<By Rob Williams>
I’m always getting hung up on the details, both minor and major ones, and every kind in between. I can’t seem to distinguish between these two categories—minor and major—since, properly considered, everything seems potentially worth obsessing about. So when Sergio, my host in the Dominican Republic, dropped a heavy ring of eight keys into my palm—“For your independence,” he said, smiling and squinting in the blazing mid-afternoon sun—I shuddered. Keys, keys, keys. So many keys. I knew I was going to be stuck on this train of thought for a while.
Before I left New York, I’d already been obsessing about keys—the keys to my own apartment, specifically. The plan was for my brother to deliver them to my subletter when she arrived. I suppose most people would have let the matter drop there, but I couldn’t. I was convinced that something would go awry. Not because I doubted the people involved: I had complete confidence in my brother’s and my subletter’s respective abilities to fulfill their roles—he would be on time to deliver the keys, and of course she would be there to receive them. The problem I foresaw was with the keys themselves—there were too many of them, and the instructions for their use was too complicated for me to believe they could even be used at all.
Nevertheless, I laid out the specifics in an e-mail:
You will have four keys—two long ones, a medium one, and a short one.
- The long unmarked one is for the front two doors to the building.
- The long one that’s marked with a blue ring is for the bottom lock on the front door of the apartment itself (a deadbolt).
- The medium one is for the lock on the doorknob of the apartment itself.
- The apartment door does NOT lock on its own when you close the door, so use one of the deadbolts while you’re inside. Whenever you go out, you should lock the doorknob lock from the inside (by twisting the little knob on it while the door is open), AND use the long blue-ringed key to lock the bottom deadbolt from the outside.
- The small key is for the mailbox, just inside the front door to the building.
Reading my instructions over, I was confident that they were either totally thorough and clear or totally incomprehensible gibberish. The fourth bullet point in particular sounded like nonsense, but I couldn’t come up with a better way of phrasing it. And did I even need to? Perhaps it was obvious that the door wouldn’t lock on its own and would need to be manually secured two ways every time it was closed. On the other hand, I could easily imagine my subletter breezing out of the apartment on her way to run some errand or other, and just slamming the door behind her carelessly (as my neighbors used to do), taking it for granted that it was locked—only to return later to find the place ransacked, all my expensive sportcoats and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia DVDs gone forever.
When I left for my trip, I’d hoped to leave these minor obsessions where they belonged, back in New York City, and lay in the Caribbean sun and focus on some of my major obsessions for a while instead—like The Future, The Way the World Really Is, and The Nature of My Relationships with Women. But I’d only been in the Dominican Republic for about two hours and already Sergio had upped the ante on my key confusion … and its attendant anxiety.
I don’t speak Spanish, which I’d been told is pretty essential for traveling in the Dominican Republic, but I planned to learn a bit while I was there and thought I’d be able to get oriented enough with Sergio’s help. He’s Italian, and based on his e-mails to me about the room I was renting, I thought he spoke pretty decent—if oddly formal and idiosyncratic—English. The e-mails contained plenty of amusing little snippets like: “Remaining at your disposal, we cordially greet.” I liked the odd blurring of the future and present tenses—there was something almost mystical about it. However, as soon as we did actually meet and cordially greet, he informed me with a sheepish smile that he had composed those e-mails with the help of an online translator program and barely spoke any English at all.
Nevertheless, the meaning of the eight (8) keys needed to be explained. Casa Lily & Coco, where I was staying, was a well-secured property, after all, with all manner of locks and other security devices. Sergio took special pride in pointing out that the barbed-wire fence that ran along the wall of property was electrified. And of course there was Lily, the dog, who seemed friendly enough, but who I was sure would take a man down by the throat in a second if provoked, as all dogs would. The property itself was about a 10-minute walk from the beach (Playa Bonita) and perhaps a 30-minute walk from town (Las Terrenas), through a pretty impoverished-looking barrio (if the naked children playing in the dirt yard next door were any indication), and the road in either direction was dusty and unfinished, traversed mainly by huge trucks, motorcycles, and construction crews.
The two small keys (1, 2) were for the wardrobe—a flimsy looking piece of furniture that I immediately imagined someone taking to pieces with a hatchet. In fact, I’d seen a few guys working on the road outside that looked like they could turn the thing into tinder with their bare hands. The main door to the room took the Yale key (3)—“Yale, Yale,” Sergio kept muttering as he fumbled around with the huge ring. Again, this door looked like it could be easily dispatched with a solid boot kick, but I tried not to think about that—and I hadn’t seen any guys wearing boots around here anyway. The outside door, however, was made up of metal bars and looked very secure—“Cisa, Cisa,” Sergio said as he searched for the key to this one (4). Then there were the keys for the wall around the property itself, which had two gates—a person-sized one and a car-sized one, each with its own key (5, 6). These keys didn’t have names and Sergio was able to identify them only by relative size. Then there was the gate to the road itself, a groaning pink monstrosity with a large padlock. Sergio mumbled, “It’s a K … K,” as he identified its key (7). When I asked him what the last key (8) was for, he smiled and shrugged, either to indicate that he didn’t know or that it didn’t matter and his English wasn’t good enough to communicate it anyway. I could certainly relate to that.
Staring at the pile of metal pieces in my hands, I was sure I’d never be able to remember which ones went where, how this piece of metal fit with that one, just as I was sure I’d never be able to piece together the foreign sounds of the Spanish language, how this “lla” fit with that “ve,” despite having $500 worth of Rosetta Stone software on my laptop, and just as I was sure I’d never be able to make the pieces of my life fit together in a coherent way either, despite all of the time spent on my major obsessions …
And yet, every evening, when I come back to my room (“Coco,” it’s called, after Sergio’s parrot) after a day spent lying on the beach being obliterated by the sun or wandering around town cursing my lack of Spanish skills and refusal to plan things properly, I’m astounded that the keys work at all. No, what I mean is that I’m astounded I remember which of the keys—los llaves—is which. “Cisa goes here, Yale there,” and so on …
But I do.
So perhaps I am learning a few things after all. Perhaps I should be more patient. Perhaps I should obsess about the details less, trust that things will work themselves out. That I will learn Spanish. That The Future, The Way Things Really Are, and The Nature of My Relationships with Women don’t need to be understood today. In fact, how could they—since everything is only understood in retrospect anyway. I always feel that way—that I only grasp the meaning of things afterward, and even then just barely. It sort of makes me queasy though, this feeling, that my understanding of things will never quite catch up with life itself, that even when I’m old and dying I’ll still be scrambling to understand what’s been happening to me all these years.
And yet, I feel pretty well ensconced here in my room—in this walled-off little house on a dusty road on the edge of an island in the Caribbean. I spin a globe in my mind and my finger lands on exactly this spot. I shake off the nagging feeling that I should e-mail my subletter and remind her to lock the door when she goes out, the nagging feeling that it’s the minor details—or even the major ones—that are the keys to everything. It’s quiet, with a faint breeze blowing in through the window, the Spanish broadcast of the Yankees game on the television, insects chirping faintly beyond the screen door, the occasional dog barking in the distance, cars passing in the night, a mosquito fluttering here, a small lizard frozen on the wall there, relative calm inside and out.
Rob Williams is a mercenary copywriter and copy editor who lives above a meat market in the East Village. Read his other story on While I Was Away: Prague Dream Hunt. You can find more of Rob’s stories on his website.
Did you like this story? Let Rob know what you think. Feedback means a lot to contributors. Please leave a comment.