The story of fathers has always been the story of desires.
It is always that next splendid city on the horizon whose shores shine with the glitter of women and money. It is always that sweet sweet perfume that is only sweet once. It is the charms of that city, that dear loved city, that draws me into its death. Like a father’s last words. It is that space that where I seek my own face: This arena of darkness and light. A glittering symphony that really does shine and shine, and sings to your youth.
God had built a temple and had welcomed me there. I was small but happy. Loved.
Did I love back? Was that small inclination to love the same as active loving?
God had built a temple on the hill and welcomed me. But I was not happy. I could never love enough.
Youth was free from concerns of infrastructure. A magic force made it all happen, anyway. I never thought too much about the smell of it all. Smells are to be covered up. Ignored. Sweetened. It is even more amazing now: The way that we are connected. Not by light cords dangling from the sky, but through the deeper channels, carrying fragments along with them in their pull.
It always called during sleep, when hesitant and weary. It is what can only be in the next city.
The last time I pursued it, it left a wound like a tattoo that did not heal right. It blisters and peels, its colors are never right. Not the way it looked when I was young.
The city’s currents visit me and I join with them. It is impossible to ignore the stench, it engulfs my senses. Somewhere in it is my own identity but I refuse, to acknowledge it as my own.
It is a city like no other. It houses all of our parents and their parents in a great procession. A harmony of family ties. The sweeping of a hand indicates it is there for the taking. Its infrastructure forms the deep roots of veins.
Reclaiming a lost city is a sacred task. It requires the courage of a god to love only what is here.
So I told him a lie that grew to be its own great city with towering heights and dizzying tunnels. It is scentless, I tell myself, it is scentless.
He was my father and at the time I lacked the courage to tell him it has been lost. I tried prayer, meditation, tattoos: an Om, a cross, and Saint Michael.
My father is a hunter in everything he pursues: Cunning and merciless.
Watch and learn, he tells me and flirts with the waitress, the cashier at the pet store, the clerk at the bookstore. It isn’t so hard. He says. Now, what’s wrong with that one? And to them he would say, my son here is shy, you understand?
My father’s desires are still strong. His dreams form a solid infrastructure and they carry bits of his past and his hopes along with them, caught up in their pull.
The heroes I remember reading about were those who knew the most about pleasure. They kept pleasure secure, bound up in their lives, like a mother holds her newborn close wrapped, in its swaddling.
Pleasure never leaves the heroes: It is always ready at their side. When their pleasure is taken from them, they launch their thousand ships headlong into the unknown. They spill over with enjoyment. They go mad in the chase and lose themselves to their own sword. It no longer becomes a story of right and wrong or even of fulfillment. Always, it pours over into lecherous indulgence. Satisfaction remains in the next city.
I resolved: I want to explore the world with sex on my mind.
My first time was just to see how it might feel on my skin. The first time: The black Om on my right forearm.
I went in to the city like I had been there a hundred times before, but actually not having any idea where the dark streets led off to. So many desires pressed tightly together and the intertwining avenues linking each to the other. My heart raced.
The girl at the reception counter was thin as the tip of a needle, but covered over in the most beautiful ink I’d ever seen. Her slight chest was alive with ruby red and terrible greens, the complete picture, whatever it was, disappeared underneath her bright red tank top and emerging again at her naval in a dark blue. Down her arms were peacock fans and violet pedals, on each of her shoulder blades was holstered a smoking six-shooter and between them the Greek word Agape.
Justun, was tattooed on his hand and that was the name he went by. The Virgin Mary was depicted on his body at least five times. A large cross stretched across his back starting at the middle of his neck, and then there were countless other crosses done in free-hand everywhere on his body, as though it were just something he did between customers. The Sacred Heart was placed over his own, wrapped in a crown of thorns. On his left arm was an infant’s face in light blue ink with the name Taylor and the date 5.17.08.
Justun tells me his own story while he sets out to work. His life is beautiful. His life is devotion and faith. Years of homelessness and hunger. Many more years of trials. Unpaid months spent at tattoo parlors. He lives in every city that I can think to ask, if only for a week. Always, he is praying, and always he believes he is provided for. His life, his work, his faith, his love, it is all there for the world to see in every one of his tattoos.
His voice is soft and compassionate, full of sincerity and a love that I had forgotten since those days in God’s church. I do not feel the burning or the scratching at all. When it is over, the Om is completeness, is wholeness, it reflects the calm but passionate skill of the artist. I leave the city.
My father frowns, shakes his head, is unsure. Om? He asks, confused. And I tell him it is God and it is peace. And he asks me to go to church with him the next Sunday, and no doubt he must be afraid because something is escaping him.
Before long, though, my father is trying to sell me on more desires. He has found a waitress with piercings on lip, nose, and tongue. He flirts for some time between drinks, while inserting my son here just got a tattoo, in a not so casual way before finally asking her, Did you do it to make your father upset? And she says that there was no need. She had done that already, long ago.
Now my bed is too full of books to be of any practical use. Its sensuality is nullified. It sits squat, numb and dead. Its sheets are scentless. Disgraceful.
But that does not get me where I want to be, that study of ethics.
Identity can be summed up by a great confusion perpetuated by a loss of faith, I write in a notebook, at the end of a poem.
I pray I could return to the Temple again. To being small. To look for love only in that other city, in those other starry lights.
At the city, again, I return to meet with Justun, for another tattoo: a Celtic cross. The girl at the reception desk is new, she has no tattoos. She talks to her boyfriend about choosing her first one.
This time Justun works silently, in greater concentration. This tattoo, unlike the Om, is in color, green and gold. The shading hurts. The burning gets more intense as he works on. It feels like he’s scraping into my forearm with a fire poker. Here is one for the Irish and the Catholic in me, I think over again.
Justun is almost finished when he says, sometimes, I find myself asking God how I might end my work. I have always found myself to be the one chaining together yearning and hope in small pictures on flesh. It is courage that connects each link. He is finishing with the Celtic knot in the middle of the cross.
The terrible strain of courage when at last I face the reality of what I am and am not: Of those things that were a dream and a myth, those that are told to give us breath. Now I have to exhale and have the courage to inhale again, having the courage that my lungs are enough to complete the act. To breathe to have strength.