The three of us had finished eating, but we kept picking at the small dishes in the center of the table – vinegar peanuts, stalks of garlic shoots, julienned carrots – well-past the point of being full, like we would at a restaurant in China.
“There’s an old saying in Chinese,” Bo said, switching into Mandarin. “It’s called ‘Blind Men Touching an Elephant.’” He looked around the table until his eyes met mine. “Have you heard of it?” Before I could answer, Jay set down his chopsticks and sighed.
“He’s always telling me stories like that,” he said, shaking his head jokingly. “Like I’m supposed to just know every chengyu in creation.” Of the thousands of chengyu – idiomatic proverbs – in Chinese, I’ve probably retained only a small handful of the ones I’ve learned over the years. Always consisting of four characters, they often mean nothing without explanation, and knowing the context for the story is crucial for interpreting the moral, much like an Aesop’s fable.
Jay made playful eyes at Bo, and I could tell he enjoyed the impromptu language lesson as much as me. Jay and Bo – one American, the other Chinese – had met in Beijing and had recently moved to Seattle. Spending time with them was like finding a little piece of China in the states – shoes stacked neatly by the door, a cast-iron wok hanging by the gas stove. It helped to stave off my occasional pining for life on the other side of the world, and I was grateful for it, if for no other reason than to reduce the things I felt missing in my new life.
“The saying goes like this,” Bo said, picking up a curlicue of spinach. “Four blind men come across an elephant in the woods.” The scene appeared to me more comical than the proverb probably intended – a line of men in tinted glasses and safari hats, goose-stepping through the forest.
“When they approach the elephant, each of the men ends up touching a different part,” Bo continued. “The first man holds the tail and thinks it’s a snake. The second touches the elephant’s leg and says it’s a pillar. The third man holds the elephant’s ear and calls it a fan. Finally, the last man reaches for the elephant’s trunk and decides it’s a tube.”
I interrupted Bo to ask him what the word “tube” was in English. I was following the conversation but it had been months since I’d heard Mandarin, and I had plenty of questions: What were four blind men doing in the forest? How did they manage to get around? Wouldn’t an elephant object to being prodded that way? It all sounded pretty dangerous, but the moral of the chengyu had nothing to do with wilderness safety or animal cruelty.
“The truth is that none of the men were correct,” Bo said, sipping from a glass of wine. “We have a tendency to overexaggerate what we think we know. By focusing on a single part, we lose sight of the whole.” Jay and I nodded our heads. “I think you have a word for it too,” he said, switching back into English, “tunnel vision.”
When I talk to friends about Seattle, I have a tendency to qualify my experience. Oftentimes, I tend to characterize it in opposition to somewhere else – New York, China – and how it doesn’t live up to those places in some way – the degree of exploration, the vibrancy of the social life. Even the more unsavory aspects of other places – the pollution or the commuting time – seem to get elevated by the same imbalanced appraisal. But holding fast to those small details over the big picture, much like the blind men, seems to miss the point. More often than not, it’s a defense mechanism; by speaking to what’s lacking in a given place, you emphasize what you hold dear: namely, that those friends – wherever they may be – are at the crux of my happiness, and can make any place feel like home.
Bo went to the fridge and took out a Tupperware of sliced watermelon for the table. I knew I needed to do a better job of broadening my perspective, to talk about my life in Seattle without being worried that friends outside the city would feel any less valued. But the whole time, my mind kept drifting back to the image in the chengyu: four men alone in the forest, with only each other and their hands at their disposal. Evidently, Jay was thinking about the same thing.
“It’s like whoever came up with that chengyu knew why every gay club has a back room,” he said, which to anyone else would have come off as a non-sequitur.
“A back room?” Bo asked, not seeing the connection between the statements.
“You know, where people go to feel like blind men,” he said, flashing a smile. “Groping around in the dark.”
“I can’t remember the last time I went to a night club,” May said, at an outdoor patio in Capitol Hill later that evening. It was a perfect 70-degree night – a hallmark of the Seattle summer – and May was joined by two other friends, Neela and Barb, whom she’d known from when she used to live in the city.
May, like Jay, was a friend of mine from college, and though she was from Seattle and had lived there well before I arrived, she was now based in Los Angeles and was just visiting for the weekend. She was wearing a loose-fitting blouse with sleeves down to her elbows, and had the assured, easy comportment of a transplant returning home for a limited time: gathering friends at her favorite places, with the assurance that almost no entreat would be too extravagant. I was certainly no exception. It had been years since I’d last seen May – at a birthday dinner in New York following my return from Beijing – and I was eager to make time to reconnect.
On the ledge encircling the patio at the bar was an organized array of miniature plastic dinosaurs, their colors prismatic from the neon glinting off the Rainier advert. One of the dinosaurs had a Mattel car in its mouth; another was eating a Batman action figure, its sinewy arm snapped off beneath. I ordered a veggie burger that was mostly brioche and a $3 PBR – a meal that could have passed anywhere from Portland to Williamsburg. I had been trying of late to eat less meat, but in a way that defied easy categorization. I tried to explain my particular situation to Neela, a real, card-carrying vegetarian.
“It’s like being a freegan,” I said, taking a chunk out of the bun. “I can only buy and cook vegetarian, but I can eat anything as long as it’s going to waste.”
“Or as long as a friend orders it,” May butted in, glaring impishly. The night before the two of us went to a karaoke bar in my neighborhood and ended up eating at a Chinese restaurant past 2AM. In every direction, the streets glistened with purple light shimmering off the neon signposts, evoking the guise of Beijing. We joked that night about a couple at the table in front of us that appeared to vanquish an entire banquet, and then we proceeded to do the same. May ordered a beef chow fun that I easily had most of, before I stumbled home to my empty apartment, hoarse and still tipsy, the world aglow just outside my kitchen window.
It had been months since I’d been out that late. Courtney was away at a bachelorette party in Napa Valley for the weekend, so it was just me, left to my own devices. It didn’t hurt that May was in town – which made going out to see her a prerogative – but it spoke to a greater phenomenon too. I find that I do things alone that I’m less apt to do with a partner – playing at being single gives you license to be more unhinged, to jump more fearlessly into the unknown. It had shades of my former life in Beijing, when every day felt like a new adventure. When we’re in relationships, we have other forces to reconcile, tradeoffs and compromises to make. But when you’re single, there’s only you, and less of an ability or willingness to make excuses.
“It’s true,” I said, giving a nod to May. “But even if I don’t support the industrial food system, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t still support my friend’s choices.” I smiled weakly, knowing full well the fallacy of my argument. But Neela simply nodded and went back to eating her Tuscan salad, the rest of us momentarily inured with our drinks.
“We should all get tattoos,” Barb perked up, having barely said a word for most of the evening. Barb had a small frame and a farmer’s tan with a wide-brimmed hat tipped over her face. “It’s like what friends do, you know, when they haven’t seen each other in a while.”
We had each had a couple of beers at that point and I was feeling sluggish; I had intended to get dinner with May and call it an early night. Though I was familiar with the concept of friend tattoos, the actuality of it was still beyond my grasp. Whether it was fear or squareness that motivated me, I had never desired to get a tattoo. There was something garish, I thought, about displaying an image so permanently on one’s body, that it represented an unusual faith in one’s present self to have good judgment. But perhaps, I reasoned, the right opportunity just hadn’t presented itself to me yet.
“Why not?” May replied, stretching her arms over her head. She tugged on the end of her sleeve and revealed a slim, band tattoo. On the outside of her arm, facing away, was an illustrated drawing of two bunnies hopping in a meadow. She turned her arm and, on the inside, were those same two bunnies, this time having sex. Neela and Barb laughed and drew the group’s attention to their respective tattoos: a ship with a billowing white mast; the outline of an oak tree, its roots extending down the length of Neela's forearm.
“What about you?” Barb asked, staring straight at me. I had just met Barb and Neela that evening, but apparently that was enough to pass as friendship. I have an almost reverent aversion to impulsive decisions; it routinely takes me four trips to a department store to buy a single pair of pants. The decision to get a tattoo was far weightier, and yet, I was surprised by my own response.
“Sure,” I said, hardly believing my own words.
Barb got in her head the idea for a tattoo of a chicken – a baby chick – and started Googling images on her phone. She scrolled feverishly, pausing every so often to get the group’s reaction. We went back and forth for a while, wanting more of one element or less of another, trying to align our four viewpoints into a single, unified vision. The one we eventually landed on was simple, with a coquettish expression and a bright plume of yellow feathers. We all nodded like blind men, marveling at what we had created together. In tandem with the bunnies, it contributed to May’s vaguely Easter-themed tattoo, and was also somewhat ironic.
“You’re an animal rights activist now,” Neela told me, tugging at her striped top. “You would never hurt a baby chicken,” she said, smiling. “At least not personally.”
Before I knew it, the four of us were in Pioneer Square. There was a spry giddiness to our conversation, like we were underage college students scheming to buy booze. It was a Saturday night and the streets were a bizarre mix of nightclubs and homeless shelters, each with brightly-lit signs and their own set of loiterers, difficult to tell apart. On the corner, a convertible with its top down was paced a few yards from an alley with trash piled in an open dumpster. The tattoo parlor was called Phoenix but spelled with an f – the yearning of grandeur tempered by experience.
The inside of the tattoo parlor looked like a teenager’s bedroom – a crooked shelf of DVDs, throw furs and assorted tool supplies, a bloated stack of external hard drives on the ground. There was a half-finished two-liter of Pepsi on the table, an Xbox controller with no batteries, and girlie posters that lined each of the four walls. We sat on a beat-up sofa, next to an Eeyore plush toy with a pierced septum. All at once, I felt my hands start sweating; I hadn’t factored the tattoo shop into my decision. I flipped through the photos in a portfolio lying on a side table: bloody daggers etched into necks, flaming skulls on shoulders. Neither had I considered where the tattoo would go.
I looked around at May and wanted more than anything to validate our friendship. May and I had known each other for over a decade, and I was grateful that she came to Seattle to visit. I thought about how I learned to talk about Seattle in a way that was mindful of faraway friends, to explain that they were still loved in spite of the distance. There’s something to be said about the lengths friends are willing to go to memorialize a shared experience, to celebrate time together. But by making a judgment on one thing before understanding the whole context, we risked suffering from tunnel vision. The fact that we were getting tattoos for the hell of it felt reaching, like we had something to prove.
It took the better part of twenty minutes before the owner emerged from the back room, leaving us plenty of time to change our minds. Barb was the first to speak up.
“I had a premonition about this,” she whispered, sounding graver than I’d heard her. She seemed unperturbed with the fact that it had been her idea in the first place. “I think I’m out.”
Neela and I quickly followed suit. My rationality got the better of me. I couldn’t imagine making a split-second decision like that, picking a body part on the spot for a tattoo after having just barely decided on the design. What if, like the men with the elephant, I had gotten it wrong? I wondered how often this happened, a group of friends with blind ambition, arriving at a tattoo parlor only to suddenly change their minds.
But, much to all of our surprise, May was undeterred; she wanted to get the tattoo alone. More even than to the people involved, she felt committed to the bird, to the manifestation of its many distinct pieces becoming whole.
“It’s perfect,” she decried, commenting on the owner’s sketch, before asking for more tweaks – the beak on the chick smaller, the body fatter. She sat down in the kind of leather chair you would find at a dentist’s office, the owner holding the needle like a drill.
“This is really happening!” May exclaimed, as the needle made its first pass. I was nervous for her too, mouthing the same words in my head. But the needlework was smooth and unerring. The owner traced the outline of the bird in black ink and then used a different needle for the shading. It was mesmerizing to watch the image come alive with each injection of color, the smudges of blood after every flurry of shading. The whole process looked so smooth, like a street artist drawing a caricature in Times Square, only with May’s skin as a proxy for canvas.
By the end, May’s skin was red and puffy, but the owner assured her that it would be a brilliant yellow once the swelling went down. When he was finished, he wrapped May’s arm in saran wrap like a leftover sandwich and gave her a few packets of Vaseline.
“How did it feel?” I asked, like a gossiping school child.
“Like being scratched incessantly, but worse,” May said. “Like a cat with its claws burrowed deep under your skin.” I was amazed that the whole time her face didn’t register any pain. Neela turned to me in the doorway.
“Did it make you want to get a tattoo yourself?” she asked, as we made our way out into the chilly night air.
“Less,” I said, and then, thinking longer, “and more.”
The next morning I slept in, and it was almost noon before I texted May about the tattoo.
“It’s healing well,” she said, “I’ve been applying the cream the guy gave me.” There was an extended ellipsis in the thread. “Only, it looks a little more evil than anticipated.”
She texted me a photo of the back of her arm. True to the owner’s word, the swelling had gone down, and the feathers were a bright yellow. But I could see what May meant: the chick’s eye was white and appeared to be glowering, a marked change from the sketch the owner had drawn up the night before.
“It’s maybe a ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ situation,” she said, with only a hint of grief. I was transfixed by the image of the bird, holding my breath as I imagined it materializing somewhere on my body too.
I replied back: “Maybe we’re all still groping in the dark.”