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Daydreams of angels, p.13
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.13

           Heather O'Neill
 
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  * * *

  Little O and Joe put on paper crowns at Christmastime. She had a yellow one and he had a purple one. They watched the show about Rudolph. She ate her fruitcake out of a soup bowl with a spoon. It had started snowing outside.

  * * *

  The big red pompom on her knit hat looked like she had an apple balanced up there and she was waiting to be shot by William Tell.

  * * *

  She didn’t know how she felt when a dodge ball hit her hard.

  * * *

  The man in Apartment 6 used to open his door and look every time she passed. It was that kind of building.

  * * *

  He had a calculator on his wristwatch that he was wearing over a tattoo of a tiger that was half scratched off. They were sharing an armrest and his wrist was coming awfully close to hers.

  * * *

  She was reading a paperback book called Calories. It gave you the amount of calories that an apple or a piece of pumpkin pie might have. She was tearing through it as if it was an engaging spy novel.

  * * *

  His mother called him Bird affectionately.

  * * *

  There were naked girls all over the city. They were in bathtubs. They had just been made love to. They were in tiny changing rooms with dresses all over the floor around them, like cherry trees that had dropped their blossoms.

  * * *

  Her smooth white stockings made her look like candy canes whose red stripes had been licked off.

  * * *

  She rode this ten-speed bicycle that was too big for her. Sometimes she fell over when she was trying to get off it. It had belonged to Joe when he was much younger. He said that it was a top-of-the-line bicycle that Olympic cyclists in France used.

  * * *

  She was trying to blow bubbles out of a bubble wand with some dish soap. The bubbles kept popping automatically. She had wanted to bring things of wonder into this world.

  * * *

  When she was thirteen, she put on a pink velvet dress to go to a bar mitzvah. She had a card with a Star of David and fourteen dollars in it.

  There was a long table with little boys in suit jackets eating hot dogs. One boy had a burgundy-and-yellow-striped turtleneck under his band jacket. He had a single mom.

  There were paper napkins with Hebrew letters written on them. There was a band dressed in black tuxedos that glittered. She hoped that they would play “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. That song always made her want to cry, even though she had no idea what it was about.

  * * *

  She sat on the pee-stained couch at the Salvation Army and read Harlequin novels. Sometimes there were horror novels. She would put a bookmark in the book and put it back on the shelf and hope that no one would buy it.

  * * *

  She liked paper dolls when they were in nothing but their underwear. She didn’t know why you were supposed to put those awkward dresses on them.

  * * *

  She said that she wished she could meet a man who was as sexy as Felix the Cat.

  * * *

  She liked when boys wore their grandfathers’ hats. It was as if an old man had wished to be young and got his wish.

  * * *

  The nurse had to show Little O how to help Joe with the oxygen mask. The nurse told Little O that it was a tragedy that she had to live this way. But she didn’t do anything about it.

  Little O stood under the forty-watt bulb in the lobby. The landlord was too cheap to pay for a one-hundred-watt one. It made the lobby look dim and golden. The nurse reflected that the girl looked like an angel in an oil painting that she had seen in a museum. The nurse couldn’t stop herself from kissing Little O on the forehead and said that she was an angel.

  * * *

  When she started Grade Ten, there was a new boy in her class. They made each other laugh in chemistry lab. They liked all of the same television shows. They both thought it might be kind of interesting to be movie stars when they grew up. They both liked crossword puzzles. They agreed to disagree about music.

  She went out with his family to the chicken restaurant. It had a blue neon rooster that blinked on and off in the window. There was wood panelling on the walls and fairy lights along the edges of the ceiling.

  They had paper napkins with red flowers on them. They had alcohol wipes that smelled of lemon for you to clean your hands off with when you were done.

  There was a jukebox, and the mother gave them a quarter to put in it to choose their song. After dinner there was a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in the big glass of Coca-Cola, like it was waiting for the Titanic to hit it.

  Little O didn’t feel as if there was anything wrong with her. She wasn’t tiny. She wasn’t poor. She didn’t live in a dirty apartment with a grandfather who made her sad.

  The boy and his family had mistaken her for a regular girl. And if she could fool these people, then she could fool the entire world. And then it occurred to her that maybe they weren’t mistaken at all. Maybe she just happened to be a very ordinary little girl.

  THE SADDEST CHORUS GIRL IN THE WORLD

  Before Forester came into their lives, it had been just the two of them. Violet and her mother lived in the east end in the comfortable squalor of their apartment. There were mauve flowers on the wallpaper, and the arms of the couch had been destroyed by a cat named Charles. The east end was known as a squalid, poverty-stricken area of town, but Violet adored the place. She found odd things beautiful instead of ugly. On her way home from school every day, she passed a liquor store that had a handsome gargoyle of a curly-haired baby above the door. She was in love with him.

  It was 1922 and Violet’s mother had a job teaching French to some rich English children in Westmount, the very fancy area of town. She was supposed to take the children to the park and point out all sorts of things and tell them what they were in French. This was the lovely idea. But she mostly ran after the children saying, “Non, non, non.”

  Violet’s mother dyed her hair a terrible shade of red. She had a navy blue coat and her shoes were scuffed. The poorer they were, the fatter Violet’s mother became. She would eat a huge piece of cake at the café and then she would feel weak. The doctor told her that she should eat healthier, but she said that really it was her only pleasure.

  Her mother was so soft and fat that you always wanted to lean against her as if she was a pillow. She made everybody in the room lazy and sleepy. That’s what people liked about her. And she laughed at every joke. She would start laughing sometimes and people had no idea that they had said something clever. Her blue eyes sparkled when she smiled widely and her face seemed so beautiful and full of life for a brief moment that you felt it was a shame she had married so poorly.

  Her mother had always drunk a lot. But Violet didn’t mind it. Especially when they had lived alone in the little apartment in the east end. Then her mother would lie on the bed with her eyes closed, saying sweet things under her breath. Her words almost sounded like she was talking in her sleep. She would say half a sentence and then she would only mouth the rest of the words.

  “My darling pretty little cupcake. Little Valentine sweet wee little anemone of the deep blue ocean,” she would say.

  No one could come up with compliments like that. They were the prettiest things about Violet’s childhood. Before Forester she had always slept in the same bed as her mother.

  Violet’s mother would have her come and meet her at work whenever she was in trouble with her boss or when she wanted a raise. She knew that Violet could beg without ever saying a word. She knew that Violet was capable of making people feel ashamed. People were afraid of her big brown eyes. She knew that Violet was her winning lottery ticket. She really was an extraordinary child.

  They rode the trolley all the way down Sherbrooke Street one afternoon to her mother’s work. Violet loved that ride. She stuck her head out the window and she felt so free. That’s what everybody in the world wants, isn’t it? To feel free? That’s wha
t Forester stole from them: their freedom.

  Usually after Violet met her mother’s employer, they would have a healthy bonus in their pockets. They often went to the museum. There was a painting that the mother liked to look at because she swore that it looked exactly like her when she was young. Violet didn’t really believe it. Today, she took her mother’s hand. They went to a pretty café by the museum to drink chocolat chaud to celebrate. Everything in the restaurant was painted gold. Even the chairs, even the tables, even the hanging lights. There was a vase on the table with a white tulip in it. The bulb of the flower looked like a naked girl sitting on a bed with her arms wrapped around her knees.

  Violet was wearing a white shirt with a black tie and a pleated skirt that went down below her knees. While they were seated in the café, Violet took out a book of poetry from her pocket and began to read aloud. Her mother couldn’t listen to a single page without starting to nod off. The milk in her mother’s coffee looked like a swimmer doing a lazy breaststroke.

  That’s how Forester found them. Violet saw him first because her mother was asleep. She thought Forester was ugly from the moment she laid eyes on him. His cheeks sagged so much that they looked like jowls, and they were covered with acne scars. He had black hair that was thinning on top, and he put black powder on his scalp to hide the bald spot. He came right up to their table to talk to her mother and her.

  “Do you find the service slow at this restaurant? I do believe that the waitress takes my order and then goes in the back and writes a chapter of her memoir before returning.”

  The waitress seemed to know Forester well and she hooted at his joke. Violet’s mother, who was wide-awake and flirtatious and happy now, also doubled up at what Forester had said. He was the type of man that could make women laugh. He had a sparkling wit. It made people forget his appearance and get excited anytime he walked into the room.

  He insisted that Violet and her mother order whatever dessert they wanted from the menu. When her mother couldn’t decide which one she wanted, Forester insisted that they order all of them. It was clear that money was no object to him. Violet’s mother half-believed that they were in a dream as she sampled each of the desserts.

  Violet had a chocolate egg covered in pink frosting on a plate in front of her. Forester looked at Violet and the chocolate egg with more desire than she could possibly understand at her age. When Violet bit into the egg, he looked as if he could taste it.

  She blushed when their eyes met. Forester couldn’t stop looking at Violet. Violet knew that it was love at first sight. She knew that it was because of her that Forester married her mother.

  * * *

  Of course Forester had an enormous house. He lived in a three-storey stone fortress in Westmount. It was on the hill, and there was a garden with pink hothouse roses that looked like cancan dancers lifting up the fronts of their skirts. There were birds on the wallpaper in the living room. Violet wished that she could scream at the top of her lungs and startle all the birds so that they would fly away.

  Forester thought Violet was unbearably lovely. He had needed her to belong to him in some way. If it couldn’t be as a lover, because she was only thirteen, then at least she could be his daughter. Once he met her, he could never not have her in his life.

  At first, Forester tried everything to be nice to Violet. He gave her the prettiest room in the house. She left her clothes all over the floor and wouldn’t let the maid in. He hired an artist to paint her portrait, although she refused to smile. He enrolled her in Miss Laymore’s Finishing School for Girls, although she was largely a truant.

  Violet flinched whenever Forester came into a room. She blushed when they made eye contact. He thought that she always looked at him with disgust. He found it insulting. Why couldn’t he simply go to the breakfast table and sit down and spread some jam on a piece of toast without being looked at with utter contempt?

  It was ridiculous because he had climbed so high up in the world that surely he was now above the girl and her mother. They were penniless. He was a wealthy man with many, many friends. In fact, his friends had warned him about getting involved with the pair of them. You cannot help drowning people, he was told, because they will only drag you down with them.

  Violet knew that Forester always thought that they were supposed to thank him for having rescued them. But Violet didn’t feel that they had needed to be rescued.

  When he complained to her mother, the woman would weep and weep and say that she had no power over the girl whatsoever and it wasn’t her fault. One night there was a huge row because her mother asked her if she would put on a little dance number the way she used to in the little apartment in the east end. How stupid her mother was! Of course she wouldn’t dance in front of Forester.

  Forester picked up an armchair and threw it at the wall. Violet just stared at him.

  Violet wasn’t the only subject that Forester and her mother fought about. They were always fighting. He berated her for hours when they returned from going out on the town. He complained that she embarrassed him, that she came across as ignorant, that she told off-colour jokes and that she ate like a pig, that she was too friendly with the waiters and she came across as a slut.

  He said her English was awful. He said that he couldn’t believe that he had ended up with a woman like her. He said that he was certain that all his friends could tell only by looking at her that she had a history. He said that they must be shocked, because surely everyone expected him to end up with a girl from Westmount with a similar background as him. Surely everyone expected him to end up with a girl with class.

  Her mother mostly countered his accusations by sobbing. Every now and then her mother would let out a greater cry. As if this was some sort of defence. As if this was the only way that she knew of fighting back—by being weaker. And begging for pity.

  “I know I’m a cow and a bore, but can’t you please forgive me? Can’t we somehow get along? Please don’t yell at me anymore.”

  Violet was not allowed to come out of her room while they were fighting. Violet sat in her room, listening to his awful insults coming through the wallpaper.

  * * *

  Violet became prettier and prettier. At seventeen she had developed an elegant body. She had lovely new breasts that slung down in her dresses, and her legs were so long that she was always folding them in intricate ways so that people wouldn’t trip on them. One afternoon, Forester walked into the kitchen and found Violet sitting at the table, reading a book. She had on a little squashed black velvet hat with an enormous ostrich feather sticking up from the front of it and a long black coat that went down to her feet. The cat leapt up on the table. Violet put the book down and held up a tiny ribbon and dangled it in front of the kitten’s face, making it dance about. He could not believe that she was more adorable than even a kitten.

  He didn’t know why it bothered him. He didn’t know why he wanted to reach across the table and slap her face. He was more and more outraged with her for reasons that he couldn’t put his finger on. He didn’t even know how far his thoughts about her would go, because he always stopped them. That infuriated him too: worrying about what was in his own head. And then he blamed her for this too. If she had made more of an effort to act like his daughter, then he would have thought about her more naturally as though she were his child and not a beautiful stranger.

  Her mother would beg and beg and beg Forester to give her more money to buy Violet pretty clothes. The mother didn’t insist on any other sort of frivolity and was considerably less expensive than his previous wife had been, so he gave in once in a while. He would give her money that should have been enough for at least three or four dresses, but then they would spend it all on a single pink hat that turned up in the front. Of course it was a splendid hat. He had trouble looking at Violet when she wore that hat.

  All these ridiculously splendid hats that he had paid for. Did she say thank you to him every time she left the house looking so pretty?

>   He knew that all the other girls would probably hate her because of those outfits. What was the matter with her mother? She was unhealthily obsessed with everyone finding her daughter attractive. She didn’t trouble her daughter to learn any other skill. She didn’t suggest she read or go to school or even have any manners or bloody well go and get some exercise.

  It seemed to Forester as if Violet did nothing except daydream. The way that he remembered it, she only seemed to want to go out for walks when it was raining. Quite possibly so that she could catch a cold or some snivels so that she would have an excuse to lie in bed and nap in the middle of the day. She was able to stay in her room for hours and hours at a time because she liked to read. She had little piles of books all over her room. After she read them, she laid each one down as though it were a brick in a wall that she was building.

  * * *

  Forester was screaming at the maid one day for breaking a vase. The young girl sat in a corner of the staircase later, crying. Violet looked at her and thought she and her mother also had a job. He was their boss too. They were expected to earn their keep like the servants. The maids had to scrub the floors, and she had to adore him. Violet had to be sure not to appreciate anything that Forester gave her. As long as she refused to get one shard of pleasure from anything in this world, she didn’t owe him any love.

  After her mother had a heart attack in the bathtub one evening and was buried in a fancy cemetery on the mountain, Forester kicked Violet out. He didn’t want to have anything to do with her. He was glad to have his revenge. He let her take the clothes. He didn’t want to have any reminder of Violet hanging around. Anyway, she would certainly see how far her pretty clothes would take her now. She would probably end up selling them to pay her rent.

  Forester knew that Violet could easily get a rich man to fall in love with her and take care of her. But he also knew that Violet had terrible taste in men. She couldn’t stand him, after all. She would be attracted to her own idiotic kind, back in the east end. What a fool, he thought, someone who wants to move down in the world.

 
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