Meaning and Meaninglessness on the Night of My Last Final Exam

Michael Nagel

The night before my last final exam my wife and I went to a tattoo parlor to get tattoos. I took the train to Mockingbird station and from Mockingbird Station I walked a mile up Greenville Avenue. It was hot outside, summer weather, and all the bars and restaurants were closed. The tattoo parlor was called Hold Fast and when I walked in my wife was already on her side with her shirt pulled up to her armpits. She was getting a tattoo of vines.  

Hi, she said.

The place smelled like a hospital. The walls were covered in drawings and they all looked the same. Most of them were of women without their shirts on. One of them was of a woman without her shirt on getting oral sex from a wolf. The caption said, “El Loba.” I’ve gotten a tattoo before but it was a long time ago and under different circumstances that I won’t go into.

The tattoo artist sitting next to my wife had a long, sharp goatee and a wedding ring on, which made me feel better about his hands being all over my wife’s ribcage. I stood on the opposite side of a waist-high wall and held her hand while he dragged the tattoo gun across her skin. I asked her if it hurt and she said it didn’t hurt too bad yet and Geoff, the tattoo artist, said, I must not be doing it right then because pain is what getting a tattoo is all about.

I didn’t know what I was going to get but I knew that I wanted it to be meaningless. I wanted to commemorate the end of school with a meaningless tattoo. When one of the artists asked me if I wanted anything I said I wanted three chevrons on my left forearm. First he drew them out on a sheet of paper, then he transferred them onto my arm, then he traced them with his tattoo gun over and over again until blood dripped down the sides of my wrist. Even meaningless things take forever sometimes. We drove home two hours later wrapped in Saran wrap, listening to Kanye West.

Do you feel any different?, I asked my wife. She was on anti-anxiety pills and her seat was leaned back all the way.

I think I will feel different eventually, she said, but I don’t feel different right now.

Me neither, I said. I was looking down at the chevrons on my left arm. My left arm was floating out the window like a wing.

It was gloomy the next morning. My final exam wasn’t for another 15 hours. The forecast said it was supposed to rain. I wore a jacket on the train even though it was eighty degrees outside. I was reading Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, which I’ve read nine times. I used to love this book but now I thought Dyer was being annoying. He kept turning phrases over on themselves, saying things like, “I had everything going for me, by which I mean I had nothing going for me.” Or, “I was being more productive than I had ever been, by which I mean I was getting nothing done at all.” He was being clever but I was tired of clever things. I wanted everything to be as simple as it could possibly be.  

I took the early train into downtown Dallas and got there just after 6am. The sky was just starting to glow. Dallas smells weird in the morning, sour and sweaty. Hot air blows up through the grates and inflates your clothes like a windsock puppet. People move in clusters and disappear into the office buildings. Everything is almost perfectly silent.

I ordered a red eye at Starbucks and sat in one of the deep comfy chairs and read Geoff Dyer until it was time to go to work. He kept annoying me but I still liked the book. It’s possible to like the things that annoy you. When I walked to my office two hours later the clouds were getting dark and it was starting to get windy. The sky was layers of blacks and greys and whites. I forget sometimes just how high up the sky goes, that it’s not just a singular plane above us. My beanie flew off my head and floated down Elm Street.

The day passed slowly and at times I wondered if time was moving at all. I was on an asymptotic trajectory toward finishing school. I would get closer and closer but never actually get there. It took me nine years to finish four years of school. Who knew how long these last few hours would take. I drank five cups of coffee in the morning and at lunch I walked to the coffee shop next door and drank a cappuccino. I didn’t eat anything. I sat at a table by the window and watched the trains come and go. I wanted this day to be over already but I also wanted this day to last forever. I am a delayer of gratification. The more I want something, the longer I want to wait for it. I watched the trains come and go and my head was buzzing on caffeine.

It started raining just after lunch. The rain was light at first but then it started to pour. I looked down from our tenth floor window and watched the raindrops fall to the ground. They didn’t fall in straight lines. They spiraled out of control like airplanes about to crash. The sky turned black and by 3pm the rain was so thick we couldn’t see past our own block. The wind was blowing at 70 miles an hour. Water accumulated on the rooftops and fell down the sides of skyscrapers like waterfalls. When the tornado sirens went off we could barely hear them over the sound of the wind.

Should we take cover? Elizabeth said.

We should definitely take cover, Josh said. And then we all stayed exactly where we were with our noses pressed against the windows while the storm blew through the city.

The trains were shut down when I left work. They’d shorted out, or maybe there was a tree on the tracks. I heard different things. The train was so packed the doors clipped my shirt when they closed. The air breaks hissed and the bells rang but we didn’t move. We sat in the station for another thirty minutes before coasting 100 yards forward and stopping again. My final wasn’t for two hours but I wondered if I was going to make it on time, and if I didn’t make it on time, if I would still graduate. Then I wondered if I was ever going to get off this train at all. Elizabeth was on the train ahead of me and she texted me, “Thinking I may have to begin a new life onboard this train. Settle into a corner, start a family.” Half an hour later the trains started moving again.

I got to campus an hour early and the parking lot was empty. I parked in the remote lot and rolled down my window. It wasn’t raining anymore but the air was still wet. A few trees had blown over and the ground was covered in leaves. I sat in my car for a few minutes trying to feel nostalgic about my last night on campus but I couldn’t make myself feel anything. I walked to the pub and drank a Shiner. The pub was mostly empty and I sat by a window and watched students walk by. I was older than most of them, twenty-six. I’ve been here too long, I thought. I chugged the last half of the Shiner and walked to class. I hadn’t eaten anything all day and my body had become detached from my brain. I was nothing but a head floating through campus, six feet above the ground.

While I waited for the professor to hand out the final exam, I lined up the edges of my scantron with the edges of the table. I arranged my mechanical pencils in parallel lines. Everyone around me was cramming, quizzing, riffling through stacks of paper, but I was sitting there like a statue. When the professor handed out the exam, time, which had been creeping forward all day, came to a full stop. I traced the lines of my new tattoo. It was raised off my skin and still a little bit sensitive. I thought about how meaningless it was but also how much meaning was embedded within the meaninglessness. Maybe that’s all anything ever was. Or at least that’s what school has been for me.

Campus was quiet after the test. I thought I’d done okay but I wasn’t sure. I’m never sure about anything. I was walking back out to my car and a student passed me on a bicycle. He was riding up hill and I was walking down hill. Way far out in the distance I could see lightning in the clouds. The storm had blown through Dallas and was moving on toward Arkansas. The air tasted as salty as seawater. This has been good, I thought. I was thinking about this night specifically but then I was thinking about college in general. I was glad I’d suck with it. The air was cold now and my glasses were covered in a thin layer of rain. When I got to my car, I turned on the National, their album Trouble Will Find Me, their song “Humiliation.” My car was the only car left in the parking lot and behind me campus was a thousand little lights.

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