My brother, Diego, rolled into town a couple days after my parents did, wearing his usual vacation gear – a skintight designer T and sunglasses. As soon as he lifted his arms to hug my mother at Shin-Osaka station, I caught my first glimpse of what has been our secret for the past few months – his brand new tattoo.

Quietly, as he and my parents exchanged pleasantries, I marveled at its composition. “SPQR” – the symbol of ancient Rome – in bold, black ink styled to look like letters gashed into marble. For me, the concept and execution were a success. After several lonely years, Diego’s stallion tattoo has a companion at last.

We took a heinously expensive cab to Osaka because neither my parents or my brother – who had just traveled for 18 hours – wanted to deal with the commuter trains while carrying a suitcase. We crossed bridges; I read Japanese signs. My parents gushed over my pathetic Japanese skills. I glanced in the rearview mirror to check the geographical status of Diego’s tattoo – winking at me from beneath the edge of his T-shirt sleeve.

Finally, the dawn came. Somewhere over the Shinsaibashi bridge, I heard a thin, high scream coming from the backseat.

“What’s this?” my mother cried. “SPQR? What is this? How could you do this?”

“Surprise!” said Diego. “Do you like it? SPQR – it’s in honor of you, mamma!”

“Oh my god!” wailed our mother. “Who do you think you are? Braccia di Ferro – Popeye? You’re kidding me. It washes off, doesn’t it? Mamma mia!” She licked her fingers and attempted to wipe off the offending stain to no avail.

The next day, my brother tried to go to the gym and reported a series of cold, angry looks from the Japanese already there. At dinner, my parents’ Japanese friends Yoko and Scemo, informed Diego that in Japan, tattoos are associated with the yakuza and that not only would he find enjoying himself at a gym difficult, but that a hot spring would pretty much be out of the question.

“Huh!” was my brother’s awed evaluation of the situation.

It’s been a few days now since the dawning of the age of SPQR and from time to time, my mother will still reach out her wet fingers in a doleful attempt to see if the letters will smudge. Yet, they never do.


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