The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.32Heather O'Neill
“You know,” Noëlle continued, “there were times when I put my hands on my belly and I just knew that the two of you were special and that you were miracles. My parents had told me that I shouldn’t feel any attachment at all, because I had to give you both away. But I lay in bed and whispered that I loved you and that you would be capable of anything.”
The homeless man next to Noëlle gently put his hand on her back, on the beautiful blue jacket.
“I’m so glad to hear you say that,” the man said. “Because I have my shit and you have your shit. And everybody has their shit. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come together at the end.”
Noëlle flinched. Then the man stood up and took my hand in both of his and shook it before walking away. I felt no aversion to him; with his plastic bag filled with newspaper clippings, his two scarves, and rubber bands around his wrist, he was one of my people. She was the one who weirded me out. I was over-analyzing her actions and couldn’t even begin to think about her touching me. But that was suddenly okay. It was still sort of sweet in its own way.
“Did you used to make up stories about Nicolas and me?” I asked.
A grin spread almost involuntarily on her face and she blushed. She looked impressed and sort of delighted that I knew about this. After all, it was from both her and Étienne that I had inherited the desire to tell stories.
“I used to imagine that I found a suitcase as I was walking home. I opened the suitcase and I saw two babies wrapped up in clothes and underwear and laughing. There was a Montréal address on the label. So then I closed the suitcase and brought it there. I knew that it wasn’t possible to keep you. You did not belong to me.” She paused. “I was fourteen. I had to invent stories to understand what had happened.”
In Québec the church was always on the lookout for storytellers. The priests carefully read the essays written by children to choose which ones were right for the cloth. They didn’t look for piety or essays about Jesus or Santa Claus or anything like that. They looked for the ones who wrote about strange things, for the ones who questioned religion.
Like a boy who wrote a story about how he looked at his reflection in the mirror and discovered that it was no longer doing what he wanted it to do. It was sticking its tongue out at him and it smiled when the boy frowned.
Or one who wrote about taking a hot bath and then being shrunk. In the tale, he went to live in the walls with the cockroaches. They played dominoes all day long and he discovered that he quite liked being vermin.
A young girl revealed that she drank a bottle of invisibility potion. But nothing changed for her and she realized that she had been invisible all along. She should have just saved the money that she had given to the drugstore clerk.
The church had to get these children on their side. If they didn’t, they would end up becoming philosophers and writing existential tracts that would try and kill God. A certain kind of modernist novel was going to make the church irrelevant.
The priests went to collect these children. They had them pack their little suitcases immediately. They would barely have time to say goodbye to their eight or nine brothers and sisters. They shouted adieu to their fat grandfather in his underwear, who waved back with his hand whose pinky was missing from frostbite.
They left behind their tiny houses with all the mice in the walls. They would not be writing about these rooms. They would not be finding any metaphors that would convey what their lives were like. There would be no stories set in these Québécois houses. The children were to give lectures and sermons instead.
It might seem like the easier way to get rid of a poet would be to just take him out to the backyard, have him kneel between the cans with tomato plants in them and put a bullet in his brain. But they knew from history that it doesn’t work to kill a writer. Every time you shoot a poet, a dozen new ones are born. It’s like plucking a grey hair.
I EMPTIED THE MAILBOX WHEN I GOT HOME. There were about ten advertisements for different barbecued chicken restaurants. How many barbecued chicken restaurants could there be in one city, I wondered. There was the Hydro bill with untold amounts of electricity that we had consumed over past winters and still hadn’t paid for. And then there it was: my high school diploma. I was the first person in the family to obtain one. We all had the brains to get high school diplomas. We just lacked the focus and patience. We lacked a very basic ability to sit the fuck still and let somebody else tell us something.
Here it was. I don’t know why I was so proud. It really wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t the sort of thing that a twenty-year-old would normally be proud of. But it was so unlike anything that would normally happen in the Ballad of Little Nicolas and Nouschka. It was so unnewsworthy that the tabloids would sneer. It was just a small achievement that belonged to me. It meant that anything was possible.
I passed a teenage boy singing in the metro. He was singing an Étienne Tremblay song. It was about being noble and being proud no matter what. All you needed in life was your dignity. Just a little dignity and a cup of coffee. I was going to be okay.
I had just stepped into the lobby of the building when my water broke. It spilled all over the tiles. All over the blue and red tiles.
I NAMED THE BABY PAPILLON AFTER THE BOOK that Raphaël had been reading when we started trying to date one another. All babies that are born to twenty-year-olds have ridiculous names.
I shared the hospital room with four other women. There were flowers in vases all over the place. The relatives of the other girls had brought them. I had a vase of white carnations from one of the neighbours in Loulou’s building who had visited.
“Poor thing,” the neighbour said when I told her the baby’s name. “He will be queer.”
Véronique came to see the baby too. I liked sharing the baby with Raphaël’s family. The baby made them all weepy and happy. They looked and looked for Raphaël’s face. But the baby just looked like a tiny stranger with a giant nose who we had never met before.
Loulou gave me a bin of clothes that Nicolas and I had worn as children. There was the tiniest pair of polyester bell-bottoms the world had ever seen and a red shirt with a large butterfly collar. They were such funny outfits. We had run around the neighbourhood in them and now the baby would too. It broke my heart to remember that Nicolas was once so small that he could fit into one of these outfits.
After I got home from the hospital, I came to realize quickly that I was a terrible slob. I was overwhelmed by all the parenting. All my school books from university were covered in Pablum and jam. Noëlle had visited the apartment a few times. She always helped me clean up, and I was getting more and more used to her presence.
The neighbours were always walking right into my apartment and offering to bathe the baby for me. They screamed at me for letting a giant cat doze in the cradle with him. I spilt coffee on his head while drinking as I walked along. I begged him not to tell anyone.
But the funny thing was that I was getting an unbelievable amount of stuff done. I would study like a fiend during the baby’s nap time. I put him in daycare even though he was too young to go. I had no time to fool around.
I sort of hated being a mother. But it was a family trait to hate being a mother. I just went about the job every day and it seemed to work. A lot of things in life that suck and are a drag aren’t half bad.
Papillon was perfectly healthy. He liked to smack himself on the head with his rattle and then look around furiously to see who had done it. If he could get his hands on one, he would shake the newspaper about wildly. He reminded me of Étienne when he was tearing through the pages frantically in order to get to an article about himself. He actually had Étienne’s fantastic nose. Étienne had written a lullaby for Papillon and had sung it on Jean-Pierre Coallier’s show. But then he had never actually come over and sung it to the actual baby.
I picked Papillon up out of
One chilly spring day, I walked to the laundromat. I had a pile of clothes in the perambulator, on top of the baby. I put all his shitty pyjamas in the washing machine. I put quarters in the slot. And I had that wonderful feeling that things were doable. The baby was sleeping, so I started writing my Guy de Maupassant essay on top of the washer.
When I shut the dryer door, my stomach dropped in a terrible way. Raphaël was standing at the next machine, tossing underwear into it from a basket. He was wearing a brown leather jacket and purple jogging pants. He didn’t even acknowledge me.
The strangest thoughts crossed my mind. How had I been so stupid as to think that he was dead? Did I time-travel to the past, or had he time-travelled to the future? Was he going to be upset with me for having thought that he was gone? Did he have a new girlfriend? Had he lied to me about being dead just so that he could see what my reaction would be—and had I completely let him down with my reaction?
Then he turned and I saw that it obviously wasn’t Raphaël. It was just some boy with a mop of black hair and a severe expression.
This kept happening.
I thought I saw Raphaël standing in line at the movie theatre with a girl. I saw Raphaël riding down the street on a bicycle, hands free. I saw him flipping through a box of records. I saw him go into a pet store. I was certain it was him. He was off to get himself a new dog, of course. I pushed the umbrella stroller into the store. All the stupid, clangy bells were banging against the door. The sound broke the spell. When he turned, I saw that he had a thin face and looked nothing like Raphaël.
Raphaël had died, but I hadn’t really gone into mourning, had I? Instead I had made a very concerted effort to get on with my life. I had to. As a mother I had to coax the baby down from the ledge of despair every half-hour. When the baby started crying at the laundromat, I looped my thumbs around one another, making my hands into butterflies and flying them wildly around my head until he laughed. And then I realized that through all these gestures, I had distracted not only the baby from anxiety and sorrow but also myself.
On the way back from the laundromat, the baby and I stopped at a park and sat on a bench, waiting for a swan to pass by. There were all these strange things in the universe that you couldn’t figure out what on earth they were there for. And then you realized that they were just there to charm little children. They were there for wee babies to marvel at. They were there to make sure that babies weren’t so very sad—so that they could stop crying once in a while. To distract them from the fact that they had to sit in their soiled diapers without a penny to their names. I pointed for Papillon to look at the swan, and he stared and stared. A man walking by stopped to say that I was an awfully pretty mama.
I was surprised that men still hit on me with a tiny baby. I was already feeling like dating again. It made me feel guilty. I still had this instinct that I should try and stay faithful somehow to Raphaël. And who cheats on a dead person? I worried that Papillon would be another Tremblay raised by a single parent and haunted by their missing parent. Tremblay children seemed to be doomed to this fate.
I noticed the plastic on the steps was loosening as I pulled the carriage up the stairs. There is nothing like a baby to make you get on with life. No matter what on earth is happening, the baby will just wail at the top of its lungs and get things moving. Without the screaming of babies, we would all stop dead in our tracks; we would all lie in our beds daydreaming for the rest of eternity.
The referendum was no longer on the news. We had to get back to the business of daily life. Most of our life was spent between the revolutions. Most of our lives happen on regular days that are not holidays or saint’s days. Days when there’s no call for you to put on a mask, stand on a stool and blow kisses to the sound of an accordion. When I got to the second flight of stairs, I saw that Adam was waiting for me.
After all the polemics and all the debates about the two official languages of Canada, here was an English boy sitting in a stairwell, looking to be loved by a French girl.
Adam came down to help grab an end of the baby’s carriage. He tilted it up too high and books fell out of the basket beneath the carriage and scattered on the floor around us.
He had a leather satchel slung over his shoulder. He had gone back to law school. His hair was cut short. He wasn’t dressed ironically but was wearing a striped sweater and jeans. When we were cast out of heaven, God wished us luck and gave us a watch as a parting gift. We had started thinking of ourselves not in terms of things that we had done, but in terms of what we were going to do.
After we got the baby up the stairs, Adam and I went to pick up the mess, laughing. We were talking about school and life and plans.
When you are born and put into your crib, the whole world sticks their heads over the tops of the bars. They give you a name and they have all sorts of different ideas about you. These are all just strange fairy tales. When they tell you what you could be as an adult, they might as well be telling you stories about knaves and cats that wear boots.
But your task is to become something much more unique and surprising than anyone your parents could ever imagine you to be. You have to know that the life you have is completely yours.
About the Author
HEATHER O’NEILL’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was the winner of CBC’s Canada Reads and the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. It was also a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize. O’Neill is a regular contributor to CBC Books, CBC Radio, Public Radio International’s This American Life, The New York Times Magazine, The Gazette and The Walrus. She was born in Montreal, where she currently lives.
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THE GIRL WHO WAS SATURDAY NIGHT
“Heather O’Neill does it again! The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is full of quaking love and true sadness, family rackets, heart attacks, feral cats of all sorts, risky trysts and reeling abandon. O’Neill’s voice is singular, brave, magical and bursting with stark beauty.”
LISA MOORE, Giller Prize–shortlisted author of Caught
“No one’s depiction of the shady side of life is as luminous—or as heart-wrenching—as Heather O’Neill’s.”
NANCY HUSTON, award-winning author of Fault Lines
Cover design by Catherine Casalino
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
Copyright © 2014 by Heather O’Neill.
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EPUB Edition April 2014 ISBN 9781443436489
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Heather O'Neill, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
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