My wonderful dear friend Allan Amato took this photograph of me a couple of months ago. I put it online today, and someone said, “I know the story of the key.”
I’d forgotten what she meant: I’d shown her a private story, years
ago, that I’d written. It probably doesn’t need to be private anymore. Sometimes privacy has an expiration date.
Here it is, written
in September 2005.
The earth was damp, and dark. My hands sunk into the dirt, fingers deep in the soil like roots. My skin felt cool there, and clean, though my arms were stained black from the ground.
When you grow up, you forget things like that. The way that dirt can make you feel clean.
I was eleven, and my backyard may as well have been a forest. An acre stretch, the yard was covered with green, and climbing trees, and patches of
dry mysterious earth where nothing grew, and rabbits, and turtles, and
flowers. It was mystical. I would spend hours exploring the tiny world of the fraction of land. I remember a whole day dedicated to watering a patch of ground, digging, and scraping the dirt into mounds and valleys, just to see how the river cut across the brown.
I had already discovered boys, and sex. A silver box was
hidden under my bed, filled with cigarettes, and condoms, and Halloween
candy. I had not had sex yet, but I knew condoms were necessary, and the cigarettes made me feel more grown-up. I loved inhaling the smell of unlit cigarettes, the taste of the tobacco in my mouth. I never lit them.
Although I was prepared to have sex for the
first time at any moment, I still played with dolls. I believed firmly
that my dolls were alive, but in a secret doll pact could not reveal this to me. I was sure they moved about the room while I was away, and often tried to sneak into my bedroom to catch them in the act.
I never did.
But I believed. As strongly as I believed there was magic in the earth behind my house, that Halloween candy should be rationed for months to savor the occasion, and that I would be deflowered before my twelfth birthday.
On a day that was warm and wet, I sat on the ground, fingers scraping against the soil. My nails would catch bits of hard clay, and rock, and eventually struck an unfamiliar shape. I dug around the shape, wiping the crusted earth from its surface.
It was a key.
An old skeleton key, rust-brown and small, fitting just inside my hand. I held it with wonder, and knew that it was magic.
I walked into the front yard, and climbed the tree that sprawled and leaned against the side of the garage. Up in the bough of the tree, a giant padlock was fixed around one of the branches. It was a modern padlock, and the skeleton key, falling short of it’s name, did not fit. The tree branch had swollen and grown into the metal, the padlock constricting the wood. I stared for a long time at the key and padlock, and thought that something important had happened, although I couldn’t figure out what.
Years passed, and I kept the tiny key in a plastic pink jewelry box. I reached high school. I met a boy and fell in love, and I gave him tiny tokens of my affection. One day I reached in the back of my plastic pink jewelry box and removed the key, giving it to him as a gift. He tied a black silk cord to it and wore it around his neck.
One day he gave me a present: a tiny rust skeleton key
found in an old antique shop. It was different than mine, slightly
bigger, but they were nearly twins. He gave it to me on a cord, and I
wore it around my neck.
There were no locks between us, only keys.
At twenty I worked full time from home doing various graphic design projects for a firm in Los Angeles.
I had taken up smoking, and decided I hated condoms. I had lost the little key that I had worn around my neck for so long.
He was leaving me.
I spent too much time alone, and wondered if I was brave enough to leave him, or leave the world. I was tired, and had lost most of my magic. I wrote when I wasn’t crying, I cried when I couldn’t write anymore.
She was thinner, and smaller and more beautiful than me. She made him shine.
I needed to scrape together some magic to get through this. I reached back into my childhood, and made a decision. The next day a tall man tattooed a key between my breasts, where the key he gave me used to hang.
I wouldn’t ever lose it again.
Now. I am in the dark with a stranger, and he is kissing my chest slowly, his hands soft on my rib cage. He stops and looks at the key
inked on my skin, tracing it with his fingers. He is memorizing it
with his gaze, and I can tell he is wondering what it means.
“I open things.” I tell him.
He nods, solemn, unquestioning. Of course I open things. I opened him.
He leans forward silently, pressing his lips to my key.
I am three thousand miles from my first love, and the key that he carries to remind him of me is no longer around his neck. I meet men shaped like locks and fall in love with the way they open.
I fall in love with them.
I push through my life like doors and everything slides out of the way, clicks undone and gives way under my hands.
When I was a little girl, I found my key, and when I became older my first love taught me what it was for.