The Incredible Hulk-like man stood alone in line to get ice cream. No one seemed to have difficulty keeping 6 feet away from him. In fact, most people stepped even farther away.
Half a tattoo on his massive, muscled upper arm peeked from under the sleeve of his T-shirt, and I became intrigued. I’d always wanted a tattoo. Just a little one: Maybe a bird in flight. The Biblical reference Phil 4:13. But my family wasn’t crazy about the idea, so I never pursued it.
I stepped to within 6 feet of the man and said timidly, “Excuse me, sir?”
He did not answer, so I spoke up, “Excuse me!”
He turned and looked around as if trying to see someone else I might be addressing.
“Sir,” I said when his glance rested on me for a moment.
His eyebrows went up in surprise. Maybe strangers didn’t normally speak to this guy. “Yes?” he answered.
“May I please see the rest of your tattoo?” I asked with a smile.
He returned the smile, its big brilliance breaking apart every previous thought of how intimidating he had seemed moments before. Just seeing that grin was worth finding the courage to approach him.
“Sure!” He pulled his T-shirt sleeve up, and there was a glorious, detailed piece of art on his skin of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. Above Jesus in darker print were two names written in cursive.
“I added my parents’ names later,” he explained. “Man, I forgot how much getting tattooed hurt, and I yelled and hollered during the whole thing!” The big guy laughed. “I’m not good with pain, you know?”
As I had been talking to him, it felt like someone was slicing into my surgery incision with a sizzling hot blade. Inside my head, a suffocating pain shrieked and threatened to steal my appetite, even for ice cream. So I certainly did know.
No tattoos in my future, then, even if the family ever did look favorably on the idea.
“I’m not great with pain, either,” I confided to the man. We exchanged a knowing look, both having had different experiences yet sharing the sharp, searing memories of pain. Yet we also both shared different experiences of joy. For him: An inked masterpiece he carried around daily. For me: I was alive.
“Hey, thanks for showing me your tattoo; it’s beautiful! Enjoy your ice cream, and have a good day,” I said to the man, who nodded and wished me a happy ice cream experience as well before returning to his place in line.
As he turned away, I laughed as the phrase “We’re in this together” came to mind. COVID-19’s killing spree and the world’s battle to slow or stop it is nothing to laugh about, but ice cream and a cool tattoo had distracted me. I began to wonder what it might be like if more people found a little common ground they could share with others — sidewalk squares they wouldn’t mind standing or walking on with someone else — 6 feet apart, of course. This sidewalk’s destination? Anywhere that lightens another’s load.
I thought about two strangers: one ordinary, unmarked (except for the line inscribed by the surgeon’s knife) little lady and one large, strong, tattooed man. Though their experiences have been different, these two strangers are survivors of pain and celebrators of joy in their lives. Two possible friends who hadn’t met yet, were brought together by the hope that ice cream would cheer them on as they strived to live as well as they could through this pandemic.
People are different; it’s what makes the world so interesting and wonderful. We don’t always agree with one another. But we’re all still human. Should it be such difficult work to find a common thread between us? Laughter, tears, worry, hope: Common threads do exist that might tie us together and help us stand stronger against a disease that has caused too much stress and loss — of lives, jobs, freedoms, of normality — for us all.
Dawn Kessinger lives in Lima.