In April, we went to visit my grandparents in Florida. Our first morning there, after arriving late the night before, I padded into the kitchen for coffee and a chat with my grandmother. We'd been talking for about an hour when my boyfriend finally surfaced ... wearing a lightweight cotton oxford shirt, the long sleeves casually rolled to just below the tattoo. My heart swelled with gratitude.

We kept up the long-sleeve charade for two days — until the mercury hit 90 degrees. "Sarah, tell him to put on a T-shirt," my grandmother said. "We know about the tattoo."

Just like that. Then we took a swim in the backyard pool, and the world kept turning. Now, after more than three-and-a-half years, I still don't quite understand what Telly means. But I do admire what he represents: a certain fearlessness, a questioning of social convention, and the confidence to do something completely bizarre for no good reason other than that you want to.

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