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Daydreams of angels, p.19
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.19

           Heather O'Neill
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  Each compliment was like a spear right in the heart that was meant to take her down. So that she would be lying on the bed, waiting to be slain.

  Luc pulled Isabelle’s shirt off over her head. As it was coming off, she felt as if she was going through a dark tunnel. There she was with a tiny white training bra with a blue bow in the middle, sitting on a bed at a party. He was able to see all the birthmarks and moles on her belly. No one but her family had ever seen those before.

  She had nothing to say to him. This boy didn’t know a thing about her. She was going to make love to somebody who didn’t even know her. He might get her pregnant and then not return the baby’s calls for the rest of his life. She would end up getting the cheque like her mother and trying to make the best of it. She didn’t like the way his hands felt on her. She turned her face away when he tried to kiss her. Her body went stiff when he tried to put his hands around her hips.

  “Aww come on, Isabelle,” Luc whispered. “Don’t be a frigid bitch, okay?”

  All she could think about was home. Her mother was probably singing along with the radio while turning the pages of a magazine with her ridiculously long fingernails. She made her face all crazy with longing when she sang Céline Dion. The scratch of his zipper sounded like the arm of a record player suddenly being jerked off.

  Isabelle opened her mouth and yelled a rather preposterous and loud “No!”

  She had learned to project her voice like that from her family. It was like her whole family and all the different generations of loud people were helping her assert what she needed to say. The only thing that they were blessed with was lip, but they didn’t know how and when to use their gift.

  “Get the hell off of me, would ya!” she shouted. “You think I’m going to put out for a bum like you. Let me out of this shithole, pleeeze!”

  And so Isabelle Ferdinand changed her mind. Isabelle still wanted to be a kid and to be loved the way that a kid who has a future is loved. She put her shirt back on quickly, causing butterfly barrettes to fly every which way, and stood up and left the room. She went down the hallway and pushed through the crowd of wild teenagers to get to the front door. She hurried down from the moon and got back to earth.

  Sneaking down the hallway of her apartment, she passed her mother in the kitchen, humming along to the radio. She walked really quietly because she didn’t want to attract anyone’s attention. She flopped onto her own bed. The quilt was covered in flowers and smelled like her childhood. She wanted to bury herself in the ground, like a mustard seed, until she was ready to grow up wild and enormous.

  The next day she was at the library in her bell-bottom corduroys and a sweater with a rose on it, reading paperback novels. And wherever she is now, she is probably still doing her own thing.


  My parents sent my brother and me to spend the weekend with our grandparents on the south side of Montreal, which they did once in a while so that they didn’t have to go themselves. My mother especially couldn’t be around Grandmother. We always told her that she should make an exception for Grandmother. She had lived through the war and had lost her entire family when she was little. Look at all the things the poor lady had been through. Cut her some slack, for crying out loud. But all Mother knew was that she couldn’t stand the old woman.

  Grandmother was sitting in the kitchen in her wheelchair when we arrived. She raised her small hand and gestured for us to eat whatever we wanted of her leftover scrambled eggs. “Allez, allez,” she said. “Don’t be shy. The guilty are never shy. The innocent are shy and it gets them nowhere.”

  We pulled our chairs up close to hear her. Grandmother had a soft voice, as if she had been eating powdered doughnuts all day long. And like a cassette that had been repeatedly played, her voice got harder and harder to hear as she got older. I was complimented for my Parisian accent all the time, which I’d picked up from her. Grandmother said she couldn’t understand the French in her neighbourhood. I think she just used it as an excuse not to make small talk.

  There was a can of pea soup balanced on her lap. Grandfather yelled out from the bathroom for us to make her lift it. About six months before, Grandmother had had to have bypass surgery because she was having trouble breathing when she walked. She didn’t want to go and we all had to beg her. We told her how much nicer her walks to the Salvation Army around the corner would be. However, due to complications during her operation, she became paralyzed from the waist down, and she couldn’t walk anymore at all. She kept shaking her head at us when we came to visit her at the hospital, bewildered that she had ever listened to such idiots.

  After she came home from the hospital, a physiotherapist told her that she should lift a can of pea soup above her head to get her strength back. As was our custom, my brother and I stood next to her wheelchair and yelled and screamed at her to raise the can way up, but she couldn’t be bothered. Instead she decided to eat marshmallows without her dentures in, looking as though she was trying to squash her face into a permanent frown. She told us we were welcome to lift the can up and down ourselves if we wanted.

  She lit up a cigarette. She was always setting the blanket on her lap on fire. She even somehow managed to get cigarette burns on my underwear. She had been smoking for so many years that she could suck half the cigarette in one inhalation. Right then, she exhaled a white cat that stretched its limbs and descended from her mouth and curled up under the table lamp.

  She asked us to pass her two cold spoons that were in the fridge, to hold under her eyes to help prevent dark circles.

  Grandfather came into the kitchen after being in the bathroom the whole time. We asked him if he needed anything at the store. He said yes, and that we should bring Grandmother and the dog along for the walk. As was their habit, Grandfather helped her put on makeup before she went out. He put on loads of blue-green eyeshadow over her eyes and she looked like a clown, but she liked it that way. He stuck some random bobby pins in her hair too. Her hair was so fine that you could see the scalp through it, which gave the hair the effect of looking pink. She put on this enormous pair of sunglasses that might make a person question her sanity. She had seen a documentary about Jim Jones and decided to get herself a pair, that being the only thing she took away from that horrific tale.

  She wore a Star of David around her neck even though she claimed that she wasn’t Jewish. She said she only did it because she would get bargains at the butcher.

  My brother and I put a ski jacket on over her housedress, pulling her arms through the sleeves as if she was a little kid. She never wore shoes, only a pair of black slippers with embroidered roses. They both fell off while we were running across the street at a yellow light and pushing her like mad. The German shepherd picked one up and carried it to the other side of the street.

  Not yet accustomed to the wheelchair, my brother and I were always getting into situations with it. Like that day we tied the German shepherd to her wheelchair and it had pulled her halfway down the block by the time we got out of the store. She accused us of treating her no differently than a dog. We piled the groceries on her lap, which she wasn’t too crazy about either. She lit up a cigarette and smoked indignantly.

  Grandfather still thought she was so beautiful. He was afraid that she was going to fall in love with a war veteran who was also in a wheelchair. He wore a fez and a burgundy suit and sat next to a fishbowl outside the Salvation Army. When we saw him, we followed Grandfather’s instructions, which were to just keep pushing if he was outside the store, even when he waved hello.

  And Grandfather had a point, because even though she was a slob and had to live among us bozos, Grandmother was entirely elegant. Occasionally she would let out some pithy little remark in order to remind everyone that they would never have her pedigree. When we passed the playground, she said, “When I was a child, children recited poetry and suffered existential angst. What on earth are those ninnies preoccupied with?”

  * * *

bsp; Mother claimed that when she was little, Grandmother had ignored her and treated her as if she too were rather dull and a ninny. She said that Grandmother had spent much of Mother’s childhood in bed with the lights off. She didn’t think anything that was happening in the household was of any interest.

  We didn’t mind Grandmother in the way that our mother did. She didn’t depress us. She was almost kind of funny. She was different from anybody else we knew. She had this incredible story. It was the most incredible thing about her. Actually, it was so incredible that it was probably the most incredible thing about us too.

  Our grandparents had both been born into happy families in French cities, one in Montreal and one in Paris. They had both drawn pictures in chalk on the street outside their buildings. They had both gone to elementary school. They had both worn little black berets on their heads at one point or another. They had both listened to the war being announced on the radio. But once France was occupied, nothing about their stories was similar at all. Even though he was only seventeen, Grandfather got himself a fake birth certificate and enlisted in the army. He headed off to fight in Europe, determined that his fate was over there, despite his parents’ protests. He said that he knew in his heart that the love of his life was on the other side of the ocean and needed him.

  This weekend, like the others, my brother and I tried to coax the story out of her. If she had had a few beers, she would tell it. We waited patiently, until she was drunk enough. During that time, Grandfather tried, as usual, to tell her story for her, patching together things he’d seen in television documentaries about occupied France, things he’d seen himself when he was a soldier in the Canadian army, and some things that he just plain made up. Grandfather said that at the beginning of the occupation in Paris, you ran into newly broke aristocrats everywhere. They would be lying on the side of the road, reading books of poetry. They carried around suitcases filled with violins and tea sets. The children held cages with canaries in them while yelling at their poodles to behave. They would sit sighing and discussing philosophy on the benches.

  You had to donate your clothes to the war effort so that they could make parachutes out of them. The Germans were all masturbating when a parachute that was made out of girls’ underwear came out of the sky.

  The Germans took away some of the statues. They thought it was fine to have a certain amount of statues, but they said the French had gone too far. There were statues of saints no one had heard of and poets who were long, long out of print.

  The Germans took away all the French people’s guns, so they had to hunt with traps. There were always children stuck in the traps, hanging from trees in the morning and needing to be cut down. It was like the morning dew. If you had a teenage girl who didn’t come home at night, you could rest assured that she was curled up out of trouble in a net, tucked up warmly in her peacoat and beret.

  When there were four empty beer bottles on the end table around the lamp, like spies meeting beneath a streetlight on a corner, Grandmother suddenly shook her head.

  “Ce n’est pas ça de tout!” she said.

  * * *

  Although she had been born in Paris, Grandmother’s parents were from Poland. People said they were Jewish, but Grandmother swore it was a lie. Her mother had died from an illness when she was very young and her father looked after her all on his own. He was a philosophy professor and they lived in a huge apartment filled with books and sunlight. They had a cleaning woman in once a week who sometimes brought her daughter, Marie, along. The two girls became best friends.

  It was well known that Marie was a wicked little girl. Marie used to take her finger and write curse words in the air. She would pull the tail feathers off the peacock at the zoo. She taunted cats. But she and Grandmother would walk down the street with their books balanced on their heads and their tongues stuck out, trying not to laugh. Grandmother thought she was so alive.

  On the morning of June 16, 1941, Grandmother and her father were arrested. There had been rumours of a roundup, but Grandmother’s father had, despite his extensive philosophical training, a tragic proclivity to err on the side of goodness. The pounding on the door was like the banging of a gavel. Grandmother put on a white dress and a black coat, packed some things in a suitcase and followed her father. He held on to her hand too tightly, and they climbed onto a bus with strangers. When the officers looked at their papers, seeing that Grandmother had been born in Paris, they decided to release her. Such was the terrifying power of whim during wartime. She stood all alone with her white dress blowing around her like a white flag trying to surrender. She wandered, frightened, without a family, and then decided to find Marie. When she arrived at the door she swore that her father would give them all the money he had when he was freed, and they let her in. She looked around, needing to see her best friend.

  Fifteen-year-old Grandmother sat on Marie’s couch and looked bewildered that night. She was still wearing her coat over her white dress and her hair was sort of messy. She gazed around the strange apartment, so different from her own. The wallpaper had brown and orange flowers on it and was coming apart near the ceiling. There were fingerprints all over everything. Everything was old. The couches were all lumpy and the covers were threadbare. Clothes that had been worn too many times were hanging from a line in the kitchen.

  That night the family was in an uproar. They were in the middle of a fight when Grandmother came by. The fight would continue for the whole time Grandmother was there and for the rest of their lives, actually. Grandmother was shocked by the way that Marie’s mother talked. She would hurl all sorts of invectives at her boys. “Stop talking right this second, Buddy, or I will come over there and smash all the teeth out of your mouth.”

  Grandmother had had no idea that people could talk that way to one another and then fall asleep and wake up in the morning as if nothing had happened. It was so dirty and dark. It didn’t even seem like those types of words belonged in the house. It was like discovering a rat in the kitchen.

  All the children in the family had been raised on these harsh words. You could tell that at first glance. They all had nasty looks about them. It was hard to even tell what their appearances were actually like because their bitter expressions got in the way.

  Grandmother had been raised differently. It had never occurred to her that there was a possibility that she might not be loved. This made her a trusting, sleepy little girl for the first years of her life. She was good at the things that a little girl is supposed to be good at, which are not necessarily things that are great in themselves. And they were useless during a war.

  Marie was always hungry for any sort of affection. She was like a stray dog in that way. Grandmother got too much affection. She was like a fat, declawed house cat with a little bell around its neck in that way.

  Marie let her sleep in her bed and let her tell the authorities that she was her cousin. If it was known that she was a Jew, she would have to wear a yellow Star of David, be banned from movies, cafés and parks, be denied a radio and be subjected to curfews. She would never be allowed to have any fun at all. And you never knew when she’d be sent off herself.

  Marie noticed that songs on the radio always sounded better now that Grandmother was around. She liked lying in the dark and whispering aloud a question like, “Do you think that we only started existing when we came into this world or since the beginning of time?” And hearing a voice whisper back, “Only since we were born.”

  They could pass as cousins too. They both had dark hair and blue eyes. Only Grandmother was a million times prettier.

  Grandmother had enormous eyes. She said that they were never like that before the war. When she was separated from her father, she got a shocked expression on her face that she couldn’t get rid of. That’s why she was beautiful. She had eyes that looked like those of a frightened animal.

  The girls went to the same school now. Because it was wartime, all the boys fell in love more easily. All the boys liked Grandm
other more than Marie. They passed her notes in class. Each note, in boy’s handwriting, said more or less the same thing: “You are the one.” Marie hated Grandmother with a passion because of this. As they were walking home from school one drizzly day, two boys passed, riding together on a single bicycle. They laughingly professed their love for Grandmother, blowing kisses that came at her like moths to a lightbulb.

  Marie stopped and turned viciously toward her friend. She reached out both her arms and shoved Grandmother hard in the chest. Grandmother toppled off the sidewalk and fell into a puddle on the cobblestone street. Her skirt was covered in mud and her knees were both bleeding. She held her hands in front of her and saw that the palms of both were red from being skinned. Grandmother looked up at Marie and Marie looked down at Grandmother.

  Marie was the type of girl that cannot tear herself away from the people she abhors. Grandmother had a streak in her that made her fall in love with those who treated her badly. And thus their feelings for one another intertwined like the branches of two unattended rosebushes in a garden.

  * * *

  Marie now sometimes ignored Grandmother in the playground at school, telling the other girls to turn away from her too. Or she would walk ahead of Grandmother on the way home, quickening her pace any time she almost caught up. She complained while changing into her nightgown about not having her own room anymore. She told Grandmother not to talk for the rest of the evening, so that she could pretend she wasn’t there. Grandmother tried not to breathe a word. Marie yelled at Grandmother to make herself smaller in the bed. And the two girls grew closer and closer.

  * * *

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