Ink and night fell together moons ago with tattoos I kept getting after bars as a young man.
Some of those tats were later removed by virtue of a strongly worded gift certificate from my first wife. But among the tattoos that survived her stern largesse–those not emblazoned with the names of pre-marital lovers or lovely muses–there is one unique work of art still gracing my body for which I thank another woman, Alessandra Portinari, an Italian beauty I met during grad school in her tattoo shop in Venice.
“You have women all over you,” she said with a light Italian accent as her hand brushed and poked across my back, shoulders and chest.
Upon my request that she suggest a new design, Alessandra had ordered me to take off my shirt and jeans so she could see my other tattoos. It would have seemed an audacious demand except that her shop was near the beach and she herself still wore just a bikini and t-shirt from the day that was passing along with sun into the sea.
And while I found her to be mesmerizing, she found my appearance amusing. She chuckled as her fingertip traced a name above my left nipple. Then she kneeled to study with mock-seriousness my thighs and calves.
“What can I add to such a tapestry? she asked peering up at me with a wry Mona Lisa smile. “To such a life?”
I had been holding my breath. Standing there practically naked and having this gorgeous artist run her knowing fingers over my skin and ink had me riveted to every second that passed between us. The evening stirred me and my dreams then and for years to come.
“A couple of them are muses,” I managed to say. ”Were muses.” Which was true. I had tattoos of suns, moons, one eclipse, and then five women in name or face or body in various places. Of the women, I had been with three but with the other two I had never even so much as exchanged words.
“Muses? Alessandra stood up. “Are you telling me you’re a poet or something?”
The yea, I’m a poet exchange was one with which I could usually secure the next month of evenings with a woman. Back then, before MTV videos, iPods and tweets, they wanted to spend time with poets. And at age 25 I already had a few seeming bona fides. But there in her shop, with her fingertips on my skin and pulse, we both knew I couldn’t bullshit her.
“I used to think so,” I heard myself saying, “but I’ve been recently disabused of that notion.” I tell her my novella-in-verse about the Conquest has been rejected by numerous publishers, and that I’ll never have the nerve to write again.
“You are young to make such a decision, but I believe you,” She led me back a couple steps to her chair. “Dear Miguel, please sit up here and put your feet up. I have something in mind for you.”
I sat down and tried to relax. Alessandra had put both hands on my right bicep and its yet virgin skin. She was massaging its inside with her thumbs. “Yes, I have something in mind for this spot here.”
She worked with intensity, heightening for me the occasional brushes with her barely clad body. In a mesmerizing accent, she told me of the parallel lives led by the great Dante Alighieri and then Alessandra’s own current lover, a fire-breathing poet in Italy. Just as those poets and their creations were emerging from lives underground, her narration and work came to an end together. Alessandra showed me the tattoo: in the perfect calligraphy of a 14th century Italian manuscript, she had inked the final line of Dante’s The Inferno:
“E quindi uscimmo a rivider le stelle.” And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.
The Dante tattoo is twenty-five years old and my bicep isn’t what it was, but just as a great tombstone artist’s symbols and words survive the centuries of weather, Alesandra’s ink and lettering looks as fresh as they did that night in her shop. Future gift certificates notwithstanding, her tattoo will follow me and my bicep to our grave.
“This line is really about his love for a woman,” Alessandra said while covering the new tattoo with oil, finally sharing a bit of idealism with me. “Crawling through Hell, he thought of Beatrice so much that in this first moment out of Hell, he’s looking up at the sky for her.”
That’s not exactly what Dante says, but I’ve done enough crawling since first meeting Alessandra to begin to believe in her interpretation. The real Beatrice died when Dante was 25, and whether it’s he, Keats, Bulgakov, or Neruda writing about a starry sky, every hombre’s really thinking about all the women who left them in one way or another. My women being in numbers that could fill the winter sky with constellations but my soul not strong enough to crawl out of Hell to behold any better than I do.