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The lonely hearts hotel, p.10
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.10

           Heather O'Neill
 

  “Can you tap-dance?”

  “No, not really. I’ve never taken a lesson. Do you think it’s possible to tap-dance without ever having had a lesson?”

  “Noooo!” they all said at once.

  “I’ll show you something that I can do, though.”

  She jumped up off the bench and leaped a few feet from them. She found a spot on the grass. She then did a handstand. Hazel, acting as her intrepid assistant, put a large ball on her feet, which she began to spin.

  Some people looked at the ball spinning at quite an extraordinary speed. But many others chose to look at her underwear, or her skirt, which was now up over her head.

  She stood back upright. Her face was beet red.

  “I know a lot of other tricks that I can show you. Maybe not today, because we have to go, but next time.”

  They did not know what on earth to make of this girl. They knew that what she was doing was truly magical, and they felt they could watch her do it for hours and hours and hours. But they also felt she would never make a single penny off it.

  She certainly seemed crazy. But she simultaneously made them think that there was nothing in the world wrong with being a crazy girl. And that maybe the world needed a couple more crazy girls.

  The other children in the park also loved when Rose showed up. She always made them all laugh. They would gather around if she was talking to her friend the bear, who after all these years was still after her, still seeking her affections.

  The peacocks in the park were all white, and they walked with their wedding dresses trailing behind them.

  • • •

  SOMETIMES AFTER HER PERFORMANCES with the imaginary bear, she would find herself feeling quite blue. Because the bear was the only one she kept in touch with from the orphanage. She sometimes thought she would run into Pierrot, but she never did. The other governesses all understood that Rose was the type of girl to easily fall into temptation. They knew this from overhearing her strange conversations with the bear. The invisible bear seemed to be getting more and more aggressive.

  Rose brought the children home. They shared a bowl of chocolate-chip ice cream. The chunks of chocolate looked like flotsam from a ship that had just sunk.

  • • •

  SHE BUMPED INTO MCMAHON one night after she had put the children to bed and she was walking down the hall with an atlas on her head. It had been one of her punishments at the orphanage, which she had managed to transform into a fully fledged trick.

  “You’re still the governess.”

  “Yes.”

  “Congratulations. But why the fuck do you have a book on your head?”

  “What are you talking about? What book?”

  “For the love of God, are you one of those lobotomized kids from the orphanage?”

  McMahon was like this great ship that went back and forth to the different worlds. He had in his brain all those marvelous theatrics.

  “Tell me about what you saw tonight.”

  “There was a Parisian troupe. It was a disaster. The whole troupe had clearly lost its mind somewhere on the road. You would actually be surprised how often that happens. After seven years on the road, they should all be committed.”

  “Oh, how lovely! Tell me more, please don’t stop.”

  “They were all dressed up as white mice. They had cloth ears stuck up on their heads and long tails stuck to the asses of their leotards. It was called the Opera of the Souris en Pantoufles. So I really don’t know why I was still shocked when they tiptoed out dressed like rodents. But there you go.

  “But one girl on pointe didn’t have a shirt on. They all looked so stoned that it’s hard to say whether that was an artistic choice or whether she forgot to put her clothes on before coming out onstage. I really thought she was a boy because she was so flat-chested, but plenty of other people in the audience figured out pretty quickly that she was a girl, given the general amount of hooting and hollering. In any case, the police busted the show because she was only fourteen.”

  “What’s it like to be able to watch the most stupendous acts from all over the world every night?”

  “You can get used to anything, I suppose.”

  “Will you take me one night?”

  “Are you out of your mind? This conversation is over. Scurry back to your nursery. I’m putting ideas into your head, I can see that.”

  “But I need to see this wonderful world. I used to be a performer too, when I was little. Perhaps you saw one of our famous Christmas performances. At City Hall? The Journey of the Star of David, perhaps?”

  “No. I run the Roxy downtown. All the spectacles that are worth seeing are up on that stage. Did you perform at the Roxy? No? I didn’t think so.”

  “Everyone used to fall in love with me.”

  “Trust me, I’m not in love with you.”

  “You’re not my type either.”

  “You probably need new chores or something. Go away now. And this will be the last time I speak to you. Do you understand?”

  “Yes. I will never speak to you again. I will communicate only in ways that transcend words.”

  He wanted to protest again, but he knew that it was useless, so he let her leave. It was best to get her away from him as soon as possible. Before she walked away, she moved the tip of her toe on the floor, like a piece of chalk writing words. He wondered what she spelled.

  • • •

  ROSE HEARD FROM the other governesses that McMahon was a heroin dealer. It was actually quite amazing what the other governesses knew. The girls were so positive about McMahon’s other profession. Their employers talked about it. And they had seen the police come to McMahon’s door in the past to question him. He also ran brothels.

  “I heard that whenever a new girl comes to the city, Mr. McMahon is always the first to sleep with her. He makes sure that she is addicted to heroin. Then she is too crazy to ever leave. You should see all the girls who work in his whorehouses downtown. They are all addicted to drugs.”

  “My cousin wanted to do something else, but Mr. McMahon wouldn’t let her. All the money she made sleeping with men she had to pay to Mr. McMahon for her room and board. She doesn’t have a penny to her name. She wants to jump out a window.”

  “They are like slaves. They don’t even know they are alive anymore. There was this girl and she spent the whole day with her eyes closed.”

  “Why? Why would she do such a thing?”

  “Well, in the first place, she was really stoned, and when you are stoned, it can be really difficult to open your eyes. And I think that she was a really good person. She liked to see only goodness in everybody and everything. And then she knew that there was nothing but ugliness in the world she found herself in, so she just kept her eyes closed the whole day. She didn’t even take a peek to see what the men she was having sex with looked like.”

  Rose was fascinated by these tales about McMahon, but even more she preferred the dirty sexual stories. Those ones made her think of Pierrot. They were her favorite types of fairy tales. She loved that women shared these types of things. Whenever one of the governesses had a story to tell, all the other governesses quieted down to listen to her. The pinecones lay on the grass around them, like cigar butts the gods had discarded.

  She liked knowing she wasn’t the only woman in the world fascinated by these things. She closed her eyes and pictured the scenarios as though they were short little movies in which the man pursued the woman all around the room.

  Sister Eloïse had taken all the girls aside when they were little. She had warned them that they were all the children of women who had not been able to resist temptation. It was in their blood. They had inherited this weak trait from their mothers. They should understand it as a weakness. Like people who had inherited weak lungs from their parents had to be wary about climbing stairs. Had to be wa
ry about going out on wet, cold days.

  When they experienced those feelings, when they felt lust, they should understand immediately that this was a disease.

  • • •

  ROSE TIED A BLINDFOLD over her eyes. She spent the whole day like that. McMahon saw her in the yard with the blindfold on. She was taking the garbage out to the curb. For a moment he watched her with alarm, as it looked as if she might walk into the street and get run over by a car. He began to open the window, to call out to her.

  She started moving around the garden with her arms out in front of her. This was disturbing because there were no landmarks near her. In her head, she might be wandering on the North Pole. She might be in the middle of the desert. She might be about to walk the plank of a pirate ship. Wherever it was, it was miles and miles away from him. And then, maybe more disturbingly, his children appeared. They were wandering from the porch of the house into the yard with their hands out in front of them. They had black blindfolds tied around their eyes too. They had all departed from him. They were all in the land of make-believe.

  It occurred to him that nobody in his family really loved him anymore and that they had all found a way to escape to freedom.

  17

  PIERROT AND THE APPLE

  After seeing Eloïse again and learning that he had lost Rose, Pierrot began to be revolted and shocked by pleasure. There was a dumpy blond woman in a green velvet jacket getting ready to play the accordion on a street corner as he walked past. She pulled on the instrument and it let out a long exhale, like a woman in labor trying to breathe. Then she began to play “The Accordion Waltz.” He adored that tune, but now it made him feel sick to his stomach. He sprinted off down the street to get away from it.

  • • •

  PIERROT WAS WALKING HOME with a tiny debate trophy in his hand. He stood on the edge of the pond in the center of the park. He hurled his trophy into the water and it made a terrific splash. It was as though a champagne bottle had been shaken and then uncorked. He felt a little bit better.

  “You’re not supposed to throw things in there, you know.”

  Pierrot turned and saw a teenage girl in a tartan jumper and black bow tie standing there. “Will you kindly refer to me as Dr. Pierrot?” he said. “And I’m sorry to tell you this, but you are exhibiting all the classical symptoms of a fatal illness. I’ll have to do a nude examination, if you don’t mind. Is there a private place we can find at your house?”

  The girl’s face went red and her eyes went wide when he said this. But then she smiled.

  Maybe if he made love to this girl, he would go around feeling guilty about sleeping with her and not Eloïse.

  • • •

  THE GIRLS WHO WORKED as servants at the house or in the neighborhood knew that Pierrot was a fool. They knew that if they hooked up with him, they would be miserable and looking after their children on their own and living off charity for the rest of their lives. They would find themselves living in a tiny apartment with cockroaches underneath the wallpaper and eating oatmeal for dinner. He promised you good times. But poor people knew that all good times had to be paid for. You’d be scrubbing laundry for extra pennies late at night. No thank you. If they wanted to hear a Shakespearean sonnet, they would take a collection out of the library and read it themselves. Pierrot didn’t impress them. They didn’t think he had the sophisticated language of an intellectual. They thought he had the mellifluous tongue of a hustler.

  In their minds, Pierrot was a man who would deliver a pithy aphorism to a newspaperman upon his arrest and then never be heard from again.

  His looks were fundamentally appealing to girls, however, and the rich ones could not resist him. Rich girls didn’t know the bite of poverty. Their parents could buy them a husband like Pierrot. And when they met Pierrot, they wanted their parents to make such a purchase. He was like a pony. He snuck into their windows at their request. They would kiss his neck. He would do whatever they told him to do. But Pierrot always felt lost afterward. Once he climbed out of a girl’s window and up onto her roof after she heard her father come home. He sat up on the roof not knowing how to get home, since he had left his shoes behind.

  There was a black cat up there too that was yawning, having come to terms with its bad luck.

  • • •

  ONE AFTERNOON, after making love to a girl named Juliette who lived in a giant house on top of the hill, he found himself particularly blue. As he was walking down the corridor to the front door he passed a large display case with glass doors. He couldn’t help but notice, on one of the shelves, a glittering red apple. When he put his face up to the case, he saw that it was covered in tiny red jewels. He wanted the fruit. It was an urge he couldn’t resist. He stopped for a moment, looking up and down the hall to see if anyone was there, and listening for footsteps. When he was sure that he was alone, he opened the cabinet door slowly and gently. He reached in for the apple.

  The apple itself was just begging, begging to be plucked. It always considered itself somewhat of a fake because it could not be consumed. There is no pleasure whatsoever in immortality. But while it was in Pierrot’s pocket, it felt a sense of adventure. And when Pierrot balanced the apple on his head outside, the hard fruit beamed with reflected sunlight.

  Pierrot knew that everything in the world was alive. Everything was composed of molecules that shook and vibrated and hummed. There was no such thing as permanence. Even the most stalwart object—such as a statue in the park—was struggling to keep itself together.

  • • •

  AS HE WAS WALKING HOME he began to feel like a thief. Wonderful! he thought. I am not only a pervert but also a thief! Life is a path that you go along, discovering worse and worse things about yourself. He was not quite sure how he could return the apple. He thought of sneaking over in the middle of the night and putting it back. He thought about mailing it, but then he worried it would be traceable. They would know it had been him.

  He climbed into the large maple tree in the middle of the park. He was, as you would imagine, an excellent climber. There was a hole in it that he had often seen squirrels dart in and out of. Pierrot reached his hand into the hole and then let the apple fall. From the sudden thud of the falling fruit, one could assume the hole wasn’t particularly deep.

  Pierrot scrambled back down the tree trunk. He felt relieved. He wasn’t entirely sure whether he was free of the apple. But he did feel that at least he could forget about it for a moment. During the next weeks, he stopped thinking about it altogether because Mr. Irving began to get sick.

  That night five squirrels sat staring at the glowing red apple. They had no idea how in the world it had gotten there. It wasn’t edible. One of the smaller squirrels just kept looking at it. It was the closest that an animal had ever come to believing in God.

  18

  ROSE AND THE APPLE

  Rose found a strange book in Mrs. McMahon’s room, behind the bed. She hadn’t really meant to go snooping. But she was cleaning up the shards of a teacup Mrs. McMahon had flung angrily against the armoire by her bed. She had to move all the items to get at the shards, and then she noticed a small, dark red book. She was always magically, magnetically drawn to books. Even if she didn’t read them, she would want to smell them or to run her fingers over the pages or just flip through them. It had never occurred to her either that a book could be a secret. They were written for other people to read, after all. They weren’t personal. Another one just like it could be found in a shop.

  She sat cross-legged on the floor and opened the book. It was filled with illustrated panels. They had onion paper that you peeled away as you would a curtain on a window to get a view of what was going on outside. Or that you pulled down like a sheet from a bed to see what body was lying underneath.

  At first she thought she was imagining what she was seeing, that her eyes were playing tricks. But she continued to stare at
the drawing and it did not change at all. The figures were obstinately naked. They were in an amorous position. They didn’t shout in alarm and scurry around the room, grabbing at their clothes, throwing them on and shouting out excuses about what they had just been doing. The woman’s legs were still spread. Her dress was still hiked up over her hips. Her head was still flung back in ecstasy. Her mouth was still open, and her eyes languorously shut. The man still had his tongue out. His head was still between her legs. He still had his pants off. He was still holding his penis.

  Why hadn’t she just given Pierrot what he wanted? If it happened now, she wouldn’t be able to resist. She would have wanted him to touch her so badly that she would have made whatever promise he had wanted her to make. She always found herself going back to that moment in her mind and reliving it. Each time she would say, “Yes, I don’t care about anything in the whole world other than you.” And then she would have a different sexual fantasy in her head. Of what Pierrot would do to her.

  • • •

  SHE HAD URGES. Instead of trying to fight them, Rose let them play out in her mind. She let them unwind slowly.

  They were like water seeping underneath a door and filling up a room. Desire flooded in. And all the cups and plates floated on top of it. And the chairs were knocked over. And the books began to open up as they spun around, wanting each of their pages to be read at once. And then finally her bed began to rise up off the floor, and there was nowhere for it to go but out the window and toward the moon.

  She would look at different men, on the sidewalks, in the park, at the markets. If she was able to make eye contact and hold it for more than three seconds, she would know exactly what they wanted to do to her. Somehow knowing that she had gotten this information from them made them blush and look away. Every man thought he was dirtier than every other man. If we all knew that we were all perverts, we might all be a lot happier.

  • • •

  SHE DID THIS INSTEAD of having sex. She went around reading men’s minds.

 
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