The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.31Heather O'Neill
Everyone in the neighbourhood was there because it had been on the news. They were all crowding in and squeezing up the staircase. They didn’t know Raphaël enough to really be devastated. In a meaningless world, they were desperate for a ritual. Everyone loves a sad little tune.
I had been trying to learn how to be alone. But there was a way of being alone that made you feel as if you didn’t exist at all. That was too terrible. All these people in their black suits were squeezing in around me. It seemed as if all the people on earth were gone and all that was left of them were their shadows.
The room where the coffin was had light blue curtains on the wall. There were two vases of lilies on either side of the closed coffin. There was a photograph of Raphaël that had been taken on our wedding day next to the casket. There was also a photo of him from school. Who knows where Véronique had found it, seeing as how he had tried to erase all evidence of his past.
A cold, clammy feeling of dread came over me. It was as if my insides were all rotten and black. Someone asked if they could take my coat and I whispered no.
I looked around for someone to comfort me. Loulou was sitting on a chair. He was shaking his head in disbelief the way that he had when I told him that I was marrying Raphaël. He was never going to be able to understand Raphaël. This was just the cherry on the cake. He couldn’t understand any of us as adults. He only really understood tiny babies who needed to have their diapers changed and their bottles put in their mouths.
Someone whispered to me that my father was here. Étienne was indeed standing in the doorway in a raggedy suit, holding a hat up to his heart. I had never actually seen him look so sorrowful. He was almost acting like it was his fault. He walked over and put the tip of his finger on the flower that was pinned on my lapel. I couldn’t for the life of me remember how it got there.
Étienne was trying to say something. Maybe he actually was saying something but his words didn’t seem to be making it to my ears. His words were like badly constructed paper airplanes that just went straight to the floor instead of having any glide. He didn’t have the words to comfort me. Because he would have to have had a lifetime of comforting me in order to be able to comfort me now.
He didn’t have any favourite lullabies. He didn’t know how I felt about love.
For once, nobody cared that Étienne was in the room. Raphaël had stolen the show. It was a marvel. Death pulled the tablecloth out without upsetting any of the dishes that were on it. Everything was the same even though the world was completely altered.
I turned away from Étienne, still looking for someone. I wanted someone to say that it was okay that I hadn’t stayed in the country. I needed to be convinced that there wasn’t something that I could have done. I wanted to feel that I hadn’t betrayed Raphaël, that I hadn’t been the flakiest wife on the whole planet. Someone had to tell me that I had loved him properly.
I didn’t think that I could bear having no one to help me with this terrible confusion and sorrow. Everyone in Raphaël’s family was feeling their own dreadful emotions. It wasn’t for any of them to do anything but deal with their own horrific loss. It would be selfish of me to ask any of them to help me. But I had been desperate, since this happened, for someone to come and let me share my pain with them.
And how could I ask Raphaël to come out of his coffin and whisper to me that I was the most wonderful girl on earth? I thought for a second that I must faint. That was the only way out of this.
Someone asked the people next to me to give him some room. I looked up and saw Misha squeezing through the rows of chairs to come to me. I hadn’t seen him in ages. I don’t know how he knew about the funeral. I never knew how it was that he was always able to follow what was going on with me. He just knew the way that a parent knew and would show up at your school with your lunch before you even realized that you had forgotten it. And I felt about Misha the way that a child feels about a night light when they are afraid of the dark. For some magical reason, its presence would make the existence of monsters impossible.
It was Misha who came and put his big, fat arms around me.
“You’ll be okay, my squishy, tiny sweetheart,” he murmured. “There was nothing that anybody could do for that boy. He was very, very lucky to have had you. Everybody, even the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers, wanted to be married to you. He will always be thinking of you in heaven.”
This made me smile. I knew that he was an atheist. I knew that he was telling me that it wasn’t my fault. There are things that you need other generations to help you with. They knew the tricks of dealing with suffering that have to be given from one person to another. You can’t discover them on your own.
Misha had been to funerals before. Misha knew what to do. He knew what to say. He believed that there was a way out. In Moscow there were a hundred different words for sadness, and one of them was joy.
I put my head against his enormous heartbeat. Up close like that, it was like the rolling of drums. When you are waiting and waiting and waiting for a parade, you finally feel the drums first, rumbling inside of you, and you know the wonderful spectacle is on its way. Before you can actually see the parade, you feel it inside your belly.
And I suddenly wasn’t in shock anymore. I was able to cry and cry and cry.
Sometimes I wondered why we were given all these amazing emotions. How come you got to feel happy while riding the metro with your friends? Why did you feel so awesome getting high? How come you were able to get that rush when someone’s dick went in you the first time? Why did you feel so frightened on a roller coaster? And then I realized that these emotions were given to you just so that you could experience the full impact of death.
Étienne moved away from us. I think that Étienne was suddenly humbled at seeing Misha do what he should have done.
One of Raphaël’s brothers gave a speech. He stood at the podium in a black suit, shaking and reading from his loose-leaf sheet of paper.
“Raphaël was always a really wonderful big brother to me. He would talk us into going to school in the mornings and come pick us up, even though this must have been really, really uncool to the other kids his age. He would always read to us for hours before we went to bed. We would fall asleep and he would still go on reading. Once I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and Raphaël was still reading out loud to us.”
He stopped because his voice was too choked up.
My family would be allowed to get over Raphaël. But his family would never ever be. This was the boy who they had raised. They hadn’t been able to look after him properly. They hadn’t been able to understand what he had been trying to communicate. This was their tragedy. Nicolas in prison was ours.
When we got into the limousine, Étienne was standing outside on the sidewalk. There was no car for him to go in. He had been left behind. He didn’t belong. Who knew what he felt about anything? Who knew if he felt at all? Étienne, who wanted everyone in the whole world to revere him, was the one who was absolutely alone.
Where does a mythology come from? Who are the mythological figures in Québec culture? They were brand new. Whereas the Greeks had Zeus and Athena, we had people who still lived in Verdun. They had a lot to bear on their shoulders. They had to invent the whole world themselves. They were supposed to have supernatural powers and achieve sainthood. When really they just found themselves peering into the mirror above the bathroom sink, looking to see how they were aging. Sitting in the bathtub, smoking a cigarette, terrified of death like the rest of us.
Raphaël’s coffin, piled high with roses, went down the street. All the wee children came to the edge of the sidewalk as if it were the edge of the water. And they crossed themselves as the coffin went by.
So many hearses had passed me on the street since I was a little kid. I had always wondered who was inside them. Raphaël had been inside each and every one of them and I hadn’t even known it.
A Girl fro
THE BABY WAS OVERDUE. I WENT INTO A STORE called Babas. There were these miniature jars of feelings on the shelves at the back. They bought them off of poor kids in foreign countries. They had to sell them so that their families could eat. They were so young anyways, they were still going to get to feel that way on their own so many times before they got old.
A pretty Romanian girl in a threadbare black coat and bare knees had filled six jars with that feeling that everything was new and anything was possible. That was the feeling that was the most in demand. I bought three jars of it.
I caught my reflection in a restaurant window on my way home. I was still always surprised when I caught my reflection out of the blue and saw my huge belly. It was ridiculous to be pregnant and to have such a young face. Like wearing high heels and gym shorts. I suddenly expected the world of myself. I expected the world of the baby and I expected the world of myself. I continued home with the jars clinking in the plastic bag hanging from my wrist.
Ne me quitte pas
IT WAS AN INDIAN SUMMER DAY. I KNEW THAT IT was the last one that we were going to have. It was a late Saturday afternoon and the baby still, still, still hadn’t been born. I was sitting on a hideous old red couch with burgundy flowers on it, which had been left out on a sidewalk near my building. I had pulled a dress on over my belly and the seams had ripped a bit around the zipper. But I was wearing a green coat that I’d buttoned up, so it didn’t matter.
Next to me was a grocery bag with a head of lettuce. I don’t know what I intended to do with it. Maybe put it in the refrigerator and just let it rot. I hadn’t eaten because, frankly, I had been too lazy to make anything for dinner. I was thinking of ordering a bowl of seafood soup for dinner from the hole-in-the-wall Chinese joint. That was my favourite. But there would be octopus tentacles in it and I had heard somewhere that pregnant women weren’t supposed to eat sea creatures. Maybe the baby would turn out blue from the octopus’s ink.
I saw people who I knew, but they crossed to the other side of the street. Maybe they thought that I was going to start talking to them about all my problems and they’d already had enough of them on the news. Or maybe they figured that the Tremblays were such bad luck that they didn’t want to be anywhere near me.
I was waiting for someone who I didn’t actually believe was going to show up. She had never come to see me in my whole life before. I felt like Linus when he was waiting for the Great Pumpkin to come. I decided to sit there and wait for her and pretend that that wasn’t what I was actually doing. There’s no way that I wanted her to come over to my apartment. I didn’t want to be inside, alone with her. I just felt safer on the street corner with all the strangers around for protection.
There she was.
She got out of a car that she’d parked half a block up from where I was sitting. She was wearing a dark blue suit and was carrying a little box in her hand. She probably knocked a lot of the car salesmen dead while wearing that suit. I couldn’t bring myself to stand up; I just stared. She came right over and stood in front of me. She was thirty-five but she looked older. Maybe it was just her style though. Here, no one really dressed like an adult. You might see a sixty-five-year-old wearing a tank top and a pair of Converse sneakers. She smiled and tilted her head in a gentle way that made me feel less self-conscious.
“Do you remember this street?” I asked. “Does it surprise you that we’re in the same spot as where you dropped us off?”
“It’s colourful here!”
She sat down lightly on the nasty old couch. She sat up straight, more than a touch uncomfortable. She had spent her whole life being told where there were germs, what things were dirty, where to sit and where not to sit. I had never really had those instructions, and yet here I was, as fit as a fiddle. I was impervious to germs. I was a survivor. The cooties on this couch were the least of my worries.
My heart was beating in a funny way the closer she got to me. I felt like one of those alley cats that you put your hand out to pet. You know that they want to come close and let you pet them but you know that they are too terrified. I used to play a Petula Clark record and pretend it was my mother singing. I would imagine her singing in the kitchen as she washed the bits of hardened egg off the utensils.
I was afraid to even move a single inch because I might accidentally touch her. If we did touch, it would mean things that we didn’t mean it to mean. I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea. I didn’t want her to think that I wanted her to be my mother, if she didn’t want to be my mother. I was like some absolutely terrified teenager on a first date.
Every time my eyes met hers, they instinctively looked away. Like when you cross glances with someone who is sitting across from you on the bus. She looked across the street. She squinted as if there was someone that she knew on the other side, which of course was impossible. There was no way that anyone she knew would be in the neighbourhood.
“I hear that you’re going to be going to university,” Noëlle said. “That’s a beautiful idea. That’s great.”
My family never asked me anything about this. They had totally forgotten that I was going to university the next semester. They didn’t get that it led to other things. She was proud of the right accomplishments. I paused, still wary of everything I said.
Generally, two people who are that awkward get up and bid adieu. We had to weather the strangeness, hoping that it would eventually pass, like a rainstorm. I needed her. Nicolas and I needed more people in our life. We just weren’t enough for one another. What else could I do? Put an ad in the newspaper asking for mothers and siblings and cousins? How many incredibly awkward things were we going to say to one another before we would be able to talk about the latest episode of La Petite Vie?
“What are your children like?” I asked.
I really couldn’t begin to consider them siblings. I mean, I had no idea whatsoever what a mother was, but I had very grand ideas about what a sibling was. It was somebody who hung out with you in the womb, took baths with you, shared your breakfast, stole your socks, accidentally broke your nose and sometimes had the same dreams as you at night.
“They’re very small still. Julie likes dancing. She takes a lot of lessons. I’m not quite sure what Marcel’s skill is yet.”
My half-brother. My half-sister. Could they possibly add up to even one? They seemed so odd and hapless to me. Poor Fishstick and Dumont! I started laughing a little.
“I don’t talk to my parents anymore,” Noëlle said shyly. “They wanted to make me feel guilty about my mistakes. I don’t want you to feel that way about me. I want to try and be a part of your lives.”
I was shocked by how happy her saying that made me feel. I hadn’t realized until that moment how much the anxiety of not having a mother had occupied a place in my brain. Because now that the weight of it was gone, I almost felt light-headed.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t come to the funeral. I didn’t think that it was the right time. After I heard that Nicolas was in prison and that your husband had died, I knew I couldn’t stay away any longer. I felt I was responsible somehow. So I told my husband about you two.”
“Your husband must have been weirded out by it all.”
“Did he, like, shout, even though he’s not the type of guy who shouts?”
“Yes. But it was normal for him to be upset, for a while.”
I don’t know how I had the audacity to ask all these nosy questions. But I sort of liked that her absolutely ordinary family was having all sorts of reactions to us. I liked that they were upset. I always imagined them smiling, the way that they did in the photographs on the fridge. I liked that Nicolas and I were causing them to throw plates around their kitchen and slam doors.
“I’m sorry I pushed you away the last time. I want to be in your lives,” Noëlle said.
Almost all the important things in our lives are expressed in such simple and unceremonious terms. Mayb
“I picked a little treat up for you on the way. It’s silly.”
I opened up the box and saw a tiny cake inside that was covered in coconut sprinkles and had a rose made out of frosting on top. It was exactly what I wanted to eat. I took it out greedily and bit into it.
I felt sort of guilty about sitting here and getting along somewhat with Noëlle. It was Nicolas who had instigated all this. He was the one who had sought her out. But now here I was, the one who was getting to have a relationship with her.
“Are you going to see Nicolas?” I asked with my mouth full.
“I’m going to visit tomorrow. I talked to him on the phone already.”
She looked for a moment as if she was going to move a lock of hair away from my forehead, but she didn’t have the courage.
“It’s not your job to worry about him, Nouschka.”
She would talk to Nicolas. She would be Nicolas’s friend. There was someone else who had offered to take care of Nicolas for me. I just sat for a moment, wiping the icing off my mouth with a little paper napkin that she took out of her pocket. A peaceful feeling was coming over me. That was it. That was how mothers calmed children down. Nicolas and I had always been in a constant state of agitation. Mothers took your problems from you and fretted about them for you, even if there was no reason on earth why they should, even if you had done everything to create your own mess.
A homeless man sat on the other side of the couch. I thought that she might be disgusted with him, but instead she just smiled at him. There was a button missing on my jacket. It had popped off when I had pulled on it too hard, trying to cover up my belly. Noëlle pointed to it.
“You need a new button.” As she almost touched the spot where the button should go, a chill went through my body.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes