Hannah Grace Nemetz Todd
I lied to so many people about my tattoo tonight.
Not a lie exactly. A half truth.
“It’s from a book,” I say.
“It’s from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives,” I say.
“It’s from a book that is important to my family,” I say.
All of these are true. None of them are the truth.
In The Savage Detectives, a cohort of young poets is searching for Cesárea Tinajero, the enigmatic and long-absent mother of the (fictional) poetry movement Visceral Realism. In the course of their odyssey, they speak to one of the original Visceral Realists, Amadeo Salvatierra. Amadeo shows them Cesárea’s only published poem: a visual poem in a series of three lines, each with a small box on top. One straight, one wavy, one jagged.
Amadeo asks the boys, “What do you make of this poem?”
“It’s a joke, Amadeo,” the boys reply. “The poem is a joke covering up something more serious.”
Roberto Bolaño was my youngest brother Eli’s favorite author; The Savage Detectives his favorite book. On his left forearm, Eli had tattooed Cesárea Tinajero’s visual poem, a permanent declaration of the impact this author, this book, had on his life and his own writing.
And he could not have gotten it more wrong. Not just upside down, but somehow inverted, backwards, all in the wrong order. My brilliant idiot of a brother got this tattoo from the most important book in his life as stupendously incorrect as he possibly could.
Seven years ago, Eli died of a heroin overdose.
This is why I have the same tattoo on my arm.
This is the truth—in part.
My mom hates tattoos—a deep, disgusted hate—and Eli knew it. After he got the Bolaño tattoo, he attempted to hide it from her by keeping his sleeves rolled down, even in the depths of summer. It didn’t take long for her to figure it out.
That fall, driving him back to New York for his second year at Pratt, she told him in no uncertain terms that as long as she was paying for his school and his health insurance and subsidizing his living expenses (not to mention finding him an apartment in the miserable heat of a Brooklyn summer, while he was working in Colorado), the one thing she asked of him was not to get any more tattoos. Of course, he was over 18 and could legally do what he wanted with his body; but this was her one request. Just don’t get another tattoo.
And he didn’t—for a couple of years. Then he came to Cape Cod with the stick and pokes.
Eli had some really stupid tattoos. Everyone agreed (except him, of course). His first tattoo was a series of black concentric circles on his back; he said they represented positive and negative space, but really it just looked like a black and white Target logo.
(Mom discovered this one because Eli came home soon after he got it, and the ink bled through onto the bedsheets. Mom saw it when she washed them; he didn’t think to wash them himself. For all his genius, he always was a hapless kid; leaving pot in his pants pocket in high school for mom to find; never met a debit card he didn’t forget in a bar.
That fucking kid, my uncle said when my mom told him Eli had died, and how—another hapless accident.)
But nothing topped the stick and pokes—all caps block letter text above each knee, one reading GOOD LUCK and the other reading, inexplicably, VIDEODROME. I don’t think it was even his favorite movie.
After he died, many of his friends got the Bolaño tattoo. “It’s a good thing he had that one,” we all joke (it’s a joke, Amadeo), “otherwise we’d all be walking around with VIDEODROME tattooed above our knees.”
At the Cape, Eli conspiratorially asked me to distract Mom while he took off his jeans to get into the water. I did, though I don’t know how he thought he was going to keep his knees hidden all week, it was summer in Wellfleet and hot and we were all in our small house, going to the beach together nearly every day.
When Mom inevitably saw them, she said, “Why don’t you just get ‘I’m stupid’ tattooed on your forehead?”
“I’m going to get ‘Nice Jewish Boy’ tattooed there instead,” he laughed.
(Despite it all—the drugs, the juvenile delinquency, the post-party disaster he left in the house (the only time Mom ever literally threw him out, in the pouring rain, and he was back in his own bed by that night), even the tattoos—he and Mom could always make each other laugh.)
That summer in Wellfleet was the last time I saw him. That summer in Wellfleet was the last summer of his life.
Eleven months after the funeral, we had the headstone unveiling—a Jewish tradition. (I have a friend, a decade or so older than me, who confessed that although her brother had died several years earlier, her family still had not put up her brother’s headstone. “It’s just too hard,” she said, “so we keep putting it off.” The rabbis knew: freedom from choice. You erect the headstone eleven months after the person dies.)
After the ceremony, after the reception at the synagogue, after friends and family had eaten and drunk and talked and laughed and cried their fill back at my parents’ house and slowly trickled away, it was just my dad, my brother Abe, and me alone in the kitchen.
I think Abe said it first: “When Joyce and I were downtown yesterday we swung into Lucky’s just, you know, to see.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I was also looking up what tattoo parlors are open today.”
“I was looking that up too,” my dad said.
We all looked at each other.
“So,” I said, “should we just go do this right now?”
Eli was the only person in our family with tattoos. I have nothing against tattoos (I did not inherit my mother’s disgust), but I never had the urge to get one. What could I possibly need to commit to so irrevocably? What could I possibly need to inscribe so permanently, onto my body, into my skin?
Mom didn’t come with us. She did not offer any encouragement; but she did not utter a word of protest. (“Apparently, fetal cells stick around in the mother, often for decades,” she told me later. “So, I probably still carry bits of Eli and don’t need a tattoo.”)
We brought with us a copy of The Savage Detectives to show the artist the source image, along with a photo of Eli’s tattoo.
Abe went first. The artist lay the stencil on his arm and asked him to check the placement. Abe looked at the stencil and said, “Isn’t that upside down?”
“Well,” said the artist, “in the photo you showed me….”
We immediately called Ryan, Eli’s best friend (and fellow Bolaño fan). “Oh, yeah,” said Ryan. “Eli’s tattoo was totally wrong.” As on-brand for Eli as you could get. That fucking kid.
We conferred about whether to get the poem tattooed correctly, or to copy Eli’s. The answer was obvious.
Now, we all have incorrect Bolaño tattoos on our arms. A bit of Eli to carry. A joke, covering up something more serious.
Years later, I learned from Ryan that no one had ever told Eli it was wrong. He went to his grave believing he had this visual poem inscribed accurately on his arm, as Bolaño had written it.
Now Ryan is gone too, stabbed to death on a Brooklyn streetcorner, and all his stories of Eli gone with him.
It’s the permanence I can’t wrap my mind around. Never is something my brain cannot compute. (It’s no wonder Lear has to say it five times—Never, never, never, never, never—as he holds the corpse of his youngest daughter in his arms.)
I still have the feeling that eventually this will be over. I still think you (you: Eli; you: Ryan) are going to come ambling out from the underbrush somewhere with the most epic story of where you've been, and we're all gonna be so pissed about all the important shit you've missed.
Every night I go to sleep convinced that when I wake up it will all have been a dream. Every morning when I open my eyes, I check my arm to see if the tattoo is still there. It always is. As permanent as death.
This is closer to the truth.
After he died, Eli’s friends told us his one pang of conscience every time he got a new tattoo was that he wouldn’t be able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
He was by no means a practicing Jew—I think he considered himself agnostic or atheist, and he had reservations about organized religion—but he was fiercely proud of his Jewish identity. (Once on a Jewish holiday he was stopped by Chabad members who asked if he was Jewish and when he said yes tried to hand him a card with the appropriate blessing to recite—which Eli gleefully rejected and surprised the Chabadniks by reciting the prayer by heart—all those years of Hebrew school and going to synagogue every Saturday and summers of Jewish sleepaway camp finally paying off.)
So, the idea of not being able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery because of his tattoos was a source of unease—though it never stopped him.
In fact, while tattoos are prohibited by Jewish law, the prohibition on being buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo is a myth. It is up to the individual synagogue or cemetery to set that rule; it is not halacha. Most synagogues and cemeteries, especially in the Conservative Jewish denomination, don’t have this prohibition.
My mom knew this, but she never disabused Eli of the notion.
(In the end, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery of the synagogue we grew up in, next to the plot now reserved for my parents—tattoos and all.)
Friends often ask me whether I’ll get more, now that I’ve broken the seal. “They’re addicting, aren’t they?” they say.
But what else is this permanent? What else, besides death, is so final I would need to ink it, irrevocably, onto my body, into my skin?
My mom is the one who put words to it, who crafted the epitaph we would put on Eli’s tombstone, alongside the dates, traditional Jewish inscriptions, and the visual poem (in the correct order and orientation).
In Jewish liturgy, we say the phrase, “Inscribe it on your heart.”
On the tombstone (as a joke; as something serious) we wrote:
He loved, he was loved, he is tattooed on our hearts.
This is the truth.
Hannah Grace Nemetz Todd is a freelance writer and theater director based in Chicago. Hannah has worked for 13 years as a professional ghostwriter writing books for business and thought leaders. She is just starting to pursue publishing her own writing. Hannah holds a B.A. from Hampshire College and an M.F.A. from Northwestern University. Her directing work can be found at hannahtodddirector.com, and more information about her ghostwriting can be found at linkedin.com/in/hannah-todd-writes.