The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.4Heather O'Neill
He had never been arrested for anything serious. People were always calling the cops on Nicolas for things that weren’t even crimes. There was a woman who called the police on him because he was practising karate moves in her backyard in just his shorts and T-shirt. The neighbours called the police because he was singing a Jean Leloup song at the top of his lungs in the shower.
Once we were at a restaurant and he yelled at the waitress that she was a tease because she wouldn’t bring the ketchup over. The cops showed up five minutes later.
It was nothing for the cops to be at the door looking for Nicolas. It was the only time that we would get up early. The cats would fall off whatever bureau they were sleeping on. Nicolas would pick us up these Chinese dumplings in Chinatown on his way home after being booked. He would be home sometimes before we’d gotten out of our pyjamas.
I curled up in Nicolas’s arms. I turned and looked him in the face. He opened his eyes.
“You wouldn’t believe what I got up to today at the Ukrainian Centre.”
Nicolas didn’t answer. He just stared at me with a strange, unhappy look.
“What?” I asked.
“Est-ce que ça te dérange? We don’t even know our mother’s real name.”
I flipped over, not wanting to hear what Nicolas had to say next.
“I bet she hasn’t even thought about us for years. I bet she doesn’t give even two shits about us.”
“Don’t do this again. It’s insane. Whenever something is bothering you, instead of dealing with it, you go on a rant about our mother.”
When Nicolas was little and was mad at Loulou, he would lie on his bed and whimper, “I want to go live with my mother.” It seemed impossibly strange. Where in his head did this missing of our mother exist, since it seemed not to exist in mine?
“She’s real. That’s what you don’t understand. She’s out there drinking tea out of a porcelain cup that matches the teapot. She’s scratching lottery tickets. She’s watching television. It creeps me out to the bone. It’s unholy.”
“What do you want to do? Find her and make her love you?”
“She fell for Étienne’s charms. It’s her fault that I’m stuck being alive.”
“You blame her for everything.”
“You blame her for nothing. Which is even worse, because everybody deserves to be blamed for something.”
We didn’t say anything to each other after that. We just lay there with our hearts beating. There is nothing as frustrating as being consumed with rage over someone and knowing that you aren’t even on their mind. You want your enemy to be engaged in a struggle until the death with you. Otherwise you are fighting yourself. I mean we are all essentially only in wars against ourselves, but we don’t like it to be so painfully obvious.
I could hear the family of mice that had moved into an old dollhouse that was for rent in the basement, moving their furniture around. I was curious if he’d seen Pierrot earlier. It was always such a disaster, so maybe that was why he was in such a bad mood. There were all these things that I had wanted to say to Nicolas, but I couldn’t because he had been so worked up. I had wanted to tell him about signing up for school. And I wanted to tell him about the beauty pageant just to get it out of the way. Tomorrow so many other things would happen. How on earth would we ever catch up? I wondered. Then I drifted away.
NICOLAS WAS RECLINING ON HIS BED IN HIS underwear and a T-shirt the next week while I was getting ready for my first day of school.
“Let’s go see a movie at the library,” he said.
Unless Nicolas had just held up a gas station, they were the only types of movies that we could afford since they were free. Nicolas had always liked those black-and-white silent films when he was little, where the woman looked as if she had a toothache.
“You know I have school.”
“So that’s it. You are kiboshing our Tuesday movie nights?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“You’re always working now. You’re no fun anymore.”
“Oh, for crying out loud. We’ve had enough fun for one lifetime, don’t you think? You didn’t want to sign up for school with me, remember? You were absolutely adamant about it.”
I headed out of the room. Nicolas got dressed as fast as he could in order to come after me. He wiggled into his jeans like a raindrop coming down the car window. He put on a black jacket that was way too small for him. It made him look like a matador.
He followed me outside. He suddenly grabbed my bicycle keys out of my hand and held them up over his head. I started whacking him with my purse. We started wrestling and fell on the ground. I sat on him, slapping him with my hands, while he laughed hysterically. Somebody passing by shot us a look of utter disgust.
I suppose there was something a bit freakish about our relationship. We hadn’t changed the way we acted very much at all since we were seven.
Nicolas got on his bicycle and rode next to me. We rode our bicycles in the middle of the street. The cars behind us kept honking at us to tell us to move out of the way. But we didn’t move. We still owned that street. We loved blocking traffic. We rode with our arms off the handlebars and our arms stretched out while holding hands. It was a trick that we’d learned years before. Nicolas stood up on the seat of his bicycle. He loved risky behaviour more than anything else. Ah, the things that Nicolas had to do to feel alive. It was beautiful.
My night classes were going to be in the old school building on Rue Saint-Denis. I rode up onto the sidewalk outside the building. The lampposts out front had been planted when Loulou was a young boy. They had grown up and were now almost as tall as the buildings.
“I’ll see you later,” I said to Nicolas as I chained my bike to a pole.
Nicolas stopped a man in a business suit who was passing by.
“She’s tossing me aside. She doesn’t care whether I live or die. She thinks that she’s better than me. Elle est conne, monsieur!”
“You interfere with all my plans,” I said. “I knew that you were going to do this. You don’t realize that you’re doing it. You don’t know why you’re doing it. But you just do it.”
He was about to protest some more when a fourteen-year-old girl wearing a T-shirt with a fleur-de-lys on it came up and asked us for an autograph. We just got quiet for a minute and signed the back of a ripped-open envelope.
Nicolas sat on the bench outside the school. His hair was all messed up, but it didn’t matter. He was able to pull off bed-head in a way I had only seen babies do. He looked so innocent. I almost felt bad about leaving him behind.
“Fine. Fine. Fine. I’ll wait for you here.”
By the time I got to the third floor, I looked out the window at the staircase, and the bench was empty. He could never sit in the same spot for very long. I was so distracted by the idea of going to school that I didn’t care where Nicolas had gone to.
I squeezed into one of the little wooden desks in the classroom. These desks had been around since the Depression. They had the small holes in the tops of them where the ink bottles used to go. I guess they were from when the children used to write with feathers. They had to lure ostriches at the zoo to the fence so that they could pull feathers out of their bottoms.
As soon as everyone settled in and the teacher began to talk, I realized that I was glad that Nicolas wasn’t in school with me. I knew that he would never be able to sit through this. He would never be able to accept that he would have to do all the very ordinary things that everybody else did. It had been drilled into our heads that we were extraordinary. But it wasn’t really true. We were only as extraordinary as the next person. Or, anyways, we had to do all the things that everybody else does to become something.
Dreaming too big was the cause of much horror on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. The street was filled with people whose dreams had gone bust. It wasn’t always drugs and bad childhoods that brought them this low. It was ambition. There was a
Étienne Tremblay and his children were supposed to be geniuses who never did anything ordinary. Certainly nothing as pathetic as going to night school to complete a high school diploma. We ought to be up in the wee hours composing philosophical tracts on the banality of happiness. But those days were all over, weren’t they? I was just a girl who worked in a magazine store, looking for a leg up.
Lord, we had been snobs. We took on friends once in a while when we thought that someone was charismatic. When we got disappointed or bored we would toss them aside. There was no one in the classroom whom Nicolas would even deign to make eye contact with. But I liked that everyone was so different. I wanted something new. I looked at these faces and knew that the unexpected was already happening.
There was a man who slicked his hair back into a black wave. He had probably been good-looking when he was a teenager. There was a pretty girl about my age except she was a completely different style. She wore a super-tight tracksuit and about twelve pieces of gold jewellery, including a stud in her nose.
The man beside me had a checkered hat on the desk, next to his opened notebook. The hat perfectly matched his checkered jacket. I thought this was remarkable. He was also a doodler. He drew skinny horses all over the margins of his notebook, which generally was something that only young girls did.
I drank a cup of coffee at the break and made conversation with everyone. They were all from other neighbourhoods and took the bus downtown to go to school in the evenings. These were all sorts of people who were trying to figure out this world, so that they could have apartments and they could support their families, so that they didn’t have to be afraid, so that they could feel proud of themselves.
A woman told me that she was going to get a business degree and that she was going to open her own flower shop. How lovely. How wonderful to have a plan and to have something to work toward. She asked me if I knew what I was going to do. I said no.
One of the guys asked me if I wanted to go for a drink later, but I wasn’t interested. It would make it a pain in the ass to come to school when our relationship didn’t work out—which it inevitably wouldn’t.
The subject after the break was Québec History, the bane of every high school student in the province. When the teacher handed out the battered textbooks, I opened mine immediately. I looked at the cartoon drawing of Jacques Cartier, the explorer who discovered Canada. He was wearing a ridiculously tiny black hat and looked so proud that he had finally managed to get to this new land. I felt the same way. I was here! I was back in school again. I was as anxious to turn the page and find out what happened next as Jacques was.
The Lineup for the Guillotine
I ACTUALLY DIDN’T EVEN FEEL LIKE STILL BEING A beauty queen by the time the day of the parade rolled around. I just wanted to work on homework that weekend. But I had to go. Before the parade, a hairdresser brushed and fixed my hair for over an hour. It didn’t have much of an effect because it was messy again five minutes later. The white dress they gave me went down to my feet, so I could still keep my blue Adidas sneakers on. I had a long black robe with tiny stars all over it and white ermine trim.
A skinny white cat with black spots over its eyes hopped onto my lap. It looked like a little kid dressed up as Zorro. I kissed it a dozen times and realized that I was in a good mood.
I had gotten away with having a secret from Nicolas. There was never an appropriate time to tell him I’d hidden the whole thing from him. Especially since he was kind of upset about me going off to school almost every night. I left a note on the table saying I’d gone off to be Miss Montréal in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste parade. I snuck out and prayed that he would wake up and read the letter long after the parade was over.
The entire city was already drinking beer for the holiday of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, our patron saint. The parade started moving down Rue Sainte-Catherine. The marching band came first. They were playing those xylophones that you hold balanced on your hip. The music was so beautiful that it was aggravating. It made me feel like I had to pee or release something. They started playing the theme song from a television show and the crowd went completely wild. Kids were standing on kitchen chairs and milk crates with their arms akimbo and rocking back and forth.
There were clowns all around me. Québec was lousy with clowns. They were smoking cigarettes and drinking empty bottles of champagne. Their eyebrows were drawn on their foreheads so that they looked perpetually raised. They wore tuxedo jackets and spats. One carried a briefcase that smoke was coming out of. There was one who opened an umbrella over his head and confetti blew everywhere like rain.
I stood up on the seat of the car. My dress was blowing all over the place. The driver said that I should sit down because he didn’t think that he was insured for that kind of behaviour. I started throwing blue and white candies from a basket into the crowd. Little girls ran to the side of the car and put out their hands for me to shake. They were surprisingly sticky.
“My people! My people!” I cried out as I waved.
All the old Polish women were standing in their little black boots, their heads covered in kerchiefs. They watched as if there was nothing whatsoever unusual happening.
Nicolas showed up. How could he not? He rode next to the car on a ten-speed bicycle, insulting me. He had one hand on the side of the car so that he could keep up with me. I started kicking his hand with my foot. He was drinking a plastic cup of beer while he was cycling. Some men started whistling at me, which really set him off.
“Blow some kisses!” Nicolas yelled at me. “That’s what you’re paid for!”
“Don’t be an idiot,” I answered. “I’m not being paid. Get lost, will ya?”
He was addressing the people in the crowd and telling them I must have bribed the judges.
“This is your queen? This is the most beautiful girl in the neighbourhood? Have I died and gone to hell? Come on, people!”
An old man from the Shriners Hospital tried to catch him. Two clowns on a double bicycle chased him around and around the car. A police officer came on a motorcycle to herd Nicolas off.
“Vive le Québec libre!” Nicolas yelled with his hands up in the air and then he sped off.
I watched Nicolas cycling away. I was annoyed with him. Now the parade would seem boring without him. I felt like climbing on the back of the bicycle and going off wherever he was going.
As I was heading home later that night, fireworks were going off in the sky. They looked like there were construction workers soldering the heavens. They sounded like a necklace had been broken and all the pearls were falling on the ground.
People were sitting on their kitchen chairs on the rooftops. Montréal summer nights were always lovely. The breeze was perfect. You could make a paper airplane and throw it in the air in Saint-Léonard and it would fly all the way to the Quartier Latin.
As I turned up Boulevard Saint-Laurent, away from the crowd, the fireworks were reaching their peak. I passed a black cat in the alley. It was trying to do some sort of fancy tango with a piece of ribbon.
As I stepped in, Nicolas jumped out from the kitchen, grabbed me by the waist and spun me around. He was wearing a paper crown from the Valentine hot dog joint and was drunk. He danced me around the living room and spun me down the hallway. He had got himself all worked up.
“Pass me the caviar!” Nicolas was screaming. “Why won’t anyone pass me the caviar! Okay, okay. Who stole my Grey Poupon! We are kings and queens. The kings and queens of beauty.”
“Let me go,” I begged.
“Adam’s waiting for you in the bedroom.”
“What! How’d he get here?”
“I invited him. I told him you’d been pining for him.”
“You’re crazy. I’m going to go throw him out ri
Nicolas hurled himself down on the living room couch. A calico cat was sleeping on its back, like a girl in grey stockings with her skirt pulled up over her hips.
It was practically impossible to avoid Adam because he was such good friends with Nicolas. They would sit squashed in the loveseat in the living room, waving their arms maniacally over their heads, excited by their idiotic ideas. They could talk and talk for hours. He got on my nerves. Every time we had sex I would always promise myself not to ever do it again.
I had no idea where they met, because Adam grew up in Westmount, the wealthy English neighbourhood. René Lévesque had ranted long ago that there was no reason why the English in that neighbourhood should be running the show and had put a stop to it. They were still pretty damn rich though. Adam was charming and spoke perfect French. Like many anglophones in Montréal, he actually spoke French better than we did. They knew exactly which verbs to use in the same way that people knew which utensils to use while eating at a fancy dinner. It was very proper because they learned it from books. They didn’t know slang or how to curse. They didn’t know how to do anything other than be proper and reserved. It was a state-sponsored, dry-clean-only French.
Adam’s family lived in an enormous house with a beautiful garden in front, which a gardener worked on every day of the summer. Once, Nicolas had driven me past it, just so I could get a look at it. His house was part of a walking tour that people went on during the summer. Adam had been one of the most successful children who had ever existed. He had gone to elite private schools and had had an unnecessarily comprehensive education.
He had music appreciation lessons where they would ding a xylophone while he tiptoed around the room trying to get better acquainted with the note. He took fencing lessons where he wore a mask over his face and yelled, “En garde!” He took wilderness survival lessons and he got to have wee badges with fires and bears’ heads on them sewn onto his sleeves. He took tennis lessons where he called out, “One love,” and took home trophies. He took photography lessons where he would walk around taking pictures of flowers and pigeons and would develop them in a sink in the basement of city hall next to other overprivileged children.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes