“Why the shoelaces?”
The question had emanated unexpectedly from the slight, dark-skinned woman working the register at CVS. I stopped fumbling with my wallet long enough to glance upward and meet a pair of striking, hazel eyes, which abruptly broke contact with mine before wandering for a few long seconds, settling finally upon the crest of my right shoulder. I checked to see if I had missed a stain.
“I’m hoping to make a noose, actually,” I replied. “You wouldn’t happen to know how to tie a hangman’s knot, would you?”
I smiled weakly as my comment garnered a reaction as deadpan as a Día de los Muertos baking competition. In our respective defenses, it was a bleary-eyed 5AM – an hour far too early to register sarcasm, let alone suffer basic human contact. It occurred to me that my dry delivery might be mistaken for seriousness, and so I followed up in earnest, “Only kidding. My gerbil had a change of heart. We just found him a new therapist and things are looking promising.”
I paused, awaiting the status of my latest volley in this impromptu game of social Battleship. Player 2 wore a small, gold card on her lapel, which revealed her name to be Abha. I silently prayed that her surname was Cadabra.
The sound of the barcode scanner cut through the burgeoning tension. “Would you like a bag?”
“Oh… Uh, no thanks.”
“Target missed, sir,” my subconscious skipper chirped. It occurred to me that my early morning companion’s name formed an anagram of Ahab. And perhaps I was just being a (Moby) dick. I clamped my mouth in shame.
The transaction pressed onward through a prolonged silence, punctuated only by the swiping of a credit card and printing of a yard-long, coupon-covered receipt. “Can I leave that with you?” I mumbled, gesturing toward the wasteful mass of paper and ink. I needed no evidence of this morning’s regrettable interaction. Hazel-eyed Abha shrugged and threw the receipt into a trash receptacle hidden under the counter. I followed a beeline to the door.
Is it really necessary to print seven coupons for condoms and Odwalla on every freaking receipt you print? I’m met with the unbearable temptation to hoard a year’s worth and go on a sex-crazed bender, sustained only by the sweet, nourishing nectar of wheatgrass and spirulina Superfood smoothies. And I’ve been trying so hard to kick the habit.
As I exited CVS onto Boston’s Newbury and Fairfield streets, my inner dialogue reminded me of the virtues of self-checkout. The sun had not yet risen in Back Bay, a neighborhood situated in the heart of the city, just south of the Charles River. Six months prior, both my living and working arrangements had converged serendipitously on this charming, mile-long strip of land, which featured 19th century brownstone townhouses juxtaposed with modern-day skyscrapers. The close proximity of office and apartment had resulted in an uncomfortable blurring of lines – if only my workspace were outfitted with a shower, I don’t think I would have ever seen home.
To combat the growing monotony of work-life balance (and my growing waistline) I had recently altered my morning routine to include a daybreak workout session at the Harvard Club, located a short 15-minute walk from my apartment. This distance proved to be just close enough, as I often found myself just barely able to resist the soothing sweettalk of my memory foam mattress. Each morning, my iPhone’s default alarm would sound, and I would meander into a pair of jeans, brush my teeth, and stumble out onto the street. Weekdays alternated between informal squash matches and a circuit of cardio and weightlifting, completed on the club’s aging yet able-bodied equipment. This particular morning, I had taken a detour en route to the gym to pick up a critical, new accessory for my routine.
I stopped on the street corner a few short steps from CVS and fished out a single shoelace. Within a few short minutes, I had jiggered together a series of knots which held a simple, silver key around my neck. The makeshift neck-ring – because God forbid I ever wear a “necklace” – would serve a purely functional purpose. That is of course, aside from giving me a mysterious, rakishly masculine appearance. (Ladies.)
• • • • •
It was a hazy summer in Boston – one where the morning light sneaks into existence through low-hanging clouds, and you pray that the stifling humidity transitions into a refreshing rainshower by early afternoon. Sometimes, it does.
After two years of living in the city, I had finally worked up the gumption to make use of a (wantonly obtained) Harvard Club membership by trying my hand at squash. No, not the gourmet gourd. I’m talking Squash: The Sport – which in my mind had always conjured images of gentlemanly sportsmanship, business deals, and literally nothing more detailed than that. For all I knew, “squash” was actually the oddly specific term for sipping scotch and smoking cigars whilst reclining in a plush, leather chaise in a mahogany-replete lounge. In which case, consider the sport and me a (squash) match made in heaven.
All jibbing aside, I was vaguely aware that squash involved an enclosed court and a squishy ball. Growing up in a small, northeast Ohio town, the closest analogue we had was tennis (fuzzy balls, not squishy). In truth, one might be inclined to call my kin a “tennis family”; my sister had been a state champion and my brother hit on the varsity team in high school. My parents had enrolled me in lessons at the local club, Fairlawn Swim & Tennis, from an early age. Swimming proved no promise, and so that left only one other summer activity, much the same way that choosing a career from an Asian upbringing was like answering an SAT multiple choice question – business, law, or medicine (circle one or more, and use a No. 2 pencil for heaven’s sake). Suffice to say, tennis would be my sport.
I accepted this fate somewhat begrudgingly until grade 6, when I was presented with the option to take up an alternative spring-semester sport: lacrosse. The game had just started to gain some traction in the midwest, and my small community of mostly upper-middle-class families was eager to join the movement. I wasn’t particularly well-built for lacrosse (being a little too top-heavy and short-sighted toboot), but perhaps I had signed up in subconscious rebellion against following the “yellow-ball road” which had been set before me. In reality, my relationship with lacrosse was similar to that of a triangle player in an orchestra – that is, my contributions were often of questionable value, but I was always enthusiastically involved. This continued for eight years until sophomore year in college, when I hung up my stick for the last time. I’m not at all ashamed to admit that the primary reason I retired involved the fact that my pads and practice kits had begun to emit an altogether unholy odor, which was only amplified in the small airspace of my humble dormitory.
So it was, that over a decade after laying my racquet to rest, I found myself hoping that some of my former tennis prowess had remained and would translate onto the squash court. Upon expressing the most basic interest in the sport, I had been enthusiastically invited to join the Harvard Club box league by the club squash pro, an aging yet athletic Australian named Sharon. She had at one time been world-ranked professionally at #12, and after brief stints as coach for the National USA women’s team and the Bowdoin varsity squad, she now spent her seasons instilling proper form and love of the game in the grand members of the club (grand-parents and grand-children, that is). The box league, Sharon assured me, would be an informal means by which I could meet other club members and play competitively with others at a similar skill level. Though initially reluctant, I eventually agreed to join the roster.
My first match was scheduled the following week at 6:30AM, with another member named Dan. We would play the best of five games, each to eleven points, with a 2-point margin required to win. Rally scoring. Simple enough rules, I reassured myself.
On the day of the match, I arrived at the club with plenty of time to stretch and get situated, and was buzzed in by the front desk. Early mornings saw a reduced staff working the club, and the open facilities were limited to the gym and squash courts, accessed via a staircase down to the basement, located just past the main desk. I waved a quick hello to the doorman and followed the steps down.
• • • • •
The Harvard Club of Boston was founded in 1908, and the now-iconic clubhouse on Boston’s beautiful Commonwealth Avenue was constructed only five years later. Its charming limestone and brick façade greeted passersby with a sun-bleached crimson flag emblazoned with the Harvard insignia, which sat perched atop the heavy wooden entryway. In more recent years the club had waned in popularity, as social clubs in general encountered some difficulty attracting younger generations, many of whom were wary of the zeitgeist of exclusion such clubs often engendered. Indeed, the Harvard Club bore the unmistakable markings of a long heritage steeped in WASP-y elitism. Though the university itself had made great strides in attracting and welcoming a diverse, well-balanced student body, the technically unaffiliated Harvard Club of Boston – this bastion of the old guard – still reeked of the 9000 SPF sunblock its predominantly “vampire-white” member base applied before venturing forth into the daylight. A costly application, no doubt. On one particular morning in the men’s locker room, I overheard two pubescent boys debating the merits of a fancy-sounding skin moisturizer, which a subsequent Google search revealed to cost well over $200. What’s the CVS generic brand called, again? I’ll take that, Alex, for $10.
Such as it was, however, I would have been hard-pressed to find another gym for as economical a price tag. The Club employed a sliding scale for membership fees, which meant that recent college grads like myself paid a paltry sum for membership, while older alumni fell into ever-increasing fee brackets. Though it might not make sense for future Dan, present Dan found the idea of a local gym with early opening hours, laundry service, and squash court access to be well-worth the money. Especially now that he had finally joined the squash box league.
The men’s locker room at the club was accessed via a basement hallway which snaked past the gym and through the Grill Bar, an informal dining room boasting several HD televisions that were constantly airing some combination of golf and tennis tourneys. Though I never witnessed its operating hours during work days, weekend afternoons brought the usual suspects and their kin to enjoy the standard pub fare, served by a friendly though nonchalant waitstaff. Menu standouts included a generous lobster roll, served with a side of crispy, sweet potato fries. The daily special – more often than not, some sort of sandwich involving chicken breast and alfalfa sprouts – was also notable. On the far side of the restaurant, a large sign depicting a clock and the words “It’s Game Time!” lay watch over the exit to the locker rooms and squash courts.
On my first morning, a half-hour before my match with (other) Dan, I strolled through the dark, deserted Grille Bar and arrived at the men’s locker room, where I was greeted by an enthusiastic porter named Michael. He was a portly, unabashed fellow who wore thick, round spectacles and always spoke with his neck stretched forward and face pointed slightly upward, as if he were trying to recall something hidden deep within his memory. With some frequency, that seemed to actually be the case.
Michael led me on a tour of the facilities, which began with a walk through a lounge containing several deep, leather chairs – perfect for squash, I am told. A tan motif was carried throughout the room and included yellow-tinted walls and a dark wood trim that matched the smartly placed end tables, on some of which lay scattered the latest copies of various news publications. In the adjacent room, Michael pointed out a batch of member and day-use lockers. We returned back the way we’d come to find the other direction led to the toilets, sauna, whirlpool, and a communal shower, all accessible via a long, mirrored corridor hosting several sinks and a countertop lined with myriad shaving accoutrements, talcum powders, and anti-fungal sprays. The whole place smelled like an Ernest Hemingway novel – an ethereal mixture of pine, sandalwood, and confidence that I’d call “muskyfresh”.
Upon concluding the short tour, Michael produced a small, silver locker key sharing a keyring with a circular pendant marked “365”. I was instructed to find my locker “upstays, in the back,” after which my guide returned to his regular steward duties. Already, a handful of septuagenarian members had started filtering in, their muted conversations about the previous night’s ballgame fading into the storied walls of the club.
The hunt for locker 365 took me up two anticlimactic floors to the far back corner of the men’s locker room. “This level of privacy must be reserved for VIPs,” I mused to myself, though it was clear that extra attention had been paid to constructing the first floor lockers by comparison. An empty, red mesh bag hung from two small golden hooks protruding from my wooden locker door. Michael had explained the laundry procedures downstairs – “toss ya filled mesh bag inter the big white bin, it’ll be landered and hangin’ on ya locker the next day”. I opened my new locker and tossed the empty bag inside. Then, feeling relatively situated, I checked the time on my phone. My squash match would begin shortly, so I quickly changed and headed for the courts.
• • • • •
Though the Harvard Club contained a full gym with cardio equipment and free weights, the biggest membership draw lay ostensibly in its historic and well-appointed squash program. Indeed, the names of annual tournament winners could be found lining the walls of the club, dating back over half a century. The club housed eight squash courts, initially constructed during the height of the roaring twenties. Five International-sized (Softball) singles squash courts were situated across three floors. Three American-sized (Hardball) singles courts were also available on the middle concourse, though one had been irreparably compromised by water damage, and the third had been converted into a training room for boxing. The club’s top floor also housed a truly cavernous doubles court, which saw infrequent use. During World War II, the courts had been filled with cots, available for reservation by military officers for $1.50 per night. These days, peak hours (early mornings and just after the work day) saw the courts brought to life with multiple concurrent games’s worth of squash’s characteristic shoe squeaks, racquet thwacks, and tin-hits. In contrast, off-peak hours rendered the courts essentially deserted. The vaulted, motion-sensor lights would flick off after sustained periods of inactivity.
Other Dan arrived to the courts a few minutes late, apologizing for the traffic into the city. He was a sturdy, slightly balding man about a decade my senior. We introduced ourselves enthusiastically, and I explained that this would be my first time stepping onto the squash court. “No problem”, other Dan reassured me, “I’ll show you the ropes. This will be fun!” He talked me through the court boundaries, rules, and suggested body movement, positioning, and racquet technique. Then, we began by volleying the ball back and forth to warm up our bodies and – more importantly – the rubber ball, which I learned was required for it to attain optimum bounce speed and magnitude. I noted happily that my remaining tennis skills exhibited a modicum of relevancy. Before long, we started keeping track of points.
It became quickly apparent that squash must have been meticulously designed in such a way that a mismatch of skill would result in the most foolish looking loser. More than once, the 360-degrees of playable walls caused my feet to literally trip over themselves. The hard wooden courts levied a toll from my knees and elbows that they weren’t expecting. Prior to every serve, other Dan would announce the score in the confident, enthusiastic, and slightly laughable way you imagine Tom Arnold might. Between points he provided helpful tips and instruction, but by no means was he willing to alter his playing style just to boost my confidence. Other Dan won the first three of five games handily, after which we took a short water break and had the opportunity to get better acquainted.
Dan explained that he had recently moved to a Boston suburb from Maine and that he worked in finance. I mentioned that I had started a company in college, which had grown to become my full-time employment by graduation. We made small talk about our business and personal lives and jointly agreed that the morning squash games were a good reason to get up early on weekdays. “…if you’re into humiliation,” I added. Other Dan assured me that I would adjust to the mechanics of the game soon enough. I couldn’t decide if I believed him.
After we’d hydrated – and though the match had technically already been won – we returned to the courts to play out the final two games. I nearly eeked out a win on the last game as my opponent began to tire, but alas, my first outing to the squash courts would end 0-5.
Sweaty, heaving, and with a developing blister on the ball of my right foot, I retreated to the locker room and – after a brief moment of vacillation – decided to brave the communal shower. This, I determined, would be preferable to a full workday spent stewing in the sweat of defeat. But only barely. To be frank, I balked at the idea of showering in a public place, and particularly at the prospect of bearing witness to “bare business”. In my home shower, I typically stood perpendicular to the shower head, such that the hot water would hit my closest shoulder and be evenly distributed down my front and back sides. Doing this in a communal shower, where shower heads lined the walls, would cause me to literally face the naked person showering next to me. Probably while making eye contact, because if things are going to be awkward, I prefer them to be ludicrously so.
I stripped down, wrapped a towel around my waist, and proceeded to check my belongings as if I were leaving home. Locker key? Check. Shampoo and conditioner? Check. Gameface? You betcha.
• • • • •
It was a harrowing journey to the showers through the narrow corridors of the locker room. The once-pristine facilities had since devolved into a tanner’s worst nightmare – a dense jungle of freckled, wrinkly skin. I feverishly gripped the meager towel about my waist and focused on hopping my eyes between the least interesting patches of the walls and ceiling. Still, despite my best efforts, old man privates seemed destined to pop unexpectedly into my line of sight, like an x-rated magic eye. “Where are all the towels?!” my subconscious screamed. As far as I knew, Boston was not experiencing any shortage of water or linens. A shortage of modesty, perhaps.
Slightly frazzled though still determined, I eventually arrived at the communal shower, which was a spartan, rectangular room covered on all sides in taupe-colored tiles. Seven shower heads lined the two long, opposing walls. Three were already in use. I set my towel on a hook on the external wall and, after a brief moment spent searching for better locations, placed my locker key gingerly upon a nearby slatted, wooden bench. “I guess that’ll do,” I muttered to myself, hoping against hope the key – literally my only means of returning to a clothed state – would still be there upon my return.
A quick survey of the shower area revealed the optimal open showerhead to be on the right wall in the far back corner. This position was obscured from view of the sinks and mirrors, and lay on the “high-ground” of the shower – that is, the drains were on the far side, which meant that no water from another shower would flow into its territory.
The showerhead selection process reminded me of an amusing game I used to play on my old TI-83 calculator in high school, simply entitled “The Urinal Game”. The premise was that the player had just walked into a men’s room and was presented a scenario – an arrangement of used and open urinals. The player then had to choose to use the “correct” urinal, based on the unwritten rules of urinal etiquette. Said rules read something like the following:
- The desirability of a urinal position is directly related to how far it is positioned from the door, sinks, and other higher traffic areas.
- Whenever possible, one open urinal of “buffer” should be maintained between oneself and all others.
When the above rules are followed correctly, one will find every other urinal in a men’s room taken in order of furthest from the door to nearest. Only then will the alternate urinals be taken – again in order of furthest from door to nearest. Though I can’t remember the specifics, I recall the game’s last level was a trick question: the correct answer was actually to choose the door, electing to come back to the restroom at another time.
Confident in my showerhead pragmatism – incidentally, the name of my next album – I set a course for the far back corner, attempting to weave gingerly past my three fellow shower-ers. This proved difficult, though, as two rather large individuals were occupying back-to-back positions in the middle of the room. A third showerer – I’ll call him Lady Macbeth – was poised nearest to my destination, and was vigorously and unrelentingly rubbing his body with soap. Each scrub joggled his loose skin and sent a wave of soapy water cascading loudly onto the tiled floor. I tried desperately to avoid the splash zone.
Finally taking my place in the far corner, I turned the water lever to 12 noon. Nothing happened. In the precise time it took to form doubts that I had picked a defective spigot, the shower sputtered to life, spewing McDonald’s-coffee hot water all over my unprotected nether regions. I yelped and leaped backward. Looking around to my shower companions, I was surprised to note that my brief traumatic episode did nothing to distract them from their lavatorial duties – Lady Macbeth in particular was not deterred from his scrubbing. I briefly felt a very real concern for the treatment of his epidermis, which was quickly followed by a fervid discomfort that I was actually forming an opinion on another man’s shower habits. I returned focus to my own station and cautiously re-adjusted the shower knob, eventually attaining a reasonable temperature. The remainder of my shower unfolded without further incident.
By the time I had finished washing away the sorrows of my squash loss, Lady Macbeth, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern had vacated the premises, and a new batch of showerers looked ready to rotate into position. I quickly returned to my towel. The ragged cotton felt as comforting as a security blanket amidst the tumult of the morning locker room crowd.
Then, very suddenly, my comfort dissolved into panic. My locker key was gone.
In its place sat the hindquarters of an elderly man who appeared to be meditating (or so I hoped, anyway). I froze where I stood, still dripping in my towel, adrift in a rollicking sea of “Oh hey, George!” ‘s and “How ya been, Larry?” ‘s. I suddenly regretted everything that had lead me to this point in my life – waking up this morning… joining the box league… the urinal game… my mind trailed off in the distance.
After a few startled seconds, I regained my composure and commenced a hurried search for the key, seriously hoping it wasn’t sandwiched between the bench and this old man’s glutes.
Then – eureka! I spied a glint of silver under the bench, near the far wall. The key must have fallen through the slats in the bench and been knocked backwards, I surmised. I got down on all fours and, steadying myself with my right hand on the ground, reached my left arm as far under the bench as it could go. This movement attracted the attention of everyone in the immediate vicinity, but I was not to be deterred. Success! I grasped the key and pulled it out from under the bench, brandishing it clearly for all to see, as if I needed to explain why I had randomly assumed the position in a men’s locker room. Frankly, I believe I did.
At last content with the state of my belongings, I hurried upstairs to my locker and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of my waiting clothes. I never wanted more to be in a pair of jeans (and I’ve lived through puberty!). As I dressed myself for the imminent work day and reflected on my first morning at the Harvard Club, many things came to mind. I felt energized by the injection of exercise into my morning routine; optimistic about meeting new friends and connections; resolute in my desire to pick up a new sport. But really and truly most of all – I couldn’t help but think that I needed to find a better way to hold onto my locker key.
• • • • •
The year after I tied that key around my neck turned out to be a tumultuous one. The woman I had loved for five years crushed my heart into pieces. I suffered from lyme disease for a debilitating two months. I took up rock climbing and lost 25 pounds. I traveled to Iceland and braved the ring road 2,000km around the island. A dry cleaner lost all of my shirts. I moved across the country to San Francisco. All stories for another time, though.
After I had moved to San Francisco, I no longer had any use for the locker key, though it remained tied around my neck. The simple shoelace and key sparked a surprising number of inquiries, including more than one “Is that the key to your heart?” from girls who caught it peaking out from under my collar. I would often reply, “Yes, and you’ll never guess the location of its keyhole.” An admittedly ill-conceived attempt at intrigue, and in retrospect, I hope they didn’t think I was talking about my butt. Incidentally, if you are one of those girls and are reading this right now, I wasn’t talking about my butt. (Never too late to set the record straight, I always say.)
Over time, I found the weight of the key around my neck less and less charming. As my experiences in Boston receded into the distance, the key began to represent a difficult past I sometimes wished to leave behind. Then, one morning, as I was in the bathroom preparing for my day, the key fell loose from its knot. The metal collided with the floor with a startling clang. I knelt down to pick it up and for the first time in over a year inspected it closely. It was rusted, and after a moment spent contemplating the things we had experienced together, I concluded that it had earned its patina. I stood up, walked to my room, and placed the key in an old, black shoebox I keep in my closet, which contains all the things that have meant something worthwhile in my life.
Now, all that remains about my neck is the simple shoelace – a cord, bleached a lighter grey by the sun of many days. I’d have to cut it to remove it, and I can’t quite bring myself to do so. I guess I feel there’s a lot of me in it – figuratively and literally. And I like the way it looks.