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Daydreams of angels, p.11
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.11

           Heather O'Neill
 
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  Here, my brother interjected, agreeing with Grandfather for dumping her.

  “I would’ve done the same!” my brother cried.

  There was a girl who followed him around the schoolyard but was too nervous to say a word. She always wanted to sit next to him quietly, and it drove my brother crazy. Men.

  * * *

  Several weeks after breaking up with the deer-girl, Grandfather attended an island social dance and it was there that he met a half lion named Leona. She was so much more laid back compared to the other girls he had dated. She slept about sixteen hours a day, and when she was awake, her favourite activity was lying out in the sun. Grandfather would read her poems while they lay together on the beach.

  But of course, Grandfather soon began to discover the darker side of dating a lion. Whenever anyone showed any weakness, she said they should be put out of their misery. His friend Paul, who worked in the lab with him, had asthma, and one day when he was using his inhaler, Leona slapped it out of his hand and told him that a man didn’t need training wheels to breathe. At the time, Grandfather had found the remark rather witty; but several days later, when a blister on his heel forced him to walk with a limp, he found her lack of sympathy hurtful.

  “Why don’t you lie down and rest, little baby-man,” she said, licking her back molars, and Grandfather limped off as quickly as he could, her cruel laughter echoing behind him.

  “Love should make you ten feet tall,” he said. “If only in the eyes of the one who loves you.”

  * * *

  Grandfather had really liked the way the lion-girl had stretched out her whole body when she yawned, and she did have a sexy voice that sort of purred when she talked, and so he decided he could get all of that—minus the threat of violence—from someone who was half cat. And so he asked out the little cat-girl he saw drinking a milkshake by herself late one night.

  She was definitely a cutie, but one day, while searching for a cigarette lighter, he discovered that her coat pocket was filled with dead sparrows. Later she even gave him one as a birthday present, a red ribbon tied around its crooked little neck. She handed him the gift with a look on her face that Grandfather found adorable, even though it was revolting.

  Everyone told him not to get mixed up with a nocturnal animal, but he ignored them, and soon he discovered that she could never stay in bed at night, preferring to amble across the way to an island bar called the Sinking Ship, where she would get drunk and make out with the bouncer.

  She eventually told Grandfather that she needed someone who was also nocturnal, and Grandfather acquiesced.

  “I discovered that small cats can be every inch as hurtful as big cats,” he said, “because when your heart is vulnerable with love, even a fly with a mind to can break it.”

  * * *

  After the cat-girl, the deer-girl and the swan-girl, Grandfather was more than ready to give up on dating altogether. But then one day he met the monkey-girl. On the whole, the island’s monkey-people seemed a ridiculous lot. You’d see them at the bar, ranting and raving at one another and then, a minute later, weeping and declaring their undying love. They were so open with all of their feelings that it almost made you embarrassed.

  Still, to their credit, they were more at peace with themselves than the other creatures of the island. They didn’t have an inferiority complex about their animal side like the other creatures. They didn’t seem to want to be human. They didn’t like wearing clean clothes or the idea of having to live in a designated hut—or that when they decided to sleep on the beach, they were told to move along.

  “She just loved me,” Grandfather said. “She didn’t care that my socks had holes in them or that I was broke. She laughed at all my stupid jokes and could never stand seeing me sad. It was really beautiful, something I had never had before.”

  She forgave him for everything. He wrote her a poem filled with spelling mistakes and she didn’t care. He loved how she would look through his hair for nits. He had never imagined how intimate that could feel.

  Grandfather told us that he knew pretty much instantly that she was the girl for him. And he realized that he wanted to go back home and start a real life with her in Montreal. Of course the monkey-girl was up for anything, and so she agreed to go.

  “But … she was, you know, part monkey,” I said.

  “I didn’t care,” Grandfather said. “She was so pure. I think we humans have evolved into a stinking, unhappy, disagreeable mess. If there really was a Garden of Eden, then I think Adam and Eve must have been a couple of innocent monkeys madly in love.”

  When they arrived in Montreal, Grandfather taught the monkey-girl all about human society, even giving her the human name Margaret.

  “Wasn’t that Grandmother’s name?” asked my brother, slightly alarmed.

  “Shush!” yelled Grandfather. “I’m telling a story!”

  Margaret didn’t even have the natural sense of shame that full-fledged humans have about being naked. Once, on the island, she had come over to his house on a bicycle, wearing only a pair of underwear, a sweater and a pair of rubber boots. He had found it charming, but he also knew this wouldn’t do, and so he showed Margaret how to act like a proper lady. He showed her how to cut her hair into a bob and comb it, how to bathe herself and trim her fingernails, how to put on high-heeled shoes and wear a scratchy wool dress-suit that limited the movement of her legs. He taught her how to type, make omelettes and use a vacuum cleaner.

  They had a gay time too, going out to ballrooms and drinking till one in the morning. His mother was a little concerned that Margaret was too much fun, but he knew that she only had eyes for him. Everything made them happy: their little tiny house on Colonial Street, their first rickety car.

  “And God rest your Grandmother’s soul,” he said. “She gave me so many good times, that woman.”

  “Grandmother—our grandmother—was the monkey-girl?” my brother exclaimed.

  “Our grandmother was so not part monkey,” I asserted. “She barely got off the couch. Remember once the remote control fell off the arm of the couch and she just left the television on all night?”

  “Monkeys get old too, you know. And look at the two of you,” Grandfather said. “Obviously part monkey. Do you think it’s normal to tear around the house all day like lunatics? You can’t sit down in class either. I heard it from one of your teachers. Terrible, really.”

  Then my brother started acting like a monkey, jumping from the couch to the chesterfield. And Mother came in and sent us to bed.

  “Oh, leave them alone,” Grandfather told her. “They can’t help it. Throw them some bananas, or let them sleep out in the trees. It’s cruel to keep those little animals inside. Send them back to the wild!” he cried as we climbed into bed and prepared ourselves for the jungles of our dreams.

  THE STORY OF LITTLE O

  (A Portrait of the Marquis de Sade as a Young Girl)

  She had always been little for her age. That’s why her grandfather Joe had started calling her Little O.

  * * *

  Joe would sit in the big armchair and Little O would climb up on top of him. It was the best place in the house to watch television from and they very much liked to share the spot. They sang along to the commercials. She loved when Joe sang while she was on his tummy. His belly would roll around and rumble and it made her feel as though she were on a life raft and the sea was stirring underneath her.

  She liked when he would fill up the measuring cup of warm water and dump it on her head in the bathtub—like he was making a big pot of soup and she was the little dumpling inside of it.

  When she would fall down and scrape her knee, Joe would blow on it. He used to give her a glass of milk anytime that she had a nightmare about there being a serial killer under the bed.

  Joe was proud of her because she was so cute. He would put her in the grocery cart and all the people would stop him to say how beautiful she was. He loved it when people made a fuss over the baby. He wou
ld say she was his daughter. And wasn’t she?

  Sometimes Little O imagined herself growing inside an egg. It must have been a very big egg, like an ostrich egg. And Joe had come along with a little spoon and tapped the egg and she had come out of it.

  * * *

  When she was very little, Little O thought that everybody had a Joe the way that she had a Joe. He would answer all of her important questions. There was this deep dark hole in Joe’s mind where all the answers to every question were. It was like when the shopkeeper goes to get something from the back, you have no idea how big it is. You can only imagine how enormous it must be to have every shoe size in the world back there.

  What does a skeleton eat for dinner, Joe? What does a baby bat do if it is afraid of the dark, Joe? Are there mashed potatoes on the moon, Joe?

  These were all things that Joe knew.

  * * *

  They had a stack of telephone books in the corner of the living room. She used a new one every year to sit on and eat breakfast. Each was filled with pressed flowers that they had picked up in the park that year.

  * * *

  Before long there were ten telephone books in the corner and Little O still lived with Joe in the ugly little apartment on the sixth floor of a building with no elevator. Joe had gotten more and more overweight. It was too hard for him to go up and down the stairs all by himself, so Little O would have to do all the errands.

  She bought him nine child-sized hamburgers on Mondays, when they were forty-nine cents at the corner restaurant. They were each wrapped in silver aluminum paper like tiny gifts. He was always so happy to get those hamburgers that it would make Little O want to cry.

  Little O would sit next to him on her knees on the couch and run the comb across his head. He very much liked the feeling of it across his scalp.

  He knew he had saved her. He had fed her with a tiny spoon, out of tiny jars, even though she wasn’t his. He had changed all of her diapers. And so now she owed him things and had to take care of him forever. He did not have to worry about ever being alone again.

  * * *

  Little O never had any sense of decorum. She brought the garbage down wearing a pair of rubber boots and a really short nightgown. You could see her behind when she bent over. She didn’t care and she didn’t know why she should.

  The mothers in the neighbourhood would have told Joe about how Little O was dressing inappropriately, but they didn’t want to talk to him. He had been gruff and argumentative years ago in the grocery store. They could only imagine how crazy he had gotten after spending a year cooped up in that apartment.

  What else could you expect from a little girl who had been abandoned by her parents and raised by her welfarecase grandfather? they thought. They hoped she would stay away from their sons when she got older.

  * * *

  She brought in Joe’s welfare stub, which he had to sign every week, to the social worker. The social worker asked Little O if she was happy living with her grandfather, if she wouldn’t prefer to live with some other girls her age. The social worker did not say what would happen to Joe, so Little O said that she and Joe were fine. The social worker said that she was sure there was a big apartment in heaven waiting for Little O one day. And that she was such a good girl.

  * * *

  When she was eleven, Little O sat on Etienne Metivier’s couch, wearing a tie that belonged to his father around her neck. It made her feel fancy even though she was wearing a tank top with a number on it and jean shorts. She crossed her legs politely. He went and served her tea from a very elegant cup that his mother kept locked away so that no one except special guests could use it.

  “Do you want to maybe go to the swimming pool later, sir?”

  “That sounds like a good idea, sir.”

  “Very well then, sir.”

  It excited him that they were calling each other sir. He had no idea why. That’s why boys liked Little O. She knew things that they would like before they did.

  * * *

  She went over to Scott LeDuc’s house. He said that he had a whole basket filled with kittens under the kitchen table. She knew that he was watching her pet the kittens. He thought there was something so beautiful about the way she did it. When she whispered words to the kittens, it seemed strangely indecent.

  “That’s a sweet little pussy. That’s just a lovely little glass of milk. Oh look at your little wee blinking, twinkly little eyes. Oh what tiny little raspberries for paws. Oh God loves you so much. Aren’t you the prettiest thing that God ever did invent in his whole life? I want to keep you in my inside coat pocket for days and days and days. Until you are a little old lady cat. And listen to your mews! I am going to take you to have your mews recorded for a symphony orchestra. And we will tour Europe and drink milk out of teacups and take naps together and eat crème brûlée.”

  And then she scrambled out from under the kitchen table, shook hands with him and was on her way. He didn’t even know what hit him. He sat right down on his ass on the kitchen tiles, no longer able to even look at the kittens. It was troubling to feel so much.

  * * *

  Little O noticed that boys noticed her. Although she didn’t know why they did. She didn’t have trouble attracting their attention the way some of the other girls did. When she would sense that a boy had fallen in love with her, there would be a peculiar feeling, a magical sort of lonely feeling. When you realized that someone was in love with you, you got to see yourself from the outside, just for a minute. You could finally have proof that you existed. You could look at yourself as though you were a fabled creature, like a unicorn.

  * * *

  She looked through Patrice’s notebook that was filled with spelling tests. His talent for spelling was legendary in her class. On top of each page was a small star.

  She couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to have that many gold stars. The notebook was such a marvellous little universe of constellations. You couldn’t see the stars in the sky at night in the city. If you wanted to look at some stars, you had to befriend a boy like Patrice.

  * * *

  She let a boy named Jesse hit her hands with a wooden ruler. Then they went into his kitchen. He put ice cubes in a tube sock and then wrapped it around her hands. He kissed her on the cheek and apologized.

  * * *

  What did Little O look like? She was pale and had long, dirty-blond hair. She had big cheeks that made her head look too big for her skinny body. She wasn’t the prettiest girl in the class, but she would grow up to be. Somehow the boys knew this.

  * * *

  When she was eleven and a half, Little O found out about a gang of little boys that called themselves the Black Sparrows. The group was made up of seven skinny boys who all happened to be cousins. After school, they met in an apartment building that was made of orange bricks. She crossed the train tracks to go meet them.

  They all squeezed together on the chesterfield in the living room as Little O sat on a wooden dining room chair, facing them. She said that she would like to join their gang. As an initiation ritual, she said she would have sex with all of them.

  They sat there quietly, not knowing what to say. They were all too embarrassed to say anything. In fact they each secretly wanted to be thinking whatever it was that the others were thinking. It was the sort of thing that they had fantasized about before. But now that it was here before them, it seemed too strange.

  Although they had all always found Little O to be very beautiful, they saw flaws in her appearance. They noticed that one of her stockings had slid down into her shoe and that there were permanent yellow stains in the armpits of her T-shirt. They noticed that she had a pimple on her cheek.

  It turned six o’clock as they were all sitting there. The mother of two of the boys came into the living room and announced that supper was ready. They asked if it would be all right if they invited their little friend to have dinner with them. The mother looked at Little O and naturally she wanted to say no, but she
said, “Fine.”

  Sitting around the kitchen table, the boys were suddenly happy. They had never felt so comfortable with a girl their age before. They felt the way that you feel after you have slept with someone for the first time and here they are in your kitchen the next morning. Here they are suddenly sharing your life. One of the boys had a sudden urge to put his head on her lap and weep.

  When she laughed, she snorted. Now it was as if everything ugly about her was beautiful.

  * * *

  The sky became pink as the sun set, like someone had poured a packet of pink Kool-Aid into a glass of water.

  * * *

  She told the boy that he should go and get her a bottle of beer from his fridge. She said that he should take a deep, deep gulp and then kiss her immediately afterwards.

  She asked him if he would like to watch her cry. He shrugged. She sat there for a while, looking straight ahead. But she could not make herself cry.

  * * *

  She would go to do the laundry late at night when there weren’t any people there. When she opened the bags they always smelled so bad that everyone in the laundromat would turn to look at her. The owner of the laundromat would sometimes give Little O an extra quarter when she was missing enough change for her load. He told her he had never seen such a good kid who did so much for her grandfather. He told her that she was truly wonderful, as spotless as a clean sheet.

  * * *

  Little O was getting married in the alley. There were three brothers who lived on the third floor of the building who kept tossing garbage down on their heads—banana peels and stuff like that. All the kids that were attending the wedding turned their faces up to the heavens and yelled at them to stop ruining their fun.

  The boy was wearing his Sunday clothes. Little O had a paper doily bobby-pinned to her hair and was wearing a long silky nightgown that went to the ground. She was carrying a bunch of bluebells in her hands, which she had plucked from the train tracks.

  Most of the kids were there because they wanted to watch Little O and the boy kiss. Most of the kids were there because they wanted to watch them do something bad. They knew it was bad, but they couldn’t figure out how bad it was.

 
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