I write this quickly, while losing my memory. Call it a desperate attempt to get something into the public record -or at least some sort of hope that I'm living a nightmare and will soon, awaken. My name is Tom, I grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and am forty years old.
When 'they' became obvious to me is still uncertain. For argument's sake, let's just say I was around 8 years old. In the two caste system of the sixty's, us normal people always noticed the tattoo on the right wrist of the other caste. We called those with the tattoos - 'Tats' - and we stayed away from them knowing that they were different. Jealousy always played a major role and I can remember some of my public (elementary) school experiences involving the Tats. Just give me two minutes alone with one! But I know, that was not possible, the two castes - n e v e r - mixed.
Oh, and their tattoo was uuugly. I mean it was as if they were wearing a watch band. Solid black, one inch thick around the entire right wrist. I didn't know, couldn't know, or even imagine, that my jealousy of the Tats was just beginning. You see, I was 13 now and a new 7th grader. Forget the baby stuff of elementary school, I was now noticing girls! The Junior High was a great place. Girls, sports, girls, and other opportunities were available for any handsome young man, like myself. The only problem for me (and my normal friends), was that work and grades came - absolutely first. The teachers made sure we understood this and the Superintendent of schools would fine our parents heavily if we even thought about failing. Then, of course, there were the Tats.
What a life! They still had no exams. They would all flirt in the hallways and the boys and girls would be making-out like there was no tomorrow. In the few cases where we tested together, the Tats always seemed brighter. No homework, no studying, how could they achieve these results? Even rarer would be a fight between a normie and a Tat. All out of rage I'm sure. I just can't understand why they always seemed to be a step quicker, sharper, or smarter. What really pissed me (and my friends) off was the fact that after one of these fights, the normie was always suspended. You can imagine what his parents would do to him with the fines and embarrassment, and all. I mean, the next day the Tat in the fight would be back in school. His friends and the Tat girls would be laughing. And you call this justice! Is this fair? Do we have equal rights???
That's pretty much the way it ran through Junior High School. I probably, most definitely, had more questions than answers. Even during the summer recess, before stepping up to the Senior High School, was an event. In some cases we appreciated being normies. It was a pleasure to walk the streets of Flatbush. One second you could be passing Macy's, the next second your nostrils would be teased with the unparalleled aromas from the local Kosher Deli. This was, of course, between working two jobs, four days a week. Parents had it much harder, but we were on break. I guess we just did our part to keep society going. Jealousy is a word that just flames out of me. You see, the Tats didn't have to work. They were enjoying the summer as if it were retirement. Oh the arrogant gall. Just when I couldn't stand it anymore I somehow noticed that adults my parent's age hinted moments of respect toward the Tats. In other words, as we passed the Tats on the streets my parents would nod, smile, or tip their hats with courtesy. I mean, can you just vomit? Working my butt off -- for what?
My hands tremble as I recall the 'other' summer happening. My friends and I swore our selves to secrecy. In no way can this be revealed while I'm still alive, but I must, at least for the public record's sake, let you know the truth. My friends and I challenged the Tats to a game of football. Yes, no adults knew of this 'mixed' event, and even the Tats agreed to keep the secret. There we were, in the game of our lives. Us against them, no parents, teachers, or other adults to stop 'the' challenge. Mixed company was taboo but we wanted to kick some butt, if you hear me talking. Our best players were inspiring. I mean, we signed up the entire Ja football team. We knew we would win! Then the game started and when we disguised plays right, only to run left, they were waiting for us. When we adjusted our defense to be waiting for them, they readjusted their offense. Every step of the way we were outplayed. They were the same size as us too, so we can't use that excuse. But late in the fourth quarter, when we were exhausted the Tats seemed to appreciate their youth more. They were happy and getting happier. How embarrassed we were but knew it was our secret. Shut out, outplayed, and out foxed, we left with our heads bowed down in defeat only having, more questions.
After all that, us normies headed to Senior High School with a new air of respect. We still hated the Tats but were at least athletically impressed. Maybe I could answer some questions if I could meet (secretly) with one of the Tat boys I played football against during the summer. Half in shame, and half with curiosity, I walked the hallways of our new school. All seemed about right. My friends and I were there, the two caste system had, an as usual, fifty - fifty ratio, but something just seemed unfamiliar to me. I couldn't find one of the Tats we had played football against last summer. I mean, not one!
One Tat (I secretly talked with) called me a nut for even trying to find the Tats from the past. I guess it's that mixed company taboo thing. Anyway, more questions. How can an entire football team just up, and disappear? Not that high school years were any different than the junior high years. All the pressure was on the normies. Jealously (did I use that word already) still was more present than ever, and life and youth, still belonged to the Tats. Just watching the boy and girl Tats enjoying each others company seemed exaggerated. Summers, work, and future semesters were all identical. No sense to rehash each year. Just look what I said about junior high. It's virtually, all the same.
Then came graduation. My friends, parents, and I were all so proud. I just (in the back of my mind) wondered what happened to the Tats we played football against? Why aren't they here graduating in front of their parents? I still don't like them but I feel as if I'm freaking out or something. Following graduation there was no summer off.
Immediate employment, two jobs a day, six days a week was a necessity for our society to survive. You know by now that the normies shouldered all of the burden, even for the Tats. I had until age 20, to get married and start reproducing. If I could not select a mate in time, one would be assigned. Marriage and starting a family all happened on the weekends. There was no vacation. Do it on your one and one-half days off, we were told. Forgot to mention that we only worked one job on Saturdays. In between having the two or three required children, the normie women all worked one job a day, six days a week. All of this was accepted and I'm not sure why I seemed to be the only one with questions. You can imagined we all worked like dogs. I'll spare you the details of how my wife, children, and I survived. So much pressure and so little time. I don't mean to leave anything out but let me continue on, at least for the public record's sake because I am already losing my memory.
Everything was much the same as I described up until I hit age 39. That morning I arose and as customary on each one of my birthdays, I took a brisk walk around the neighborhood. My bad knee was acting up as usual. Everything was as usual with nothing new. That is, nothing new until I started to open my front door following my walk. I noticed that as I turned the door knob that I appeared to have some dirt (or something) on my right wrist. It was just up the arm from the wrist joint and slightly above the protruding bone about 3 ½ inches from the pinky. I tried to wash it off but could not. It's probable thickness, only 1/32nd of an inch, drawn around my wrist like wrist like a bracelet. Surely worried, embarrassed, and a mixture of emotions attacked me. I was no Tat, but I wasn't exactly a normie anymore either. I kind of wore long sleeves and kept it a secret.
Now you're almost caught up to date. Age 39 came and went, and 40 was upon me. Before leaving my house for my traditional walk, I slowly glanced down at my right wrist. Can you believe that up the arm about one inch from the other slim dark bracelet, was indeed, another matching bracelet? I mean, they seemed to be tattoos. They didn't wash off or anything. My problem is I have too many questions. Do others know about these things? In my prime, 40 and proud! Education, careers, wife, children, all behind me, but what's ahead of me?
Today I found out. It was a year ago I turned 40 and I was thrilled to take my brisk birthday walk. I nervously avoided looking down at my right wrist. Everything was in place. Down Flatbush Avenue, over to Bedford, and past the Flatbush Boy's Club. The pace was great and the air was full, cool, and clean. I even noticed a little spring in my step. You probably wouldn't believe me if I told you that some of the arthritis I had in my bad knee actually didn't bother me as much. On the return trip I passed the P.A.L. and made a longer trip than usual by walking all the way up to Ocean Avenue. All the people seemed as nice as ever, some even more so. All as usual, until I saw a man of about 35 smiling to me while scolding his nervous little son. I remember those words perfectly. The man told his son, "don't worry, he's just a TAT". That second, I looked down to my wrist and noted how the area between the two bracelets was filled in. Dark and black! Yes, I now had the ugly black tattooed right wrist. Horrors I thought, as I somehow suddenly realized, that I just turned 39, again.
back to the Short Story Page.Tattoo Nightmare, 11 June 1997