Telling: Tattoos, a Map for Remembering

I haven’t wanted to write in a long time. Probably since 2009. And I mean the kind of soul-deep writing that in order to stop thinking about how much I need to write, I actually sit down to write.

So, I’m writing.

I cannot tell you how many people have scolded or ridiculed me about “tattoos” or “how many more tattoos” since the first tattoo I ever got. It was always, “You’re so beautiful, why would you do that to your body?” or “Aren’t you afraid of getting a disease?” or “How can you stand the pain?” …

I don’t consider my tattoos as “self-graffiti”.

Getting tattoos is an extremely personal journey, although it has become somewhat “trendy”. It’s not like I see my body as this existential canvas or anything. Yes, you can say it has a lot to do with self-expression and personal freedom, two ideas that I hold great conviction in … perhaps, it’s an emotional/branding response to the events in my life, or sometimes the result of an impulsive decision … really, it’s more about the feeling.

Johnny Depp said, “My body is my journal and my tattoos are my story.”

Not that I refer to Johnny Depp very often but I can get down with the notion that maybe my body is my personal narrative.

Tattoos leave behind traces of things, reminders, moments, stories. Some of the tattoos communicate things my voice can’t. And others, remind me in other ways.

Let’s visualize together.

There’s always this rush of nervous anticipation mixed with slight exhilaration as you sit in the chair watching the tattoo artist set up the tiny cups of color, vaseline, and antiseptic. Your heart races as he steps on the pedal to “test” the needles. It’s at this moment I gesture at the tattoo artist with a nod, like “atta boy”! As if I’m proud of his expertise in ensuring the tools and equipment so I won’t die or something. Ridiculous.

Imagine a needle piercing your skin a thousand times per minute. Most sessions you have to hydrate with a 64 oz of Sunny D or Gatorade just to get through, but the burning sensation as your blood discharges from your pores makes you feel safe. Seems oxymoronic, right?

Although the tattoo needle doesn’t penetrate the skin that much, the metallic dragging across the contours of your skin coupled with overpowering vibration (which is probably a pretty accurate description), it’s a unbearable kind of pain you sustain to reach the end goal.

Most of the time, I try to focus on my breathing. Sometimes, I go into the dark well of my past (as I have nothing better to do for a few hours) and I am reminded why.

This is not original: the pain reminds me that I’m alive.

I’m sure you’ve heard a song with that lyric, or have seen a relative Pinterest quote, or one of your millennial friends used it as a status recently.

In all seriousness, because I have to take these marks with me to the grave let me tell you what the pang of that needle does for me. I rather you hear it from me.

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The pain reminds me of … 

for ninja turtles, ghostbusters, legos, and the best of the 80s and 90s

for thinking you knew everything when you were younger, for always having the answers

carving your name and hateful words into your parents’ furniture when your mom first got sick

your father teaching you how to dial 9-1-1; finding your mother on a winter morning having a stroke when you were 8 and your dad was working at the firehouse

Mr. Joseph, your grade school music teacher who killed himself because he was gay – it was the first time your heart really broke; he taught you how to play the piano

your first dog

for punching that girl in the face at your 13th birthday party sleepover; she deserved it

the first time you took the N-train from 11th avenue and you snuck into Manhattan with your friends

listening to Eminem as a teenager and channeling your inner “Rabbit” with a composition notebook full of poems and raps, that you threw out in a neighbor’s garbage pail on 58th Street – because you thought it would make things change

that time your dance class went on stage without you at the recital, and your older cousin held you in her arms as you wept in the wings, then she told you to pull yourself together and get out there; #ganstasparadise

ballet barre warmups and your crazy dance-teacher’s obsession with Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”

being bullied

bullying others

for cheating on that Social Studies test in the 8th Grade, and getting caught; your teacher allowed me to retake the test – you scored better when you didn’t cheat

playing hide and seek, or manhunt under cars on the dirty streets of Borough Park

wiffle ball and handball 

sitting on Brooklyn stoops

Windsor Terrace

West 11th Street

the silly gang you were in, in high school – “Crazy Bitches of Brooklyn”

your father coming home from 9/11

tests, college applications, life decisions

random summer road trips to Wawa in Marlboro, New Jersey just to drive with the windows down, with Jimmy Eat World blasting, and trying to pretend you knew how to smoke a cigarette

versions of  your “self”, old and new

meaning making

how people showed hatred towards you

your first drink at the baseball field near the Egg Cream in Park Slope, the warm foamy sip of Budweiser from that random blonde, long-haired 23 year old guy who sat on the concrete against the fence, just as shocked as you were … yeah, you showed him

Peggy O’Neill’s


college parties

the feeling of believing in someone for the first time

laying down in the middle of an Upstate road, after a night full of drinking, waiting for the sun to come up

the warm, orange hues of the bar lights after midnight

the first time you realized you were gay

the first time you went to Catty Shack


how being numb felt so good, comfortable


Black & Milds

the fibers and threads of my old bedroom carpeting in Brooklyn, how it would rough up against my legs while you sat in the dark, on the floor of your closet

that time you blacked-out when you visited my friend away at college, and didn’t cause it

the lapses in memory

the judgment

not knowing

the need to go into the dark

never telling people where you really were

the times you would envision a life you wanted but didn’t know how to get it

the disappointed looks

fleeting self-revelations

riding the M or D train home from my job in Manhattan, listening to your iPod, blasting the music to tune out the sounds of the train cruising through those underground caverns 

losing control

purposefully failing the run test for the NYPD after writing that essay in that non-fiction writing class, with the weird teacher who loved the song by Imogen Heap “Hide and Seek” – somehow, through writing you realized that lifestyle wasn’t for you

the nauseating flavor of Seagram’s whiskey and how it coats your esophagus like bad syrup

trying to cut your wrists with your house keys … but, not really wanting to die

the “What’s wrong with you?” ‘s

the dark eyeshadow, heavy mascara, and thick pattern of your eyeliner

standing in the corner of a lesbian bar, waiting … alone

the pawn shop

not knowing the difference between the truth and lies

every overused alibi

the sticky bar floors

hiding out in the shadows

not having any reason to not drink

that time you were passed out at the bar in the Village, when you got robbed while being totally unaware that your entire family and friends were trying to find you

the way the smooth, brown glass beer bottle would rest against your bottom lip … the way the heat would escape from your mouth and join the condensation rising from the chilled ale

the taste of Marlboro menthol cigarettes

the way the sunrise looks from South Beach

feeling trapped

the salted rim of a “margarita on the rocks”

getting called a “dyke”

the first time you kissed a girl

wearing bootcut jeans, a strong belt, and motorcycle-like boots

thumb rings

for the lurking shadows of fear

getting sand in my shoes

that time you crashed into the deli store front

for getting nicknamed “Crash”

or, maybe … that time you put your hands on one of your friends, you were thrown out of the bar, knowing in that moment you couldn’t live like this … so you took the wheel of your Jeep and turned it into the guardrail of the Gowanus

getting cut out of the car by the Jaws of Life

the fogged vision of ambulance lights, the echo of sirens, and the plastic of the oxygen mask against your face – the firefighter telling you were lucky to be alive

being lucky, to still be alive

all those times you said, “I’m fine.”

the slow dread of despair

people reminding you how strong you are

and some who stopped believing in you

that creative writing class in 2009

the “She’s probably dead in a ditch somewhere”

sitting alone in the holding cell in Central Bookings, crying your eyes out because you don’t know how things got this bad, the loss of freedom, that every time the officer walked by you hoped the next time she jingled the keys your name would be called

making 1-800 collect calls from jail begging people to get you out, that you didn’t belong there

how maybe losing your freedom for 24 hours would be the end of the road for you

that after 100 days of not drinking, you rewarded yourself with a drink

being the greatest patron

for apologizing, really meaning it, but not being able to change

what it’s like to fight inner demons

accepting the likelihood of never making it to 30

for not being able to look in the mirror

those 9 months of your life that brought you to the bitter depths of rock bottom

lines of cocaine on a mirror, car key, credit card, or on that random person’s glass table in Tribeca, who you never saw again

going to places you said you would never go, and doing things you said you would never do

being messy

and sometimes, being mean

because you didn’t know you were an alcoholic, that you had a disease

the need to fight for yourself

how admitting you needed help was the hardest thing you would ever do

trembling hands

scars – not the melodramatic ones, actual, physical scars

New York City, the city that never sleeps, literally

. . .

that on November 12th, 2011 – I finally asked for help, I surrendered

my first sponsor who saved me from the scrap heap, and her filthy truck

Lifehouse’s “Storm”

for losing everything I thought I needed

for getting kicked out of my parents’ house at 25, because they were tired of putting up with my broken promises … and renting a room from a friend for $400 a month

surviving off ramen and Kraft’s Mac & Cheese

for finding sanctuary

falling in love with Francine

the way she believes in God, in peace, in love

that I think I found a God who loves me … for me

for “like Pi” and “like a repeating decimal”

the smell of church basements

that sometimes, I still have to look back

that the past cannot be unwritten

knowing where I’ve stood

being there as my grandfather took his last breath

for crying at take-off, every time I fly

praying and meditating, and being open to spirituality

finally being comfortable to dress however I want

always wanting to help others, and finally knowing how I can

that sometimes, I still feel lonely

that sometimes, I still like to lie in the darkness

knowing that I can never go back

feeling my bloodstream pulsate and throb

that I’m still growing

for laughing

for getting to swim in a river during a rain storm in Lackawaxen, PA

for parasailing

believing in angels, Augie, Grandpa Warren, Grandpa Beep Beep, Aunt Mary …

always finding signs

being reminded to be grateful

marrying my best friend

for forgiveness

for moving forward 

to have a full life

for my friends

for my family, my parents …

for being an educator, a writer, a thinker

for every student that ever came into my life

every teacher I have ever had

my mentors

for working hard to earn 3 degrees and working on another 

the gift of sobriety

not giving up

for being close to 33

for lyrics that tell my story

“Voices from Rock Bottom”

still making tons of mistakes

leaving footprints

knowing how important it is to tell my story


I’ve been told that I have to keep telling, to keep writing, to keep sharing because I get to keep living.

Over 20 tattoos later, pain of a tattoo has nothing on that.

I remember.


“Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.”
[Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games]