A Butterfly Tattoo

It all started with a butterfly tattoo.

And I guess that started at O’Malley’s. And that started with Jack, this guy I met on the hospital shuttle. He was dying. Had been his whole life. Just like me, I suppose. Only—he felt it more that day. I was meant to go to Ward 6, the cardiology department, as I did every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. He was meant to go to Ward 11, the oncology department, where he lived. Only, he never meant to go back.

He told me this as he pulled on the loose strings poking out of the seat in front of him. They wouldn’t come, no matter how many times he pinched at them.

He told me all the things he’d never done, all the things he’d never felt. He’d never sang in public, or been inside a church. He’d never regret a tattoo, because he’d never gotten one.  He’d never liked classical music but he wanted to! He wanted to know what magic was in classical music. He never had sushi. He’d never been to the ocean. At this, he began to cry.

“I don’t have time,” he lamented, grasping the sleeves of his baggy coat. “Even if I could do all those things, I don’t have time. How do you live in three months? My hair—” his hand went up to his knit cap, “it’s not even going to grow back. I’m going to die bald.”

The shuttle stopped at the hospital bay.

I looked toward Ward 6, but could only see his reflection in the window. The boy was trying to pull his hat down inconspicuously. Making the decision, I took his cold hand in mine, and stood.

“Come on, Jack.” The poor boy tripped over himself, noisily drawing in shaky breaths.

“What? Why? I told you I’m not going back. Don’t make me.”

“We are dying, Jack.” With a nod, I pulled Jack past the slightly alarmed bus driver. “I’ve got a hole in my heart, and you—” faltered. “You don’t have any hair.”

“I know.” He sounded so sad I hesitated and looked back at him.

“We are not going to die before we live, Jack. Come on.”

First, we called a taxi. Well, Jack called for the taxi. He had never done that before and wanted to. The taxi driver was nice and told us about O’Malley’s, and that’s how it began.

It started with a butterfly tattoo. We both got one. Something we could properly regret if we had time. Jack had a small one, on his arm, while I got mine on my shoulder.

“You kids are going to regret this in about thirty years,” my tattoo artist laughed.

“I hope so,” I replied quietly, watching Jack in the other room. He wasn’t even wincing.

After the tattoos, we found sushi. Jack picked apart one piece, ate a little rice from the roll, but nothing else.  I told him that it counted. On my phone, I had found a concert hall with an orchestra performing a matinee. I looked up to tell Jack, but he had fallen asleep.

I swallowed hard. He was dying.

After paying, I gently woke Jack and helped him stand. I tried to call another taxi, but Jack insisted that he was going to walk.

“Where?” I laughed. Jack looked wildly up into the sky in all directions before roughly pointing.

“There. Help me get there.” One arm around him, I supported Jack as he continued searching the sky, and giving directions. Once in sight of what he had seen, Jack wriggled away and staggered toward the looming stone structure.

A church—He had found a church.

“I need to go in,” Jack coughed, staring at the foreboding monument.

As I stepped up to the door, Jack stopped me. “Hold my hand?” He quietly asked, and wordlessly, I laced my cold fingers with his.

No one else was inside. It was just us and a pale statue of Mary, bowing her head toward the empty pews. We sat down half a dozen rows from the front, and Jack was very still. Whether out of fear or reverence, I don’t know, but he just stared at her. I think he had a lot to say, but couldn’t make out the words. His pants were the same color as the statue’s dress, and Jack rubbed his hands up and down his pant legs, as though working up the courage for something.

Many years later, I would understand that he was working up the courage to die. After a very long time, he turned his head to me. Eyes wet, Jack hoarsely whispered, “I think I need to go back.”

This time, he let me call a taxi.

In the ward, the nurses wouldn’t let me go back with him. He was sicker than he let on, and apparently, he wasn’t supposed to be out of his room. I’m guessing he shouldn’t have gotten a tattoo either. I didn’t see his parents, or anyone who looked like his friend who would care why we did it, but—I think they would have understood.

Sometimes, if you can, you need to live before you die. Jack and I? That day was our life. And it all started with a butterfly tattoo.



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