The first question most of them ask when they see my skin is “Why?” I often respond with a smile. Sometimes, my face turns hot. I can’t figure out if I’m annoyed or embarrassed. When I try to answer, I stutter, unable to finish a phrase so that they’ll understand. My armpits dampen. My forehead sweats. How I want to say to them, “This is art. This has been part of our culture for a thousand years.”
But perhaps it’s a waste of time to make them understand. “Of all the things you can put on your skin, why that?” I just laugh. “That’s OK, you’re famous anyway.” True, I’ve just received recognition from Guinness World Records as the man with the most names tattooed on his skin. Guinness also recognized Charlotte Guttenberg and her lover, Chuck Helmke, but theirs were skeletons and feathers. My tattoos, all names, were different. “What the heck, all names of people!” I could only nod.
This began when I decided to have John’s name tattooed on my shoulder. My love for him was immense. “You sure? On the shoulder?”
My answer: you’re the one I lean on when suddenly my world is heavy. Oh, yes, yes! I was young then. That’s why it’s awkward and corny now. After a few weeks, he broke up with me because his father caught us making love downstairs at their house.
Incidentally, my next boyfriend was Mark. He went to the Cebu State College of Science and Technology, studying for a Bachelor of Secondary Education. I took the same degree because I wanted us close to each other.
“What’s your full name, Mark?” His answer after chewing on pulled pig fat: “John Mark Pepito. Why?” I smiled, and when I got home, I stopped by my friend’s and added “Mark” on my shoulder.
John Mark got pissed when he saw my shoulder while we were at a motel in Colon. “You really had my name tattooed? Are you crazy?” I didn’t understand his reaction. It turned out he wanted to end our relationship because he had gotten one of our classmates pregnant.
They stopped going to college, while I continued without John Mark. Last I heard, he was running his parents’ stall at the public market.
Luckily, I soon met Kristoeffer, who was from Iligan and worked at Pier Three. He liked tattoos. He even showed me a tattoo of Mama Mary on his arm, but what really surprised me were the pellets on his dick. When he saw my shoulder, he instantly asked me who John Mark was. I didn’t answer right away, still brushing my teeth after sucking his cock. “Wait, let me rinse first.” He got mad, but I explained to him it was my father’s name. “I don’t want to forget him. Even if he’s already forgotten about me.”
“What happened to him, love?” said Kristoeffer. “He abandoned you?” I shook my head. “Papa John Mark has Alzheimer’s.”
He tattooed his name on my other shoulder. “So that every time you see your shoulder, you’ll think of the two men in your life. Your father and me.” I nodded. He didn’t know there were three men already resting on my shoulders. “Love, can I have a hundred? I need to buy briefs.” I handed him the money. After that, he stopped showing up. He returned to Iligan.
I didn’t finish the degree in education because of my tattoos, and also because I dated a student while doing practicum at the Abellana National School. It was a big issue, so I took it upon myself to leave college for good. His name I put on my arm: Renato.
Then Andres, Mon-mon, and Frank were added on my skin. Afterward it was Cris, another John, a Jhon with “J-h,” a Kris with a “K,” a Chris with “C-h-r.” That was when I did away with the notion of finding a beloved who would carry on and remain by my side. I had my palm read by a middle-aged man outside the basilica after Khristian ended things with me.
“You’ll become famous and your name will make it on TV.” The man paused as if he’d seen something else on my palm with his microscopic gaze. “But you won’t be lucky in love and relationships. You’re doomed.”
“Is that so, Noy? Does it say on my palm, Noy, if I’ll win the lotto?”
“No, because you never gamble.”
I had the seer’s name tattooed on my palm: Roberto.
I didn’t have a hard time finding a job. Maybe it was because of my height and my fondness for jogging and playing volleyball that I was able to pass their qualifications. The only complaint they had about my body were the names I had tattooed. Again, I just smiled. “You may start tomorrow evening,” said the woman.
Menzone was over at H. Cortes Street, in Mandaue City. It’s open from nine in the evening until three in the morning. A cousin from Leyte had brought me there before. He’d wanted to explore Cebu, so we planned to go to a gay bar. At first, I was nervous because it was my first time. But in the long run, I enjoyed and was beguiled by the darkness and the bright, dancing disco lights. The naked models dancing in the midst of darkness and light became mysterious. Their bodies shone with baby oil and sweat. The models: Gabby, Yuri, and Cyril.
I hid my hard-on under my crossed legs. Thinking that beer would wash away the warmth I felt, I only got worse. The entrance fee of PHP 250 was well worth the one free beer. The night was mystical and untamed. Their theme was spot-on: “d big . . . BANG.”
We spent most of the night there, and I got to chat with Mother Flower. She came up to me and introduced herself as a talent manager. She first appreciated and admired my height. “Tall kid. Nice stance,” she said after putting on her glasses. Right then I became interested in applying because one of their models had fallen ill. Pneumonia, I heard. College, which I’d left some time ago, had nothing for me to return to, and I also couldn’t find a proper job, so I tried out modeling. “What’s your name, lovey?” she asked.
“John Mark,” I blurted. Lied. But believed.
“How lovely your name. If you become a model, your name should be Marky.”
“I like that, Ma’am.”
Mother Flower winked. “Take care, lovey. Hope we see each other again.”
Productive. Maybe that’s the word to describe my time at Menzone. Performing on the platform with red balloons brought me joy, in the darkness and light, among the models before the gaze of the audience. The sensation was glorious. Many admired my muscular arms and the way the black sleeveless T-shirts fit on me. “It’s because I go to the gym with Kuya Enzo now.” But they complained again about my penchant for tattooing the names of the men I met. Yet I had more tattoos done: Cyril, Enzo, Gabby, and Yuri. My skin soon became like the pages of a newspaper. True, I didn’t love them, but they were like siblings. At one point in our time together, Cyril brought along a nurse while we were having drinks at Mango. The nurse invited us to an orgy. Each of us would get paid three thousand. He only wanted to watch us make love with one another. We didn’t tell our manager. We said yes.
“What do you want to eat, Marky?” asked Enzo.
“Whatever you want.”
“I want you.”
“Huh?” I didn’t understand how I felt. “You sure? Crazy-ass.”
We passed by the row of eateries. Slipped into the restroom. Our eyes met: Thirsty. Hungry. He ate me.
Afterward, I had Enzo’s real name tattooed on me: Luigi. He didn’t mind that I put his real name on my skin. “What’s you real name, Marky?” I answered the usual: John Mark.
“What’s your favorite food?” asked Enzo during the no-longer-inside-the-restroom date. “Whatever your favorite is.” I considered as favorites the favorite foods of the men I met: chicken lechon, braised pork, carbonara, sardines with egg, sardines with udon noodles, spicy sardines, balot, kwek-kwek
. . .
“Do you like rap?” No. But, but I’d also like what they liked. “So you don’t really have a personal favorite song?” Not really. I go along with whatever they play. “I like Eminem.”
“I like Eminem too,” I said.
“Ngee. Copycat. You don’t have your own preferences. What’s your favorite color?”
I remembered Frank’s favorite color. I said, “Black.”
“Mine’s also black.”
“See, you’re also a copycat.”
After some months, Enzo left me for the nurse we used to have drinks with. I didn’t know the real reason. Maybe because of money. Out of anger, I had the nurse’s name tattooed, so I wouldn’t forget, on my ass: Kevin.
In four years I’d covered my skin with the names of all the men I’d known, encountered, adored, rejected, and above all, loved. Nobody wanted to hire me if the job required facing customers or clients. It was a good thing there was the BPO industry and I was able to work at People Support.
Sometimes I’d meet someone who’d ask: Do I know you? Aren’t you the boyfriend of Anton, Bernard, Carlos, Denver, Ezra, Ferdinand, Gelo, Henry, Jack-Jack, Kim, Leonard, Matthew, Nestor, Oliver, Prince, Quinton, Reniel, Sandro, Teejay, Ulysses, Victor, Winston, Xavier, Yael, Zeke . . . Aren’t you the one with the tattoos? Aren’t you the one on the news? The one featured on Jessica Soho’s program? You’re famous: Dong, Do, Bay, Kuya, Uncle, Uy.
“Congrats on your Guinness. So famous now!” said Fred, my tattoo artist. His name was on my neck. “Seems like you want to add another name. There’s no space left on your body for another tattoo.”
“There’s still some.” I searched for a blank patch of skin: on my chest.
“Which guy’s name this time?”
This would be the very last time I was going to get a tattoo. I saw the same things: petroleum jelly, ink that would enter my skin, needle, tattoo machine, ink caps, soap, shaving cream, stencils, ballpoint pen, and others. Fred began to make an outline of the name. His right hand, the grip, and the left, tissue paper.
While Fred was busy, I remembered the slum book I filled out back in elementary. I wrote there my favorite things, from colors to food. My funny nickname. I even had a motto in life. Only God and I know.
Fred noticed the sudden smile. “What?”
“Nothing. I just remembered something.”
“Ha ha. You who were always being chased by your boyfriends?” said Fred. He was right, so I didn’t say anything more. “I don’t know about you. I remember how you’d come here crying, then you’d have their names tattooed. Now you really won’t forget them! Imagine, they’re on your skin.”
I laughed. “Embarrassing, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. So, who’s this Jake?” He pointed at a name above my stomach.
“He’s a laborer at Mepza. He has a motorcycle. He brought me to Bantayan.”
“What about Amado?”
“He dreams of building a beauty salon.”
“That’s the blind man who used to massage me. Really good. I don’t know where he’s been assigned to.”
I was able to answer all of Fred’s questions. Not an hour later, he was done with the last name he would ink on my skin. I thanked him for his kindness. He didn’t charge a fee as a way to express his gratitude for our friendship of almost ten years. No one could match his service to me. A kind man. Really kind. I retrieved the plaque from my bag and handed it to him. The recognition wasn’t for me, but for Fred. He wept. I smiled. We savored the last moment of the very last time I’d tell him stories about the men I encountered over hot coffee and sticky rice.
I put my clothes back on. My skin throbbed. Before I left his space, Fred called out. “Whose name is that you’ve just tattooed?”
It took me a while to answer. First, I smiled. “My own.”
“Ang Tawo Nga May Liboan Ka Ngalan” © R. Joseph Dazo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by John Bengan. All rights reserved.