I keep my gym locker lock in my bright pink gym bag. I love my bright pink gym bag for lots of reasons, one of those reasons being that some people don’t think I would love something bright and pink. Those people would be wrong though because I love it a whole lot. Things just felt wrong when I took the lock out of its little zippered pouch on the side, like something had shifted. It always takes a tiny leap of faith to lock a lock then depend on memory alone to make it open again. I always test it first in my hands before I put it on the locker that holds my clothes and my phone and my car keys. I don’t trust myself not to end up in my bathing suit dripping on the carpet while I stare at it and can’t get it open. Which is good because this time I couldn’t get it open.
I’ve had this particular lock for years and sometimes use it several times a week. As I clicked it home to lock it I was instantly aware I had no recollection of the numbers it would take to open it again. I have opened this lock hundreds of times but in that moment it could have been any lock pulled from a random bucket of locks, every number seeming as likely to begin with as any other number. I stared at it and nothing came to me, like it was some other person’s lock in my hand. I started turning it hoping that muscle memory would take over but it didn’t. I sat down so my brain could focus entirely on that and not have to worry about keeping my body in a standing position. All hands on deck, like turning down the car radio when you’re searching for the right house number.
I did this over and over disturbed by how numbers can just stop existing for you. (Did I have a stroke in my sleep? Does 38 mean I’m that kind of old? What else could I have forgotten? Did I leave a kid in the car? A dog tied up in the yard? Is the car still running in the parking lot?) I looked up and there was an old woman staring at me. She was small and all white, her hair and her skin and the buttoned up blouse under her sweat suit. I hadn’t been swearing or mumbling so she must have just noticed I’d been sitting there staring at a lock past the point where things are still normal.
“Dear are you having some troubles or a problem?” she asked. I was unreasonably touched by her question. I guess my incompetence and frustration had made me vulnerable. “Yes.” I said. “I can’t get my lock to open. I’ve had it for years and today I just can’t remember the combination. Isn’t it crazy you can forget something like that?” I said this realizing this probably happens to her a lot. She looked very old. “Oh no, no, no. I forget things all the time. I’m 80, you know and it just happens.” She walked closer. “You know what you need to do is just be still about it. Just let your mind wander and do something else and be quiet and still and then it will come to you again.” I nodded my head to show her I understood.
She went on “Do you pray?” I looked up at her and just smiled very small and to myself and answered “No. I don’t pray.” I shrugged my shoulders in surrender. “Maybe I should start though.” She continued, head down, conviction behind her words. “Whenever I need help like that I pray and it always works. I’m just still and quiet, and that’s really what prayer is, and Christ will answer you eventually. Sometimes it takes awhile. Not all miracles happen right away. Sometimes the miracle takes a little bit to happen.”
I thanked her for the advice and thought about the prospect. I like the stillness and quiet part. I believe in no god so I had no intention of praying, and besides, if there was a god I’d feel like a jerk to bother him/her about my gym locker combination. That just seems like another kind of selfish. But her comments were kind and she wasn’t pushy and you can’t really argue with the idea of letting your mind be quiet and still as a way to solve your problems. What do I care if a person calls that prayer? I told her I was going to go swim some laps. That maybe my mind would be quiet then and I’d remember . She agreed that was a good idea and disappeared back into the locker room with all of the other old ladies who go to the Y at 9am on Tuesdays.
The pool was cold and I lingered way too long climbing down the ladder. My foot hurt because I had recently bashed it, which is the whole reason I was swimming instead of running like I preferred. I grabbed a kickboard and started kicking, slowly testing out my foot to see if it hurt as much to swim as it did to walk. I went back and forth and back and forth, never fast, thinking about my foot and about how it still hurt and how I should go to the doctor for an x-ray even though they wouldn’t do anything about something like a broken toe. I wasn’t after a solution for it anyway, as I knew none existed. I most wanted independent verification of my injury. A reason written down on paper for why my foot was purple and for why I wasn’t logging any miles and for why I kept complaining. A permission slip.
I stared down the lane at the reflection of the block against the water. It made a black line that wiggled in the wakes of the swimmers in the other lanes, all of whom were going much faster and smoother than me. I kept my head down and kicked and ran numbers through my head. Three numbers, all of which were either in the 20s or 30s. That much I was convinced of. A still and quiet mind. “Prayer.”
My ancient dog had to be carried down the steps to the basement this morning because she pooped all over the house last night. She’d seemed okay when I left her, asleep on her bed, but I knew she didn’t like being down there. I needed to buy more carpet cleaner and something for dinner on the way home. The vet is coming tomorrow for the puppy anyway. If she’s still messed up we’ll have her take a look at the old dog too. Though, like a broken toe, there’s nothing that can be done.
I know the number ends in 36 because I have a tiny sticker on the back of my Y ID card that has the combination on it. I put it there years ago. It’s mostly worn off though and I can only make out that one 36. Still, that narrows things down. Something in the 20s should be in the first or second slot. Maybe both.
Summer break was really long and the kids finally just went back to school. I was unreasonably stressed because I find I am not good at managing the hours between the things I have to do and the things I want to do and the things I need to do to keep me sane. I made a list of things I would work at to keep me happier and more grounded and less stressed and have had moderate results sticking to it. I went over the list as I made my way back and forth in the water.
- go outside more
- drink more alcohol
- listen to music in the car instead of riding in silence and brooding (my default)
- stop reading the comments section on news articles
- step away from the computer
- watch tv with the kids
- say “no” to grownups as freely as I say it to my children
- don’t put into unpaid work any more than unpaid work puts into me
- don’t let the chumps get me down
- be prouder of the runs I run than I am disappointed in the runs I don’t run
- write more
My legs tired and my foot officially achy I got a leg float and worked on my freestyle pulls. I’m faster anyway when I don’t kick and I just let my arms drag my body back and forth across the pool. I’m not very good at swimming.
Because the last number is 36 I am increasingly convinced that the first two are both in the 20s. In the past week I have helped my oldest kid with three different combination locks. Two of them I put in my phone’s notepad for her so if she got stuck at school she could text me and I could help her. I assume those sets of numbers pushed my own number off my mental bookshelf and onto the floor. Maybe there’s just a limited amount of room for that sort of thing and I’ve finally reached it.
Back and forth, back and forth, my arms tiring from the effort. I’m too cynical now for my own good. I can’t enjoy things I used to enjoy. Baseball and television and articles in my favorite magazines. Even books seem predictable; their back cover synopses a parody of back cover synopses: “A woman goes on a remarkable journey and unexpected things happen and it’s an exploration of life through the ages and the interconnectedness of human experience and the discovery that a life lived small is sometimes the grandest life of all.” Boring. I already know how all of them end.
800 meters is all I can manage. Most of those I did with one leg or were just arm pulls. Still, I know it’s better than nothing, better than not moving my body at all. You get tired of saying that though. Tired of never getting faster or better at any of it. At this point it’s maintenance only but I do enjoy when I finish a workout. That much is still true. I took my bag back to the locker room and sat on the bench with a towel around me. I pulled out the lock and tried a few more turns, always ending with 36 because I know that’s the one correct number. It never opened.
This afternoon I’ll watch tv with the kids and I’ll throw the ball to the puppy in the yard. I like to watch her run really fast in a figure eight around the boxwoods. Hopefully the old dog is over whatever was bothering her and we won’t even have to mention it to the vet in the morning. I think I’ll make soup for dinner because they like that and George can wear his apron and put in the vegetables. Maybe after all that and a beer my mind will be still enough and quiet enough that I’ll remember what comes before 36. And if not I’ll just buy another lock and this time write the combination in the notepad on my phone and not bother with leaving things up to memory or God.