Escape. I’m in a Death-Star-black reclining chair, surrounded by sharp objects, medical paraphernalia, and images of flowers and skulls. A multicoloured giantess is leaning over my naked torso, pressing her clattering needle gun against my flesh to inject me repeatedly with ink. I came here – to a half-sunken city of forbidden pleasures – entirely by choice. I sought this out, yet once the pain chain-lightnings through my chest, all I can think about is escape.
I try to distract myself by project-hopping. In the past two weeks alone, I’ve conjured up at least four different creative projects to ease my anxious mind. There’s an application for a summer job involving time travel; a grant request for funding to write playlets about talking animals; a board game about conniving monks; and a podcast blending role-playing with improv. Like a meth addict holding a remote control, I cycle madly through them all, but I can focus upon nothing in particular.
The tattoo is a gift to myself in a life overflowing with gifts. I should be content to have a wife who has paid my way through France for a year, or (in a week) a mother who is flying me to Nepal for a week. Knowing we will get home with a wealth of stories, job security, and money in the bank should add up to contentment. There are those whose lives justify escape – lives of suffering, or loneliness, or loss. Mine is not one of them. Yet here I am, escaping from my escape on a daypass to Amsterdam, seeking suffering instead of fleeing it.
I’m not an idiot; I know tattooing hurts. But my two previous tats were both on my arms – apparently parts of my body which my hindbrain considers acceptable losses. Pain on the chest is different, and my fight-or-flight reflex kicks in. Still, I know better than to fight the giantess. Best case scenario, I walk away with half a tat. Worst case, I dunno – she tattoos “pussy” in Dutch onto my nipple.* I briefly try to escape into weird dom-sub fantasies about her, but no dice. Arousal is not an option amid this noise and pain.
Instead, I imagine the chair is a confessional. “Fabienne of Amsterdam,” I say in my thoughts, “I have been an escapist for as long as I can remember. I blame George Lucas and Jim Henson – no, I blame Chris Claremont and Stan Lee. No, Gary Gygax. William Shakespeare. I blame my past self, for dreaming up expectations for myself to dreamily fulfil. No, wait! I blame my future self, for failing to fulfil them, for if he did, they’d be goals, not fantasies. I blame anyone but my present self – and you, of course, Fabienne.”
I’ve been on this ferris wheel before. In fact, the last time I visited Europe, in 2003, I had an existential crisis over my flawed past-present-futureness. “Why can’t I just look at art and be here, looking at art?” I wrote in my journal at the time. “Why do I feel the need to turn it all into something?” Inspiration is lovely, but if it almost never amounts to anything – if all I do is spend the now dreaming about the next, then spend the next inertly reminiscing about now…I’m not being productive, and I’m not really having much fun. I keep glimpsing myself disappearing through doors, and when I give chase, I end up back where I started, like choicer episodes of Doctor Who. “I blame Doctor Who!”
In time, I came to grips with my escapism by filing it under the personal maxim, “It’s okay to feel more than one thing at once.” Still, I struggle with the tension between mindfulness and imagination, and I flagellate myself whenever one too many flights of fancy fails to land on anything concrete, productive, profitable.
“Fabienne,” I say in my thoughts, “Forgive me for not finishing my novel. I know myself well enough to know I won’t get back to it. Let this pain be my penitence, and absolve me that I may move on, and do it all over again.” Instead, I bite my lip and clutch at my pant leg.
It is proof of how skilled an escapist I am that it doesn’t occur to me to beg forgiveness for opportunity costs. For instance, I could have given the tattoo money to charity, or put it in my child’s education fund. And I could have stayed home to spend the weekend with my family instead of traipsing off to Amsterdam without them. And how much simpler life would be if I had a “real” job, and “real” hobbies, and didn’t constantly muddy them up. It’s beyond imagining, at this point. At 42, I am what I am. I will never escape from escapism.
“All done,” Says Fabienne. “Thank you,” I say shakily, prompting her to laugh. She cleans me up and gives me a fridge magnet, as if I’m a kid at the dentist’s. I pay her and give her a tip for all the trouble I caused. “It’s okay,” She laughs again, “The chest is a difficult spot.”
“Inside and out,” I agree. I leave Tattoo Peter, the oldest parlour in the Netherlands, and wander along the canals in search of a coffeeshop. My skin still aches, and will continue to hurt for a week, at least. There’s only one way to distract myself, I guess. I sit down, dig out my notebook, and start making notes towards a play about a giantess.
*It is sexist and inaccurate to correlate “pussy” with weakness. Pussies are extraordinarily tough and flexible organs, and I’d feel honoured to be called one by a tattooed giantess. My only defense for using the word in this contxt is that it gave me an excuse to look it up in Dutch. (It’s kutje.)