Authors: Heather O'Neill
Table of Contents
WAS HEADING ALONG
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 no-nonsense 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 eighteen-year-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.
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 peep-show 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
. He must have been homeless when he wasn’t flamenco dancing, I figured, since he was carrying that junk around.