Into the Body of the Light
The tattoo was thickly outlined in black with minimal detail, covering the entire top of his shaved head. On our first date, Will let me touch it. He bowed his head so I could trace my finger around the sly fox, mouth open to reveal a set of sharp white teeth, saliva dripping from his drooling tongue like the villain in so many fairy tales. We were the last two people awake after a house party, sitting on the front porch, watching the sun come up over the mountain range. The fox’s thirsty eyes and body curved toward his prey, a chicken, itself running toward the fox’s haunches, a chronic half-step ahead. I could feel the prickle of tiny hairs beneath the smooth, shaved skin on Will’s scalp. The fox would not catch the chicken. The chicken would not outwit the fox. The two spun together in perpetuity, a kind of eternal danse macabre.
When Will lifted his head again, I asked him about the design, what it meant. He shrugged playfully, moved his lips closer to mine. Whispered, “Not everything has to mean something.”
Will was tall and slender, his wide smile revealing a set of long, gleaming teeth. He laughed easily, baring those perfect teeth, his lean, handsome face contorting into something like a snarl. His sun-beaten skin was covered in several stick-and-poke style tattoos he’d given himself with a sewing needle and black ink collected from a ballpoint pen. These, in stark contrast to the professional style of the fox and chicken circling his scalp. I loved running my hands over Will’s tattoos, trying to decipher the stories written on his skin. His left arm depicted the bare lower half of a woman leaping into a pool of water. At least, if you squinted and turned your head at the right angle it did. Otherwise, the long legs and pointed toes didn’t resemble the body of a woman so much as they did a carrot. Her splash into the water, its mess of leaves. People were always asking him what the hell it was supposed to be.
The knuckles on Will’s left hand spelled out the word L I F E in stylized letters. His right hand was conspicuously blank. This was part because he was right-handed, part because he wasn’t sure what four-letter kind of life he wanted to lead. His live and let live attitude suited me just fine. I had designs on becoming a writer, and back then I figured not knowing what you wanted was a good way of finding out what you really did.
We were young, just twenty, and both fresh out of short-term relationships with absent, drug-addicted partners. When we met it was summer in Tucson, a city so hot the asphalt melts, soft beneath your feet, each step threatening to grab hold and never let you go. The kind of heat that sparks wildfires. We fell for each other in a week. Shared a bed within two. Split the rent just shy of six.
That January, my sophomore year at the University, my creative writing professor started class by drawing a line on the board, labeling one end “self” and the other “world.” The personal essay, he explained, fell somewhere in the middle of these two points, with other nonfiction modes—news reportage, a research essay, a memoir, a diary—scattered out closer toward either end. The trick to a good personal essay was to write your own experiences in service of something greater than yourself. To write about something big through the examination of something small—a dying moth, say, or a single piece of chalk. He told us about William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, and his sweet, cold, delicious plums. The belief that the abstract is always hiding in plain sight. In good writing, my professor said, ideas must be anchored to the speaker’s tangible reality. Ideas, he said, cannot be conjured from an empty room. That semester we students would be tasked with finding these things, so close to the self, and connecting them to the big ideas of the world.
After class, I walked ten minutes on 6th Street, then crossed over and down Euclid toward Broadway, back to our house on 8th, across from Tucson High School. To call the place we slept a “house” might be a generous description. Really, it was one half of a dilapidated duplex, different from a squatter’s shack only in name. The mere suggestion of shelter. There was something almost biblical—Jobian—about the conditions under which we lived. The windows were single-paned and cracked. Winter evenings blew freezing desert winds under the front door and through the structure’s three tiny rooms. Stifling summer days seeped through the windows like a fog, lingering long into the night. Cockroaches larger than human thumbs emerged from the drain in the kitchen sink and settled between our bedsheets, crawling over our legs as we slept. The front yard was constantly littered with trash the wind blew into our rows of prickly pear cactuses: empty potato chip bags and candy wrappers sticking to the needles like ornaments on a fucked up Christmas tree.
Will and I were too young to go out to bars, so we drank on our front porch, looking out onto the back entrance of the high school. Twice a day we sat and watched kids streaming in and out, like the ants that paraded in little black lines over our kitchen countertop. He chain-smoked American Spirits as I read one of the books from the stack that served as my bedside table, mentally underlining the metaphors each writer employed. A migraine headache, a lost diamondback terrapin, a monstrous child. I wanted to understand the meaning of things, the sweet plums and the red wheelbarrows. To pick the symbols out of daily life and write them in a way that felt like truth.
On my days off from school and work I’d pace back and forth through the doorways connecting the three rooms of our tiny abode—our three little boxcars—noting how the sun streaked across the linoleum floor in the kitchen and the number of steps it took to move from one end of the house to the other (forty-six). The furniture was all wrong. Our craigslist couch sat in the back room with the carpet where a bed was supposed to be. Our estate sale box spring and mattress was stationed in front of the fireplace in the room closest to our front porch. The kitchen was devoted not to cooking, but to the creation of music, our table covered with various machines Will had picked up at a pawn shop downtown: MIDI controllers, turntables, and speakers—their thick black wires permanently tangled like tails in a rat king.
“What do you think?” Will asked one afternoon, bare-chested and breathless in the heat. His broad shoulders glistened with sweat as he motioned to the machines spread out on the table before him, beckoning me closer with an excited wave of his hand. I ceased my pacing to press his damp headphone pads against my ears, to listen to the rhythm of the back beat, the screaming skip of warped vinyl, the tinny vocals laid over unlike track. To bop my head along at what I thought would seem like the right pace, as though I knew anything about the business of making music.
In our hot kitchen, Will’s beat blaring too loud in my ears, I watched a baby cockroach on the wall flatten its body and scoot into one of the lightning bolt cracks raining from the ceiling. I felt a sudden pang of panic, tight in my chest. I turned away from the wall to watch Will watching me listen to the unending cacophony of noise on more noise. It was loud. Uproarious, like the teenagers hollering across the street on their way home from school. The longer I listened to the track, the less sense it seemed to make. The beat was beyond me.
“It’s good,” I said, removing the headphones, shrugging the accumulated sweat from my ears onto my shirtsleeve.
“But how is it good?” he asked. “What did you like about it, specifically?” My mind froze, blank, as though his question was a test I hadn’t studied for.
“I don’t know,” I said, slowly. “I just thought it sounded good.”
“Whatever,” he huffed, his eyes rolling. He snatched the headphones from me, put them back over his own ears, instantly gone to the music.
I sighed, retreating from the kitchen to my writing desk. I scanned the near-empty room: our mattress, covered with a single stained sheet. An ever growing pile of dirty clothes strewn across the floor. The desk in front of me, an notebook open on top of it, the pencil in my hand. What big ideas could I find here, in these things. I felt paralyzed by their lack, almost dizzy from the repetitive, unrelenting MIDI noise drowning out what I hoped my professor might call “writerly” thoughts.
The February heat seeped through the thin glass of our windows as I sat at my writing desk, sweating it out in my underwear, pen once again poised over a blank sheet of paper, thinking circles around the one idea I couldn’t escape, wouldn’t dare to write: I didn’t know how to change a tire or unclog a toilet. I was incapable of eradicating the pests that scurried across our filthy floors. I couldn’t cook a decent meal or remember to wash the dishes every night or get the recycling out on time. I didn’t have the first clue what to buy when I walked into the grocery store, gaping down its gleaming domestic aisles like a goldfish. Our kitchen cabinets were forever empty. The fridge housed only cold ketchup packets and the six-packs Will’s dad occasionally brought over—Pabst or Steel Reserve. We lived like feral children, eating sheet cake with our bare hands and rinsing them clean in the sink, washing forks and spoons on an as-needed basis. The world seemed so full of tasks I didn’t know how to do and situations I was unequipped to deal with.
I sat at my desk in the heat and worried about getting enough to eat tomorrow and making next month’s rent and whether maybe, someday, I would write something worthwhile. I felt so overwhelmed by the thought of not being able to do these things that, often, I did nothing at all.
One March morning, I woke to find our ceiling moving in concentric circles. I twisted my neck around, reaching for my phone on the floor. The room spun like a slot machine, my eyes rolling to keep up. I abandoned the phone, attempting instead to stand up, to pull myself from bed, teetering. I stumbled to the bathroom, reaching the toilet just in time and heaving until there was nothing left. I rolled onto the carpet, exhausted. Slept there until my world slowed.
When I woke again, I don’t know how many hours later, Will was standing over my body, looking down at me with a blank, faraway expression. The afternoon light streamed in from a nearby window onto the gleaming, sinister gaze of the fox on his scalp.
“What’s wrong, are you sick?” he asked. I began to shake my head, but the dizziness was returning so I stopped, held it in place with my hands. Managed, weakly, “No.”
He stared down at me, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Pregnant?” he asked quietly.
“Don’t think so,” I said, closing my eyes again. I was still so tired. He brought me a glass of water, placing it on the bathroom tile near my head. I couldn’t look up at it without getting dizzy all over again. He went back in the kitchen to work on a new beat. Told me to shout if I needed anything. As his music flooded the room, I curled into myself, plugging my ears, closing my eyes tight. Wishing it would all just stop.
In the morning, while Will was still asleep, I studied the thirsty way the fox eyed the chicken. How the chicken seemed to understand that look, and knew to fear it. I wondered again what it meant. What it stood for. In life, as in the essay, every thing is symbolic of an idea. Why this tattoo, I thought. Why me here now. I knew the answer must be close, hidden in plain sight.
I thought about how some nights, when I came home from class, Will seemed out of breath, as though he’d just taken a lap around the duplex. There were too many beer bottles in the recycling bin. Long strands of hair in the shower that belonged to neither of us. Books of mine continually going missing from the pile next to our bed.
“I’m sure they’ll turn up,” Will always said, though they never did.
I watched the chicken’s feet kick as Will stirred from sleep, his forehead creasing in wakeful displeasure. He opened his eyes, blinked, then returned my gaze with a glare. “Why are you staring at me?” he asked coldly.
“I’m not staring,” I said. He rolled his eyes, rolled over in bed and took the sheets with him. I turned my head to the ceiling, blinking back the vertigo that followed. If I turned slowly enough and blinked fast enough, it was almost like I wasn’t dizzy. I sighed, wishing I could go backward, or forward, or something. Instead, I lay in bed, staring up at the patchy green paint on a ceiling so high it made me feel small, like a child.
One April night after class, I found an unfamiliar baseball cap lying abandoned near our front steps. I picked up the cap, turning it over in my hands under the porchlight. Its bill was bent upward so that the underside faced out. I knew it didn’t belong to Will, didn’t belong to me. I felt a quiet rage begin to build in my throat. I threw open the front door, tossed my backpack to the ground, kicked off my shoes.
“Who’s coming over here when I’m not home?” I demanded, holding up the cap.
“What?” Will called over the noise blaring from the speakers. I leaned into the doorway between the living room and the kitchen. Repeated myself, louder. The record skipped to silence. He turned to face me, his handsome features once again blank, innocent. “Nobody,” he said. “What makes you think that?”
“Don’t lie to me,” I said, folding my arms, cap tight against my chest.
“Okay, fine,” he said, eyeing the cap. “I had some guys over for a couple beers and to hear my new track.”
“Why try to hide that, then?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Didn’t want you to be mad,” he said, pulling another record off the shelf.
“Why would—” I began to ask, but my voice was already drowned out in the blare of the music, one noise now among so many others.
There were other problems. Will didn’t have a job. He didn’t go to school. He didn’t have a car and didn’t drive. He never bothered to clean the house, or take out the garbage, or do half of the things he said he was going to. The only thing I could count on was his presence in our kitchen, making fresh beats on his MIDI machines.
I snapped. I called him names. A deadbeat. A loser. Told him I didn’t fucking care about him or this house or anything else. He screamed. Punched dents in the thick plaster walls, blood spackling his L I F E knuckles. Grabbed me by the arms and shook me until I was so dizzy I could see bright stars circling the water stains on our ceiling.
“Don’t you fucking say that shit to me,” he spat through clenched teeth. “Don’t you ever fucking say that.” His grip left angry red welts, frustrated purple bruises that faded to green and then yellow in the days following our fight.
The next time we argued, and the time after that, and every time from then on, I fought back. We covered each other in every shade of bruise, and it became difficult for me to tell who was the chicken and who was the fox, what that metaphor was even supposed to mean.
One May evening, on the way home from my last writing class of the semester, I passed an old man lying on his back at a bus stop. The man might have been homeless, his long, scraggly white beard stained with weather and age. His coat was torn and ragged. Piles of smudged plastic grocery bags surrounded him, tied into a bundle together. The smell hit me first. A sweet, copper stench that hung low in the air. I could see the man’s eyelids fluttering in the corner of my vision, and what looked like a gash on the top of his head, exposing something pink and fleshy. Dark blood pooling on the sidewalk under him, trickling into the street. He moaned softly as I passed.
I kept walking, not fully comprehending what I’d seen until I crossed Euclid toward Tucson High School. That man needed help, I thought. I should go back and help him. I should go back. I knew that. I knew it. But I didn’t go back. I kept going. I went home.
In that last writing class, my professor had returned again to William Carlos Williams, the course ending—as all good essays should—with a nod to where it began. He read to us aloud from Paterson, that modern epic,
I closed my eyes as he read these lines, and pictured the faceless houses, not unlike the houses in my neighborhood, among a forest of Williams’ beleaguered trees, tangled and gnarled like the cacti growing in our front yard. For months, I had attempted to deconstruct the things in my own life—the tattoos, the music, the house—down to their most essential ideas. To write a personal essay worthy of the significance I knew each of them to secretly hold, and keep from me. All semester I had tried to write this essay, and I had failed. Like so many of the big questions in my life, their answers were beyond me—circling overhead, perpetually out of reach.
When I got back to the house, Will sat on our porch as usual, smoking, bopping his head along to his latest beat. I wanted to tell him about what I had seen—but what had I seen? I opened my mouth, but the words I needed to speak were lodged tight in my throat. The old man was dying. He needed help. We needed to go back and help him. Why couldn’t I say that?
I stammered incoherently through hiccups, tears rolling down my face and on to the chapped dirt of our front yard. My nose ran freely over my upper lip. I hurriedly wiped my face against my shirtsleeve. There wasn’t much time. I took a shaky breath. Tried again, my words trapped and stilted. “Th-the—” I began. “The m-man—”
Will stood up from his chair, cigarette hanging from his mouth. “What’s the matter, babe?” he asked. “Are you feeling sick, again?” I shook my head, immediately feeling dizzy. Will bowed his head as he came down the porch steps into the yard, and his tattoo was swirling, the fox chasing the chicken chasing the fox chasing the chicken on and on endlessly forever and suddenly I did feel very sick, just as Will had said. I staggered away from him, squeezing my eyes shut but the spinning wouldn’t stop. I needed to tell him about the old man, but none of it was making any sense now and Will’s voice was so sickeningly sweet, like the stench of blood baking against asphalt in the sun, and the smoke from his cigarette was billowing into my face and I couldn’t breathe. I opened my eyes to find myself on the ground, the prickly pears and their ornaments still spinning around me.
“Why don’t you come inside and lie down,” the fox said, pulling me up by the arm, guiding me up the stairs and into the darkness of the house. “Just lie down and sleep.”