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Daydreams of angels, p.14
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.14

           Heather O'Neill
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  And suddenly, watching her go, Forester was filled with a terrible longing for her. She was the great love of his life, and it had been an unrequited one.

  * * *

  Violet took the trolley to the east end. She had hardly ever gone down to this part of town since she and her mother had left it. There was no reason to. You didn’t come to this neighbourhood unless you lived here. Forester hated this part of town and could never forgive Violet’s mother for being from the east end.

  The streets were narrow and were still cobbled. The buildings were tall and had black soot stains on them. A woman who looked impossibly tired passed Violet. Her mushroom hat was down over her eyes and her coat was old. Her four children followed after her, holding one another’s hands. They all had short, stringy blond hair like milkweed pods that had just split open. The whole family looked messy and malnourished.

  Violet was shocked at how squalid it all was. For a minute she saw it through Forester’s eyes. But this quickly went away.

  She went to stay at the Eiffel Tower Hotel. It was a skinny grey stone building with stone roses framing the big wooden door. The carpet running up the stairs had red and yellow flowers on it. The concierge seemed a little surprised to see such a refined-looking eighteen-year-old girl checking into her establishment. She looked Violet up and down. Violet had on a top hat with a blue veil and a pretty white collar around her neck.

  It’s because of my clothes, Violet thought. I am dressed like a very rich woman. Perhaps she thinks that I was kicked out by my lover. Perhaps she thinks that I am the type of girl that entertains men until they tire of me.

  She felt more at home in this hotel room than she had during all the years she had spent at Forester’s house. The hotel seemed so familiar. It was because she somehow knew that she would be spending the rest of her life inside these hotels. She also intuited that more concierges would judge her. She would come to learn that if you ever enter a hotel and find a concierge that does not judge you, then you know that you have died and that you are in God’s Hotel.

  The wallpaper in her room made her sad. But at Forester’s house, the wallpaper had also made her sad.

  * * *

  She got a taste for travelling from reading books. She had no idea how a girl was supposed to go anyplace in this world if she didn’t have a cent to her name. As she walked downtown, she saw the posters that were advertising different acts coming to Montreal from all sorts of foreign places. They travelled all over the world and they had roots nowhere.

  Violet went to see a friend of her stepfather’s named Mr. Bertrand a week later. Bertrand had come over to their house for dinner several times. Each time he hadn’t been able to keep his eyes off her. This was a strange basis for believing that you could go to someone for help, but it was all she had. She went to the office where he worked as a barrister on St. Jacques Street. The secretary supposed that she had to let the girl in.

  Bertrand was surprised to see her.

  “I have been thinking that I might like to go on the stage,” Violet said. “But I need some money for dancing and singing lessons, you see.”

  Bertrand looked her over. She had a brown derby hat with a little rim and a giant brown and purple ribbon tied up in a great bow on the side. Her brown jacket matched it perfectly. She looked like a beautiful lost schoolgirl. Women would probably want to be cruel to her. But why shouldn’t they be? What right did she have to go about acting like it was criminal not to do something for her? What right did she have to sit there asking to be saved? Perhaps she had practised having that woebegone face since she was a child. And now her entire life was going to be shaped by that expression.

  “Can I at least hear you? Will you sing for me?” Bertrand asked.

  Violet sang with a bit of hesitation in her voice—the way that we sound after we have been crying for a spell and are no longer sad, but our body, for some reason, does not want to give up crying yet. He couldn’t even quite make out the words as she sang. She sang as if she was doing something that was completely humiliating. She sang as if she was standing there naked.

  Maybe men in the audience would like that, Bertrand thought. Some of the men definitely would, anyway. They would look at her and they would feel as if they were degrading her. As if they were talking her into doing something that she didn’t want to do.

  He was suddenly afraid that someone would walk in and see him having this girl sing and dance in his office. And what would they think about him offering her advice? They would think that he must frequent nightclubs. They would change their opinion about him and he would never, ever be able to make them change it back.

  He gave her some money to take singing lessons, feeling that he had played a part, although he wasn’t at all sure why he had to play a part at all. He didn’t think she would spend the money on singing lessons. He thought she would just use the money to survive a little longer.

  * * *

  But despite this prediction, Violet did spend the money on singing lessons. She auditioned for an American touring company when it was putting on a show in Montreal a month later. The director didn’t know quite what to think of her either, but he thought she was beautiful enough to take a chance on. He told her to pack her bags and that she could be a member of the chorus line. Getting an opportunity because of her looks gave Violet the feeling that she had begged for it. But what were her options? She put her fancy clothes back into a suitcase. The motley company travelled on a train from one little town to another.

  The girls stood in a row with their identical blue dresses and headbands with silver buttons on them. They tapped their feet and blew kisses at the audience. The sound of the taps hitting the floor sounded like a knife being sharpened.

  They sang a song about being flowers. Or something so stupid that Violet thought it was practically criminal. She wondered if wondering this while she was dancing affected her performance. Women were all made to be idiots one way or another, there was no way around it. In each town, the seats were filled with people who dressed and talked like Forester.

  There was a popular act in which the chorus girls dressed up like sailors. They wore white top hats and bathing suits with small white sequins. Cardboard clouds dropped from the ceiling and a huge fan blew their curls about wildly. There was a big metal drum that someone pounded when they needed thunder. A girl named Rose would roller-skate around the stage with sparklers in her hands, representing lightning. She always had burn marks on her wrists.

  Violet didn’t care what anybody said: nobody sang in the rain. They were each given an umbrella to hold over their heads. What bad luck! she thought. What bad luck!

  A girl named Lily got a starring role. They dressed her up like a peacock, literally. She had all these tall peacock feathers sticking out of her ass and a little tuft of black feathers on her forehead. She sang a number about being vain and about how all the boys were wild about her.

  Lily had only been doing the act for a week and men were crazy about it. Here was a woman who was telling the truth about her sex, they thought. Finally a woman was admitting that she was vain and stupid and mean. Women got what they had coming. They deserved to be beaten if the beef bouillon wasn’t ready when their husband walked through the door.

  Petunia dressed up as a black cat and did a ballet number on pointe shoes. Violet liked her. Petunia always fell asleep as soon as the train started moving. She would fall right to sleep with her head on Violet’s shoulder. And she would wake up with her curls all over the place, looking like she’d come from toppling down a hill. It reminded Violet of her mother.

  Petunia told Violet that she liked to be beaten by a man she was seeing. Everyone else thought that Petunia was so pathetic to stay with such a brute. But Violet didn’t find her so at all. Once when Petunia came back from visiting the man, she took off her clothes so that Violet could look at the red welts all over her body. How extraordinary, Violet thought. To have a beau who was so honest about his hatred of you that he w
ould just go ahead and pound you senseless.

  There was a girl named Iris who liked to sit and complain about everything. She thought that she had the best singing voice in the whole company.

  She said that the director kept her in the chorus because he was terrified of her. Because she would be better equipped to run this company than he was. So he had to keep her down. Iris wore a black velvet jacket and a little black top hat perched at the side of her head. She looked regal, but not in the way that women tended to look noble—all otherworldly and painfully aloof. She was carefree and arrogant and bold—she was noble the way that a man was.

  However, Violet preferred the company of the girls who were as terrified as she was. She and Petunia shared a room together in the hotel. It was a tiny room with blue striped wallpaper and a sad little chair in the corner with roses on it. There was a framed drawing of a nightingale over the washstand.

  The moonlight lit up Petunia’s body. It made her look like she was made out of smoke. They fell asleep with their arms wrapped around each other: the prettiest girls in the world.

  * * *

  Violet was well liked by the other girls. With her big, dark eyes, she would take in every word they said. The girls had been taught that other girls weren’t important and that real life only happened when you were with a man. What was the point of talking to another make-believe person like themselves? But Violet was sad when the girls fell in love. She thought that each of them was in full bloom, and when a man plucked them, they would start their decline.

  There were men in the audience who had come specifically to look for girls. They had wallets that were fat with money. They drove big cars and ordered tremendous meals for themselves. Were you to be chosen by one of these ostentatious fellows, you would have a marvellous life. You would take on their last name. Your new life would begin the moment that they married you. You could forget all about the grungy little childhood that you had come from. That was really the point of all that dancing. When they were up on stage under the spotlight, everyone in the room was able to stare and stare and stare at them.

  The girls, on the other hand, because of the glare from the footlights, were not at all able to see anyone in the audience. Everyone in the audience was a complete mystery. Nonetheless, Violet knew the faces of all the men in the dark. Each one of them was Forester looking at her, wanting to own her.

  There were some other really very pretty girls who didn’t have a whole lot of talent but who had such big smiles and radiated such happiness that their joy in itself was a spectacle. Violet felt so much disdain for the men in the audience that it reflected in her dancing.

  * * *

  Violet liked to read on the train. And she liked to look out the window at all the trees and the strange houses in the middle of nowhere and the animals in the backyards. The cows and horses looked like little toys that she could reach out for, pluck from the earth and stick in her purse. She had signed up for the chorus line in order to be independent. She had a vague notion of what she wanted, which always seemed to be slightly beyond her reach. She spent all her time with her head in the clouds, trying to figure out just what that might be. She felt lazy and restless because there was something that she was meant to be doing that she just wasn’t doing. The piles of books she always had with her sometimes aided in distracting her and holding her attention.

  The other girls taught her to drink gin and that helped too. She thought that she became an alcoholic the very first time she had a drink.

  When she drank, her mood was like a firecracker that lit everything up, and when it passed, she knew that the whole world would seem darker than it was before. She would be utterly miserable when that mood passed. She kissed one of the girls on the lips. She threw her arms up in the air. She could tell that girls fell in love with her as much as men did.

  She ought to have known about drinking, shouldn’t she? She didn’t blame it for her mother’s poor health. She didn’t believe it could kill you. She thought it was only a fairy tale that you could drink yourself to death.

  Violet tried to think of other ways that she could kill herself. A dancer in the company named Daisy told her that chorus girls all thought about killing themselves. She shouldn’t pay any attention to those thoughts when she had them. She shouldn’t go around telling anybody that she was feeling suicidal, because nobody felt sorry for chorus girls. They were pretty—what more could they possibly want?

  But the more she drank, the sloppier she was in the chorus line. Her dance steps were off only by seconds sometimes, but the chorus was so synchronized that any tiny uncoordinated move made the whole production seem shabby. Suddenly, instead of looking like perfect and happy angels, because of Violet’s mistakes they all seemed to be flawed. They seemed mortal. You could see that they had personalities and that they were anxious and desperate and tired.

  The director grabbed Violet by the wrist and pulled her out of the line one day and took her aside. He asked her what on earth was wrong with her smile.

  “Are you deliberately trying to be the saddest chorus girl in the world?” he asked.

  Violet stood there in her see-through minidress and her sequin-covered high-heeled shoes, not knowing what to say. She hated herself for wanting to cry. Sometimes she thought that that was all she was going to amount to: a puddle of tears.

  * * *

  At times there was nothing Violet dreaded so much as the future. Why on earth did she take this job? It was ridiculous. What would she do afterwards, once she retired and her reputation was ruined?

  There were two ways to leave the chorus line. If you had dignity, then you would get engaged to a man. You would give your notice. There would be a little farewell party for you backstage. Each of the girls would give you a flower or some other incredibly cheap, incredibly beautiful parting gift. You would all drink some wine and then you would disappear with all your things stuffed into your cardboard suitcase, like a big shot.

  Or you could leave after being called into the office and told behind a closed door that your time with the company was over. Here is your last cheque. Please don’t sit on the stairs outside the office and weep. Try to control the sort of look that you’re going to have on your face as you leave this place.

  The second was the way that Violet assumed she would leave. She had always had so much pride—but still she sought out humiliation. She would be a chorus girl until they wouldn’t let her be a chorus girl anymore. Until they kicked her out, like Forester had done.

  * * *

  In every city where they played for more than three nights, Violet would fall in love with a different man. She belonged to a certain strange subspecies of man. She was attracted to men who were still children. She liked men who didn’t make a fuss when you didn’t clean up or when you were too drunk to wake up. She admired others who were half-asleep and living in a dream world, just like her.

  There were certain men who lasted longer than others. There was Alexander, a dashing fellow who played the piano and toured with the troupe. She never knew when Alexander was going to show up. That’s what she liked about him. He would climb up the fire escape to her hotel room in New York and knock on the window. He would have to be very quiet because she didn’t want the concierge of the hotel or the director of the company to know that she had a man come spend the night. Although they probably guessed it, she wanted to keep them guessing.

  She was so happy when he would creep in through the window and come into her bed. Their happiness was so rich because they knew it could never last. It had all the same effects on the body as suffering. They lay in bed after making love, completely stunned, as if they had been dealt some terrible, terrible news. Their love was like a death in the family.

  “I like the way you break my heart every night around nine p.m.,” she told Alexander while they were in bed one night. “You are the most dependable man I have ever met.”

  “Violet, you’re too crazy for any man.”

r was looking for a rich woman. He was sick of poverty. He told Violet one day that he had gotten an heiress pregnant and that he was going to marry her. She closed her eyes so that she didn’t have to see him walking out the door.

  Violet’s mother had liked ugly, mean men. There was nothing that she could have done about it either. Life is too short for us to fix our flaws. By the time we realize what fools we have been, we are, unfortunately, already dead.

  But Violet realized that her taste for handsome, feckless men would end up giving her as much trouble as her mother’s tastes had given her. The handsome men she dated were terrifying. They were so light that any wind might blow them away in another direction. They could disappear over a weekend. At least the ugly, mean men Violet’s mother had dated had been able to put a roof over their heads. At least they had been able to take them out to restaurants and buy them enormous pieces of steak and great glasses of wine.

  Maybe it was because of Forester that she was attracted to shiftless men. She blamed Forester for this too: for sticking her with his opposite.

  * * *

  The other chorus girls said that it was a pity she didn’t sing well. It meant that you were expendable, that your position in the line was vulnerable, and that you didn’t have a future. It was 1929, Violet was twenty and she was beginning to feel old.

  Then the troupe was going back up to Montreal. She didn’t like the idea of it because of the possibility of seeing Forester and his friends, but she did long to see home again.

  The winter wind knew that Violet was coming back. The sky was holding its breath, and when it saw Violet step out of the train station, it finally exhaled and beautiful snowflakes began to fall. Children all over the city were noticing the gigantic snowflakes that were stuck on their mittens. They had been specially designed to impress Violet. The winter wanted Violet back.

  She went for a walk in the east end. The gargoyles wanted to crawl right down off the buildings and put their arms around her. She was the only one who had loved them and who had thought they were beautiful. She was the only one who had chosen this neighbourhood over Westmount.

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