Variations on a theme
By Heather O’Neill
When I was little, I lived in the woods of Virginia. I wore rubber boots, an undershirt with Kermit the Frog on it and the same pair of jeans every day for about a year. Some Saturdays we would drive into Richmond to see my cousin who was in jail for statutory rape. That was when I wore my sweater with the name Sheila written in black marker on the back. It was known as my good “visiting sweater” While the adults talked, my sisters and I would pick cigarette butts off the side of the road outside the prison. We were all chain smokers by the time we were six.
Sometimes when we were in Richmond we would run into my gay uncle who lived on the street. He used to carry around a copy of the Collected Works of Oscar Wilde that he’d use as a pillow when he slept on park benches. He never had a job because he thought he should somehow just be given money for being eight or nine times more intelligent than the average Richmond citizen.
Once upon a time, before the civil war, my whole family had been rich. Despite their lack of money, they continued to think of themselves as aristocrats. They claimed they were descended from Robespierre and there was a picture of him cut out from National Geographic Magazine and taped to our kitchen wall. My family secretly longed to be dragged to the guillotine in beautiful silk clothes while cursing the ignorant masses.
Goldstein’s parents were exactly the opposite. They had jobs and money, but they swore to him they were poor. They believed this would instill in him a sense of humility; instead, it instilled in him a sense of panic. He was taught at an early age that luxuries were for idiots. Why when Goldstein was little, his parents were so thrifty that they dressed him in girl clothes so he could hand them down afterwards to his sister. For bedtime stories his parents read him the nutrition information from the side of food boxes because books were “for fancy people.”
My family’s lie did me good, as I always believed I deserved to have the very best in life, despite my financial situation. Goldstein’s family’s lie, on the other hand, made him feel terrible and uncertain. He was taught that no matter how hard you tried, you could never get anywhere in this world and that no matter how much you had, you deserved nothing.
Zuuzuu and I are selling books in the church basement for a benefit. The tables are full of children’s books from the ’60s that fall to pieces when you open the covers. The books describe how you can find an alternate reality by reaching far back into your utensil drawers. The rats in these books all speak and are always given respectable names like Alfred.
We take home a plastic bag filled with paperbacks that don’t sell. They say that children get smarter just by being around books. Zuuzuu and I sit on the park bench holding the books, smelling them. One of the books is a novel by Iceberg Slim that has been translated into French. I begin reading it and find that I like it better in French somehow. Even the low lives seem to be as gentle as children with socks pulled up to their knees.
If you were a robot and you were feeling ill, the doctor might tell you to swallow two buttons and go to bed. He would tell you to make sure to drink a lot motor oil over the next couple of days. If you lived in a Godard film and you wanted to compliment someone, you would call them stupid. It is all a matter of perspective.
In Montreal, fewer and fewer children are able to get the right papers to go to English schools, so the English schools are closing down. People use the rooms in these old schools as apartments and immigration law offices. I go to eat mussels in a restaurant that is in one of these buildings. The walls in the hallway are light green and you can put your coat in a tiny locker. In the washroom, you have to get down on your knees to fix your hair in the mirror. There is a piece of looseleaf taped to the wall that says: Please do not smoke your cigars in here.
I walk home through the alley. The backyards are littered with bicycles as it is too cold to ride them anymore. In the summer we will wish that we had put them away instead of leaving them out here to rust. But now they are dead to us. Like dinosaur bones. When dinosaurs first went extinct, there must have been bones everywhere. It must have been hard to walk anywhere without tripping on them.
At home I try to make a café au lait by using the blender to blend coffee with milk, but it doesn’t turn out right. I set the drink aside and Zuuzuu and I decide to draw. We make rows and rows of black umbrellas. Tomorrow I will leave the window open and the tiny black umbrellas will blow off the paper. They will live in the closet like bats. Goldstein will say, this is what you get for leaving windows open in the winter.
I would not recommend trying to put up shelves with Goldstein. Or watching New Wave films in his company. And if you ever take a boat somewhere with him, you should know that he will yell the whole way. He does not understand that there is a reward for everything.