I am terrible at locks. Part of growing up seems to be creating work-arounds for one’s weaknesses, so I created this one: If you hand me a new key, I will test it five times in front of you to feel the tension of the pins and get the intricacies of the turn.
Doors, in general, hate me. Recently I walked into a party and spotted someone I’d dated but hadn’t quite smoothed things with. I tried to slip back out again — everyone looked distracted by beer pong — but I couldn’t open the door. I started pulling on the knob, slowly, playing it cool, then straight-up yanking, until a friend came over and gently unlatched it.
Note: The “door routine” is a classic slapstick comedy trope. See also: Laurel and Hardy.
This issue started young. I was locked out of my uncle’s wedding when I was four years old, the flower girl, and last in the procession. A relative closed the church door on me (I understand. I was really short.) My mother found me a few minutes later, crying in my poufy white dress like I’d been locked out for days.
Once I was locked out of a monastery. Although I’m not religious this way anymore, that year I was trying to be a Catholic and went with a student group to a bucolic Wisconsin lakeside retreat; rolling green lawns, old stone masonry; plus that night, we were supposed to see a meteor shower.
For me the retreat was a minor personal fuck-up parade. I wasn’t as familiar with the routines as everyone else and did things like reciting the priest’s lines when asked to read part of the service. That night everyone went out to see stars as a group, but I slept right through it. When I woke up at 5am and realized what I’d done, I decided to go outside alone. I tossed back the covers, got myself downstairs, pushed open the door and padded barefoot on the hushed, dewy lawn.
It was lovely, if a bit cloudy, and mostly I sat on a little boulder by the lake stewing about all the crap in my head — graduating soon, no job, so much to do, why had I gone away for a weekend again? Especially a weekend of botching things? Soon I headed back to the abbey door, happy to sleep a few more hours before breakfast. But it was locked. Wouldn’t budge. Shut tight. For real. And so I experienced one of the most frustrating and enlightening hours of my life.
I’d come on this retreat because I just couldn’t fathom the chaos of almost-graduation, the knowledge that everyone and everything I’d known for the past four years was about to change because of a firm date on the academic calendar. The lack of control staggered me. But there in that doorway, huddled in a too-thin sweater, waiting for someone to wake and let me in, I was viscerally experiencing a gap between one landing place and another. All I could do was sit there in the pre-morning chill, and the suspension of options suspended my thoughts, too. Everything went as calm and still as the lake.
I remember that silence, that stillness. In such stuck places our mission shrinks. Deadlines, to-do lists, expectations and tasks; it’s all so complicated until… until your task is just to wait. And so many of the people I care about are waiting right now. Between diagnoses, between grief and okay, between new-love and comfortable-love, between wanting to leave our world and being okay with staying, between jobs, between a silent, painted room and a room with a baby, between here, between there, in the doorway.
Here in Cambodia it feels like I am always between. Other than the dorm, I sleep wherever. Your spare room, a double bed in a guesthouse split with friends (bonding!). Most recently I went on a five-day fishing/camping trip, so we can also add: “hammock in jungle” and “bare wooden deck of a fishing boat”. In restaurants I know what I am ordering only 60 percent of the time. Before I bite into a fruit, I must ask which parts are edible. At least four times a day I jump on the back of a motorbike that winds through traffic shuffling itself faster than a deck of cards. It’s overwhelming, sometimes, and there are days when my friend Kara and I sit facing each other at the coffee shop and repeat the following exchange:
–What are we doing here.
–WHAT are we doing.
–What are we DOING here?
But there are good points about hitting gaps in safety every other minute.
I love those motorbike rides. My roommate sometimes drives us to get ice cream and chicken sandwiches at the Song Tra Ice Cream on Norodom Boulevard, and last time she thought of a vocab question, en route. She hollered over her shoulder, in the midst of zooming traffic: “What’s the difference between stupid and crazy?”
I did what teachers shouldn’t do and couldn’t help but laugh.
Crazy, I told her, can be a good thing.
Crazy can mean waking at 5am for a star shower. Crazy can mean getting your ass to Cambodia and living in a dorm with thirty girls. Crazy can mean reconciling yourself to sitting there, near your door, even resting your tired head against it, though not on the side you want, though you don’t know when it will open. Deciding to just exist.
Pull your thin sweater tight over your ribs and curl up in a stone doorway. Watch the mailman come and go. Watch the first streaks of sunrise wash over the dim but lighter sky. And then knock on the window of the kitchen, where someone’s already awake and making oatmeal. You’ll wave. He’ll wave. Be let in.