Devra’s doorway looked the same as it had before Keira’s funeral – shadowy and silent, while a bulb like a floodlight fronted every other house on the block. I almost tripped ascending the porch steps, and I thought perhaps I would fix them for her. It was the most peaceful picture that had entered my head in weeks: sitting outside this house in the afternoon light with a toolbox open on the pebbled path beside me, replacing loose boards and fixing them into place.The trouble with living alone and being handy was that everything in my apartment was working just fine. I felt like it had been months, maybe years, since I had done anything with my hands.
One day when I was thirteen, Martin’s bedroom door fell off. After my cousin Claudine had moved with her husband to the naval base in Pensacola, Florida, Manman had decided I was old enough to be responsible for Martin after school by myself. Most of the time I slipped easily back into the role I had played at the age of six – making dinner, setting a rigid homework schedule that I enforced even when Keira or my other friends came over – but from time to time Martin and I would arrive at the apartment in a shared silly mood and spend several hours playing Martin’s version of hide-and-go-seek, inventing new rules as we went along. On one such afternoon Martin had hidden himself behind his open bedroom door, and I pulled at the knob forcefully to reach him. Giggling, he yanked it back, and I pulled again, but the tug-of-war proved too much for the worn hinges, and the door fell from our grips, towards Martin. He yelped and ducked out of the way, and it crashed down onto his bed frame, a flare of gray dust flying off the top.
“Are you all right?”
Martin crawled under the door and towards me, his eyes wide. “Yeah,” he said, “but Manman’s gonna kill us.”
“Shut up,” I said. “I have to think.”
In spite of Manman’s usual tightwad ways – we were not rich, she reminded me fiercely when I asked for my own phone line, a stereo system like the one in Allison’s bedroom, a raise in my allowance – she had recently given in and purchased America Online for our computer at the suggestion of her co-worker. We had one family screen name, MarLoVV; Manman also had a private one, Viverlaine, the function of which she refused to discuss with us.
aol fascinated me: there were message boards for everything. The sex ones didn’t interest me much – once, when Manman and Martin weren’t home, I’d “had cybersex,” but it wasn’t really that different from normal iming – but I loved to read boards about cars even though I had never driven one, about pets even though I didn’t have one, about Catholic teenagers even though I wasn’t Catholic. There was even a message board for Haitian teenagers, which I liked to read even though I felt too shy to post on it yet. aol had all the information in the world.
So it was to aol I went, Martin still whimpering by the fallen door, to find a message board about home repair. It was in the section for grown-ups, not teenagers, and it sounded like most of the people writing were grown-up men. I composed a post, not feeling as shy as I did on the Haitian kids’ message board – maybe because it was an emergency.
I broke my bedroom door and don’t know how to fix it. Need help? P.S.13/f.
The first two responses were a little bit gross – one said “just leave that door open, baby girl, and I’ll come right in.” (I thought maybe I shouldn’t have said I was thirteen.) But the next few were questions that sounded important. “Did the doorway crack?” “Do you have a drill and a screwdriver?” “Does your father have some wood glue?”
I ran back down the hall to check, then returned to the computer to answer, ignoring the part about my dad. Then somebody named carpenter3 sent me an IM. “I can talk you through it,” he said.
MarLoVV: ok thank you
MarLoVV: I don’t know what stuff I need
carpenter3: is there a hardware store near your house?
carpenter3: we can make a list
Leaving Martin in the house (to his annoyance and against Manman’s standing orders), I ran to the hardware store three blocks away. (I had joined the middle school girls’ softball team last spring, and I was getting very good at running.) I gathered wood filler, a putty knife, screws that were three-eighths of an inch longer than the old ones, and a piece of sandpaper. Even that was going to cost all the allowance I had saved, and I was relieved that Martin had found a drill and a screwdriver in the bathroom closet.
“Are you gonna build a house?” the store clerk asked, grinning like it was funny.
“No,” I said. “Fix a door.” I felt weirdly proud of it and hurried home so that Martin and I could follow carpenter3’s instructions.
Devra opened the door before I even rang the bell and remained silhouetted there for a second, her edges illuminated and the house glaring behind her, before my eyes adjusted. She wasn’t wearing any makeup at all this time: her cheeks were washed out and sagging, and little bruised humps of flesh trembled beneath her eyes. She looked like what she was, a woman in her fifties getting lost. Her hair was pulled into a raucous knot at the nape of her neck, strands flying out like an electric field to frame her face, and at least an inch of gray roots gleamed at the top of her head.
She cupped my cheeks with her hands and looked imploringly over my face. I struggled to keep my expression neutral. Then she pushed the door wide open, inviting me inside. I had planned to go up to the room where I’d stayed during the funeral, but she picked up my suitcase before I could and set it just inside the door.
“Did you eat?”
“Would you like some tea? Or some wine?”
“Tea sounds great, thank you,” I said, even though it was much warmer than it had been even a few weeks ago. Devra filled an electric teakettle at the sink and swung an arm towards the couch.
“Do you remember that?” she asked when I looked down at an open photo album.
I did. In sixth grade, Keira, Allison, Alice, and I had dressed for Halloween as the mascots for different holidays. Allison was Santa Claus, which was ironic, Keira said, because she was Jewish; my leprechaun costume was ironic because – she said, carefully overlooking the racial implications of a Haitian girl representing an Irish mascot – I was so tall. (Keira really did use the word “ironic” with impunity at the age of eleven. Even Martin couldn’t really manage that.) Alice was the Easter Bunny (this choice might have been a comment on her overbite, but none of us would admit it), and Keira was Cupid, a bow and a quiver of arrows slung over one bare shoulder, the other sheathed by a toga. Allison had a long fake beard, and we painted Alice’s nose black and drew whiskers on her cheeks with Devra’s eyeliner pencil. I wore green eye shadow and green lipstick that Keira also smudged on my ears and cheeks; we had even tried to spray a few green streaks into my hair, but they didn’t really show up. Old trick-or-treaters, we paraded down Commonwealth Avenue with our arms linked. Keira’s father, Frank, followed from a safe distance for a while, then retreated to give us an hour on our own.
I flipped through the album as my tea steeped, acutely aware of Devra’s tired, searching eyes on me from the armchair. She settled on the other side of the pile of albums and examined the pictures over my shoulder. Turning a page, I found one of my senior-year portraits set on a page opposite Keira’s.
For most of my life, when I have looked at photographs of myself, I have believed with ease that she is still who I am, that anyone looking at my face now would recognize the toddler with donuts of fat on her arms, the gawky, bony adolescent, without the slightest hesitation. Now, suddenly, I saw that I was looking at a picture of a child, and that Keira, too, was terrifyingly young and already more than halfway through her life.
Although I followed Henry’s instructions (that was what carpenter3 told me to call him about halfway through the conversation) to the letter, using the putty knife to smooth wood filler into the damaged part of the doorframe and measuring carefully to drill new holes for the screws two inches below where they had been, Martin and I were unable to lift the door on our own. I called Tant Yolande’s and reached, to my relief, my seventeen-year-old cousin Edner, who had been kicked out of his basketball league for smoking pot and therefore spent many more afternoons at home than he used to. He tried to take over the entire operation when he arrived, but I said in a self-important voice, “All you have to do is hold the door up.”
Martin cheered when we could open and shut it smoothly. Edner looked sour – like Tant Yolande, he hated it when Martin and I did anything right. “If you tell your parents or Manman or Granmè about this,” I said smoothly, “I will tell them that you smoked pot in the house while you were helping.” Martin laughed and Edner stormed out, not saying another word. After opening and closing the bedroom door twice more in satisfaction, I skipped back to the computer, knowing that Manman would find me online, as I often was, when she got home.
MarLoVV: it all worked!!
MarLoVV: thank you so much
carpenter3: you’re welcome
MarLoVV: that was fun
carpenter3: really? you think it’s fun?
Henry, who said he lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his wife Mary Rose and one-year-old son Kenneth, became my home repair instructor. He was forty-two years old, he said, and being a carpenter was actually his job, and he fixed everything around his house himself. Henry taught me how to tighten the washers in the kitchen and bathroom sinks so the faucets stopped dripping, how to put a shelf up in the front hall closet for our hats and gloves, how to fix the garbage disposal when it jammed, how to keep the dryer in the basement from overheating. At first we conducted these exchanges only on IM, and only when I wrote to him first, but Manman let me have my own screen name when I turned fourteen, and after school I often rushed to the computer, eager to describe my latest home repair success to Henry, so I could see his response: “Smart girl.”
Because my best friend was Keira Madigan – Keira who had read every book by George Orwell and two by Dostoyevsky, who got straight As even though she never did her geometry homework except during English class – there weren’t a lot of people who said that to me.
“What are you doing online?” Manman asked me.
“Just talking to people.”
“Like Keira and Allison and Denise and, like, Dan. People.”
“Dan is a boy?”
“He has a girlfriend.” I rolled my eyes. “What are you doing online?”
She glared at me. “Just talking to people.”
Still, Manman was excited about my newfound skills, and soon enough Tant Josie, Tant Yolande and Tonton Marcel, and Granmè were all calling me up to fix things at their houses, too. Tant Josie sometimes said under her breath, “A girl should not do such things,” and Edner always glared at me when I came over as if I had taken something from him, but I ignored them and fixed Tant Josie’s silverware drawer, the blocked drain in Tant Yolande’s kitchen sink, just as they had asked me, remembering the instructions or tips that Henry had sent me in his most recent email. For Christmas, my family members pooled their money to buy me a fully stocked toolbox of my own.
“You shouldn’t talk to that man,” Martin said. I jumped; I hadn’t even noticed him looking over my shoulder at the screen.
“Shut up,” I said.
“We’re not supposed to talk to people online. Not grown-ups.”
I sighed and typed “brb” to Henry. (I always had to teach him what things like that meant.)
“Martin, it’s okay,” I said. It was kind of cute when he was protective, but kind of really annoying. “We just talk about how to fix things. Nothing, like … it’s not a big deal.”
Without asking me, Martin grabbed the mouse and scrolled back through the text of my IM. “That’s private!” I snapped, but Henry and I had, in fact, been discussing how he had recently fixed a wobbly kitchen table, which I was going to do for Margaret the next day. After reading for a minute or two, Martin nodded reluctantly.
“But don’t tell Manman,” I said.
I was older than the girl in the picture now. I was a woman who could feel the outline of my ribs beneath Devra’s hands, feel Devra’s lips wet and sloppy against my cheeks and chin. I was a woman who could feel myself tumbling, tumbling as she pressed against me urgently, whose hands and arms now had the confidence to hold Devra myself, to notice and ignore how fragile her body seemed now. (Although really, both of us were shaking a little.) I followed Devra up the stairs once again, my hand rubbing against her hip; once, then twice, she turned around to kiss me. I responded with an assertiveness that felt new, untapped, and its current guided us to the bedroom once more, as if we had never left it.
“Has he ever come on to you?” Keira asked, exhaling a cloud. Devra had gone to the grocery store, and Keira and I were smoking a joint in Keira’s bathroom.
“No. Not at all. Not ever.” I took a hit, still struggling with the scratchy feeling in my throat. It was only the third time I had ever smoked pot.
“Did you tell him how old you were?”
“Have you seen a picture of him?”
“What do you mean? What else would it be?”
“Ew! Keira! Gross!”
“People do that,” she said, stubbing out the smoldering roach on the plate of cookies between us.
“Not Henry. I think I’m more like his daughter than anything else.” Keira raised her eyebrows suggestively.
“Gross!” I screamed.
I started wondering, though. Whenever I got an email from Henry, I imagined that it would contain a picture of his penis, long and pink and erect and shiny. I thought about him sending me a plane ticket to Tulsa, Oklahoma. I wondered idly if Kenneth and Mary Rose were real people, or if Mary Rose was, in fact, a fifteen-year-old girl who had been trapped for two years in Henry’s basement. Maybe that’s who Kenneth was, too. People did that.
I tried to plan what I would do. How could I explain to Manman why I needed to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma? Maybe I could say I was going on vacation with Keira’s family, some weekend when Keira and Devra and Frank were leaving town. But what if Henry did try to trap me in his basement? Maybe I should start by having cybersex; I thought it might be different if I actually touched myself. But it was hard to imagine even a picture of Henry’s penis in much detail (except for Martin’s when he was a baby, I had never seen a real penis at all), hard to think of Henry even saying anything unrelated to wood and screws and closet doors and the wheels of a TV stand.
And it never happened. Henry’s emails never got suggestive, not even a little bit. When I decided to build Martin a bookcase for his tenth birthday, the summer after I was in eighth grade, Henry sent an email saying he would happily guide me through every step. “MR and I are taking Kenneth for tests today,” he added. I bought wood with the money that I had saved up from the household repairs that Margaret and Robert, Graham and Carolyn, Devra, and even a couple of my neighbors were now paying me for. (When I pointed out to Manman that she was saving money on handymen and plumbers and should be paying me too, she rolled her eyes. “Bébé, I pay your rent.”)
I worked on the bookcase in the den at Keira’s house, so I could keep it a surprise. Keira’s family had not one, but three computers, and one was in the den, so every now and then I could even stop to go online and update Henry on my progress. “Good girl,” his most recent email had said.
“What are you doing?” Devra asked.
I hadn’t heard her come in. Usually Keira sat and talked to me while I worked, or just did her homework, and Devra mostly stayed in her own study and Frank in his. But Keira was at a movie with Katie and Kayla and Danica today – she had said it was okay if I came over anyway – and now Devra stood watching me in the doorway.
“Just checking something online. I’m sorry. Is that okay?” Keira’s family had three phone lines, so I thought it probably wasn’t a big deal, but it was weird without Keira to explain things for me.
“Yes, of course, honey.” Devra hesitated, as if deciding whether to enter the room. She was wearing a red cotton t-shirt with a scoop neck and her black hair was gathered in a messy knot. She looked very young. “Is that where you’ve been learning to do all this? Online?”
“Will wonders never cease.” She smiled at me, then shifted her gaze to the bookcase itself, which was three-quarters done. “It looks beautiful, sweetheart. Martin’s going to be thrilled.”
Martin was indeed thrilled when I gave it to him. We carried it into his bedroom and the first book he placed on it was Ender’s Game, his favorite of the moment. “No one else’s sister can do that,” he said proudly. Manman rubbed my back, and even Granmè looked pleased and said softly to Manman, “Smart, and good, like Antoine.” Antoine was Manman’s big brother, who was killed by the Tonton Macoute when Manman was five, before Manman and Granmè left Haiti. Granmè almost never talked about him.
The next week, after I got my film developed, I went back to Keira’s house and used Frank’s scanner so I could send a picture of the bookcase to Henry. His response came three days later. “Smart girl, good job. Kenneth’s tests are bad news. MR and I have to focus.” I sent him a few IMs over the next couple of weeks, trying to plan my next ambitious project, but that was the last I ever heard from him.
A wounded scream shook me from my sleep. My eyes dashed around the room, hulking shadows of furniture unfamiliar in the darkness. “Devra,” I said, rolling over to face her.
Her eyes as they flew open were glassy, reflecting fragments of the porchlight below the bedroom window. “Who?” she said softly.
“It’s me,” I said. “It’s Lauren.”
“Lauren … Lauren,” she said, and her voice was no better than her scream. The fingers of her left hand danced over my face as if trying to distinguish the features, and I was glad I couldn’t get a clear view of her expression in the dark.
I put my hand on her wrist, feeling the worn skin below her palm. “Lauren.” She stared beyond me for a moment and then her muscles slackened and she fell back against the pillow once more. I lay facing her and pulled her hand against my chest.
“Yeah, I’m here,” I said.
I heard the throaty choking noises before I could distinguish the tears streaming from her eyes. I hadn’t heard her cry like this since the memorial service, and the noise shredded through the darkness like claws. “Lauren,” she gasped. “Baby.”
I pulled her to me, tucking her head between my chin and my breasts and wrapping my arms around her heaving shoulders, closing my eyes until her shoulders stilled and her breathing evened. The thought that I always tried to banish from my mind flew in again, unbidden: Keira’s mother. She’s Keira’s mother.
Gemma Cooper-Novack is a writer, writing coach, and educator living in Boston. Her work has appeared in Hanging Loose, Aubade, Euphony, the Saint Ann’s Review, Rufous City Review, Blast Furnace Review, and Lyre Lyre and is forthcoming in Amethyst Arsenic and Spry. Her plays have been produced in New York and Chicago, and her article on writing coaching and disability in higher education, co-written with Eileen Berger, appeared in the NASPA Knowledge Communities Publication. Gemma intends to travel to all seven continents before she turns forty. This piece was adapted from the author’s novel-in-progress, Go Home Faster.