My friend Ben used to collect keys. He kept them in a jar: keys that had belonged to him, keys that had belonged to friends, keys he’d purchased at thrift shops (by the way, who are these people giving their old keys away to thrift shops?), keys people had lost or forgotten and he’d stumbled upon in passing. In the jar, the keys caught the sun sometimes and looked like an artifact out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Your eye could wander around the corners and spaces the keys left; the collection altogether was art-gallery dazzling.
At sixteen, I assumed Ben liked the keys for their glitz. I had a shallow respect for his collection; it gave off an air of crafty thrift in the light of a “Do It Yourself: Apartment Edition” feature in Seventeen magazine. I didn’t think more about the keys, which says a lot about how splendidly one-dimensional I was as a teenager. A key, after all, is only half of a whole. For the very specific space it fills, a key implies another, separate, equally specific emptiness.
Thousands of years ago, in Egypt, keys were made out of wood and pins. Ancient Romans kept their valuables in secure boxes, and wore their keys as rings to show the world they were rich enough to need them. Metal locks and keys appeared sometime around 900 AD, and really took off in the late 18th century during the Industrial Revolution. By then, everyone had a key to something. A key said, “I have stuff, and I want to protect it from people who don’t.”
My family kept a spare key to our house in the bottom of the black ceramic turtle on the front porch. It’s not like our house had any OTHER lawn ornaments; it was obvious that the ceramic turtle’s only function must be to hold a key. The turtle gave off this false idea that our house was a thing that someone might break into one day. A robber would come over, try the front door, and, noticing that it was locked, panic. WHY is this door LOCKED? The robber would think. He’d look around for a key that might be lying somewhere, but all he’d see would be a ceramic turtle. What a cute turtle, the robber would think. Too bad there’s no obvious key to this house. Guess I’ll move on.
But a key to a house gives you a feeling of ownership and safety. Although we don’t wear our keys on our fingers anymore, they still emit value; a notion that there are things in our life worth protecting.
Last week, I emptied the top drawer of my desk. This is ritualistic: I am very much a hoarder of things, and I tend to throw them all into the top drawer of my desk with an unspoken declaration of, “I’ll get to this later.” Every six months or so, I empty the drawer and sort through the things — rubber balls, Mardi Gras throws, pins with clever sayings on them, melted lip balm sticks, receipts for things “I’m definitely going to write off this year” — and then put them back in the desk, but more neatly. It is a purposeless exercise, except that I like the way the drawer looks when everything is in a neat, matching pile. After a good, thorough sort, I’ll open the drawer up and gaze at it with long, satisfied breaths, like I’m having a cigarette.
But last week, as I was emptying my desk and sorting my things, I realized something: I, like my friend Ben, had become a collector of keys. It wasn’t on purpose: I just didn’t know what to do with them when they became obsolete, and so they went in the desk. Now I have 32 keys on three different key rings, useless, but also, impossible to get rid of.
In my hands, the old keys felt like watches without batteries: there was a deadness to them. But just as we mark and hold places for actual lives that have passed — in urns or in graveyards or in picture frames in living rooms — I wanted to hold onto the stories of the things I used to keep safe. The edges of the keys reminded me of maps of rivers: jagged and weird and particular. I ran my fingers along them and thought about the places they’d belonged.
I have a key to the front door of the first house I loved in New Orleans. The house had three porches, and we had three cats when we lived there, and the dining room was good for parties; you could easily fit twelve people around our big, blue, wooden table. The key is covered with loud pink Duct tape, which reminds me of that era too, because I had a roll of it and I put it on EVERYTHING: the side view mirror of my car; the hinge of the fridge that broke while I was drunk; the cardboard puppet theater I made for when I had to babysit the neighbor’s kid; the shelf in my room that cracked on the edge and gave me splinters.
I have a key to the first grade classroom I taught in five years ago. I was supposed to turn it back into the school, but I thought I’d lost it, so the school site manager charged me $25 and said she’d let it go.
I have a key to the house of a man I used to love, who gave it to me thinking — or hoping; or maybe not — that he’d never have to change the locks, because maybe one day I would move in. I hoped it too, and I used to hold this key in my hand, wondering what it would be like to live with a person you were in love with. Would you care if he left soap on the dishes? I thought that at first you wouldn’t; but then, as the love grew into the bigger, more permanent kind of love, you would.
I have a key to the 1997 green Volvo wagon that crashed into the lake in Nebraska, while my sister Alexis and I were listening to “Harry Potter” on tape inside of it. This key was in the ignition in the moment I was sure I would die. It was still in the ignition in the moment I realized I wouldn’t.
The keys, which have no practical purpose anymore, are little maps to parts of my life that have to necessarily shrink away, to make space for all the new stuff I’m constantly shoving in. I put them back in the drawer, with a whisper of a thought that soon I’ll add to the pile: the key to this house (which I’ll have to move out of in May), the key to the bike I never lock up (which will inevitably get stolen), the key to the house of the man I love now. They will remain little metal memorials of parts of my life that have mattered enough to want to hold on to.
One day, even I will forget. And then, if I am lucky, some stranger somewhere will put them in a jar, as if to say, “Here is proof that somewhere, someone lived."