“In truth, I’ve always felt uneasy in my relationship to…
Grasping at Grace
When I open the door of my father’s truck, all I smell is hot banana. His Ford stays ripe with carpentry odors—sweat, sawdust—but he always has at least one brown banana on the dash, roasting in the Maine sun. I hold my breath as I scoot into the middle of the bench seat, arranging the belt across my lap, pretending to buckle my nine-year-old frame into the narrow center spot. My little brother Owen, still short and chubby at seven, steps onto the truck’s diamond-plate running board, grasps hold of the armrest, and hauls himself inside.
My lungs beg for fresh air. “Dad, can you open the window?” I croak.
My father—whom I call Choad, like his friends do— complies, cranking the window open with his left hand while roaring the engine to life with his right. The cassette in the tape deck clicks into gear, flooding the cab with bewitching syncopation, over which Paul Simon sings: “The poor boy changes clothes and puts on aftershave, to compensate for his ordinary shoes.” Owen leans over, red-faced and triumphant after his ascent to the favored seat by the window, and yanks the heavy door toward him to latch.
Before Simon can mention those diamond-studded soles, Choad is already harmonizing, slipping into an ooo-ooo-ooo falsetto alongside Simon for the chorus. As Choad croons, he buckles his seatbelt and looks over at us, his two unintentionally itinerant children, giving a quick glance to be sure we are belted and ready. He smiles his pumpkin grin and gives a little shake of the shoulders to signal that he is slipping into full vehicular boogie, with his flying fingers making a drum set of the dashboard and his rich voice catching every dip and flip of Simon’s lyric rhythm. If the romantic incongruity in this song reminds Choad of my mother—or of that glorious lost monstrosity of a home built with his sweat and her money—he is hiding his pain like a master.
I am too young to match the rich girl and the poor boy in Simon’s song with the complicated landscape of wealth and want that fractured my own parents’ love, and our original family. Instead, I pray for a breeze to cut the thick aroma of banana as I squeeze my knees tight to the right to avoid the gearshift. Choad breaks his percussive rhythm just long enough to nudge the truck into first and we begin to roll.
Graceland is music for the road. Released just a year after my birth, Paul Simon’s 1986 album, more than any other, has carried me from place to place. The title song urges the listener to get moving: even before the sincerity of Simon’s vocals spill onto the track, the rolling drumbeat doubles as wheels on pavement, conjures the urgent rotation of guardrail spokes spinning past the window. In a recording created for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Graceland, Simon acknowledged this, saying: “The drums were something like— kind of a traveling rhythm in country music; I’m a big Sun Records fan, and early-’50s, mid-’50s Sun Records you hear that drum beat a lot, like a fast, Johnny Cash-type of rhythm.”Rolling Stone credited Simon with crafting “a finely wrought personal reflection on lost love.” Graceland soon became the soundtrack of my life.
Paul Simon’s songwriting skill is no secret. Rolling Stone ranks him at number eight on their “100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time” list. I would probably inch him up a few notches, given Simon’s ability to build the bones of a rich story in such few words while weaving “wit and literary detail” into the seamless telling. As he expressed to Village Voice contributor Robert Christgau: “I’m a relationship writer, relationships and introspection.” Nowhere is this more apparent than on Graceland, and in the song “Graceland” itself.
In this song, Simon shares from the perspective of an undeniably imperfect, road-worn narrator who hauls his nine-year-old along with him, heartened by the hope that he—that they—will find life’s answers in Elvis’s hallowed Memphis home. Of “Graceland,” commonly understood to be Simon’s favorite song, not only from the album of the same name but of his sixty-plus-year career, the songwriter notes: “The track has a beautiful emptiness to it.” The song also exemplifies Simon’s hallmark mix of deeply sincere storytelling and emotive, lively language. On the album Graceland—which is notable both in its prominence within the musical canon and as a point of transition in Simon’s career—the songwriter broadens the tradition of collaborative creation for which he was already known.
The early 1980s were hard on Simon. Two key relationships had disintegrated: his marriage to Carrie Fisher and his partnership with longtime collaborator Art Garfunkel. Simon’s 1983 album Hearts and Bones fared poorly on the musical charts. He had just crested forty, and his son Harper, then his only child, was entering adolescence. After listening to a bootleg tape of South African mbaqanga—‘township jive’—Simon found his way to Johannesburg, where the peerless poetry of Graceland was born.
In addition to the many musicians with whom Simon recorded on that trip—including isicathamiya a cappella vocalists—Graceland carries forth the voices of Louisiana Zydeco, Mexican-American music, and Simon’s traditional rock-pop amalgam. “That’s really the secret of World Music, is people are able to listen to each other and make associations, and play their own music that sounds like it fits into another culture,” Simon has said. This interplay is apparent across Graceland’s landscape, and the resultant complexity proves the album timeless. The music of Graceland has traveled across the decades with me.
As our bus wound through towering rocks in hues from ruddy to ochre, my partner Richard and I started to notice shiny hatchbacks and dusty vans crowding the narrow road shoulders. Soon, the trickle of Colorado concertgoers hiking beside the vehicles became a flood, spilling into stuffed parking lots, which appeared to have been carved from the jutting earth.
We stepped off the bus wearing sunglasses, yet still squinting and shading our eyes against the westerly setting sun. “I guess it’s this way,” suggested Richard, and we joined the herd, tramping the near half-mile from the lower parking area, snaking past those who stopped to rest, along the paved path—up, up, and around until the carved-rock ampitheatre came into focus. Then, up, up, up some more—looking for our row, jostling and laughing with the rest of the eager, aging crowd. Our common effort seemed to create a special kind of camaraderie: once we found our seats, we looked around to realize that every person in attendance had committed sweat equity to our shared experience that night.
Early in our courtship, Richard and I had learned we would be unable to see Paul Simon play at the venue nearest us, Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. Though we were both disappointed, I felt particularly down, having never seen Simon—who was then seventy-five—in concert. In a spontaneous act consistent with his typical generosity, Richard suggested that we should instead travel to Denver at the end of the month for Simon’s last stop on the tour: Red Rocks Ampitheatre. The idea of flying most of the way across the country to see a concert—even Paul Simon at Red Rocks—seemed egregiously extravagant. Still, when the first strains of accordion floated up from the stage below and the crowd fell quiet, I knew why I had come.
Simon began with “The Boy in the Bubble,” the track that opens Graceland and is also indelibly inscribed upon me.
By the time that first drumbeat punctuated the accordion’s initial jive, I was leaning into Richard, feeling the synthesis of a lifetime of music roll through my body. Once the bass guitar began to lead with its honking-tuba boogie, I was reliving my whole life inside Simon’s song.
Sunset, when it came, danced burnt-orange and golden across the Colorado landscape, beyond the natural amphitheatre in which we stood. As the sun’s angle lowered, the gigantic rocks surrounding our stadium seats changed colors—red, rust, sepia—and cast unexpected shadows. We swayed, inhaling the rhythm of Simon’s music—all 9,525 of us. The show sold out; not a surprise for the final stop on Paul Simon’s second-to-last tour. The audience alliance was palpable, and Simon could feel it, too.
His seventeen-song set list included four from Graceland, and Simon rolled out the title track during his first encore— when heartily pressed, he returned for three encores, leaving his unbelieving audience stunned with gratitude. That night, Simon played my three favorites from his well-loved album—“The Boy in the Bubble,” “That Was Your Mother,” and “Graceland” itself—as well as “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al,” all of which hit the cool high-desert air with practiced precision. Hundreds of miles from both my western Maine hometown and my West Virginia farm, holding tight to the hand of a man I barely knew, I was home.
I must have been very young the first time I heard the Graceland album; Simon’s music was woven into my childhood in a way that has left me ignorant of the practical facts. My mother, Sarah, recalls that my father first spun the Graceland cassette on repeat in the dash of his green-and-tan Ford F-150 Custom. Choad remembers that it was my mother who was enamored of Simon’s release, and that the beige- and primary-hued record album first resided on our open music shelf at home. Either way, by the time I could walk and talk— and, believe me, I was precocious—every lick and lyric of Graceland was on file in my little mulleted head.
With the simple verse “My traveling companion is nine years old / He is the child of my first marriage,” Simon offers his listener pieces of his own fractured history, and the complications of his present, which, it seems, propel him over that road, son by his side, “going to Graceland.” The vulnerability he offers allows the listener to connect: interior to interior, hurt touching hurt, loss identifying with fear.
Soon enough, I was that child of nine, not Simon’s, but— perhaps like his son Harper—tumbling in the wake of divorce, gasping for my breath. My brother Owen and I were stricken by the awareness that we, too, were the product of a first marriage—and devastated to discover that marriages could end, that families could shift form from comfortable to the chaos of lugging schoolwork, clothes, and favorite things from one home to the next. We had little consistency to cling to, but we did have music, and each other.
Yet, Simon’s auditory alchemy continued to work on my own little wounded heart during those tender years. I became sure that, somehow, I was a part of that song, Graceland’s title track, even though the “he” did not fit, because the age and heartache did. Paul Simon did more than help me learn that I could connect to music: he shared the secrets of what had been and the prognosis of what was to be. As Simon admitted to Rolling Stone’s David Fricke: “Hope and dread . . . that’s the way I see the world—a balance between the two, but coming down on the side of hope.”
Simon wrote Graceland shortly after his brief second marriage to the actress Carrie Fisher dissolved in 1984. They continued to see each other on occasion, though, through the end of the decade and, as Fisher later told Rolling Stone, “‘Graceland’ has part of us in it.” That “us” sits squarely in the second verse: “She comes back to tell me she’s gone” hits me plumb in the heart every time I hear it. Simon’s words illuminate my own father’s pain, embody the confusion inherent in loss, echo details that a former lover may never forget. Simon sings of being haunted by the strange emptiness of his bed, the micro-memory of how his sweetheart swept her hair back from her forehead. Which minutiae replayed in my father’s mind? I see him, set abruptly adrift, rushing from room to room in that vast house he built by hand, snapping photos of the intricate hemlock woodwork he would never see again.
Yesterday, as I spoke with my mother through the long line of our telephones, I mentioned that the only recollection I have of her and my father together is of the day they told my brother and me that they would be divorcing. The edges of this memory are fuzzy, perhaps dissolved from too much close peering, an excess of reflective scrutiny over the years, but I do remember that it was necessary for them to not only reveal their decision to separate, but to explain divorce as a concept to their seven- and five-year-old children.
My brother is sure that our parents called us downstairs to talk, that we sat on the two couches that framed the sunroom, that Mom spoke while my father stood, removed, perhaps in the kitchen. Or maybe my mother’s memory—of fashioning a fat nest of pillows in the bedroom that my parents no longer would share—is accurate: “I tried to make it nice, so you could feel cozy; gathering you like a mama with her chicks,” she says. “Your dad was not there, I don’t think.”
Choad, though, was most definitely present, because he—more than any of us—recalls the tragic sadness: “It was fucking horrible; you guys just about died. It was the worst day of my life, pretty much, when that happened—it was sad and un-fucking-believable. Little Brillo-headed Owen, and you.” I can hear him hanging his head, wavering from side to side, as he presses the telephone to his ear. My heartbroken father cannot even recount what happened that day, now over thirty years ago, because the anguish feels too tender, too fresh. The pain of divorce still haunts him, but the trauma of seeing his children floating out into an unknown ocean remains more than Choad can bear.
What I am sure about is this: my mother did the talking, because she was the one who wanted the divorce. My father, big-hearted and loyal to the end, agreed to present the decision as mutual, but his body rebelled—forcing him to stand, or pace, or make himself so faint that he disappeared from my mother’s memory of that day entirely. I have no doubt that Owen sat silent, kindergarten mind a-whirling, hidden behind his short-cropped hair and big chocolate eyes.
“I remember you two, sitting there with your little minds and your little hearts, trying to understand it. I remember feeling like I had just broken open the egg and it was running all over the floor and there was no putting it back together,” recalls my mother. “It always seemed changeable when I was talking with your dad about it, but once we told you, it felt done. It all felt very grave and serious and final and permanent.”
What strikes me most is the similarity; the way my mother, who initiated the separation, experienced such an intense feeling of powerlessness. Her words to me today—“I felt like I was tumbling down a tube and I couldn’t stop and go back up”—could have been spoken by my father on that day, as he stood, paralyzed by grief, just outside of the sunroom. My brother, too, sitting stone-silent and as still as our father, felt his young heart flip-flop as it fell off the cliff. And I can see my girlhood self—mute, for once—mouth agape, gasping for the precious air my stunned lungs could not draw.
Still, I am sure that my parents—both of them, because Choad would have rallied for this—joined voices to, again, speak into being the chorus of our childhood: “We will always love you, we will always love you, we will always love you.” And, now that we had entered a reality where extra reassurance was needed, a new refrain: “This is not your fault, this is not your fault, this is not your fault.”
I do not remember what Owen did, but I ran up to my room and cried in my closet, snapping off slabs of sheetrock from the unfinished door jamb and eating them—seeking solace any way I could find it.
When, later, that unified front of mutual decision revealed itself as an ill-fitting cover for my mother’s unilateral choice to separate, this seemed like a less convenient but more honest telling. Decades after, when I found myself divorcing— thankfully, without children—I could again see a greater part of the whole story. My own divorce granted me clarity about the nuances of connection and promise—and experience with the public pain that Simon cites: how a window in the heart flies open when love breaks. How “Everybody sees you’re blown apart / Everybody sees the wind blow.” As a child, I witnessed these wages of loss as our comfortable familial love—the undoubtable thread of my childhood—turned cold, turned off like a faucet.
I doubt my mother ever echoed Simon’s words (which could have been Fisher’s) to my father, but I do know for sure that everybody saw him get blown apart; everybody saw the wind blow through that wide-open heart of his.
Choad, despite surviving what amounted to a forced divorce, chose to keep his heart open. Sure, he sought a resurrection of romantic love—and found it, again and again—but he also loved his kids with such fierce dedication that he never missed an opportunity to show up for us. He wrought weekends and every other Wednesday night
into festivity. Although I am sure it was not easy to balance self-employment, a girlfriend, spirituality, and fatherhood, he did it—and humor was essential to the way he parented. It still is.
We would be riding in his truck, that same F-150 Custom with the greasy bench seat and brown bananas on the dash, and the striking Zydeco of “That Was Your Mother” would swing into rotation, as the B-side of the Graceland cassette eased toward its end:
A long time ago, yeah
Before you was born, dude
When I was still single
And life was great
Choad, raising and wiggling his eyebrows while reaching over to tickle the knees of whichever unlucky kid was stuck in the middle seat—even as he continued to drive with his left hand through the steering wheel and keep perfect tempo on the dashboard drums—would embody Simon, ribbing us both for simultaneously ruining and imbuing meaning into his life. We knew we were “the burden of [his] generation,” but our father also made sure we knew he loved us.
At the time, wedged in the tangle of knees, gearshift, banana and body odor, and arguments about airflow— windows down! windows up!—I had no idea how powerfully this memory would cling to my psyche.
If we were in that truck, we were listening to music. Choad sang along to it all—intoning with the a cappella, beating the dash with the rhythm of the drums, miming Simon and his many clever vocalizations. With such a dedicated teacher offering his example, no wonder my brother and I internalized our father’s full-throated, whole-body habit of how best to interact with tunes. Now, when I recall my goofy father alternating between serenading and teasing my brother and me, I feel the wash of family, the same imperfect filial love that Simon and his young son bore over the road.
Memory, though, is a slippery substance, especially in early life. Once my parents separated, the changing shape
of our family began to play tricks on my child-mind. Home became a feeling, rather than one static place. Before the divorce was final, my mother had both outwitted a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and found her spiritual calling as a Jehovah’s Witness. We learned to live with a different set of rules in each household. Within a few short years, Owen and I had gained an abusive stepfather and lost all connection with our mother. Our father’s love remained constant, but trauma had forever changed our family. While my young heart and mind were preoccupied with holding on, Graceland slipped into my subconscious.
I am eleven and outside on a familiar, sloping lawn near Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. The hour is late enough that the ocean mist arcs along the curve of the yard, but not so late that my bare feet are freezing. I am surrounded by children and adults I love—people I trust implicitly, most of whom I have known all my life. My father, my brother, and I see this group of people every August, often in this very place, always for this very occasion: we call it Bow-Wow Boogie. For decades, a motley group—academics, artists, carpenters, writers, farmers, and musicians—who first bonded in late 1960s Cambridge has been making the trek for a weekend of rowdy play each year.
The rules of Bow-Wow are simple: drink on Friday night, play softball on Saturday—the best of three games wins and the losing team buys the beer for Saturday night—drink again, and then roll out of the tent and into the car to head home on Sunday. While I did turn out to be an alcoholic, I did very little actual drinking at Bow-Wow, because my conscience was too potent to steal and I was too young for anyone decent to want to share their stash. No matter—the games, food, once-a-year visiting, music, and storytelling were intoxicating enough.
This evening, I am on the lawn, having just wolfed down too much meaty spaghetti, holding a sweaty death-grip on hands to either side, chanting, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let… Otis come over!” and bracing for the impact as Otis, running at full speed, attempts to break through our clasped hands, hoping we can hold him so that he must, by the rules of the game, join our team. Music wafts through the salty air, piped out of the house through a complex maze of wires and speakers. The stereo plays, but my ears are not engaged; music is part of the ambient noise of the place. In an instant, all of that changes—with the first bars of some unmistakable song, something that speaks to my soul in a way that I cannot explain, but also cannot identify—accordion and drums and then punchy brass, and then the vocals begin: “It was a slow day and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road . . .”
Impossibly, I know every word; I am singing along in my head, lost from the game of Red Rover. I break away, then, eliciting protests and confusion from our poor, dwindling team. “I’ll be right back,” I say, unsure if I am telling the truth.
I wander across the yard—dusk has fallen and I squint, peering through the night, trying to find my father among the many mingling, laughing adults. In my head, my brain, which has somehow detached itself from my control, continues to tick through the lyrics and timing of the song, which is winding down as I recognize the shape and posture of my father. “Choad—” I begin, and he, perhaps hearing the worry in my voice, turns aside from the group with which he is talking, “—what is this music?” I see a faintly confused look on his face, as he tips his head slightly to one side.
“It’s Graceland. Paul Simon.” And then, kindly, questioning, “You know that.”
But I didn’t know—even though my brain knew every lyric, all of the breaks, ebbs, and rises. Perhaps Graceland had fallen out of rotation for a time, maybe the cassette was sliding around under the seat of the truck, gathering crud, instead of tucked into its felted slot inside Choad’s brown leather cassette briefcase. This was during the post-divorce period, before circumstances indicated that I needed to live with my father full-time, and that, by default, my brother would come along. Simon must not have made the playlist for Wednesday nights and weekends that year, or the year before. Whatever had caused the rift, Graceland and I were officially reunited. That Sunday, we listened to the cassette all the way home from Cape Cod.
So many songwriters write lyrics for other musicians to sing; many singers give voice to others’ words. Simon’s role
as both writer and singer allows him to project the lyrics in the exact way in which he first heard them play in his own head and heart. This is especially evident in places where Simon’s own wordplay slips off of his tongue in such precise, lyrical rhythm, as it does in the third verse of “Graceland” when Simon sings about “falling, flying, tumbling in turmoil,” connecting his own personal anarchy with the abstract lyrical image of girl-as-human-trampoline. An unforgettable New York City girl, who—as Simon told SongTalk Magazine—is entirely made-up, the line having popped into his head as he walked past the Museum of Natural History. “It’s not related to anybody. Or anything. It just struck me as funny. Although that’s an image that people remember, they talk about that line.”
For me—a girl living far from New York City—the idea of embodying a trampoline was irresistible. My first friend, Caitlin—another Bow-Wow Boogie kid—was in proud possession of one of the ubiquitous large-diameter trampolines of the nineties. We spent incalculable hours bouncing, lazing, and perfecting our imperfect gymnastics and pre-teen attitudes on its slick black surface, sometimes peering, bellies down, through the powerful, taut steel springs or over the rounded blue edging at the moss and rock three feet below.
We talked, we played, we teased Owen without mercy for his only—and entirely earnest—shortcoming: “You are SO un-soph!” Seeing his confusion at our clever abbreviation, we would collapse into giggling fits, unaware that his degree of sophistication was, in reality, very much akin to ours, given that all three of us were growing up as communal siblings-of-sorts at the long end of a skinny road in the rural Maine woods. Owen was nothing if not forgiving, though, and magnanimous to the core, so bare minutes would pass before the three of us, reunified, would slide off the trampoline and patter, barefooted, along the dark earth path to the cool of Spear Stream for a shallow swim before dinner.
The soundtrack to our play crackled out through yards of threaded line from the leviathan sound system housed between stacks of record albums and folds of batik wall hangings in Caitlin’s farmhouse living room. Deep blues, mostly—Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, Memphis Slim—but also The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, and Canned Heat. Paul Simon’s Graceland was a favorite of Caitlin’s mother, Devon, but curating tunes was one of the few household tasks in which she did not have a regular hand, so Simon rarely made it into rotation.
That trampoline, though, was central to my youth, and a cornerstone of connection with the imaginary girl in Simon’s New York City, and thus Graceland as a whole. In just a few short years, that ten-year-old on the trampoline would have her first taste of “falling, flying, tumbling in turmoil,” but it would be many years yet before I would reach the end of the stanza, to find myself “bouncing into Graceland.”
As the song “Graceland” winds down, repetition, another dear friend of the songwriter, makes Simon shine in the
act of his craft. In verse, where repetition is not necessarily expected, Simon offers a refrain of his lover’s statement, now internalized, made his own: “And I see losing love is like a window in your heart.”
When—clean and sober at twenty-three, for the first time in ten wild years—I searched my surroundings for my self, trying to jigsaw the pieces back into place, Simon’s insight returned. As lost wisdom is wont to do—alcoholics call it a moment of clarity—Graceland surfaced in my consciousness, like the soothing ease of ice on a bad burn. Simon’s lyrical assurance that we all will be welcome in Graceland spoke straight to my battered heart in the same way that recovery had begun to do.
Whether despite or because of its many pat sayings and iterative clichés—you are not alone, we will love you until
you can love yourself, you are right where you are supposed to be—recovery seemed like an attractive option when compared with the mess of the decade before. What I had mistaken as a love of getting high had revealed itself to be, instead, about power and control. With each dawn, a new beginning; with every meeting I attended, I felt a little more sure of who I was, and—surprisingly—the curious girl I had buried under years of using and the lies that supported my habit began to resurrect herself. For me, those days were the embodiment of Simon’s “miracle and wonder.” I had, in the past year, transitioned from addicted to recovering—hopeless dope fiend to dopeless hope fiend. Life felt new and different every day: like there was something to discover, as if anything could happen, and the unexpected did happen, repeatedly.
Late August in Arizona, no matter the day, is hot. Prescott, with its perfect Wild West downtown—a granite courthouse situated mid-square—and high-desert atmosphere, is not exempt from the heat. I am buzzing with anticipation as I walk the few blocks from my home, which is in complete disarray as I pack for the cross-country drive that will make it, officially, no longer my home. Hold Fast Tattoo is a few doors down from the bright back alley where I help a local farm set up their CSA tables on weekday afternoons, where I pick up my raw milk share: glass gallons, straight from the cooler, sweating in the sun. This is to be my first tattoo; though I had planned it years before, any extra money always went to feed my drug habit, or to repair the damage after yet another night of drunk driving. My friend Angeline knows the place, and the guy: he inked a plump, orange Ganesha on her upper arm the year before, and now she swears by his talent.
I am looking for something a little quieter, without color but with connection—not to another culture but to the roots of my own raising. My anticipation is so high that I arrive on time, for once, but tattoo shop time, apparently, is like island time. I find an uncomfortable chair wedged in the way of everyone in the shop and wait it out, hoping my aloof appearance will help me fit in, despite my still-virgin skin.
While I sit, I recirculate the good reasons I have for getting this tattoo and try not to think about how upset my mother, with whom I have reconciled, will be. I am making this decision with a clear, sober head. This is a tattoo that I have been planning for years. It connects me to both of my parents. It connects me to my home, and the music of my life. The truth—I really want to be cool, and it seems so much easier to achieve that in ink—is harder to access. Before I have the chance to spin myself into a high-tilt tizzy, I hear: “You ready?”
I nod, perhaps dishonestly: “Yes.”
Novice that I am, I do not expect the process to take so long. Today is a repeat of the preparative steps we took the week before, when I came into the shop, ready for action, and left with a mock-up in blue ink along my spine. “Think about it,” he said, “because the spine is one of the most painful places to get a tattoo. I don’t want to get halfway through and have you bail on me.”
This time, though, it will be for real. And once he starts, for real, it does hurt—just as much as he promised—but I focus on my breathing and do my best to act nonchalant when he checks to make sure I am not going to pass out. I remember how I tricked my mother and father, separately, into penning the words that this tall, quiet man is now inking, indelibly, onto my spine. How my Armageddon-focused mother’s part— These are the days—fit neatly and also so impossibly with my wide-eyed, New Age father’s portion—of miracle and wonder. I consider how perturbed each of them will be when they find out—not just about the tattoo, but also the deception inherent in inking the words in their handwriting—my father, briefly and easily; my mother, pensively and perhaps forever.
After what may be the longest three hours of my life, the artist stands up, stretches his shoulders, and nods his approval. As I rise, slowly finding the lost strength in my legs, he indicates the mirrors that frame his station, suggesting that I take a look. I see jeans, a long, bare torso, and my black lace brassiere before twisting hips and shoulders to reveal smudges of blue ink, a hint of blood, and the first line of the chorus of “Boy in the Bubble” imbedded forever on my body. I nod to my reflection, as if acknowledging embodiment of Simon’s truth.
I feel like a new person, as if I have crossed some invisible threshold, like smoking pot for the first time. A coming of age, of sorts: I have joined my marked-up generation at last. I pay for the tattoo, adding a proper tip as my mother taught me, and pull down my black T-shirt before stepping out into the fading high-desert sun. As I drift home, I feel Simon’s poetry sinking into my skin, the early evening abuzz with the miracle and wonder we share.