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Life, death, tattoos and the apartment

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By Kelly Dolejsi

When I’m old, I’m going to have sagging, misshapen, ugly tattoos.

People love to remind me of this.  A miserable buffalo, a rotten pear, a little king whose beautiful ermine coat needs ironing.

Typically, it’s someone who doesn’t know me well and with whom I’ve never shared any philosophy about aging, death or even body art, who tells me this.

Although I was only 18 years old when I got my first tattoo, I realized that eventually I would get old.

I have long hoped that I would not die before my first wrinkle appeared. I’m in no rush, but I want to get old. In fact, I even know what it will be like.

Since fourth grade or so, I’ve been able to picture it exactly.

In my vision, I’m in a long, one-room apartment, tightly situated between bookshelves that run the length the walls on either side of me.

I’m writing at a large wooden desk, writing in the near-darkness with a good-sized, open, unscreened window behind me. I’m on an upper floor and I hear the sounds of a city far below me, a city I don’t take part in anymore, one that makes me feel both angry and less alone. I assume it’s New York.

I see my hands and wrists on the surface of the desk, but I don’t see my face, my hair or whether I’ve gotten fat. I don’t see my tattoos, although I’ve got to assume that if I’m there, so are they.

Likewise, I don’t see the window behind me. I simply know it’s there. The death apartment is not cinematic or dreamlike. I cannot watch myself. It’s more like a memory, where I look through my own eyes.

There’s never anyone else in the room and I’m always at that desk.

There’s no bed, no kitchen, no husband and no pets.

The pen and paper (sometimes I’m using a typewriter or computer, but typically I picture myself handwriting) feel like my whole world. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing – a letter? A newspaper column? A novel? I’m writing and I can’t seem to do anything else.

Despite the gloom and crushing loneliness, I have never been as calm as I am in this apartment. Oddly, even when I was in elementary school, I never felt scared of dying like this, alone in a crappy room. It seemed inevitable and in a way, reassuring; it soothed me somewhat to think I would still be writing that close to the end – that no matter what mistakes I had made in my life, no matter how badly I isolated myself, in the end I would still have my writing.

This vision has stayed with me for more than a decade, through countless life changes and many changes of address. I no longer live in a city and don’t plan to ever again. Yet, in my mind, at the end, it’s always this tiny urban apartment, with its notebooks and ink, that’s my only companion.

I find it interesting that the apartment is so far above the city, almost in an angel-realm. It strikes me that the room is dark, lending a sense of obscurity to the room, its minimal furnishings, the books and even the words I’m writing. Even the city is obscured, not by the darkness but by its placement: countless floors down and outside a window that is behind me.

It’s death itself, this room and its impenetrable solitude.

Except the word “impenetrable” might be incorrect. In my mind, the window is always open. I can feel the air on my back, cool and smelling just a little like cars and shoes. There is nothing between my back and the world, other than an unseen vertiginous drop. There’s a sense that if I stopped writing and tipped my chair toward the window, down I would go. I could die. Or if the apartment is death, then I could return to life.

Imagine if death really were a dark studio apartment in Manhattan. It could be similar to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” where it’s hell to stay. Or it could be a nice break, not from work but from life itself. You could know your thoughts in a place like this. You could master them before you face life again, or before you face whatever’s next.

Or maybe this death apartment is literally “what’s next” for me. Maybe when I was 10 years old, I somehow tapped into a life that will be.

I like my husband, my pets, my non-cosmopolitan White Rock life. I don’t ever want to be that reclusive old woman so far away from the faintest noise of any life besides my own. But if it happens, at least I’ll be a reclusive old woman with a moon-vine arm band, the little green leaves wiggling merrily on my loose skin as I scribble my way through the dark.