Ink and Blood

“If it fell in there, it's yours now,” she said matter of factly, staring past the necklace dangling from my fingers, saying as much with her eyes as her words.

“Are you sure?” I stood uncertainly in her childhood bedroom, an attic loft, on the southern coast of England, in a town where people still believe in fairies. We had left London and our university housing behind on a train earlier that morning.

“My sister gave it to me years ago, but I don't wear it anymore. That's why it was hanging on the door. And it fell in your bag. So now it's yours.”

Phoebe took the necklace—a worn pewter carving of the ohm symbol, battered smooth on the edges—from my grasp and placed it over my head, letting it fall directly in the center of my chest. I clutched the warm metal in my fist, letting the curves bite into my palm, and felt a surge of blood in my shoulder blades, a shiver that ran up my neck and into my cheeks.

“Thanks, Blades.”

“Well, you're the closest thing to spiritual perfection I've ever met. I want you to have it.”

I wore that necklace every day for the better part of five years. It became a lucky charm, my most prized possession, a tool for my idle fingers, and the familiar weight on my chest as I drifted off to sleep. It was a daily reminder of a distant world full of people I loved; Phoebe's necklace became a portal of memory to my life in England, even when I was floating in the Baltic Sea on my way to St. Petersburg or dozing on a bus somewhere outside Tokyo.

Through dozens of countries and a hundred sweaty summer nights, the ohm had begun conversations and forged bonds; the chain had bled metal streaks on my skin and been replaced on two continents. The small carving had been sucked on, kissed for luck and used to scratch lines of pleasure in eager flesh. It had chipped a tooth and drawn blood. Over the years, I had a number of scares, when the necklace slipped between two couch cushions, or got lost amongst a plush patterned carpet, but after a few frantic minutes of searching, it would always be found. Between airport security checks, cabin reassignments, ocean swims and roughly removed shirts, it was a miracle the necklace had remained securely around my neck through the throes of my early 20s.

My luck held until one fateful morning, after flying in late to Ft. Lauderdale from Frankfurt and collapsing into a hotel room. I was set to join a new ship the next day, and the mental gymnastics of shifting itineraries and teams for a one-week fill-in posting was exhausting to consider. The next morning came too soon, or too late, my body was unsure, but my mind was far from functional. It wasn't until I was already onboard the ship that I noticed the lack on my chest, the absence of my outer heart.

Panicked, but knowing that getting off the ship and missing our departure time for a single lost necklace would cost me my job, I proceeded silently through the onboard insanity of embarkation and orientation. It wasn't the type of physical loss that made me cry, not that I had time to mourn, but it was an awareness of loss that made my emptiness feel larger. Without that talisman around my neck, I felt a wobble in the bridge to a stable life—my escape route to reality felt more distant.

The week passed in the flurry of a cruise ship drenched in Caribbean summer—all linen suits and fruit-rimmed cocktails, afternoon escapes to secret beaches and evenings spent hawking art to passing drunks. Each time I buttoned up my shirt that week, I couldn't help but pause at the blank space in the center of my chest. By the end of the short island run, the ship had come full circle, and my only goal once I left the gangway was heading to the beach. A new lover was meeting me in Miami later that day, and we had three days before we left on a cruise of our own, she as a performer and I as a passenger. She was a singer, a star, a splash of Alabama attitude who had sharpened her pipes in New York for over a decade. Even with my eagerness in those hours before her arrival, the hollow feeling remained. My fingers kept finding their way to the empty space on my sternum.

Restless, I went to an internet cafe, scrolled back through a few years of social media, and found the picture I needed. I printed it out and headed for a tattoo shop on the same street. An hour later, I walked back onto the same beach, restored, with the outline of the ohm necklace, firmly inked to scale over my heart.

That night, I stayed in the same hotel as I had been in the week before; my company at the time didn't believe in variety being the spice of anything. On a whim, I asked if I could have the same room as my previous reservation, and they obliged. I hadn't made the request with any real intention; I had already called from the ship to ask if housekeeping had found a necklace in the room, and had come up empty. However, once the door closed, leaving me in the sunscreen and chlorine-infused space, I began peering into every corner and crack, drawn to one potential hiding place, then another, like the tattoo on my chest was a magnet for its tangible twin.

Within minutes, I found my necklace behind the dresser, tangled among the lamp wires. It didn't seem possible, yet there it sat, back in my hands, not two hours after I had its image permanently stamped on my skin. I pulled off my shirt and slipped the chain back around my neck. My shoulders pulled back for the first time in a week and I smiled into the mirror at the two symbols lying side by side.

By the very nature of tattoos, I was never without the ohm after that, which left me open to welcome other necklaces into my life, and even pass the ohm to one who deserved it, another with that spark of spiritual perfection. However, I recently returned to wearing the necklace, about a year ago, more than twelve years after it had first been given to me in that English attic. It was my companion for one last journey, and bid me its final farewell, left behind in an airport security bin somewhere in South America while my mind wandered forward, always, to the next leg, the next departure.

By the time I felt that old absence on my chest, buckled in the window seat, I knew there would be no miraculous return this time around. I wept quietly on the flight, watching the ground recede beneath the clouds. I left Phoebe a voicemail when my feet were back on the ground between my second and third flight of the day, explaining what had happened, allowing the sobs to come, the culmination of so many different points of pain and exhaustion, the conflation of past sadness and the bent mirror of time.

Upon landing back on American soil hours later, a message from Phoebe pinged through on my phone: Please know that you have not lost a piece of your heart. It was always a symbol of love and friendship. It represents something; it isn't the thing. The thing could never be lost.

She was right, of course. My life is filled with items I can't bear to leave behind, old triggers of memory and pleasure, childhood tokens and talismans, but they are merely symbols for the foundation that exists forever in my flesh, in every word I speak and friendship I tend. Our cornerstones do not crumble, even when the grass grows to block them from view. We can leave them without worry as we search for other treasures, more portals to distant lands, new marks on our skin and fresh memories to mine, even when the things we worship are lost, and found, and lost again.