Five About My Body: Tattoo

“This is going to be my last one,” I said to my tattoo artist. We were sitting in his new studio, in the basement of a parlor in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; the walls still smelled like paint, in addition to the oddly intoxicating inky, bloody, sweaty animal smells that go along with tattooing.

“You say that every time,” he laughed, raising his eyebrow and tearing a piece of tracing paper off a long roll, getting ready to sketch. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Myles is the only person I’d trust to put a gun against my skin, and he’s been doing it off and on for me going on 10 years now. In fact, he’s one of the few people in the world I can honestly say I trust explicitly, though I don’t know him very well once I slide off the table at the end of a session. But he’s never built me up too much, and he never lets me down—how many people can any of us say that about? How many people would you let leave their permanent mark on your skin, on your life?

I’m guessing not too many.

“So, what are we doing?” he asked, poised with a blue pencil over a strip of tracing paper. I took a deep breath, giddy and nervous to tell him what I wanted, anticipating the first burn of the ink burying deep into my skin.

Finally, I blurted it out: “I want my dog’s head coming out of C.S. Lewis’s head, as though C.S. Lewis were a cocoon.”

Photo by Flickr user malikmalikmalik

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Five Dad Stories: Curtains

The last person to see my father alive was a housekeeper named Maria; she worked at the Crystal Inn on State Route 35 in Neptune, New Jersey, which was the last place my father lived—if you could call what he was doing living. “Surviving” is barely the word for it, either, though if you’d gotten close enough at any point during that last earthly year to take a pulse on the man laying prostrate on those scratchy hourly-and-weekly-rental sheets, you’d have been surprised to feel that blood thumping up at you, as it did almost out of spite until that moment his heart gave out. No one but Maria dared get close enough, though: Every morning, she rolled him to one side and then the other side of the bed, pulling the soiled linens out from underneath him, then once more to put on a fresh pair.

Papi,” she’d say quietly, bundling the sheets up in a black garbage bag so they didn’t contaminate the rest of her day’s laundry. “You sick. You very sick man. You should call you family.”

The motel shared a parking lot with a gentlemen’s club called Centerfold’s; the first time I drove there I pulled into the wrong side, and circled the club twice before I found the thin swatch of asphalt where the lots conjoined. I parked my rental next to my father’s Honda Element—the car he loved so much he’d lived in it for three months before moving into his room at the Crystal Inn—and looked up at the motel’s second-floor balconies, all but one with their curtains drawn and smudgy sliding-glass doors open for airing out. I knew the one still swathed in darkness and stale air would be my father’s, and I knew I’d be grateful not to see him in full light.

I wondered when was the last time he’d looked out from behind those curtains.

Photo by Flickr user It’sGreg

My sister opened the door when I knocked; she’d gotten there about 15 minutes before me, and was still shaking from the shock. She pushed past me into the hall and pulled the door nearly closed, speaking in a whisper.

“It’s terrible in there,” she said. “I literally can’t even believe it, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to touch anything, but I, like, can’t stop throwing shit out.” Her eyes were wild and red, like a feral cat that suddenly realizes the hand reaching for it is holding a needle. She grabbed my arm, and her hand practically burned. “Just… get ready.”

She turned around and slowly cracked the door back open, knocking awkwardly with the knuckles on her right hand, out of a sort of embarrassed politeness. “Dad? Erin’s here.”

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Five Dad Stories: Driving Lessons

My mother had tried to teach me to drive, bless her heart, but she has always had a tendency to ride the brake, and she’s never been able to kept her eye on the road. She speeds up and slows down seemingly at random. And although I’ve never known her to be involved in a two-vehicle accident, I have sat scrunched down low in the passenger seat for two hours when the car’s horn blew a fuse and wouldn’t stop blaring, the whole trip home from Atlantic City. (Not knowing what to do about it, she just kept driving. It took two hours to get home, and we were flipped off by many, many other drivers along the way.)

She’s also  parking ticket collector, and the sides of her car amass enough scratches that they almost look deliberate—like a fighter pilot marking the number of his successful targets on the side of his plane.

“You’ll be all right,” my father said when I told him about my mother’s lessons. I told him she took me to the middle-school parking lot and made me drive in circles, practicing how to pull into a parking spot head-on. He turned the no-power-steering wheel hand-over-hand, pulling smoothly around the hairpin curve of the exit ramp off of New Jersey’s Route 9, taking me home to my mother’s house from a weekend visit.

“Your mother’s a good driver,” he said without taking his eyes off the road. “I taught her everything she knows.”

More than waking up early, more than reading books on the john, more than tending to the yellow tea roses in his garden—maybe more than he loved doing anything else in the whole world other than drink beer, actually—my father loved to drive. Trucks, tractors, sedans, lawn mowers, it didn’t matter: He loved the feeling of a clutch, a key to turn in an ignition, the rumble of an engine that chugs diesel.

“I don’t know, Dad,” I said, watching the dance of other cars passing each other on the highway. “I can’t even see over the dashboard in her stupid car. I have to sit on a pillow to see out the windshield.”

He laughed and coughed and slapped the rim of the wheel. “That’s all right, kid. That’s all right.” His eyes watered from laughter.

Photo by Flickr user Horia Varlan

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Five Dad Stories: Gordian Knot

Sundays started quietly, the haze of summer morning humidity still hanging in the air like a fly on a spiderweb, no longer twitching, just resigned to suffer slowly until death’s merciful release. Still in my pajamas, I padded, barefoot, into the kitchen. As always, despite the stillness of the house, there was coffee already brewed and stewing in a Mr. Coffee pot on a hot plate, steam fogging the carafe’s glass walls. I stood on tiptoes to reach a mug—my favorite, the smallest one with the thin handle, which fit so well into my 10-year-old hands—and poured the acrid liquid halfway. Half-and-half came next; its ribbon turned the liquid a kind of yellow-brown, with slick spots of oil on top.

I was stirring in three spoons’ worth of sugar when I felt the tug—fingers in the hair at the back of my head, pulling and twisting so hard I dropped my spoon on the counter.

“What the hell is this?” my father asked. “Is this a knot?”

I hadn’t heard him come into the kitchen behind me, hadn’t expected him to notice me at the coffeepot. His hand closed over one of my shoulders, and he turned me to face him. “How long have you had that?” he asked.

My head still stung where he’d pulled on my hair, and I reached back with my right hand to soothe the scalp. My fingers met the thing he’d discovered, and I felt tears well up in my eyes: It was a ratty knot of hair, the size of a tangerine and flat on one side from being slept on. My cheeks burned, and I could feel dampness spread under the arms of my T-shirt.

“I… I don’t know how long. I didn’t know.”

 

Photo by Flickr user Muffet

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Five Dad Stories: Great Adventure

The line snaked around for what seemed like miles, extending all the way around the perimeter of the ride, and doubled back around the sizzling asphalt in the middle of the campus of water slides. It was a scorcher that late afternoon on a Sunday deep in the middle of August, and apparently everybody within a 400 mile radius of Six Flags Great Adventure had come out and beat the heat in classic Jersey theme-park style—which is to say, grumpy from too much sun, greasy from too much sunscreen, and dizzy from too much Coors Light.

My then-teenaged brother had gone off on his own, to flirt with the too-tan girls who leaned up against the railings around the roller coasters, waiting for their boyfriends’ rides to be over. It had been his idea to come to Great Adventure in the first place, and Dad and I, both miserable in our skin in our clothes in the heat, didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Out of desperation or boredom or sheer temperature delirium, we stumbled into the queue for a kind of communal raft ride called Congo Rapids, where a body gets strapped onto a large inflatable vessel with 11 other suckers—most of them strangers, and all of whom wind up soaked to the bone, ringing out T-shirts while waiting on line for the next ride, hair limp and stuck to hot cheeks and necks.

But first, we waited (and waited, and waited), in a line that was five miles long if it was one. In a line with as many people on it as some towns claim in population. I stood silent and sweaty next to my father amid a crush of total strangers. Just… waiting.

Photo by Flickr user greyhound dad.

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Five Dad Stories: The Fawn

My father woke up early, before the blue-gray mist of morning had left the sky. Usually he started the day with a dry, hacking cough, shaking the house to its rafters; this morning, he was stone silent. “Erin,” he said, shaking my shoulder gently with a large, work-gnarled hand. “Get up. Look outside.”

I opened my eyes slowly, trying to remember where I was: It was the weekend—Sunday morning—and I was in my father’s bedroom. Rather, I was in the room my father occupied as a favor, in a house rented by “an old friend,” who was also his employer: four walls and a window tucked into the corner of an old ranch-style house rented inexpensively from the man for whom my dad did plumbing work.

Dad’s furniture comprised a bed and exactly one dresser. He also had a closet in which the shelves were stacked with meticulously folded jeans, sweatshirts covered in pulls and pills, and cases of antique rifle ammunition. He loved to shoot targets, but he’d never hunt; his collection of guns leaned neatly against one wall of the closet—a pair of .22-gauge rifles, an AK-47 once used in the Olympics, a Winchester pump-action shotgun—where they sat, unused and unhandled, for months.

My voice cracked in the stillness, startled by how quiet he was being. “What is it, Dad?”

 

Photo by Flickr user Larry Smith2010.

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Five Fights: Deutschland Unter Alles

Perhaps it was only right that we were to be matched in battle, since we were in the same weight class. Joey Ambrosi was a short-and-stocky sort, stubby arms and legs popping out of a teapot body; I was more like a shapeless lump of cottage cheese, with as much coordination. We were the third graders who most resembled our maternal grandmothers: Joey was the spitting image of his hunched Nonna, minus the headscarf and the apron dress. You could smell the gravy on him, and he’d introduce the side of your head to the backside of his dominant hand as sure as look at you.

I was a miniature version of my grandmother—all middle, no limbs—minus her gumption, her sass, and her dogfight commitment to self-preservation. I was the cottage cheese version of Beeb, with none of the salt.

Though we should have stuck together in some kind of mutually beneficial fat-kid private secret society, there were two things that separated us from one another, establishing us as marked unequals in the social hierarchy of elementary school: One, Joey had been the kid in our class who ate enough Elmer’s Glue to get sent home one afternoon in second grade, which proved he had guts. (I had none—glue nor guts.)

Two, he was proudly and boldly Jersey Italian, while I wasn’t proudly anything at all—though my family name, Meister, immediately and unavoidably pegged me as an outsider, an other.

Yes, more of an other than the kid who ate glue, because the kid who ate glue had a Nonna, an -osi at the end of his surname, and a vast social majority among our classmates, most of whom also had an -acci or an -aladino or a -cini or a -fredo to hang their hats on.

Photo by Flickr user scarlatti2004

“So, you like Hitler?”

That’s how it started, one day during recess. Joey Ambrosi strolled up to me, so close our bellies almost touched. He pointed his sausage finger at me, and squinted his eyes small and mean. “You like Hitler, right? You’re German?”

In the third grade, I’m not entirely sure I knew who Hitler was, though I was vaguely aware I had some German or Austrian blood in me, somewhere. I also knew that my father always told me we were part Irish, on his mother’s side. (Though I realized much later that Ada Mae Schweitzer does not sound like a name belongin’ to any fine lass from County Cork, and to this day I’m not sure how I managed to believe for one second that my grandmother had even a whiff of the Blarney Stone about her.) I also knew my whole family for as many generations as anyone cared to remember came from New York or New Jersey or Pennsylvania. We were about as German as a bag of gluten-free Honey Mustard & Onion Sticks from Snyder’s of Hanover.

“No,” I offered pathetically. “I don’t like Hitler.”

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Five Firsts: Dinner

My first mistake was letting Martha Stewart convince me that cooking was easy, and I should give it a try. My second mistake was getting swept up in the magic of television, where everything is done ahead of time and life breaks for commercials. My third mistake wasn’t a mistake at all, but a complete 180-degree change of life and lifestyle: I learned to cook.

“This is a quick, simple, and healthful dish that I simply love to make,” Martha said, standing in front of a TV-set cookstove in a sea foam–green sweater, fondling a handful of fresh snow peas. I was sitting a scant five rows away from that picture-perfect kitchen stage, conspicuous in my black shirt amid a studio audience who had all apparently gotten the memo about the pastels. However, while the middle-aged women with the frosted tips and the sensible shoes sat in silent rapture around me, I was the one who gasped when Martha nonchalantly tossed a few thin strips of steak into a skillet, the sizzle filling the room.

It was alchemy, what she was doing up there, and I was watching it happen.

Asian Noodle Bowls with Steak and Snow Peas

Asian Noodle Bowls with Steak and Snow Peas

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Five Firsts: Love

“What would The Piano be without… the piano?” Those were the first words she spoke that I remember, and I remember them because it was in that moment, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a dorm room at Bennington College in the deep summer, that I first fell in love with a woman. (That is, a woman who was not half Betazoid and shown in syndication on channel 11.)

I was an outsider in a conversation between young artists: my best friend the budding film composer, and the woman whom she often mentioned in her letters as, “my best friend here,” or, “someone I just know you’d love.” Love I sure did, from that first sentence in that stuffy room, as we sat around thinking of movies that would be cheapened without the emotional direction of the score. What would Jaws be without that cello, or Psycho without the violins? And yes—what would The Piano be? It would be a different film altogether. It might not even be a film. But that’s not important. What’s important is that I fell in love for the first time, and that—like all people who have ever fallen in love—I’ve never really ever fallen out of it.

Photo by Flickr user Crossett Library Bennington College.

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