I nod. “Is that weird?”
He laughs quietly. “Everything you do is weird,” he says. But before I can reflect too much on that comment, he says, “It’s my favorite thing about you.” He pulls out a piece of transfer paper and a pen, then places it on his dresser and begins drawing something. “You have five minutes to change your mind.”
I watch him sketch my tattoo for the next five minutes, but I can’t see what it is from where he’s positioned. When he’s done, I still haven’t changed my mind. He walks to the bedroom door and locks it. “If anyone sees this, you better lie and say you got it from someone else.”
I try to peek at it when he walks near me, but he hides it. “You can’t see it yet.”
My mouth falls open. “I didn’t say I’d let you tattoo something on me before it gets my approval.”
He grins and says, “I promise you won’t hate it.” He has me pull my arm through my sleeve. “Can I do it right here?” he asks, touching the top right area of my back. “I’ll make it small.”
I nod and then close my eyes, waiting anxiously for him to begin. He’s sitting on the bed with all the tattoo equipment set up beside him. I’m facing the other direction, which is actually a relief. I don’t really want to have to watch him the whole time. I might be too transparent in my thoughts.
He transfers the tattoo onto my skin first, then hands me a pillow to hug over the back of my chair right before he starts. The initial sting is painful, but I squeeze my eyes shut and try to focus on breathing. It’s actually not as painful as I thought it would be, but it certainly doesn’t feel good. I try to focus on something else, so I decide to make conversation with him.
“What does the tattoo on your arm mean? The one that says, ‘Your turn, Doctor.’ ”
I can feel a rush of warm air meet my neck when he sighs. Sagan pauses a moment until my chills subside, then he begins the tattooing process again.
“It’s a long story,” he says, trying to dismiss it again.
“Good thing all we have is time.”
He’s quiet for so long as he continues tattooing me that I assume he’s not going to elaborate, like always. But then he says, “Remember when I told you the flag on my arm was a Syrian Opposition flag?”
I nod. “Yes. You said your father was born there.”
“Yeah, he was. But my mother is American. From Kansas, actually. I was born there.” He pauses talking for a moment while he concentrates on the tattoo, but then he continues. “Do you know anything about the Syrian refugee crisis?”
I shake my head, grateful he’s finally in a talkative mood. This tattoo hurts a little more than I imagined and I need a distraction. “I’ve heard of it. But I don’t really know much about it.” Much meaning nothing.
Sagan says, “Yeah, they don’t really teach about it in schools here.”
He’s quiet for a few more painful seconds, but then he moves to a different spot of my shoulder and I feel some relief. He begins talking again. I do nothing but listen.
“Syria has been ruled by a dictatorship for a long time now. It’s why my father moved to America for medical school. A lot of other countries around Syria are also ruled by dictators. Well, several years ago, something called the Arab Spring began. A lot of citizens in these countries began to hold protests and demonstrations to try and overthrow the dictators. The people wanted their countries to be less corrupt. They wanted them to run like more of a democracy, with checks and balances. The protests were successful in Tunisia and Egypt and the leaders stepped down. A new form of government was put in place. After that, the people of Syria and other countries were hopeful that it could happen in their countries, too.”
“So the tattoo is somehow related to Syria?”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s what many believe started the revolution. The Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, studied to be an ophthalmologist before his father died and he took over as the new leader of Syria. Bashar’s nickname is Doctor. Well . . . a group of school kids spray-painted graffiti on a wall at their school with the words, ‘Your turn, Doctor.’ They were essentially saying what many in Syria had been quietly hoping. That the Doctor would step down, just as the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia had, in order to allow for a democracy in Syria.”
I hold up my hand to pause him. I’m soaking all of this in but I have so many questions. “At the risk of sounding stupid, what year did this happen?”
“Two thousand eleven.”
“Did the Doctor step down after that?”
Sagan wipes at my tattoo again and then presses the needle against my skin. I wince when he says, “He did the opposite, actually. He had the children responsible for the graffiti imprisoned and tortured.”
I start to turn around, but he puts a firm hand on my shoulder. “He had them arrested?” I ask.
“He wanted to make a point to the people of Syria that there would be no tolerance for opposition. He didn’t care that they were just kids. When the parents started demanding the release of their children, the government didn’t listen. In fact, one of the officers in command said to the parents of the children, ‘Forget your children. Just make more children. And if you don’t know how to make more, I’ll send someone to show you.’ ”
“Oh my God,” I whisper.
“I didn’t say it would be a good story,” he says, continuing. “Once the Doctor imprisoned the kids involved, people in the city of Daraa took to the streets. Protests and demonstrations started happening, but instead of being met with compromise, the government used deadly force against them. A lot of people died. This sparked nationwide protests. People demanded the Doctor step down. But he refused, and instead, he used military force to crack down even harder on the protestors. The violence escalated and soon turned into a civil war. Which is now why there’s a refugee crisis. Almost half a million people have died so far and millions more have had to flee the country to save their lives.”
I can’t speak. I don’t know what to say to him. I can’t reassure him because there isn’t anything reassuring about that story. And honestly, I’m embarrassed I didn’t know any of that. I see the headlines online and in the paper but I never understand any of it. It’s never directly affected me so I’ve never thought to even look into it.
He stopped tattooing but I don’t know if he’s finished, so I don’t move. “We moved to Syria when I was ten,” he says, his voice quieter. “My father is a surgeon and he and my mother opened a medical clinic there. But after living there for a year, when things started to get bad, my parents sent me back here to live with my grandparents until my father could get his visa to return home. My mother was due to give birth to my little sister so she couldn’t fly at the time. They told me it would just be three months. But right before they were due to fly home . . .”
His voice trails off. Since he’s no longer tattooing me, I spin the chair around to look at him. He’s sitting with his hands clasped between his knees, looking down. When he looks up at me, his eyes are red, but he’s holding his composure.
“Before they came home, communication just stopped. They went from calling me every day to complete silence. I haven’t heard from them in seven years.”
I cover my mouth in shock.
Sagan is sitting stoically, staring at his hands again. Both of my hands are pressed against my mouth in disbelief. I can’t believe this is his life.
This is why he answers the phone with such urgency, because he’s always hoping it will be news about his family. I can’t imagine suffering through seven years of not knowing.
“I feel like such an asshole,” I whisper. “My problems are nothing compared to what you’ve been going through . . .”
He looks up at me with completely dry eyes. I think that makes me the saddest, to know that he’s so used to his life that it doesn’t make him cry every second of the day.
He puts his hand on my chair and says, “You aren’t an asshole, Mer.” He turns me around. “Hold still. I’m almost finished.”
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