He saw it projected on the backdrop of his eyelids with blinding light every time he closed his eyes. It had been there for as long as he could remember. Having grown from infant to child with his tattoo he could only imagine that everyone else had one too. He would ask the kids at school, “What’s your date?” and they would respond, “Michael, we don’t have a date, only you have one.”
“Because we don’t need one.”
This was the response he received from everyone, including his radiant mother, who had long blonde hair and smelled like dried orange peels. At home, she would never talk about it unless he brought it up, but the child was persistent: Mommy, today will you tell me why the other kids don’t see a date? She would always try to trick him into forgetting the topic as quickly as possible, but as he grew older and more fixated, the trickery needed to become more and more clever.
Not long after he became an adult, he would dress to the number. He owned five pairs of pants, seven shirts, thirty ties, and refused to alter the wardrobe, even at the bequest of his eventual wife who was also blonde and radiant, but smelled like tearful jasmine.
“Let’s go shopping, Mikey.”
“But I have all the clothes I’ll ever need…”
“What could one more pair of pants hurt?”
“It would change everything. I’m sure you know that.”
“I think you think too much.”
She knew there was no forcing this particular man so she eventually tried another route altogether. On Saturday nights, she would feign clumsiness and pour a glass of wine over his lap. He would lovingly laugh and insist on taking the garment to the cleaners. Let’s not cry over spilt wine.
The date never appeared the same to him. If he’d been drinking that night, as he lay down in bed and closed his eyes the date appeared yellow and wobbled slowly. If his eyes were closed while he made love to his wife, he would see it as bright red, slowly expanding until it burst into a million tiny pieces at the moment of orgasm, only to reform when he rolled over. The date would glow the most tranquil blue, and even hummed slightly, when he strolled through new cities during the first moments of morning.
Sometimes, the date was infused with an aroma. Once, as a child, while he was swooshing through the air on a swing in a Sunday park he distinctly noticed that the numbers and letters smelled like a delicious breakfast, smothered in the scents of bacon and buttered toast and syrup; and when he met his wife the numbers absorbed the smell of her sharp perfume for months, maybe even years; and when the first of his three children were born, he resisted the odd truth that the date smelled like the musty-sweet vernix that coated the baby’s skin.
For the most part he took no pleasure in the tattoo or the diverse sensual experiences that came with it. In fact, as he aged, the image became an obsession, rich and lathered with absurd anxiety. One night, deep into his life as a husband and father, it occurred to him, under the pelting droplets of a hot shower, that the date might refer to the day of his death. The man, already prone to panic, became an ivory statue.
“I’m going to die on that date, aren’t I?”
“If you were going to die on that day, then I would live forever—we would all live forever, all except for you. And you know that’s not right…”
He did not like the distance that his obsession created between he and his wife. So he resolved to never again let it be known that he was being internally devoured. The wife and three kids would talk in secret about their relief. But with no release, the material accumulated.
Blink and gaze, blink and gaze. He would do this more than ever, just to see if the date was still there, burned deep into his black mind. At times he would smile at the date like a cocky, crazed child, hoping the insolence might make it disappear. When this didn’t work he would hold his breath until he lost consciousness, hoping that he could suffocate the part of his mind responsible for the letters and numbers. Once, he did this while buying groceries in line at the supermarket and the cashier noticed. “Michael, you can’t kill it. You can’t kill anything. You don’t even exist yet.” He just stared back at the cashier, knowing what he said was the truth, but unwilling to accept it.
He woke one morning with burning in his chest and water sloshing around in his head. Despite his confusion, it was clear to him that everything in his life was perfect, exactly as it was supposed to be, everything in it’s right place—except for the date that seared into his mind. And with this realization came a new odor, the smell of silver sulphide, which he recalled from the days of his childhood when his mother developed film in sepia:
“Who could tolerate this god-awful smell?”
“What smell, love?”
“Nothing. I must have been dreaming.”
“Where you dreaming about your mother again?”
“Yes. I mean, I think so.”
“You will let her go eventually, Mikey. Nothing lasts forever.”
But he would slowly discover that his wife, who had never been wrong before, was wrong this time; some things do last forever, because the smell would never leave. It saturated each and every number and letter in the date, from the “M” to the “0”. It stank up the entire corridor from his eyes to his nostrils. And he was certain that some of the stench escaped because people would grimace kindly when he spoke to them too close, as if decency dictated they hide their disgust when the pithy fumes leaked from his nose.
As the years passed and the days remaining until the date dwindled, the letters and numbers became even more cumbersome. The occasional hum, emanating from the space between the letters and numbers became a dance of frequencies, and the dance of frequencies became quiet murmuring voices: ancient conversations from his childhood, the whispers of strangers, orders of decorated and bombastic military generals, the utterances of conscious vegetation, and dialogues of souls from times before electricity. The buffet of sounds came with a coursing fire that singed his veins. But there were moments when he felt relieved because it occurred to him that the voices might provide the answer he’d spent his life looking for. He listened to them with closed eyes, and pencil pinched tightly between his fingers hovering over a pad, waiting for secrets. He diligently recorded every single word he heard. When the voices became too layered and fast to keep up he found a tape recorder and pressed it to his head, attempting to record the thoughts that he might miss. But when he played it back it was only white noise.
He filled notebooks with hundreds of pages of conversations between cherubs with trumpets, demons covered in animal skins, Aztec warriors studying hand-written, leather books, mythical animals without names, aliens from different galaxies and universes. Love for them bubbled up in his chest as he became attached. They were reliable, and consistent, and impersonal, and he was comforted by how little they knew of him, when always and forever, those who populated his external world knew too much.
The voices never stopped, and with them time accelerated. The days zipped by and he lost track of time.
“I’ve noticed your books,” his wife said. “Have you found the right words, yet?”
“How long have you known about them? The books?”
“Since you started all this.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I wanted to give you the chance to find what you were looking for.”
“But, you don’t even know what I’m looking for.”
“Of course I do. And you know it.”
She smiled, lovingly. This was the last conversation he would have with his wife, and he knew this too.
Eventually, he lost track of the days completely as the hours zoomed past his untangling head. Everything changed, one minute to the next, except for the date. Curious of how many days remained, he would check his calendar, only to notice that by the time he registered the day and closed the book, hundreds more days would fly past him and he’d lose track again. When he reached May 7, 2029, he realized that he no longer needed a calendar because he could see the end vividly. It was a tiny pinhole in the center of a flood of thoughts and brilliant images, mists of memories, most of which he did not remember, and wasn’t sure were even his, each of which had a color—new colors—shades he’d never seen and had no words for, vicious characters of his life dressed in Tibetan garments, thick streams of blood oozing from their teeth, painted faces and silver flasks, the smell of orange peels, knowing she was close, her songs he hadn’t heard in hundreds of years. He’d always thought he would be afraid. Why am I not afraid? Where are my mourners?
And suddenly he forgot everything before, and everything he saw, he saw for the first time.