The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.18Heather O'Neill
He took off his hat and rubbed his head with his hands viciously. Then he fell to his knees and slid across the ice. He stayed there, with his head hung down, looking at the ice. When he didn’t get up, the little girls realized that the show was over. They began skating around themselves with their palms out in front of them, like orphans asking for change.
The only person there who had snapped a photograph was a seven-year-old girl with a yellow camera. Ha ha ha! I thought to myself. The tabloids and the documentary crew had missed this! One of the loveliest performances that anyone had ever seen. Later, at home, we shook the snow off our clothes and sat in the kitchen as our hair got wet, warming back up.
Nobody was watching me when I was taking a shower. No one was watching me as I trimmed my pubic hair with a tiny pair of nail scissors. No one was watching as I drank milk right out of the can. No one was watching as I lay in bed in an undershirt, reading Gigi by Colette.
No one was watching as Raphaël cracked his knuckles. No one was watching as Raphaël washed the dishes with a wire brush with pink bristles. No one was watching Raphaël when he was biting a hangnail off the side of his finger. No one was watching as Raphaël poured himself a cup of tea.
He was going through those strange silent movements. The numbness of the drug was overtaking him. Every now and then a second would slow down and he would get stuck in it. And it would take him, like, five minutes to rip open the bag of tea. But then time started moving again and he was fine.
“I feel like I can’t feel the roots of my hair. Do you know what I mean?”
“No, but I didn’t drink any of that Bleeding Sparrow brew.”
“True,” he said, pointing his finger up in the air, as if we were engaged in a very thoughtful debate and he was conceding that point. He stayed frozen in that position for about two minutes. He looked like a Leonardo da Vinci painting.
“I can’t believe I skated like that,” he said, as soon as time started moving again. “What was I doing? All those tacky moves! I was stoned out of my mind. Why didn’t you stop me!”
“Because you were so beautiful.”
“I was like a gay kid left at home alone with his mother’s clothes.”
We laughed as we got ready for bed. They were outside, looking for us. They were demanding an encore. They were banging their shoes on the floor. But we could not hear them. We were not listening. Little Nouschka and the Kid Who Figure Skated Really Well were being themselves.
Matadors Won’t Take No for an Answer
IT WAS RAPHAËL’S BIRTHDAY. EARLIER THAT DAY we’d seen Étienne. We hadn’t spoken to him because he was in the middle of being filmed by Hugo. He had his arm around the butcher and was extolling the virtues of salami. I’m not even sure the butcher understood French. He seemed like one of the immigrants who were so confused by the language issues that they had given up on talking altogether. They just made gestures to indicate that they were happy with this world.
Raphaël and I had thought it was sort of funny. But now we were going to meet Raphaël’s father and his father’s girlfriend at a steakhouse in the east end that was near their house, and so I was miserable.
“How come you hate your dad so much?”
“He’s one of those guys who wanted to be big shots but then never were. He’s always judging everybody. He thinks that if he can criticize people and point out their flaws, that means that he’s better than them. Anybody can be critical. Most people just have the decency to shut their mouths about it. He can’t even really look at me since I stopped skating. It’s not his fault, I guess. He had a lot tied up in the whole endeavour.”
It’s harder than people imagine to break the habit of having parents, so we were still going. We were squashed onto a blue leather bench on the bus. Some of the greatest love poems in the world were written on the backs of those seats. A row of advertisements lit up above the windows. They advertised soap, drug rehabilitation centres, laser eye surgery and the Catholic Church.
I had never been to the restaurant before. I thought it was beautiful. There were mirrors everywhere and framed drawings of famous bullfighters on the walls. The ceiling was covered with tin roses and had once been painted gold. The gold had chipped off and some of the roses were now black.
I had a feeling that things weren’t going to go well. His father, Fernand, actually approved of me. He didn’t know me at all, but he knew that I had been on television. It conferred a certain status on me and he was obsessed with status.
His father and his girlfriend, who looked like Tinker Bell, were waiting for us at a booth with red leather seats. They stood up to say hello. They were all spiffed up. His father’s girlfriend had on a tight sweater over an enormous pair of boobs. Raphaël told me once that his grandmother had left him a trust fund but that his father had spent it on getting his girlfriend these top-of-the-line boobs. This sort of seemed like something that Raphaël might make up. She wore ridiculously high heels, which gave the impression of a child standing on something wobbly to reach a top shelf. It was hard to imagine what on earth she was thinking. She had a pretty Uzbek accent.
His father was wearing high-heeled boots too. After we all shook hands, we sat down.
“What did you guys do with the car that I gave you?”
“It’s in the shop,” Raphaël said.
Raphaël’s car had broken down a week after we got married. We couldn’t afford to fix it, but the mechanics didn’t mind it being in the lot. It was the type of car that men liked to come and look at. I found it so tacky now that I almost fell into a depression every time I looked at it. It was only when I was looking directly at it that I could truly grasp how hideous it was.
“Have you ever been here before, Nouschka? This place is famous. They can’t tear it down even if they wanted to.”
“Is that so?”
“You have to make sure to order the veal cutlets. That’s what they’re known for.”
“What if she doesn’t like veal cutlets?” Raphaël asked.
Everyone was quiet for a second. Raphaël was going to make sure it was a difficult evening. He had indicated that he had no intention of playing nice.
“Then she’ll order it here and she’ll change her mind about it. You get certain negative things in your head and you insist that everybody go along with them. Nobody’s allowed to enjoy anything.”
I ordered chicken and fries. His father looked at me as if I was a complete fucking idiot, then turned to Raphaël.
“What’s the news? Your mother said you were planning on being a nurse. What are you doing? I slaved all those years so that you could be a nurse. Why not be a stewardess or a waitress? Or a high-class fucking call girl? Come on. Nouschka doesn’t want you to be a nurse.”
“Everybody at the hospital likes Raphaël,” I said. “He has a knack for talking to sick people and making them feel that everything is going to be okay.”
Fernand paused to look at me. I wasn’t supposed to interrupt. Due to the complacent nature of his girlfriend, I don’t think he was used to women talking. He turned his gaze back to Raphaël.
“Aren’t you going to take your sunglasses off? Fine. Be a wise guy. Be original. Be unique in your very own special way.”
Raphaël just sat there on the other side of the table. Leaving his sunglasses on was, granted, a provocation.
“Is he still reading all the time?” Fernand asked me. “All those idiotic novels with dragons on the front. They create mould and cockroaches go in between the covers. He used to always read on the toilet. It’s a terrible fucking habit. It gives you piles.”
“He loves reading. Readers are a rare and wonderful breed. I’ve never heard of anyone not liking a reader.”
“What’s the point? The point of reading all the time is that you get good grades. Here’s a nerd that doesn’t even do well at school. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
“He’s very bright.”
“Of course he is
“I find Raphaël’s mom lovely,” I said. “She looks like a bootlegger’s sweetheart.”
“What else are you going to say? The point is that I didn’t waste that many hours for my son to be a nurse. You only had to figure skate for a few more years, you fucking idiot. Then you could be a newscaster—or a judge. Something intellectual, for fuck’s sake. I’m embarrassed to tell people about what you’re doing now.”
Raphaël didn’t say anything. This was probably a ritual that they had established a long time ago when Raphaël was a little boy, where he would just sit there and listen to his father’s litany of insults. It was sort of an enchantment, a spell that turned Raphaël into a stone.
“They should just have the senior figure skating championships,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “They wouldn’t be allowed to make any jumps. You would score points for getting all the way around the rink.”
His father ignored my comment. “I used to put all my money into paying his coach. He was really top of the line, that guy. He was the sort of coach that these upscale, hoity-toity fucking people get. But I went ahead and I talked him into taking on Raphaël. He said that Raphaël had the right look about him. That he could be on peanut butter jars and stuff like that.”
He stopped to look at Raphaël. As if he needed to get a proper look at the face that ought to have been on peanut butter jars. Raphaël told me once that trophies didn’t mean anything. What was going to be a big deal were all the sponsorships that were going to come in because Raphaël was a good-looking kid. He only had to get on the Olympic team and he would get to be on cereal boxes. Maybe he would be on the Nutella chocolate spread. There was nothing you could say that would dissuade the Québécois from believing that chocolate spread was good for them. If Raphaël could get on the side of the jar, they would be millionaires.
“Raphaël said you were a beauty queen?” Tinker Bell asked me suddenly.
She also didn’t seem to be listening to Fernand. I wondered if anybody really listened to anybody else. Maybe it had just gone out of fashion.
“Sort of,” I said.
Tinker Bell looked at me skeptically, as if she couldn’t believe that someone who dressed like me and didn’t bother with her hair could possibly be a beauty queen. I was certainly not her idea of pretty.
“Look,” I explained, “they just needed a relatively decent girl to sit in a car for a couple hours and not expect to get paid for it.”
“My cousin was a beauty queen,” she said. “They didn’t want her to be in the competition because her father was in jail for selling drugs. But all these people sent in money to the local news so that she could go. She ended up marrying a man who was thirty-five years older than her.”
I thought we should all immediately shut up and listen to this fantastic girl’s fantastic story, but Fernand continued.
“I had to get the community centre to help pay for those lessons. I had to go and beg and humiliate myself and say, ‘I am a man of limited means. I fix cars. I can’t afford all these lessons.’ And they helped me out. I’ve never asked for handouts. The city gave him a scholarship. Everybody wanted to see this little working-class kid skate like an angel.”
He stopped ranting for a second to watch his girlfriend pull a maraschino cherry off a toothpick. It was as if he was trying to cheer himself up with her good looks. Unfortunately it didn’t work.
“His coach was so disappointed by his quitting that he left the country. I mean, the man was a saint. He invested so much time. It was like he had been waiting his whole life for Raphaël. It was finally his chance to get to the Olympics. He was almost a second father to him.”
I was surprised that Raphaël had never told me about this coach. I looked over for him to shoot me some sort of explanatory expression, not that I had any idea whatsoever what such a gesture would look like. But Raphaël wouldn’t make eye contact with me. He had such a peculiar pale and blank look on his face that it made my heart jump in shock. For a split second, looking at his features, I thought that he looked dead.
“Well I guess they achieved some things together that they can still be proud of, right?” I said, still kind of distracted by Raphaël’s expression. “Raphaël won a lot of trophies.”
“You can’t live through your kids. That’s a lesson to everybody. Your kids will break your heart. You have no one to blame but yourself for your life. So I finally left him alone, after all the whining, after all the theatrics. And look how he turned out. I finally let you have your own way and you’re mopping floors. It’s a cercle vicieux.”
“No, it isn’t,” Raphaël said.
“It isn’t a cercle vicieux. You’re not using the term correctly.”
Everyone was quiet. We all looked at Raphaël. Everyone knew he was eventually going to react. His father was waving red flags like a crazed matador in front of him.
“There was nothing physically wrong with you that kept you from winning medals. You need a bloody therapist on-site when you’re training a kid. I swear to God. I tell people over and over again when they say, ‘Fernand, what is it that makes a successful skater’: It isn’t in the knees. It isn’t in the elbows. It’s right up here.” Fernand pointed to his forehead with his finger.
It happened so quickly, we didn’t see it coming. It didn’t seem like a movement that beings existing here on this planet were capable of. Sort of like when cats lifted themselves up into the air in order to alight on a cupboard. Raphaël had been sitting so absolutely still that it didn’t seem as if he was capable of movement anymore. I had never in my whole life seen someone pull a gun on someone else. I’d seen his handgun before, when I was looking through a box in the closet for shoe polish, but it had never seemed real.
Raphaël did have the natural stealth of a figure skater. Sometimes he would move up behind me and grasp me so quickly and quietly that he was holding me before I even knew that he was there. And now, Raphaël was holding a gun up against his father’s temple.
“Eat your words. Eat your fucking words.”
His girlfriend started murmuring epithets in Uzbek. Thank God we didn’t have words for this sort of situation in our language. The rest of us were dumbfounded. I started grabbing our things. I just knew that we had to get out of there. At least before the waitress came back. I didn’t think for a second that Raphaël would pull the trigger. I just didn’t want him back in jail.
“You will die a sick death in a chair,” Raphaël said. “You will rot to pieces right in front of everyone you love. Because my hatred will kill you. When you sit at home watching television, I will actually be hating you to death.”
I was trying to make sense of Raphaël’s words. I pulled on his arm gently, trying to see if he was through. Raphaël’s father just stared at him, aghast.
“You should respect your father. It isn’t right,” Tinker Bell said in English.
“I am done with this,” Raphaël said. “You are dead to me.”
Raphaël was shaking with rage as we rode home on the bus. I didn’t know whether he wasn’t talking because he didn’t want to cry or to explain himself, or what.
His father might have had a point. Often assholes do, if you can get past all the bullshit and the lack of tact. Perhaps he was only asking what everyone wanted to know. Why had Raphaël quit and gone mad? I mean Raphaël’s dad was a bona fide asshole, but he was just, in some way, trying to figure out what Raphaël was upset about.
“Why did you do it?” I asked suddenly.
“What? Pull a gun on that dick?”
“No. Why did you stop skating?”
“Because I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
“But why like that? Why all of a sudden? Why would you jump off a bridge just so that you di
He stuck his hands in his pockets and then brought them back out and stared at them. He then put his hands over his eyes. He exhaled heavily. He slid his hands down to his cheeks and just stared at me for a moment.
Fernand was always an asshole. But I reflected on what he had said that evening that had upset Raphaël so much. Raphaël would sometimes talk about tournaments that he had participated in in the city as a kid. He would tell me about some of the incredibly idiotic training techniques that Fernand had come up with, like doing jumping jacks blindfolded. But he had never ever mentioned having a fancy coach.
It seemed so strange that he had left something like that out of his autobiography. And I realized that if he left that part out of his life story when talking to me, he left that part out when he was talking to anybody: to doctors, to therapists, to whatever oddball friends he had happened to encounter along the way.
Nobody could understand why Raphaël had gone from being a dedicated little champion to leaping off the Jacques Cartier Bridge. His psychology was a mystery because they didn’t have the full picture. Something had happened that he couldn’t bring himself to speak about. It was like a curse. He had to wait until somebody came along and guessed it.
“How long did it last, the thing with your coach?”
“It went on for I think two years, but it seemed like it was my whole life. We started travelling around to different competitions in small towns in Ontario. We were always on the road, staying in dumpy motels. My dad said that I would have no problem winning because English-speaking people can’t skate. I didn’t know how to get out of the situation, which probably sounds sort of stupid and weird, but it’s the only way that I know how to explain it.”
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes