A Tattoo for the Living

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Modern Love

My boyfriend, Andreas, extended his forearm over his plate of half-eaten turkey and yams, fist clenched, exposing the Greek letters tattooed in dark blue ink from inner elbow to wrist. I took a hesitant bite of salad, still nauseated from the five-hour car ride from Manhattan to Lexington, Mass., where Andreas’s aunt and uncle were hosting the family’s Thanksgiving meal.

“It means ‘nobody,’” Andreas told his cousin, who had spotted the new tattoo. His eyes were wet and alive.

I already knew the story — it was Andreas’s favorite part of “The Odyssey” — but I leaned in anyway as he narrated the tale of when Odysseus and his men find themselves trapped in the cave of Polyphemus, a fearsome Cyclops.

The story goes that in a daring attempt at freedom, Odysseus tells the monster that his name is Nobody, and then plunges a wooden stake through Polyphemus’s single eye, blinding him. The other giants on the island come running at the sound of Polyphemus’s screams, but they soon turn back when the Cyclops exclaims that “nobody” had hurt him.

Andreas smiled. “You see?” he said. “Odysseus tricked them. He escaped.”

Less than one week later, I was sitting with Andreas’s parents in their TriBeCa apartment, looking through my phone for a photo of this same tattoo. We were drinking wine even though it was the middle of the afternoon. By then, Andreas had been missing for over 48 hours.

A blank email addressed to the detective assigned to Andreas’s missing-person case was open in front of me. The officer had asked us to send him a detailed physical description of Andreas, including photographs of his tattoos. This was to help the police put together his missing-person flier — or, if the time came, to identify the body.

I had more or less moved in with Andreas’s family since I found his suicide note on his bed two days before, along with his debit card, mailbox key and rent check for the month. His phone was found later that night in the living room, his last text message sent to me just before leaving his apartment for the last time: “Goodbye. You’re stronger than you know. I love you.”

These words ran wildly through my head as I sat in the back of a cab riding north on the F.D.R. Drive, fielding calls from 911 agents and the Port Authority police. I answered the same questions over and over: “6-foot-1. White. Dark hair. A birthmark on his nose. No, I don’t know what he’s wearing. Maybe 180 pounds — no, 160. 175. No, he doesn’t have access to a vehicle.”

When they asked me for his birthday, I blanked and could remember only my former boyfriend’s. “But he’s 25,” I said, cheeks flushed.

I didn’t realize that the suicide note had a second page until I surrendered it to one of the Port Authority officers at their station in Fort Lee, N.J. I had stopped reading after the first line when I saw the words “take my life” written in his shaky scrawl at the top of the page.

“I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to keep this,” the officer said, the bright light of the copying machine creating spots in front of my eyes as he scanned the pages.

Later that night, I collapsed on the floor with Andreas’s roommate and his roommate’s girlfriend. We were drinking tequila straight from the bottle, too high on adrenaline to fully absorb the impact of the past few hours.

“Can you believe,” I remember saying to them, “that with just one phone call we got a helicopter into the sky?”

It seemed impossible that only five hours earlier, I had been deciding whether to order Thai or sushi, and now scuba divers were searching the Hudson River in the dark for my boyfriend.

The seizing of the suicide letter was the first in a series of small but accumulating losses that rippled outward from that first seismic event. When his clothes lost their musk after a few days, I took the bottle of cologne from his dresser.

In moments of panic, when I thought I was beginning to forget the tenor of his voice, I would listen to old voice mail messages, especially the ones in which he said he loved me. The night of his disappearance, I had stripped off my clothes and searched my body for evidence of him — a bruise or even a scratch — but found nothing.

I also went through his trash, collecting the Macy’s tags from the outfit he bought to wear to Thanksgiving, and old receipts from the diner we frequented on lazy Saturday afternoons. I kept these items tucked haphazardly in the pockets of my purse and jacket, making sure that I had a physical connection to him on me at all times.

In the beginning, I would get drunk and post desperate pleas to him on Twitter late at night in case he got online. As time passed, I switched to writing him emails, which felt about as hopeless as flinging a bottle with a message into the sea.

I sent him lists of all the things we had planned to do together: go sky diving, learn how to roast a whole chicken, travel to Greece so I could see his family’s village. Even though I lost hope that he was reading my emails as the weeks passed, writing to him before I fell asleep was one of the only things that calmed me.

In one of these emails, I told Andreas that I had started going to therapy. He had been pressuring me to find a therapist for months, after I’d gone through a bad experience at the end of the summer. Putting this incident in the past was something that I was both ready and able to do, but my willingness to compartmentalize concerned him.

Andreas had found his own therapist online, and every week he would send me links to different doctors — usually middle-aged Jewish women — and urged me to follow up. He fixated on one in particular, a woman named Carole, who he had decided would be the perfect fit.

“Have you called Carole yet?” he would ask at least once a day.

I made excuses, telling him that it didn’t make sense because my insurance was about to run out, or that working two jobs would make scheduling a regular appointment impossible.

One time, I surrendered and played therapist with him, sprawling on the couch while he asked me questions in a woman’s falsetto. When he finally got me to confess one of my deepest insecurities, he became so upset by what I said that he jumped on top of me.

“I hope Carole doesn’t do this,” I said as he kissed my neck furiously.

As it turned out, he had been right: I did love therapy. I counted the days to my weekly appointments, and I don’t know that I could have survived that winter without them.

But therapy hadn’t changed the fact that I was wildly successful at acting normal while my world was unraveling. “Everyone thinks I’m doing so well, and I guess I am,” I wrote to Andreas in one of my last emails. “But I want to break things all the time. I fantasize about smashing store windows or screaming at people. Sometimes I think about hitting you and pulling your hair, but it always just turns into me kissing you anyway.”

Andreas’s body was pulled from the East River two and a half months after he disappeared, only a few days shy of what would have been our one-year anniversary. In his suicide note, he had written that he wanted his ashes scattered in the Mediterranean Sea, when the time was right.

Against both Greek and Jewish tradition, his family cremated the body. In the summer, they traveled to Greece, as they do every year, and released Andreas’s ashes into the sea at sunrise.

The next day, I went to a tattoo parlor with my sister in the East Village, only minutes from where Andreas used to live. After a few painful minutes, it was complete; the word “somebody” written in Greek script running vertically down my back.

My therapist — a middle-aged Jewish woman — had been skeptical about my intention to get the tattoo. “Do you think you will want that reminder in bed with you when you are with another man one day?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I told her.

A few months later, I would wake up with the sun next to a man I barely knew somewhere in Central Harlem. I lay still to stave off the hangover and thought about how I felt completely unburdened for the first time in months.

As I got up to use the bathroom, I caught my naked body in his full-length mirror. I turned sideways so that I could see the tattoo, which seemed smaller than I remembered, and I smiled.

People seeking help can call 800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Outside of the United States, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.