A few days ago, a man named Rob hung himself. I met Rob only once – the day he gave me my first tattoo.
Here’s the background: as a result of my legal status (a subject for another day), I’d never left the U.S. since I first arrived when I was seven years old. I was all set to change that – I was leaving soon to backpack through Europe indefinitely. This felt like a major transition in my life, and I wanted to mark it with my first tattoo. I thought for a long time about what the tattoo should be. For a while, I’d settled on Escher’s “Drawing Hands.” It represented, for me, the notion that we create ourselves. But, I soon thought: if that’s the idea I want to mark on my body, then I should do it with an image that is actually my own creation. And so I decided on a doodle I once drew on a piece of receipt paper while working at a restaurant – a piece I’d titled “Love.” I have a huge collection of “restaurant doodles” from my server days, and “Love” has always been my favorite.
My best friend Dan had a friend named Rob. Rob was his best friend throughout his teenage years. They’d fallen out of touch, but, as I remember now, they’d recently reconnected. As I had no money to pay a professional tattoo artist, and Dan assured me Rob was pretty good, I decided to ask Rob to tattoo me. Caution to the wind was a big thing for me at the time. So we trecked out to Rob’s place in the middle of Long Island.
There are some people that I immediately feel connected to. I don’t need to know much about them – there is just something about the way they carry themselves that brings out a simple kind of trust in me. Rob was such a person. I never spoke to Rob again after that day, but I walked away with the impression that he was more than just a “nice guy” – he was someone who’s disposition I appreciated, for no reason I could ascertain.
There is one thing he did for me that was special. This was my first tattoo. I was shy. I knew my doodle was kind of silly – I felt a little embarrassed about how aggressively non-traditional it was as a tattoo. I’d already decided I wanted it smack in the middle of my chest. A dramatic gesture I felt even more ashamed of. But I hadn’t decided how big I wanted it, and with all this shame I had about the whole thing, my inclination was that perhaps it shouldn’t be too big. But when Rob asked how big I wanted it and saw me hesitate, he saw right through me – he knew I wanted it big even if I was too ashamed to admit it. He suggested it for me, and as soon as he did, it became okay for me. I suppose anyone else might have tattooed this doodle on me – but I can thank Rob’s intuition in that moment for the fact that it takes up most of my chest.
Anyone who’s ever gotten a tattoo knows it’s an incredibly intimate process. The patience, the pain, the trust, the proximity. Smelling his hair as he focused his face down on my chest, from which blood began to trickle out.
And then that was that. He charged me $40. I gave him $60. A tattoo of this size should cost hundreds, so I was happy.
Fast forward to just a few days ago – over four years after the tattooing – and I see a text from Dan letting me know that Rob’s committed suicide. My immediate reaction was to grasp my hand to my chest. It wasn’t an intentional salute. It was instinct. It was a reaching out to him.
Suicide is a subject close to my heart. I have some macabre fascination with it. I have at the worst of times contemplated it. I have also – even during the best of times – thought I would surely do it someday, if only to take charge of my way out. I have glorified it and argued for it as an artistic/philosophical exercise.
Even now, I don’t think I view it quite the way most people do. If you don’t like being here, then it may make sense to leave. Especially if – as I’ve since gathered was the case with Rob – you’ve tried many times to improve life only to find yourself still suffering unbearably. It might be the rational move at some point to bow out.
And yet. I imagine what it must be like to get to the point where you actually go through with it. How much self-loathing must be involved. He must have thought himself worthless.
But I know what he gave me. I know what it means to me look down at my chest – or see myself in the mirror – and see his gift to me every day. It’s not just a tattoo. It’s a part of myself I deeply identify with. I’m proud of it.
I accept Rob’s decision to leave. I only wish he’d known contributing to the world could be as simple as what he did for me. And that knowing that could have made a difference.