Mid-2003: Miami (Hialeah), FL
I sit in a flea market in Hialeah six months after Karen and Justin’s deaths. I’m not going to sit here and spout a bunch of b.s. about how the tragic death of two close friends put me here instead of in class, where I should be. That would be melodramatic, and the marijuana in my system tells me that melodrama is the very last thing I need to sustain this high. I will, however, state the facts: in the six months since Karen and Justin were murdered, I’ve driven to Florida International University and sat in one of their sub-zero temperature classrooms a total of once. If there’s a connection between the two, my subconscious is not allowing it to be blatantly obvious to my conscious mind but, hey, that’s what psychologists are for. I might even see one someday. All I know now is that class sucks, I’m already failing every one of them (except Calculus, for some reason, which surprises me more than anybody else, let me tell you), and spring semester is over in just a few weeks so there’s no point anymore anyways. When my parents find out I’m getting kicked out of FIU after my freshman year, I’m sure moments like these—sitting in a flea market with hundreds of chattering Hispanic people crowding the aisles, waiting for some guy behind me to shove needles in my back and inject indelible ink beneath the dermis layer of my skin—these moments will be laced with guilt for not having “lived up to my potential” as my parents are fond of screaming at me during our steadily intensifying arguments. So I might as well live it up now. Hence the tattoo: the first symbol of my newfound desire for total mental and physical freedom. Additionally, it’s going to look really, really cool and make me look like I really, really don’t give a shit, which is all I really, really want right now anyways.
The guy standing behind me has pupils the size of my fist and he smiles creepily as I pull my shirt up. 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. An hour later my shoulder blades are numb and I feel like somebody’s just jammed glass shards into my spinal column. A wad of bloody napkins fills a red biohazardous material trash bag behind me and the man with the huge pupils smiles again and now, it is creepy. No mistaking it. I smile back tentatively, shake his hand and drop a hundred dollars in his other palm, a small price to pay (I think). 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.
My girlfriend, Veronica, 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 twisting, jagged and simultaneously curling pattern that stretches between my shoulder blades 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. Veronica 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. The high melanin content of my skin has kept me from that experience, 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
I’m hanging out in an Athlete’s Foot in Cutler Ridge Mall while Philip (aka Flip) and his manager, Karla, discuss shoe orders. Flip is obsessed with shoes (hence the job at Athlete’s Foot) and has been since way before we became friends, about a year ago. His infatuation has passed onto me a bit and, in an attempt to expand on my shoe connoisseurship, 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. And since Flip has been my main source of escapism since I got kicked out of school and Veronica cheated on and, subsequently, left me, I take his fashion tips at face value 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—depending on what I want—though “free” is a price reserved for the person he’s fucking. 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.” 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 (I love Jamaica, but I was born in America). It’s just—I saw the same tattoo of a Puerto Rican flag on some guy buying Jordan’s 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 one pound bag of Starbuck’s coffee beans. 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 since the day Karen and Justin died. It manifests itself in many forms, and right now I’m nervous about making a habit out of these tattoos. But I really want another one, if for no other reason than to quell my boredom, so I smoke a joint and show up at Karla’s boyfriend’s house a few hours after sunset, bleary eyed and extremely passive. I am told that everything’s set up in the back room and walk through a living room where two people 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 is arranging bottles of ink and Vaseline. I wonder if this combination of activities is to be expected for the duration of my time there 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 what he’s telling me and thank him for this little morsel of wisdom anyways, for helping me to forestall any future ignorant encounters on my part with recycled, disease-infested tattoo needles.
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. Weed has the effect on me (and, coincidentally, everyone else I know who smokes) of amplifying any and everything that is either slightly humorous or fairly frightening to extreme proportions. 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 that night and smoke another joint in my car then play two hours of Prince of Persia on my Playstation 2 in nothing but my underwear (I don’t know why, it’s just an urge), feeling more confident than I have in months. In fact, the way I feel right then, I wish I could feel it all the time, instead of that normal feeling of emptiness in the pit of my stomach. I don’t know why I’m depressed most of the time; all I know is I don’t feel that way right now. Right now I feel triumphant, accomplished, two feelings I can’t remember having 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, 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 so I keep playing the video game and ignore him until he leaves, pausing every five minutes to 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—that 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, 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 to life. 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. 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 Tattoo’s on US1, near Kendall Drive.
My “crew,” we call ourselves Caribbean Alliance, a clever (clever to us at least: me, Robert, Joe, and Sam) 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 asks any questions. Besides, there’s not much we can do about that. 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 Finding-Nemo-watching-boyfriend 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 random guy’s throat because 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 was 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 with a man on 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. But 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 he’d love to, for a hundred dollars. I cringe inside 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’ve been a server now for about six months. That’s where I met my current girlfriend, Raquel, and she 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. 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 Xbox360. 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 a 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. I like hers. She agrees I should get another tattoo. She might 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. My plans were lofty when I moved here last December. Settle in, make some friends, go to class and get good grades, improve my writing and get my degree and go to graduate school. Instead, though, the nine month period following my move to Tallahassee saw my mind transformed into a giant mixing bowl of anarchy and regression. Ingredients: one serving of blinding depression, a touch of suicidal thoughts, and a slice of flaring gastroesophageal reflux (GERD or, in layman’s terms, acid reflux disease) which I both quelled and (ironically) aggravated by consuming large quantities of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana on a constant basis. It put me in the hospital for a night in February with stomach pains so bad I thought something had ruptured and fecal matter was floating around in my intestines, at which point the doctor told me I was fine and I should just eat better and quit smoking. I inhaled half an ounce of weed that night, then sat and studied a random issue of TIME magazine, cover to cover, not remembering a thing I’d read afterwards. All this past summer I woke up at least four days a week with hangovers so bad I contemplated returning to that same hospital for some sort of treatment for something, anything that was wrong with me or could be wrong with me or might, in the future, be potentially wrong with me. Or at least just get some prescription-strength pain killers. I’d kicked my Xanax habit in Miami, but some Vicodin or Codeine sounded like heaven during those days. I didn’t want to come off as whiny though, so I just drank a couple beers until I felt relatively better, which would usually lead to the same events repeating themselves the next morning.
Then, I met Cassandra at one of the few house parties where I was not completely blitzed out of my mind and, suddenly, my loneliness wasn’t so strong anymore. We talked (intelligently) and drank (moderately) and things started going so good that I finally managed to open the blinds in my bedroom and venture outside in daylight, looking very much like the survivor of a tornado hit, shielding my eyes from a sun that looked foreign to me. Within a few weeks of dating Cassandra, my roommate didn’t think I was a budding serial killer anymore and I’d actually gotten to know a few people who weren’t characters in movies or TV shows.
Now, I’ve slipped comfortably 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. I’ve never actually had somebody I know get a tattoo the same time as me and I think it’ll be fun. She says yes, that she wants to get a tabby cat on her back. I spend a few days thoroughly searching for something to represent the progression of my life since retrying this college thing. I think about the ups and downs, from university dropout turned alcoholic/druggie, turned straight-A returning college student, turned regressed alcoholic/druggie. I figure that I’m not the first person to see a pattern of rise and fall in his/her life and I scour the internet looking for tattoos other people have that represent this cycle (because this is still all about representation, that hasn’t changed). I settle on a symbol I’ve seen before but which still resonates throughout 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 the guy 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 on my body that stand out from the rest, glaring at me with engraved art that doesn’t very much match up with the direction my life seems to be going in right now. In the year since I started FSU I’ve learned more about the craft of constructing prose than I thought was possible to learn in such a short period of time. I think about nothing else but a future career now. 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. 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. 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 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.
This thought leads to a tattoo idea I am immediately in love with. In fact, I am so proud of coming up with the idea that I head straight to the tattoo parlor and get it done within the hour. 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, and 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 I get the tattoo, 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 opens a person up to themselves, not always with desirable results. I quickly lose interest and 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 mark myself up like my favorite rock stars and rappers and actors, I skipped the one tattoo idea that these same superstars always point to first whenever someone asks “which one means the most to you?” The memorial tattoo.
It’s been almost five years since 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 in the customary “R.I.P.” and their 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 on my skin.
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) 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 about 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 human 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 the wrong people and substances in and out of high school, the same guy who falls apart in hard times. 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 with the freedom of vulnerability. The buzzing ink gun approaches my skin and I stare at my girlfriend and smile. When she asks me if the tattooed memorial to my dead friends hurts, I let her know that this three hundred pound man sitting behind me shoving needles into my back is causing me an unimaginable amount of pain. And it feels great. I figure I’m allowed to confess that, on at least this one occasion, this particular tattoo. The environment I grew up in, men can express pain in the events of either death or major epiphanies. Any other time, suck it up and smile, buddy.
2011: Orlando, FL
And here I am, once again, sitting in the parlor for tattoo number twelve. I’ve ventured out from beneath the shirt sleeve now, on my way to filling both arms with hopes and dreams and beliefs I didn’t even know I had. My left arm has been deemed my “writing arm,” my left my “music arm.” The artist outlines my sleeve right now, a curling musical note design starting at my chest and unfolding down to my right wrist. I’m here alone, but I’m okay with that. For the first time in my life, at twenty-seven, I’m okay with that. My future is bright, and I’ve learned that I can move into it without fear.
In the past few years I’ve accomplished a lot: Master’s degree in Creative Writing, a few writing publications, experience as a college professor, strengthening bonds between friends and family and the adoption of a much healthier lifestyle. But each morning I wake up and none of that comes to mind. Each morning, I am reset. I am me, to the core, experiences not yet influencing the turnout of the day. Tomorrow, I will wake up and feel the lasting effect of the needle this man’s pressing to my skin right now. I will walk into my bathroom and turn on the light. I will take off my shirt and stand there, staring at myself, at the body I was given, the body I’ve chosen to do with what I please. I will look at me and know it is me, that I made this bag of bones into who I am, that this is exactly what I want to present not to the outside world but to myself. I’ll stare into the mirror at my brown skin and blackened ink lacing my body with a sense of pride at the fact that, if I were to die today, I’d die knowing I was always defined by exactly what I felt.