I used to keep my keys on a horseshoe-shaped sterling-silver ring from Tiffany & Co. — with a monogrammed tag, always a monogram — with a screw-on ball at each end. With a keypad to get me into the sorority house and nothing but the single key to my Honda Civic and a spare key to my mom's house, it served me well in college: pretty, and it made a sweet jingling sound in my oversized purse when I rustled around to look for it.But load it with one too many keys, and the screw would come loose and randomly send me flying to the sidewalk looking for the lost ball and everything that came off the hoop with it. Things just fall apart sometimes.
So I eventually switched to a plain split ring, something more functional that might keep me together a bit better. Gradually, I added on to that enough that the keys no longer hung nicely. Now, they splay out in a fan shape that makes a clunking noise from my purse and pokes me awkwardly when I reach for it. Front door key, back door key, apartment key, mail key, bike-lock key, office beep-in fob, a ribbon with a swirly monogrammed P — always monograms; it's what WASPs do. A lime-green bottle opener I bought at a liquor store across the street from Arlington Park when I was desperate for a beer after work one night. Five plastic discount cards — two I forget I have even when I need them, two whose purposes escape me, one with the bar code nearly worn off, and there would be six, but my Jewel/Osco card was longer than the rest and snapped off early on. My keychain is pretty full.
But for the last few days, I've added one more to it. It hangs from a separate split ring, separated hastily between breakfast and tooth-brushing by its original owner. It's a car key to the Toyota Camry now parked down the street; it belongs to my boyfriend. I've driven it to work the past couple of days — I wanted to work some strange hours, and trying to get to my train on time and coordinate rides from the train station was more than I could handle. The outside is pretty standard: the same safe, dirty champagne shade of about 45,276 other identical cars in the Chicago area — and at least one twin in Portland, which I sent photo proof of from my phone during a recent trip. The inside is filthy. The seats, floor mats, dusty dashboard and fingerprint-smeared back window all belong to this man constantly racing to keep up with his own life (thoughts. emotions. etc.) teach classes at two different schools, keep up with a borderline manic girlfriend and stay present in the lives of three young daughters in two different states. I can't drive with shoes on, so I take a deep breath and rest my heels in the mess of dirt, leaves and sticks — and…French fries, maybe? — on the floor. Receipts, fast food napkins, parking tickets in their telltale orange envelopes, CD cases line the console and side pockets of each front-seat door. Two car seats in the back, with tags from recently given gifts discarded and jammed into the fabric's creases. Books: Charlotte's Web, No Fighting, No Biting. I remember walking to the car with him the first night we spent time together, after a concert in Lincoln Park the first Sunday in May. I'd spent the last half-hour of the performance, glassy-eyed and awestruck, watching him play Creedence Clearwater Revival songs on his black-and-white electric guitar, then helped him load the hard black case into the trunk before he drove to my apartment for the first time. The first time I thanked him and he replied, "It was my pleasure." I sat in the passenger seat that first night, hands in my lap, withdrawn and a little unsure of what was to come. Funny that this morning, two months later, I was in about the same place. My knight in shining Camry and I fought last night, and we went to bed angry because we both passed out before reaching a resolution. Crying in the morning reminds me of November.
I've spent a lot of time in that car lately. Even though the CD player skips like a circa-1990 Discman and the muffler sounds like a broken lawn mower, it's safe and comfortable and there for me. I love it. But the flaws flare up and threaten to go for fatal when I'm most frustrated or uncomfortable. After not driving for a certain length of time, you realize you could pass driver's ed but wouldn't dream of attempting the Autobahn. On days with a beautiful breeze through the open windows and that song from the '90s that still makes me squeal with delight, sometimes I think, "I could get used to this. Maybe I'd like to have a car of my own again," but that's scary. Cars are expensive; cars are a big commitment. Another key to add to the ring, and maybe even one of those buttons that unlocks the doors remotely — those are heavy. WASPs: We love monograms, and we fear change. And some days? I just miss the bus, the comfortable solitude that goes with riding on public transportation. Shutting the world out with my iPod turned up; taking it a few extra stops just to try a new route home; the strange familiarity of seeing the same people at the same time every day.
Sometimes they even become friends, those people who started as strangers sitting inside the same big vehicle but never speaking. Serendipity like that is harder to come by in a car, closed off from other drivers by whipping highway breezes and layers of plastic, metal and glass. But today, fed up with the CD player's inability to cope with Jeff Buckley without skipping, I absentmindedly flipped through the radio dial until I heard something familiar. On the classic rock station, cowbell and that familiar electric riff: the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women." Five minutes later, on the oldies station (yikes), the same song. I would never have known that song if he hadn't sent it to me, and it was the signal I'd been looking for to keep me on the road.
The car key drifts in the ether of my handbag, and the ring is plenty big enough to hold it.