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Daydreams of angels, p.20
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.20

           Heather O'Neill
 
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  As the war went on, Marie’s feelings toward Grandmother spread quickly to the rest of the family. They deliberately forgot to set her a place at the kitchen table. She started to feel anemic because she hadn’t had any meat in ages. When she was feeling faint, she would hallucinate. She chased a little white kitten down the street. When she finally caught up to it, it was only a white paper bag being blown by the wind.

  She decided it was too much effort to escape their grasps, so she started sleeping with Marie’s brothers. She slept with them in the bathroom and in a toolshed down the street.

  She said sex happened much faster back then. It happened so fast that you were barely aware you were having it. You never got naked. You only moved away whatever parts of your clothing absolutely had to be moved. She didn’t know that you took your shoes off for sex. She didn’t even know there was a way to have sex without her stockings still on and her underwear around her ankles.

  Her foster mother told her that it wouldn’t hurt to indicate to the baker that she might be willing to sleep with him. She set Grandmother up on dates with men she met on the street. She told Grandmother that she should be very, very friendly with the butcher.

  She waited in queues for their rations. They always made her go, but she didn’t really mind. She liked that there was something useful that she could do. She would bring home the meagre groceries, knowing that there wasn’t much in the bag that would be hers.

  One day the German officers set up a canteen on the street. They called out that they were offering free bowls of soup to anyone who wanted some. Grandmother had been hysterical with hunger for the past couple of days. She had twitches, as though she were a telegraph receiver that was being sent messages. She walked up to the canteen and put her hands out. The officer winked at her and gave her a bowl of soup, and she ate it ravenously.

  When the neighbours saw Grandmother sitting on the curb, eating her little bowl of soup with her legs crossed, they sent their children out too. For some reason, because she had gone first, she took the brunt of the shame. They could hate her for it afterwards. She was like shame personified. Grandmother sensed this, but she didn’t care all of a sudden. She held the bowl up in the air when it was empty. She kissed the side of it.

  * * *

  Grandmother and Marie liked to sit around and discuss the atrocities of the German officers. For instance, the Germans bought all the gloves in the shops in Paris and they mailed them to their sweethearts and wives in Berlin. Grandmother and Marie would insult the German girls. They thought they had really fat legs and had faces like men. They made up all kinds of things about German girls. Of course, they hadn’t a clue what they might possibly look like, except that they were wearing gloves that rightfully belonged to Parisian girls.

  One day, while they were talking about their stolen gloves, Marie picked up a stone and threw it at a cat. The surprised animal moved back as suddenly as though it were a child grabbed by the scruff of its neck by a schoolmaster. Marie yelled out that she was miserable because she was poor and ugly and no man would ever buy her anything like gloves. She held up her hands for Grandmother to see. The tip of each finger was pink because of the cold. Grandmother thought that if Marie was made happy, then her heart would thaw and she would be kinder to her.

  That was when Grandmother decided to find a way to get Marie a pair of gloves and many other things. It was also the hunger that lived in her belly like a small animal. It gave her the determination to do anything. She shrugged off her notions of what was intolerable and unimaginable and got on with the business of surviving.

  * * *

  Grandmother approached some German officers who were standing outside a post office two days later. She asked where she could get a pair of black gloves. One of them whispered the way into her ear. She followed him back to a hotel that German officers had taken over to live in and use as headquarters. He led her up a flight of stairs, down a hall, past numerous doors and into a large apartment. She was so nervous with the officer that he gave her a glass of champagne to make her calm down. It made her laugh, and she laughed so hard that she started to cry.

  He made her sing him the alphabet. He wept because he thought it was so lovely. She mostly knew the words to nursery rhymes and the songs that she had been forced to learn at school. She sang him a song about cleaning off the top of your desk.

  He made her take a bath because she smelled so bad. He had a French maid, who scrubbed Grandmother under her arms with a rag and washed her hair. The maid brushed her hair and combed it over to the side. He gave her a pair of lace underwear with little bows along the elastics to put on. The comforter on the bed was covered in a pattern of roses.

  When they were done, the officer gave her a pair of black gloves. He also gave her a mark, which was supposed to be some crazy amount of money now. And he gave her a fancy pastry, the likes of which had not been seen in Paris since the occupation began. She couldn’t wait to eat it in private. She peeled off the paper, which rattled like a tiny fire, and ate it as she was walking home.

  She was whistling a German tune that the officer had put on the record player. She couldn’t help it. It bothered everyone that she whistled that song. But once she had been made love to while listening to that song, so how could it not be stuck in her head?

  She said that he made her take off her shoe and sucked on her toe. She said he sat on a chair, pulled his pants down and started masturbating. She got embarrassed and turned to the wall. He begged her to turn around and just look at him once.

  But afterwards, she sat happily watching Marie pull the gloves on and off. Marie threw her black hands around Grandmother’s neck in gratitude.

  * * *

  With most of the soldiers, it went pretty quickly because they didn’t speak any French. She was made love to by one soldier while standing on her head. She got down on her hands and knees and pretended to be a dog for another. One fair-haired and gentle-looking soldier tied her wrists to the bedpost. A fat soldier wanted her to give him a hickey on his neck while he banged his knee and laughed uproariously.

  One, who was a teacher in Berlin, made her pretend that she was back in school, practising her handwriting. When she made a mistake, he bent her over his knee and gave her a spanking.

  One wanted her to cry. He made her sit quietly, naked on the side of the mattress. He had found that if you let a girl sit without any clothes on for long enough, then she would always start to feel melancholic and begin to weep. And then, when Grandmother did inevitably start to cry, he kissed her face madly. He said there was nothing that he loved more than kisses that tasted like salty tears. He had gotten a taste for it while he was on the Eastern Front.

  Afterwards, she would always stuff a pastry into her mouth before heading home. She wasn’t letting herself be starved to death anymore. But she felt more guilty about eating those cakes all by herself than she possibly could about sleeping with the German soldiers. She didn’t feel anything about that at all. She knew that it wouldn’t matter when the war was over. The important thing was to survive. And then somehow—in a way that you couldn’t rationally grasp—all this would be gone. Like when you wake up from a nightmare and everything goes back to exactly the way that it was before.

  When a soldier with black eyes picked her up and began fucking her against the wall, she tried to convince herself that it wasn’t actually happening. There was a yellow lampshade with little crystals hanging from it on the table next to them. The crystals were knocking against each other violently. And if this act didn’t really exist, then what was making the lampshade shake like that? It must be an army coming, or an earthquake. The act of the soldier making love to Grandmother was as violent as all the German tanks rolling into Paris.

  She never went to dinner with the officers or hung around longer, because she wanted to get back to Marie. She would dress so quickly that she would get tangled up, trip on her stockings and bang her chin on the floor. Each time, she would get more and more d
esperate to get back to Marie.

  * * *

  It was Grandmother who started it. Everything that she had known before the war had been taken away from her. There was no way that she could deal with that. She couldn’t just sit there and be overcome with loss. She had to make Marie her whole world. She became fixated on Marie.

  Sometimes the things that Marie did filled her with so much wonder that she would feel herself trembling. She watched Marie’s fingers lacing up her shoes and she thought it was so exquisite.

  The way Marie would shake her curls out after pulling on a tight turtleneck was so wonderful too. She would try and do it herself in exactly the same way, so that she could feel what it was like to be Marie. She was the only person in the whole world that got to watch Marie sitting on the side of her bed in her underpants. And see Marie’s bare feet at the end of their bed.

  She liked the way that there always seemed to be dirt under Marie’s fingernails. She liked the way that there were hairs around Marie’s nipples. She would lie closer and closer to Marie as they were sleeping. She marvelled over Marie the way that a mother marvels over a newborn baby.

  When she was asleep, Marie would swat at Grandmother with her little hand in the air as if to wave off a fly. And she would murmur from somewhere deep in a dream for Grandmother to get the hell away from her.

  Grandmother knew that she was getting on Marie’s nerves. She knew that she was so adoring of Marie that there was nothing that the girl could do but despise her. But the more Marie abhorred her, the more madly she tried to somehow possess her. Isn’t that the way that love works?

  One night she put her hand on Marie’s belly. She knew that Marie was still awake. She knew that Marie wanted to push her hand off, but she also knew that for some reason, Marie could not. Her hand had put a magic spell on Marie.

  She put her hand down Marie’s underwear. Marie was helpless. Marie was desperate for her to do what she was about to do. She put her finger on Marie’s sweet cunt and began to rub. When Marie moaned, everything in the world was filled with sweetness. When it was over, Marie rolled over, still pretending she was asleep.

  The next night she kissed between Marie’s legs. One officer had given Grandmother a bottle of champagne. He had six cases of it. She and Marie burst it open in their room with the lights off. It was warm and the suds poured all over their knees.

  * * *

  There was a light layer of snow all over Paris, as though it had been dusted like a bundt cake. Grandmother’s coat left her chilly. It was threadbare and had gone to seed and the lining had long since been torn. She had always hated the cold so much. Her father would laugh and say that she needed more meat on her bones. She took the money that she had made and went to see a dressmaker that an officer had told her about. She wanted to get herself a coat that fit her and kept her warm and made her feel like a human being again.

  She looked at the reflection of her body in the dressmaker’s full-length oval mirror that had the ghostly effect of making her look as though she were lying at the bottom of a tiny boat adrift on a river. She felt a little bit good about herself when she noticed how much she looked like an adult. She was able to buy herself a coat. She had a little bit of independence and power in the world now.

  She knew that her foster mother wouldn’t say anything about her coat. She had started to give money that she made to Marie’s mother and nobody could say anything to her after that. They left Grandmother in peace. Actually, Marie’s mother wondered why she even wanted to stay in that crappy little apartment. After all, she could get her own little place with wallpaper with birds on the wall and a big brass bed by the window.

  And Marie was not jealous, because Grandmother had bought an identical coat for her. Whatever she bought for herself, Grandmother also bought for Marie. They had matching black high heels with buckles across them. They had matching blue dresses with a circle of little white buttons shaped like roses around the neckline.

  Marie’s feelings for Grandmother changed from moment to moment. She would feel so incredibly good about herself when Grandmother was around. She would feel like a million bucks. She knew that it was Grandmother who had made her feel so cocky and bold and full of herself. Her mother didn’t really care for her, her father knew nothing about her, and her brothers were little better than thugs. They would never be able to see the things in her that Grandmother saw.

  She loved her new things. No one in her life had ever bought her anything special or given her any gifts. But as much as she loved these pretty things, she loved revenge more. What would make her feel the most good about herself would be to see Grandmother destroyed.

  * * *

  When they were standing next to each other, Grandmother and Marie would always be touching. They always walked down the street with their arms linked. But one chilly afternoon, when Grandmother tried to take her hand, Marie jerked it angrily away. Then when they were in the secrecy of the stairwell up to the apartment, Grandmother tried to kiss Marie. Marie gave her a violent little shove.

  “Why do you want to kiss me?” Marie asked. “You spend all day kissing people. You must be exhausted.”

  “Why would you say something like that?” Grandmother demanded, helplessly.

  “Anyways, I can’t afford it. I know that it’s very expensive to kiss you. I guess that I have no choice but to find somebody who kisses for free.”

  “You’re not going to get a boyfriend, are you? You’re not going to let anybody touch you?” Grandmother asked. She was seized by panic.

  “Are you nuts? How can you ask me something like that? You let men stick their things in you? And you don’t want me to even hold hands with a boy?”

  “It’s not the same.”

  “You think I’m wicked and that I have no feelings at all. You think that it doesn’t bother me that you sleep with those men. You think that I have a rock for a heart.”

  “Do you want me to stop? I will.”

  “What, so then you can mooch off my family again and go around acting like you’re afraid of your own shadow? No, thanks.”

  She stormed ahead of Grandmother into the apartment. Grandmother sat down on a step and started to weep in frustration, and her sobs echoed so loudly in the stairwell that it was as though she were a monster. Coming down the stairs, the neighbours stepped nervously around her as though her crying might be contagious. It was so difficult to love Marie. If only she could make Marie happy, then all her problems would go away. Not even the war or the winter would matter.

  Grandmother knew that Marie had feelings for her. But she also knew that Marie was ashamed. After they made love one night, Marie sat up in bed and glared at Grandmother angrily.

  “This is what you do, isn’t it? You seduce people. You imagine that I’m going to continue doing this filthy thing with you for the rest of your life. Well, you’re wrong. This is disgusting. I can’t wait for the liberation.”

  * * *

  Marie knew that any mention of the end of the occupation bothered Grandmother. She would bring it up every time they were together. Marie said that, once the Germans were out, they were going to serve cake to everyone and give out medals for valorous deeds. She said that there would be fireworks. People would throw their boots into the sea. She said that there would be black jazz players on the roof who would play all night. Marie was even practising some English words in order to make a speech to thank the American soldiers for helping to liberate her country.

  For some reason, Grandmother was never included in any of these plans. It was somehow implicit that she wasn’t going to be a part of the festivities. Moreover, Marie seemed to imply that Grandmother would be punished for what she had been up to with German soldiers. Marie informed Grandmother that they would give twelve-page reports on what each citizen had been up to during the war. All the other children would go back to being children, but she didn’t know if she would be allowed to. Where was she going to live? Who would look after her? She had such a bad reput
ation that nobody would marry her.

  Once the war was over, everyone could stop pretending certain things. You could stop pretending that people who hadn’t come home were coming home. Her father wasn’t coming back. She would be homeless. Marie was her only home now. And so time passed.

  * * *

  When the occupation was over, a new sort of terror immediately began. They had to take their aggression out on someone and the Germans were leaving. They couldn’t just go back to ordinary life. They were like a cat that had climbed up on a table and had lapped up a glass of whiskey and was now so drunk that it was taunting dogs. They looked for collaborators to prove that they were not collaborators. They ferreted out the weak to prove that they were strong. They wanted to be good, so they acted in an evil way.

  People were going crazy when Charles de Gaulle took over as president. As a form of celebration, people threw tomatoes and rocks at Grandmother as she walked down the street. They called her a whore for having slept with Germans. Her head was shorn, because she had been cornered by a group of men who shaved her hair off. A girl who had fallen in love with a German soldier and had been living with him was tied up and forced to walk down the street naked while three-year-olds screamed at her, calling her a whore.

  It was Marie who had turned Grandmother in. As she walked down the street, she held her head high. She didn’t care. Her heart was already broken. They could not touch her.

  * * *

  A year later, Grandfather was still dressed in his Canadian uniform, celebrating the end of the war in the streets of Paris, when he chanced upon her. Grandfather had spent the whole war hoping most of all to stay alive, but also, when he had a moment to daydream, hoping that he might get a chance to see Paris. And here it was, in its wonderful glory. The buildings were so elegant and the cast iron balconies grew on the sides of them like beautiful climbing vines that covered the whole city. Who would imagine that a boy from Saint-Henri in Montreal would find himself here, in the city of culture and refinement?

 
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