by Troy Landrum Jr.
Maroon walls surround me as the cold air presses against me. The temperature is set to 63 degrees Fahrenheit. Twin sisters greet me as I walk toward the receptionist desk. “Welcome,” they say simultaneously. Their smiles are as warm as their greeting. As I stand at the desk, one of the twins tells me the deposit I need to pay. If you’re as anxious about money as I am, you may understand the feelings I had when I heard the amount, equal to a monthly student loan payment.
The other twin directs me toward a man engulfed in the preparation of the ancient ritual he is to perform. He tells me to take off my jacket. He takes a look at my arm admiring the work that was previously done on my skin.
“This is very detailed,” he says as he touches my forearm. He rubs it and lifts it up to the light, like a banker might inspect a hundred-dollar bill, checking its authenticity.
“So where are you getting it?”
“On my wrist,” I respond.
I sit down in a black leathered chair with a red stripe running down the center. With his foot, he pushes on a contraption beneath the seat. The chair unfolds, moving my body into a horizontal position, and he places what looks like a stamp on my wrist. He proceeds to unravel his kit like a barber preparing for his first customer. I stare at the artwork that encircles the maroon walls. Art, ranging from cultural symbols to cartoon characters, showing the variety of designs the artist can create. I lay back while my arm relaxes and look away. The chill from the leather, from the room, distracts my attention until I melt into the lyrics of my imagination. I look at my phone and select my favorite J Cole album, Forest Hills Drive. My headphones cuddle my ears. I close my eyes.
Skin against needle. Needle against skin. The buzzing sound, in the beginning quiet, heightens to a steady tempo. The slight burning sensation tenses my muscle. He gently places his fingertips on my bicep, guiding it back into relaxation. Skin against needle. Needle against skin. The beat from the song “No Role Modelz” drowns out the sound. Both rhythms are now in tune. Skin against needle. Needle against skin. The artist checks his work.
The Moment I met you, your spirit captured the room. I was a naïve youth worker and you were a veteran bathed in the meticulousness of the work. Nothing slowed you down, nothing sped your movements. You moved like water. I needed to move like water. I still struggle to move like water. I was over my head with enthusiasm and naiveté about what it meant to redirect young people’s lives from juvenile detention to becoming high school graduates. I was misguided, lost and insecure, coming in as a savior when I was the one who needed saving. I was enthused with passion for the work, but it never felt like enough. I had to learn from someone willing to show me the way. I knew a change had to occur if I was going to survive.
My supervisor teamed me up with you. You were the key to my survival. Our first ride out together was the first of many significant conversations between us. Those conversations carried me through three years of the work. Those conversations gave me the confidence I needed. I remember the first conversation we had.
“Man, no matter what, you have to be ya self. The youth will see that and gravitate toward that. At the end of the day they don’t care if you about that life. They only care that you care about them.”
Skin against needle. Needle against skin. I open my eyes to the surprise sounds of others entering this sacred place. I look at the wall to my left: a beautifully sketched lion surrounded by a gold Victorian picture frame. Skin against needle. Needle against skin. The lion’s pupils dilate. I rub my eyes with my free hand. I blink twice. The lion begins to leap out of the frame. I am the prey. I close my eyes tight and cover my face.
His hand gently touches my bicep again and I relax. My eyes open and everything is as it was before. Skin against needle. Needle against skin. “Do you need a break?” he asks. I tell him, “Nah, I’m good.”
I was new to my own identity, away from the bleeding red state that surrounded me with neck-high corn stalks, never failing to remind me of my black skin. The conservative values suffocated me into assimilation. Your life was different. Your life lived outside the boundaries of mine. I admired that. So you taught me to create my own life.
You were meant to commune with the weary and bring them back to themselves. You brought me back to myself. Our first conversation in the car not only helped me survive the work but it became a significant part of my survival in this new state of Washington. If I was going to be myself, I had to continue the journey of finding myself. Your encouragement led me to my promised land. I remember what you said a couple of weeks after I had completed my last class at Hugo House. You were the first person I called after receiving a letter from my writing teacher.
“I knew you had it in you all along. Man, you are the shit! What have I been telling you?”
“You’re right man, you said my writing pieces were pretty good.”
“Bro, you’re not getting it. Ya teacher said he couldn’t wait for you to get published. That’s big time. You need to put this letter in a frame.”
“Oh, for sure. I’m going to do that.”
“Imma start calling you J.K. Rowling!”
“Ha, that’s too much, my guy. I’m definitely not big time like that.”
“You got it though. I know you do.”
Skin against needle. Needle against skin. I have been in this chair for an hour now. The next album from my phone starts to play, the song is “Try Me” by James Brown. It reminds me of you. Skin against needle. Needle against skin. You were with me when the first ritual was performed. Tears accumulate around the corners of my eyes and begin to drip toward the back of my neck. Skin against needle. Needle against skin. Traces of blood surround the outline of the completed work.
Life is one thing you shouldn’t take so seriously and it is the one thing it would be foolish not to fully experience. “Live ya life, brutha. Who cares what people think, just as long as you’re happy.” That’s the advice you would always give me. I’m trying my best to listen.
“You’re all done. You want to take a look at it?”
“Yeah, thank you,” I respond.
“Wow. This is exactly how I wanted it,” I say as I admire my wrist, rotating it from right to left.
As I open the car door the fall wind whistles and pushes it aggressively outward. I get into the car, close it and I take a minute to gather myself. I can feel the plastic wrap, pressing against my new wound. As the cars drive by I surprisingly see my exact car drive into the parking lot. The scene of me getting my first tattoo plays before my eyes. It frightens me and comforts me at the same time. I watch the entire scene play out, like an actor at their movie premiere. We met an hour before my appointment at the shop parking lot. 522 Tattoo was spray painted on the front of the shop. I see me, spotting you relaxing in your two-door, gold Toyota truck.
“What up, Maaan!”
“You ready to get ya first?”
“Let’s get you something to eat first, I can’t have you faintin’ on me bro.”
We drove up to Jimmy John’s with Ice Cube’s “Today was a good day” coming out of your speakers. You turned it down with a swag that made the young white girl giggle as we ordered our sandwiches. I couldn’t help but feel my own confidence surface.
“Bro, make sure you get a drink with a lot of sugar in it. It’ll boost your energy while you in the chair. You gon need that believe me.”
“Alright, I’ll take a lemonade instead of water.”
The girl continued to giggle. We got our food, drove back to the shop in time to eat and get ready for my appointment. The artist showed us a couple of formats he thought would complement my forearm. Your silent disapprovals slightly agitated the artist. We laughed, keeping in mind who was paying for this permanency. You finally approved. I’ve never been disappointed by the decision. You stayed for a while, walking in and out of the shop to take some phone calls, and playfully asked if I wanted your hand.
“Haha, I’m good, bro. I don’t need ya hand!”
“I wasn’t going to give it to you anyway.”
When I completed my three-hour session, you were there waiting in the parking lot. Clouds of smoke came out of the car window with the R&B hits vibrating the truck. I can still hear the vibration. Every time I turn the ignition on in my car, I hear the echo of your voice fading in and out of our favorite songs. Every time the bass rattles, I look around hoping that it’s you.
“You ready, bro?” you said to me.
“Where we going?
“I gotta pick something up, you rollin’ wit me?”
“Yea, I’m ready,” I said.
The intense feelings hit me like a truck. The memory brings me back into my car. I can feel the sadness in my bones, my skin throbbing and my energy fading from hunger.
I should have taken your advice today. But I didn’t. Didn’t eat; didn’t drink. “I didn’t,” I repeat to myself.
I can’t believe you are no longer here. I can’t believe you can’t celebrate this one with me. The clutter that intoxicates my car resembles my cluttered thoughts. I’m trying to make sense of the suffering. Now I am left here to pick up all the pieces, move my life forward and somehow make something out of it. You left so soon. We had dreams. We had hopes. We had lives to live. No longer do we have that. No longer do you have that. This body, this skin. A supposed vehicle for life, creation, strength, protection. A blood-stained portrait comes to its end. The infinite and the finite. It can no longer suffer, it must transition to a new form. What does that mean for the loved ones who stay, mourning and aching? The aching never fades, becoming bearable, eventually finding a home within the body. The work of art becomes a symbol, grave stones as reminders to the body that it must suffer on. A new life must be created.
“I want you to know, I have never loved a man besides my own father the way I love you. You are forever my brother. You are forever my best friend.”
“That’s huge, man. I’m glad to know that. Love you too,” you responded to me. Unaffectionate, but I knew your style. That last conversation is ingrained in my heart, in my mind.
“La Vita Nuova.”
“La Vita Nuova.”
“La Vita Nuova,” echoes into the void of my subconscious.
My heart races as my eyes open wide to the dark ceiling, the dark walls. I feel a throbbing sensation on my right wrist. The moon peeks through the window, shedding light on the scattered school books and clothes layering my room. The book I see first is Dante’s La Vita Nuova facing up toward me. The bedcovers slide off my body, and I place my hand on my bare chest to feel the traces of sweat. My heart calms. My eyes began to focus more on my surroundings. Tears from my eyes slowly accumulate then rapidly journey down both sides of my cheeks into my black forest of a beard. I lay back down holding my wrist. The words try to escape my lips but they don’t quite translate the fullness of my heart.
“I miss you, man. Thank you,” I whisper.
I open my eyes before going back to sleep.
I reach for my phone. In the search bar, I type “522 Tattoo.”
I slowly take a look at my wrist, the empty space on my throbbing brown skin brings me further into my own reality.
“La Vita Nuova.”
Troy Landrum Jr. is a native of Indianapolis, IN and is currently a Bookseller at Third Place Books. He is currently working toward his Masters in Fine Arts at the University of Washington Bothell Campus.
📸 Feature image attributed to Dale Moore (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).
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