He came from Florida, though I forgot which part as soon as he said it. Definitely not Miami. His skin was a fierce pink and he wore a turquoise Marlins baseball cap on backwards, a loose-fitting tank top, and board shorts. Pudgy, thirty-something, and reeking of booze. Something about the guy I liked. He had a big drunk laugh and seemed unstable in a refreshing way.
That afternoon in Puerto Vallarta was golden and sweaty. Tourists stumbled down the buckled sidewalk, blinking into shadowy knickknack shops. Local children worked the crowd with gap-toothed smiles and distended bellies, hawking gum and wilted roses. I’d ducked into a tattoo parlor to soak up the air conditioning and browse the wall. The designs were neither good nor bad. Your standard-issue skulls with serpents threading through vacant eye sockets. Over-complicated, uninteresting tattoos.
“R’you gonna get one too?” Florida slurred.
“Just browsing,” I answered flatly, in no mood for a drunken come-on.
“Bet your ass I’m getting my first tat today.” He squinted up at the designs on the wall. “Help me pick it.”
I laughed, feeling myself get reeled in. “You have to choose your own tattoo. Unwritten rule.”
“But what looks badass?”
I pointed to a full back piece depicting the Grim Reaper riding a skeleton horse through a winter forest, scythe swinging. It was awful.
“Okay, bro,” he said, lips pursed, a game-for-anything face. “What one are you getting?”
I shook my head. “Broke.”
“No way!” he boomed, pointing a booze-swollen finger at me. “No fucking way, bro. If I’m getting tatted, you’re getting tatted.” He waved blearily at the wall. “Want the Reaper? I’m buying.”
From the start, our connection was shifty, nonsensical. I remember liking that he called me bro, even though that kind of compulsive nicknaming usually annoyed me. He seemed sincere about it. Like he really needed a bro—in my case, a female bro.
Any other time in my life, I would’ve brushed him off, but Florida caught me in an unusual state of mind. I’d been traveling for almost a year. I was still crazy with road magic, overdosed on freedom. No order, no rules, zero plan. Open to suggestions.
In February of 2000, ten months earlier, I’d sold everything that wouldn’t fit into a backpack and left for Spain with a one-way ticket. It wasn’t a calm decision. Since graduating high school, I’d been acutely aware of my future pressing in on me, the options dizzying. I’d gotten a dull office job and watched five years zoom past, while I agonized over my directionlessness from the confines of a cubicle—so afraid of choosing the wrong path that I went nowhere. At twenty-two, I felt trapped inside a version of myself I didn’t respect. Spain was my emergency ejection seat.
Several months into my trip, I read a sidebar in a travel guide about the Camino de Santiago, a 790-kilometer pilgrimage across Iberia—from the French Pyrenees to the Atlantic Ocean. I felt compelled. Catholicism didn’t interest me, but the idea of a destination did. I began the long walk confident that I would find myself along the way.
The trail toward Santiago de Compostela is marked by golden arrows. Embedded in cobblestones, spray-painted on tree trunks, carved into walls. Whenever I began to worry that I’d gone astray, I’d spot an arrow and relax. Following was a kind of bliss, the sensation of being led, an ecstasy all its own. Through mountain ranges, medieval villages, booming metropolises, swaths of farmland, deserts and suburbs, no matter what unfolded around or inside me, my directive remained simple: walk forward.
The arrows silenced my anxiety. In this new quiet, the world around me came alive, like that moment where Dorothy steps into Oz and sees color for the first time. I’d expected to spend the pilgrimage figuring out my future; instead I learned to inhabit the present.
The pilgrimage technically ended at a lavish Cathedral in Compostela, but the trail continued another forty kilometers to the cliffs of Finisterre—the end of the earth. High on the cliff, beside a bronze sculpture of a hiking boot with its laces undone, there was a smoldering fire pit in which pilgrims could burn their walking sticks, symbolizing the journey’s completion.
But fire seemed too final; I wasn’t ready for the end. Standing at the cliff’s ragged edge, I threw my walking stick into the churning waves 450 feet below, then Frisbeed my battered straw hat, and watched the current suck them out to sea. I imagined jumping in after them. Not as a suicide, though of course it would have been, but as a way of continuing forward.
I had run out of arrows.
Withdrawal left me spinning, but I was determined not to return to my old anxious life. I spun through France, Italy, and Austria in a kind of feckless mania. Rootless, routeless, and broke. Toward Christmas, my mom begged me to visit her where she lived in Mexico. “Just rest for a while,” she said. “Collect your thoughts.”
I needed a support group for recovering pilgrims. I settled for two-for-one piña coladas on the beach in Puerto Vallarta.
Florida was wheedling. “You don’t understand,” run together like youdonunnerstann. “My whole fam-damily is here for a reunion thing. Like twenty of us. I gotta have fucking breakfast with them tomorrow. Now’s the time, bro. Don’t make me do it alone.”
Was there a glimmer in his bloodshot eyes? A clue to what seethed beneath the jolly demeanor?
I didn’t notice. The truth is that I’d awoken in the dark hours of the morning with an image sharp in my mind: Santiago’s golden arrow, wrapped in blue and purple flames, with a spiral in the arrow’s head. Still riding the edge of my dream, I’d sketched the design in colored pencil. My pilgrimage tattoo! It would go on my upper arm, arrow pointing ahead—an affirmation that I was on a pilgrimage through life. I only had to keep following my arrow forward. There were no wrong turns.
I wanted to shop around for a skilled tattooist to render my simple design with panache. Then along came Florida with his urgency, his uncanny timing.
Florida claimed that all he wanted in exchange for my $350 tattoo was a temporary partner in crime. I didn’t believe him, but I couldn’t walk away. It was too much: to dream a tattoo, and the next day to have a complete stranger insist on buying it for me.
“Come on, bro,” he said. “Let’s do this fucking thing.”
Who was I to turn away providence?
The tattoo artist had a swimmer’s shoulders and light green eyes. He wore a Slayer bandana, like a heavy metal pirate from 1987, though he couldn’t have been older than twenty. I peered into the grimy corners of his workspace. This wasn’t my first tattoo, so I knew I could handle the sting. My fears were of bad art and dirty needles.
I explained in Spanish that I wanted to use my own design but had left it at home. The tattooist shrugged his gorgeous shoulders, pretending not to care if he made money or not. In the shadows of his high cheekbones, there were acne scars that didn’t quite undo his good looks.
Florida planted his index finger on a generic stencil of two dolphins circling nose to tail. “I’ll do this one.” The size of a silver dollar, it looked like something a teenage girl might get on her ankle.
“Oooh, badass,” I teased.
My arrow would be a commitment to my new personal philosophy; I won’t lie, I felt superior. The tattooist loaned me paper and colored pencils to recreate my design. I flexed my fingers as if warming up to cast a delicate spell, and tried to summon the dialed-in feeling I’d had while drawing the original.
Florida straddled the tattoo chair, akin to a dentist’s chair crossed with a mall massage station. He reluctantly removed his tank top, exposing a pale, fleshy torso. I could picture him wearing his shirt on the beach, even in the ocean. Not wanting to be the fat guy in front of his family, in front of tan girls in bikinis and brown boys body-surfing. I felt a sympathetic pang. As a chubby kid, I’d often worn a T-shirt over my swimsuit. I smiled in what I hoped was a reassuring way.
The tattooist applied the dolphin stencil to Florida’s lower back, just above his plumber’s crack, and then loaded a sterilized needle into the tattoo gun. “Listo?” he asked.
“Whoooooo!” Florida howled. “Here we go!”
The gun buzzed. When the needle made contact with Florida’s skin, he jerked away.´
The tattooist frowned. “Dígale que si se mueve así, lo voy a fregar.”
“If you keep moving he’s going to screw it up,” I translated.
“Okay,” Florida’s eyes were wild. “I can take it.”
But he couldn’t. When the needle touched down, he let rip a full-throated scream. People passing the shop paused to stare through the window.
The tattooist gave me a look like, What’s with your friend?
I shrugged. Don’t look at me, I just met the guy.
Tattoos hurt, but it was a pain you could climb into, a pleasant pain. Florida’s reaction seemed completely disproportionate.
“Just breathe,” I said, feeling ridiculous. “Breathe into the pain.” I sounded like a Lamaze coach.
Florida’s face rinsed pale to pink to pale. Sweat oozed from his brow. “Fuckin-A,” he moaned. “That hurts !” Outside, little kids were pounding the pavement—deprived of education, playtime, nutrition. And here this drunkard was screaming himself hoarse over the sting of a tiny self-inflicted tattoo in the small of his pudgy back.
It was impossible to concentrate. I rushed through my drawing distractedly, hoping the tattooist would smooth the messy lines.
“Tequila,” Florida panted. “I need tequila.”
The tattooist rolled his eyes. “Vas a sangrar más.”
“It’ll make you bleed more,” I said.
“Come on, bro.” Florida held out his wallet. “Get us a bottle. And Marlboros.”
When I returned, we took a smoke break out on the sidewalk, passing the bottle back and forth. The sunset was going full blast: salmon, lemon, hibiscus. Some pop monstrosity wafted up the street from Señor Frog’s.
Florida was rambling about his family. “Twenty, thirty of us,” he slurred. “Don’t even fucking know, lost count. Grandparents, aunts . . .” He homed in on my eyes. “And her. She’s killing me.”
There it was.
Florida begged me not to judge him and I said I wouldn’t. The liquor was kicking in, and the street seemed to wobble as the story tumbled out of him. I sensed he’d never told anyone before. The girl was his first cousin. She was fifteen to his thirty-seven. He claimed to be in love.
“She’s so beautiful,” he said, tears spilling from red-rimmed eyes. “And just relentless. I mean, the way she teases.” His voice was heavy and damp. “She says we can’t be together. You know, because we’re cousins? She says I’m ruining her life, that I’d better stop bugging her or she’ll tell her parents. So I say, okay, she’s right, I won’t go near her. Then yesterday she dragged me into an empty room at the hotel—like a banquet room?—and sucked me off right there.”
I didn’t know what to say.
When I was fifteen, I dated a twenty-one-year-old. At seventeen, I spent a year with a man of forty-six. These relationships were consensual, and neither left me scarred beyond ordinary break-up blues. In my admittedly unorthodox view, morality came down to a question of will. Was Florida abusing his young cousin or was she exercising agency? Probably the former. Probably the worst case scenario. I pictured his sweaty flesh heaped on top of some lithe teen and my guts recoiled.
But nothing under the sun is simple.
Here was a guy who needed to cry so badly that he bought a dolphin tattoo just so he could break down. The taboo nature of his misery meant he couldn’t seek advice, though he obviously needed it. I felt sorry for him. Villain or not.
“Do you think blow jobs count, bro?” he asked, his expression utterly earnest.
“Yeah,” I said, handing the bottle back. “Blow jobs definitely count.”
After Florida went back inside, I lingered on the sidewalk. Vacation nightlife bustled around me, people dragging each other from bar to bar to bar, laughing maniacally. What was I supposed to do with this information—find the cousin’s parents and warn them? Should I be so disgusted as to immediately sever contact? And what would happen to the grand significance of my tattoo if I got it in cahoots with this effed-up individual?
Then there was this: If there were no wrong turns for me, did that mean there were no wrong turns for Florida?
There were no answers forthcoming, only doubts.
There was a golden arrow on a sketchpad in the shop.
I chased it back inside.
That night, I watched the shit show of Florida’s process, the total collapse of whatever self-control he’d brought to Puerto Vallarta. The pain reduced him to babyhood, to a quivering puddle. But even as Florida’s secret repulsed me, it made me understand that he was on a hard walk. Trying to find his way, getting lost, trying again. I had judged his dolphin tattoo as trite, but there was nothing trite about what he was going through, the demons he faced.
When my turn in the chair came, I wore a tough face, as though I could make up for my accomplice’s weakness with my strength. I was the balls of the operation.
Now the night came in flashes. A stab of pain, a bright gleam of metal, an electrical cord like a snake on the floor. The music playing in the shop, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, an album I used to know by heart. The insectivore buzz of the gun, the sewing-machine action of the needle. I recall trying to own the significance of the moment. Eyes closed, I thought into the dark, Keep moving forward. There are no wrong turns.
With four colors, my tattoo took nearly three hours. Florida chattered away, the ultimate coach. “You’re doing great!” he said. “You’re making me look like a pussy!”
When Florida had been in the chair, I’d been too embarrassed by his emoting to offer much encouragement. But Florida withheld nothing. He was twice the bro.
I tried to focus on my pilgrim-ness, but my mind kept winding back to Florida and his illicit journey, his pilgrim-ness. There are no wrong turns. I clung to that phrase. But how could there be no wrong turns when Florida was out there making them? Doubts arose, even as the symbol was permanently etched into my skin. When the tattooist shaded the tender underside of my triceps, the needle retracing its own wounded path, I flinched.
“Bro, you got this,” Florida said.
I got this, bro.
My arrow is sloppy, as anybody can see. The spiral bleeds into itself and the outline is wobbly. Whether because of my distracted drawing in the shop, or because the tattooist joined us in a few shots, life intruded and made a mess. But I don’t mind the flaws. The blurriness makes it more accurate, a truer representation of an imperfect philosophy.
When people ask about my tattoo, I don’t mention Florida.
I stick to the part about the pilgrimage. People say, Oh, I’ve always wanted to do that! or I could never walk that far! It goes over well.
Florida is the sticky underside of the story, the part that’s difficult to explain, the most important part. I recall how his emotional nakedness humbled me—weakness so blatant that it turned the corner and became bravery. And, ultimately, how he saved me from my own hubris by ensuring I don’t go around thinking I’ve got life figured out. He’s out there somewhere, my bro, and I hope he’s not hurting anyone and I hope he’s okay.
When it was over, Florida didn’t invite me back to his hotel or out for a drink—a relief. He didn’t ask for my e-mail or phone number. I remember the steady burn of my arrow, the night breeze like another kind of burn on my angry skin, my throat aching from too many cigarettes. There was the post-tattoo high, the slow ebb of adrenaline. We smiled, we swayed on our feet.
“We’re blood brothers now,” Florida said. “Always and always.”
I wanted to encourage him to find someone else to love, a woman his age, who wasn’t family. Someone less confusing. I wanted to tell him to spend his money on a good shrink instead of tattoos and tequila. I said none of this, only, “Thanks for the tattoo.”
We hugged awkwardly, bro-pats on the back, and got into separate taxis.
I gave the driver my mom’s address, and we pulled into the street behind Florida’s cab. I could see his bulky silhouette resting against the car door, his head tipped out the open window. Whether he was queasy or just wanted to feel the night air on his face, I don’t know. At the end of the block, Florida’s taxi turned west toward the big resorts that lined the beach. That was the last I saw of him.
My cab headed inland, away from the tourist drag and into a residential neighborhood. The heady scent of grilling meat bloomed from a roadside taco stand, and beneath that, I smelled the briny Pacific and notes of raw sewage. A soccer ball zinged out of an alley and ricocheted off the taxi; the driver cussed out the window. My arm was aflame, the pain mounting as the endorphins faded. I had failed to burn my walking stick at Finisterre, but I was on fire now. This marked the true end of my holy walk, and the first steps down a new path. The arrow etched into my flesh urged me onward through the city.