The Heart of Darkness
He was young, the man sitting beside me on flight 821, perhaps 20, an awkward age, neither here nor there, confusing and perilous. This particular specimen was covered with piercings and tattoos. I do not use the word covered loosely. He dripped metal, shards of shrapnel hanging from eyebrows and nose and cheeks and lips. Kissing him would require true love or a gun to the head.
Black tear drops fell from his eyes – a sign of what? – sadness, incompletion, insanity. The arms and hands – each knuckle a different letter, impossible to read because he talked with them to the young woman beside him who had managed to Zulu her ears.* In addition to this distortion she too had a fair amount of tats, particularly around the neck. In all other ways she seemed as normal as most serial killers. There were snakes and exotic flowers and vines twisting round and round the boyfriend’s arms, a heart or two, a woman’s face, a hand. Jesus lord, none of it made any sense. The powerlessness of addiction can be a frightening thing to behold, particularly if you have a limited amount of space, i.e. having only the one body to work your stuff out on. Enter Zulu — a blank canvas of a co-dependent, a giggler of all things, light to his dark, joy to his confusion.
The guy’s graffiti was more like a swarm than a masterpiece. I could see little cohesion in the mishmash of images and words, but the globs of green and the snake and the vines indicated a Heart of Darkness theme. If he were a wall or a subway car, he would be close to the limit. I wondered what lay beneath his jeans, his black t-shirt. No underwear, I was sure. He was tall, thin, not particularly well built, even a bit gawky.
For a while, I lost skin contact when he started snuggling with Zulu. He had that gruff sort of male sarcasm young men fall into when they are feeling awkward. Joke love. Oddly sweet. Human. Who is this guy, I think, returning to the safety of the Kindle where words know their place. What would I write on myself. What image is important enough to surrender a piece my flesh to.
Strange phrases emerge conversations: A duck landed on the pool, I got sunburned at that funeral, Great report card, Happy Birthday, Ticket to Ride, One Day At A Time, The Silence Between The Notes. Would I like a butterfly at the tip of my spine, a parrot on the back of my neck, a son’s name on each ankle? Shall I name my husbands, list them in small letters on an upper thigh with start and end dates. But more than the WHAT is the WHY? Why do people tattoo themselves? For attention? For Identity? For a Cause? For Love? Rage? Fear?
It was difficult to concentrate on Elizabeth Strout’s new novel with all the action going on beside me. I managed a page or two and then a woman, younger than me but still old, with that crimped gray permed hair thing going on, overweight, in a yellow t-shirt.
“How are you two doing on the custom forms?”
The couple emerged from their huddle.
“Okay,” the girl said merrily. Yes, merrily. Sorry, but this Zulu girl was one happy, merry stretched lobe sort of kid.
“Sure you don’t need any help?”
“We’re good mom,” he says.
“Okay, Dad and I are back there if you need us.”
“My soon to be mother in law,” he says to me. “We are going to Vallarta to check it out for our honeymoon.”
Flight Zone Mode has been pierced. The door is open. I step through.
“It is a great place for a honeymoon,” I say. “Very romantic.”
“My first time out of the country,” he says. “I’m nervous. All that drug stuff going on.”
“Perfectly safe where we’re going,” I say, and explain about the cartels killing each other off in places to the north and south of Vallarta.
“Yeah, but look at me.”
And this is the first time I do look at him full face, full body, neck, arms, hands, face, knuckles, fingers, ears, the whole disaster of him
“You’ll be fine,” I say, knowing if I was a customs agent, I would drag him off to the nearest holding cell.
“You think? I mean they might think I have drugs.”
“They are not worried about you bringing drugs in,” I explain. “They are looking for things they can put duty on, like electronics you might try to see, or fruits and vegetables. They’re very concerned about fruits and vegetables for some reason. I was pulled to the side once because of a black banana I’d forgotten to eat. You have any of that stuffed in your luggage.”
“Then you’re good to go.
The three of us, begin to chat. They sound eerily normally compared to how they look. He — no surprise — is a tattoo artist by trade and she is his best customer, his muse-model.
As we are landing, his one hand holding hers, his other gripping the armrest (“I hate flying”), I see a short line of print at the edge of his t-shirt sleeve:
You can see me there in a pair of khakis with my flip flops off, a loose blue blouse, no makeup – plane-weary and wrinkled and suddenly aware of all that I do not know. Some flights are better than others.
*Earlobe stretching or ear gouging as well as implanting horns on your head and hanging by hooks in your flesh from great heights are both extensions of tattooing — a darker attempt at pushing the edge of identity. A sacrifice of self to become more defined. For more inform, check out How To Stretch an Ear Lobe in 8 simple steps on WikiHow.