Eighteen. Impressionable. Ridiculous. Helen was studying philosophy. She introduced me to Nietzche and Hegel. I introduced her to a book about a unicorn. Seriously. If I’m honest it might well be the only thing we had in common, she’d grown up with an interest in unicorns, and I’d once read a book that included an entertaining look at how to ride one. Quite how I made the mental leap from “we both know what a horned pony looks like” to “if I get a tattoo of a horned pony Helen will think I’m a romantic yet somewhat rough villain-hero” I’m not sure.
Rogers Tattoos, on Cuba Street, Wellington. If you look in the window now, you’d think twice. Actually, you probably wouldn’t think once, you’d decide that you’d rather go under a needle in Pat Phong Road, Bangkok, and take a chance on the AIDS. But that many years ago it seemed just the right degree of seedy, yet somehow as a ginger teen, still approachable. I don’t know how Roger (I’m assuming only the proprietor would be allowed to tackle such a stellar artistic concept…) suppressed a giggle. And in hindsight I’m a little disappointed he didn’t at least breath test me. It took around an hour, cost $60, and I was rocking a gothic unicorn portrait on a blood red heart.
The healing went well, and I anticipated the revelation for days. A group of us first years was doing a road trip away to the might Hawkes Bay, the seaside, in summer. I presumed that Helen and I were destined for nothing less than a whirl-wind romance, and hopefully years of philosophising (as I understood it, this required lots of red wine, and making up arguments that could never be proven or disproven) and sex. On the heated afternoon of arrival, we changed for a trip to the beach. I wore a muscle shirt and a towel around my shoulders, and managed to hustle a position next to Helen in the back seat. I shrugged the towel free of my shoulders and made several attempts to pass things forward to the front seat punters, leaning my unicorn adorned shoulder under Helen’s gaze. “What the fuck’s that?” she asked as I reached forward for a coke.
No. No that’s not quite how I imagined the moment. Nor did I foresee the giggle. Do you know how warm the combination of being a sensitive ginger teen, being crammed into the back seat of a Datsun on a warm summer day, and suffering the most embarrassing seconds of your life is? I sweated. I cringed. And that sense of twisting shame struck a far deeper scar than the needle driven inks in my right shoulder. I went off Helen that day. And philosophy.
It’s somewhat ironic that the story of that summer has provided far more enjoyable results than the event itself. I once met a unicorn tattoo wearing Polish chiquita, the look of distrust when I told her I had a matching my little pony shifted to undisguised joy as I bared my arm. That’s right kids, unicorn foreplay, probably as rare as the beast itself. I don’t think I’ll ever be super-proud of my first tattoo again. But I was given the opportunity to cover it up with another a few years ago, and it felt a little like admitting it was a mistake. And I’ll do anything for love, but I won’t do that…