It had been a tough year—that winter, I’d lost my father suddenly to a heart attack, and then Grandmamma had passed away two days after that. A few weeks later, as we went through our father’s possessions, my sister casually mentioned that our old babysitter had passed away. I wasn’t even in touch with her, but my response to her death dwarfed the grieving for my more intimate relatives. My sorrow at the loss of a woman who was now a stranger contained the under-expressed sadness of the other two deaths. I wailed for a woman whose last name I didn’t know, wasn’t sure if I ever did. Spent hours on YouTube playing on repeat high-pitched, nasally versions of the French nursery rhymes she used to sing to me, until Allouette soundtracked my dreams.
It was summertime, hotter and muggier, the air yellow and difficult. The garbage strike in the city had added the perfect backdrop—a stench to the discomfort I felt. My employment insurance had run out, and nobody was hiring, a recession. I was overqualified for service jobs and unqualified for temping. I killed time until my inevitable eviction, dodging Matthias, my ESL landlord who was a retired contractor. I hadn’t found a job, and got by on the money I made covering shifts for friends who bartended or waitressed.
I walked home late one night from a shift in Chinatown, and was cutting through Kensington Market when I noticed a figure slumped against the door of a closed store. In the shadows, I wasn’t sure what I saw, my mind registering a human shape with unexpected and frightening proportions. I crossed the street, a small woman out late, alone at night, clutching my cellphone in my pocket. As I passed the figure, I recognized it. During the day, an incongruent mechanical figure sat outside the Persian carpet place, catching the attentions of passersby. The figure’s arm moved in a goodbye motion, and the mask that sat on its face was hideous. I had associated Persian carpets with refined tastes, but the character used to promote the store looked like a deformed twin of the Billy-puppet in Saw, misshapen cheeks and a chin that protruded uncomfortably. It had been painted at one time, but now the thing looked like it was afflicted with the mechanical equivalent of necrosis, whatever was used for hair now a matted nest of foulness.
Curious, I let go of my fear and disgust and went back to look at it. I had never noticed it outside when the shop was closed, but I imagined that had I been the owner of the store, having it stolen would be a relief. Seeing it immobile and half-hidden in the shadows had freaked me out, and something about it was disgusting and sinister. I fantasized that the carpet-seller had once been a magnificent mechanical specimen, one that matched the caliber of the complex hand-woven Persian carpets sold, but years of Canadian winters and recessions had distorted him into something grotesque. Standing there on Baldwin Street, I cried until the sun came up for his sadness and mine, body-shaking sobs interrupted by unwashed hippies who treated me like I was crashing. And I was.
The anguish was unbearable, and I needed somewhere to hold my feelings. Something like that ugly old thing, something cold and metal, robotic and mechanical, an embodied repository for those feelings that kept pushing me under.
“It’s just your first Saturn return, Zola,” explained my friend Sarah, who had an administrative job with summers off at the local school board. I was haunted and broken, but her explanation didn’t provide any reprieve from the heaviness at all.
Sarah had invited me to my local bar, and had brought along Rohan, a painter we had met at a friend’s opening days before. Rohan asked me for my contact information, I agreed to give it to him and then deliberately left the gallery before I did. I knew a set up when I saw one, but I was too desperate to be mad at Sarah. In the bar, I told them both about my plan to build an automaton to hold my feelings, but I hadn’t gotten any further than my desire to do so.
“I’ll help you,” Rohan said. “At the end of the month, I’ll drive you around Parkdale and Queen West and we can see what people have thrown out before moving day.”
Sarah mumbled something into her drink, and I knew that she had passed judgment, but whether on Rohan or my plans, I wasn’t sure. “Pardon?” I asked.
“You shouldn’t humour her,” Sarah pivoted her chair around to face me. “Listen, my therapist is really awesome, I’ll give you her number.”
“Unemployment doesn’t come with benefits, remember?”
“She does sliding scale. Counseling makes way more sense than trying to build a droid.”
“I haven’t made rent in two months. And it’s an automaton. They’re easier to build.”
“Ro, you’re not seriously planning to support her in this, are you now.” A command, no question.
“Well yeah, of course I will,” Rohan reached for my hand underneath the table. I twitched away at the unexpected contact, then reconsidered and felt for his hand. Rohan was a painter who had been described in a local weekly as “an art brat grown up,” a brilliant painter, all deep and high in his work as well as his person. I found an escape in him, some way to move through the depression that didn’t leave me at the change of the season.
Since the night with Sarah at the bar, Rohan and I hadn’t been apart any longer than the amount of time it took to have a shower, do laundry, and hit the liquor store for some more wine. Up all night, we searched online, and drew plans for my automaton. Once, when he left my house to meet his sister for brunch, I gathered all our notes and sketches and put them in a bucket of water.
“Why would you do that?” Rohan asked.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right,” I shrugged.
“What doesn’t feel right?”
“It feels too planned. I need something more spontaneous, more organic.”
“You’re making a robot, not a wildflower garden.”
“Our plans, they’re too complicated. They’re too–” I wasn’t sure how he would react.
“They’re too you.” I couldn’t stop. “They’re too final-year art school project.”
Things weren’t getting easier, hayfever aggravated with cheap red wine. The last day of the month came around and Matthias served me with a 30-day eviction notice.
“I’m sorry, Zola, but you don’t pay your rent. I don’t know what to do for you. Maybe you should call your parents,” Matthias said as he handed me the letter.
Standing at my front door, I burst into tears.
He turned bright red. “I’m very sorry. Pay me what you can. I won’t go to court.”
“Thank you. It’s okay, I expected this.” A part of me did feel guilty for the stress I was putting him through.
It was also the last day of the month. I hadn’t spoken to Rohan in two weeks, but I texted him at midnight.
“Everyone’s throwing everything out. Are we doing this tonight?”
“Zo! I’ll be there in thirty.”
Rohan didn’t show up for almost three hours, even though he only lived in the Junction, a twelve-minute drive away from my house. I lived further east of him, in a featureless pocket of west central Toronto, on a street with an industrial past that had been erased before the developers could capitalize on it.
“Famous writer lived over there, around the corner,” gestured Matthias when he first showed me the apartment on the main floor of a plain house with a pastel green door. He couldn’t remember who the writer was or anything about them. After I moved in, the first time I went to the corner store, the lady who owned it welcomed me to the neighbourhood.
“That was Margaret Atwood’s house over there on Marchmount.”
Ro picked me up in his old Chevy Beauville and we headed to Parkdale. There, thrown out on the street we found almost every item on the IKEA top 20 list. We loaded his van with anything we thought we could use, plus three identical birch Billy bookcases picked up at three different apartment complexes we thought we could sell online. Scavenging for parts was made easier by the ongoing garbage strike.
“I’m glad you reached out,” Ro said when we got back to my place. “I brought wine.” A cheap, Argentinian red. “I’d been thinking about you. I’ve been working on this show, I think you’d find it interesting.”
“Yeah? Well, I guess you can come in.”
Instead, we took everything around to the back deck. I brought out mugs, and poured the wine while he rolled a joint.
“It’s about nostalgia. Did you ever watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch? Well, there’s this one song in it, where Hedwig’s singing about how lovers share the same body and then Zeus or someone got pissed off and separated all the lovers with lightning bolts. And that’s why everyone’s searching for their one true love.”
“Yeah, we talked about this. I showed you that video. It’s called ‘The Origin of Love’.” I was annoyed.
“Well, yeah, anyway. This show tells the story of two lovers who reunite and, inspired by the Hedwig story, decide to surgically attach themselves to each other, except no one will do it for them so instead they build a giant robot body where each one of them controls one half.”
The first night we met, we spent hours online as I showed him video after image of everything I knew about automata and robots. Rohan listened carefully to me, and I was flattered by what I thought was his attentiveness to me. But this taking of the information I gave him was a kind of theft. “Like the mechanical Turk? It’s not really a robot then, more like a fancy suit.”
“It’ll be my first show that isn’t all paintings. Since we’ve been talking, I’ve been building these mechanical sculptures.”
“Cool.” I didn’t really have a response to Rohan, and now he was annoyed.
“I thought you’d be more excited,” he pouted. “It’s right up your alley.”
“That’s great, you can help me better with my automaton now.”
We went through what we had collected, and started building. That night, we put together a humanoid figure. Several of its parts were discernible as Ikea products, trivia of mass production. The head was a slightly rusted stainless steel bucket, Höstö, limbs a hotchpotch of table legs, the torso the brown-black of a Malm panel.
“It matches your skin,” Rohan said.
That night, we named her La Puerta—the door—after the bottle of wine Rohan had brought.
Rohan had to spend the night because he couldn’t drive as stoned as he was. When he went inside the house to pass out, I lit another joint, and started talking to the pile of junk that we had connected with twine, hot glue, and bright pink leopard printed duct tape that I had picked up on a whim from Dollarama. Rohan had rigged together a simple pulley and attached her head to it. As I spoke to La Puerta, I reached around the back and carefully tugged on the twine, made her nod as I spoke.
I told La Puerta her origin story, how I had decided, and then Rohan and I had brought her into the world. I told her about how although it wasn’t where she was right now, she was a total Parkdale baby, all the parts she comprised found in between King and Queen Streets, Dufferin and Jameson. I imagined that she looked weirdly cold, and I left her to get shawls for us. I chose a plain grey one for her, orange for myself. I talked more and more, going back in time to the choice to make her, through my depression, to the death of my father, grandmother, and babysitter. The entire time I spoke, La Puerta nodded, and she didn’t stop nodding because while we were scavenging, we had found a perpetual motion office toy that we had connected to the pulley system that moved her bucket head.
I told La Puerta about my joblessness and eviction, and she kept nodding. I grew angrier, told her about my relationship with Rohan. My tone changed and my language too, from the gentle, soft, almost-cooed phrases I had spoken at her inception, to jagged, blunt harsh words, and her head bobbed to the rhythm of my words. I hadn’t wanted her to be so pathetically acquiescent.
Rohan woke up and saw that I hadn’t come back indoors. He found me sobbing, large silent body shakes, my neck creases wet with tears.
“I don’t want her. All she does is nod.”
“Shhh, you need to go to bed,” he snubbed out the cigarette that I had been holding.
That first night began a week of getting drunk and stoned and speaking to La Puerta on my back deck, hours at the confessional of her junk heap. I disdained her nodding and found release in the sadness that turned into aggravated anger which then loosed itself in undisciplined tears. I felt her become more substantial the more I spoke, the energy of my emotions making her stronger. I’d added a dollar-store masquerade ball mask, a wide-brimmed hat, beaded South African necklace, pleather driving gloves. She was ugly and I could see myself falling in love with her ugliness.
I didn’t go into work that week. My mobile phone had been disconnected because I hadn’t paid my bills since all the deaths happened. When Sarah came to my house and rang the doorbell, I pretended I wasn’t home. I waited for three hours after she left, and then I crossed the street to use the wireless network that belonged to the Davenport Public Library, and sent her a fake-cheery email to let her know that everything was absolutely fine, I was just taking some time to re-align and re-set, I’ll call you when I’m back, love Zola.
I ignored all the texts that downloaded at once from Rohan. I pretended I wasn’t home the first time he stopped by, too, and then actually wasn’t home the second time he stopped by a week after he had helped me build La Puerta because I had gone to get cigarettes and that was when he took her. In her place, Rohan had left a flyer for his show’s opening in three days.
“What the fuck?!” I messaged him from the front steps of the library. I chain-smoked while I waited for him. He didn’t respond and I ran back across the street to get change to use the payphone outside the library, which smelled like no one had cleaned it since cellphones had taken over. I contemplated going back home for some disinfectant, but wanting to get La Puerta back was more urgent, I had told her too much. Rohan answered on the first ring.
“What the fuck?” I repeated.
“You didn’t get back to me. Didn’t you get my messages?” he replied.
“My phone’s been cut off. You don’t get to walk into my house and take my stuff,” I tried not to scream.
“I didn’t walk into your house, I took the robot from the deck.”
“Her name’s La Puerta.”
“Yeah. Uh, look I’m really sorry. Can you come to my show? Please, please come to my show. I told Lisa–Lisa, she’s the curator–about it, and she thought it, sorry La Puerta, would be great as the focal piece. You must come. I’m setting it up at the gallery now. I left you a flyer.” Rohan stumbled over his words.
I forgot that I was on a payphone, and in my attempt to stomp off I was jerked back hard by the receiver’s cord. My head started to hurt, and I wondered if the symptoms of whiplash could manifest instantaneously.
“I don’t know. Listen, just bring her back,” I said. I waited for him to tell me why he couldn’t.
“I can’t do that. It’s … ”
“—She’s the centre of my show. Everything else derives from her. I can’t take her out now. I’ll give it back as soon as it’s done, I promise.” His voice stopped pleading. “It’s just as much mine, you know. I helped you build it, drove you around to get all the stuff.”
I pushed down the phone cradle, disconnecting. I looked at the receiver I held in my hand, wondered why it had to feel so heavy, before I put it back.
I didn’t talk to anyone for the next three days, and when I walked into the Queen West gallery for Rohan’s show, I was overwhelmed by the number of people in there. It was so loud and everyone seemed to be yelling at everyone else to make themselves heard. I felt panicky and nauseated.
“Zo!” Rohan called me from behind.
I turned around, fake-smiled so hard the corners of my eyes hurt. “Congratulations! This is awesome.”
“You think so?”
“Well, I haven’t seen anything yet, but I meant all the people,” I replied, still smiling.
Rohan leant in, pushed himself against me, body too close. I shrunk but he didn’t notice.
“It’s good to see you. I was so worried you wouldn’t come,” he whispered in my ear.
“Can I see La Puerta?” I asked. “I don’t think I can make my way through this crowd.”
“Of course, sure,” Rohan took my hand, pushed people away as he smiled, nodded, promised to talk later but first he had to show someone something.
She was sitting still in the centre of the large room, a low-slung velvet rope keeping the masses from touching her. Seeing La Puerta on display under bright gallery spotlights was discomfiting for me, it wasn’t what I had made her for. I had a strange feeling that La Puerta was enjoying herself and I resented her, and then I chided myself for thinking that a collection of objects would feel anything, let alone something as complex and human as vanity. I moved around to face her and she nodded. I flinched, La Puerta’s head had been holding still. There was no breeze, no contact, nothing that could have started her movement. La Puerta kept nodding.
I looked away, and noticed the object label, which read “The Portal/Gateway to a Better Person.” I saw a red dot on the lower-right corner.
I tensed up and my voice went low, lower.
“I didn’t hear you, what did you say?”
“She’s sold. You can’t do that, no one can have her,” I started to cry.
Rohan inhaled deeply. “No way! I had Lisa price it really high so that no one would buy it. It’s listed for thirty-six thousand. There’s no way anyone would pay that much for it, that’s crazy!”
“No,” I said. “She is absolutely not for sale.”
“Let me talk to Lisa. The gallery takes half, which means that I would get eighteen thousand for her, and half of that is yours! Nine thousand dollars! Not bad for some Parkdale garbage!” Rohan’s started jumping up and down in excitement.
I had nineteen days left on my eviction notice. Less than three weeks to pay Matthias in full or become homeless. Nine thousand dollars would fix that.
“Okay, I’ll wait here.”
Rohan moved into the crowd of people. I stared at La Puerta, who had stopped nodding. I felt her disappointment. I lowered my eyes, fixed them on a pair of worn red heels positioned as her feet.
Rohan came back, noticeably deflated.
“Oh, Lisa put the sticker there because I had told her that the piece wasn’t for sale. We were going to list it for a ridiculously high price so that no one would buy it, but she thought it made more sense to just say that it was sold,” Rohan said.
La Puerta started nodding. I shivered as I looked at her, and her nodding felt slower more sinister. Just you wait, she seemed to say. I turned to Rohan.
“When will you bring her home?”
“I promise, as soon as we tear down the show. It’s running for one week, and there’s another one right after it, so you can have her back by then.”
I didn’t respond to him, just turned and walked away.
The next day, I called my mother and asked to borrow three thousand dollars to pay my rent. I took thirty one-hundred dollar bills, and three buses to Matthias’ house in Woodbridge. When I got there, he invited me in and told me things he had never told me before about his deceased wife and estranged daughter. Matthias told me he understood my pain and wanted to help me, and I understood that he was seeking atonement for his broken relationship with his daughter.
I picked up any cash-in-hand shifts that I could while I applied for social assistance. With my mobile phone still disconnected, sitting on the Davenport library steps was a late-night ritual where I downloaded emails and messages, which became fewer and fewer until there were only two or three at a time. Rohan had messaged or emailed every day, asking if he could come over, asking if I would call him, inviting me out for drinks. I deleted each message after I read it, I only wanted La Puerta from him.
On the last night of Rohan’s show, I sent him a message, letting him know that I wouldn’t be at home the next day and if he could please just leave La Puerta on the deck where he had found her. When Rohan came in the evening, I had been lying on my bed for hours, careful not to move too much, not wanting him to know that I was home. I heard Rohan’s voice and another man’s voice that I didn’t recognise. I heard Rohan moving parts of her around and I wondered how much disconnecting and reattaching he had needed to make to move her. She had seemed improved, upgraded at his show’s opening. Rohan sat on my front steps for half an hour before I heard him leave. I waited in bed for another hour to make sure that he had gone before I moved again.
I opened the door to the back deck and La Puerta was in the same place he had taken her from, her black-brown torso wrapped in the same grey shawl even if now red shoes were placed underneath her in the same way they had been at the gallery. I picked up the shoes and dropped them in the city-issued curbside bin that was kept beside the deck. Rohan had also left behind a bottle of red wine, the same wine we drank when we made La Puerta, the one that she was named after. I opened the bottle and didn’t bother with a glass.
I started talking to La Puerta, tried to pick up where we left off. I reached behind her head, and plucked at the twine. She nodded once and stopped. Puzzled, I tried it again. Again, La Puerta’s bucket head moved up and down, once. I turned her around, looked at the pulley system, thinking something must have shifted when Rohan took her away. Everything seemed as it was, even when I disconnected the perpetual motion toy and tested it. I reattached it, pulled at the twine. One nod, this time with a firm and definitive stop. La Puerta wasn’t going to nod anymore, not for me.
I finished the bottle of wine and stumbled across the street to the payphone.
Rohan answered immediately. “I’ve been waiting for you to call me.”
“You need to come over now,” I said, holding onto the side of the phonebooth for support. I hung up.
When Rohan arrived, I was unsuccessfully trying to set fire to La Puerta. I was crying but I wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol or the acrid smoke that smouldered into my eyes. Rohan stood away from me, not sure what to say or do. Take me to the lake, I asked without looking at him.
“Sure, if that’s what you want,” he replied.
It took both of us to carry La Puerta to his van. I sat in the back with her, thought about how to make a ritual out of her ending, offer her up to Lake Ontario. That time of night, Sunnyside Beach was empty and we carried La Puerta up to the water’s edge. I stood there silently, tried to figure out where the horizon was. I wanted Rohan to leave us, but his presence felt necessary. Together, we dismantled La Puerta, Rohan handing me each piece as I threw it into the water and then watched it wash up on the shore a few feet away. All that was left of La Puerta was the large board that had been her base.
“Can I keep this part?” Rohan asked.
“All of her has to go in, it’s part of the ceremony, but you can pick it up when it washes back,” I was making it all up as I was going along, but death has rites and they must be observed. It took both of us together to swing the board out far enough. When it washed back on shore, Rohan decided that he didn’t want it anymore because it was covered in something slimy.
“I wonder if they’ll get us for littering?” Rohan asked.
We moved further back and sat on a bench, waiting until the sky started to warm up in pre-dawn. We could see the parts of La Puerta moving back and forth with the waves. I asked Rohan to drop me off and the sun rose as we drove north. In front of my house, he asked if he should park.
“No,” but I wanted him to.
Nehal El-Hadi is a journalist, writer, and researcher living in Toronto.