I got my NOLA tattoo yesterday. I found a parlour down on Magazine called Idle Hands, strolled in with my bit of text printed on a paper and in no time the quick and cordial Flex Wenger whipped up my 12th (or 13th, depending on how we’re counting) tattoo. Not only was the experience fast and enjoyable, but the price was the cheapest I’ve gotten in years. (So, take that as an official Lyttleton recommendation.)
As with all of my tattoos, this text has both a general meaning taken from its context and also a personal context in which it fits into my own life and philosophy.
The quote comes from Jack Kerouac’s* novella of tragic romance, The Subterraneans, a book I first read during my year in Charlotte and recently re-read while living in Seattle. I’m a sucker for doomed romance in literature and movies (probably why that’s the only kind I have), and this is one of the great ones.
Kerouac’s surrogate, Leo Percepied, meets and woos the beautiful, black Mardou Fox, a relationship that in the story’s 1950s setting would already have the deck stacked against it just based on racial lines. But the story isn’t a Romeo and Juliet struggle, it’s an ecstatic, dizzying exploration of two lovers whose personal demons and insecurities undercut their love at every turn until eventually there is no other possible ending other than for the two to part ways.
Throughout the story, the characters hurt each other or allow themselves to be hurt. In one particular scene, Percepied decides to stay out drinking even though he had promised to go home with Mardou. He insists she go home alone and he’ll meet her later, but he keeps drinking and stays out all night. This is essentially the nature of their relationship, but she puts up with it and a few days after this particular incident, she writes him this letter**:
Isn’t it good to know winter is coming and that life will be a little more quiet – and you will be home writing and eating well and we will be spending pleasant nights wrapped round one another – and you are home now, rested and eating well because you should not become too sad – and I feel better when you are well.
I am full of strange feelings, reliving and refashioning many old things and feeling the cold and the quietude even in the midst of my forebodings and fears – which clear nights soothe and make more sharp and real – tangible and easier to cope with.
But why am I writing to say these things to you. But all feelings are real and you probably discern or feel too what I am saying and why I need to write it.
My image of you now is strange. I feel a distance from you which you might feel too which gives me a picture of you that is warm and friendly (and loving) – and because of the anxieties we are experiencing but never speak of really, and are similar too.
I am going to sleep to dream, to wake. You have a very beautiful face and I like to see it as I do now.
Forgive the conjunctions and double infinitives and the not said. I don’t know really what I wanted to say but want you to have a few words from this Wednesday morning. We are like two animals escaping to dark warm holes and live our pains alone.
Write to me anything. Please Stay Well Your Freind [misspelled] And my love And Oh [over some kind of hiddenforever erasures] [and many X’s for of course kisses] And Love for You MARDOU
As the narrator contemplates the letter and what it meant at the time, and what it means now that the relationship is over, the letter seems dishearteningly naive while strangely prescient, as all love letters do after the fact. After recounting the letter and contemplating it, he closes the passage:
(And tonight this letter is my last hope.)
In those doomed relationships when the end is inevitable but you still haven’t resigned yourself to it, haven’t thrown in the towel, it’s the love letters and tokens of affection that give you the final glimmers of hope, the beacon of light in your despair. I’ve been there, holding onto a last hope.
While this passage (and the whole novel) rings true with my experiences, that isn’t why I choose the quote for my latest tattoo. I remember when I was reading the book, that sentence stuck out to me so I wrote it down. At the time I couldn’t really articulate why, but as the months passed and I grew more and more certain that I wanted it preserved in ink, a meaning came into focus.
‘Letter’ in this context, isn’t a letter, but rather the conceptual idea of literature and writing, as in a ‘Man of Letters.’ When all else fails, and it often does, what brings me back from the brink is literature and my desire to create it. When I want to throw in the towel on this project (or everything), I think of that literary legacy that I’ve sought for as long as I can remember, and I hold out just that much longer.
When friends, family and lovers fail, and they do because they are human and finite, it’s my letters that hold fast, because they are not human and they are infinite in their wonder.
I don’t always feel like writing, and sometimes I cheat on books with stupid videos or mindlessly stumbling through pages of ephemera, but when I come back I don’t have to beg forgiveness or offer penance, I can pick up where I left off and it’s like we never missed a beat.
Words on a page, mine or another’s, they are a lifespring.
I’ve been at the end of my rope, certain there was nothing left to hold on for, ready to call it quits. And on those nights, these letters were my last hope.
*Making it my second Kerouac quote tattoo, for those counting.
**In the book, it’s broken up by line as the narrator comments on each thought.