They're the keys to our old apartment in San Francisco. To the place we lived in, my ex-husband and I, when we were all still a family together and our son just a winsome toddler with blond swinging hair and blue denim eyes, like a baby doll's.
The keys I used to palm nervously, walking down darkened streets with a gallon of milk from the grocer in my other hand, are now stacked neatly in front of me on the desk. My youngest child is wailing, crawling up onto my lap and wiping his tear-stained cheeks on my gray sweatshirt. He bumps the keys and they fall to the floor with a thud.
I look at them for a moment before leaning over to pick them up. I flick each one in turn around the large heavy silver ring, consideringly.
These are the keys to doors that no longer open.
Elliott Smith is singing "Miss Misery" in the background. It's a pretty song, it's a depressing song, and yet I like listening to it; it takes me to a place I couldn't get to, otherwise, just like the yellow taxis that darted in and out of lanes on Van Ness that I'd see but could never afford to ride in for very long.
Rick Lee is in San Francisco this week. He's started posting pictures from the trip on his site. I keep checking back to see what he's photographed, though at the same time I'm not sure what it is I'm looking for. I guess I want to know if other people see it the way I do. I'm thinking -- probably not.
As for me? It feels like I left so much behind (I lifted my arms one day to pick up my son, and ended up flying away instead) that there'd be something more to look at, even now -- something anyone else could see, as easily as you could, yourself. Nothing too esoteric, even: a signpost, or a tattered remnant of a sweater I used to wear, or maybe even a shadow self, walking around in my old Minnetonka moccasins, pushing a navy blue stroller down to Real Foods on Polk Street in the mornings, swinging a child in Lafayette Park round about 2 p.m.
It took some time to learn that a relationship is like any other kind of vessel: you can glue the pieces back together, but the seam is still there, all the same. It snakes down the side of the vase on your nightstand and every morning when you wake up you still can't help looking at it, tracing your finger lightly over the cracked ceramic and marveling how numb the glue feels to the touch. Like something forced and rubbery and forever after inflexibly altered.
There's that pieced-together place in the vase that's harder and crueler than anywhere else, where the flow of conversation is interrupted with a jagged break and then awkwardly rearranges itself around the shift, not quite working, and you feel like not only can you see it, but everyone else must be able to see it too, and they must talk amongst themselves, and comment privately when you're not in the room.
(Who is this person, with a life that's pieced together instead of whole?)
And then you have to choose whether this is what you want to think about every morning for the rest of your life, and close your eyes to before you sleep at night; or whether it's possible to get up and change it. One thing, something, maybe everything.
These are the keys I clutched in the pocket of my lynx coat when my son and I walked through San Francisco Airport at a quarter to midnight one May evening. I had a feeling I wouldn't be back, yet at the time, they still felt necessary.
And now they sit on my son's bureau, next to the rubble of compact discs and GBA game cartridges, all but eclipsed in the here and the now.
The same keys that closed doors behind me; somehow opened new ones, all on the sheer virtue of decision.