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. O