I have no keys. I’m on an airplane, my pockets are empty, and I’m wholly unsettled; did I lose something? In one year, I’ve lived in five states, six rooms, well over twenty hotels, and all of these places involved keys. I wonder: what do these keys unlock for me? What do I surrender when I return them? And what does it ultimately mean to be a woman without keys?
For six months I called Chicago home. Invaluable life experience aside: it was miserable. I am no longer surprised that my roommate/employer gave me her keys by tying them to a white ribbon and leaving them on a tree, in the park, across from her building. It was the first place I’d ever needed two keys: one for the outside door and one for the actual apartment. The system felt sophisticated… or maybe just complicated. It took me weeks to realize, if I simply painted one of them green, I wouldn’t have to try both keys at both doors. My first “big-city” keys were full of promise, daunting, novel, but by the time I left they weren’t magic portals to a new life. They were just keys. The green paint had chipped off entirely.
I landed my first acting job, a tour. When you’re living in hotels, you’re given a plastic key that you end up throwing away at the NEXT hotel. I often found myself swiping multiple Holiday Inn Express cards to figure out which belonged to THIS room. At first, it was exhilarating to swipe instead of turn. It requires much less effort and there is a joy to the motion: slow dip, quick pull. But you can’t quite escape the fact that plastic keys expire.
My most cherished key is black and red with Asian markings, the ninja key, and my keychain looks naked without it. It unlocks the door to a gaggle of pets whose only desire is to attack me with love in a house that feels like something between home and a vacation.
I had my best friend’s key for a while, because she needed me to have it. I used that key to fill her shower with balloons and her freezer with icy pops.
Working in people’s homes, employers will often give me a key. Usually it’s a lone, distinctly new key attached to a label that clearly displays their name. Yes, I have their key. No, I will not be keeping it. The keys are a symbol of our employer/employee relationship: I have access but it is not personal and it is not permanent.
For six months, a stranger shared his apartment with me. Three separate, and efficiently distinctive, keys gave me access to many good things: his cat, free laundry rooms, and a place that felt like home. He and I became more than roommates but less than a couple. Anytime we walked into the building together, he would tease me for using my key. There was a coded keypad; I just had to learn the code. But I never really did. Someone else returned those keys, I didn’t have access anymore.
That’s when my new friend gave me her keys. The outdoor one gives me a thrill every time I use it. It’s electronic. I touch it to a scanner and the robot woman speaks: Access Granted. The door buzzes and I am granted access to… The Lobby. The key to her apartment is the first gold key I’ve had in a year. It’s got an old-soul feel to it. It reminds me of college. The set is both ultramodern and familiar: the perfect way to access a lovely new friend who feels like a lovely old friend.
One year ago, I gave up my college apartment key. It was rounded at the top, gold, and it stuck in the lock towards the end. I remember forfeiting it because it was my first key: until I left home at eighteen, I had never owned one. At my home in Iowa, you don’t actually need keys. You just walk in.
And so, I’m keyless again. I want to believe that the important stuff doesn’t require keys. A magical tool that opens the door to my perfect life is alluring, but I know it’s not that simple. It’s not that cheap. It costs more than $1.64 at Home Depot. Eventually, I suspect I will accumulate a permanent set of keys, all my own. But for now, there are just so many doors I haven’t tried.