Little Lower Layer

Food is affection. A room is a right. A key is a promise.

The objects in our lives have meaning, whether we want them to or not. They may mean one thing to us, something completely different to someone else. There can be conflict, misinterpretation, manipulation without an outright lie when a symbol comes into play.

It’s so easy to be hurt by them, and so hard to avoid no matter how well we understand, intellectually, that what is symbolized is not inherent to the thing. Objective truth be damned: food is affection. A room is a right. A key is a promise.

Food is affection.

I could say “food is love,” but that’s a word I use with the care and trepidation afforded hazardous materials, and hazardous materials have no place in my kitchen. I’m an excellent cook. I love the building of a meal, the time and energy, the heat and smells and sounds of it coming together. If I offer to send cookies or make dinner, it’s because I value someone. It’s an offer of time and energy and the tangible form of joy, not just a desire to nourish. Food is affection. It seemed so obvious I never thought it needed to be said. But to some, a meal at home is banal. It means the night isn’t special enough to warrant going out, or a desire not to be seen in public together, or simple pragmatism. I once made a decadent three course meal for a woman who said “I never really thought of food as something you like. I eat because I have to, but I’d rather not think about it.” To her, my hours in the kitchen were a waste of a perfectly good afternoon.

A room is a right.

Having a room of one’s own confers the right to use that room however one likes. This is inherently obvious to small children, bafflingly ignored by too many parents. In Texas, Spouse and I had a two-bedroom apartment. We shared one room, and the second was a library. It was also my room: my reading chair lived there, my photography table. It was a place I could play country music, sequester myself with friends or a lover, or just enjoy solitude and a good book.

We moved to a one-bedroom apartment in New Orleans. I don’t have my own space here. It’s affected nerves: my need for solitude and silence is at times profound. I have shut myself in the closet here more than once, just to try to feel that there’s some small space that only I control.

The Techie and Z have a spare room. It’s where I sleep, when I stay at their place. They call it my room, sometimes. It’s a convenience: I stay there once or twice a week, no one else does. But it’s a guest room, not mine. I can’t assume it’s available or that I’m welcome. I don’t keep my things there, or use it as a haven. It is not my space, simply space I am allowed to occupy sometimes.

A key is a promise.

The first time the Techie offered me a key was over a year ago. It frightened me, the implication of trust and commitment. I declined. He mentioned a few times that he’d like me to have one before we fell apart in December. I never took it. Since I’ve been with him and Z, they’ve both offered more than once. It just makes sense, if you get here and we aren’t in, or are in the shower; in case you leave something and need to get it, in case Z locks herself out, etc. We want you to have it. No big deal.

It is a big deal. A key is a promise: this door is never closed to you. You are welcome, now and for the foreseeable future. My home is your home.

It’s a promise they can’t keep. The Techie has already shown he’s perfectly willing to excise me from his life completely rather than risk a difficult conversation. Z I credit with more integrity, but their relationship is hierarchical. An open relationship, not polyamory. Thing about open relationships is that they can close at any time, and secondary partners are unlikely to have any warning, let alone a say.

I don’t want a key. I can’t brush off the little lower layer. It clings like cobwebs in spite of their talk of convenience, in defiance of their insistence that it’s no big deal.

As of yesterday, I have a key. They’re out of town for a week, wanted someone to be able to get in if there’s an emergency. I can deal with this. It’s practical, and temporary.

But it makes me sick to look at my key ring right now. I’m afraid they’ll try to say I should keep it, when they get back; that there’s no reason I shouldn’t have a key. On the face of it, that may be true. But I can’t separate the thing from its meaning. A key is a promise, and this is not one I’m willing to believe or accept.

40 thoughts on “Little Lower Layer”

  1. The meaning comes from the mix of the thing and “context” — where by context I mean the combination of circumstances, what is said, your life experiences, the life experiences of others, etc. It’s both very real, and not real at all. Like many things in life. It’s all the more complicated because that “context” is different for each person involved. And their role in the transaction is also part of the “context”.

    Offering a key to someone may just symbolise “we trust you and expect you’ll be around often enough for it to be useful” (plus it literally being convenient: for instance not feeling they have to rush to be “home in time to let you in”).

    Accepting a key carries a different meaning. My work often involves clients giving me access to do “administrator” things on their computers, in their data centres, etc. I try fairly hard to make that be limited access (limited time, limited to what I can do, etc) — but my clients often find it “convenient” to give me global access permanently. But with permanent access comes an implication of responsibility: I literally could just fix things, so they (feel like) they become my problem. But for my client, it’s just convenient — they don’t have to keep “letting me in”.


    PS: You’re allowed to have boundaries. Even over keys. You’re allowed to give it back. Or leave it on the table, as you go out the door one day. If they want someone else to have a spare key “just in case” they can make friends with one of the neighbours.

    PPS: You don’t have to carry it around with you. Just saying. I leave my “key left with you just in case we need someone to get in” locked inside my house. If I “need to get in” because of some request I can always go get it. I don’t have to carry them around with me every moment and be constantly reminded of them.

    1. It’s funny, with certain things the symbol, the context, almost seems more real than the object itself. With those objects, every conversation seems like talking to a sailor about the ocean. They understand the surface and the waves, these things affect them daily, and it all makes perfect sense from that perspective. The perspective is completely correct, demonstrably true. I drop down to blind, benthic layers and can’t seem to come back up. It is not a useful habit.

      Their offer is almost certainly practical (though I wouldn’t put it past the Techie to see emotional manipulation as a perk). Accepting it can’t be. A neighbor does have a key, incidentally; they’re just also out of town for overlapping time. In storm season around here, it’s good to have someone available who knows what needs to be off the floor or rescued in case of flooding.

      I did leave it in a drawer after seeing your comment this morning. Helped more than I would have expected, thank you.

  2. I can relate to all of these things so hard.

    When I was a kid, my dad once obliquely threatened me by telling me that having my own room was a privilege, not a right. I believed (and still believe) that it fucking is one, if it’s at all financially viable. And I think it’s emotional abuse that my father hinted that he might take away the one small sphere in my life over which I had a modicum of control. But then again he is a complete prick, so…yeah.

    I perceive the giving of food as the giving of affection, and in fact am worried by the fact that The Bunny didn’t feed me the last time I was over (and it was a long visit). He seems to cook for women in order to reel them in, though, not to show affection per se. So it’s possible I wasn’t being snubbed at all.

    A few months back I asked if The Bunny would be my “key buddy” – hold on to a spare set of my keys in case I locked myself out or something (my previous key buddy is barely a part of my life anymore, and I doubt she has any idea where her set of my keys even is). He never answered and I didn’t push. I kind of assumed he saw the key thing as a promise, and wasn’t willing to go there. Although maybe he just totally forgot that I’d texted him the request.

    I don’t blame you for not wanting Z and The Techie’s key. Not one little bit.

    1. I shared a room with my sister growing up. Got into all kinds of oddities trying to make my own space (building a lean-to in the woods, climbing on the roof, even sleeping inside of a box-spring).

      I saw that about the Bunny not feeding you. Such an alien idea–how can a host in any capacity not offer his guest food or drink? Seriously, way to piss Zeus right the hell off. And also make you feel less welcome. Not cool, Bunny. Not cool.

      I know I take the key thing too far, always have. But really? It opens the door to a person’s home. Day or night, whether they’re home or out, with or without their knowledge. That’s a serious level of trust and commitment right there. I think it’s obvious I need to avoid any pretense that I can be trusting of that they can commit.

      Still, it’s only for a week.

  3. I really enjoyed this piece – definitely thought provoking.

    When we imbue meaning to something and others don’t, it’s hard to view their interpretation as simply ‘absent a meaning’; the asymmetry is gnawing. This may be a stretch but it reminds me a bit of a quote ‘the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.’ Maybe you aren’t taking the key thing too far.

    I hope you’ve sent it back by now… and all is peaceful again. 🙂

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