Picture this: You’re walking up a dark, cold, cement stairwell, with graffiti on the walls. At the top of the stairs is a heavy door. You go inside, and there are strange, frightening people — young burly men, scary women. You pass into a room walled with mirrors, where you are to undo your pants (or remove your shirt or other article of clothing). You bare your back to the artist, who touches you gently at first, smoothing your skin with a warm salve before starting up the needle. The first touch startles you nearly out of your seat, but you settle into it, bearing each stroke with a grimace, or with a poker face, or with composure, or with a steely gaze — whatever gets you through.
At another table is a young couple, she holding his hand, he sitting with a stoic look, an occasional eye-roll or movement of his mouth to indicate the discomfort, as he is branded with stars across his back. They seem connected in a web of love and pain, a kiss, a finger. They will not leave the room unchanged.
And you — you feel each stroke, each movement, each tiny line, fine and sharp, as if being scratched with the sharp tine of a safety pin. Your legs shake, you sweat, there is nothing for it but to endure, your gaze nailed to the poster on the wall, tracing each letter with your eyes to keep your mind from the scritch at your back. And when at last he tells you it is over, you look and see that it isn’t quite finished, and that you need more, despite your fear and loathing of the pain. He applies himself again to the task, and you endure it a bit longer, until he is finished at last. He shuts off the needle. The pain stops almost immediately — but you are marked forever.
That is tattooing. And that is intimacy. Becoming close to another person is an exercise in pure terror. Opening yourself up — stripping yourself bare, as it were, and laying yourself open to derision and scorn, or searing love — is pure vulnerability. Feeling the needle of experience is real. Some people won’t do it once. Some try, fail, won’t do it ever again. We are locked up like a fist in the dark, unable to let go enough, pry our fingers open and let someone else take our hand. And what you miss is the ability to hold someone’s hand, have your own hand taken. It is simple and sweet — and impossible without opening the fist.
I’m not saying love is pain, or that intimacy inevitably leads there. But being truly close to another person inevitably leads to feeling real feelings, which is frightening, and it is hard to wallow in that space if you aren’t ready. Before this becomes pure psychobabble, let me finish:
I would rather feel the emotions and experiences that come my way wholeheartedly, embrace them fully, than (continue to) live half-way, or not at all. I was almost physically ill during the tattoo, my legs shaking and my body faint with nausea. It was all I could do to sit back down and ask for more — pure torture. But I think of where I am in my life, where I’ve been, the things I have assiduously not-felt, ignored, pretended didn’t bother me, pretended didn’t hurt, and I just don’t want to live like that anymore. If I have to hurl myself on the bloody spike of life and feel every inch of pain as it pierces through me, I will. It’s too precious to miss.
Advice to Aspiring Writers: Some lessons are worth repeating: Symbolism is everywhere.