You give me some whiskey, I'll sing you a song


Sisters are like ships—passing in the night, traveling as allies, or attacking one another with every gun and cannon. Sisterhood, however, is ultimately about unity.

To the Captain of the frigate Endymion..., 1815, Yale University Art Gallery

The trouble with having a thick black tattoo of an anchor on your wrist is that people ask what it means. I understand the inclination, I really do, because having been on the asking side of this conversation for most of my life, I know that the impulse is uncontrollable, like eating and sleeping and reading advice columns at work. When it comes up, I wish for convenience’s sake that I were an avid sailor, or that my father had served in the Navy, or that my last name were Ancher or Anker, or something. But instead I have to admit that my sister decided we should get anchor tattoos and that I’m a sucker. 

One early spring night a couple of years ago, Maureen and I went out to dinner with some of our closest girlfriends. I was in the midst of a graduate school project gone bad, and Maureen had just learned her salary was being cut back, so cocktails were in order. And under those seemingly benign circumstances our friend mentioned that if she had a sorority tattoo, it would be of an anchor, and for some reason it just sounded like a really good idea­—an idea that was so ridiculously good we had to look up a 24-hour tattoo shop and get this done asap.

At the time I was 25 and Maureen was 27. Most people, if they reach our age tattoo-less, probably will never get one. By her mid-twenties a person should be able to say either, “Oh, I missed out on an adorable American pastime,” or, “Thank God I dodged that bullet; at least this nose ring comes out.” The closest I’d come to getting one was joking that when I turned 35 or so I would get a tattoo of the Texas flag on my calf, because it seemed absurd. Make that 25, make that someone else’s sorority symbol, and let’s just go with the wrist, because that’s all a lot more reasonable. 

Nothing good happens at a tattoo parlor after 10 p.m. Parents should consider adding this to their phrase books.

Maureen and I grew up in Chicago, and as the younger two of four siblings, we were a pair. When we went out in high school, to house parties and bars, our mother would tell us to be home by 2 a.m., because, she said, “nothing good happens after two.” We didn’t always come home on time, but I have to agree that it’s fine logic, to which I would now add, nothing good happens at a tattoo parlor after 10 p.m. Parents should consider adding this to their phrase books, because if I’d heard this advice as often as the “crazies come out at two” warning, I might not be walking around with a prison-quality tattoo on my wrist. Just saying, Mom.

But if I had reservations, Maureen was determined. In fact, she was the one who suggested the tattoos, iPhoned the tattoo parlor, and first sat in the chair, saying that even if she did it alone, she was walking out with an anchor. She is an independent person, sometimes staunchly, so I knew she would have been content with a solo project, but I also knew she would be happiest, and I would be happiest, if I followed suit. More than anyone in my life, even more than my wonderful husband, Maureen has always been my partner. Growing up, our Irish features were so similar that, to avoid constant correction in classrooms where Maureen had sat two years earlier and at parties where relatives couldn’t keep us straight, I simply responded to her name. So even though we’re no longer walking around in the same floral Laura Ashley dresses, matching is still second nature.  

And of course she, the older sister, always took the lead. When we were little, I would sometimes go days without speaking to my parents. Not because there was anything wrong, but because Maureen was a good liaison and I was quiet. She, on the other hand, never seemed to be at a loss for words, and let’s just say she’s not adverse to control. At age four or five she justified slamming the oven door with, “This will all be mine someday.” When she was 11 she picked her own summer camp and also one for me. That I spent three weeks isolated in Wyoming, sleeping in a teepee with the only other female camper, a girl twice my age, chopping wood for warmth at night, and going rock climbing without a harness, is another story. A year later she chose a destination and planned our family vacation. That we moved from the campground to a resort after being chased by donkeys, ravished by insects, sunburned, and electrocuted is another story, too.

Between us Maureen is the arbiter of taste. Altruism aside, when I saw her actually submit to the tattoo, I knew that if we walked out with only one wrist inked between us, I would love hers and want one for myself.

Sometimes I think we turned out to be a yin and yang for each other. She is organized and in-control and detail-oriented; I once lived at a house for a month and a half without realizing there was a giant image of a peacock on my shower curtain. I am pragmatic and measured, checking off college and marriage and graduate school according to plan, while she floated between schools in Dublin, New York, and Chicago, never quite finding the right fit. Now I work very regular hours at a university press and spend most nights at home, cooking and reading. Maureen works in real-estate development, stays late at the office, sleeps till two on the weekends, plays four hours of hockey every week and still manages to go out for dinner or drinks most nights. Further, with four inches on me and an admirable wardrobe, she always looks effortlessly elegant, whereas my style icon is a runaway teen.

Between us Maureen is the arbiter of taste, so altruism aside, when I saw her actually submit to the tattoo—the one that would raise questions of stability, rule out nautical clothes for life, and keep us hiding something from our parents for two weeks, like teenagers—I knew that if we walked out with only one wrist inked between us, I would love hers and want one for myself. As it is, I still think her anchor is thinner, more delicate, while she thinks mine is smaller and cuter.

To my eyes the tattoo has settled into the landscape of my body like a birthmark. And I love it. It makes me feel like I’ve moved into myself and hung up a picture, and I most love seeing it reflected back on Maureen’s wrist. But when I meet new people, they see the tattoo on my wrist and ask what it means. Being on the receiving end of this question is a little complicated. It’s an aesthetic choice; its meaning changes every day, every time I look at it. But that the meaning is mutable like words, like art, like a lifelong relationship, does not make for good cubicle or bar conversation, so I’m left grasping for an answer. I was out recently with my husband’s co-workers, and one of them noticed the anchor on my wrist and asked the inevitable. I responded with what was becoming my party line. “It doesn’t mean anything,” I said, “My sister has the same one. We got them together.” And she thought about it a minute before answering her own question. “Solidarity,” she said. Of course.

Liz Fischer lives in Chicago. She has written for Marie Claire, Chicago magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and NBC Chicago. You can email her here. More by Liz Fischer