By Patricia Ljutic

A woman in a sun hat facing a tattoo parlor's colorfully decorated storefront

(This story contains suicide.)

My friend Lila had an ever-present yearning to be somewhere other than where she was, as if emotional burrs lodged under her skin and began pricking her before she could settle anywhere. She spoke about changing where she lived, but had such a sweet, rent-controlled deal for her one-bedroom in Berkeley, she could never justify a move. That didn’t stop her from exploring Craigslist and talking to me about New Mexico, Seattle, Austin, and how it would be cheaper to live in rural Oregon.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Lila scheduled an interview with a Waldorf preschool as a teacher. She called me about her decision to interview for the job just as I zipped up my suitcase and finished packing for our trip from the Bay Area to Arizona. But the delay worked okay for me. With Lila I’ve learned to be flexible.

I figured she unconsciously scheduled the interview to reduce the amount of time she’d have to spend in Mesa. Going home was not always easy for Lila, and I felt tired, so we agreed we’d drive as far as we could by 8:00 p.m., spend the night in a hotel, and get an early start the following day. We’d still arrive the afternoon before the holiday, in time for me to help my mom prep the Thanksgiving meal.

Lila and I had been in a friends’ group together with four other women since middle school. The six of us planned to rent a house on the Oregon coast next summer to celebrate our thirtieth birthdays, and Lila and I had plenty of planning to do.

“I’m signing up for desserts,” Lila said. “We can make vegan birthday cakes, and substitute chai seeds, applesauce, or mashed bananas for eggs.”

“Which one makes the most delicious cake?”

“I figure it’s fruit or vegetable oil.”

“Vegetable oil,” I said, laughing. “Boring!”

“We could experiment with different things.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s make some cakes before the party.”

Lila smiled. “It’s a date. I’ll send you some recipes, and you can pick which ones we make.”

“Perfect!” I said. “I vote for bananas.”

Driving in LA traffic, made worse by road construction and lane closures, wore me out and persuaded me to stop in Pasadena. We got a room with two queen beds, ordered in, and relaxed. I had binge-watched Reservation Dogs a while back, so I suggested we watch it on Lila’s laptop.

Throughout episode one, the Rez Dogs mentioned their friend Daniel’s death. In the end, they put on black suits and held a memorial for him on the anniversary of his death.

Lila leaned back against the pillows and asked, “How did he die?”

Shit! I had honestly not connected one of the central plotlines of the show with Lila’s struggles. “He killed himself,” I said calmly.

Lila snapped the laptop shut as if it had tried to bite her, then shoved it onto the bedside table. “How?”

I sucked in my breath. “Lila, what does it matter. It’s just a story. I’m sorry.”

“Tell me.”

“He hung himself.”

Lila curled up on her side and slid a pillow over her head. “I try to watch positive, uplifting things before bed; otherwise, the bad stuff is all I think about,” she said. “I won’t be able to go to sleep.”

I’m not a shrink. I majored in microbiology, partly because bacteria don’t talk. But I could not be quiet. “Would you like to watch a comedy?” I asked.

Lila shook her head. “I can’t right now. It hurts too bad.”

Damn! I didn’t want our trip ruined. What was I thinking?

“You saw what killing himself did to his family and friends,” I said.

She uncovered her face. “That doesn’t matter. When someone is going to kill themselves, the pain is so bad they can’t think of how it will affect anyone else. No one else matters.”

No one else matters? That churned my gut, but for Lila it was sometimes true.

From under the pillow, Lila said, “The internal pain, the need to die, feels like agony. When I feel that way, all I want to do is end it.”

I ran the script in my head, what to say when someone talks about suicide. “Do you feel that way now? Would you try to do anything tonight?” I sounded like a self-help brochure.

“No, not now. First, there’s the pain, but the danger is the calm. Like in the eye of the storm. In the calm is when I have the energy to try.”

She spoke with authority. I felt a flush of panic. “You don’t have a plan or anything?”

“No. It’s hearing about it that brings back the feelings. It’s like my body, bones, and muscles remember how it feels to want to die, and they ache. Life’s exhausting.”

I started to tap my foot. “Want to go out? It’s only 9:30. We could go to a diner and have some hot chocolate or something.”

Folding her hands over her belly, Lila curled up tighter. “It’s hard to kill yourself. I’ve tried. Your mind wants to end it, to die. It’s all you want. But your body is stubborn. It’s determined to live no matter how awful you feel.”

Lila had never said this before. I said, “When did you try?”

“Before high school. After I met you and Tammy, I felt like I belonged, and I decided not to try again, but there are times I still want to.” She sat up. “You can hardly see the scars now.” She stretched out her left arm for me to see. “I was twelve and cut the wrong way and not deep enough. Then, because I hadn’t done it right, I remember hoping it would get infected and I’d die.”

I leaned forward to look at her arm. Any cuts that had been made had faded into the folds of her skin. By just looking at her arm, you’d never know she had tried it. I knew, of course, that over the years Lila talked about wanting to die, but she never said she had tried. Overwhelmed, wanting to help but not sure how to make things better and not worse, I kept quiet.

Lila pulled her arm back and said, “And hanging. TV shows and movies like to show hangings, but God, it’s hard to hang yourself.”

She’d tried it? I paused and took a deep breath.

“People don’t know how terrible it feels,” Lila said, bringing me back to the present. “Thanks for letting me talk about it.”

I nodded, frightened. “When we get home,” I said, “I’ll help you find a therapist.”

“Insurance won’t cover my therapy.”

“What? Why not?”

“Well, it’s complicated. They agree that I’m depressed.”


“Yeah, but I have a job, an apartment, a car. I don’t drink. I’m not addicted to drugs. I pay my bills.” She rolled onto her back. “I’m functional; they prescribe meds, and after that, I’m on my own. You know, one psychiatrist diagnosed me with anxiety and depression, and another doctor said that I’m bipolar.”

“Last time we talked about this, you were looking for support groups?” I typed mental health organizations near Berkeley on my phone. A handful of clinics appeared on the map as little red dots. There were so few.

“I did go to Al-Anon, you know, because of my dad, but with COVID, electronic meetings just aren’t the same. And when I feel like this, it’s hard to move. Hard to do things.”

“When we get back, I’ll help you find a group or somebody.”

Lila lay quietly, lost in thought, staring up at the ceiling. “That’s why I need my tattoo.”

“What tattoo?”

“A semicolon.”


“You know, the punctuation mark. When you use a semicolon in a sentence, there’s something more. Not like a period that ends the sentence. People get semicolon tattoos as affirmations against suicide, and other things like depression.” She sighed. “I keep thinking I should get my semicolon right here on my palm, so when I look at my hand, I see it, right there looking at me, reminding me there is more, and I can turn this around. It doesn’t end with the pain. There’s more.”

I had already started scrolling to find tattoo artists near the hotel. “Most of the tattoo shops just closed, but there’s one twenty-four-hour place. Do you want to go?”


“Yeah, now. I mean, it’s a semicolon, and while it’s important, it’s a simple design, so they should be able to get it done with no problem. If it were complicated, I’d want to wait until we got home, but don’t you think most shops could handle it?”

Lila rolled on her side. Her eyes scanned my face, and she shrugged. “Sure. I’d like to.”

“Let’s go then. I’ll get one too.”

“You serious?”

“Yeah! I’ll get a semicolon with you.”

Then she slid off the bed and slipped on her shoes, moving quickly for a depressed person.

I grabbed my jacket, and Lila and I dashed through the motel and into my car.

The tattoo shop presented as clean and colorful. It smelled of disinfectant and green soap. Photos and posters of tattoos covered the entire studio: wolves, crosses, skulls, roses, lotus blossoms, butterflies, and daggers with Japanese and Celtic symbols dominated one wall. Two tattoo artists, a man and a woman, worked the needles. The guy’s arms were decorated in grays and blacks: one arm displaying flames and the other smoke. The woman had a red-and-black dragon that gracefully draped across both shoulders with its face coming to rest above her breasts. She displayed most of it in the shop, but I admired the design and how the tattoo could be concealed by clothing if necessary. A third person, Edgar, signed us in. He had one of those full-body tattoos that covered his arms and torso, back and front, like a shirt. Edgar greeted us, and I let Lila take the lead describing the design to him.

“Semicolons,” Edgar said. Then he grabbed a book and showed us variations on the semicolon, with the top dot being a heart, a bird in flight, a star, a cross, or the roots of a tree.

“Just a plain semicolon. I want it here,” Lila said, displaying her open palm and tapping the area just below her thumb.

“Okay. What about you?” he said to me.

“I want the same design as Lila,” I said. Lila leaned her head on my shoulder.

“Symbols are important,” he said, handing us papers and pens. “Here’s the consent forms. I’ll create a mock-up of the design.”

While Edgar drew, I signed my consent form and examined the tattoo pain chart posted on the wall. It indicated tattoos applied to the hands were some of the more painful procedures.

Lila looked at a tattoo photo across the length of a woman’s forearm written in ornate script: Viva La Vida. “Maybe I should get La Vida too,” she said.

“Let’s try this first,” I said.

She faked a scowl. “Okay, next time.”

The idea of another tattoo felt like a future promise I wanted Lila to keep. “I’ll go with you next time for sure.”

Within an hour, Lila and I were sitting at the tables, opposite each other. Edgar would work on my tattoo, and Tina would do Lila’s. When they asked us to approve the design, Lila requested that they lengthen the bottom of the semicolon, and I agreed. They disinfected our skin with green soap, then used tracing paper and stencil fluid to transfer the image onto our palms. When everything was ready, Edgar and Tina turned on the tattoo needles, and throughout the process, the machines hummed.

Edgar outlined the semicolon on my hand. The needle pressed into my skin, carving its way around my flesh while buzzing like a bee. I gripped the table with my free hand and endured. “Wow. This hurts. How you doing, Lila?”

“It’s a good pain,” she said.

I strained not to pull away from the needle. “What’s good pain?”

“The kind I ask for. The kind I have control over. All I have to do is tell her to stop, and it stops.” She grinned and winked. I grimaced. Tina, the tattoo artist, chuckled.

Filling in the design delivered new vibrations and pinpricks. The entire process fascinated me. My palm was changed forever, yet it now seemed more mine than before I decorated it.

After Tina and Edgar completed our tattoos, we put our hands side by side and admired our matching semicolons. Having just been carved and engorged with dye, the inch-long tattoos were slightly raised above the flesh of our hands and surrounded by a red halo. The tattoo artists applied antibiotic ointment and wrapped a single layer of transparent film around our hands. Edgar explained this protected the tattoo and prevented infection and told us about aftercare.

By the time we left and got in the car, we were laughing. “How the hell am I going to drive?” I said. We were both right-handed and got tattooed on our right palms.

“How the hell am I going to carve a turkey?” Lila asked. “Here, you drive with your left hand, and I’ll help you steer with my left hand.” She put her left hand on the steering wheel, silly and joyful and present.

I brushed her hand away. “No. No. This is crazy. We didn’t think this through.” I pulled out my phone. “I need navigation. I have no idea where we are.”

“Let me help!” Lila grabbed the wheel again. “I know how we got here.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. Let me lead.”

I held my breath.

“I got you,” she said.

“Okay.” I slipped my phone back into my pocket.

We placed our tattooless left hands on the steering wheel. I held on at ten o’clock and Lila positioned her hand at two o’clock. I pressed on the gas, and we steered the car out of the parking space and into the street.

Category: Featured, Fiction