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The girl who was saturda.., p.22
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       The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.22

           Heather O'Neill
 

  “Let’s name her Fleur, after the skunk with the long eyelashes.”

  “Let’s name her Nouschka. I love your name.”

  “Let’s build her hundreds of snowmen and make sure every snowman has a hat on its head.”

  “Let’s never ever make her wear a woolly, scratchy sweater.”

  “Let’s not tell her about death for a long, long time.”

  We didn’t have a philosophy of child rearing. But like every couple who are expecting a child, we thought that we would do it differently. We would do it our own way. We would be the parents that we hadn’t had. People who have had bad childhoods are always excited when babies are on the way. They make the mistake of believing that just because they know what a horrible childhood is, they will know the opposite.

  CHAPTER 41

  Horses

  THE NEWS SAID THAT THE PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS was postponing the referendum. It didn’t seem like anything actually ever happened in Québec. History was something that happened elsewhere. I mean, they hadn’t changed the French store signs since the thirties. The things that were written on the bathroom walls had been scribbled there in 1964 by wild girls with beehives.

  But then again, I was pregnant. That seemed like the kind of thing that could never really happen either. I was walking home from Place des Arts when I suddenly felt numb and absolutely still. I put my hands on my belly. The strangeness of it just struck me. Everything all around me, even the beetles, was filled with grace.

  There was a bunch of doves flying around outside. A magician had passed out drunk and he had left his top hat upside down. Doves had been flying out for hours.

  I had started to have creepy dreams. I had a dream where I had a baby that was made out of plastic, and I put it on the radiator and it began to melt. I had a dream that I traded the baby for a bag of cherries at the grocery store and then regretted it intensely afterwards. In one dream I had a baby that had little duck feet, and it paddled sadly back and forth across the bathtub. I dreamt that I had given birth to a wee calf, and I had to take the calf for walks at night so it could eat the neighbours’ roses.

  I went to see the doctor for the first time. I was only three months along. The fetus was a small drop of amber with a heart that was already a million years old. I stood on the scale at the clinic. I held up my pink T-shirt that had the letters for the rock band Indochine ironed on it in glittery letters. The doctor said it was normal to still be skinny.

  “Oh,” I said. I felt about five years old.

  He gave me a photocopied page with different charitable organizations that I could call if I needed help. I went to see the Grey Nuns and they gave me a plastic bag filled with clothes. I laid them on the bed. There was a sweater with a monkey holding a banana on it. I couldn’t even look at it. It broke my heart. I put the clothes in the bottom drawer. I decided to just not think about the baby. It was just a piece of macaroni with a heartbeat, after all.

  I had started to be terrified of the baby. I imagined a young boy with curly black hair, smoking a cigarette. Maybe he would sit by himself and read sci-fi novels. I worried I would have a kid who was bad at school and afraid of everything.

  Then one morning I was making coffee and I suddenly felt as if I had just stepped off a spinning ride at the amusement park. I was sick to my stomach. I went into the tiny bathroom to throw up. I looked at the reflection of my face in the mirror above the sink. The colour had drenched out of my face. Ah, I thought. So the baby has decided to launch its first attack. The first time you really, really notice someone is the first time they hurt you. When you realize that they have the ability.

  There wasn’t a single woman in my family that I could ask any advice from. It was sad to have to just read pamphlets that the doctor had given me. I brought it up to Raphaël when he sat down for breakfast. He was wearing his pyjama bottoms and reading the paper. He put it down.

  “What do you think that you are missing out on by not having a mother? Someone to help you put your lipstick on? That would be something, because you really don’t know how to put lipstick on. You, like, put it on half of your mouth and then get bored.”

  “I just wish that I had a mother to talk to about things right now.”

  “You’re lucky that you didn’t have a mother, because you didn’t have to listen to shit about your horoscope.”

  It was strange that he made that comment about horoscopes, because he himself checked his religiously in the newspaper every morning.

  “Yeah, but Véronique did all these practical, responsible things for you.”

  “My mother was always combing my bangs and then the comb would scratch my nose. I hated that. It’s like, my bangs are fucking straight enough, woman!”

  I laughed despite myself.

  “I’m serious,” I said.

  “So am I. Mothers are overrated. The smell of their perfume gets on you and just lingers all day. They wake you up in the middle of the night to check if you are breathing. They make you wear shoes with buckles. You shatter all their hopes and dreams and they never let you forget about it.”

  “I think that if I had had a mother, I might have done a lot of things very differently.”

  “If you had had a mother, then you wouldn’t have married me.”

  “I would just like to know what I’m supposed to do with a baby.”

  “Ask Loulou.”

  “Loulou doesn’t know. Once Loulou forgot us in the grocery cart at the store. The delivery guy brought us home.”

  “How can he be so absent-minded?”

  “He’s old.”

  “Why does it seem like Loulou’s been old since, like, 1924? Has he been old since he was twelve years old, or what? Anyways, I know what to do with babies; don’t worry about it.”

  “How do you know what to do with babies?”

  “My little brothers were always swallowing stuff. They used to swallow the house keys and shit. I would have to give them the Heimlich manoeuvre. I’d just go around the table, giving each one of them the Heimlich first thing in the morning.”

  “You know how to change diapers?”

  “I can change diapers in twenty-three seconds. I have the Montréal junior championship.”

  “On top of skating? That’s very impressive.”

  Then I threw my hands up in despair. “Maybe I’ll go ask Nicolas.”

  “What are you talking about? Nicolas never raised his own kid.”

  “Well, I haven’t seen Nicolas in a while anyways.”

  “We saw him two days ago.”

  “Yes, but it was only for ten minutes and then he had to run. It’s hard to get him to spend any time with me.”

  “Because he’s punishing you.”

  Raphaël was sort of miffed at Nicolas. We’d run into him at the grocery store and he congratulated us on the baby and suggested we name it Chef Boyardee if it was a boy. I wasn’t sure what had annoyed Raphaël more: Nicolas’s stupid joke or how hard I had laughed at it.

  “Well, if he has no advice about the baby, at least he remembers being a baby. Do you know that Nicolas remembers having been in the womb? He remembers not having any eyes. He said that my foot was in his face for five months.” As I was talking, I started getting dressed. I was tying my shoes as fast as I could. “I know that it can’t possibly be true, but imagine if it were. That would mean that Nicolas would know exactly what on earth the baby was thinking right now.”

  I was getting very excited about the prospect of having a highly conceptual, nonsensical conversation with Nicolas. He wouldn’t be able to give me any advice, but at least he could distract me from worrying, which was probably even better.

  “Fine,” said Raphaël. “Let’s go see my mother.”

  We went over to the building that was across the street from the one I’d grown up in but might as well have been a thousand miles away, because we had never had the courage to knock on one another’s doors.

  I sat in the living room with Véronique while Ra
phaël sat in an armchair, fidgeting and crossing and uncrossing his long legs. I, on the other hand, felt relaxed around his mother. Véronique was overweight, but she was undeniably beautiful. That’s why she had four kids with different fathers. Her round face was as soft as clouds. She sat on the couch, wearing an orange kimono covered in blue butterflies. I sat on an armchair across from her in a ski jacket and a black and white striped sweater dress. Raphaël stood up and began pacing around the room. He was wearing a track suit, maybe because he wanted this visit to go quickly.

  “You’ve been good to him really. You don’t sleep around. You haven’t put on any weight even though you’re pregnant. That’s one of my main problems, really. I’ve always put on weight during the first few months of my relationships.”

  Raphaël grunted in dismay. “Véronique, why don’t you tell Nouschka about what a free spirit you used to be? I can never get enough of those stories. Those stories are delightful. Tell her about how some random guy took your picture on the street. I love that story, Véronique.”

  “Stop calling me Véronique.”

  “Please just explain to Nouschka how you cut out coupons from a circulaire and then bring them to the store to trade them for diapers.”

  “I’ve been dyeing my hair black in the sink. It takes three packages.”

  “Focus, woman!”

  “Raphaël used to be so good with all his little brothers when they were babies. He’s a natural with babies. Raphaël used to sing the song ‘Marcia Baila’ by Rita Mitsouko and that was the only thing that would put them to sleep. It was so cute.”

  Raphaël sighed and smacked his forehead. Véronique had no intention of stopping. He went into the kitchen.

  “He’ll never be able to hold a job for very long. There are just some men that are like that. I wish that I could help you out with some money, but you know that I just absolutely can’t.”

  She hurried into the other room and came out with one of his trophies.

  “He put these outside the house once in the garbage can. I went and got them back when he wasn’t looking and I hid them at the back of the closet. I think that he liked figure skating, to be honest. He’s just too hard on himself. Every time he likes something he gets very upset.”

  “Tell her why I’m really like this, though,” Raphaël said. He had walked back in the room with a tall glass of water in his hand.

  “It’s because he’s a Scorpio,” Véronique said.

  “I didn’t have a chance, you see.” He handed me the glass of water even though I hadn’t asked for it. “Could you just tell Nouschka how to burp a baby? Can you be useful? Go ahead, begin. I don’t have all day. I have no idea what you’ll say to her if I leave you alone together.”

  “Even when he was little, everything upset him. He was extraordinarily sensitive, you know. Even the doctor said he’s extraordinarily sensitive.”

  “In reference to what? A diaper rash? Has anyone been around asking questions about my past?”

  “No.”

  “Why did you answer so quickly?”

  Véronique immediately looked apprehensive because she knew that he was acting strangely. Her seismograph for picking up an oncoming quake was much more sensitive than mine.

  “I don’t want you to tell anyone about my childhood, Véronique. You got that?”

  Raphaël left the living room and headed toward his bedroom. I think that Raphaël was always afraid the tabloids would dig into his history or interview his coach and learn his secret. Or maybe he thought that if they thought long and hard enough about him, they would just be able to figure it out.

  I sat in the living room with Véronique, as it sounded like Raphaël was tearing apart his room.

  “He was always a kind of maddish. But I think that it was his coach who didn’t treat him right,” she whispered. “Did he talk to you about that? I can’t bring it up. He gets bananas.”

  While Véronique was talking, Raphaël came back in the room and started going through all the photograph albums, removing pictures of himself as a child. There was a photo on the living room wall of Raphaël at about twelve years old, wearing a big brown fur coat over a red turtleneck. He had a bit of a moustache above his lip even then. Even in one where he was wearing a plastic cowboy hat and standing behind a white cake with pink frosting, he looked troubled. Véronique put her hand up as if to say she was going to keep her hands clean of this mood.

  Raphaël put the photos in a plastic bag, which he shoved down the front of his pants. He took my hand and led me out of the apartment. As if there was some reason to be in a hurry.

  As he was walking down the street, he checked to see if the coast was clear, then threw the bag into a public trash can.

  The next day he gave me the binders filled with his school work. He asked me if he could trust me to shred them.

  “Of course,” I said.

  He left the apartment, off on some other mission. I started taking out the pages of math equations. I ripped them into four or five pieces, then threw them in the trash. I was sure that he was going to complain that it wasn’t a professional job.

  I found an oral report that he had read in front of the class. I remembered that day. No one could hear what he was saying, because he was mumbling.

  HORSES

  By Raphaël Lemieux

  Horses are generally large. They are bigger than many such animals. Many such animals that are too many to name. Among which are the pig, dog, cat, rabbit and chicken. People are fond of horses because they take you many places on top of them. You will sometimes find a police officer riding on top of one. Horses are very fast and win many races. They cannot break a leg like you or I. I broke my leg last year and was not shot. This is unfair. They do not need gas like a car. Their children are called fouls.

  Raphaël was right to destroy all the evidence of who he was as a little kid. Nobody wants to be reminded of what they could have been. If there was a time machine invented and we could all travel back in time to see ourselves as children, we would never recover.

  CHAPTER 42

  My Husband Is Crazier than Yours

  I WENT TO LOOK FOR RAPHAËL AT THE POLISH Social Club a few days later. He hadn’t come home the night before. There was a woman singing on the stage. She strummed a ukulele and pouted her lips abruptly as she said each word, as if she was spitting out sunflower seeds. It was a style of French singing where you spoke the words really emphatically, as if you were lecturing a child.

  A cat was in the corner, yawning. It looked like an insomniac in striped pyjamas.

  Raphaël was drunk. He was sitting with a blond girl on his lap. I walked over, took a drink off their table and threw it on her. Everyone was startled and started to laugh, even the girl, who shook the beer off her hair like a wet dog that had just come in from the rain. I had thought that we were happy again. It had been the loveliest thing on the planet. That was the last time we were happy in the city.

  After that night Raphaël would check his horoscope in the mornings as if he was checking his stocks. He bought six different newspapers and had a Spanish man help him translate the horoscope from a paper from Mexico City.

  He started laughing at odd times. There was something a little terrifying about people who laughed at a joke too long or at jokes that weren’t funny.

  “Are you going to work?” I asked him as he was leaving the apartment one night.

  “No. I’m all washed up. I’ve got a Grade Eight education. The only work for me is robbing jewellery stores. And my heart’s just not in it.”

  “Weren’t you going to go back to school, for nursing?”

  “There’s a reason for you to go to school. You write all those clever essays in your notebooks. You know how to do something like that. It is very hard for a person to go to school once they have rejected the linearity of time. It presupposes that we are moving forward through time and that a gradual accumulation of facts is necessary. Some of us are going backwards through time. As su
ch. We are unlearning loads of information.”

  He walked out the door. He frustrated me the way that Nicolas did. They didn’t act as if they would ever be twenty-five. They didn’t have any sort of long-term plan. They were just trying to get through the day. They were often involved in plans that weren’t actually plans. Complicated plans that left them exactly in the same place that they started out. They put on all sorts of costumes and affectations, but they couldn’t get away from the idea of who they were as children. Nicolas was Peter Pan. Raphaël was Captain Hook. But it was the same old story being told by a slightly different character.

  It would be okay—we could make it—if we both did something small every day to make sure that we were getting our lives together. I wanted to have some fun in life too. I didn’t want to have to do all of the work while he got to go mad. I didn’t like to be like the ant, all industrious and worried, while Raphaël went around being a grasshopper, all wild and upset and singing at the moon. I felt terribly selfish thinking this way, but I couldn’t go down with Raphaël. I had to have my own trials and tribulations. Jesus, I was twenty years old!

  I walked into the kitchen one night. Raphaël was naked and running a magnet from the fridge door that was in the shape of a pina colada all over his body. He wanted to see if he could detect any magnetism. I glanced at the workout sheet he’d put on the fridge. He had been up late the night before and had apparently done three thousand sit-ups. He told me that he thought that some scientists had put a transistor in him when he was a little kid so that they could monitor the effects of child abuse. He said they were writing a book about him. He was going to ask at the hospital if he could have his whole body X-rayed so that they could find the receiver and remove it.

  Try as I might, I could no longer make sense of Raphaël’s behaviour. In retrospect, I should have done something. But he had been to the doctors and that hadn’t worked. His family was useless. What other options did I have? There was a cult around the corner, where a twenty-seven-year-old who wore a pair of pants without a belt lectured about macrobiotics. There was a hypnotist above the legal clinic who wiped away all your problems for sixty-five dollars. There was a tarot card reader on the first floor of our building. None of them seemed like viable solutions.

 
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