This time last year, my favorite self-soothing technique was to draw on myself with Sharpie. Whenever I got triggered, I’d take out my box of Sharpies and roll up my sleeves. I always started on my arms, often with the word be on the back of my hand and eventually my wrist. (That would become my first tattoo.) I’d elaborate upon it across my arms: be willing, be real, be true, be brave, and whatever else I could come up with—everything I wanted myself to be. I’d fill in the gaps with swirls, flowers, balloons, animals, mushrooms, leaves—anything to take my mind off the shivering my spine, the spiraling in my mind. I loved watching the broad, bold lines coloring through the bland pinkness of my skin, turning me into a living canvas. The vibrancy made me feel alive; often, the bold colors obscured the scars. And the most important part: I would never cut into skin that was covered in Sharpie.
The first time I went all out with my coloring was the day before we left for South Dakota. I wore long sleeves the night we started out fourteen-hour drive, despite the fact that it was warm enough not to in the cramped and stuffy van. My teammates already viewed me as somewhat weird, often the oddball out. I didn’t want to reinforce that by flaunting the splatters of color on my arms.
I tried to wash the Sharpie off during my first shower at the Ranch, but it was determined to stay. I learned that Sharpie stays on for a very long time.
It stayed on bright and vivid throughout our stay, and throughout my interactions with Ty.
Ty was the tough kid, the one who knew everyone else at the Pine Ridge Boarding School. Ty was the one with the cap and the eleven intricate tattoos. Ty was the one the little kids ran to for comfort, who greeted them with “What’s up, little sister? What’s up, little brother?” when they sought out Ty’s aid. Ty was the master at hackey-sack, the troublemaker in the hallway and the paint room. Ty ignored us all, so we all wanted to be the one to break through with Ty.
Ty was the one we all thought was a boy until I found out she was a girl.
I don’t want to assume anything about who Ty really is; at the very least she’s a very butch lesbian. Her gender expression was masculine enough for a few of us to wonder if she was trans, but with her limited education and few available resources, even if she was, she might have no idea.
I was interested in Ty because I could tell she was on the queer spectrum. I also knew she was the type I could never build rapport with, so I didn’t try very hard. We were painting at the same table once, with one other girl who was more receptive to my conversation. Not that I was saying much. I couldn’t figure out what to say, while it seemed like everyone else from my team was having lively conversations with the kids, gaining favorites, and having a blast.
Ty was ignoring me point-blank even as I tried talking to her and the other girl. The first time she acknowledged me was when she was drawing a hill and a sun set and I told her I liked how she was texturing her work.
“You know where I learned that? Blue’s Clues!” she mocked me, shooting me a dangerous look.
“I like Blue’s Clues,” I said weakly.
I shut up after that.
When Ty was done with the picture she crumpled it up, claiming she wanted to get an interesting texture in it, probably mocking me again. The she threw it at me.
“Here, here’s a present,” she said, and then left to play hackey-sack with the boys.
“Thank you,” I said, opening it to look at the platters of color. “I really like it.”
I think she heard me, but I’m not sure.
I was bad at hackey-sack so I didn’t join in until the third day, our last time there. Most of the little kids had gone home due to the third suicide that week. But all of the high school students were still there, giving us the opportunity to focus our energy on the group that had primarily ignored us. I was afraid; the little kids liked me, thought I was funny, and loved that I’d go along with whatever they wanted to play. The teens would only play hackey-sack. Ty was a master. Ty schooled us. Anytime we served ourselves Ty made sure to catch the sack and chuck it at us—and I’ll tell you that little bean bag hurt when hauled by that kid’s fist. But Ty took the time to hold my foot and place the sack on it, giving me instructions and showing me how to improve.
As we were preparing to leave many of the team members were asking the kids to sign t-shirts they’d bought earlier on the trip. The shirt I was wearing was patterned and left no room for names, so I asked a few of the kids I was closest with to sign my arm. It was already marked with Sharpie, which was faded enough that the kids wrote on top of my pictures without trouble. After most of the little kids I’d played with had signed, I took a deep breath and called out to Ty to sign my arm.
She strolled up to me barking “What?” and I showed her the Sharpie and my arm. “Can you sign your name?”
She stared at me narrowly, obviously thinking it was stupid, and asked why.
“So I can remember you better.”
She shrugged and grabbed the Sharpie, then seized my arm and twisted it roughly as she tried to find an open spot. She rolled up my sleeve to reveal my upper arm and when she looked she stopped moving.
“What?” I asked, but when I looked I saw what she saw.
“It’s okay. We’ve all got those,” she said softly.
I started shaking. Ty scrawled her name on my arm. “I’m going to give you a hug,” she said suddenly. “I think you need it more than I do.”
I coughed in surprise as she clamped her arms around me. She was at least three years younger than me, but was as tall or taller, and had a bigger build than my tiny skinny frame. I hugged her back. I swear I heard her sniff and take a breath. “I’m going to write my name on your jacket too,” she said, and to this day her name is still on the shoulder of my long-sleeved jean jacket.
The next thing that happened is confusing because it was so quick and I observed it from a headlock position under Ty’s arm. She grabbed me, telling me she was going to carry me back to the van. I laughed and asked her to let go but she dragged me, yelling “Make way for my new best friend.”
My team was taken by surprise; some of them laughed and took pictures, others ran after me yelling my name, as if I could break free of the kid’s iron arms. My ex later told me she was afraid I’d been hurt because she couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying.
“No one else got that close to Ty,” she told me when we talked about it later. “She picked you for a reason.”
Ty dragged me to the vans and finally let me go when I said I had to leave. She hugged me again and watched as I got into the van, watched us as we drove away, and I swear I heard her yell “I love you” before I closed my door.
A week later I pulled out my razor and rolled up my sleeve, but when I saw Ty’s name still scrawled across my arm, I stopped. I stared at it, I shivered, and got up to throw the blade away.
A day or two after that I found her on Facebook. She accepted my friend request. She immediately messaged me, “wyd.”
I smiled to myself and took a deep breath, and started typing my reply.
(The name of the student in this post has been changed to protect their identity)