Should I Dump A Guy Because He Has Stupid Tattoos?
I want to write you one of those I-just-started-dating-a-great-guy-except-for-one-thing questions, but the truth is that this one thing is so big for me that I’m not sure if I am dating a great guy. Not that he’s a bad person or anything, but I’m afraid he’s just… stupid.
He has a big tattoo that says “Harley Davidson.” On his chest, over his heart. In orange and black. It’s particularly bizarre because he only ever owned a motorcycle for six months. I’m not against tattoos, in theory; I plan to get one myself when I graduate. I even think they’re sexy, when done well. But I think they should either be graphically beautiful in themselves, or express something meaningful to the owner, and the idea that the one thing he wanted to carry with him for the rest of his life is a logo is just appalling to me. He’s a really smart guy, too — he’s in grad school on scholarship, and he’s specializing in victorian poetry. He also has another tattoo — a two-inch-wide red heart on his rib cage with a gothic “S” in the middle, that stands for his high school girlfriend. I don’t care about the girlfriend, since it was like ten years ago; but I can’t help but think that he was that guy in high school and that I always told myself I’d never, under any circumstances, date that guy. You know?
I strive to think subtly; I value reflectiveness and the well-reasoned life. I value eloquence, poetry, sincerity. And I get the sense that he does, too, when I talk to him; I haven’t met someone I like talking to this much for a while now. But then I take his shirt off and see these two big blaring billboards saying “NOT SUBTLE-MINDED.” What the hell? Should I take it as a sign that it’s not going to work out? Is it possible that he was once that guy but changed somewhere down the line — or that he had successful corrective brain surgery or something? I don’t want to dismiss someone I’m hitting it off with for trivial reasons but I can’t see my way out of this one. When I look at them, I’m almost embarrassed that I’m having sex with that, and then I’m embarrassed that I feel that way, because I’d never want anyone to feel that way about me… it’s hopeless, isn’t it? But then why does it seem so promising?
- not to0 late to turn around
PS I haven’ talked about them with him, except to ask who the “S” in the heart was after the first time we had sex. I caved; I nodded seriously when he explained it, even though I was mortified for him. Also, the sex is great, once I forget about the tats.
Dear Not Too Late,
I think it’s insightful that you use the word “embarrassed.” I’ve gone on a lot of bad dates in my relatively short lifetime — it seems to be a rite of passage in this city — and the feeling is familiar. I particularly remember one guy going on about how the works of Shakespeare should be abridged because they were “too wordy,” he ought to “cut to the chase”; “let’s face it: all those soliloquies are boring” — mercilessly ignoring my wincing hints that we should drop the subject. I was embarrassed for him, I was embarrassed for myself, I was embarrassed to have kissed the lips that were saying the appalling words; I wanted to be anywhere but in that beautifully-lit trattoria; I wanted to turn back time and un-learn what I’d just learned about him to save myself the embarrassment. And there are smaller ways to embarrass a person, too; acting embarrassed about asking someone out, acting awkward about sex, asking questions that expose how little you know about the person (“so, do you do anything, like… artistic?”) — there are big blunders and little blunders; sometimes on dates I think I’m just counting down the minutes until one of us screws it up irrevocably and tramples down the little bud of the conversation, the hopes involved, the attraction.
A friend of mine once told an terrific story at a party about a guy who farted loudly, and then made a joke about it, right after they had had what my friend had thought was transcendentally beautiful sex. Even as we were laughing about it, we all understood that at the time, it could only have felt painfully embarrassing; we were laughing because every one of us had once felt the same way, I suppose. But where does that sensation come from? It’s hard to explain; it’s hard even to describe; and after thinking about it, I have the sense that if I could explain the feeling, I’d no longer have to feel it. It comes from feeling that you look foolish — for taking yourself seriously, I guess; for thinking that you were having transcendent sex, or a meaningful conversation, or a subtle relationship, and then being disproven so succinctly. In bildungsroman novels, the moment of critical, painful embarrassment comes from failing to observe or understand some sort of socioeconomic class distinction, looking clumsy; the modern equivalent is dated humor, braggadocio, the belief that you appear unique or impressive when you don’t seem that way to others; saying or doing things sincerely that are too easily predicted and parodied.
I think that’s why humor solves these problems so deftly. If embarrassment comes from the gap between how you see yourself and how others see you, then demonstrating that you do understand — demonstrating self-awareness — makes it funny instead of unnerving. The laughter that arises from this kind of humor marks the joy of release from a certain set of fears that are easier to intuit than articulate. I bet that if you asked him outright, and he made a cute, self-deprecating joke, one that demonstrated affection for his younger self, as well as an implicit understanding of how absurd the tattoos are, you’d find it charming.
But you haven’t asked; I suspect that you fear that if you did, he’d say something serious about Harleys instead of something cute and redeeming, and force you to either laugh (making you feel like a dick) or nod seriously (making you feel like a loser). I don’t blame you; I’d be afraid, too.
Really, though, as far as tattoos go, it could be worse. It could be a portrait of Ayn Rand or a copy of whatever Megan Fox has tattooed on herself. It could be misspelled in a language he can’t read, or worse, misspelled in English. It could be a tiger with his dick for its tail. I know a guy who had his own name tattooed on himself because he thought it looked cool; that would be pretty bad, too. At least his tattoo probably stands for an ideology — something Easy Rider-ish, something he once thought was subtle and expansive, probably a stand-in for a whole lifestyle he wanted to commit to. It might look foolish now, but at least it was once romantic; it’s better than Tweety Bird or some shit, right?
After he published Epipsychidion, now one of his most famous poems, Percy Shelley became embarrassed by it and tried to have it removed from future printings. In the poem, he compares his beloved Emilia Viviani to an angel, a star, the sun, the moon, and a number of other fairly conventional things, with the utmost sincerity, piling trope onto trope; but by the time the poem was published, he was no longer in love with her and considered the whole affair mildly humiliating (as did his wife Harriet, who was never totally on board with the free-love thing).
But if you think about it, isn’t that the mark of real love? Shamelessness — fearlessness, even of embarrassment and cliché? That leap of faith — being inspired to suspend the cynicism and self-doubts you normally carry like a mantle? To be willing to use words like “forever?” To know how absurd you’re being but keep going anyway?
The body-art world has been in a state of upheaval over the last few years over a product called InfinitInk, which is black tattoo pigment that can be removed in one to three lazar sessions because it’s composed of tiny spheres containing the beads of nontoxic ink, which are burst by vibrations of certain frequencies, letting your body wash the dye away. In some ways, it’s the perfect solution: the tattoos are permanent until you decide you don’t want them any more, and then they’re easy and safe to remove. But the existence of that ink also changes what it means to get a tattoo, in terms of commitment. And it changes what it means to have one, too. That change has already become irrevocable, and the more popular the technology becomes, the less resolution each tattoo will show. Some opportunity to prove that one is “hardcore,” in the old sense of the word, will be gone forever, for better or for worse.
What your boyfriend is is a romantic. He’s someone who once believed in something so strongly that he had it permanently etched into his flesh, and not with InfinitInk, either. He’s someone who’s been in love before — with an idea and with a person. It probably turned out that “S” wasn’t who he thought she was; and he probably realized that motorcycles are actually just dangerous, uncomfortable, and a pain in the ass. It turned out Bialystock’s play was a flop, too, but Bloom still defended him — because even though they didn’t pull it off, they still had a vision together, and it was beautiful, even if it wasn’t real. Your boyfriend is someone who’s made that leap of faith; he’s someone who once thought that two wheels and an ignition key would solve all his problems. Yes, he’s an idiot; but aren’t we all, at our best moments? I once thought that having the perfect leather jacket would make my life beautiful, that drinking bad beer on a chilly rooftop with a couple of stoners was the greatest thing I’d ever done (and I don’t even like beer); I still wish I could go back to those days and those beliefs. It’s not possible, of course; and it makes me ache now to go into Search and Destroy and find myself unable to see the aging punk population there with the naive admiration I once cherished — just as it aches to remember out of the blue, as I did yesterday, how catastrophic it felt when two of my best friends didn’t speak for a week because one of them told the other that he liked Zeppelin better than the Beatles. But I have hope that new, subtler ideals will replace the old ones, that I’ll find new ways to find life meaningful; and I suspect your boyfriend — who is, after all, a grad student — harbors similar hopes as well. Don’t write him off just yet. He fell for things he’s now disillusioned with, and he’ll probably be more careful with his heart in the future; but he’s still pursuing something, taking risks, and that’s admirable. You could be that thing for him; he could be that thing for you. Or it might not work. But don’t you think it’s worth the risk and the effort to find out?
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