It’s something I used to see every day: an unassuming, plain metal key with a blue rubber cover around it.

It sits on a ring with just the essentials: my house key, my office key, my car key fob, a bottle opener, and my library card. I don’t even touch my keys most days; they hang from a hook by my front door waiting for a rare trip to the grocery store or, well, that’s pretty much it. I haven’t used this particular key in more than six months, and I’m not sure the next time I’ll get to.

I don’t remember when I received my first key as a child, probably sometime around the fifth grade when I was finally allowed to walk to school by myself (even though I lived literally across the street from my elementary school, which is a different story). What I do remember is this occasion being somewhat of a big deal, my parents instilling a sense of responsibility within me, a gesture that meant we trust you to protect this house.

This felt like one of the earliest signs that you were growing up, which was then followed years later by receiving a key to the family car. Whether you kept your keys on a ring with a Tamagotchi, a mini TY beanie baby, or a rabbit’s foot—I’m a 90’s kid, can you tell?—keychains were treated as an extension of one’s personality, a fashion accessory. Just looking at someone’s keychain could tell you a lot about them.

Keychains take on a different meaning as an adult—at what point does the playfulness of keychains disappear? Maybe I’m alone in this, but my key ring now functions as a utility, a place to keep all of my keys in one place while taking up as little room in my purse as possible.

But at their core, the keys themselves hold the same significance that they do when we receive them as children. Brendan and I moved in together straight after high school, so we skipped some of the more traditional milestones that happen for couples who meet as independent adults. We didn’t have a ceremonial exchanging of keys or clearing out of a drawer for one another in our separate apartments. But I’ve always longed to share that feeling with someone else, that sense of comfort and trust that says I’m opening up my space to you, you are always welcome here.

I used to fantasize about having people in my life I was close enough with to give a key to. The kind of people who could drop by unannounced because they were in the neighborhood, who I could call and ask to let my dog out because I was running late: a level of familiarity that said you have access to the most important parts of my life.

Then Brendan and I became polyamorous, and the idea of giving a key to someone took on a new meaning. I don’t remember at what point in our relationship that we gave Jace and Julie a copy of our house key. There wasn’t any fanfare around it: one day we just decided that it was time, and in turn, they reciprocated. We were spending so much time at each other’s houses that it just made sense, dropping by before or after work to say hi. The exchange certainly had an element of convenience to it, but to me, it meant so much more than that.

What I miss most these days, nearly seven months into this pandemic, isn’t the obvious: it’s the physical intimacy beyond sex, the way you become so closely acquainted with someone else’s house that it becomes an extension of your own home. The four of us cramming onto their couch with at least one person on someone else’s lap, a tangle of limbs outstretched and wrapped around one another. Me shouting from their bathroom that the toilet paper is out and having Jace come rescue me with another roll. The choreographed dance of navigating their tiny kitchen to get a glass for water while Julie cooks dinner and Jace does the dishes. Reaching for Julie’s basket where she keeps bags of Percy Pigs and splitting them between us, relishing in the saccharine strawberry- and raspberry-flavored gummies because it’s the only time Brendan and I eat candy.

One of the last times Julie used our house key, Brendan and I were sick with what we think was COVID-19 after a trip to Seattle in early February. I had never felt so terrible in my life, too debilitated to do anything but lie in bed. Julie came by after work to bring us a bottle of Robitussin. It was such a small gesture, but I was so grateful that she could let herself in. The way she took care of us, the way she took the dog outside to pee without us having to ask, was a reflection of the closeness of our relationship and the care she took to tend to it.

And then there was my surprise 30th birthday two months ago, where Brendan coordinated with Julie to distract me with a trip to the beach while she & Daphne decorated our house for a socially-distanced party in the backyard (this is a story worthy of its own feature, which I promise to tell someday). Both of these moments have made me realize that a key is not only a symbol of trust, but a symbol of love.

This is what I think about when I’m by myself during the day. The way I scrutinize the screen when we have Zoom dates with Jace and Julie to see the little things that have changed in their apartment: the new placement of the couch, the new two-person desk by their front window. There is a sense of mourning not just for losing that proximity to the people I love, but also to the spaces I love.

Sometimes I forget their key is on my ring; it blends in with everything else around it as it hangs by the door. But I keep it there as a talisman, a token of optimism that we might be able to use it again. A reminder of the closeness we shared and the hope of finding our way back there someday.

Krista is a writer, dedicated dog-mom, and someone who loves people and organizing gatherings. She helps other people tell their stories working as a coordinator for a graduate creative writing program.

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