The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.23Heather O'Neill
Instead I hid some extra money from my paycheque in a tin with roses on it under the bed. I didn’t want to admit to myself why I was hiding it. I was hiding it in case I left Raphaël. I had started to do it since I found out that I was pregnant, just in case. But, actually, I knew that he was going to fall apart. I looked around the room guiltily when I was done. No one was there.
Cyrano de Bergerac Is Alive and Well and Living in Montréal
FOR FRENCH CLASS WE WERE ALL SUPPOSED TO write a book review and then go up in front of everyone and read it out loud. Instead of writing a run-of-the-mill report, I decided to get creative. My story was a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac. In the original tale, he feeds all these wonderful and romantic lines to his friend to recite to a girl named Roxane, who he has a crush on. In mine, Cyrano comes up with the tackiest and crudest come-ons possible—something that I was an expert on, having grown up on Boulevard Saint-Laurent.
A couple of students in the class who were going to school to get bigger unemployment cheques slept through the tale. But the others laughed and clapped at the end. The girl my age with giant gold hoop earrings almost fell off her chair and started whistling during my reading. After the class, some of the students came up and told me that they had really enjoyed the story. The teacher took my hand and said that I certainly had a way with words, not unlike the original Cyrano. She wanted to know if I planned to continue on to university after I graduated. I told her I did. She was the first person that I had said that to. I liked the sound of it.
I walked home with a skip in my step. Oh okay, so they were only twenty-four people. They were not exactly literary critics or a crowd of refined aficionados. But it was the first audience that I had captivated on my own. They were not Étienne Tremblay fans. I hadn’t written the story to somehow neurotically capture my father’s fickle love. I had written it for myself. I felt very good about it, indeed. It was something that I could get better at. And if you don’t have something to try and get better at when you are twenty years old, you are lost.
I got home. The referendum was back on and it was going to be in the fall. There was an article in the newspaper talking about how there was going to be a rally of Québec artists and poets to speak out for separatism. I saw that Étienne’s name was on the list.
Oh là là! I thought. What would Étienne do? He wouldn’t have anything prepared. I had seen his notebooks in recent years. He was incapable of sustaining a thought for more than a few lines. His brain was like a bucket with holes in the bottom. It would suddenly be filled with brilliance, but that would all quickly leak away. I didn’t want him to make an ass of himself. He had been such a great orator. I didn’t want him to go out with a whimper. Oh, who knows why I cared, but I did.
I took out a pen to jot down some notes. Why did Québec want to separate this time? We were the original descendants of the losers of the war between England and France for Canada. We had been shit upon for generations. But we were proud and we had finally built our own culture in the sixties. We became urbanized, and in apartments we sat up late reading philosophy books. We got rid of the church, but we stuck to our nationalism. Many of us wanted to leave Canada.
In 1980, after the loss of the first referendum, our premier René Lévesque had famously said, “À la prochaine fois.” Then Québec didn’t sign the new constitution that was drafted in 1981. René Lévesque had the Québec flag flown at half mast.
Finally, a few years ago, Québec made some propositions for constitutional amendments. We wanted it in writing that we were distinct, that there was something weird and special about us. Since we didn’t have our own country, at least we could have some sort of other protection. But Canada said no. They scoffed. We had asked for a consolation prize and they had laughed in our faces.
If they didn’t think we were going to react badly, they were mistaken. We were going to react badly, Nicolas Tremblay–style. We were leaving this damn country that went around calling itself the greatest country in the world.
We were packing our bags. There was nothing that they could say now. Now they were trying anything to make us stay. Like a lover who was trying to talk reason into you as you were throwing your clothes into a suitcase, they went from saying soothing, reconciliatory, sweet things to calling you a complete idiot and telling you that you’d regret it for sure. Well it was too late for all that.
We would go off on our own. We just wanted to speak French in peace. We wanted to whisper dirty things to our loved ones in French. There was a certain kind of love that could only be expressed in this way.
There was no difference between the expressions I like you and I love you in French. You could never declare love like that in English.
We loved in a self-destructive, over-the-top way. A way that was popular in sixties experimental theatre and certain Shakespeare plays. We loved like Napoleonic soldiers in Russia, penning beautiful letters while seated on the corpses of our dead horses. We were like drunk detectives who carried around tiny notebooks full of clues and fell for our suspects. We were crazy about the objects of our affection the way that ex-criminals in Pentecostal churches were crazy about Jesus. We went after people who didn’t know we existed, like Captain Ahab did. We loved awkwardly and hopelessly, like a wolf ringing a doorbell while wearing a sheepskin coat that is way too small for him.
How could you explain that in a political platform? I wondered. I began to write a speech for Étienne. The only way that we would win the referendum would be if the speech-makers came out. Only poetry could win the vote.
They didn’t want to hear these words from a young, silly girl, pregnant with her first child. They wanted to hear it from a man with a huge nose and wild hair. Who tossed women aside and went out into the fray. Everybody wanted Cyrano to show his ugly face and scream his beautiful words. We all knew what a revolutionary looked like, the same way that we knew what a lover was supposed to look like. I knew that I was writing this for Étienne to read. I used to be his mouthpiece. Now he’d be mine.
Turn the Radio Up
RAPHAËL SAID THAT HE WANTED TO GO OUT AND have some fun with his gorgeous pregnant wife. He watched me getting ready. He was drinking Scotch out of a glass. I put on my red dress and was leaning over the bureau to look in the mirror while putting lipstick on. He was wearing a shirt that was the colour of robins’ eggs. The sole was hanging off the bottom of his shoe. It looked like an alligator with its jaw hanging open.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?” I asked.
A skinny girl in a wife-beater T-shirt in Saint-Henri appeared in the mirror. Her stepmother was yelling at her in the background.
“I don’t know why you even spend one second fixing yourself up,” Raphaël said. “You look fantastic all the time. I am going to draw you eight hundred hearts on a piece of paper. And I’m going to mail it to you. And you’re going to open the mailbox and the hearts are going to fly right out of it like hornets coming out of a hornets’ nest.”
“That’s sort of beautiful, baby,” I said. It was actually something that my Cyrano might have said.
I put the lipstick down and turned around with a flourish to indicate that I was ready to go. I was willing to forget everything. If there was one thing that I knew how to do, it was to live in the moment and have a kick-ass time.
“Look at you! I have to take you out into the world. I have to let other people look at you because it’s only fair. You’re so pretty it’s breaking my heart just to look at you. I think that I can see your aura. Glowing out of you.”
“What colour is it?”
“The colour of daffodils, I think, except pink.”
We went dancing at the Armenian Confederation Ballroom. He sat on a chair as I danced the sweetest, tightest lap dance in the history of mankind.
We probably looked like the most romantic couple on earth, like we were having the best time that any two people could poss
When we got home, Raphaël told me not to turn on the lights yet. I stood in the dark as he ran to the window and opened the blinds. He told me that he was certain we’d been followed. I told him that he was imagining things and flicked on the light switches. But for once he actually turned out to be right. Even a crazy clock is right twice a day.
A week later I saw a photograph of me dancing against Raphaël at the ballroom on the corner of the cover of a tabloid. But that wasn’t the worst of it. I opened up the magazine, and inside there was a blown-up photograph of Raphaël as a little kid wearing a silver spandex tuxedo and matching top hat. He had a gold medal hanging around his neck. His father was standing next to him, looking like the proudest man in the world. As I stared at it, I realized that it was one of the pictures that Raphaël had thrown away. In fact, the entire page was covered with photos that Raphaël had crammed in the bin that day on our way home from Véronique’s house. Someone had gone into the garbage and taken out his secret history. I never thought they would go that far.
According to the writer, Raphaël was a tortured genius. He had gone mad doing pirouettes. They found some doctor to say that training children to be professional athletes was a form of child abuse. Supposedly, figure skating was one of the few professions that could lead you to catatonic despair. Space travel was another one. Maybe now that he was with Nouschka Tremblay, he would get his life back on track and he would join the exhibition circuit. I wondered if there was a possibility that Raphaël wouldn’t see this magazine.
A patient in the hospital ended up showing it to Raphaël. He said he couldn’t understand why Raphaël was working as an orderly if he was in a magazine. He brought it home and tore it up in front of me as he carried on frantically.
“I’m going to spend the rest of my life standing in front of this garbage can, tearing myself up. I’m going to climb into the garbage truck myself and just get the fuck out of here. Just be taken and not worry about this shit anymore. Who do they think they are? I’m going to eat my fucking fists.”
Sometimes it was hard to figure out who the press was going to be smitten with. Raphaël didn’t fit into the ordinary, day-to-day life of the city, but he fit into the mysterious world of the tabloids beautifully.
You could have a graduate class on him at Université de Montréal. The prerequisites would have to be Russian Realism, The Death of the American Dream, The Bad Guy in Henry James, French Postwar Existentialism, and Seventies Independent Cinema. You could write your thesis on a man like him. The story wasn’t going to go away in a day. It was going to be drawn out, like a love triangle on a soap opera.
He chased a photographer down the street. He took off his jacket, threw it onto the photographer’s head and then knocked him to the ground. He yelled at everyone who had stopped to view the spectacle that he had every intention of breaking their fucking necks. He walked home in just his undershirt. Everybody got out of the way. He stopped at a store to buy a carton of milk. When he was looking through his pockets for change, the guy at the store told Raphaël to just take it.
He gave great quotes to interviewers who called him up at work, telling them that they were parasites and the like. That’s exactly what the tabloids wanted to hear. They liked their heroes to play hard to get. And to be honest, I thought that having a concrete enemy was doing Raphaël some good. He could stop waiting for demons to come out of the woodwork.
There was a photograph of Raphaël smoking a joint in the park. He was incredibly worried that his probation officer was going to see the photograph and have him thrown in jail or committed again. Which was actually a legitimate fear, I suppose. I wonder if it’s more comforting to a schizophrenic to have legitimate fears or imaginary ones.
He got into a scrape in the hospital elevator with a man who came in right after him with a camera in his hand. It turned out that the man was there to photograph his newborn baby. The hospital suggested that he take a leave of absence. Raphaël walked into the apartment wearing his scrubs, looking distraught.
Running Away from Home
IT WAS WARM OUT. THE TATTOO OF A ROSE ON Raphaël’s arm had grown new leaves and buds and completely surrounded his bicep. My stomach had finally grown big enough that people on the street were able to tell that I was pregnant. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
At work my boss kept laughing and telling me not to lick the envelopes because it would cause my baby to have birth defects. And then she yelled at me for carrying boxes of programs into the office. She said that she would never forgive herself if I had a miscarriage. Finally she told me to take some leave and promised to give me my job back whenever I wanted to come back to work. I was at home during the day with Raphaël.
“We’re going to the country,” Raphaël said. “We’ll be safer there.”
“No, we’re not.”
I didn’t even look up from my math textbook. I hadn’t left the island of Montréal since I was seven years old and visited Étienne in prison. There was just tundra and nothingness out there. I did not want to go into the wilderness, where you were all alone under the stars with nothing to distract you from your thoughts. If you lived a certain way downtown you could get away without having one of your own thoughts for weeks.
“We have to leave tonight,” Raphaël said. “I don’t want to be taken away and be incapacitated. They’ll fill me up with drugs so that I can’t even tie my own shoes. I’ll never be able to support my family.”
I had no intention of leaving the city and living in the boonies. I was outraged. I had put up with all his craziness all winter and I had to draw the line somewhere.
“Well it’s been nice being married to you, baby,” I said. “But I guess we’ll have to get a divorce.”
His face got red, but he didn’t say anything. Instead he launched into action, throwing stuff randomly into a suitcase. He mostly seemed to have packed underwear, an alarm clock and a copy of the novel Comment faire l’amour avec un négre sans se fatiguer.
“Goodbye!” he yelled.
He walked out the door. I sat there listening, but I didn’t even hear the sound of his boots going down the stairs. I knew he was standing outside in the hallway, waiting for me to run after him. Finally, he flung the door back open.
“We’ve got to get out of here now. Stop being a crazy, irrational bitch. Please! I’ve fucking had enough of this. You’ve got five minutes to put your things together.”
“I’m not putting any of my things together.”
“Fine, you don’t need any of it. It’s all cheap, crazy crap anyways.”
“Who do you think you are? Talking to me like this. Do you think I’m going to just sit here and be insulted by a washed-up figure skating schizophrenic? You are sorely mistaken.”
“They’ll all survive without you, you know. Your family.”
I burst into tears. I felt horribly homesick. I wished that I had never left home and that Nicolas and I still lived together in the same bed.
“I feel guilty and terrible,” I said.
“You want to believe that everything and everybody will go to hell when you’re gone. It’s all about your ego.”
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go. Just let me pack a few things.”
I took off the dress that I was wearing and tossed it out the window. I threw my shoes out the window. The coats went down to the ground like descending birds of prey. A homeless man stopped, put on one of my hats and walked off. There were understudies everywhere getting ready to play my part if I left.
I dropped the drawer filled with utensils out the window in order to make a point. It woke up the whole building. I threw the plates. The little glass and ceramic people lay without their heads on the street. Some of them frowned sadly and
Raphaël walked out the door and headed down the stairs with our suitcases. I followed him down in my undershirt and underwear. I’m sure I looked ridiculous; everyone could see my protruding belly. I followed him out onto the street. People leaned out the window to watch, but they didn’t seem to worry very much—or think that they should come down and help us.
I lay down in the street in front of the car. I knew people did that kind of thing—but I didn’t know that I was one of those people. I was so afraid and confused that I almost wanted to let Raphaël run the show, but he was completely crazy.
An older woman wearing an orange housecoat came out of the building. Her white hair was held up in senseless directions with bobby pins. She started walking toward us with her cane.
“Yes, Madame,” Raphaël said fiercely. “Can I help you? Can I help you? This isn’t a show. If it was a show, I would charge admission and you couldn’t afford it. So go back and watch La Petite Vie.”
“I’m going to miss La Petite Vie!” I said from the ground. “I hate you. I used to be a beauty queen.”
“Here we go. Here we go.”
I was suddenly terrified about Nicolas not being able to find me. I thought that if I could just stop anywhere to leave a message for Nicolas, it would be okay. It was just impossibly awful for me to leave the city without telling him. I had promised him earlier in the year that I would never go.
“I just want to go to the pharmacy. I have to go get some Aspirin.”
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes