The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.6Heather O'Neill
Nicolas would give long-winded answers to the interviewers that would break off into lies and silly flights of fancy. He liked to complain about all sorts of things. The audience would go wild when he complained about how our gym teacher made us do running backwards laps. Nicolas thought they were all beneath him, laughing at his idiotic jokes.
“I would like to either drive a snowplow or be a politician,” Nicolas said.
“And what does a politician do?”
“They meet with the foreign ambassadors. They make it so that Québec can be our own country. I think that will be a very good thing because we will make our own laws.”
Nicolas became a favourite with separatists because of the opinions that he voiced when he was seven. René Lévesque quoted a line from one of my poems in a speech on Québec separatism and then we were immortal.
Back in the seventies, Étienne thought that if Québec separated from Canada, it would infuse his career with new life. He thought that he would be able to write the new national anthem. He spent weeks working on a victory song. People would stand in the streets and sing his song the day after the referendum. It would be the first song to be sung in a free Québec.
But we didn’t separate. And then the next year, Étienne got arrested for having an affair with a fourteen-year-old girl named Marilou, who was round and plump and blond like a baby and who nobody on earth could resist. She was on the front page of the newspaper. She was trying to parlay the scandal into a modelling career. She ended up in a root-beer commercial and Étienne had to serve eight months in prison.
THE NEXT MORNING, WHEN I WENT INTO THE kitchen, I saw that Nicolas had cut out the photograph of me from the front page of the newspaper and had stuck it up on the fridge with magnets on every corner. He had written, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” all around the photograph.
I knew that the crew would for sure be going to see Étienne. My father would not turn his back on them. He would be ecstatic and want to expound all his ridiculous thoughts until the tape ran out. He would show them baby photos of us if he had them, but I was quite sure that he did not.
I was distracted from these thoughts as the day unfolded. Something much more interesting happened. I saw Raphaël three times that day.
In the morning, as I was about to leave the lobby of my apartment, I noticed him through the glass door, sitting on the front stoop of his mother’s building. He looked like he hadn’t washed his hair, because it stuck straight up above his head. He was wearing a suit jacket but no shirt underneath and purple track pants with yellow piping down the sides. He had a pit bull that was carrying a Cabbage Patch doll in its mouth. The dog had a face like a fist. It would put the doll down for a moment and bark like someone trying to plunge a toilet.
I moved out of the way to let an exterminator pass. He was there to see about an infestation. A puzzle box had spilled and the pieces were multiplying and living in all the cracks. I pushed on the door, trying to open it, even though I was supposed to pull on it. I had no idea how something like this was possible since I had lived in the same building my whole life. I felt so self-conscious when Raphaël was around that my IQ dropped a hundred points.
As soon as I turned the corner, I took a pocket mirror out of my purse to make sure that I had looked all right. What the hell? I thought to myself. I had never felt that anxious around a boy before.
Then, in the afternoon I saw him at the grocery store with a white Pomeranian that had a face like a chewed-up toothbrush. The small dog was sitting in the part of the grocery cart where you ordinarily put a baby. The dog was trembling with excitement, wanting to hop up, like he was waiting to add a detail to your anecdote.
Raphaël was wearing enormous sunglasses. Nobody in the store would dare say anything to Raphaël about having a dog in a place where you sell food. He opened a bottle of beer while in line at the cash and drank it while flipping through a magazine about homes and gardens. They just wanted him to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. It was hard to imagine what would happen with a guy who looked like that, if he was provoked. There was this feeling of an electrical storm everywhere he went.
Then, after work I saw him at the Portuguese café. He was drinking a cup of coffee and reading Papillon. You came out of prison incredibly buff or with an addiction to paperback novels. Raphaël would buy paperbacks that the homeless people were selling for fifty cents each on the street corner. He walked down the street with paper bags filled with books like groceries.
I got two cups of coffee to bring home, one for me and one for Nicolas. I looked over at Raphaël again while I was in line, and he was scribbling on the front page of his book. He got up to leave and left the book lying on the table. After I watched him leave, I went over and picked it up. I opened up the book and read the inscription: “If a broken fool with broken teeth and broken tonsils were to go all the way out of his way to say hello to her, what on earth would she say back, I wonder?”
I slapped the cover of the book down, startled, as if I had just opened up the door on someone changing and quickly closed it.
Was that a message for me? It had to be. I looked at the book cover, which was a photograph of a hard-ass dude with a butterfly tattooed on his chest. He refused to tell me no matter how I begged.
Good Morning, Nouschka Tremblay!
I HATED BEING WOKEN UP BY THE NEWS ON THE clock radio. I always meant to change the station to one that only played music. But I hadn’t gotten around to it, although I had been meaning to do it for three years now. My laziness was astonishing sometimes. I lay there listening to the voice speaking.
“A chansonnier is different from a rock and roll singer because he is also a poet, he is also a philosopher, he is also a medium through which the people are able to voice their own fables, their own fears, their time and zeitgeist. That’s why Étienne Tremblay was so important for the separatist cause.”
I felt watery all of a sudden, as if I had been turned into a puddle on the bed. It took me a few seconds to realize that they were talking about us on the radio. My body always seemed to realize it first.
“Tremblay’s luck changed the day after the 1980 referendum.”
“Yes, that’s true,” another voice said. “While he was in prison, his manager, who was also his on and off girlfriend, took whatever was left of his money. He signed these terrible contracts that a lot of musicians signed in the sixties and seventies that saw them getting nothing for their work. Really just pennies when their songs are played on the radio.”
“What will your documentary tell us that we don’t already know?”
“I’m focusing on the entire Tremblay family. Because for a long time they sort of represented the beauty of Québécois culture—the warmness of it. And we grew up with them. When I watched the documentary as a kid, I wanted to change my last name and go and join their family. Who didn’t want to be raised by Étienne Tremblay? It just seemed so magical. He would sing to you while he scrambled up eggs in the morning.”
I recognized the voice of none other than Hugo Vaillancourt, that documentarian who had followed me down the street the other day.
“Have the Tremblays gotten it together at all? What I mean to say is, do you find this to be an optimistic documentary? Do you think that the family will sort of come out of the funk that they’ve fallen into and see brighter days?”
“Goodness no. No! We are witnessing the downfall of an era. These aren’t the right times for dreamers. The Tremblays as a family were invented by the subconscious of a people prior to the first referendum. They are a direct result of a revolutionary, surrealist, visionary zeitgeist. They are wandering around now like animals whose habitats have been destroyed.”
I switched off the radio and buried my head under a pillow. A cat peeped in the window. It had one white paw. One night it had decided to dip it into the reflection of the moon in a fountain to see what would happen.
The doorbell began buzzing. I didn’t know where Nicolas was and Loulou was too deaf to hear it. I put on a tiny orange kimono that had seen better days and ran to get the door. When I opened it, a little old woman from one of the apartments upstairs was standing there.
“Nouschka, they’re talking about you and your family on Radio-Canada.” She said it in a very concerned way, as if it were something that I really needed to know about, as if she had smelled smoke coming from the apartment.
“Merci, merci, merci, Madame Choquette,” I said.
Then I slammed the door. I didn’t even get down the hallway when somebody else rang the buzzer.
“Go away!” I screamed.
I never thought that Hugo would get any funding for this documentary or that it would actually happen. Occasionally someone would say they were going to write a book or make a film about Étienne, but in the past ten years, nothing had ever come of them.
There was a pounding on the window. I pulled the curtain aside to yell at whoever was there. It was Nicolas. Instead he was ready to yell at me.
“This is so you, baby. You started this with your beauty queen stuff.”
“Oh, so what. So they’re making a documentary. How bad can it be?”
I didn’t regret the pageant because it had brought Raphaël into my store. Everything thrilling in life had its costs.
“They can edit it to make us look like total assholes. They have degrees in how to make everybody look like assholes. They’ll capture us as we really are this time. Mark my words. Mark my words, Nouschka. You do some very embarrassing stuff that you might not want documented.”
Adam’s head suddenly popped into the window frame, next to Nicolas, like someone unwanted trying to make it into a photograph. They were both drinking coffee out of paper cups with silhouettes of bullfighters on them. It was coffee from the Portuguese place and it always made Nicolas completely insane. Coffee from there was like crack for Nicolas.
A kid we knew walked by with a boom box on his shoulder.
“Hey, are they looking for actors?”
“No, it’s a documentary,” Nicolas said, shooing the boy away. “Come on. Don’t be so stupid so early in the morning.”
“I think it’s exciting,” Adam said. “You should require it to be in black and white. It’s always more beautiful that way.”
“It’s hard enough being a goddamn criminal without a documentary crew following you around.”
“I always hear people bitching about that,” I said.
“I know, right?”
We both started laughing. The kid with the boom box met up with someone on a bench. They turned the ghetto blaster way up.
“You think I care whether anybody anywhere knows anything about me? Then you don’t know a thing about me. Look at how little I give a damn!” He started doing his crazy moves. People always gathered around to watch Nicolas dance. He suddenly got all loose and then all stiff. If you wanted to see what joy looked like, you only had to look at Nicolas dancing. He started doing a disco move, reaching his right hand down practically to his left foot and then stretching it back up into the opposite direction to the sky.
“You really shouldn’t let my brother drink espresso,” I told Adam.
“I have learned that the hard way.”
I felt less anxious all of a sudden. The worst of it was over. He had found out and here he was dancing in the street.
The Lazy-Day Revolution
ADAM LOVED THE ATTENTION WE WERE GETTING. Adam had every intention of being on the news when he got older. He hadn’t figured out what he was going to be famous for. At one point about a year ago, when they first met, Adam and Nicolas had formed their own political party. It was called The People’s People Party. Now they crawled in the apartment window with some posters of themselves that they had made at the photocopy store and were going to put up. Nicolas had suggested that they deface them with moustaches before they put them up around town. I had finished getting dressed when they held the posters up for me to see. They had combed their hair to the side and had these fake serious looks. This amused them to no end.
“We actually look really good as politicians,” Nicolas said. “Do you think that politicians attract a lot of ladies?”
“No,” I said. “You can’t sleep with anyone or do drugs, or they do an exposé on the news.”
“That sucks. What man doesn’t like a crack pipe and a couple underage girls after a hard day of campaigning about public schools?”
“That’s the problem with the world today,” Adam stated. “You can’t reap any rewards.”
“This is the stupidest political party ever,” I said. “You’re going to add crack and whores to civil liberties.”
“Give me liberty or give me death,” Adam said.
“It’s beautiful in its simplicity,” Nicolas added, nodding.
“Let’s go campaigning for our revolutionary party today!” Adam cried. “All we ever do is talk about it.”
“All right,” said Nicolas. “Let me go take a crap and then borrow a car.”
So far, their revolutionary tactics had largely been confined to soliciting sex from women who were obviously middle-class and clearly not prostitutes. Adam had been questioned by the police a couple times, but they always let him go. They could tell from his manner that he was an upper-class kid. Rich people weren’t responsible for petty crimes. They were responsible for the great crimes that took hundreds of years to commit and were, therefore, unpunishable.
Nicolas came back twenty minutes later. He was wearing a pair of giant old-lady glasses.
“These are my counter-revolutionary glasses,” he said.
“Counter-revolutionary means you’re against the revolution,” I said.
“Are you sure about that?”
“Look it up in the dictionary.”
“The dictionary is obsolete,” Nicolas said. “They don’t even have the definition of cocksucker in it. Our first act of government will be the public execution of René Simard.”
“Why? Just because you don’t like him?”
“His music ruined my childhood.”
“I thought your first act was going to be banning soccer.”
“I have to wait a while for that one. There are some soccer fans out there.”
Nicolas was mad at soccer in general because he had been kicked off the team in Grade Eight for showing up late. He was going to be an irrational dictator. He had also suggested banning fanny packs because he thought they were ugly.
We whistled when we saw the car parked outside the building. Low-lifes sometimes hung around old people for pocket money and their cars. You’d see these junkies driving old Coupe de Villes and wearing alligator shoes. Nicolas borrowed a Cadillac from an old lady he claimed was named Madame Prèsdelamort. In exchange, he would sit with her at the doctor’s office and repeat what the doctor had just said, but louder.
“You likey?” Nicolas asked.
“You look like a seventies cocaine dealer.”
“A seventies porn star. Porn stars from the seventies used to live in this area and bought a lot of the buildings. But then they got older and impotent and got laid off. So they couldn’t afford the upkeep. That’s why this whole area is actually falling into total disrepair.”
“Where do you get this stuff?” I demanded.
“A lot of Québécois do well as porn stars. It’s because we all have really big dicks.”
For some reason Adam and I laughed at that ridiculous joke. We were going to be laughing a lot that afternoon. I could feel it. I looked at my first pile of homework on the floor next to the bed, which I was supposed to finish. I had promised myself that I would be really diligent about it, unlike when I had originally gone to school. I decided that I could put it aside just once.
We were dressed in the way that only nineteen-year-olds can dress. I had on a blue shirt that tied behind my neck and a silver skirt that stuck out lik
Nicolas got into the driver’s seat. I scooted into the middle and Adam got into the passenger seat after me. The car kept jerking wildly because Nicolas was having trouble with the enormous stick shift.
Once we got onto the road, we bounced along like crazy. The shocks in the car were terrible. All the streets in Montréal were always all broken up from potholes because of the long winters. If you were drinking coffee, it ended up going all over your lap. Children would sometimes get carsick just going three blocks. We were pleased with ourselves. We thought that we must have looked like gunmen who were riding into a town on the Western frontier with prices on our heads and there wasn’t a damn thing that anybody could do about it.
I can’t remember who suggested that we head toward our old elementary school. It had to have been Nicolas. The school was a giant brick building with gargoyles of twenties schoolchildren over all the doors. There were cages on all the windows.
We had hated school so much. Just being near it filled us with a horrible feeling. The teachers were always chastising us for not having our gym clothes or school fees. Loulou was too old to be on top of anything.
We parked right outside the schoolyard fence. It was lunch-time and the sound of children was almost as deafening as the ocean. School was out, but they all went there for day camp. They were singing their skipping-rope tunes—wee tunes of resistance that had been passed down from one class to another. They were probably singing Étienne’s skipping-rope song:
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes