“I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out;
and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.”
― Virginia Woolf
“He tries to find the exit from himself but there is no door.”
― Dejan Stojanovic
There is little in this world more anxiety-provoking than someone telling me:
“I’ve left you the key. Feel free to let yourself in.”
I’m not good with doors.
I’d make a terribly ineffective robber of bank vaults.
Similar to my childhood fear of entering a grocery store to buy a carton of milk, I’ve always accepted this charismatic quirk as part of my hyper-vigilant persona (What if people are watching me as I attempt to do this mundane task?). Or perhaps one of the many intolerable eccentricities that emerge through an apprehensive countenance (What if I can’t open the door because the key won’t turn, it gets stuck in the lock and breaks in half?).
But if a cigar isn’t just a cigar, then a door isn’t just a door.
Twenty years ago, much to my relief, I met a college friend with the same logistical-psycho-social stumbling block. Tara and I were both extremely creative, intellectual, worldly individuals who could be taken down by a singular access point. The absolute terror of visiting each other’s dorms for the first time – there was way too much to navigate: the building’s exterior door (unlocked until midnight on weekdays; 2am on weekends), the interior gated doors (always locked; passage granted via scanned card to dorm residents only), the vestibule access code, the phone-intercom system, the RA on duty at her post checking IDs, the elevator hidden around the corner at the end of the hall, and at long last, the dorm room door (knock… that was the easy part).
It was objectively amusing when we attempted to travel Europe together. Medieval castles are not known for their easy passages: up the coffin-width spiral staircase, through the cobblestone alley, over the old moat, around the shrubbery maze, through the wrought iron, fifty-ton gate, then look for the costumed guard on the opposite side. Italian cafes with their dollhouse-sized washroom closets that never seemed to lock for privacy. London double-decker buses with their lack of doors (Wait, what? Hop on/off the bus through an open-air egress, while the vehicle is still sorta kinda moving? And where exactly do we pay for this amusement park ride?). British university libraries with their dusty stacks of books to infinity that precipitated disorientation and their creaky revolving wooden doors (FYI: a multi-partitioned door that continually spins in a circle is a particular kind of hell…). Even domestic hotels became inordinately stressful once the hospitality industry adopted magnetized key cards. Slide card in + slide card out + taunting red light = panic. At least Chicago’s Hotel Monaco added some whimsy to the experience by leaving a swimming goldfish in a bowl outside the neighbor’s room (at his request).
Years later as a resident of New York City and a successful international business consultant, Tara was emerging from her posh downtown apartment building and walked smack into the double-glass doors leading to the outside world. Like one of those birds who doesn’t realize the window isn’t the sky, she was knocked down, stunned, bruised, and bleeding. The ER doctor questioned her marital relationship, but I believed her truth. Doors can be very tricky, particularly when they’re often left open for you or deceivingly crystal clear. Ever since Tara’s cautionary tale, I’ve been extremely wary when approaching anything that resembles air.
When I finally had a sufficient salary to afford my own Manhattan residence (aka rationalize spending 70% of income on a 350-square foot studio apartment and still be able to feed and clothe self… well, sometimes…), it should come as no surprise that my top requirement to my realtor was “doorman building.” It seemed safer to have someone in a proper suit, hat and nametag guarding the doors 24/7, even if that “someone” was a stranger from a strange land who could barely pronounce my non-Slavic name, and thereby only referred to me by unit number (“14K, you have a dry-cleaning delivery”).
Single and alone in New York City was challenging enough. Between dragging heavy grocery bags home down long city blocks in the heat, rain, snow; awaiting bulky furniture deliveries (“Lady, if the couch don’t fit in the service elevator, just tip the guy to walk it up the 14 flights of stairs, yeah, no problem”) and Time Warner Cable service calls (“We’ll be there on Wednesday sometime between 7am and 9pm… if our guy can get out of Queens”), it was relieving to know for certain that at the very least, a skilled aperture professional would be able to hold open the door, and maybe even smile and say hello (in Albanian).
I’ve questioned if my apprehension negotiating doors (particularly of the unfamiliar variety) equates to agoraphobia. But neither my super-social nature nor my therapist have ever concurred with that theory. I’m both comfortable being in, and interacting with, the world at large. Bring me to a networking event or professional conference, and I’m in my element. Invite me to a party, and I’m at ease (dare I say, even joyful?) making new friends and connections. In fact, the thought of remaining inside my residence all day fills me with depressive dread. My morning motivations out of bed include visions of bustling coffee shops and the world beyond my abode.
It appears, however, that I am perceptibly anxious, uncertain, and fearful of the transition itself. The openings and the closings. The movement from one side to the other. The hellos and the goodbyes. The “here” versus “there” of it all. From Shakespeare’s perspective, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” But it’s their “exits and entrances” that unbalance my equilibrium, and leave me with a pounding heart at every twist of a knob; stunned and dizzy at every click of a lock.
One of my favorite films is the 1998 movie Sliding Doors. A convincingly British Gwyneth Paltrow character lives out two alternate versions of her reality – one in which she misses her train; and one in which she just barely makes it. We follow her two vastly disparate iterations of the same year – romantically, professionally, and personally – and the various incarnations of what’s good and bad in each.
We are left to ponder the expansive consequences of our minuscule everyday decisions and movements; how dramatically different life can be if we hail a cab versus walk, run back to grab our forgotten cardigan, stop to clean up our spilled coffee, or sit in one train car versus another.
The film’s ultimate plot twist extrapolates the concept of fate. If something’s meant to be, then no matter what door we walk through, will we eventually meet our destiny in some shape or form? Or will we forever be off-track from the people, places, and things that are authentically fulfilling? And can we possibly ever know with conviction which door to open, when to open it, if to walk through it, when to close it, and how long to keep it locked up?
A few months ago, I experienced my own Sliding Doors moment. A small, but important professional gathering was happening in a city two hours from my residence. Given the distance, I was on the fence about attending, though nonetheless drawn for various career-related reasons. Having driven the route countless times before, I knew my departure from home could be no later than 4pm should I wish to arrive with enough breathing room for a 7pm event. And yet, as the clock struck 4:00, I still had not decided if I wanted to make the effort.
A friend nudged me that I’d probably enjoy the solitary road trip on the sunny and warm autumn day, and the shift in scenery would be uplifting. That wisdom sent me dashing upstairs to change attire and make myself otherwise presentable. And I threw myself into my car at 4:10pm, already ten minutes behind schedule.
Much to my chagrin, Google Maps informed me there was a crash along my route, only 10 miles from my endpoint, recalculating my journey to almost three hours on the road. I logically presumed that accident should clear before I reached the disastrous intersection. But, with each passing minute, the traffic did not break. After two hours on the highway, close in mileage to my destination, but stuck in grid-locked traffic, my GPS advised I take a local route off the highway to save 20 minutes. Heeding the digital navigation oracle, I weaved my way through local byroads and side streets, fretfully hitting red lights, slow drivers, and other road blocks, and challenging the speed limit whenever I had open road.
Arriving in the city center at 6:50pm, I swiftly pulled into a parking garage, only to be informed by the attendant that they would close in ten minutes. He redirected me out of the lot, down the street, and around the block, to a garage with a bandwidth until 10pm. I secured my car in a space, leapt out, locked the doors, walked five long strides before realizing I left an important notebook in the car. Dashing back to my car, I unlocked the door in a frenzy, grabbing my neglected item, and with three minutes to spare, I rushed up the street, around the corner, through the glass doors of the lobby, to spy the elevator doors just starting to close. Using my native New Yorker skills, I skidded on the linoleum floor to the elevator in a split second, stuck my hand in the door to prop it open, jumped into the elevator disheveled and harried, and standing right there inside was:
Or, my ex-friend, to be exact.
(I had no idea he was going to the event.)
“Right. Of course you’re here,” were the first words out of my mouth.
We had quarreled to an epic relationship collapse a mere six days prior. After telling me goodbye, I had watched him walk away and shut the door in finality and anger. I did not imagine sliding through yet another gateway, in a different city, to find him yet again on the opposite side.
He and I had opened and closed many doors on each other – and for each other – over the three tumultuous years in which we attempted to manage our transcendent connection. Those same doors which usually unfastened methodically and effortlessly, often slammed shut carelessly and indignantly. A dizzying spiral of conversations, connections, breakdowns and apologies… a carousel of restaurants, homes, and vehicles… each with a door firmly demarcating our entrances and exits; but with no stage directions to inform us where to stand in relation to the other, nor any indication of who held the master key. And when a passageway was blocked or a precarious wall came crashing down, it was always easier to blame the other one for crossing boundaries and unlocking the door without permission.
Two months after that elevator encounter, I awaited his scheduled entrance at a restaurant, in an ethereal town that has served to move us both, individually and together, as though mythical gliding staircases and shifting corridors were predestined for a cosmic metamorphosis. Through that rustic restaurant door, he once humbly asked for my friendship back, which I granted. Less than two years later, through that same door, we agreed to barricade all windows, lock up for good, and throw away the keys. As he motioned to leave, I remained in my seat, claiming my space inside, and watched him exit stage left, end of Act III, curtain closed, let’s all take a bow for such captivating and passionate performances.
It’s been said to close a door if it leads no where. But I’m not sure I agree with that last part. Yes, of course we close doors on people, places, and things that cause us pain and suffering, situations and relationships that end in disaster, circumstances that belittle and demean our nature. But, despite the heartbreak, an open door never leads to oblivion.
It’s what happens after the threshold is crossed… the transition from one room to another, from one stage player to the next. Each step, each space… it always leads somewhere. Even if it’s to another door with an equally confounding lock. Or to another place where we don’t want to be.
The trepidation is not what we’ll discover beyond the entryway, or if we are strong enough to survive. The anxiety is based in this: We have the power to open all doors. We have to decide if we want to turn the key.