The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.10Heather O'Neill
“She asked us to go away,” he said. “She asked us not to ruin her life.”
He looked to me for sympathy, but instead I was outraged.
“I can’t even be under the same roof as you tonight. I’m going out.”
“Oh, where are you going? Don’t leave me here all by myself. Come on, Nouschka. Can’t you punish me in some other way? I don’t want to be alone tonight. It’ll drive me crazy. Look, we can have a long, warm tête-à-tête about this whole fucking thing tomorrow.”
I climbed out the window. He reached for my foot, but I was already running off down the street.
Our mother had come and seen the city with its 1001 flavours of everything and had decided to leave us here. I walked through the street. All the neon signs were flirting with me. They said things like PARADISE! THéâTRE éROTIQUE! L’AMOUR! XXX! DANSEUSES NUES!
I went down a tiny alleyway. There were floral curtains on the windows of the cheap hotels, behind which prostitutes were pretending to moan in ecstasy. There were faded murals of old advertisements from the thirties on the walls for detergents and colas that didn’t exist anymore. There were bits of red brick all over the ground because the buildings were falling apart. I stopped and looked at some graffiti on the wall that I had written with a can of spray paint when I was thirteen: NICOLAS AND NOUSCHKA WERE HERE WITH THE RATS AND THE FLOWERS.
I remembered writing that. It was so exciting. Nicolas had showed it to all the other kids in the neighbourhood because he thought it was so great.
I decided to go and see Misha. I hadn’t seen him in months. I hadn’t even called. Because I was young and pretty, he was able to forgive me for so many things, but maybe this time I had pushed my luck.
I just wanted him to tuck me up in his big, fat arms and sing me some sort of idiotic Russian lullaby and chastise me for not eating well. He would yell at me for sleeping around. He was the only person who did. He would unbutton my sweater and then put all the right buttons in their corresponding holes. He once bought a bobby pin with a cloth flower on it and pinned it in my hair. He was the closest thing that I had to a mother and I wanted him to take care of me right then.
I went into the Ukrainian restaurant. Misha often ate there. We’d order plates and plates of food and it would still only come to three dollars. There were photographs of Russian performers on the wall. The women used more hairspray than anyone else in the world. They were covered in sequins, which made them look like glittering skylines at night.
Sure enough, Misha was eating at a table at the back of the restaurant. The top buttons of his shirt were undone, revealing a Star of David around his neck. When he saw me, he wiped his mouth with a handkerchief that was on his lap. I sat down on the chair across from him. He grabbed the leg of my chair and pulled me over to him. He gave me a big kiss on the mouth. I sat on his side of the table with my head on his shoulder.
The waitress came by to refill his cup of coffee. She stood there, giving me a dirty look. She thought that I wasn’t any good. She thought that I was a gold digger, which I was, except I wasn’t there for money. I was there because I knew that Misha had an abundance of love that he had saved up. He had stored it away under his mattress because he’d had no one to spend it on.
She started a conversation with him in Russian out of spite, I guess. I didn’t really care. Then she glared at me and turned and walked away.
“That waitress thinks that I sleep with you for money.”
“I wish that you would let me give you money; it would turn me on. I could pretend that I called an agency and they sent you over.”
“But doesn’t that insult you? Why would she think that? I think you are devastatingly sexy. Do you believe me?”
“I don’t know why on earth you do, but apparently you do.”
I started telling Misha the story about how Nicolas dragged me to meet our mother, and the waitress went up to the wooden sound system that was on a shelf on the wall and turned the music louder. Then she gave me a quick glance backwards as if to say, “Take that. He won’t hear you begging for money.” The stereo was playing a Russian singer. He sounded angry. He sounded as if he was marching up a flight of stairs.
I didn’t mind though. I liked yelling above the music. It meant that there was a point to raising your voice. It was like turning up a burner under a pot on the stove so that all the food could start cooking. My emotions were getting all heated and then turning into something wonderful.
“Do you know that song that my dad sings about my mother, well about Lily Sainte-Marie?” I yelled.
“Well, it’s about a real person. Like I really have a mother. Well Nicolas and I really have a mother.”
“Naturally you had to have come from somewhere.”
“So a couple days ago we went down to see our mother. Nicolas and I borrowed a car and we went down to see our mother. We just showed up out of the blue, outside her door. I didn’t even dress up or anything. I didn’t even know that we were going until we were going—no, actually, I didn’t even know until we were practically already there.”
“And what did she say?”
“And she said that she didn’t want us to mess up her life. She said that she had had to work really hard to get to Montréal. And we were just these spoiled little movie stars. She said that she had moved on and that we should too.”
“She didn’t say it like that, baby.”
“Do you think that Nicolas is the most outrageous person on the planet, or what?”
“It was a good thing, I think. I am always for confrontation even if it destroys our lives for a time. It’s good. You needed to see your real mother. The two of you were rejected and unwanted. Doesn’t that make you feel free? You can accept it and acknowledge it. You are not each other’s mothers. You can stop pretending. You do not have a mother. Your mother doesn’t even want her husband to know about you. But it happens! We get through stuff like this. That is what we are put on earth for.”
“So you don’t think that Nicolas was in the wrong?”
“Nicolas is a young man and he is trying to figure out the world. And young men do stupid things when they are trying to figure out the world. When I look at things that I did when I was a younger man, I’m amazed and stupefied. Truly. You can’t expect anyone to be noble. We are all sneaky. We are all cowards. We are all complete fucking idiots. And by the time we figure things out we are old and fat and our life is behind us, and no one learns from our mistakes.”
I smiled. He always made everything sound like the first few lines from A Tale of Two Cities. He made every situation, no matter how outrageous, seem like a natural part of life.
“Isn’t that a pessimistic philosophy?”
“No, because it means that it’s all right that your parents were disappointing. Because of a terrible mistake you were born, and look at you! Look at you! This whole wonderful universe of things in one skinny girl.”
“I feel like things have been different between Nicolas and me lately. It makes me feel lonely.”
“Loneliness is a wonderful thing. I would never, never have learned to play the French horn if it weren’t for loneliness. I would never have come all the way across the sea if it weren’t for loneliness. I would never have become a semi-successful businessman. You’ve never been lonely in your life. You are retarded where loneliness is concerned. You’ve been ruined by too much love for your brother. You were ruined by love when you were a very, very young girl.”
Who ever heard of having these types of conversations in North America? This was what they were coming up with during the Cold War. They weren’t stockpiling nuclear arms. They were stockpiling these dark and deep secrets.
“You are okay, Nouschka,” Misha said. He leaned over and took my hand in his. “You are doing all right. You are a good little soldier. You are feeling sad now because it is wartime. You are engaged in the greatest battle of them all: the battle to be yourself. It is the ugliest battle. Many of
I loved that. I loved that Misha had once had everything taken away from him and then had gone on and shrugged it all off. He had built something beautiful out of nothing. Adam had everything but he would never have what Misha did. He opened up his fat arms and I sat on his lap. Because that was our ritual. We had a hundred ways to sign our contracts of love.
Irritated by this latest show of affection, the waitress came over with a pile of cookie tins. She stacked them in front of him so that he could choose one to buy. We leaned forward and looked them over. The cover of each tin was fancier than the next.
There was a bear sitting on a train, wearing a jacket and drinking tea from a very fancy teacup. There was a swan with a wicked look on its face, wearing spats over its flippers and a bow tie and a bowler hat. There was a ballerina with her hair up in a bun and the sourest expression I had ever seen. She looked as if she was dating a man for money and he was trying to kiss her cheek.
I pointed to the bear. Misha pulled five dollars from his wallet and handed it to the waitress. He then opened that box. He held the lid above him.
“A magic trick!” he called out.
He was always doing magic tricks. That was one of the truisms about dating older men. They wore cologne, they were always looking for food and they knew magic tricks. I was looking forward to whatever it was he was going to do. All the waitresses gathered around.
He popped a cookie into my mouth and his own and the waitress’s. He held the wrappers delicately in his hands.
His hands were beautiful. Like many fat people who couldn’t be bothered to move or articulate with their bodies, he waved his hands around with an almost painful expressiveness.
He took a lighter out of his pocket and set the wrappers on fire. They floated up and came down from the sky, like paratroopers that had caught on fire. And when the cookie wrappers went up into the air, we were all just like children. The magic trick wasn’t to have the paper float up into the air, it was to make everyone feel innocent. The waitresses forgot about how they despised me for a minute and we all applauded.
I felt happy. Misha could make anyone feel happy. Maybe he was enough for me after all, I thought.
Later that night I sat on the living room floor after having given him a blow job. I was wearing only a pair of black tights with holes in the toes and a black bra with a miniature red bow in the middle. I was sitting next to a lamp whose base was in the shape of a mermaid. She had huge, heavy breasts with gold nipples. Misha was sitting on a wooden chair with roses on the frame, looking at me.
“You’re going to give me a heart attack. Literally. I can’t be having sex with you anymore. Although you do have an adorable ass. But it will kill me. This is the last time I’m going to let you come over here, my darling.”
I didn’t take him seriously for a second. There was no way that Misha could ever resist me.
“Don’t say that,” I pleaded. “We should go on a vacation together. We can go tonight. We can rent a paddleboat and eat sausages. We’ve never been for a drive together. We can go off to sea like the owl and the pussy cat. We will specifically ask for a beautiful pea green boat. We can stay in a quaint hotel where people will never judge us.”
He got up and went to sit on the couch. I got up and followed after him. I put my arms around him and kissed his cheeks.
“We’ll have a little baby. A little Russian baby. He’ll be very good at gymnastics, he’ll wear his hair long over one eye and he’ll wear track suits with gold chains. I would put honey on his pacifier. We’ll name him Igor. It won’t matter if everyone in his class hates him, because then he will come home and I’ll kiss his little tears on his cheeks and heat him up some borscht.”
“I’m not here to rescue you. You have to do all the things that kids your age do. Go to school. Leave home. Stop hanging around so much with your brother.”
I stopped babbling and listened to what he was saying.
“Let me go, Nouschka. It’s better this way. You’re better off with a guy your own age.”
Then I realized that he was serious. He looked pained and miserable to be saying it. I got up and went around the living room gathering up the articles of clothing that I had flung haphazardly around. I got dressed quickly. How strange. Just the day before, I was doing the kicking out. And like Adam, I just wanted to say a few more things before we got to goodbye.
“I have to hand in something for English class tomorrow. Will you write another poem for me before I go?”
“You should write it yourself. You are a born writer.”
“The light from the two-dollar chow mein restaurant is the same colour as the moon,” I said. “And the astronauts have turned into soap bubbles.”
“Lovely, my baby,” he said.
His voice was so full of regret that I almost didn’t go.
La Guerre, Yes Sir!
I KEPT THINKING ABOUT LILY SAINTE-MARIE OVER the next days. It made me sadder and sadder. What had I been doing on stage reciting revolutionary poetry and acting like I was at the top of the world? My mother was alive and well and she had not loved me.
We were at each other’s throats after Adam left. It was just the two of us again. This was suddenly worse to me than having nobody. We started picking on each other over all sorts of tiny, stupid things.
One morning a week later, I glared at Nicolas over the breakfast table. Loulou was standing at the counter, busy mixing up batter for an angel food cake. Everything about Nicolas was bothering me. It seemed as if his hair hadn’t been washed in a week. His stupid nose seemed to be taking up his whole face. I didn’t like the way he smoked. He inhaled half the cigarette and made the filter sopping wet. It was grotesque.
“Stop giving me the stink eye,” Nicolas said. “I’m just trying to eat my toast like a regular guy. Just your average Joe.”
“You changed the settings on the clock radio.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“I have a job and I’m going to school. If you’re going to change the clock radio, then I’m going to be all screwed up.”
“I knew that’s where you were going. I am a man that doesn’t even need time. And you, on the other hand, are very important and are very much in need of the time.”
“I only want to be able to hear the alarm when it goes off.”
He put the cigarette butt out in his egg.
“Why don’t you put your cigarette out in an ashtray like a normal human being?” I asked.
“You’re questioning my humanity now. This is grand. That’s the only reason that you’re going to school, isn’t it? So that you can lord it over me.”
“And another thing: don’t use my toothbrush. I’m going to gag until there’s no gag left in me if I find that you’ve used my toothbrush.”
“I’m going out because you’re driving me up the wall. You’re just looking for things to get irritated at me about.”
And of course he was right. That was exactly what I was doing. But I couldn’t stop.
“Did you take five dollars from my pocket?”
“Certainly I did.”
“You think that my pocket is a bank.”
“Since when did you become a member of the bourgeoisie? When did this house become too small for you? When did you start needing a bedroom with a princess bed? You think you’re too good for me. Well I’m too good for you.”
He slammed his fists down on the table. Then he pointed his finger at me.
“Because just remember that the two of us were in the same stinking womb together. We were rejected by the same mother. You think that if I wasn’t there, she would have said, “Oh look, a sweet little girl.” Oh no, no, no. She put us both out together. She was disgusted with the two of us. Because you were born unwanted just as much as I was.”
Nicolas was trying to put into words
“You’re just looking for someone to look down on. But why don’t you just go look in the mirror? You want to pretend that you’ve done something with your life, although I can’t imagine what on earth that is. Who do you think you are? Sitting there and criticizing me.”
“Just don’t change the settings on the clock radio.”
“The clock radio actually belongs to me. So I can do whatever I like with it.”
“Fine, but don’t touch my shit either.”
“Those striped socks that you have on, they’re mine. I was planning on wearing them today, so I’d prefer if you took them the fuck off.”
I pulled off the socks and tossed them across the table at him. One hit him in the chest and the other one landed in his coffee.
“Ah, disgusting. What’s the matter with you?”
Loulou turned to us, holding up the cake bowl and spoon. He had no idea that we were arguing.
“Who’s going to lick the batter?” he called out.
Loulou didn’t know about us having gone to see Lily. I wondered if he even remembered the Lily Sainte-Marie story. We were much more sensitive to Loulou’s feelings than we were to one another’s. Whatever else, Loulou had woken up every day and made us breakfast whether we wanted it or not. The least that we could do in return was to pretend that all his hard work paid off and that it never crossed our minds to want our mother. We didn’t want to confuse him terribly by having him get to know our personalities.
“You know what Saskia told me once?” Nicolas said, completely ignoring Loulou. “She said that the worst thing about me was you. That I never did anything without checking in first. That you were a control freak. And that it wasn’t very fun having to date the two of us.”
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes