He followed me outside. He suddenly grabbed my bicycle keys out of my hand and held them up over his head. I started whacking him with my purse. We started wrestling and fell on the ground. I sat on him, slapping him with my hands, while he laughed hysterically. Somebody passing by shot us a look of utter disgust.
I suppose there was something a bit freakish about our relationship. We hadn’t changed the way we acted very much at all since we were seven.
Nicolas got on his bicycle and rode next to me. We rode our bicycles in the middle of the street. The cars behind us kept honking at us to tell us to move out of the way. But we didn’t move. We still owned that street. We loved blocking traffic. We rode with our arms off the handlebars and our arms stretched out while holding hands. It was a trick that we’d learned years before. Nicolas stood up on the seat of his bicycle. He loved risky behavior more than anything else. Ah, the things that Nicolas had to do to feel alive. It was beautiful.
My night classes were going to be in the old school building on Rue Saint-Denis. I rode up onto the sidewalk outside the building. The lampposts out front had been planted when Loulou was a young boy. They had grown up and were now almost as tall as the buildings.
“I’ll see you later,” I said to Nicolas as I chained my bike to a pole.
Nicolas stopped a man in a business suit who was passing by. “She’s tossing me aside. She doesn’t care whether I live or die. She thinks that she’s better than me. Elle est conne, monsieur!”
“You interfere with all my plans,” I said. “I knew that you were going to do this. You don’t realize that you’re doing it. You don’t know why you’re doing it. But you just do it.”
He was about to protest some more when a 14-year-old girl wearing a T-shirt with a fleur-de-lys on it came up and asked us for an autograph. We just got quiet for a minute and signed the back of a ripped-open envelope.
Nicolas sat on the bench outside the school. His hair was all messed up, but it didn’t matter. He was able to pull off bedhead in a way I had only seen babies do. He looked so innocent. I almost felt bad about leaving him behind.
“Fine. Fine. Fine. I’ll wait for you here.”
By the time I got to the third floor, I looked out the window at the staircase, and the bench was empty. He could never sit in the same spot for very long. I was so distracted by the idea of going to school that I didn’t care where Nicolas had gone to.
I squeezed into one of the little wooden desks in the classroom. These desks had been around since the Depression. They had the small holes in the tops of them where the ink bottles used to go. I guess they were from when the children used to write with feathers. They had to lure ostriches at the zoo to the fence so that they could pull feathers out of their bottoms.
As soon as everyone settled in and the teacher began to talk, I realized that I was glad that Nicolas wasn’t in school with me. I knew that he would never be able to sit through this. He would never be able to accept that he would have to do all the very ordinary things that everybody else did. It had been drilled into our heads that we were extraordinary. But it wasn’t really true. We were only as extraordinary as the next person. Or, anyways, we had to do all the things that everybody else does to become something.
Dreaming too big was the cause of much horror on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. The street was filled with people whose dreams had gone bust. It wasn’t always drugs and bad childhoods that brought them this low. It was ambition. There was a whole group of fallen Icaruses sitting under the blazing fluorescent lights at the soup kitchen. Their jackets were half blown off by the fall. They had the complexions of clowns whose cigars had just exploded.
Étienne Tremblay and his children were supposed to be geniuses who never did anything ordinary. Certainly nothing as pathetic as going to night school to complete a high school diploma. We ought to be up in the wee hours composing philosophical tracts on the banality of happiness. But those days were all over, weren’t they? I was just a girl who worked in a magazine store, looking for a leg up.
Lord, we had been snobs. We took on friends once in a while when we thought that someone was charismatic. When we got disappointed or bored we would toss them aside. There was no one in the classroom whom Nicolas would even deign to make eye contact with. But I liked that everyone was so different. I wanted something new. I looked at these faces and knew that the unexpected was already happening.
There was a man who slicked his hair back into a black wave. He had probably been good-looking when he was a teenager. There was a pretty girl about my age except she was a completely different style. She wore a super-tight tracksuit and about 12 pieces of jewelry, including a stud in her nose.
The man beside me had a checkered hat on the desk, next to his opened notebook. The hat perfectly matched his checkered jacket. I thought this was remarkable. He was also a doodler. He drew skinny horses all over the margins of his notebook, which generally was something that only young girls did.
I drank a cup of coffee at the break and made conversation with everyone. They were all from other neighborhoods and took the bus downtown to go to school in the evenings. These were all sorts of people who were trying to figure out this world, so that they could have apartments and they could support their families, so that they didn’t have to be afraid, so that they could feel proud of themselves.
A woman told me that she was going to get a business degree and that she was going to open her own flower shop. How lovely. How wonderful to have a plan and to have something to work toward. She asked me if I knew what I was going to do. I said no.
One of the guys asked me if I wanted to go for a drink later, but I wasn’t interested. It would make it a pain in the ass to come to school when our relationship didn’t work out—which it inevitably wouldn’t.
The subject after the break was Quebec History, the bane of every high school student in the province. When the teacher handed out the battered textbooks, I opened mine immediately. I looked at the cartoon drawing of Jacques Cartier, the explorer who discovered Canada. He was wearing a ridiculously tiny black hat and looked so proud that he had finally managed to get to this new land. I felt the same way. I was here! I was back in school again. I was as anxious to turn the page and find out what happened next as Jacques was. ♦
Excerpted from Heather O’Neill’s novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, which comes out June 3. Copyright © 2014 by the author, reprinted courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Heather O’Neill is a Canadian novelist, poet, short story writer, screenwriter, and journalist. She was born in Montreal, but spent part of her childhood in the American South. She currently lives in Montreal.