I'd been trying to decide what kind of art to make this year. I had been putting off getting a tattoo, because I couldn't think of anything I wanted to say that much, that often, that permanently. I liked the build-up of scars showing where I had been, a roadmap to everything I once had thought was a good idea, but when it came down to it, I couldn't tell which ideas were the ones I thought were that good. How can you choose in advance which scars will be the important ones?
So I decided to get a tattoo of every passing conversation I happened to overhear. The only decision I could make was not to make any decision at all. For a while I considered inventing a machine that would transcribe the words onto my skin as they were spoken, but I didn't know how to do that, and anyway I thought that a needle-filled exoskeleton might alienate passersby, and prevent them from having any kind of conversation at all. So I bought a little recorder. It took me a while to find one that could hear exactly what I could hear, that was neither more nor less sensitive than my own ears. I didn't want things I couldn't hear tattooed on my body. Every night I transcribed the recordings—more often, if I'd been somewhere crowded—and once a week I went to the tattoo parlor.
I started on the shoulders. The very first conversation was about having lunch; the girl didn't care where they went, and the boy didn't know her well enough to know what to suggest. There was a pause, and then they settled on Mexican. The pause made a small bare patch on my shoulder, I the middle of a small dense blot of language. I told the inker to write small, because I had a lot of listening to go, but I thought I should include the pause, because the real conversation had all been in there.
This was the most dedicated listening I had ever done, and I was surprised how lonely it made me. When you're really lingering over the things people have to say, you realize how little of it as anything to do with you. People talk a lot, and very little of it really means anything. But incorporating it into my body made it mean something; it was marking the boundary between myself and the world. The thing was, the whole thing hurt a lot, especially as my body started to fill up and I moved on to the more sensitive parts of my anatomy. Without realizing it, I started to avoid hearing conversations: I would lag behind groups I saw on the street, I took the back stairs, I found reasons not to go to department stores. One of my friends noticed this eventually, around June. Most of my friends had been supportive, in the vague, distant way you're supportive of friends who are doing something stupid. But this one friend, it turned out, was infuriated by the whole project, and she started following me around town, trying to get close enough to force me to overhear what she was saying. I'm not sure why she chose that particular strategy to express her displeasure, but most of the back of my legs is a roadmap of the conversations we had, like a history of invasions, me fleeing from her pointedly meaningless daily round of gossip and her pursuing me like a remorseless angel with nothing much on her mind.
I saved the face for last, because that always struck me as a bad and painful place to get tattoos, but finally there was nowhere left. Even the gaps between the letters had been filled up by new conversations overlaid on the old. A year is a long time, and by the tenth month the first conversation was invisible under a layer of other dialogue forming a solid flat plane of tattoo black. Even the first pause between the two of them was now hidden under two promises of calling tomorrow and an irrelevant argument about action movies. I myself had lost track of everything that was said, especially since it had seemed important when I began to erase my recorder every time I had the tattoos done, so that the only record was on my body. I just had to have faith that the individual letters were still there, differently formed by the needle pricks under the indivisible color. The needle pricks were still very much on my mind; unlike what my friend thought of me, I don't like pain very much.
When I did finally move onto the face, my friend developed hesitation. She still followed me around, but when she saw me looking she would pause, as though wondering if she could really commit this much to being complicit in my bad idea. It's a strange strategy, explaining the weakness of somebody's art by forcing them to follow through with it; maybe she thought it would be good for me. Whatever she was thinking, after the hesitation she would still open her mouth, and explain to passersby what she thought of the Christmas decorations, and the fact that they went up earlier each year. She was making a lot of friends as I withdrew from contact, although none of those friendships lasted very long, since they needed to be standing where I could hear them. In the end, her pauses didn't matter very much, since I always had them tattooed on parts of my body that were already inked, so that they were invisible. I could feel them, though, as the increasingly rare parts of my body that didn't hurt at the moment, and I was grateful for them. One day in early December she walked up to my car, just as I was getting out; when she saw me she opened her mouth, and then turned around and walked away. That week I had the entire conversation we hadn't had not tattooed on my back, so that I could lie down in peace.
Finally even my face was filled up, almost, and it was time to exhibit. I got a solo show after all that, and for about a month I would show up at the gallery and stand still in a room. It was a tattoo-colored room, so that if I closed my eyes I was invisible. But my eyelids were where my art failed. It turns out to be incredibly painful to get your eyelids tattooed, and after the first word went on, I thought, the hell with it, I'm not doing that any more. So when I'm in my exhibition, all you can see are the crescents of my closed eyes, and across my left eye, sloping in from the corner, the letters YOM. I've forgotten what word they're part of. My friend came to the exhibition, and saw me. I wondered for the first time if she could tell, over the course of the past year, where her particular conversations were going, if she remembered what part of my body had issued from her. Maybe she was the one who said YOM, and maybe she still knew what it meant. But I didn't open my eyes, since I was deep in the art, and after a while she went away.