The Door Test
Born in France, Cécile Barlier received her master's degree from the Sorbonne University in Paris. For over a decade, she has lived in the United States, raising a family and working as an entrepreneur. In addition to her time in France and the United States, Barlier has traveled extensively and has lived in Mexico, Spain, and England. She has been a regular student at the Writer's Studio in San Francisco for many years. Her work is featured or is forthcoming in the Bacopa Literary Review (first place for fiction, 2012), Cerise Press, New Delta Review, and Knee-Jerk.
Between them is a door. Not too intimidating but still a door. Narrow: about 2¼ by 7 feet in size; all wood—solid red oak, or a good imitation. It is the thickest and strongest door in Lucille's apartment, resistant to warping. If one didn't know better, this could be the entry door, intended to act as a shield from external intrusion, immune to termite attacks—the type made to last for years by an independent artisan in a small workshop in the countryside. Using her imagination and more time to think, Lucille could smell the scent of the wood chips and the artisan sweat as the door was born. But right now Lucille cannot indulge in that sort of reverie, because she's having a conversation with her grandmother. She is sitting on one side of the door (the outside) and Celeste—the grandmother—on the other (the inside). To be clear: the door leads to the bathroom, and there is only one bathroom in Lucille's apartment. Tonight Celeste is locked in that bathroom and she remains invisible, although until now she's done most of the talking.
Lucille can think of very few instances in which people are having conversations across a closed door: a confession to a Catholic priest, a parley in a jail visiting ward, a withdrawal from an old-fashioned bank, a secret family reunion across the former Berlin Wall. In each of the above, there is always a device to break the closure: a grid or lattice, a fully tempered glass, a hole. But in their case, there is no such device—just a simple and honest closed door.
It is six p.m. now, and by that time on most nights, Lucille is setting the dinner table using Celeste's wedding silverware. A few feet away in the living room, Celeste is watching Nexus on Channel 5. Nexus is a TV game where each candidate is teamed with a celebrity. Each contestant tries to make the celebrity find a particular word by providing seven one-word clues within ninety seconds. Every now and then Lucille steps out of the kitchen and stands behind her grandmother's recliner. Enticed by each other's presence, they both shout words as they think of them—usually much faster than the celebrities, who tend to have pea-sized brains. On occasion, Celeste or Lucille throws a projectile at the TV screen in frustration—usually a magazine, sometimes reading glasses. The shouting and throwing is at the heart of their intimacy; it is a shared moment, light and important. Sometimes they disagree over a word, and only one of them is proved right by the commentator. When the screen turns black for the credits, they move to the kitchen, where they have their candlelit dinner. The usual ending to those evenings is a small glass of port or a shot of aged tequila; by then the small pillar candles are burning out. Then Lucille cleans the dishes while Celeste brushes what's left of her teeth and plops her dentures into a glass. When this is done, Lucille walks her grandmother to her bed and tucks her in. After a good eight-hour sleep, they wake up to the next day.
But this is an unusual evening, at least for now. The TV is turned off, and Celeste is locked in the bathroom; it is unclear how long it will take to get her out of there. When she gets out, the story will end. As long as she's caged, the story will move forward. The story will go on until Celeste opens the door, or Lucille breaks down the door.
This blind face-to-face is starting to take its toll on Lucille. Maybe the velvet stool on which she's sitting lacks an armrest. She throws questions like an amateur, with no particular expectation:
"Did you really push down as you were turning the knob? Did you take off your compression stockings? You know you shouldn't, right? Why did you lock the door anyway? Do you realize what time it is? What the hell is the locksmith doing?"
From behind the door, Celeste's voice comes back smoky and resolute, honoring each question in the order it was received: "I pushed and turned. My compression stockings are torn, and you forgot to buy me new ones. I need my privacy just like anyone else. It is 6:45 and the locksmith is probably having dinner. Don't get too excited. Why don't you make yourself a cup of tea?"
Lucille fixes herself a cup of tea, satisfied to carry out a simple manual task. She tends to internalize everything like a Crock-Pot: the sound of water boiling, the smell of jasmine leaves, the cling of a spoon, the silence of sugar crystals. It's a habit of hers; she locks everything in and processes. Perhaps she's a very inert woman who cannot escape her own digestion. Perhaps the speed of light is different in her world, slower, and her time is messed up. She knows not to adjust. She's locked in herself and her grandmother is locked in the bathroom.
Celeste is not really Lucille's grandmother, but it is hard for Lucille not to think of her that way. Celeste is just her grandfather's widow, and Lucille says "grandmother" because "grandma" would sound too familiar. When she first asked Celeste to come and live with her, there was hesitation. Celeste's acceptance came a few days later in the form of a weird declaration to Lucille's parents: "Lucille is an old maid and she's probably sapphic, but she's well educated." The parents didn't contradict and looked down humbly, making them look like jurors during the reading of a sentence. Celeste's coming into their daughter's life was indispensable—like the sunrise. As the years passed, Lucille's barren apartment got filled with polished furniture and sophisticated books. This culminated in Celeste's termination of the lease on her storage unit.
Lucille takes good care of the furniture and artifacts. She displays particular zeal in the dusting of a set of exquisite Russian dolls with round, lunar faces and golden sarafans.
Lucille sneaks back to the bathroom door and tries not to make a sound. She wants to spy on Celeste, although spying is a big word for someone invisible. She tries to catch a sigh, a small move, a knee jerk, drops of urine into the bowl. Celeste is dead silent now. Lucille places her left eye on the keyhole. What she sees is a speck of light. It is bright and borderline abstract. It's annoying, like white abstract painting. Lucille doesn't see shit.
"I don't see shit."
"Well, what did you expect?"
"You scared me."
"You spied on me."
"I'm so tired of this."
Actually, Lucille is lying, because she's not tired at all. She's secretly starting to enjoy this moment and hopes that the locksmith won't show up for a while. Across a closed bathroom door, one can have conversations that would be unnatural in a different setting. Lucille suspects that her grandmother messed with the doorknob deliberately. This may be true. It also may be that Lucille projects her own rumination onto her grandmother. Lucille sits down again, satisfied with the sight of the door. She imagines that separation enhances intimacy and closes her eyes.
With her, it's automatic. She reads a good line and closes her eyes until the words become fossils embedded inside her; she makes love and closes her eyes until the warmth of her partner becomes encrusted inside her. This is Lucille's trick to capture bits of otherness.With her legs stretched out from the stool and her eyes still closed, Lucille starts talking about the project of a trip to Patagonia. It would have to be a cruise, because Celeste is too old to walk. Of course, modern cruises are a bit stupid but they're also casually retro. This one would take a really long time, because Patagonia is not exactly next door. On the deck they would sit on the loungers and watch the glaciers. Polite waiters would serve tea, and musicians would be too shy to approach them. They would have separate, neighboring cabins, and Lucille would knock on the wall to signal curfew or wake-up time. One of the better-looking musicians (probably a violinist) would eventually bring himself to declare his flame to Lucille, and she would have to turn him down. Celeste would take tons of pictures of Lucille, but she wouldn't let herself be in any shot. Lucille would look like Marlene Dietrich, which is another way of saying that she would look like a thinner, younger version of Celeste.
In fact, Lucille is smaller than her grandmother, and obviously much younger. Her body is slender, where Celeste is plump. Lucille's hands are chapped and wide, her feet unattended; Celeste's extremities are impeccable, like good punctuation. Lucille's eyes are violet and wide-open—she tends to get startled easily; her grandmother's eyes are yellow and slanted, like those of a wrinkled snow leopard. Despite those striking differences, and as is customary for people who have long lived under the same roof, Lucille is starting to look like Celeste. The mailman makes passing compliments about the goodness of their genes—of which they have none in common. This is where the story gets confusing, like the visual experience of standing between two mirrors and seeing the infinite reproduction of one's self.
On the wall in the hallway next to Lucille, there's a picture of Celeste in her late thirties. Lucille has stopped talking and opened her eyes again. She's confronted with the picture. Young Celeste stares at her from under a slanted hat; her bun hangs low on her neck like a pomegranate. It is a glamorous picture, a shot that could only have been taken in the mid-1940s. Lucille has seen this picture a million times, yet tonight the picture gets to be disturbing. Perhaps it is disturbing to talk to a glamorous woman locked in a bathroom. Perhaps it is disturbing to associate a glamorous woman to a sandpaper-and-whisky voice that makes the bathroom door vibrate. Perhaps Lucille is jealous and all she wants is to be like Celeste in that one picture. That is what she wants to be, to become, when she's old: a woman once glamorous in a picture.
"Hi. Good evening," Lucille's inner voice says. "I once was glamorous. I was the most glamorous of all."
"You're looking at the picture," Celeste says.
"You like the glamour of it. You'd like to be glamorous."
"What would you like to be?"
"Well, I don't like that question," Lucille retorts. "What if I asked you now?"
"I would like to be on a cruise to Patagonia."
The door has moved again, and Lucille shivers from the cold or motionlessness or from what Celeste just said. She encapsulates them: the door and Celeste behind it, both of them trailing along her fantasies. She pictures the door as a ventricle, collecting Celeste's sounds and expelling them toward her. The door is pumping. That's the door's job.
Lucille looks at her watch and reconsiders a possibility that she has earlier thoroughly repressed: Celeste has not gotten her insulin today, and her condition will worsen if she stays stuck much longer. Right now it is possible that Celeste is committing assisted suicide. Bewildered by this thought, Lucille tries to distract herself by coming up with different scenarios to end the story right:
The locksmith shows up and opens the bathroom door with a hairpin, like a Gentleman Burglar. Celeste gets out and Lucille gets married.
The locksmith shows up and breaks the door down with a single shoulder strike. A mystified Celeste is found standing on the geriatric toilet seat. Lucille and the locksmith burst into fits of loud and coarse laughter.
The locksmith doesn't show up, and Celeste gets bored and gets out. The locksmith comes in after the fact and Lucille gets engaged.
The locksmith doesn't show up, and Lucille pounds the area below the doorknob with a brick. The locksmith doesn't show up, ever.
Perhaps Lucille is exaggerating, as always. Celeste's diabetes is not so severe, and in time she will get out of the bathroom. After all, the worst possible ending would be a long night of muted conversations ending with a climactic silence and Celeste's corpse found in the morning as Lucille finally manages to open the door. In movies, corpses are always found at dawn under a bleak, diagonal light. Luckily, this is not a movie.
The story moves on, if only to comply with the ludicrous mandate: Celeste is locked up. For the time being there are no wide angles, no offstage commentary, no incidental music, only one idea that crawls perniciously in Lucille's brain. The idea is so vivid that Lucille could point on her head to the precise spot where it resides: somewhere behind her right ear. Lucille scratches the spot but the idea only gets bolder—as if some shady surgeon had implanted a magnet in her skull, and all of Lucille's reflections line up with it. The concept, which started wordless, grows into one single short sentence: "I can think with Celeste's head." Lucille repeats it silently, as if under a spell: "Hi, I can think with my grandmother's head."
In Celeste's head, Lucille's gaze runs serenely over the dark blue wallpaper inside the cubicle. On one of the walls, there is a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. This makes the room look higher than it is—more dignified. Celeste's skin on her hands is somewhat green, but Lucille can experience the sharpness of her grandmother's amber-colored eyes. Every once in a while, Celeste blinks, and Lucille sees the outer world getting covered with thick eyelids that have imprinted the memory of light.
In Celeste's head, Lucille moves her feet from toes to heel, so she can vary the point of contact with the tile-covered ground. Celeste is nearly always barefoot, and the skin of her soles is, oddly, very soft. Lucille can now taste the softness from the inside. She can see how it allows Celeste to feel the ground underneath the surface. Thinking that way, Lucille undergoes a lower gravity and a sudden hatred for compression stockings.
Inside Celeste, life's circles are tighter, and the temporary lockup in the bathroom feels like just one more circle. There's no anxiety and no expectation, just a smaller space that can only contain the present and a few memories. Even the memories get kicked out by the present; one can tell, because they're different by the minute. There's only one persistent reality: the reality of Lucille's invasive feelings.
Lucille realizes that her feelings for Celeste are slightly condescending, and it bothers her a lot. She can only pretend they're on equal footing. At times that pretense can be farcical, as when she tried and failed to fit Celeste, in her wheelchair, onto the building's elevator. Celeste never complains, which makes things worse. Right now Celeste has been locked up for four hours and she hasn't protested once.
Lucille doesn't like the silence behind the closed bathroom door, and she worries about the insulin again. She worries and listens: a period of hyped unwellness settles. She can't deny that part of her enjoys the drama, and in that, indeed, she thinks with Celeste's head. It's not cruelty, not even morbid curiosity. It's a kind of exuberance, a spark of vitality poured over her as she sits in waiting and wonders again and again: "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Lucille knows that, sooner or later, Celeste will walk through the door. She imagines herself relieved, then upset, and, in the end, massively peaceful. It's fine: this is how it is. One thinks someone else's thoughts through a closed door in order to get the door open, or ends up dying alone in someone else's head. It is that moment. That awkward moment of impossible tenderness.