Tattoo Date

–Saturday, September 24, 2011–

Why was I waking up at 7 a.m.? I was way too tired to be up so early. After a week of jet lag following a trip back from Hong Kong and having to pull an all nighter for work that Tuesday, I was absolutely exhausted. I didn’t need to be up for another hour and a half but I my body was still confused about the day and time.Tattoo Date 1

I laid awake in bed for a while, mulling over the events of the night before and trying to determine where I had gone wrong. I’d been hanging out in Astoria with my buddy Austin and, since she lived in the neighborhood, my Spa Date, Little Miss Havana, came to join us. The three of us had a great time at a local bar before we decided to call it an early night. I was quite tired, after all.

LMH came back to my apartment and as we talked, largely about my tattoo date the next day, she began to ask more and more questions regarding my extra-curricular relationships. It was a bit of a rehash of the conversation we’d had three weeks earlier where she wanted to know what my intent was with her if I wasn’t going to be her boyfriend. I was making her feel confused. I was making her feel used. I thought we’d had a clear agreement to be friends with benefits, but even with that, I had overstepped some boundaries. Navigating the world of friends with benefits was not something I had mastered. I didn’t know what I was doing and I was messing with someone’s emotions in the process. All I did know was that Justin Timberlake made it look much easier. [I didn’t really know that. I have never seen the movie.]

That discussion was the only thing that took place that night between LMH and I before she put her shoes back on, grabbed her bag and walked home around 2 a.m. I tried to express how sorry I was via text message but most hope was lost by that point.

As I showered and got dressed the next morning, I found myself thinking about my date for the day, Ariana, and how what I was learning with LMH directly applied to her as well. It was going to be my second official OHD date with Ariana. She was the first person to be an OHD second date and it was fitting since she was the date I’d spent the most time with up to that point.

We had seen each other almost once a week since our first date and we texted each other regularly. While we were hooking up initially, it became clear fairly quickly how secondary any kind of sexual attraction was to our budding friendship. Within weeks of our first date, not only did I like Ariana, but I began to care about her a great deal. We had talked about our dynamic and what was important to us, but earlier in the week of our second date, I crossed the line and asked if she wanted me to stay over her place leading up to our pre-tattoo breakfast. I understood the boundaries of physical actions maybe, but I was still missing something when it came to communication and respecting distance. My conversation with LMH the night before was a wake-up call.

I cared about Ariana, and more than anything, I wanted to be her friend. I wanted to do right by her. The romance of our relationship needed to take a back seat.

Around 9:30 a.m., I texted Ariana as I left my apartment to tell her that I was on my way to meet her. There were so many people waiting for the train, I could tell the service was not normal. After taking its sweet time to arrive, the train stopped repeatedly on its way towards Manhattan. We were sitting still more than we were moving forward. It took at least twice as long as normal to get to Queensboro Plaza. I continued to text Ariana to let her know I’d be late getting to Brooklyn. After my initial transfer to the 7, I attemptted my second transfer to the G train, but it wasn’t not running that day. I needed to take a shuttle bus down to Williamsburg instead. I could have sworn one more thing go would go wrong with the commute. Maybe the Spanish Inquisition would come along and sack me.

After making my third transfer to the L train, and climbing up to the street, I followed Ariana’s directions to a local café. Apparently, I did not understand her directions completely because I almost walked by her, sitting outside the warehouse fronted café. I thought there would be one more turn to make, so it was a good thing she spotted me and waved. I took out my earbuds and gave her a hug good morning.

We went inside the café for bagels and coffee. With the conversation from last night still kicking around in my head, I was more nervous than I normally would have been. Ariana and I had developed such a good relationship by then, that I wanted to make sure I didn’t cross any lines. I wanted to make sure I didn’t fuck things up with her because I would have been very mad with myself if I lost her and even more upset if I hurt her. I knew that the project alone was already inflicting some amount of emotional discomfort, so if I could prevent anything else negative from arising in our relationship, I would do whatever I could.

Ariana led me back to her loft apartment only a block or two away. Everything about the neighborhood was so Brooklyn. All the buildings were former factories and warehouses, yet people were milling about just like any place else. Bicycles, people dressed alike by trying to be different, cafés and art spaces (probably) abounded. She told me she laughed at the things she saw there frequently. We entered her apartment and were greeted by Zeke, a little Chihuahua who barked at me incessantly.

Ariana shut him out of her room and he eventually stoped barking after his owner, one of the roommates, yelled at him to shut up. I took a seat on her bed and caught her up on my recent travels to Tokyo and Hong Kong while we ate. Not long passed before Zeke was at it again, so Ariana let him into her room. Maybe if he got to hang out with us, he’d stop barking. By far the best thing about Zeke was that he was a little tiny dog who had the most massive sex bits for a pup his size. He was approximately 1/12th the size of me and had comparable man parts. He was a lucky little dude.

Zeke was begging me for some of my bagel, but he was not my dog, so I didn’t give him any. He made me feel bad for devouring my bagel. He barked when I finished it, as if to say, “WTF DUDE?!?” Sorry, little buddy.

Once Zeke had calmed down again, Ariana put him back outside her room and closed the door. She gave me a tube of A+D ointment that I would need for post-tattoo treatment. It was very thoughtful of her. I started on my coffee as Ariana climbed back onto her bed and we finished our conversation which Zeke had so rudely interrupted.

Ariana told me about some of the places she had traveled during her years taking missionary trips. As much as I could be critical of missionary work, I did think it was incredible the places that such experiences could take a person, both literally and figuratively. In Ariana’s case, she wasn’t placing much faith in the dogmas of Christianity any longer, so she was probably much more my type than she would have been five years prior. A lot can change in five years.

We talked about the differences between visiting a place, particularly those with underdeveloped economies, and the reality of living in them. You can try as hard as you want to get the “real” experience of a place — stay with a family, eat the local food, stay away from resorts, travel in the beds of trucks, what have you — but you can always go home. You will always have the means to leave that place should you choose to do so. The people who live there most often do not know that luxury.

Ariana had told me previously, that while I was away, she had incurred some unforeseen medical costs. I knew it was related to her ongoing symptoms of multiple sclerosis, or MS, as soon as she told me. It was not a conversation suited for text messages, so I waited until I saw her to bring it up. I asked her what happened and if she was all right. She said she was okay at the moment, but it had been very annoying and scary to see the symptoms of something as serious as MS begin to develop. She hadn’t been diagnosed, but testing for it was part of what her appointments lately had been related to.

Those appointments, and any potential tests or treatments, were extremely expensive, particularly when one didn’t have absolutely top notch health care coverage. Ariana had only been working at her job for a few months and had just moved into her apartment, so money was still very tight. She was bound to incur great costs if her condition was diagnosed and potentially confirmed. She was a hard working, responsible, middle class citizen who really was not able to afford heath care for something she very much needed. She was the perfect example of what was wrong with the American health care system. It was troubling to see that someone as great as Ariana had to fight so hard just to obtain the medical care she needed.

Her worrisome symptoms were something she related to me the second or third time we hung out. Details came out as we saw each other more, and all along, I was so impressed with how she remained composed. There were so many things going on in Ariana’s life, any of which on their own would knock a normal person down, but Ariana somehow managed to take it all in stride. I had never had a relative or friend battle any kind of long term illness, much less myself. Not only was Ariana dealing with the possible onset of MS, but she had already had the experience of caring for her ex after he was diagnosed with cancer. The emotional weight of both those experiences was tremendous.

In my observations, it seemed there were two ways people dealt with insurmountable struggles in their lives: they either curled up and let life have its way with them, or they chose to enter survival mode and did whatever they could to push through. Ariana was without a doubt a survivor and she quietly inspired me on a regular basis.

Our conversation drifted to more light-hearted topics, and I got to hear about Ariana’s amazing grandfather. He hung around her home town, wearing his signature pink pants and playing the accordion. He was a legend in town — everyone knew him. We had a few local legends in my town growing up and I told her about Smoking Pipe Guy and Tree Guy, the latter of which I actually worked with one summer while landscaping. I wonder if anyone called her grandfather Accordion Guy.

We had a 1 p.m. appointment at the tattoo shop, so we left Ariana’s around 12:30 p.m., stopping at a bodega for snacks once we got to the neighborhood of the shop. While in the bodega, I saw a carton in the beverage cooler that said “Boxed Water Is Better” across the front. I immediately wanted to take a picture and tweet it with the caption, “Thanks for telling me what’s best, Brooklyn.” As I reached for my phone, the guy in front of the cooler reached in, took out the carton, snapped a picture, laughed and returned it to its shelf. Okay, so my ideas were not very original. At least someone else thought it was funny.

While I had my phone out, I saw a text from my good friend Bradley saying,“Good luck with the ink budders!!!!” I replied with my typical, “Thanks brudder.” For a couple years at that time, I’d been writing brudder instead of brother, and I realized it was from an old Strong Bad Email featuring the one legged dog, Li’l Brudder. On our walk between the bodega and tattoo parlour, I asked Ariana if she ever used to go on homestarrunner.com and if she remembered Li’l Brudder. Of course she knew Li’l Brudder! He was the saddest character ever. We were quoting Strong Bad and Homestar Runner as we entered Twelve 28 Tattoo.

Our artist, Jess Versus, greeted us at the counter and showed Ariana the final design of her tattoo. I had come in two days before to see what mine would look like. As Jess set up for my tattoo, we filled out our paperwork and I felt my nerves start to spark up. I couldn’t believe I was about to get a tattoo. It was my first one and as we dealt with logistics, I was freaking out a little bit.

As a part of my never ending crusade to be adorable, I showed Ariana the awesome emoticon options available with the Japanese Romaji keyboard on her iPhone. Jess overheard us, asking if we were talking about the Emoji keyboard, and while were not, that was another good one Ariana didn’t know about. I installed both of them on her phone while we sat on the couch waiting. Double cute points.

I thanked Ariana for being there with me and gave her a hug before we were both too tattooed to do so. It really helped not only to have someone there who had tattoos already, but I was particularly very happy be there with Ariana. I felt very close to her. We had bonded so quickly.

The night before, LMH had commented that I was (almost foolishly) going to get a very meaningful tattoo, and wasn’t it a waste that I was doing it with someone who was just a date? Shouldn’t I have done it with someone important? She wasn’t intending to criticize me; she was merely looking out for my best interests. Furthermore, she didn’t know the full extent of my relationship with Ariana. The thing is, Ariana was not just a date. Ariana was someone who I’d shared a lot with over the previous two and a half months. She had let me in and I’d done the same. She was in the midst of a huge transitional part of her life and my tattoo was representative of the two most transformational experiences that I had lived through. She was a great person to have by my side while I permanently transformed by body.

I was getting the initials “E.F.B.” tattooed on my right arm, and the text “No 4” right beneath it. The initials are my own, Evan Forde Barden, and they were also my mother’s, Ellen Forde Barden. My mother was killed in a car crash on January 17th, 2005. My father and I were also in the car, but we were lucky enough to survive.

My parents were driving me back to Connecticut to begin my second semester at Fairfield University. This was the school that my family could not afford, yet my mom fought for me to attend, against the worries of my dad. We had enough money to pay for one year, with the understanding that I would likely have to transfer to UMASS for the next three. When that refrigerator truck ran our car over at 65 mph, my mother was in the back seat. She had this thing about letting my brother and I ride in the front seat on important days. She always put us first. And when that happened, an unforeseeable number of events were triggered, the likes of which would change my life.

I saw the best in people when our kitchen was filled with food from neighbors, my suitcase filled with clothing, a bank account filled with donations towards my education and my heart filled with the company of friends. Both guitars which had been destroyed in the accident were replaced seemingly by magic. Without my asking, I had people come out of the woodwork to help me with all manner of things.

I saw the best in my school when I looked up to see the university’s president and various deans standing around my hospital bed, when my RA drove a van of hallmates up to Massachusetts to attend my mother’s wake, when the financial aid department more than doubled my aid package so that I could stay at Fairfield, when the study abroad department sent me to Italy for the summer just so I could get away and when my improv director told me that I had a home with them in the theater. I saw an institution reach out it arms and take care of me for the next three and a half years.

I saw the best in myself as I returned to school two weeks later without missing a step, as I applied to be an RA to help defray the remaining costs of school, as I graduated magna cum laude, as I used my mother’s death as a catalyst to positive life decisions and as I stepped into each new venture in my life with the faith that everything would be okay because I’d already lived through the worst. My mother’s death enlightened me and made me lead a better life.

Those three letters, E.F.B., would serve as an eternal bond which connected me to my mother.

The number 4 was for my friend, teammate and classmate Chris, who died January 30th, 2003 while we were Juniors in high school. His death was the most significant event of my high school career not only because it was a terrible and tragic loss, but because of the lessons it taught so many us. I’d seen adults in town die, and while those were never taken lightly, I’d never lost a friend. Chris took his own life that day and no one could have seen it coming. He was not your classic troubled teen whom you might worry about. Chris was an accomplished varsity athlete, a good student and someone with no enemies.

He was well liked by all and if you asked anyone, he was one of the nicest and hardest working kids in our grade. He taught us to be better to one another. The cliques in our grade dissolved. I made sure my friends knew they were important. We bonded as a community over our shared sense of loss. We worked together annually to raise money for a scholarship fund established in Chris’ name. We all just became a little bit better for having known him, and most tragically, for losing him.

On the baseball diamond, we put the number 4 in our hats and on our wristbands. As cliche as it may sound, Chris always gave 110% of himself when he was on the field and he never settled for good enough. With Number 4 ever present in our hearts, we all worked that much harder and we all cared that much more about the game, because that was how Chris would have done it. There was no symbol which reminded me of my hometown, of the people I grew up with and of the lessons Chris taught me more than the number 4, and it was something I would take to the grave.

I had wanted the tattoo for six years but I had never had the guts to do it. I knew I needed to give myself an kick in the ass to make it happen, and it just so happened to be OHD that got me there. Even if my tattoo ended up being the only permanent remnant of the project, that alone would make it worth it.

It was time. I was incredibly nervous. Jess applied the stencil and told me to make sure I loved it. Ariana said, ”Do you looooove it?” It was a line from an old Stella sketch. Jess understoof the reference and we all laughed. Ariana looked at me approvingly, as if to say, “she’s a good one.” The stencil looked great in the mirror. Let’s do it.

Tattoo Date 2

Breathing deeply, I realized that it didn’t really hurt too badly. It was just line work, after all, and on my arm. The longer lines reminded me of being cut into, but it was not terrible. Over all, if felt like a bad visit to the dentist, which I’d had plenty of. Ariana took pictures throughout. And like that, I was done. It probably only took 20 or 25 minutes and, as if no big deal at all, I had the two most significant symbols of my life permanently tattooed on my arm. Cool beans.

Tattoo Date 3

Jess needed to set up the space and prepare for Ariana’s session, so we relaxed back on the couches in the waiting area again. It was hard to believe that underneath the bandage, the tattoo was really there. I almost thought that it would be gone when I took the bandage off. Ariana ate a cookie she had brought, but it was not very good. Too dry. I hated dry cookies, I told her.

We flipped through the promotional books of tattoos done at Twelve 28 and when we saw a tat of “The boy who lived,” in Harry Potter text, we both kind of snickered. What a silly thing to get tattooed on you forever, right? After I thought about it for a second, I said, “Actually, I might get something like that. I’m a big Harry Potter fan, but then really, I kind of am the boy who lived.” Ariana looked at me understandingly, knowing that I was talking about the car accident in which I lost my mom. The themes of parental loss and rising to something greater than you ever thought capable, were things that I really connected with in the HP series. F’real.

Ariana and I sat next to each other on the couch, playing on our phones. Mostly, we were texting each other funny things using the Emoji keyboard. We laughed with one another for a while and kept ourselves entertained until Jess was ready again.

The time had come for Ariana to take the plunge. She was getting a substantial tattoo on her back, much larger than either of the others that she already had. In fact, the new one would incorporate one of her preexisting tattoos into the design. I knew what her design looked like, but not until that day, did I know the significance of the flowers she would soon have inked into her back.

When she was young, Ariana would often draw flowers, always drawing the same ones. She didn’t know what they were exactly, they were just flowers from her mind that she enjoyed drawing. One day, her sister found a botany book and as she flipped through it, she spotted Ariana’s flowers. The flowers Ariana had always drawn were very much a real variety. From that day on, they were known to her family as Ariana’s Flowers, and they were very much representative of her. The drawing from the book was the design Ariana was would have tattooed on her that day. I really liked that story.

She had to unclasp her bra and wait for her bra lines to disappear before Jess could apply the stencil. I knew Ariana was cool with me being there, but I didn’t want to seem weird in front of Jess, like I was trying to get a peek, so I awkwardly hung back for the first couple minutes. She didn’t even take her shirt off, just undid her bra and lifted the back of her shirt up. Still, I felt weird with a third person there. She waited a few minutes and Jess told her she was good. The stencil was applied, and as soon as I saw it, I could tell it’s going to be beautiful. It looked so great.

Ariana laid down on the table with her head on a pillow and her left arm up above her head. She was afraid she’d have to put her arm up like that. Pains and aches in her arm (symptoms of her possible MS) flared up from time to time and she knew that, with it above her head, she would likely be bothered after a while. She told Jess that she had a pinched nerve in her left arm, which was as reasonable an explanation as any considering she didn’t truly know the cause, and that she may need a break at a certain point.

I bounced between playing on my phone and patiently watching the action as Jess began work on Ariana’s upper back. Aside from the buzzing of the tattoo gun, it was a mostly silent affair until Jess began talking to Ariana a bit. She asked about where Ariana was from and other basics like that. I wasn’t sure if I should have been talking since Ariana was facing away from me and Jess was tattooing a permanent design on her back. It seemed like one of those situations where distractions should be kept to a minimum.

Tattoo Date 4

About forty-five minutes in, I saw Ariana flexing her left hand. I could tell it was bothering her. Jess picked up on it too and asked Ariana if she was okay. She insisted she was fine and Jess carried on. I wanted to play dad and insist she take a break but it was really not my place. After another five or ten minutes, Ariana asked Jess if she could lower her arm. I was glad I had kept my mouth shut. I had learned over the years that I had trouble recognizing where I was not needed and I often poked my nose into situations that didn’t concern me. I was working on that and continue to do so.

Once the top half was done, they took a brief break and Ariana was able to relax a bit. After a little bit of a breather, it was time for the lower half of her tattoo. Jess began again and this time, Ariana was facing me so I talked to her more. Once I could see her face, it was evident how easy I had had it with my tattoo. Ariana commented later that the lower half had hurt much more that the top. She was tough though, not letting it show too much. I tried to distract her with funny stories and nonsense. I sort of felt like I was bothering her because she looked pained listening to me, but knowing that she had a needle to her back let me know it wasn’t me causing the pain. Finally, as Jess approached the ends of the last few flower roots, Ariana flipped onto her side.

Tattoo Date 5

It was not much longer before Jess was finished. The whole process wrapped up in 1 hour and 23 minutes. It was an incredibly long time to sit through the pain of getting a tattoo. Ariana’s tattoo was in a much more sensitive area and took an hour longer than mine. I don’t know if I could have been that tough. And that session was only the line work. She’d have to come back another time to get the shading and color done.

Even in its reddened, recently completed state, Ariana’s tattoo looked gorgeous. I really loved the design and I thought it sat perfectly on her back. It was going to be really amazing when finished.

Tattoo Date 6

Jess gave us a rundown on post tattoo care and sent us on our way. As we exited the building, I asked Ariana how bad it had really been and she told me it hurt much more than she let on. The bottom half especially. She was feeling a bit sick at that point, almost as if the pain had distracted her from the nausea. It hurt more when when you couldn’t see what was going on, she hypothesised, and I concurred. Every time I closed my eyes, my arm only hurt more. When I could see that I wasn’t being cut open and wasn’t bleeding everywhere, my mind processed it differently. Crazy brain, tricks are for kids.

She even told me that when her arm first started to ache, she didn’t say anything to Jess because her arm pain was distracting from her tattoo pain. What a hard ass! One pain was better than the other. That’s straight out of a Stallone movie or something.

Ariana asked if I wanted to go back to her apartment and wash up since my bandage needed to come off soon. Unfortunately, I only had an hour before I had to be at an improv show, so I had to decline, but I did want to give her an apartment warming gift. Ariana moved into her new place while I was in Japan, and it was the first permanent residence she’d had since I’d known her, so I wanted to bring her back something to celebrate her new home. It was nothing much at all, but I had a Yomiuri Giants coffee mug for her kitchen stashed in my backpack.

She liked it. I think she was just happy to have someone appreciate the significance of her new home. Ariana gave me a kiss on the cheek as a thank you and while it was quickest kiss I’d received since starting my dating adventure, it might have been the most meaningful one yet.

There was no time to go to her apartment, but there was always time for pizza. We found a local pie shop, each got a slice and split some garlic knots. I had always thought garlic knots were a distinctly New York thing, or at least, I never saw them in Boston. “Well, then I’m never leaving”, Ariana said. She was a big fan of knots. I joked about wanting to open a garlic knots stand, just so I could name it something stupid.

Some potential names:

  • Nutz About Knots
  • Crazy Go Knots
  • It’s Knots You, It’s Me
  • Knots for Nothing
  • Never Knots Yummy
  • Knots-O-Fast
  • Knots Landing

Ariana also loved pizza, which I also also loved. What a coincidence! I couldn’t believe I found someone else who loved pizza like I did!

She didn’t really have a favorite pizza place, but there was a pizzeria in her home town that she used to go to all the time. She once went there 17 days in a row after school. They knew her whole family by name. She told me I could have the last knot but I didn’t want it so she popped it in her mouth. It was pretty easy for Ariana to make me laugh. All it took was something small and silly like popping a knot. Stress occasionally caused her to lose her appetite, so it was good to see her eating like a normal human.

We walked to the train and said our goodbyes once we were through the turnstiles. I needed to go inbound and Ariana, outbound. We arrived down on our respective platforms, across from each other, and waved across the tracks. We walked the length of it to the other end, occasionally waving and mostly pretending like we didn’t know the other was there, following along. It was a fun little game. Finally, we both leaned up on beams across from each other and waved. A few minutes later, a train approached and we waved to each other until the massive metal cars cut us off.

I was so thankful for the conversation I had had the night before with LMH, because it really made that next day so much better. I drew clear boundaries for myself, and I don’t know that I would have stuck to them had I not had that conversation to knock some sense into me. It didn’t weigh on me all day, like one may expect, but rather it kept me hyper aware of my words and actions and prevented me from messing up what turned out to be a beautiful day.

I looked down at the bandage on my arm and knew that that day had forever changed me.

And Ariana was right there by my side for the whole thing.