Tattoo Memory — Summer of ‘91
A tattoo memory is the kind that stays imprinted on the soul. It is a mysterious marvel how a mere few hours, or days, over the course of an entire lifetime can stay so close to the heart.
In 1991, my best friend, Steven, left California to spend three weeks with me during a humid Iowa summer. Before my family moved to the Midwest to be part of a Transcendental Meditation (TM) commune, we lived among the idyllic farm country of Sonoma County. It’s there that Steven and I cemented our bond over G.I. Joe action figures and ninja movies. Our parents hit it off, too, devoting most Friday evenings to dungeness crab and Dallas. Conveniently, Steven’s older sister, Denise, was joined at the hip with my older sister, Becki, so she made the trip too. Our sisters were about to start high school, and Becki had already garnered the attention of boys with cars. They were hearty farm lads; clad in black and orange letter jackets that displayed varsity patches and clothespins, the latter symbolic of their wrestling conquests. I heard stories that some of the lads drank beer and fought at parties in cornfields. I felt uneasy when they were around.
Dad yelled, as Becki and Denise left the house, “No seniors!”
MTV played videos back then. Bryan Adams and Paula Abdul competed for attention against harder acts, like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. I had a Def Leppard tape permanently stuck in my stereo. Becki had cute friends, and Steven and I took every opportunity to spy as they readied themselves with fragrant streams of Aqua Net. At thirteen, we were discovering girls. And masturbation. Steven hinted at it first. A comment I don’t fully remember. Then I shared a magazine that I bought with lawnmowing money; it was from the older brother of a friend. A thief. After scouring its pages, we rode bikes to a nearby market. Steven distracted the clerk, as I reached my long, sticklike arms to the top row of a shelf. As best I could, I discretely slid the Hustler between a thick newspaper. When I went to pay for it, the old woman picked up the phone and said she was calling the cops. We ran until our lungs hurt.
Our town of less than ten thousand made it easy to walk most places. Some of the boys with cars chased us, hurling insults and threatening violence. We ran some more with broken breaths; between alleys, eventually killing time at the local gas station where we ate cheap candy and dropped swaths of quarters into Street Fighter II.
My parents drove us across the state line into Missouri to buy fireworks. Each evening, between scratching mosquito bites, we lit a few, making dares on the ones with the short fuses. We eventually culminated our display with a grand finale that attracted a police car, and a foot chase. Steven did his best to push away thoughts of a phone call back home to his own father, also a cop. But I saw the tears. And the shaking. Thankfully, we won that battle that night.
Three weeks. Twenty-one days. But I can picture each moment. Not a second wasted. I cried for a couple nights after they left. I had good friends, but the potency of that visit lingered unexplainably. The following summer, Becki and I flew to California for three weeks. It was busier, and there was an edge of some kind. There was a mall with elaborate videogames and gangs in it. I swapped Def Leppard for NWA and Cypress Hill. Steven’s parents took us to Lake Tahoe to a cabin. His father confided a story about Vietnam, as we walked among the aromatic pines. The day before we left for Tahoe, I pushed away the dryness in my throat, squeaking out a favor from a stranger to purchase two magazines for us. He smiled and obliged. I hid them in my duffel.
Then Steven and I lost touch. Immersed in the wild pendulum of adolescence, and determined to fulfill our own hero’s journey, a new arc came calling. This path we faced alone. Long before cell phones and email, the old fashioned art of letter writing didn’t bode well for young men. Months went by, then years. Then silence. My sister stayed in touch with Denise. Facebook friends. Periodically there were pictures of Steven and his wife, along with their daughters. Mutterings of him working in the parts department of a large car dealership. I knew where it was. There was a Toys R Us across the street where we bought our G.I. Joes.
In late 2019, I returned from my travels in Southeast Asia, where I studied martial arts and trekked in the high mountains for nearly a year. Still attached to ninjas. I flew from Asia to California to see some family, before heading home to Iowa. The day before I flew home, my rental car mysteriously hovered near the dealership where Steven worked. I can’t say for certain what prompted it. Maybe I wanted to say hello. Maybe I wanted to thank him in some undefinable way, for the role he played in creating a period of magic. And I wanted to pay my respects for his mother, who died from cancer a few years earlier. It was his day off. A smiley salesman confided that Steven was at home. A faint smell of gunpowder from the fireworks hovered in the showroom, before dissipating into the unknown space of time and grief. I smiled back to the salesman, but I missed my old friend. I missed that summer, and the innocence of the times. A tattoo memory.