Marisa jingles when she walks, and I pay attention. I’m starting college, becoming aware of beginnings, of the fragility of early friendship, of the distinct velocity of a queer crush. Also, mostly, of the fact that my Midwestern fashion sense doesn’t cut it here, on this monochrome coast. Marisa wears her keys on her belt loop, in a ring attached to a stainless-steel double-gated carabiner, sturdy and weather-worn and labelled “NOT FOR CLIMBING.” She unhooks them with a smooth flicker of fingers and wrist, rests them on the seminar table each Tuesday morning as she exhales into her chair — legs wide, chin tilted, poised. When she gets up to go, she snaps them back into place and smiles goodbye. My ears track her as she walks away.
I borrow my first carabiner from a friend’s desk. Smaller than Marisa’s, inconspicuous, silver. Two months later the hook that holds the lever in place breaks, and I graduate to a graphite-colored mid-gauge S-Biner that I pick out from REI. The heavy carabiner on my right hip becomes a comfort. I wear it to class. I wear it to rugby practice, where the older players also wear theirs, and a chorus of metal on steel clinks in the grass as we tie our cleats. I wear it to a party, then I wear it to sleep, then I wear it the next morning to breakfast with a girl I met at the party, who is wearing hers too.
I use my keys to start a conversation with an acquaintance who owns the purple bike that’s locked to the gate of the city farm where Marisa works. Her carabiner is bright green, and hooked to the back of her pants, because it flops less when she rides, helmetless, down the hill to class. The cool girl with a crop cut in my history section laughs with me at how much noise we make, climbing the stairs together. I go to see Moonlight with new friends, and it takes a few extra moments in the theater to quiet down the twinkling of our keys.
Suddenly it seems everybody is wearing a carabiner. We wear them like Claddagh rings, facing outward — an offering of friendship, a sign of loneliness. Some people wear theirs casually, thoughtlessly utilitarian. But I wear mine like a text-printed t-shirt; like the green and fuchsia one I carefully picked and ordered in the sixth grade, from the Delia’s catalogue, and waited on my front stoop for, in the back-to-school chill, ready to make a statement: Don’t Be Trashy, Recycle. I’m not quite sure what the carabiner silkscreen says. I’ve Watched Every Season of The L Word, maybe. Or, I Ride a Funky Bike. A simple, I’m Queer, Be My Friend.
Alison Bechdel says key rings are a phallic symbol, one that conveys potency, agency, capability. I learn who Alison Bechdel is around the time I start wearing my graphite S-Biner. Then I learn that butch isn’t a bad word, and that maybe, sometimes, I want to be called it, as long as there’s no bite in the crackle of the “ch.” By the time I learn the hearty lesbian legacy of carabiner key rings, “gay” has started to feel like an endorsement rather than a taunt. I learn that it is harder to say what I mean than it is to mean what I say. But I’m more sure each day that whatever I’m saying when I clip my carabiner to my belt loop, I mean.
I think closets were built to hold two things: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the parts of us we avoid mentioning. Pairs of socks that once matched, until we used one to store the lighter we didn’t want our parents to find. Lingering space for the pink dress we threw out at twelve, in a rage against lace and too-tight waistbands and tripping while running after brothers. A scarf or two from an ex who thought we looked good in purple. The closet I carry with me in the schlep from the Midwest to the coast has shed and regenerated over three falls. Like wind chimes, the clink of keys across campus has become a faint joy. My carabiner stays snug on my hip — a remnant of a story I’ve told about myself enough times to stick.
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