With each new home there come a hundred secrets: the ancient heater’s grate just wide enough for bathroom reading collections, the key to a gate never closed. Like all those before it this apartment has a legacy of ghosts I do not know, people whose decisions painted these walls, put in this air conditioner, removed that socket. Opening each closet and cupboard merely to discover their shape I can feel them a year from now, gradually giving up their contents to moving boxes. There are so many versions of myself because there are so many houses to fill and empty.
In a box packed years before by a boy forced out of his home after graduation there lies a set of keys on a simple ring. No label or familiar shape hints at their purpose, long abandoned and far off. Vague recollections whisper of campus buildings and security doors, of late-night raids and back entrances. That party thrown in a squash court, dj and tables smuggled in long after the staff had gone home, complete with disco ball and sock-footed dancers? One of these keys, quite possibly. Long evenings spent in offices of theaters now demolished or refurbished? Perhaps some subset of these keys. Missing are the electric cart keys, used one glorious night under the hot pursuit of campus security. Those keys were singled out and passed down, so that the freedom and the danger they presented would remain available long after their original “discoverer” had gone. This ring of nameless keys could be anything, their possibilities suggested only by memories of past abilities long lost. Perhaps instead they open houses since vacated in cities up and down the eastern seaboard. Or bicycle locks long made pointless by more dedicated thieves. Uncertain as to which of these sets of keys he holds, the man tasked with sorting out this box of remnants consigns them to the trash, their history invisible and gone.
The act of settling in is really two separate reconciliations, that of the un-needed and the now necessary. A swipe card for Shanghai’s metro system, carried for years behind the driver license, is removed and consigned to a folder of remnants. In its place goes a shoppers card for a grocery store with an unfamiliar name. Sifting through that folder, that box, I discover remnants kept safe for so long because of the same words. “Maybe one day,” I say, pulling that Shanghai card from my wallet. It settles beside my Suica from Tokyo, unused since 2003, and my gaijin card, kept as a memento rather than turned over to the authorities as I exited the country. Sometimes I am smarter, and there is no card, my Octopus from Hong Kong passed on to a friend on his way there. Bank cards, from Tokyo, Shanghai, Ithaca, airline cards from days of belief in frequent flier programs, bank books from countries where they mean everything, all these pieces of places have traveled with me to this new house, where they are unpacked into a dresser drawer and ignored for months. In the summer I suspect I will pack them again, adding pieces acquired in Houston, in this apartment that shakes with the neighbors’ joy and fills with the breeze of oncoming storms. There are badges, pins, free-drink punch cards and gift cards for coffee shops I used to bike to, or walk past, or work near. These are replaced in my bag by the cardboard cup holders of Rice’s student Coffee house, cycled endlessly for $1 off my ninth drink. When I leave I am sure there will be one half-punched, and one of the first decisions for the folder in our new home will be whether to keep it.
Houses hold each person’s secrets, comfortable with their inhabitants even for a short while. The desk I write at, nailed to the wall at window height to provide a standing view, will be removed and the holes plastered over when we leave, the amount of time spent in this corner invisible to the next occupant. Looking around, at our black chairs and wooden stools, I imagine a sofa, a television, the belongings of previous iterations. Not particularly unique possessions to consider, yet odd uses there were, I am sure. In this house I have secreted a pile of foreign currency, not for the financial stability but for the pleasure of discovering it when we depart, a roll of Philippine pesos, Thai baht and Korean won. Did we pick the same hiding place for cash, those other tenants and I? Hard to imagine, unless they too favored the spare towels closet.
Where do these choices come from, the places that feel right for each object? Wanting them by the door I am forever moving the scissors from their home near the fridge. When asked why I require cutting tools immediately accessible upon entry I have no answer, and they return, grudgingly, to the other drawer. These curious habits that seem to have no ancestor may indeed be the apartment, or may be tied to some other similar kitchen I have lived in. That idea appeals, that all these houses, which bear the marks of generations of use may likewise leave echoes on their tenants. The secrets of each home accumulate in us, so that, moving constantly, we are shaped by the growing trail of places we no longer inhabit.