Memories, Narrative

Anchor, Pipe, and Needle: Bethlehem Ink

I remember the day I lost it. My mother would have disapproved. We squished together onto the back of a motorcycle and rode through the Philippine jungle to a series of small waterfalls. There, all the knots in my torso came undone in the fast, cool water. I relaxed and swam. Dante* was sitting in the cabana having a smoke when I asked him, “have you seen my anchor-cross?”

“I thought you were wearing it…”

“Me too,” I said, picking my finger-nails, “it must have slipped off when I went over the falls.”

“Oh man. That sucks. I guess you can ask for a new one.”

“I have an idea. I think I may never lose it again…”

“What are you suggesting?” replied Dante. I think he already knew.

And now, for a brief word from out sponsor…

* * *

Last month, I had my first upper-room experiences with the hookah; two expats invited me to smoke the juices out of some apples and tobacco (that is not a euphemism). Once, we congealed with a bottle of arak on the same third floor patio where I had played one-on-one soccer with Rafiq and prayed beneath the Autumn constellations. There, I bonded with the interim tenant and our lovely friend, the ex-roommate of my boss’s daughter. Tim and Clare had already gone to get tattoos from that guy in the old city. I teased that they should have waited so I could go with them; though I passed his sign [“Paint Art Studios”] on my way through the storefront for months, I assumed I would never go inside. Palestine is not on the block-list for blood donation. Giving blood was an experience like communion, to me, since I shared from my body to help others live. Perhaps it was an extension of the white-savior-industrial-complex but the point was rendered moot by the fever I brought with me from the Philippines—I doubt I can give soon. As one rite comes to an end, others emerge to fill the vacuum.

I mumbled my greetings to the barbers working on the first floor and shuffled up the narrow stairs to Walid’s office. The artist’s lair seemed like the perfect blend of doctor’s office and photo dark-room. Clare curled up like a cat on one of the leather couches while Walid inspected Tim’s tattoo, a depiction of Handala on his back. Meanwhile, I fished the internet for my anchor cross: not a navy anchor nor one of the endless procession of crosses but the anchor-cross: my vestment of service. I typed “Anchor Cross UMC” into the search box.

The tattoo-parlor images from television and movies are contrary to Walid’s sophisticated man-cave. He has a computer monitor so big it should be hanging from a mast. We spent a decade, it seemed, in graphic design. This was our intersection as artists, working together on the computer; Tim made a critical contribution, though, which will forever eclipse whatever I thought of him before and everything since. Walid and I agreed that the tattoo should look like a necklace, complete with a loop of cord, but Tim suggested there should be words on the inside.

“…to seek Justice and resist evil,” I said. The words fell easily from my mouth. All I can remember from my vows is those words; they may, in point of fact, be some inkling from God that I misremember as part of my commissioning. Every day for the rest of my life I am going to read those words and wonder “did I really? I know I sought Justice but…”. For many reasons, I decided I was ready to carry those words not just on the inside of my heart but the outside, too. EPIC.

What I was not ready for was the second-half. My friends were already having their whiskey and lighting coals for a good smoke. Suddenly, my tattoo was off the screen, printed onto special paper which Walid used to put it on my chest– like the fake-tattoos that come from vending machines. Just as Walid prepared the needle, I decided to avail myself of his hospitality.

“Do you want coke with that?”

*downs it* “No; pour me another.”

Scholars, feel free to debate if I took the whiskey for the tattoo or the tattoo for the whiskey. What I know for sure is that when they asked “what music do you want us to play while you get it?” I said, “Herbie Hancock’s ‘Butterfly’.” As that mellow and exquisitely trippy chart emerged from the speakers it dawned on me that I could not ask for a better first tattoo. The hurt itself was less of an obstacle than a cathartic process. As the alcohol slowly leached out of my system the pain swelled in intensity. It was vivid but shallow and I experienced it as if I were a guest, rather than a prisoner, in my body. Pain gave me a reason to enjoy the music and concentrate on my breathing, so that I did not flinch and carry an ‘oops-mark’ with me to the grave. I took just one puff from the water-pipe while Walid changed inks to do the shading. The psychological possibilities are fascinating; I like to think the tattoo would be empty without the pain. Numb experiences should never define us. On the other hand, the pain was not severe. It could only sting skin-deep. My mind was stirring, as it ever is, emulsifying many dark memories with the antiseptically bright quality of that pain and the meaning of the words burning into my chest: “…to seek Justice and resist evil”.

I am just pasting in unrelated photos from the Istanbul airport to make this entry more visually appealing, since my camera is still decommissioned.

* *

The next day, I returned with Tim so he could get the Unitarian Universalist Chalice on his arm; as interesting as the topic of Tim’s symbol and our conversations about spirituality might be in hindsight, I dozed-off while Walid was actually putting the tat on his arm. The next time, I came to have the tattoo examined. We sat together alone for a while, chatting, and it dawned on me that he was a social butterfly perched a little too high above the street. His hospitality, though easy and Palestinian, was not strictly policy but also an invitation to linger with him – to commune over a couple of orange sodas. We looked at some Wi’am Summer Camp photos together and then he showed me pictures of his son. When six days had passed, I returned again to the barbershop and found Walid on the ground floor, giving his friend a hair-cut.
“I fixed hair for fifteen years,” he said with a wink. His portrait was coming even more clearly into focus: he is a unique human being. As much as I enjoy my hair-cuts, I realized that I share a link with Walid that is much more permanent. It is a more salient link than I have with the various doctors who have done surgery on my body, since I was conscious and I chose the design. It is bound to attract more attention than any other procedure because it’s the kind of procedure intended to speak on its own. It speaks about the person who commissioned it as well as the one who made it —

Yesterday, I saw Walid for the fifth time. Once again, I sat next to the desk and had something to drink (apple juice). For the second time, I walked over to the chair by the mirror and took off my shirt. This time, it was just a matter of touch-ups. The sting was not any worse, which meant that I must have been more sober than I believed, the first time (mind over matter). Something special in common between getting a shave and getting a tattoo, at least here on Star Street, is the final spray of fragrant disinfectant. I love that feeling.

The best feeling of the day, though, was when I shook his hand and he said, “stop by. Feel free, you’re always welcome.”

“Next time, I might need a hair-cut.”

This is a good thing.

*By Dante, I mean Clifford.

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