rep·re·sent verb \ˌre-pri-ˈzent\
- to act or speak officially for
- to serve as a sign or symbol of
- to bring clearly before the mind
Mid-2003: Miami (Hialeah), FL
Sitting in a flea market in Hialeah when I should be in my 2:00 Calc class, I know deep down I’m not doing things the way people who care about me expect me to do them. But every time I try and think about it further past that point, the last blunt I smoked sort of personifies itself, pops its smoldering cherry in front of my face and tilts to the side curiously, like “Hey, what’s up? Uh…we’re supposed to be high, remember?”
So I just sit here instead, staring up at my girlfriend, Veronica, who’s smiling giddily and clapping her hands at what I’m about to do. The guy standing behind me has pupils the size of my fist and he smiles creepily as I hand my shirt to Vero. The smile itself isn’t necessarily creepy but I’m creeped out anyways because I’m sitting in front of him shirtless, and getting smiled at in that situation will make most anybody uncomfortable.
There’s a lot of wiping and snapping of rubber gloves and then a whirring sound like a mini-chainsaw whistles into my ears right before a sharp jolt in my back gives way to a grinding pain that feels like he’s running a million razor blades across the entire expanse of my upper back. An hour later my shoulders are numb and my eyes are watery. A wad of bloody napkins fill a red biohazard trash bag behind me and the man with the huge pupils smiles again. I smile back tentatively, shake his hand and drop a hundred dollars in his other palm, a small price to pay.
I’ve joined the ranks now. Some of the greats have sat in chairs exactly like the one I just got up from: Method Man, Travis Barker, Jesse James, Wesley Snipes in Blade.
Vero walks next to me wearing shorts that just barely cover her tanned butt cheeks, her hair glistening with gel. She pulls the neck of my shirt down and stares at the bandage. Beneath it is a fresh, twisting, jagged and simultaneously curling ink pattern that stretches between my shoulders and constitutes what is commonly known as a “tribal design” but which I will refer to as “my first tattoo” because it is more personal and implies that there will be more and—therefore—sounds much cooler. Vero slaps me right beneath the spot on my back and laughs as I wince.
I describe the paradoxically numbing pain and she tells me it sounds like what a sunburn feels like for her. I’ve never had a sunburn, so I have no basis on which to agree or disagree with her. I know this is different though, a more lasting effect. Self-inflicted, and therefore righteous.
Early 2004: Miami (Cutler Ridge), FL
Hanging out in an Athlete’s Foot in Cutler Ridge Mall while Philip (aka Flip) and his manager, Karla, discuss shoe orders, sitting on the counter and swinging my feet so everybody who passes by will have no choice but to notice my new kicks. Or get kicked.
Flip is obsessed with shoes (hence the job at Athlete’s Foot) and has been since way before we became friends a year ago. His infatuation has passed on to me a bit and—in an attempt to expand on my shoe connoisseur-ship—I’ve recently bought three pairs of Airforce Ones, two pairs of Timberland’s, and various other models of Nike, Reebok, and Adidas sneakers. I have no idea what the hell I’m going to do with ten pairs of shoes. I don’t even think I have ten outfits to wear them with. Flip insists, though, that brand-new kicks are a necessary part of our attire on the nights we decide to go out and wreak havoc across Miami. And since Flip has been my main source of escapism since I got kicked out of school and Veronica left me, I take his fashion tips as gold and cash them in whenever I can afford to.
Karla changes topics and starts discussing a brand new tattoo her boyfriend did for her. He’s an artist at a parlor a few blocks away and he’s branded an angel onto her lower back, no charge. I ask her if she could get him to give me one too and she says she could probably get him to do it for cheap, though “free” is a price reserved for the person he’s fucking. Understandable.
I tell her what I’ve been thinking about getting: a Jamaican flag imbedded in a cross with a ribbon wrapped around the whole contraption with the inscription “One Love” spelled out in jagged lettering. I’m not particularly religious or anything, nor do I have such a profound respect for my parents’ country that I feel the need to display it everywhere I go. It’s just—I saw the same tattoo of a Puerto Rican flag on some guy buying Jordans an hour ago, and I think it would look cool on me.
I ask Karla to find out the price and she calls her boyfriend right there in the store. A customer comes up to her holding a pair of K-Swiss running shoes and asks if she has them in his size. Karla waves the guy towards Flip, and Flip tells him to put the shoes back and pick up something worth buying.
When Karla gets off the phone, she quotes me forty dollars and says her boyfriend can do it for me tonight. Forty dollars for a tattoo is equivalent to paying a dollar for a bag of Starbuck’s coffee. That shit just does not happen. I thank Karla profusely and leave.
The moment I’m by myself, I immediately feel the anxiety that’s been ever-present for months now, years even. It manifests itself in many forms, and right now I’m nervous about making a habit out of these tattoos, as I have with so many other things, all of which cost money. But I really want another one, if for no other reason than to get myself out of my own head.
I smoke a joint to calm my nerves, then make my way to Karla’s boyfriend’s house a few hours after sunset, bleary eyed and extremely passive. When he comes to the door, Karla’s boyfriend tells me that everything’s set up in the back room, then takes me through a living room where two girls a couple years younger than me sit at a table eating and watching what looks like the Spanish version of Oprah. They don’t glance up and I don’t acknowledge them, just keep walking into the back room where there’s a little girl sitting on the ground watching Finding Nemo on DVD and a woman hanging clothes on a wire draping over a combination sink/counter in the corner. A table is set up next to a bed in the middle of the room and Karla’s boyfriend arranges bottles of ink and Vaseline on it while I watch. I wonder if this setting is to be expected for the duration of my time here and—even more—if all of this is safe to have going on at the same time. Then I decide that for a forty dollar tattoo, I’ll watch Finding Nemo with the little girl twice and hang the damn clothes for the woman myself.
Karla’s boyfriend says all of three words to me (“‘sup” and “sit here”) before he pulls out a packaged needle and tears it open. He mutters something about how I should make sure to never get a tattoo without first physically seeing (he points at his eyes when he says this) the artist open a fresh needle in front of me, to make sure it’s sterilized. I’ve never met this guy or had a conversation with him before now, but I act like I didn’t already know that and thank him anyways.
By the time he gets started, I’m high enough off the one joint I smoked earlier to realize that Finding Nemo is by far one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, though I’ve seen it once already when it was in theaters and can’t remember being half as amused then as I am now. I laugh so hard at the part with the stoned turtles transporting Nemo across the ocean that my eyes tear up and my nose starts to run and Karla’s boyfriend sighs loudly, moving the buzzing ink gun away from my skin, only restarting after I apologize and solemnly promise to keep still.
I go home after and smoke another joint in my car then play two hours of Prince of Persia on my Playstation 2 in my underwear, feeling more confident than I have in months. In fact, the way I feel right now, I wish it could be like this all the time, instead of the normal feeling of emptiness in the pit of my stomach.
I don’t know why I’m depressed all the time; all I know is I’m not right now. I got my fix, and right now I feel triumphant, accomplished, two things I can’t remember feeling for any sustained period of time recently. I’ve made a decision–a decision with lifelong consequences–and stuck to it. I’ve gotten something that, twenty years from now, I can show to people and say “I got that when I was twenty years old, when I still cared about shit enough to feel passionate about that shit. And I loved every minute of it.”
My father comes in the room at one point and tries to kill my buzz with something about kicking me out if I don’t do something with my life, but I believe I already have done something with my life, and it’s sitting right here on my arm. So I keep playing the video game and ignore him until he leaves, then I pause the game and stare lovingly at the glistening wound on my arm.
Late 2005: Miami (Kendall), FL
With two tattoos, I think I’m a veteran, which establishes a belief system in me.
My first tattoo—the tribal design—was just an initial taste. It doesn’t actually mean anything to me now, other than as a reminder of a time when I didn’t take anything seriously. If I had known how important these things would be to me—how important life would eventually become—I would have gotten something more conducive to my current mentality, to my need for outward recognition of my inward struggle to assert myself. To my general search for a purpose.
The second tattoo, the Jamaican flag, means something now, now that I know about the power of representation. But it’s not the same to respect something in retrospect. I barely paid attention when the guy did it all that time ago. I just sat in his bedroom blazed out of my mind watching a children’s film.
It’s too late now for those tattoos to garner some deeper meaning. So I can only move forward, start actually representing.
That’s how I see myself now, how I view the person I’ve become over the past year or so. I got kicked out of college because they didn’t understand me, didn’t understand my need to fully represent who I am. I’m a represent-er, full of represent-ation, and I’m in a completely represent-ful state of mind when my girlfriend Raquel and I walk into Lou’s Tattoos on US1, near Kendall Drive.
My “crew,” we call ourselves Caribbean Alliance, a reference to our varying Caribbean backgrounds, the countries our parents moved to the U.S. from before they conceived us. Collectively, we represent four nations: Jamaica (me), Barbados and Trinidad (Robert), and the Bahamas (Joe). Sam’s family’s from Atlanta, but nobody really mentions it (we can’t very well call ourselves Caribbean and Georgia Alliance. That’d just be weird.)
In Lou’s Tattoo’s, I look proudly at a guy who is definitely not named Lou (I think his name’s like Raul or Ernesto or something) and tell him I want the initials of my crew on my right arm. I would actually love to get the whole crew name, all 17 letters of it, but I know this is Miami and Miami tattoo prices are in the hundreds and I don’t have the hook up on ink like I did last time I wanted some work done.
Karla and her boyfriend-with-the-Finding-Nemo-loving-sister were mainly Flip’s friends, and I haven’t hung out with Flip since the night we went to a party at his friend’s house and I got completely hammered then broke a Corona bottle against a tree and tried to slit some guy’s throat after he called me an idiot for dancing in the rain.
I woke up the next morning in my bed at my parent’s house wearing the same outfit from the night before, covered in bloodstains and smeared mud, my car parked diagonally in the grass next to the driveway, and I thought I was for sure going to jail; in moments I’d hear the sirens and there’d be a loud knock at the door and a man with a bullhorn yelling for me to come out with my hands up. They wouldn’t even have to do an investigation; the evidence was right there on my shirt. Then I took a shower and realized the blood was mine, the result of what seemed like a million tiny glass cuts all over both my arms. I glimpsed a small sliver of beer bottle jutting from my palm and sighed thankfully.
I called Flip that night after I’d finally managed half an hour of not puking into the toilet and asked him what happened and he told me we might have to stop hanging out. I shrugged it off as just one more person who didn’t understand how I represented, then took a couple of Xanax and called it a night.
I tell the guy who is not Lou to put just the two letters on my arm: C for Caribbean and A for Alliance. He tells me I’d love to, for a hundred dollars. I cringe at the price for just two letters (he doesn’t even shade them in all the way) but smile as I hand him my entire Saturday night’s worth of tips from Applebees, where I met Raquel and where I’ve been a server now for about six months.
Raquel joins me in the back room as the guy who is not Lou digs into my arm with a needle, wiping, injecting, wiping, injecting some more. Raquel smiles encouragingly and I smile back at her, struggling to keep my arm and lips from twitching. I’ve done this before. It’s nothing. Really. I’m a pro now and besides, this is for a great cause. People will recognize me now. They’ll see me on the streets, at parties and clubs drinking with my boys, and they’ll know that I’m real. Because the ink in my arms tells them so.
Late-2007: Tallahassee, FL
Cassandra pokes me in the back with her toe while I’m playing Need for Speed: Carbon on my Xbox 360. I turn and look at her, smile. She lies on my bed smiling back at me, her flat stomach accentuated by a belly button ring and a small tattoo of a scorpion near her lower right hip. I find this tattoo just as irresistible as the rest of her, and seeing it every day now for the past few weeks has renewed a desire for body art in me. It’s been so long since my last tattoo that I don’t even remember if and/or how much it hurt. I do know that I’m tired of having to find reasons to wear sleeveless shirts though, to show off the tattoos I do have. Tallahassee is as hot as anywhere in Florida, but mosquito bites are a bitch to deal with and, besides, I’m nowhere near muscular enough to wear so many damn basketball jerseys. Cassandra likes the style though. I like hers. She agrees I should get another tattoo. She might get one too. I think I’m falling in love.
It hasn’t been this good for me in a while. In fact, it’s taken me over nine months to get used to living on my own, away from the parents who have—along with me—realized that I spent the better part of my early twenties being a complete asshole. I’ve finally come out of my self-induced stupor and quit drinking and smoking long enough to do something with myself.
Now, I’ve slipped into a routine of comfort that is symbolized by this woman lying next to me. I ask her if she’s serious about getting another tattoo and she says yes. I’ve never actually had somebody I know get a tattoo the same time as me. It sounds fun, an indication of my social maturation.
I spend a few days thoroughly searching for something to represent the progression of my life since retrying this college thing. I think about my ups and downs as I do, and I figure that I’m not the first person to see a pattern of rise and fall in his/her life. So I scour the internet looking for tattoos other people have that represent this cycle (because this is still all about representation, people. That hasn’t changed).
I settle on a symbol I’ve seen before but which still resonates with me, a tattoo designed to be read both forwards and backwards: forwards it reads “life,” backwards “death.” If that’s not the ultimate cycle, I don’t know what is.
In the parlor I realize that I’m getting tired of having tattoos done in situations where I have to act cool in front of a girl. This is my fourth one and just once I’d like to stare down at myself while the guy with the needle is digging into my skin and scream bloody murder until he’s done. But with Cassandra in the room, I simply tell him to put the Life and Death tattoo on my right leg then grit my teeth, smile, and try to hold a nonchalant conversation with my girlfriend as she stares wide eyed at me like I’m fucking Ghandi. She asks how I can be so calm—”doesn’t it hurt?”—and instead of saying yes, it hurts like hell, I shrug and raise an eyebrow as if to say, what, this little thing? Pshhh. I’ve had worse mosquito bites.
Early 2008: Tallahassee, FL
I stand in the mirror slouched, staring at my naked body. There are four spots that stand out from the rest, glaring at me with engraved art that doesn’t really match up with the direction my life seems to be going in right now. In the year since I started at Florida State, I’ve learned more about the craft of constructing prose than I thought was possible to absorb in such a short period of time. I think about nothing else but a future writing career. And stories, God, stories: ideas, first drafts, revision revision revision. I wake up wondering how much time I’m going to get to write today, and go to sleep wondering about tomorrow. The world around me is a vibrant tree of information, with fruitful prompts hanging around every corner.
Cassandra doesn’t understand how it is I can sit in front of a computer for hours a day just typing. I tell her I don’t understand how she can’t. It’s become a point of contention between us, among other things. It’s cathartic for me, revelatory, and it makes the tattoos I have now seem worthless.
Whatever happened to representation?
I sit down at the computer and vow to come up with something original for my skin. I tell myself to think of tattoos the way I think of writing, as an expression of a messy mind. When I don’t write for extended periods of time, I start to get agitated. I’m not very articulate when it comes to talking to people. My words get jumbled up, I start to stutter and then I get nervous because of it which makes me stutter more, and then I laugh to alleviate the tension which just makes me look crazy. Writing fixes all of that, puts my thoughts down using a medium I understand and that understands me; the comforting blankness of the word processor and the cursor blinking in front of me with all the potential of a newborn baby’s future.
Sometimes I feel like the only way I stay sane is by grabbing the pile of crap tossing around my brain and throwing it out onto paper, or my skin. I’m addicted to the fix of expression, as addicted to it as I have been in the past to drugs and alcohol.
And like that my ears perk up. I hop forward, grab a pencil and a sheet of paper and start sketching. When I’m done, I head straight to the tattoo parlor. Cassandra joins me again, opting out of getting one for herself and instead just sitting across from me as the artist digs in. When he’s finished, I pull one of my sleeveless shirts out of retirement and run a bunch of errands around the city, flexing my arms every chance I get.
The tattoo is of a hand holding a pen, writing the word addict. I think this is clever, more clever than any of the stories I’ve written lately. A hand, writing the word addict. Writing Addict. Get it?
This is what I say to people that night and for weeks after, and they all look at me with raised eyebrows while I nod my head and smile expectantly. After a while I realize that I’ve kind of killed the entire thing by over-explaining it, and I further realize that I’m one of those guys who’s so eager for people to understand the joke that he forgets what the damn point of the joke was in the first place. I come to the conclusion that body art should never be voluntarily explained, then stop pretending I have a chronic itch on my arm just so I can pull my sleeve up to scratch it and wait for people’s reactions.
Late-2008: Tallahassee, FL
In the mirror again, I look at my five visible tattoos and feel a rush of guilt. Tattoos are, first and foremost, about the things that mean a lot to me. I look at each one (the representation of my heritage, the representation of my love for writing, my childhood friends, my obsession with the cycle of life and death, the “tribal”) and I realize that there is something missing, something that should have been the first thing I looked into. In all my rushing around to engrave ink into my skin, I skipped the one tattoo idea that almost every tattoo enthusiast points to whenever they’re asked that one question: “which one means the most to you?”
The memorial tattoo.
It’s been almost five years since my friends Karen and Justin died, since I slipped into a rut that led me way down then ultimately back up to a halfway decent life. Five years in which I proudly went from being an ignorant fuck-up to a slightly more knowledgeable one. Five years is way longer than it should have taken me to pay my respects.
I quickly draft up a cross with a ribbon wrapped around it, add the “R.I.P.” above their carefully constructed names, then hit it to the tattoo parlor. Cassandra joins me and I can’t help but talk to her about Karen and Justin on the way. Their youth, their happiness, the senseless way they were murdered. I don’t go into the details: one, because she knows them; two, because they’re not the point. The point is that they should be here, experiencing life with me. Instead, I have to live with them in my memories. And now, on my skin. Which is better than nothing.
We continue driving, and I try to switch the conversation to the usual subjects, the subtle assertion of my coolness for putting myself through another bout of pain for the sake of artistic representation. But my words falter even before they come out, and we end up just listening to the radio and staring out the window.
Outside it’s dreary in Tallahassee, the rain clouds filling the sky like thick plumes of smoke, and I realize I’m depressed. But not like the chronic depression I’ve suffered for years now, ever since I realized how fragile life was; this is a different sort of feeling. That other type would’ve made me turn this car around and bolt back to my apartment to sit in its solitary safety, in front of the TV with a video game controller in my hand, comatose for hours and dependent on Cassandra (or any girlfriend at any time in my life I’ve now realized; you could plug anybody in there when I’m in that frame of mind and they’d do the trick) for social sustenance.
But this new depression keeps me driving, turning a corner and parking and stepping out of the car and standing right in front of the tattoo parlor, my resolve never faltering, my independence never in question.
It’s then I realize that I don’t feel nearly as much representation as I did the last time around, or any of the other times. Not even close. Come to think of it, this isn’t even about representing anymore. I don’t even really know what the hell I was trying so hard to represent in the first place. These things I do, they’re not the acts of a cool, calm and collected mind state. I’m starting to look like a walking canvas, like a piece of abstract art, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past year or two it’s that art and the act of creating art are wholly messy endeavors. As are these tattoos lacing my body; just one more addiction in a consistently obsessed, compulsive life.
This realization is accompanied by another: I haven’t changed. I’m still the same guy I’ve always been, the same guy who fell in with both good and bad people in and out of high school, the same guy who falls apart in hard times, the same guy who seems to be on a lifelong mission to find out who the hell he is. Individuals don’t change, they just learn how not to be sad for the same reasons anymore.
I am an addict, the type of person who obsesses over things, and I always will be. I’ve just managed to replace my past addictions with less self-destructive ones like these tattoos and my writing, which might allow me to head in a respectable direction, or at least a not-so-bad one.
As long as I always see the artist open the package with the needle in it.
I look at Cassandra as we walk inside and I think that I can stop acting in front of her, in front of everybody, if just at least for this one tattoo. In the parlor, my posture, for once, is in its normal slouched form. There is no puffed-out-chest attitude today. All that stuff has passed, if at least for just this moment.
As the artist puts on his black latex gloves and rubs the Vaseline on my back, right behind my heart, I’m relieved by the freedom of vulnerability. The buzzing ink gun approaches and I stare at my girlfriend and smile. When the needle touches my skin, she asks me if the tattooed memorial to my dead friends hurts, and I figure I’m allowed to confess on at least this one occasion, for this particular tattoo. The environment I grew up in, men can express pain in the events of either death or major epiphanies. And, in a way, this feels like a little of both.
Which is enough justification for me to tell her, with tears in my eyes, that this hurts like hell. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Pick up Quarter Life Crisis: A Novel at GetOverCollege.com, available now.