By chance, I’d taken up her keys, the keys of my childhood.
It’s 2019, I’m thirty-two, I’ve just moved to Los Angeles. I’m wandering a neighborhood and have ended up inside a store on Vermont, one of several others on that commercial street that sells home goods and trinkets. I’m getting bored, but then, I see a basket by the register. It’s full of what look like baroque pretzels that have been twisted from very thick brass wire, each one about the width of four fingers. They could be doodles of an Ionic column’s capital, or perhaps a woman’s bottom, if she were seated on glass and viewed from below. They have the slight wobble of metal that’s been shaped by hand, with tiny marks pressed into one side, like secret code.
I must emit a surprised noise, because a salesperson is looking at me expectantly. This is my mom’s keychain, I tell them, an insufficient and probably disappointing explanation for the sound I’ve made. I pick one up, turning it over in my palm, its brass already taking on the warmth from my hand. Like I have my whole life, I slip my pointer and middle fingers through each brass curl.
I’ve illogically thought there was only one. That it was an artifact unique in the world.
A shiny brass tag is looped into it, something my mom’s did not have. I look at it, the size and thinness of a quarter that has been flattened by a truck. In stamped lettering, it reads: Genuine Original Jean Ring. Now I know its name.
I’m tempted to buy every Jean Ring in the basket. If I owned just one, I might lose it. Maybe I’d never find them again. Maybe the store is a kind of magic. It might disappear.
Each ring costs eight dollars. I buy one.
As far as I know, the Jean Ring is the only keychain my mother ever had. I knew it as well as the family cat, which she’d adopted before I was born, but it was more mysterious even than Pippy was, whose origin story my mom was fond of repeating (found in the Ironbound, a Newark cat). I had never heard the story of the key ring, and while I could ask her now I find that I don’t want to. The key ring always had a mystique, a mix of authority, wizardry, and utter mundanity that parental objects often have. I remember the way it swung from the ignition of the Honda when she drove, the raised outline of it in the pocket of her jeans, the way she could—goddammit!—hear it but never find it at the bottom of her bag. It was as constant, quotidian, and unattainable a marker of maternal adulthood to me as her checkbook and pink Wet n Wild lipstick.
Now I know its name.
When I was younger, though it was never stated, the keychain was off-limits. Mom kept it on a hook by our back door. In summer, she had the habit of disappearing into our yard with our terrier to garden, and since I am an only child, our house was usually quiet. I wouldn’t always realize that she’d gone out on an errand—never far in our quiet Jersey town—but when I passed the empty hook I knew she was out.
As I got older, in middle school and high school, the ownership of the Jean Ring began to blur. Since she was working part-time by then, teaching occasional classes at the public schools, the two of us could make do with sharing. Everywhere in town was close enough to walk, after all, or could wait. Still, I can’t imagine how strange it must feel, as a parent, to see the borders between you and your child grow and harden as those between your child, your house keys, your Honda Accord dissolve. At the time, I felt entitled to my own elusive freedom.
I don’t remember having my own set of keys, not even in high school. The only keychain my mind can conjure is imprinted in my hand: my mother’s, that baroque pretzel, every time. While my mom read or gardened or worked at home, that keychain was my ticket to meet friends at the diner or in basements to play in our bands, to make out in bedrooms and at my other less illicit haunt, the public library. But mostly all I longed for was to cruise around alone, headphones in, with no plans beyond the length of a CD. It was a kind of spell, a portal to lands known only to me.
When I held my mother’s Jean Ring as a child, I liked to loop my fingers through it, and I do this with mine, all that blood-scented brass sometimes catching my skin in a way I almost find pleasant. It’s a secure way to hold your keys when on a walk, and it feels right.
It is jarring now, though, to raise key to door and find myself transported back in time, as if I were standing on the doorstep of my parents’ house in deep July, hoping to evade questioning. I am a grown person, I have moved across the continent, but sometimes, with the replica of my mother’s keychain, I get the uncomfortable feeling that I never left home.
I looked up Genuine Original Jean Ring on the internet, half expecting to come up empty, so convinced am I still that it had been a mirage. But the keychain has a website, jeanring.com, complete with a business number and address (in Chesterfield, Missouri, a place I’m sure my mother has never been). It turns out the Jean Ring dates back to 1975 and is the invention of a sculptor, Marc Weinstein, whose Bertoia-like wall art has been featured on television sets.
The site looks like it was designed some time in the late nineties, and, in folksy anecdotes and histories, describes the venture with a mix of pride and comic haplessness. The ring appears to be a cult product (just read the section of the site labeled “letters of goodness”) whose business never really took off, despite once being sold at Target and Walmart—despite one once being owned (supposedly!) by Willie Nelson before he sold it to a man in Texas, along with a car. The product seems to have barely weathered a series of failed marketing partnerships, including with cab drivers and Wrangler, but the real problem, according to Weinstein (who I can only assume is the writer behind the site’s histories), is that “it never wears out or breaks!”
What surprises me most about all of this is that the key ring allegedly holds thirty-two keys. (“If you put more than thirty-two on it, it voids your warranty.”) I am thirty-two, soon to turn thirty-three, when I find the Genuine Original Jean Ring again. For whatever that’s worth.
Marc Weinstein first called it the Marc Twist but changed the name to describe how people seemed to want to wear it, hooked into the belt loop of their jeans. I have never seen my mother do this but promptly decide to try.
Even with nowhere near thirty-two keys, I still achieve a pleasing jangle. It’s a sound I’ve connected all my life with men, because it has always been men with enviable key rings looped onto their jeans, ready to open any door. I associate the key ring with my mother so clearly, but something about jangling around with it looped on my pants feels like transformation. Looped this way, it begins to become something else, and so do I.
New Jersey, the July before eighth grade. That summer had a longing, exhilarating and domestic and feral at once, like the metallic smell that rose from the geranium beds, like the trace of brass keys on fingers, like blood in a bathing suit crotch. It was the first summer that I clearly recall being entrusted with my mom’s keys for hours at a time, which usually meant I could go over to Stevie’s, who lived a few minutes’ walk away. From there, we’d usually take off again on foot, sometimes to shop in town but more often tracing aimless loops around our neighborhood, no chance, at last, of being overheard. I’d been shaving my legs since sixth grade, had gotten my period, but the keys! That meant I was growing up.
I wonder if this July is the beginning, on the kind of afternoon when you feel the lawns respirating, and the ground and air are soft, and you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach that there is surely more, somewhere, somehow. My friend and I felt it. I think it is why we decided to sleep outside that night in her family’s tent.
Looped this way, it begins to become something else, and so do I.
Stevie’s family was a camping family. We were to sleep at my place, for reasons I can’t remember, but we didn’t know how to pitch the tent without her father. So we pitched the tent in her yard with his amused guidance, and then we hoisted it aloft, marching it down six streets to mine. (This kind of suburban theatrics, mildly unexpected but objectively allowed, appealed to us, I’m afraid. On our frequent walks, to loiter on the playground of the elementary school or along the goose-greened paths of the park, we had occasionally brought our cheap electric guitars. We hoped it made us interesting.) We found a soft spot in the grass, far enough from the living room window to be out of my parents’ earshot, plopped it down, staked it. Then we walked back to her place to gather sleeping bags, pillows, flashlights, snacks, a battery-operated boombox, the CDs we were into, and then back again, to move in for the night.
I had never slept in a tent before and was unprepared for how it felt. Cozy is the obvious word. Cozy and improbably spacious. We’d decided what to fill it with, and no one else could come inside. Until that afternoon, the private places we’d made had been temporary and in transit. The space of the walk itself: the street, the park, the parking lot. This time, our place remained ours even after we stopped walking. The sound of cicadas seemed louder, like a membrane between our space and the outside had been amplified. We’d walked a new home into being.
Those walks I took growing up returned to me in my midthirties, when I first moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t so much remember the walks as experience them again, the same urges. Adolescence had felt like being a teacup sitting off-center in its saucer. Walking had been a way of shaking the table, trying to get the cup back in place. I’d close the front door and step onto the street into a landscape of my own, a borderland between what was real and what was not yet real, where I could meet myself as I was not, or was not yet.
In LA, land of earthquakes, where my footing never felt it was meeting stable ground, I felt a kind of feedback, the world jittering its knees. When I first arrived, this tectonic projection of mine unnerved me, though I could not admit it to my mother. In the first week I arrived—by coincidence, it was July—there were three earthquakes in Los Angeles, and she must have sent me ten emails. Neither of us could understand why I’d chosen this as my new home.
Being on the move seemed like the only salvation, like swimming with the riptide can save your life. Walking in the LA summer heat, my fingers hooked through the loops of the Jean Ring, sticky with sweat, on ground I suddenly distrusted, putting distance between myself and an apartment whose seismic stability was questionable, I was confronted by my body as a home for the first time. There was comfort in its portability, but it, too, was unnervingly dynamic.
Walks are a place, neither here nor there, where movement is the one defined condition, where, by definition, where you are blends, transforms, and collides. Gradually, in this borderland, I began to relax into somewhere that felt like me, where I could inhabit a self who felt cozy and true. Walking, I began to see the tone and textures of my desires, my body, my fluidity, as I had never seen them before. Outside, away from the scaffolding and detritus of what I’d already done, who I’d already been, how I’d been known, I felt an echo of that metallic, muggy summer from years ago, when a tent sleepover showed me the possibility of spaciousness and security at once.
For a while, though, I was convinced that being who I was on walks would mean losing the people who’d known other versions of me. For months, I thought bifurcation or solitude would be my destiny. I could sense no continuum into which I could move, only endings. Home became so dark, so private, that, at last, I had to unlock. I told the people I loved about the home I’d found. I had given them so little of my imagination that I am ashamed to say their response surprised me. They welcomed and united me. I returned.
It seems too obvious to write this, but keys are a token for leaving and coming back. That is why my mother lent hers to me, and, now, it is why I cherish mine. By chance, I’d taken up her keys, the keys of my childhood. They mean that I’m lucky enough to call somewhere home and that I’m secure enough in that home to leave it, knowing I can return. That I have the same exact key ring now as the one that gave me my early freedom is its own kind of return. A kind of magic.
Two years after finding the Genuine Original Jean Ring, I move my keys to a new keychain and put the Jean Ring on my dresser, near other things I hold dear. It seems to have given me what it needed to, and now it can go back to being an artifact, a bit of magic connecting me across the San Andreas, across the North American plate to my mother. Laying it down, something comes to me, a low voice, like a preamble to a dog’s happiest growl. That memory of the tent and Stevie was so unlike my other walks that followed. We made it a home that night together. This is the way forward, the way to follow the continuum. It was never a solo project.
Still, I’m never happier than when all I need is my keys. I feel buoyant, undaunted by distance. I move more on instinct and impulse than I often do in the other parts of my life.
I’ve written this while walking around the neighborhoods near my home, on roads that lead into the tan-baked hills of Griffith Park that blush green once a year in spring. Anyone behind me might observe a person, jangling slightly, typing furiously on their phone every few houses or so, then stashing the phone in their pocket with an air of finality, lip-syncing, patting their pocket (to ensure my keys are still there), then whipping the phone out again. I have most of my thoughts on the move, maybe because I am open to my own whims, to turn left, take that stair, change direction. Mostly, though, I soak up the slant of shadows, the houses, the dogs, the plants, the flowers, all of them still astonishing to me, three years into living here. I consider the little worlds proposed in people’s yards. I hear the wind, the birds bathing in dust, the golfers, the tennis courts, the freeway. On clear days, I see far, to the sea. It feels like flying and possibility.
Katie Okamoto's writing has appeared in Catapult, The Atlantic, Eater, TASTE, Metropolis, and BuzzFeed Reader, among other places. She participated in the 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop for non-fiction and memoir and is at work on a book. Formerly, Katie was the senior editor at Metropolis, the architecture and design magazine, in New York City. Find them at katieokamoto.com.