My heart tattoo is my romantic compass

When I say I wear my heart on my sleeve, I mean it both figuratively and literally. I got the word “heart” tattooed in bright magenta italics on the inside of my left arm in November of 2011. At the time, I was recovering from a painful, protracted breakup with a married man who I felt I’d given my heart to, repeatedly, only to have it rejected. When I finally accepted that we were done, my first inclination was bitterness. In the words of Tina Turner, “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?”

But that way of thinking left me far too lonely. I didn’t want to become so jaded I stayed that way forever, especially at 36. While I can be a pessimist, the truth is, my heart is an optimist. I wanted to make sure I remembered that; paired with the word “open” tattooed on my back in a similar font, I wanted those words to keep me focused on the future, on moving forward, on not being so stuck in my head I discounted where my heart wanted to go.

Getting the tattoo hurt, more than the one on my back, but eventually, the physical pain faded. To my surprise, slowly, so slowly I barely realized it was happening, the emotional pain faded too. I didn’t cry every time I thought of the married guy. I started to visualize the kind of life I wanted for myself, one where I was successful and focused without being an automaton.

I resolved to start 2012 fresh. No dating, just focusing on my writing career, getting my life organized and planning for my future. Though I’d recently been laid off from my magazine job of seven years, I managed to book a flight from New York to Honolulu using frequent flyer miles. I used AirBnB for the first time and scored a cheap apartment near the beach. A purely indulgent solo vacation seemed both decadent but necessary. I wanted to start the year off prioritizing myself; I’d gotten so used to compromising my values and desires in that last relationship, and I needed to remind myself I mattered.

But of course life, in all its bizarre wisdom, doesn’t always go the way we’ve planned. A few weeks before my trip, I agreed to have dinner with a guy I’d emailed with when he’d done marketing for a site where I had a column. I thought he wanted to tell me about another job opportunity.

I stumbled into the restaurant late, a bit bedraggled—my usual state back then. He wasn’t phased in the least. We proceeded to eat and talk—with barely a word about work—for three hours, until we were the last ones dining and the staff started turning off the lights. At one point I said that people give me a hard time for carrying around so many large bags, and he said I was still adorable. In that moment, I started to wonder: was this a date? And did I want it to be?

When I got home, I told a mutual friend that I’d maybe been on a date with D. It felt strange to even hear the word “date” in relation to me, but when he officially asked me out for a second date, I realized I wanted to say yes, despite my vow to myself to remain single for that calendar year.

It became very clear that if I really wanted my heart and not my head to be my guide, I’d have to take risks, and not just romantic ones. Since that first unclear-if-it-was-a-date dinner, I’ve taken lots of risks with my now boyfriend: moving from my home of 16 years in New York to three separate homes in suburban New Jersey, relying on him for health insurance, letting him see me at my most afraid. I’ve sobbed in his arms even when I had no good answer to his question of “What’s wrong?”

What I’ve come to accept about being a reluctant heart person after trying to do all the “right” things my head told me to for way too long is that there are rewards for being soft, vulnerable and emotional, but they aren’t the same kinds of rewards you get for being book smart. Being a heart person means admitting that, well, I’m human—that I get disappointed and frustrated and jealous and anxious and sad, that even though I’m 39, my emotions often make me feel closer to 14 than 40.

Following my heart has meant having some tough conversations with my boyfriend—about love, money, happiness, babies. It’s meant being honest with him even when I’d rather tell a white lie and avoid subjects where I know we’ll clash. This is especially challenging because even though we tell each other we love each other every day—if anyone heard how often we actually do it, they’d probably find us nauseating—he doesn’t share as much of his inner life as I do.

Sometimes this makes me think I shouldn’t share with him either, that by being stereotypically “female” and therefore emotional, I’m giving away too much. But to be true to myself, I’ve learned that there’s not such thing as “too much” emotion. Or rather, that the emotions aren’t the problem in and of themselves, and certainly aren’t something I should apologize for having.

Being true to my heart goes against every people pleasing instinct I have, because inevitably, if I voice my most honest desires, I’m bound to disappoint someone, and there are few things in this world I hate more than that. I’m not perfect about it, but I’ve gotten better about speaking up for myself, rather than simply nodding along or parroting what I think the other person wants to hear. It’s meant not saying the most expedient thing—to him or anyone else—just to get people to like me, but to truly ask myself what I want, what matters to me.

There’ve been other unexpected benefits to listening to my heart, ones I never could have predicted. The married guy who I was in tears over for such a long time? We are friends, of a sort, these days. Not the kind who waste time on mindless chitchat, or even keep in touch all that often, but the kind who, I hope, will always care about each other and reach out when we need to.

On a few occasions, I’ve felt a flickering of heat, verging on pain, right along the soft, tender skin where those five magenta letters lie. The first time, I dismissed it as a trick of the mind; I couldn’t be having phantom pain two years after getting a tattoo. But then it happened again, and another time after that. My tattoo, and all the courage it took to get it, were trying to tell me to pay attention. I have—even when it would be far more convenient not to.

Almost four years later, I still find it challenging to always listen to my heart. It’s so often easier to tamp down its whims and passions and messages in order to focus on what’s “important.” Yet every time I ignore my heart’s longings, it finds a way to make them heard, to let me know that a life spent assuming I know better is a lesser life. I’ve never regretted that tattoo, neither its wording or its prominence. I don’t regret reminding the world—and, most importantly, myself—that I am someone whose heart matters.


My tattoo doesn’t have to mean anything

[Image via author]

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