Girls! Girls! Girls!
I was heading along Rue Sainte-Catherine to sign up for night school. There was a cat outside a strip joint going in a circle. I guessed it had learned that behaviour from a stripper. I picked it up in my arms. “What’s new, pussycat,” I said. All the buildings on that block were strip clubs. What on earth was their heating bill like in the winter? They were beautiful, skinny stone buildings with gargoyles above the windows. They were the same colour as the rain. There were lights blinking around the doors. You followed the light bulbs up the stairs. They were long-life light bulbs, not the name-brand kind. The music got louder and louder as you approached the entrance of the club, like the music in horror films.
Cars filled with American boys would come up to see the girls, girls, girls on the day the boys turned eighteen. The boys from Ontario came in on the train and slept nine to a hotel room downtown. Because you could do anything you wanted with the Québécois girls. You could stroke their asses. You could lick their privates with everyone watching. You could take them behind a little curtain and fuck them while wearing bright blue condoms that the girls could keep their eyes on.
The girls were backstage, getting ready. Their big toes were getting stuck in their fishnets. Their yellow ponytails were being put up lopsided. They were putting on too much makeup. Their bangs were in their eyes. Their tummies folded over the elastic bands of their underwear. One was wearing big glasses because she’d lost her contact lenses. One drank a glass of water that made her feel cold inside, and she wondered if she was going to have a bladder infection. And one of the girls yawned, and everything is so catching in these clubs that everyone started yawning and yawning.
The ones who had been dancing awhile looked like Barbie dolls with their muscles and knee-high boots and their nononsense attitude. They were like superheroes. The new girls showed up onstage with inappropriate underwear and bikini bottoms and high-heeled shoes a size too big. One eighteenyear-old girl was wearing a sailor hat from her grandfather’s closet in Saint-Jérôme. She’d been raised for this life, whether anyone wanted to admit it or not.
We were all descended from orphans in Québec. Before I’d dropped out of high school, I remembered reading about how ships full of girls were sent from Paris to New France to marry the inhabitants. They stepped off the boat with puke on their dresses and stood on the docks, waiting to be chosen.
They were pregnant before they even had a chance to unpack their bags. They didn’t want this. They didn’t want to populate this horrible land that was snow and rocks and skinny wolves. They spoke to their children through gritted teeth. That’s where the Québec accent came from. The nation crawled out from between their legs.
I ended up being a beauty queen that day in 1994. I was nineteen years old. There wasn’t much of a pageant. There weren’t many contestants even.
I always thought my twin brother, Nicolas, was the better-looking one of us. He used to get scouted by modelling agents when we were taking the metro. He was tall and skinny. He had a really long aristocratic nose and blue eyes. He would raise his eyes to indicate he was bored and had about a hundred other facial expressions that clearly conveyed disdain. This made him very handsome and otherworldly. He crossed his legs and slouched in his chairs and shook his head as if disgusted by the world, even when we were in church. He was always in a hurry, another quirk of handsome men. They were always on their way someplace else. They never allowed you time to just sit and look at them.
I guess I looked like Nicolas. Except for the nose, and everyone said that I smiled more. Maybe it was because I was more cheery that I didn’t have the same je ne sais quoi.
Somewhere along the line, Nicolas had decided that laughing at anyone’s jokes but our own was beneath him. Which was strange, because he would smoke cigarette butts off the side of the road, look through a garbage can for a bottle to redeem, and yell obscenities at passing schoolgirls. None of those things were beneath him.
We both had black hair that wasn’t curly or straight, and always looked a bit dirty. Our hair ruined all photographs of us as children. No matter what the setting, even if it was our own birthday party, we looked like Gypsies at some internment camp in Eastern Europe. We looked like we’d escaped terrible persecution in our own country. We looked like the type of people that had driven our car five thousand miles with a refrigerator strapped on top of it. But really we had spent our whole lives in the same apartment on Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montréal.
My grandfather Loulou was encouraging me to sign up for high school because he said that I would meet a better class of men. He said that I could meet an English lawyer if my English was better. I wanted to go because I’d always felt lousy about having dropped out with Nicolas.
I was going to the Ukrainian Centre, where registration for night school was happening that day. The Ukrainian Centre was on the same block as a church. A wedding that was taking place at the church had toppled out into the street. I remember that men in tuxedos were everywhere. They were sitting on the hoods of the cars. They were at the corner store buying cigarettes and lottery tickets. Some of them ducked into the peepshow booth at the local movie theatre. They were sitting on a bench outside the laundromat. There was a man in a tuxedo with a flower behind his ear, and one at the back of the store playing Donkey Kong. It was funny because it was rare to see anybody dressed up at all in this neighbourhood. It was the bottom of the barrel, so to speak.
I was standing on the street, looking up and down for Nicolas. I felt like murdering him all of a sudden. Nicolas had sworn black and blue that he was going to meet me and come with me to sign up for night school. But he hadn’t shown up.
I went into the Centre. There was a white cat named Alphonse who lived there. The cat was skinny like a nineteen-year-old boy wearing a wife-beater undershirt. It was walking tentatively, as if the floor was hot. Everybody had a cat. The neighbourhood was lousy with mice.
I leaned into a little room with a desk, where a lady was stamping some papers. The night classes didn’t start until the following Tuesday and there was nothing for me to do after filling out the forms except go on back home.
I was going to leave but I heard the sound of trumpets and people coming from the ballroom down the hall of the Centre. Of course I had to go see what it was. We could never say no to a party. The sound of fun drew us to it like the sound of a tuna can opening summoned a cat.
The ballroom was so big that everyone you loved could fit into it at once. There were red stars in the tiles on the floor. They were holding a rehearsal for the Saint-Jean-Baptiste parade that was happening in a few weeks.
There was a group of trumpet players standing together. One kept blowing into the trumpet, trying to get the right sound out of it. It was like he was poking an elephant in the butt. There was a man sitting on one of the chairs, wearing a tiger costume. The head of the tiger was sitting on the chair next to him. Both he and the tiger head were looking straight ahead, as if they had had an argument and weren’t speaking.
There was a flamenco dancer wearing dark pants that went up to his nipples and a white shirt and vest. I’d never seen anyone exhale so deeply from a cigarette. I spoke to him for a short while. He said that the only reason he was alive was because he smoked eighteen cigarettes a day. He had a briefcase filled with Bounty bars, a carton of milk and a paperback copy of Le Matou. He must have been homeless when he wasn’t dancing, I figured, since he was carrying that junk around.
I saw Adam playing the piano. There was a sign-up sheet for the piano and often kids took their lessons on it. Adam would play for two hours at a time. He was wearing the same suit he always wore and a red scarf. He was cute enough. He had blond hair and blue eyes and a small mouth that always looked as if it was puckered up for a kiss. He composed his own tunes, some of the worst I’d ever heard. I happened to sort of like the one he was playing at the moment. It was all high notes, like someone stirring the tea in a teacup with a silver spoon. I went and leaned against the piano. He grinned like crazy when he saw me because he was madly in love with me.
“What do you call that?” I asked.
“Le minou est un minou et pourquoi pas.”
He was English and he deliberately spoke in nonsensical French sometimes. He winked at me. We’d dated a little bit here and there, but I never really wanted to have anything more to do with him. Perhaps because it was my brother who had introduced us.
I picked up a paper flower that was lying on the ground. I stuck it behind my ear and began dancing around the piano seductively. Adam was just about to get up and come and grab me when someone else took hold of my arm. I turned to see that it was the priest. I thought he was going to scold me for behaving like a salope around an agent of the Lord.
Instead, he asked me if I wanted to try out for the pageant. I wasn’t even dressed up. I was wearing a black sweater with stars on it and red shorts and some cowboy boots that I’d stolen from Nicolas. I had a barrette with a plastic daisy in my hair.
I told the priest I had no intention whatsoever of participating in their beauty pageant, which was insulting to women. I was a feminist and was here to sign up for night school. I was about to walk away, but this old man in a suit put his arms out to block me from going any farther. He was one of those men who are absurdly short. They were children during the Depression and had to eat boiled stone soup. They didn’t like to talk either; they were just always gesturing for you to do things. Now, he put his arms around me and then started pushing me up onto the stage.
“Mais, t’es complètement malade!” I cried.
The priest seemed to be perfectly okay with all of this. The absurdity of the situation struck me and I just started to laugh and laugh. I yelled for Adam to come and save me. But he called out that it served me right. That’s what I got for trying to be such a big shot.
Here I was up on stage again. It came back to me how your feet made an echo on the stage as if you were a giant. There were six other girls standing there. One seemed to have a head cold and kept sneezing violently.
The priest and three other men sat in a row of chairs in front of the stage and looked at us. The priest liked to be involved in anything that was happening. If there was a pickup game of basketball in the park, he would want to be part of it. He liked to procrastinate from saving souls, I guess. One of the men had a mop leaning against his chair, so he was probably the janitor. They asked us to strike different poses. We had to close our eyes and pretend that we were flowers. We waved our arms up in the air as if they were petals. One of the men, in a yellow sweater that was five sizes too big, asked us if we could blow a kiss at him. A girl who thought that this was beneath her climbed down off the stage. The janitor said that we should hold our hair up over our heads.
The priest asked us whether or not we had any particular talents. One girl could say the alphabet backwards. I thought this was lovely. The janitor shrugged his shoulders and said that it wasn’t a very sexy talent. Another girl made her lips look like those of a fish. She apologized for having a zit on her forehead, then started giggling.
There was a girl with blond hair. She was so pale, it gave the impression that she’d been scrubbed clean. I thought she was prettier than me. She was able to do the splits. The men looked impressed.
I didn’t have any talents. But when it was my turn, for some idiotic reason, I recited the lyrics from one of my dad’s songs as if they were a poem.
I chased a black cat down the street It led me to your door
You were wearing your grandfather’s hat At first I thought you were the ugliest girl That I had ever seen.
“Marie-Jo! Marie-Jo! Marie-Jo!” they all started singing together.
“Aren’t you Étienne Tremblay’s kid? Little Nouschka Tremblay!”
“Little Nouschka!” Everyone started chiming in.
The men put their heads together, then looked at us and announced that I had won. They did a quick photo shoot of me holding a sceptre and standing in front of a large piece of black paper covered in stars. They said it was to go in the hallway. Plainly, I just got the title because of who I once had been. I was trying my best to straighten out my life, but I always ended up in the middle of some festive waste of time.
Excerpted from The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill. Copyright © 2014 by Heather O’Neill.
Published in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.