The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.16Heather O'Neill
We walked out of the apartment together and stood on the sidewalk, just staring at each other. For a moment it felt as if we were waiting for one another to call each other’s bluff. We didn’t say anything. As soon as we went in different directions, it would be the end. We just turned and walked off like duellists who, after a certain amount of steps, wheel around and fire bullets into one another’s hearts.
Our new apartment was in a building that was surrounded by a wrought iron fence that looked like something a girl had doodled in a notebook. There were twenty doorbells on the door of the building, with names next to some of them written in pencil or stuck on little bits of red tape.
Raphaël was being sweet to me that evening. I sat on the new bed next to my suitcase, waiting for the whole world to tumble down while he stood at the stove making spaghetti sauce and smoking a joint. But it didn’t. There is nothing in the world as pretty as the smell of marijuana and spaghetti sauce. If you wanted the simple things in life, then you could be happy. He had already started working as an orderly at the hospital. This delighted me because Loulou’s prediction that Raphaël would never work had proven to be false. He had been given a pile of pamphlets on studying to become a nurse. I thought it was a good idea. I wanted our lives to be normal, because for me normal meant that anything was possible. It meant that I could continue going to school. It meant that I could find a job that I liked to do.
Raphaël was a bookworm. One of my favourite things was to lie in bed and listen to him tell me about books that he had read. He had enormous bony feet. I liked that I could look at his naked feet all the time. I liked that I was married to somebody with those feet. He was reading a detective novel by Simenon.
“He goes home at night and weeps. He thinks that if he can figure out why it is that people die, then he can figure out why it is that people are born. He was born not of woman. Instead he was created out of garbage: an old trench coat and some scraps of pornography and leftover bones from a dog. That’s what Maigret is made of. When he solves crimes, he is really making his confessions. It is only by solving crimes that he is able to prevent committing them.”
Every two people, when they grow intimate with one another, begin to construct their own language. For Nicolas and me, our grammar manual had a chapter on advanced sarcasm, a chapter on absurd associations, six chapters on humour, a chapter on inappropriateness and an appendix on bragging and general know-it-all-ism.
In the manual for Raphaël and my language there would definitely be a foreword on flattery, a chapter on mysticism in a downtown environment, one with words to help define the existential condition, a chapter on pseudo-intellectualism and a 1995 afterword on the conjugating of dirty French words.
I didn’t like to read books after he had told me about them, because it always seemed that they would never be quite as good.
He got a book at Ben Noodleman’s pharmacy. Mr Noodleman gave out tiny candies in prescription bottles to kids for Halloween until some mother complained. The book was called How to Keep Your Love Life Alive and had been published in 1973. Raphaël was determined to try every trick in the book.
He climbed in from the window. He declared that he was a pirate and that he was coming in to ravage me. The tip of his shoe got caught on the radiator and he fell on the floor. We tried making love in our little shower. The flow from the faucet was so weak that one of us was always trembling and trying to get under the warm flow.
He took all the petals off a rose. He scattered them on the floor around the bed. It looked as if someone had been stabbed and ran out of the room. He carved our initials into the wood slats of a bench. I don’t think that he could have done that to a tree—the trees on the block were spindly and had tiny black gates around them.
He talked this limousine driver into driving us around and around the block on his hour off. He got this old man from next door to come and sit on the couch and play classical guitar while we slow-danced around the coffee table.
He was wearing a tie when he came to dinner, even though the shirt that he was wearing had permanent sweat stains under the armpits. He had a huge silk handkerchief tucked in at his neck. We had a spaghetti dinner. He put it on a big plate and put it in between the two of us. I’m not sure if he got this idea out of his paperback book or Lady and the Tramp. He ate much faster than me, being an athlete and all, so he ended up eating most of the spaghetti and I got hardly any. He lit up so many votive candles, which he bought at the Polish grocer’s, that I was seeing black dots in front of my eyes the rest of the night.
We spoke on different pay phones so that we could have phone sex. I sat in the phone booth in the library with the glass door closed while talking in whispers. He spoke from the phone booth on the corner. He had to shout out dirty things above the noise of the trucks.
He came home with a cardboard box shaped like a heart. When I opened it, there were heart-shaped chocolates. They all had the most repulsive centres. I tried to guess the flavours.
“Cough syrup?” I asked.
“Dried-up jam on the side of the jar?”
“You’re right, caramel!”
There was a feeling, when we were together, that we were little kids dressing up as adults. That the universe was something that we drew with crayons and there was no such thing as tragedy. Maybe he had taken a book about time travel out of the children’s public library when he was seven, and he had skipped over all the difficult parts and here he was.
Where did he get all this crazy-assed knowledge? Maybe I was just being wilfully naive. Like those women who married Mafia guys and their husbands kept bringing them home mink coats even though they claimed to work at the bowling alley.
The winter winds were arriving outside, sounding like children stationed under the puppet theatre and trying to make thunder and lightning with pots and pans and rattling paper bags. He was making shadow puppets of wolves on the wall. They were just outside. That’s why we built the city: to keep out all the wolves.
The Rise and Fall of Nicolas Tremblay
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN A HAPPY TIME EXCEPT THAT I was always conscious of the fact that I had not spoken to Nicolas in three weeks. We had never spent twenty-four hours apart before our fight at the wedding.
I had just ditched him. I wanted to see him again, but how could I face him? A month in the life of a twenty-year-old is a very long time. You can become a completely different person during that time. You can grow so distant from a person that you can never quite catch up in your friendship. It was like falling behind in school.
If Nicolas was actually able to stay mad at me any longer, then it would change everything that I knew about the universe. Surely there had to be one constant thing about this world.
I brought it up to Raphaël before he went to work one night.
“Nicolas is always going to be Nicolas,” Raphaël said. “He’s probably got to go through a period of not being himself—just so that he can be sure that he really isn’t anybody else. Or he wasn’t just himself by mistake. But then he’ll go back, you’ll see. And then we’ll have a shitstorm of Nicolas, don’t worry.”
For a second I was annoyed at Raphaël for not worrying along with me. I remembered how Nicolas had warned me that Raphaël was one of these lame-ass philosophizing types. And I thought, man oh man, my brother was right. Why didn’t I listen to him and refuse to have anything to do with this jerk? But then I sighed. Being mad at Raphaël wasn’t going to help this situation at all. None of it was his fault. I went back to worrying.
A few days later a twelve-year-old in a yellow and black striped sweater knocked on my door and said that Nicolas was waiting for me down on the corner. And then the boy buzzed away, off to smell some flowers.
Knowing how impatient Nicolas was, I ran around the house, scrambling for my peacoat and some shoes. I hurried down the stairs and onto the street. I started running but I was a little bit scared of how quickly my heart was beating, so I slowed down and walked.
I kept fixing my hair. As if I was on my way to a first date and was feeling insecure. I even stopped and looked at my reflection in the window of a car. I think I was wringing my hands as I walked. Trucks were bouncing along beside me on the street like they had thunderclouds in the back. What if Nicolas said he didn’t ever want to see me again? Whoever said that twins can read one another’s minds was wrong. I never had any idea what Nicolas was thinking.
Nicolas was standing on the corner, waiting for me. He put his hands over his eyes when he saw me coming toward him. He ran around and hid behind a skinny tree, all Inspector Clouseau–style. He picked up a piece of newspaper from the ground and then hurried to the bench and held it up in front of his face with his legs crossed, reading it. I sat down next to him, and each time we made eye contact we blushed.
He was wearing a green ski jacket over a brown acrylic track suit. I think he wanted to prove that he looked good in anything. He dressed like a toddler that had snuck out the back door while his mother was preoccupied doing the laundry.
“Well, here we are,” he said finally.
“Just the two of us, like old times.”
“I never gave you a wedding present.”
“If you promise that you aren’t going to talk shit about my husband anymore, that would be the best wedding gift that you could give me. You know?”
“Oh, you should have told me. I could have saved $3.99.”
He reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a small blue music box. When I opened it, it began to play the tune “Il Était un Petit Navire”—that song about a young sailor who is about to be eaten by the other sailors because they’ve run out of food. Why had anyone ever invented songs? They made your heart all crazy.
I loved it. I’m not even sure why I started to cry. Maybe it was partly out of relief. I had imagined this meeting 360 different ways and I was just glad that I didn’t have to picture it anymore.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s the most wonderful thing that I’ve ever been given in my whole life.”
“Oh, don’t overdo it now! You sound like a numbskull. It’s nothing. It’s nothing. It’s nothing. Don’t get so emotionally crazy, please. I never met anybody who cried the way you do.”
“I missed you.”
“Are we good? I don’t want there to ever be bad blood between us. You’re the only person who loves me.”
“Loulou loves you.”
“Loulou’s too busy worrying about his gastric problems to really love anybody. I’m a bum without you. I’m like a guy on a trapeze who’s hanging by his knees with nobody to catch. I mean that’s no kind of act, is it?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“I’m a bonehead without you. I’m a bungler. I’m a booger eater. A backwater bigot. A lonely pickled egg floating in a pickle jar. I feel like shit. I miss you, okay. You wanted to know if I would miss you. Well, I did. There you go. You’re a stronger man than me, Gunga Din. You win. You outdrew me.”
I laughed. It was funny because Raphaël had never said anything like that to me. I knew Raphaël loved me, but I sometimes got the feeling that if I left him, he would be perfectly all right about it pretty soon afterwards. I’d never met anybody that was as good at being alone as Raphaël. Nicolas would actually go nuts if I left him for good.
“I missed you too.”
“What a softie! Promise me that you won’t ever abandon me. Don’t move away or anything like that.”
“I would never do that.”
“He has to stay here as a condition of his parole, right?”
“Where would we go?”
“Somewhere where I could never find you again.”
“Okay, I promise.”
He looked content as he folded up the promise I’d given him and tucked it away in some deep, inner pocket.
“I need some normal clothes,” he said.
“I’ll say. You’re getting downright eccentric.”
“You want to come shopping with me now?”
“Oh, all right. I only have about five dollars though.”
Nicolas was in a particularly good mood. He called out random insults to people as they passed by. He stopped an Asian kid with a pocket protector and beige pants.
“Don’t ever change, man,” Nicolas said to him. “I love everything about that look. Seriously.”
There was a mural of the big bang outside the Salvation Army. Nicolas stood up on a bench to throw a beer can over his head into the garbage. His aim was really nice. It was lovely to see.
Nicolas was usually aiming a little bit too high. He always thought that he would be able to do things that he didn’t quite have the talent or ability for. He broke his nose once trying to ride a unicycle.
When we pushed open the door of the Salvation Army, so many bells rang that it sounded like the king had just died.
Nicolas went to the men’s section. He started trying to pile every suit jacket from the rack onto the crook of his arm. A fifteen-year-old store clerk gave him a funny look because he was making a mess.
“I’m going to a job interview on Monday.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
I wasn’t sure why he always had to claim that he was on his way to a job interview. It had probably become a nervous tic. The way some people had to laugh after everything they said.
“I had this friend named Maxim,” Nicolas said, raising and dropping his shoulders in a black jacket that looked too small. “He found out that he was one-eighth Native. So he goes on a spiritual quest. Because that’s what all Natives do when they are eighteen. And then they rename themselves. So he does this. He roams through the wilderness outside of Boucherville. And then he comes back and his name is Daniel.”
“So? Are you retarded? He’s supposed to have a name like Sleeps with the Fishes or Little Itchy Ass. Not Daniel.”
“Just stop. You’re being racist.”
“How the fuck am I being racist?”
He went into the changing room to try on a grey suit.
“Remember my friend Xavier?” he yelled from inside the stall. “He lost his job as a teacher because he was teaching the kids to play Russian roulette or something like that.”
“Yeah, something like that. Something like that … Do you have any idea what Russian roulette is?”
He came out of the changing room in the suit. He actually looked really handsome in it. I gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
“Why do they call Russian roulette Russian roulette? Because Russians are bastards. There are these Russians who own a wallpaper store near the library and they shortchanged me. After that, Russians were dead to me.”
I walked over to a long green chesterfield with upholstered, buttoned armrests. It looked like it could fit a family of eight people on it. It was made when the Catholic Church was still in power and everyone had up to ten children. They needed a gigantic couch so that they could all fit on it together. I sat down, waiting for Nicolas to get his regular clothes back on. A cat’s tail waved above the arm of the couch like an elegant hand in a black glove waving goodbye.
Nicolas came out of the stall and walked over to a cart of fur hats and started trying them on, one after the other. I shook my head at each one. Every one of them gave him the effect of looking completely insane. Not that he would mind, but the police would stop him for sure if he was wearing one of those hats, using it as grounds to search his pockets. He held up a wire coat hanger with ties hanging from it.
“Remember Sébastien?” Nicolas asked. He couldn’t stop his nervous chattering
I asked the fifteen-year-old worker if he could turn on the television so we could make sure it worked. There was a rerun of Chambres en ville on television. Nicolas changed out of his suit and picked up a beat-up copy of Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel from a pile of paperbacks and sat, squished, next to me. We sat through two episodes, resting from the energy of having come to a store and found a new outfit. It was nice to sit on a couch. It was the closest we had been to being home together for a long time.
“Do you remember that time Loulou came to our parent-teacher interviews dressed in a tuxedo?”
I started to laugh. Our favourite thing was remembering stupid things that Loulou had done when we were children. There were memories that cracked us up every single time we told them to one another again. Like the time we got kicked out of the zoo because Loulou had brought along a plastic bag filled with steak bones and table scraps to feed to the lions. Or how we were once dilly-dallying on the way home from school, and Loulou called the police and told them that Nicolas had been kidnapped. Loulou wanted to see if there was a way to put Nicolas’s face on a milk carton, just to teach him a lesson.
“Remember the time Loulou cut out the picture of Tony the Tiger from the cereal box so you could wear it as a mask on Halloween?” I asked.
We laughed. Nicolas had to put his hands on his stomach because he was laughing so hard. I had to look away from him to stop laughing. If we laughed too long, they would think that we were stoned and throw us out of the store.
“Remember how Loulou used to hold his hand up high in the air and get us to kick it? I’m not sure what he was training us for.”
We had been together so long these memories were as important to history as Stonehenge and the Mona Lisa.
He brought a suit with him to the cash register. I counted out my change for the five dollars it cost. I held up my one-volume encyclopedia. The woman shrugged and said it was a quarter.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes