“There are many ways to drown. Only the most obvious wave their arms as they’re going under.” — Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
I stare at the drowning man, but I don’t do anything. His head is just above the water. He is waving his arms.
After a while, I turn and walk away.
My friend Max sprawled into a re-purposed dentist’s chair in a grimy Twentynine Palms tattoo parlor and held his shaved arm out from his side like he was about to give blood.
“How much,” I asked the tattooist, “for the sign in the bathroom?”
The tattooist’s ten-year-old boy butted in, “Two hundred.”
“No way,” I say.
“How much, really?” I asked the tattooist.
“He found it, ask him.”
“Two hundred,” the kid said again.
I don’t regret the tattoo
A year later and 600 miles away in Colorado, I drew the drowning man from memory and had him tattooed on my right shoulder blade.
All my other tattoos are on my arms, where I can see them. They are oriented right-side-up for me, upside-down for everyone else.
A psychologist friend once pointed out that the orientation is unusual.
I put the drowning man where I couldn’t see him.
I’ve never regretted getting the tattoo of the drowning man, but I regret putting him on my back, where I can’t see him.
Everything was fine
A couple of years after inking the drowning man into my skin, I found a poem in the alley running next to my house in Reno.
Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning describes a dead man lying on a beach, moaning, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. Nobody hears him.
The onlookers guess the cold water killed him. The dead man moans that he was always cold, that he was “not waving but drowning.”
Reading Not Waving But Drowning felt like reading about my life. But I only admitted that to myself when I was alone in my basement, writing, which wasn’t often.
It didn’t fit the image I had of myself, which was the image I projected, which was that everything was fine.
What the hell is water?
At a commencement ceremony in 2005, David Foster Wallace told a fish story. It went something like this:
Two young fish are swimming through the water.
An older fish swims by.
“Morning boys,” the older fish says. “How’s the water?”
The two young fish swim away.
A while later, one young fish says to the other, “What the hell is water?’
The point being, sometimes the hardest things to see are the ones that surround us.
I was drowning
I was in my thirties when I realized that my water had always been loneliness and that I’d been drowning for as long as I could remember.
I wasn’t waving, not because I was cryptic, but because I wasn’t honest enough or brave enough to admit I was drowning. I thought — or had convinced myself — that the panicked flailing I was doing was called swimming.
Eventually, I realized that in drawing the no-swimming sign from memory I’d created a self-portrait.
Eventually, I realized that when I saw the sign in the tattoo shop bathroom, I might as well have been looking in a mirror.
Now, after more than a year of writing steadily, I know I was lonely because by not writing, or only writing sometimes, I wasn’t being true to myself.
Now I’m writing full-time and though I don’t need to see the drowning man every day, I’m glad he’ll always be with me as a reminder.
Suggested musical accompaniment: How to Fight Loneliness by Wilco.
© Copyright 2020 by Jim Latham