*Note: Of course since I first drafted this, things have changed (as if I don’t talk enough about that pesky little part of life). I’ve moved back to the country and Bryn works days (thank God). Also, my dad’s office was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy so they are working out of a temporary space, not the one of my memories. The rest, I’m happy to say, remains exactly the same ❤
In New York City, there’s no telling when you’ll find time for a break, when you might get that moment to rest and reflect, to long for the past or dream of the future. Especially for an insomniac grad student or my friend Bryn, a nurse, who works the night shift at Sloan Kettering. Sometimes lunch will be right in the middle of the day, like when I visit my father and sister downtown in their office and the menus come out just before noon. We wait for the delivery boy to buzz while my sister answers calls and I stare at that classic framed photo on the wall of men during their lunch hour sitting atop a steel beam as they eat from brown paper bags, taking their break from building the Empire State Building. If I think about it too long my stomach flips. No harnesses. No problem.
One day early last fall, Bryn and I found ourselves on the same schedule. After about an hour on the phone complaining about work and school and men, we decided to meet for lunch. Or, well, brunch, since that’s so much trendier. We picked a quaint little place on Lexington, ordered paninis, and decided it was acceptable at such an occasion to share a pitcher of sangria.
An hour later we found ourselves a far less classy establishment a few doors down, drinking some concoction from a fishbowl that the bartender called “swamp water.” Three hours later we were calling around to find two open appointments to get friendship tattoos. Isn’t that always the way it goes?
Five hours later we had traded that fine restaurant for an even better one. After a couple rounds of two-for-one Bud Lights and the best basket of pigs-in-a-blanket I had ever tasted, we were in a cab headed for the Lower East Side. We withdrew cash from an ATM at the bodega across the street from the tattoo shop and gave each other pep talks on how to act sober.
By 9:00pm I was back in my apartment with a massive hangover and a new heart-shaped tattoo on the inside of my middle finger of my right hand. For all the horror stories of drunken tattoos, I can proudly say I have no regrets. (Although I’ve since found out that I am no longer eligible to join the Marines, so I guess that backup plan is out. “Try the Navy, they might take you,” a recruiter once told me.)
If I recall correctly, it was somewhere mid swamp water that Bryn and I realized we had been friends for ten years–a milestone that clearly deserved attention. A commemorative tattoo was the best idea, obviously.
That fateful day our lunch break, which turned into an all-day extravaganza and full on celebration of the ten years we’ve managed to stay close, even when Bryn lived in Boston and I in Tampa, was one of those times we found for reflection. I think it is no mistake that even as I write this, I see that heart on my middle finger and think of so much more than a ridiculous, drunken day. I think of all the years of my life that Bryn has been a part of, and I’m reminded that she’ll always be there. Not just as a heart-shaped symbol, but as a person who is also stamped on the heart in my chest. Some may call us foolish, certainly our parents didn’t find it as brilliant as we did and still do, but I love the mark that Bryn has made on my life and this little tattoo is just another signification to remind me of that every day.
Tattoos are one of the ways we can choose to remind ourselves of our past. Our friendships, our hardships, the names of our exes that we never should have gotten. Places we’ve been and places we shouldn’t have gone, either literally or metaphorically. Tattoos in our culture are a reminder, at least in this lifetime, of what we’ve been through. It is this same impulse that makes us write on bathroom stalls, or carve our names in trees–these gestures take it a step further with the hopes of living on past our short lives here on Earth.
In the small walk-in closet of the bedroom I grew up in is a blue, pen-ink inscription that reads, “Pete was here 2001. I love you.” Whenever I visit my parents’ house in upstate New York I glance at my first boyfriend’s cartoonish handwriting and despite myself, I smile. That old writing on the wall not only reminds me of being fifteen and defying my father’s rule of no boys on the second floor where my bedroom was, it also makes me keenly aware of the nostalgia we carry around with us for the past—some idealized simpler time. I think this is part of the human condition, to long for the past when the present, and worse still the future, can feel so daunting. As time presses forward, what we all seem to be asking is, What will be lost?
One of the reasons I’ve always loved the romantic poets is for their persistence of this sentiment and their ability to incite an act of nostalgia even as the moment is happening, reminding us how fleeting life is. My ex-boyfriend Pete was no great poet, but I can still appreciate his impulse to document a time in our lives that, even as teenagers, we could recognize was passing us by. And my heart shaped tattoo–it incites nostalgia for past as much as it does for the present.
Maybe poets like Wordsworth and Keats felt the weight of nostalgia so heavily because theirs was a time of rapid industrialization, and thus the growth of mechanization, factories, pollution, and, of course, of cities. When Wordsworth wrote of the smog of London or the ruins of Tintern Abbey, he does so with a sense of lament for what is gone. Similarly Keats does this, too, perhaps with the knowledge that the Tuberculosis that killed his loved ones could take him, too. And it did at the young age of 25. I think Keats understood the ephemerality of life better than all of us, for as he requested, his tombstone in Rome does not bear his name, but rather, in its last lines, the truth we all struggle to face. It reads: “Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821″
Civilizations since ancient times have been writing on the walls. While there is certainly a strong cultural disparity between early tribal tattooing and the ones we get today just as there is between early human cave paintings and the graffiti that in its heyday of the 80s colored so much of the grey canvas of our city, the impulse remains the same. To declare, I was here! becomes a therapeutic way of dealing with the temporality of life and the persistence of change.
How many people have moved into and out of this very apartment I’m living in without a trace of themselves, their histories, their trials? It is an educated guess to say that these wood floors below me have been here sine the Great Depression. They are weathered, have numerous shades of paint spills and stains of God knows what. But my lunch hour is nearly over, so I’ll skip to the end. With the looming Mayan prediction of apocalypse this coming year, I feel strongly the impulse to leave behind some documentation of my existence on this planet as many have before me. So here it is, writ in water: I was here. January 20, 2012.