“Looks like your lion needs ink,” the Safeway checker said. It was summer, tank-top weather.
“The ink’s fading,” I said. “I’m fading, you’re fading, we’re all fading.”
That was a little more than she’d bargained for, and her smile faded, just like the ink. “Have a nice day, Mr. Shopper,” she said, and turned her attention to the next customer.
She was referring to the tattoo on the shoulder of my left arm, a lion’s head with bared fangs, a salute to the end of youth, something I got when I was sixty, my one and only tattoo.
I walked into the tattoo parlor in the dead of winter. “I want a tattoo,” I told the tattoo artist in the first stall I came to.
“Well, sir,” he said, “I tried to tattoo an old guy last week, and the ink ran.”
I ripped off my shirt, and said (a little too loudly, perhaps, because the whole place went quiet), “You can’t tattoo this body?”
“”Sorry, ” he said. “You’re an old guy with a young guy’s body. I mean–I don’t mean old old, what I mean is–“
I cut him off. “I want a lion’s head,” I said. “On my left shoulder. Fangs and all.”
“Cool,” he said. “Let me show you what I’ve got.”
There’s no way to put into words the pain that got triggered when she walked in the door on Valentine’s Day, said she’d met someone else, turned and walked out again.
Depression is a feel-good word by comparison, anxiety doesn’t come close, and every breath I drew in every waking moment seemed an impossible task. And for the first few months after she left, almost all my moments were waking moments.
I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, all I could do was put cigarettes out on my arm, and by the time I showed up at the tattoo parlor, I’d lost thirty pounds. I wish I could say that getting the tattoo was a turning point, but it wasn’t.
They don’t have a pill for this sort of pain, and the therapist I went to see that one and only time (out of the same desperation that drove me to the tattoo parlor) told me cheerfully that at sixty I was now a patriarch of the community, and what I needed to do was start giving back what I’d received.
“This too shall pass,” she said, “but with those burn marks on your arm, I may have to put you on suicide watch.”
I stood up and leaned over her desk. “Think twice before you open that can of worms,” I said, and walked out of her office.
Now, twenty years later, the ink has stopped running, but the pain still surfaces every time Valentine’s Day rolls around.