Lately, I’ve found that the only time I have to hit the gym is after 11:00 PM. Yeah, I know. Trust me – it’s not that I love it so much; it comes down to discipline (OK, and probably a little OCD). But there I was, out in the middle of another frigid night, trying to get it done.
Now, no matter what anyone may tell you or how they may lie to themselves, people at the gym check each other out. And I don’t mean that you are necessarily ogling lecherously. I mean that anyone who is even marginally serious about working out can’t help but try to sneak surreptitious glances around the place, to see if someone else has better shoulders or back or arms, and if they do, whether they might be doing some sort of magical exercise that is going to make you look like that, too.
Near where I was lifting was a man who was hard not to notice: a huge black man, veins bulging, drenched in sweat, making animalistic noises as he pulled the cables downward at his sides, like Samson pulling down the amphitheater. But what was almost impossible to avoid staring at was the fact that every visible inch of his skin was covered with tattoos. It was difficult to really make out where one image ended and another began, or what they even were; but what was certain was that he was one scary-looking dude. You could just imagine his having recently been in prison where he was the alpha male among the inmates, demanding unquestioned submission.
What I am about to say next will come as a shock to many – not least of whom will likely be my mother (though she herself, Baptist upbringing though she had, now sports a back tattoo the size of which would earn her respect in even the toughest biker crowd). Nonetheless, while I have no tattoos and could not ever have even imagined myself wanting them, I have actually begun recently to do some real research with the intention of perhaps really getting one. A big one.
Up until now in life, whenever someone has asked why I don’t have any tattoos, I have told them about women I know who got tattoos when they were young – a rose on a once-firm bosom which has now wilted quite sadly in time’s bitter garden; or a unicorn that is currently looking more like a naked mole rat. And beyond the cruelties of time, I just know myself enough to know that, no matter what I got, I’d wake up the next morning and my blood pressure would spike as the realization hit me: I can never get rid of this! And that is all I would be able to think about, and I would never sleep again, and I would surely die.
Maybe I’m mellowing, but as I say, of late, I’ve been thinking about getting one. I think the key would be not to go small, but to go with something so BIG that it would be futile to ever wish I hadn’t done it – to really commit. And maybe if I drew the art myself, I would accept it as a permanent part of my being.
With these new thoughts rattling around, I decided that rather than stare at the large grunting man at the cables, I would take a risk and ask him about his work. So I waited for him to finish a set and then approached him, as he bent over with his hands on his knees, panting and dripping onto the rubberized mats. He looked up, and from the position he was in, his eyes looked like he really wanted to punch me for getting all up in his space.
But instead, he pulled his earphones out, stood, and gave me a friendly chin thrust that I’ve come to learn is bro-talk at the gym for, “What’s up?” I took this cue in stride, chin-nodded back, and said, “Hey, I’m Erik. I’ve been thinking lately about getting a tattoo. You seem like you would be the expert! By the way, I have to ask – how many hours total would you say it’s taken you so far to get all of this work done?” My eyes scanned around now, trying to get a real look at what “all of this work” really meant. It was truly fascinating.
He introduced himself. Nathaniel. He turned his left arm toward me and pointed to a central tattoo on the outside of the bicep, one larger than the jungle of others that framed it. “This was my first,” Nathaniel explained sounding surprisingly reflective and gentle all of a sudden. I could now see that the tattoo was of a young woman, smiling. “My fiancée. She died suddenly a couple of weeks before our wedding. That was almost two years ago.” He paused. I could see that two years had not healed the wounds. “I only intended to get that one,” he went on. “But after she died, I added another,” he pointed toward his shoulder, “of something that was special to her – or to us. And then I just kept going back, adding more memories of us. I guess when I’m in that chair, feeling the pain of adding more memories, it’s the only time I don’t feel the pain of missing her.”
I expressed my sincere sorrow for his loss. And we talked a bit more. But the important thing right now is that, here again, when I’d taken the risk of talking to a “scary stranger,” I found that he was just another real guy like me, who experienced love and loss and struggles. He had a story. In fact, far from his tattoos being some gang-related statement of anger and hatred, his whole body was a story – a story of love and pain and trying to move on as best he knew how.
As you go about your life, passing by the real people around you, I hope Nathaniel’s story reminds you to take some risks, to engage with the world, and to withhold judgement. Everyone has a story to tell, a perspective that is uniquely their own. Don’t miss opportunities to hear – and share – those stories.