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The girl who was saturda.., p.11
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       The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.11

           Heather O'Neill
 

  “And I suppose it’s my fault you didn’t put a condom on your dick.”

  Nicolas picked up an orange and threw it at the window. The glass shattered.

  “Whoa!” Loulou said. “What on earth is happening now?”

  I flung the cooled coffee from my cup at my brother. He grabbed the trash can and dumped it on my head, while I opened up the fridge and started throwing the eggs at him.

  I ran down the hallway, and Nicolas chased me into the living room. He picked up a lamp and started swinging it at me as if it was a sword. I stood up on the couch. I threw a jar filled with pencils at his head. He pulled me off the couch and we were wrestling on the floor, smacking each other on the head.

  Loulou came in with his hands in the air, yelling at us to knock it off. The teachers used to sometimes separate Nicolas and me in class because we would erupt into fist fights. We just went crazy on each other, slapping and kicking and pulling each other’s hair. I think it affected the teachers’ sense of propriety to see two children whacking one another brutally and then walking hand in hand two hours later.

  I stood up and ran out of the living room and back into the kitchen. Nicolas came after me and slid across the table to cut me off. He knocked over a vase of flowers and the change dish and grabbed me by both hands and pinned me against the wall.

  “Calm down, Nouschka. Just calm down.”

  When I stopped struggling, he let go. He straightened himself out. He grabbed his jacket and walked out the front door, slamming it without saying a word. I was so frustrated that I sat on the kitchen floor and wept.

  The thing is that Nicolas and I were afraid to be without each other. And whenever you are dependent on someone, then you naturally start to resent them. Everybody is born with an inkling, a desire to be free.

  We had tried all the other crazy, violent things that other people did to end their relationships. We had humiliated and belittled and smacked one another. But nothing ever worked. He was furious with me now. But he would be distracted in fifteen minutes by a pretty girl or a song on a jukebox that he liked and he wasn’t going to be mad anymore. No matter what we said to each other, it didn’t seem to mean a damn thing an hour later. It gave this strange sense of futility to everything that we did. As if each day had just been a dream that we were waking up from and had no consequences.

  I went and sat down next to Loulou to watch television. Loulou was out of breath, as if he’d just run around the block. He always got that way when he was decompressing after one of Nicolas and my fights. I wasn’t mad anymore, just tired too. Sometimes I thought that if I could fall madly in love, well, that would change things.

  CHAPTER 20

  The Best-Looking Criminal in Montréal

  LATER THAT NIGHT, LONG, LONG AFTER THE argument, I was lying on my bed reading Bonheur d’occasion for school. The white cat was lying next to me, dead asleep. He looked like a lumberjack that had taken off all his clothes and was asleep in his long johns. Nicolas started making a fuss in the other room.

  “Oh my God. It’s Raphaël!” Nicolas yelled. “Nouschka, come quick. That asshole from across the street is on the news.”

  I walked into the living room. Nicolas and Loulou were sitting on the couch. When we had brought the couch home, it had had only a couple flowers at the bottom; now it was covered in wild, giant pink roses. Who knew that it would thrive in that spot? They were eating chocolate-covered marshmallows and watching the eleven o’clock news.

  “Why do you always call him an asshole?”

  “Because he’s a snob. Once, I asked him to play soccer baseball with us and he just stared at me and walked the other way. Who does that! I wanted to kill him.”

  “Be quiet. I want to listen.”

  The news cameras were filming outside Raphaël’s house in Sainte-Agathe. They had raided the house earlier that day. He had about 145 dogs in his house. The city health inspectors showed up with trucks from the humane society to take away all his dogs. The cameras showed the inside of the house, which was littered with debris and feces. The furniture was all ripped apart. There were plates of dog food all over the bedroom floor. The news presented it as tragic for the dogs, which of course it was. But it was also a terrible shame that Raphaël had gone to pieces like this.

  They showed all the dogs being taken into trucks. One of the dogs had a tie around his neck instead of a collar, and they all looked on the skinny, mangy side. His dogs looked like they had all the diseases that used to kill humans all the time in the old days. They looked like they had TB and syphilis and cholera. They looked like they had scurvy. They looked like pirates.

  There was a close-up of a dog with droopy ears that made him look like he was wearing an aviator hat. The dog looked like a kid who has been warned not to open his mouth and complain one more time. It broke my heart.

  Then they showed Raphaël being led out of the house into a police car. He was in as bad a condition as the dogs. He was dressed in jeans and socks. He sounded confused when an interviewer held a microphone up to his face for a comment.

  “We’re all equally anticipating the end of a venture we call life on earth. There’s only 412 days left.”

  He was wearing handcuffs. He lifted both hands at once to brush his hair over to the side, I guess so that he would look good on television. His face was tanned except for the pale circles around his eyes, which came from religiously wearing sunglasses.

  “Woo-hoo!” Nicolas yelled. “He’s lost it!”

  “He was always a little oddball, wasn’t he?” Loulou asked.

  “He was quiet,” I said.

  “His mother was really, really pretty before she got so fat,” Loulou added. “I couldn’t keep track of her kids. She named them all after planets. Wasn’t there one named Neptune and one named Jupiter and one named … Pluto maybe?”

  “His brothers’ names are Paul, Samuel and Christophe.”

  “It’s a shame. He wasn’t such a bad-looking kid. And he knew how to skate. Remember all those swirly whirlies he did in the park?”

  “Hey!” said Nicolas. “I knew how to skate too. There’s a limit though. No man needs to be spinning around in a twinkly catsuit and touching his toes.”

  “You may have a point,” Loulou said.

  Nicolas and I used to watch him sometimes at the community centre. Raphaël was fourteen then. His hair was short in the back but he had long bangs. I think it was the style with figure skaters to have long bangs like that. Once, the lockers at the rink were closed because of a flood in the boys’ bathroom, and I got to watch Raphaël getting ready on a bench beside the rink. He put gel in his hair and turned the hair dryer on and aimed it at his face until his hair stuck straight back behind him. He never had any expression on his face back then.

  He wore an outfit that was cut down the middle to expose his nipples and his belly button. He had enormous feet and his black skates looked too big for him. I wondered if it held him back, having such huge feet.

  He used to do a move where he spun on one leg while leaning back and hitting his chest with his hands as if he was stabbing himself to death. Then he would spin in a huge miraculous circle, his arms wide, wide open as if he was showing someone just how much he loved them. And sometimes he squatted down with one leg straight out in front of him and spun with his arms straight up in the air as if he was a corkscrew trying to drill himself into the ice.

  I had always been so amazed by Raphaël’s skating. I would stand there, absolutely still, as if I was doing something that required incredible concentration myself, like balancing an egg on a spoon or walking on a tightrope. I felt like my stillness was somehow responsible for whether he landed his jumps. They were so beautiful that I couldn’t bear for him to fall and spoil the effect.

  Nicolas would sit watching me watching Raphaël as if I was completely out of my mind. Nicolas wanted to be my most favourite human being, which of course he was. But Raphaël was just a much better skater. We used to have a consensus abo
ut whom we were friends with. I never got to spend any time with Raphaël, because Nicolas decided he was definitely off limits. We wouldn’t hang out with someone that the other person didn’t like. This prevented us from having any real friends at all while growing up.

  I was glad when the footage of Raphaël was over. Okay, so obviously I liked the guy. But I didn’t like how crazy I felt when I was looking at Raphaël. I didn’t know why people made like it was such a great thing to be wildly attracted to somebody. It felt like being a fish caught on a hook, reeled in whether you liked it or not.

  The newscasters began talking about the chances of there being another referendum.

  “Oh, turn this shit off,” Nicolas said. “It’s so boring and repetitive. Québec will never, ever have the guts to separate.”

  “It might be bad for the economy,” Loulou said.

  “I hate to be the one to tell you this, my darling old man, but we are rock bottom. We can’t get any worse.”

  Nicolas shouting, “Vive le Québec libre!” as a rumple-headed kid had gotten as many Oui votes as anything politicians said. He was still an ardent separatist, even if he had no faith in the government.

  “Look at all those sideburned monkeys from the past,” Nicolas said. “All these heart-attack-prone pseudo-intellectuals without a cause. These ranting syphilis-ridden lunatics, kicked out by their wives and showing up in filthy unlaundered suits to Parliament. If they hold a referendum this time they’d better win.”

  I had been listening to Nicolas’s angry rants for years. Sometimes I thought that he wanted to separate from Canada out of spite and to mess things up. The apartment suddenly became tiny again. For the first time it came upon me: the absolutely natural desire to move out. It was weird to think it. Nicolas and Loulou were both sitting on the couch, totally comfortable in their own skins, having no desire to be anywhere else in the world.

  CHAPTER 21

  Requiem for a Drunk in a Top Hat

  NICOLAS AND I WERE IN THE BACKYARD DRINKING coffee and reading the newspaper on the evening of our twentieth birthday, trying to enjoy the last bit of sunlight. The tiny courtyard didn’t get that much light because other buildings surrounded it. Loulou was always telling us how lucky we were to have a yard. When we were younger we would sit out there on small chairs, drinking Coca-Cola out of teacups. There were empty coffee tins with spindly roses in them. There were jars with bean sprouts.

  There was a pigeon coop out there that Étienne had built when he was a little kid. He had spent all his time as a kid, even in the winter, hanging out with the birds. It was beautiful. It was built out of old window frames. Some of them had glass panes in them. Some of them had wire screens.

  The building was still surrounded by the pigeons and seagulls and sparrows that Étienne had invited. There was something magical about that. They were still looking for Étienne, his dwindling audience.

  Loulou came out wearing a paper crown from a doughnut box. He was sad when we didn’t laugh. He missed having babies in the house.

  “You twos were just so, so damn cute whens yous were little wee things. You looked almost as cute as your father. Now that was a beautiful baby! Lord oh lord! That baby was striking. Bus drivers would stop their buses and come right out on the street to look at him. Women would go insane. I was afraid he’d get stolen in the supermarket by crazy women.”

  “Oh fuck,” said Nicolas. “Could you speak plainly or not at all?”

  Loulou figured that since Étienne had been so successful, there was no way that anyone in our family was going to be successful again for the next hundred years. So there was no point bothering with us or encouraging us to do much.

  We didn’t really get to be the babies. Étienne was the one who was marvelled over. He was the one who threw tantrums and who had erratic behaviour. He was the sensitive one who needed to be complimented all the time. Everything he did was evidence of his genius.

  “Look, old man,” Nicolas said. “Today happens to be my and Nouschka’s twentieth birthday. Which is a monumental occasion. This is not Let’s Get All Fucking Gaga About Étienne Tremblay Day, like every other day. Okay? And that goes for you too, Nouschka.”

  “What did I do?” I asked. “I’m just sitting here.”

  Nicolas watched me as I read the paper. He kept staring at me, not moving an inch. I was acting as if I had no idea whatsoever that Étienne came by on our birthday. We could almost count on our hands the times that Étienne had come by since he had got out of prison. But he never, ever missed our birthdays. Nicolas hated how excited I would get to see him.

  Étienne was as famous for his fall as he was for his songs. There were articles in all the magazines about how Étienne was living in a rooming house on Rue Saint-Dominique and had lunch each day at la Mission in Vieux Montréal. Nobody could believe how broke he was. It was almost miraculous.

  He didn’t even try to hide or blend in. He dyed his hair black in his sink. He continued to dress like he had gone home with the bridesmaid at a wedding and was walking home in the morning in his fancy clothes from the night before. Étienne’s top hat had sailed above everyone else’s head along Boulevard Saint-Laurent for years. It made everyone else seem dowdy and ordinary.

  God knows why I got worked up when Étienne visited. I always anticipated something that never happened. He got drunk and he gave us the crappiest gifts on the planet. When we were twelve, he gave us both a second-hand porcelain doll. The doll’s hair was messy, which had given me the strange impression that it had been sleeping in bed with Étienne.

  When the doorbell rang we all went back inside. I answered it, cool as a cucumber. I opened the door and there he was. My heart skipped a beat. It couldn’t help it! Sometimes Étienne looked magically youthful. He looked eighteen when he was forty. He was wearing a navy blue sweater vest with red diamonds on it, and he was carrying a beige cat that he had brought as a gift for Nicolas and me. The cat looked like a sweater that had dried on a coat hanger and was now stretched beyond all recognition. I don’t know why, but it seemed like he had stolen the cat from someone’s yard.

  “A cat?” Nicolas said. “You brought us a cat?”

  “This is no ordinary cat, my darling children. This was once Cleopatra herself. She demanded to be overly pampered when she was alive, and now as punishment she is forced to spend the rest of her days as a disdained and yet adored creature. Who wouldn’t mind spending their life as a cat? Why, at my age I have a veritable envy of their flexible spine. Never mind the use of books of philosophy, never mind Marcus Aurelius or Kierkegaard. This creature is able to meditate on the wonders of the universe with a simple piece of string.”

  His bearing undermined his verbal pyrotechnics. He seemed incredibly nervous and was acting as if we were going to mistreat him. He shied away from my glances.

  When Étienne sat down at the kitchen table, he didn’t even seem to be able to deal with the chair. It kept tipping over to the side as if it was trying to throw Étienne right off onto the ground. He was holding a glass of water that was trembling like crazy. It was a glass with Tintin on it that we’d got for free at a hamburger joint. I had never known this glass to have any dignity before, but it clearly didn’t want to be held by Étienne. It shivered like a dog that was being taken to the pound.

  Étienne reached into the bag that he was carrying and pulled out a large can of beer. He looked embarrassed that he was doing this. He looked in my eyes sheepishly as he raised it to his lips. The beer changed his entire demeanour immediately. After he downed the beer in a few big swallows, he started getting talkative. He looked around the room.

  He was the only person I ever knew who had a twinkle in his eye. Or at least he acted as if he had a twinkle in his eye. Or at least I imagined that he had a twinkle in his eye. I found it charming, whether it existed or not.

  We were having an early dinner. Loulou had made his special spaghetti sauce. He put a salad bowl with tiny hot dogs in the middle of the table. When we were
younger, Nicolas and I used to leap on those like wild animals, but we were all feeling a tad reserved that evening. During dinner Étienne started reminiscing about our childhood as if he’d always been around.

  “Nico, remember you flashed that girl in Apartment 7 and her mother called the cops on you. Remember how you tried drinking a raw egg because you saw Rocky do it and you threw up on the carpet. You were so bad at spelling. The teacher said that she had never met anyone in her career that was as bad at spelling as you.”

  Nicolas and I looked at each other, insulted. Where did he get these memories? His memory was a shelf in a junk shop with things that should have been thrown out. Like plastic roses or old tins of crackers. We thought we had tossed these memories away, but he had gone through our garbage like a ragpicker in order to find them and here they were again. I wished that Étienne would go back to being vacuous and entertaining.

  When he saw this wasn’t winning us over, Étienne tried to make us feel sorry for him. He paused as he inhaled his cigarette in the way that only a Québécois can inhale a cigarette.

  “I’m beat up. I’m physically and mentally exhausted.” He exhaled loudly for effect. The cigarette smoke hung over his head like the little cloud that hangs over Eeyore. “I just feel like digging my own grave, lying in it, letting it fill up with rainwater and drowning myself. I don’t have any money. When I’m at a bar, people expect me to buy them a drink, but I don’t even have money for that. I like to have my cup of soup at Dunkin’ Donuts and that’s all.”

  I reached over to put my hand on his shoulder to comfort him, but Nicolas interceded and gently pushed my hand away.

  “What the hell are you on about, old man?” Nicolas said. “You want to borrow some money? We’re all fucking broke. The whole city’s broke.”

  “Did you know that I performed in France once? They couldn’t pay me to go back.”

 
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