Coffins and Keyholes (Pompeii, Italy)

Keyhole to Eternity – photo provided by author

I was
the girl of the chain letter,
the girl full of talk of coffins and keyholes,
the one of the telephone bills,
the wrinkled photo and the lost connections.

Anne Sexton

When I was in middle school, one of my favorite things to do during breaks and the lunch hour was to walk around and ask people pseudo-psychological test questions. Like, if you could be any animal, what animal would you be, and why? If you were trapped on a desert island, what three objects would you bring, and why? If you could have a superpower, what superpower would you pick … and WHY?!

The lunchtime poll has made a bit of a reappearance here, in my Rashomon series, where I ask former traveling partners a handful of memory and perception questions. Any length, any style of prose, and don’t worry if my version and your version are a bit different. (In fact, the best parts are the differences.)

And almost every single “interview” of this nature has included the question: What were you most surprised to learn about [insert location]? And why?

Why do I keep asking this question, anyway? (She who asks personal questions must also be prepared to answer them, so say we all.)

I actually blame narcissism. Not necessarily in a bad way, but just that tendency to view the world through your own lens. The questions that you’re asking yourself are the questions that you are driven to ask others. (She who asks personal questions also wants to answer them., from time to time – not all the time, but occasionally.)

Whenever I go to a new place, there seem to always be surprises. As much as I try to keep an open mind, and be ready for anything, those assumptions — whether they are from media, history or geography classes, or some deep dark association that you can’t even mentally access anymore — they still rear their ugly head. Almost without fail, I have a sketch in my mind of sorts, a general blueprint, which of course is never exactly what I get. And when those deviations make themselves known, it’s usually in a striking way. Not fireworks and fanfare, but the memory has a way of sticking around, of looming.

Sure, but why?

I suspect it makes such an impression, because the mighty Cognitive Dissonance has expertly wielded its one-thousand-times-folded katana and cut down the delusions of your past self like the naive, inexperienced little scoundrels that they were.

So what does all this have to do with this photo of Pompeii?

Why, what I was surprised by, of course.

Prior to my visit, I expected homages to death. I expected “frozen people”. I expected statues and ruins. I expected artifacts and rubble. But what I did not expect, was an extremely well-preserved bathhouse, with a gigantic keyhole to eternity etched into it.

There are a few spots in this central area of Pompeii that were bizarrely preserved, based on the nature of the flowing lava that covered it. But this one stood out among all of them. It almost seemed misplaced. Like, it didn’t get the memo that it was supposed to fall down and be destroyed.

Look up at the sky, it beckoned the viewer, just as these people of the past must have done. The people you’ve just gawked at down the lane, and taken your brief photographs, and then simply walked on. Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it weird? And isn’t life just a little bit, by which I mean completely, insane?

A big ole gushing thanks to Michael Raven for their recent poetic contemplation about holes, which inspired digging this photo out of my digital shoebox. Another “shot that everyone takes”, but then again, capturing this image is practically an involuntary reaction.

Shot on iPhone 8.

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