The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.8Heather O'Neill
Nicolas walked into the bathroom. He leaned against the wall next to the medicine cabinet, wanting to hear what we were talking about, I guess. It was amazing that we could all squeeze in there.
“Do you know that my nanny always turned off the radio when Lily Sainte-Marie came on?” Adam said. “She said it was the saddest song in the world. I never got why that song made her cry. I thought it was funny.”
“What was she like?” Nicolas asked suddenly.
“Yeah, what was she like?”
“She was really shy. She hated having to order meat at the meat counter. She used to collect the labels off of wine bottles and paste them into a book. She asked if she could have a cat. She always played the lottery. She had bumblebee patches on her jeans.”
“If I had a tiny scratch on my knee, she would cover my entire leg with iodine so it was completely orange. She liked canned spaghetti.”
“Was she beautiful?”
It was an awfully strange question to ask. I looked over at Nicolas. He looked oddly focused. He usually got impatient when anyone rattled on about anything, because he was anxious to be the one doing all the talking.
“You couldn’t even really see what she looked like. She wore her bangs down in her face.”
“Well, you were very lucky to have a nanny, weren’t you? Wouldn’t it be possible that without her, you would have walked into the street and been hit by a car? I was hit by a bus when I was five and I broke my arm. I could’ve used a nanny that day. Singing her cheery songs.”
Adam and I were both stunned. I had never heard him turn on Adam that way.
“What are you so angry about?” I asked.
When we were about eleven, Nicolas and I used to sometimes speculate on the whereabouts of our mother. We didn’t talk about it in the house because we didn’t want to upset Loulou. But it would pass the time as we walked to school.
We understood why she had left us. We had seen enough after-school specials to know that it was because she had been too young to take care of us. But we couldn’t figure out why she wouldn’t come back for us now. She was older and we weren’t babies and we were able to do so many things by ourselves. We got dressed on our own and rode the metro everywhere.
Once, we decided that she was in medical school in Poland. We imagined her weeping as she did tests on white mice. And when she was finally a doctor, she would come back for us. We imagined her removing our tonsils and then giving us little bowls of Jell-O for dinner.
Sometimes we would look into the mailbox, just peeping, just hoping that there would be a note from our mother in there, something that would give us a clue about where she might be and that would give us a more concrete idea about what was keeping her away. But then as we got older, we just figured that she didn’t want to come back. She was happy with her life, wherever it was. I tried to accept this, but Nicolas never did.
Your House Is On Fire, Your Children Are Burning
I WAS ON MY WAY TO SCHOOL. PIGEONS SHIFTED back and forth from one foot to the other, like old ladies with bags of heavy groceries in either hand. I was dressed up for class. I had a vinyl jacket with a horse on it and a pink dress shirt with a butterfly collar. I had a grey skirt and Wallabees. I thought I looked like the most no-nonsense girl on the planet.
I walked by a store that sold religious statues mostly to put in your front lawn. They were all crowded in the window. Some were on boxes and chairs in the back row. They were like people watching a parade. I felt peaceful looking at them. It was like they had all gathered to look at me and that the world just had to be full of grace.
I turned when I heard a car honk its horn. Nicolas leaned way out the window in order to talk to me as he was driving. He had on a polyester shirt with a print of buildings on it with the suit jacket he’d bought at the Salvation Army. His jacket was completely covered in cat hair.
“Hey, can you come check out this house with me?”
“No, you can see perfectly well that I’m busy.”
“I want to see something. What, are you a snob now? You think that you’re too good to spend the afternoon with me? I’m sorry, does Miss Boulevard Saint-Laurent have some sort of contractual obligation to fulfill? Will they take your plastic tiara away? Your free coupon for a meal at le Palais de Bombay? Have you used up your discount coupons for the amusement park? You know they sell those tiaras five for a dollar at the pharmacy.”
Nicolas suddenly drove the car up onto the sidewalk, trying to run me over. I jumped backwards, sticking my hands out in front of me as if to stop the car. I was startled.
“Get in the car, Nouschka,” he said.
I took off running down the street. He jumped out of the car, which was half on the sidewalk, and ran after me. I was screaming at people who I passed on the street for them to call the police. Naturally nobody did anything. They knew to keep out of it. He grabbed me from behind.
I screamed and he held me against the wall. He was wearing a pair of pyjama bottoms with sharks on them. He was dragging me back to the car. One of my shoes came off. I was going to miss my class now.
My purse flipped upside down and my cue cards for my oral report spilled out and fell all over the ground. He wouldn’t let me pick them up. I picked one out of a puddle with the tips of my fingers. When I bent down, he grabbed me from behind. This really enraged me.
“Why don’t you help me?” I asked people passing by.
A man slowed down as he was passing us. He had a concerned look on his face, and he seemed to be thinking about stepping in.
“Don’t try and interfere with me, sir, or you and she and everyone will end up dead. She’s my sister. You don’t want to get involved in this. It’s been going on since we were born.”
The man walked away, looking over his shoulder every few seconds. He was out of our hair, but then a police officer pulled over in front of our car. Nicolas was playing with fire because he was on probation for demanding that a librarian hand over the money she had collected in fines that day. We both sort of stopped moving as the officer came up to us. He was middle-aged, with greying hair, barrel-chested and intimidating. He didn’t faze Nicolas in the least.
“Officer, she’s mentally ill. You see, we were born as Siamese twins and I got the brain. I have to make all the decisions for both of us, on account of her faculties being so deficient.”
“I’m a writer,” I said in my defence. Even though I hadn’t written a word.
“I don’t care what either of you are,” said the officer. “You’re going to knock it right off.”
The officer grabbed Nicolas by the shoulder, firmly. Nicolas let go of me and swung around to face the officer.
“She won a beauty pageant and it went to her head. She couldn’t handle success. She expected us to bring her breakfast in bed after that.”
“I’m sick of you bringing up that contest. Are you jealous?”
“Jealous! Officer, after she won there was a criminal investigation. It just didn’t make sense.”
“You two look familiar to me,” he said.
“You saw him at the zoo,” I said. “He reminds you of someone from the monkey exhibition.”
“Are you two Étienne Tremblay’s kids?”
We both stopped horsing around.
“I used to love you guys on television,” he said.
He went and picked up my Wallabee and handed it to me. We smiled uneasily. We both walked over to Nicolas’s car and got in it. We pulled away from the curb, Nicolas waving to the police officer to show that we were respectable and upstanding citizens.
As the gears shifted, so too did our spirits. It was amazing how fast our moods changed at that age. Two minutes before, I had wanted to kill Nicolas, and now we were two thieves on the lam who had outsmarted the law once again! But I was still slightly depressed and couldn’t really feel good about being in the car.
We headed over the highway to the west side of town. The car picked up speed. I was worried; it felt like the bottom might fall right out. It was probably better easing down narrow rickety east-end streets, where you had to stop every couple minutes for a passing alley cat.
We turned off the highway and drove into a residential neighbourhood, down a street that was covered in huge trees that came together over the road and blocked out the sun.
There were identical houses on either side of the street. All the lawns were clean and all the cars were new. We parked in front of a red and orange brick house with light blue shutters. He was quiet finally. We just sat and looked at it. I was afraid to ask. I figured he was casing the place for some sort of robbery. In which case, sitting in front of it in broad daylight in the crappiest car in the city didn’t seem like the most brilliant idea. Nicolas’s knees were bouncing up and down and he was fluttering his fingers up and down on the steering wheel.
“What the hell are we doing here?” I asked.
“Forget it,” he said. “I can’t say it because it’s something you ought to know about gradually. The shock of it might turn your hair grey.”
“What? Say it or I’ll kill you.”
“I found our mother.”
I was suddenly afraid. I did not want our world turned upside down. I did not want to have any actual information about our mother.
“Oh, Nicolas. Leave her alone.”
“I think we should meet her.”
“You just go and stare at her every day?”
“Hey, you’ve got to stalk somebody.”
“No, actually. You don’t. I don’t want to see her. I feel lousy. I don’t even feel like myself. I feel shitty all of a sudden. It’s like I have stomach cancer. I just want to go home. I feel like I’m disappearing. Oh, my stomach. Nicolas! Drive me back home. I don’t feel well at all.”
He put his hand over my mouth while looking straight ahead. It was five-thirty and she was coming home from work. She was dressed in a beige suit and comfortable white pumps. Her hair was dyed light brown and she wore her bangs in her face. She had nothing in common with Étienne.
We got out of the car. She saw us. We could tell from the look on her face that she knew exactly who we were. She looked uncomfortable. She looked nervous. Actually, she looked terrified. We were both quiet. We didn’t even want to speak for fear that she would disappear. We got quiet the way you get quiet when you see an animal emerge from out of the woods. You know that the minute it notices your presence, it’s going to bolt.
“Hello,” she said. “Wow. What are you doing here?”
“We wanted to just say hello,” Nicolas said softly.
“Hello,” she said. “Do you live around here?”
“You two look so much like Étienne.”
We just nodded. Lily looked around her. She looked up, as if to see if there was a helicopter up above that was going to lower a ladder down to her. We had probably popped up again and again in her dreams. But now, lo and behold, here we were on her lawn. I guess it was natural that she was befuddled.
“It was a long time ago. I was younger than the two of you are now,” she said, almost as if to herself.
We nodded again. We all just stood there. She wasn’t making any effort with us. She probably had rehearsed a million things to say to us. She must have. She probably had a soliloquy prepared. But she couldn’t think of it right now for the life of her. I knew that Nicolas had said her name was Noëlle, but I couldn’t help but think of her as Lily. That’s what I had called her in my head for my whole life. Not Mother.
“Do you want to come in?” Lily asked.
Her house was very orderly. There were flowers on the curtains and on the tablecloth. Everything was new and had been bought at stores. Nothing had ever been dragged out of the garbage. We sat down around the kitchen table. All the chairs matched. She made some coffee. Nicolas and I felt painfully out of place. We were like kids who were showing up on the first day at a new school. She poured us all cups of coffee and set them down in front of us.
“How did you go about finding me?”
We didn’t say anything. Lily looked at us and straightened up, gathering courage. She decided to launch into her defence.
“You have to understand what life was like for me when I got pregnant. Everybody in my town looked down on me. They treated me like I was so, so ugly. I just sat in my room, crying all the time. I was afraid of my father. The looks he would give me were so awful. I didn’t even like going down to the kitchen because my dad would give me such a look. Sometimes he would slap me hard across my face.”
She paused. We just stared at her, startled. She couldn’t really do anything but continue.
“I couldn’t go to school because all the boys made fun of me. They didn’t believe that it was Étienne Tremblay who got me pregnant. They used to say that the school janitor was the father. Can you imagine that? Children are so cruel.”
She raised her cup to her lips and it was shaking.
“My mother and I took the bus to Montréal to meet your grandparents. I left you two with them. They were very, very nice. My mother took me to go and get an ice cream cone by Avenue Atwater. It was so beautiful and exciting to me. All those people going by and all the windows. We stopped by a toy store and we saw all these dollhouses and train sets that moved around and little plastic trees. Oh, I had never seen anything like that in Val-des-Loups.”
There was something horrific about the idea of her having an ice cream cone after having given us up. I just wanted it to end. I didn’t want to hear her story. It had never occurred to us that she would see herself as the sad one in this story. Sure, sure, sure. She was the loneliest, most pathetic fourteen-year-old on the whole planet. But we had been listening to Étienne’s excuses our whole life. The last thing that we expected somehow was another excuse. Although an excuse, of course, was exactly what we were going to get.
“You had much better outfits than I ever had as a kid. I remember this little black coat you had on once on TV, Nouschka. You had a daisy in the lapel. It was so beautiful. You looked like your father. Lucky for you two. He was a handsome man when he was younger. You were smart like him, too. The things that would come out of your mouths!”
Nicolas and I immediately shot a knowing, wary glance at one another. She had loved us on television. The same way that everybody had loved us, which was the same thing as not loving us at all. We had had enough of that type of affection. What we needed was a love that was able to shine a light on who exactly we were, so that we could be people offstage. Then we would be able to be real. Then we would be able to grow up. Then we wouldn’t be joined at the hip. This woman only knew what everybody knew about us. Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.
I wanted her to be proud of things that nobody but a mother could be proud of. I had wanted her to be proud of a story that I had written about a swan. I had wanted her to be thrilled when I dove off the high diving board. She should have been there to cheer when I learned my multiplication table. And I had wanted to be commended for giving the flea-ridden cat a bath all by myself. Those were the things that actually built character. They taught you that ordinary life was meaningful and made sense.
You could tell that she was a bit star-struck. We looked down on people that were star-struck. We couldn’t help it. How could we not look down on people when they were looking up at us?
“I never, never would have been able to get to Montréal if it weren’t for the two of you. After I went back to Val-des-Loups, all I could think about was getting back to the city. I was only seventeen when I came here to live. I looked after children for a while. But you know, that always made me sad. Now I work as a secretary. We sell accessories for used car lots. The little flags that go around them and those big blow-up snowmen flopping around in the parking lot.”
She turned abruptly and reached into her bag that was on her chair and pulled out a binder, as if it would somehow save her from the topic of this conversation. It was filled with before and after photographs of parking lots where there could have been pictures of us as children. She closed it, knowing that she had to get on with her story.
“This is how I met my husband, actually. He owns one of these car lots. He’s very successful. He does very well for himself. He’s very conventional. He’s very good.” She paused. “I never told my husband about you. It’s not that I’m ashamed of it. But I can’t tell him now. He thinks that he was the first person that I had ever been with. That was very important to him. I really never thought that any man would ever love me. But he does. You can’t tell someone a secret after you have kept it a secret for this long. He would think that I was a liar. He thinks that I’m a good person. It would change everything. He’s a really good man. I’ve been happy with him. It was hard after Étienne Tremblay.”
I noticed that she said our father’s first and last name when talking about him. Even though she had had two children with him, they were not on familiar terms.
In an odd way, although we had dropped in on her, she was more prepared then we were. She had never come looking for us, but she knew that we would come anyways. She had been waiting.
I looked around. There were photos of children all over the fridge. Lily blushed when she saw me noticing them. This had never even occurred to me as a possibility. She had other children. Of course, her husband and children were real people with feelings. Not like us. She reached out for a second but then brought her hand back. Her hand was shaking. You could tell that she was restraining herself and that her instinct was to reach out and touch people who were suffering.
She was holding back because she wanted to protect her husband and kids. That wasn’t fair, was it? She was choosing sides. At least we knew with absolute certainty that Étienne was incapable of loving anybody. He treated everybody else with as little regard as he treated us.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes