The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.17Heather O'Neill
Outside the store, a robin hopped by. It looked like a fat man with a red scarf tucked into his waistcoat. It looked like it knew what it was doing with its life.
“You have a court date, don’t you?” I asked. “That’s why you’re getting a suit.”
“Saskia and I are going to court about visitation rights and all that. I’m sick about it. I don’t even like to talk about it, it’s making me so fucking nervous.”
“It’ll be okay. It’ll go fine.”
There was a photograph of Nicolas sleeping on top of a bar in the tabloids the next week. It was quite extraordinary that Nicolas had managed to get himself in such an awkward situation. But Nicolas was given special privileges in bars around the neighbourhood. If anybody else was up on a table, you could be sure that the owner would throw them the hell out. But if Nicolas was up on one, dancing drunkenly, it was good for business. People knew that they were hanging out in the right place at the right time.
Nicolas liked to make a spectacle when he was out. But he didn’t drink during the day. He was only going to AA as some sort of plea bargain that his lawyer had made for him after he was caught stealing a family-sized bag of Ringolos from a corner store at two in the morning.
But the tabloid saw the scene as a sign that Nicolas had begun to travel down some terrible road.
For a second, I thought, how bloody ridiculous. But then I felt an uneasy premonition in my belly. Maybe the media were the ones that were right. Perhaps they had been paying closer attention to Nicolas than I had.
The Last Public Performance of the Tremblay Twins
I DECIDED TO GO ALONG AS A CHARACTER WITNESS for Nicolas on his court date. I put on a green dress with a fancy lace collar and brushed off all the cat hair from my long black coat. Saskia wouldn’t have a chance against us. She didn’t know how to be professionally adorable.
As we were walking to the courthouse, Nicolas and I even felt sort of cocky. We were going to be back on top of the world again. I felt happy that there was finally something that I was going to be able to do for Nicolas. It was going to be like old times. When we were together, no one could pick on us.
“You look great!” I said.
“So do you.”
“You look like one of those old-fashioned gentlemen from Les Filles de Caleb.”
“You look like you should be in Paris, seducing their president.”
Nicolas had a legal aid lawyer that he had spoken to on the phone. He met us outside the courtroom. He didn’t look as confident as we did, but I ignored that.
The judge wanted to know why Nicolas had no record of employment. Saskia’s lawyer pointed out that Nicolas didn’t even have a high school diploma. He brought up an arrest from the year before, for a petty theft that hadn’t seemed serious at the time.
Nicolas went up on the stand to defend himself. He was flustered and didn’t know what to say. He just kept shrugging and smiling, hoping that the judge would be converted to our belief that his life of petty crime was no big deal.
Nicolas suddenly seemed out of place. I saw him through everyone else’s eyes. He somehow looked more seedy in his suit than if he had just showed up in jeans and a sweater. He looked like a businessman who had just walked out of a strip club at three o’clock in the morning in a strange city and needed to find his way back to his hotel room. Why hadn’t we spent more time looking for a respectable outfit? We weren’t able to take anything seriously when we were together.
Saskia was dressed tidily in a burgundy suit and looked infinitely calm. She had a regular job as a receptionist now. She had gotten her shit together and we hadn’t.
Saskia’s lawyers brought a copy of the tabloid with the photo of Nicolas on top of the bar. To show that it was not just Saskia’s opinion that Nicolas was a fuck-up. It was actually newsworthy.
I went up on the stand to answer questions from the lawyers. I was sure to describe how Nicolas loved Pierrot and wanted to help raise and educate and set him on the proper path. I said that Nicolas was loving and funny. They all just stared at me, waiting for me to finish so that they could get on with business. I looked around the courtroom. Nobody was falling in love with me.
The judge said he didn’t see how he could grant any visitation rights to Nicolas since he didn’t have a residence or a job. In addition, the judge told Nicolas he owed Saskia three thousand dollars in child support. This was an impossible amount of money. He sat on the bench outside the courthouse in his five-dollar suit and wept.
The Devil Never Loses His Receipts
I GOT THE JOB AT PLACE DES ARTS. THEY HIRED me despite my terrible English. Étienne always said that we shouldn’t bother to learn the language of colonialism. Loulou was hopeless and couldn’t speak a word of it. I would answer the phone at the theatre and say something like: “There will be evening-time presentations down the line in the season that comes just after winter … with the blossoms in it?” But surprisingly, people didn’t let on that my incompetence bothered them.
I really liked the job. I was always busy and having to figure out something new. I would completely lose myself in the task at hand. I hadn’t known how great this could feel. Since I had grown up around so many unemployed people, there was never anyone to tell me how awesome work was.
In the evenings, when I left, the hallways were always still filled with girls from the corps de ballet. They sat on the floor with dour expressions on their little faces and their eye makeup smudged. Their skirts looked like they had toilet paper sticking out of their tights, and their toes stuck out of holes in the feet of their stockings. Their spines poked out of their backs, like great lizards. There was a girl in a tutu smoking a cigarette by the fire exit. Her knees were all bandaged up, as if she was a porcelain doll that had been shoddily repaired by a child.
In the café, the devil was sitting at the counter sipping an espresso and making notes in his ledger book. He was a good-looking guy of about forty. He had flecks of grey in his hair, which had the effect of making him look rather distinguished. This was where he did his best business. All the ballerinas wanted to sell their souls. There was a nineteen-year-old girl with bandages all over her toes who had sold her soul that afternoon, just to get out of the corps. She wanted to execute a perfect pas de chat.
They thought fame would make them happy. They wouldn’t have to feel bad about having been teased in Grade One. No one would ever break up with them. When they rode a metro packed with people, they would be different. When they brought their clothes to the laundromat, their underwear would be special. There is nothing so wretched as being human. It’s inevitable that you would, at some point, try to be something a tiny bit more. The trick is to come away from fame unscathed.
One of the artistic directors of the theatre caught up with me as I was walking through the building. She had very straight blond hair and was wearing a gorgeous black power suit. Her high heels made a deafening roar as we walked down the corridor together.
“Nouschka, you seem to be fitting in very well here.”
“Thank you,” I answered. I was so pleased that this sophisticated lady liked me.
“You and your husband should come over for dinner sometime. You can meet my kids.”
“Okay. I guess so. I’m not sure if we can do it soon; my husband’s on tour.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s on tour with the Ice Capades.”
“Wow! C’est le fun! C’est incroyable ça! Well you’ll have to bring him over when he comes back!”
We were turning in opposite directions. I was going toward the metro and she was going toward the underground parking lot. We kissed each other on both cheeks. Then we put our hands on each other’s shoulders and smiled at one another for a couple seconds. I was starting to pick up a lot of ritzy mannerisms from her.
Of course I had lied about Raphaël being in the Ice Capades. There was no way that I could bring Raphaël to a dinner
I realized that I was capable of things that Raphaël and Nicolas were not. They were too committed to the personas that they had created when they were fourteen years old. Because they had both felt that they had been taken advantage of and exploited. When they were teenagers, these personas gave them an aura of toughness and of being unapproachable. Now they made them seem sort of mad.
What would the ballerinas think if they got a glimpse of us all at home? If they saw what your actual quality of life was like after you sold your soul to the devil for a little fame: Raphaël in the bathroom underlining passages in Cujo, Nicolas having trouble with a tie while getting ready for a court date, Étienne lecturing at a café to a twenty-one-year-old fan.
I was worried about going home. I stopped at a movie theatre and sat in the darkness, just watching the images, not really following the story. I was in hiding from the world. It was an American film. I had seen the actor in another movie. In the other movie he had been a spy in the Cold War and the Russians were on to him. Now he was in a dystopian world. He was reading the newspaper and drinking a coffee while people all around him got arrested. Look how easy it was for him! Surely Raphaël could role-play for dinner parties! But I knew that he could not.
You Can Skate a Figure Eight for Eternity
THE DAYS STARTED GETTING SHORTER. THE SUN was bright, but it wasn’t warm anymore. It was all used up and would have to be replaced with a new bulb. The maple leaves were coming down like girls jumping out of hotel windows with their dresses on fire. All the ice cream stores had put curtains in their windows, as if there were deaths in the family.
I looked in the closet for a warmer coat. I finally came out with a woollen overcoat. I tried it on. Moths flew everywhere around me, like I was in a little snowstorm. It was me. I let winter out of the box.
While I was digging I found a pair of Raphaël’s skates. It was silly that Raphaël didn’t skate anymore. I wanted to encourage him. I bought a light blue skating skirt at the second-hand store and put it on over some grey tights. I stood in the living room with my arms spread out.
“Let’s go skating,” I said.
He looked up from his novel and studied me.
“All right,” he said.
God help me, I was pleasantly surprised. It really was a perfect night for skating. The snowflakes were lovely and lit up by the coloured traffic lights. They were like the tiny windows of Gothic cathedrals.
Raphaël and I had tied on our skates and were waiting in the hut next to the rink for the ice to be ready. The caretakers were clearing it of snow with a Zamboni. There were loads of kids sitting around us, sipping hot chocolate Their jackets were unzipped, revealing their long johns covered in prints of snowflakes. Raphaël put some quarters in the vending machine with daisies on it. Some chocolate milk trickled out into two cardboard cups for us.
Raphaël put down his cup to sign autographs for a bunch of little girls. There was a photograph of him on the wall by the cash, winning the junior championship. I wasn’t sure who’d recognize him five years older and scruffy-looking. But all the girls were in a line and in love with him. Their teensy-weensy hearts were beating in their chests, like birds held in fists.
Usually if someone recognized Raphaël on the bus or in a café, he would give them a dirty look and yell something like, “Raphaël Lemieux is dead!” But how could he lose his temper at little girls with sweaty curls pasted on their foreheads, and plastic foxes on their rings where the jewels should go.
I saw a guy named Rosalie waddle over on his skates. You couldn’t even really see Rosalie’s face because it was almost entirely covered with hair. He had a thick beard that covered his chin and cheeks up almost to under his eyes. He wore a leather cap and a leather jacket with sheepskin lining. He had a pot belly similar to that of a very pregnant woman.
There were motorcycle gangs all over Québec. Rosalie was a member of the Bleeding Sparrows. They changed their names to girls’ names to show how tough they were. No one would dare comment. Their gang controlled all the illegal activities in the neighbourhood. They were always making the cover of Allo Police. They seemed much more violent on television than they did in real life, where they really left you alone unless you wanted to start dealing cocaine. Then they would bury you alive or something like that—otherwise they seemed pretty nice.
Raphaël got along with people in gangs. He never reacted to anything strange that was put in front of him. If a guy walked up with a tattoo of a third eye on his forehead, Raphaël acted just like a pleasant bank teller asking him what she could do for him. He was a Zen master in that respect.
“Hey Raffi, man. What’s going on with you, my brother? Shitty that your dog business got raided.”
“I’m married now.”
“I fucking hate marriage myself, but you’ve got a beautiful wife,” he said, nodding politely at me. “Your father’s music changed my life. It made me who I am today. I was a fucking animal before I started listening to that shit.”
“Great,” I said.
“What racket you in now?” Rosalie asked, turning back to Raphaël. “I’m looking for someone to sell shrooms in your neck of the woods.”
“That’s too much excitement for me. I’m going to try to just keep a low profile. I’m going to try to be a regular sort of guy.”
“Come on. You can’t make money that way. Look at your girl. Don’t you want to buy her a fancy jacket? Or some earrings? Girls pretend that they don’t like that shit, but deep down, they’re all resentful of you if you don’t buy them shit.”
“You would know,” I said.
“Try this. You are going to be so impressed that you’re going to need to sell it.”
Rosalie took out a mini Ziploc bag of mushrooms, crushed the bag and then poured the crumbs into the hot chocolate. Raphaël liked getting high. He would take any sort of drug. He said that he had developed a taste for them in the psychiatric institution when he was a boy. Raphaël gave me a sip and it tasted horrible, like chocolate dirt. After I handed it back, he knocked the remainder back.
“You’ve got to be prepared for alternative ideas of how to get by. Because it’s going to be way better to be in the woods when the results of the referendum come in. If it’s a Oui, you can be sure that there’s going to be some bloodshed. The Canadian government is already moving out all the warplanes from northern Québec for when they come and slaughter us.”
Rosalie had a tattoo of a rose on his right hand, which meant he was a separatist. Raphaël didn’t care one way or the other about Québec independence, but he was always up for talking to somebody about a money-making scheme. Maybe it was because he was Québécois. It was part of our heritage to get into idiotic rackets and petty crime like robbing doughnut stores and bringing in cigarettes across the American border.
We Québécois had to be particularly careful about the risk of joining motorcycle gangs. It was in our blood. Like an untended garden turned into weeds, neglected boys in Québec turned into Bleeding Sparrows. I looked at Raphaël and noticed that he was on the verge of becoming one of those guys. Had I not been paying attention? Had he been shaving less and less? Had he been wearing his sunglasses more and more? Had he been putting on weight? Had he been wearing leather vests? Had he been wearing T-shirts with eagles and wolves on them?
He already had loads of horrible tattoos. His hair had been growing long lately. I couldn’t let this happen. I simply couldn’t be married to someone named Lucille. I would have to distract him from becoming a Bleeding Sparrow.
A Petula Clark song began to play on the loudspeaker. That meant that the ice
“It’s time for The Magic Hour Spectacular Ice Show!” I called out.
Everyone turned to look at me. I realized that I had stuck my arms straight in the air and that they were still up there. I dropped them to my sides. Then I stepped through the door that led to the ice.
Petula Clark always made me happy. Étienne always claimed that he had dated her, so on some weird level I thought of her as my mother. I started making up a skating routine to the song. I put my hands over my head and started spinning. I noticed that people were coming out of the hut to watch.
I skated with a petite hop, as if there were holes in the ice. This was my really fanciest move. I put the tips of my fingers on the side of my head, like a heroine from a silent film. I wasn’t a bad skater myself. Everyone in Montréal had spent a great part of their childhoods on an ice-skating rink.
Raphaël skated around and around me, as if he were tying me up with a rope, encircling me with his outstretched arms.
A circle of children had formed around us, with their brightly coloured ski jackets and toques pulled down over their eyebrows. You might not know it to look at them, but they were the world’s most discerning figure skating audience.
I almost stopped skating to watch Raphaël myself. There was something unsettling about it. It was like sleight of hand in a card trick. He was doing things that weren’t properly human. When he skated backwards it was as if he was disappearing. As if he was slipping away—back into the past. As if he was unravelling. He disappeared into the falling snow. He came out of the darkness like an image appearing in a Polaroid. His skates made the sounds of sharpening knives. They left patterns on the ice, like a genius solving physics problems on a blackboard.
Then Les Colocs came on the loudspeaker, singing and cursing. Raphaël started skating more violently. He was doing a mad sort of dance, flailing his arms in the air and twisting his body from one side to the other. These didn’t seem to be North American emotions. He was really giving a full-on performance. Especially considering that he always swore that he never ever wanted to perform in public again. Maybe it was the drugs that were making him lose his mind.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes