I. The Pageant
I ended up being a beauty queen one day in 1994. 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 modeling 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 Montreal.
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 Center, where registration for night school was happening that day. The Ukrainian Center 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 theater. 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 neighborhood. 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 center and 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 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 paper- back copy of Le Matou. He must have been homeless when he wasn’t flamenco 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.