Authors: Heather O'Neill
Tags: #Short Stories (Single Author), #Literary Collections, #Canadian, #Fiction, #Coming of Age, #Family Life
Jules passed a yard that was filled with upside-down pickle jars on top of little rose bushes. It made it seem as if the people living there were growing astronauts.
The school dance was at the Legion Hall, a squat brick building. Michelangelo hadn’t exactly been available when they needed an architect for this building. Inside, the walls were painted a light grey. There was a stage that no one on earth ever performed on, with a heavy blue velvet curtain hanging in front of it. If that curtain fell off its rings, it would probably drown everyone in the hall.
As he stood outside, Jules thought again about how unfair it was that he couldn’t go to the dance. He had been on the decoration committee. He had cut out countless stars from cardboard and covered them with sparkly glue and hung them from the ceiling. He had risked his life hanging streamers. It had been Jules’s idea to hang the Christmas lights around the doorway.
Then he got nervous about Manon coming out through those lights. During the past week, he had been picturing himself naked and wearing only a pair of cowboy boots and knocking on her door. He was ashamed of these ideas, but he had them more and more. What if Manon knew that he had these dirty thoughts? He had one porno magazine that he had kept under his mattress for three years. He had jerked off to it thousands of times. Sometimes he got sick of even looking at the faces. He felt like a man who had been married forty years when he took out his magazine. But as Jules waited for Manon, his heart was beating like a vacancy sign for a cheap motel off the side of the highway.
THERE ARE SOME people who know when they are in love, and there are some people who don’t. Jules was the type of person who knew when he was in love. Manon was the type of person who did not. But you only really needed one person in a relationship to know this type of thing.
Jules let Manon go in line in front of him at the cafeteria. He got off his bicycle and helped her carry her groceries home from the store. He showed her that he had dedicated his English essay on
to her and that the teacher had deducted two points for it. These things were tiny little seeds that he planted, hoping that if she were willing, just for a moment, to shine a light on them, they would bloom into love.
Manon, however, only decided that Jules would do when she saw him roller-skating at the Récréathèque. Jules was skating backwards and doing figure eights with his feet. He did this gesture with his hands as if he were dealing cards onto a card table. Everyone else ignored Jules’s grandiose performance that night. But Manon knew suddenly that Jules was different than anybody else in Val des Loups. That’s what young people look for: someone who will open strange doors for them.
And anyways Manon didn’t want to be a virgin. Marie Cartier told her that once you lost your virginity, you immediately started to cry. Manon wanted to see whether or not this was true. And Manon liked to be daring. Being the baby of a very big family had given her the illusion that nothing bad could ever happen to her. It made her bold and unselfconscious in a way that everyone found charming.
Manon walked out of the Legion Hall and looked into the darkness for Jules. She had on a navy blue jacket over a puffy silver dress that made her look like microwave popcorn that had just been popped. The pompom on her hat was practically the size of her head. Surrounded as she was by the fairy lights around the door, Manon looked like a statue of the Virgin Mary in someone’s front yard. Jules was so taken that he couldn’t call out at once. As soon as she spotted Jules, Manon ran happily across the road toward him. Her pompom bounced back and forth, like a halo that had come loose and was about to fall off.
“How was the dance?” Jules asked.
Manon stopped and put her arms out, then laid her hands on her heart and shook her hips back and forth, performing a dance move that was popular among the kids in town. Then she shrugged and said, “Lame.”
Jules tried to stop smiling as he walked next to Manon. The lit-up windows of the houses on the hills gleamed in the dark distance like diamonds in a mine. They walked the way teenagers walk. She walked toe to heel with her arms stretched out, certain that she had what it took to be a high-wire artist in a tutu with a paper umbrella over her head. Jules started taking longer steps as if he was stepping over large puddles so he could look like John Travolta. They stopped to look at a bunch of sheep in a pen behind someone’s house. An insomniac who lived there counted them every night.
“Do you like living in Val des Loups?” Jules asked.
“Of course. Don’t you?”
“Well, there’s nothing for an intelligent person to do.”
“I want to either be a model or a professional gymnast. I’m taking lessons at the community centre.”
“Do you ever think about moving to Montreal?”
“I’m going with my brother to see a Kiss concert. We’re going to paint our faces and everything. He knows the names of everybody in the band.”
“Do you want to see a place I’m house-sitting?”
“Sweet Pea’s house? That poor old lady!”
“She swallowed a fly!” they cried out at the same time.
The moon glowed as if the spirit of an old lady had just spent hours scrubbing it with a little cloth rag and metal polish.
THEY FUMBLED down the dark hallway of the house to the bedroom. Jules felt the gloomy wall for a light switch and then flicked it on. The room was suddenly full of colour, like when
The Wizard of Oz
goes Technicolor. There were flowers growing on everything. They grew on the dresser drawers, on the backs of the wooden chairs, on the handles of spoons, in the picture frames. A row of porcelain dolls stood up on the bureau like schoolgirls who were being chastised for being naughty. He hadn’t really noticed how many pretty things there were in the house, until now that Manon was standing in it.
They lay on either side of the bed on their backs and turned their heads and looked at each other. They still had their ski jackets on. Their fingertips were too cold to touch each other yet. Jules had a little plastic bag filled with red jujubes shaped like big toes. He took them out of his inside pocket and handed her one. It made their teeth stick together, so that their words sounded slurred, like drunken miners, as they spoke to each other. “I think that you’re pretty,” Jules said.
“No, I’m not. I’m not. I’m not. I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
She put her hands to her face.
“Let’s still talk about something else,” she said.
“Did you memorize that poem for English class, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’?”
“No, it makes no sense. Why would an owl fall in love with a pussycat? It’s creepy.”
“They’re attracted to each other because they both like rats.”
“I like the way you roller-skate.”
“Yes, you look happy when you roller-skate.”
“My dad doesn’t like when I roller-skate, because he says I’m going to fall and land on my head, and then he’s not going to pay for me to go to a special school.”
Manon started laughing her incredible laugh.
“How come I can’t call you?” Jules asked.
“We don’t have a telephone, because my brother called a sex hotline and spoke to the woman for like two hours. Oh, God. That’s embarrassing.”
“No it’s not. My grandfather said that he married a woman named Rose. So we went over to meet her, but it turned out that he was like just hallucinating her.”
“Yeah. The doctor says that my grandfather has to stop drinking Pepsi, but he won’t.”
“How come you’re always trying to get the aliens to land here?”
“Because they would liven up this stupid joint.”
“My brother said you’re an idiot to invite the aliens here. On account of the fact that the aliens are going to suck our brains out.”
“That’s ridiculous! Aliens are intelligent. They’re brilliant. And all the most brilliant people are pacifists.”
“Maybe, but those big eyes creep me out.”
Then they were just quiet, staring at each other. She asked him to turn on the radio. She said she couldn’t make out with someone unless there was music playing. She didn’t know why she said this, since she had never made out with anyone before. Franklin had left a box filled with cassettes on the dresser. Jules rummaged in it until he found a Led Zeppelin tape. He put it in the tape deck, and as it started to play it sent a jolt of adrenalin through his veins. His body was a pinball machine someone had dropped a quarter in and all sorts of lights turned on. It sounded as if the boom box was playing from his belly. He was shocked.
Jules was feeling just like one of the millionaires who owned the mines. They lived in the city, ate caviar with little tiny spoons, had watches that cost as much as a trailer, and married high-class call girls with tits like water balloons. Oh, everybody got to feel like a rich man sometimes, even the people at the bottom of the social ladder.
Jules kept putting his hands out to help Manon take off her clothes, but he didn’t know what to do. Manon went ahead and kept taking things off. Because it was winter in Val des Loups, you ended up with a pile of clothes beside you after you undressed. There were her little black gloves with hearts on them. There was her pink scarf, her fleece sweater, her jacket, her scratchy wool tights, her extra-dark blue socks, and her funny dress. Everything she had on could fill an entire suitcase that you could take to Montreal and start a new life with.
When she was done undressing, Manon was wearing only her white underpants and an undershirt with a lace butterfly at the neckline and yellow stains in the armpits. Manon sitting on the bed in her underclothes was the most naked thing Jules had ever seen in his life. She was like a colt that had just been born and wasn’t sure what on earth to do with its long limbs yet.
Jules turned off the light, and then he stood by the bed and took his clothes off. He had no idea what it felt like to be loved until the moment Manon kissed him. Manon liked how the word “fuck” sounded when it came out of Jules’s mouth. It was like something shiny and wondrous that lit up her whole being. It was like a little piece of dirt in the oyster’s mouth that would turn into a pearl.
They tell children that magic doesn’t exist, but it is everywhere.
Afterwards, Jules and Manon cuddled up again under the deep forest of the covers. Jules was glad that he had been born in this piece-of-shit hole in the ground called Val des Loups. It was the perfect place on earth. The feeling of anxiety and being lost that always followed Jules around had disappeared. He had found a home. It was Manon. Although he didn’t know it then, that night was the happiest Jules would ever be. Happiness is a strange, wayward thing. Happiness likes wickedness and it likes risks. It likes when you are making terrible decisions.