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The lonely hearts hotel, p.18
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.18

           Heather O'Neill

  It made her feel like a rabbit caught in headlights. It made her feel as if a curse had been placed on her and now she was a little statue.

  “Why don’t you please tell me who you would be, if it weren’t for me? I want you to explain it to me. You would be scrubbing floors, if you were lucky. You would be trying to seduce some other boss, who would have the good sense to ignore you.”

  “I don’t know where I’d be?” she asked sarcastically.

  “Why don’t you gain some weight? You look like you’re starving to death. I can see your rib cage poking out. No man wants to see something like that. Ask any man, he’ll tell you that he likes a woman with flesh he can grab on to. He likes a big ass he can stuff his face into. That’s it. That’s the main value that a woman affords to a man. I should be a happy man. I’m rich. Everyone knows who I am. I’m a respectable member of the community.”

  “Are you?”

  “What do you mean by that? Why would you question me like that? Who the fuck do you think you are? My equal? You think that sucking my dick gives you any sort of position or standing in this world? The minute I stop letting you suck my dick, you go back to being poor. Now take off your clothes and show me your ass, and I swear to God that better be in an enticing way.”

  She had no power at all. And she had to do it. Her fingertips trembled as she removed her clothes. She hated that he could see her crying. Her tears were ones of humiliation, impossible to stop. They were a different temperature than other tears—and they seemed hot as they streamed down her cheeks. After her outer garments were removed, she took off her slip. What falls to its knees faster than silk?

  • • •

  HE CAME BACK AND APOLOGIZED to her the next day. She didn’t forgive him. She took out her old plan of the Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza from her pocket.

  • • •

  MCMAHON HAD SPENT so much money on her clothes, there was no reason she ought to show up in anything other than spectacular outfits. But after that night she somehow managed to put her clothes together in ways that made them look odd.

  She wore a headband so low on her forehead that a great black feather went down to her nose and almost obscured her eyes. When someone said something peculiarly interesting, she would blow on the feather in order to get a clear-eyed view of them. As though she were blowing bangs out of her face.

  Another time she was wearing a black velvet cape he had bought for her. She was holding it up over her face as if she were a vampire. Count Dracula.

  Also, he could never tell when she was actually drunk because she would often pretend to be inebriated. She pretended to be three sheets to the wind, and it made everybody laugh. And then she would say the types of things that she always wanted to say but that she knew she shouldn’t, being a girl and all.

  If he accused her of pretending to be drunk, she would claim that she had no idea what he was talking about. She would swear that she actually had been smashed, because she couldn’t for the life of her remember a thing that had happened.

  That was especially infuriating. He couldn’t confront her about the things she had done. She would raise her hands to both sides and shrug.

  Once she pretended to be drunk so she could act like a man. She started to flirt heavily with one of the girls. She held her finger under her nose, pretending it was a mustache.

  “My darling, you are better than all the other girls. You are prettier than them all. It’s true. You are gold and they are all bronze. Watch out for all the other girls. They will be so jealous of you that they will want to stab you to death.”

  All the men had laughed, but they were also a little alarmed. If Rose could see through them, perhaps every other woman could too. But then they decided that Rose was probably just a peculiar girl. And even though they suspected that she was very good in bed, and they had all fantasized about sleeping with her, they were rather relieved that it was McMahon and not them who had responsibility for this most unusual girl.

  • • •

  SHE WAS MAKING A CAKE in her hotel room. She had never made a cake before. She was doing it deliriously. She was whipping everything together violently. She dumped in a bag of flour and it blew up in her face. She crushed the eggs and tossed them in the bowl, shells and all. Then she poured in some milk and began to beat it all viciously.

  “What in the world are you fucking doing?”

  “I’m making a giant wedding cake.”

  “Oh, I see. I see. You want me to divorce my wife and marry you. Is that it? If that’s it, I wish you would just have the courage to come out and say it.”

  “No, that’s not it at all. It’s actually the exact opposite. You see, I never agreed to marry you. I just woke up one day and I was married.” She scooped up some imaginary icing with her finger. She held it out for him to come and suck it off. She gave a sickeningly sweet smile.

  Her face was covered in white flour. There was no way in the world that McMahon would be able to hold on to this strange girl.

  • • •

  EVERYONE KEPT TRYING TO MAKE it clear to Rose that nobody really cared about what a girl had to say. She wasn’t supposed to have radical and clever ideas. She was just supposed to try to vaguely follow what men were on about. They were supposed to bounce ideas off her as if they were playing racquetball. It was a more or less pleasant way of speaking to one’s self.

  It was important to be a little bit stupid as a woman. It was important not to feel proud of yourself. You were supposed to feel pride only when your husband did something. If you were talented, you ran the risk of making your husband feel bad about himself. So it was best to keep your talent in check. Or become talented at things that he didn’t like to do himself. So you could be his very adept assistant. But Rose couldn’t accept this.

  • • •

  OUTSIDE, THE SPARROWS HOPPED AROUND in the snow, looking for crumbs. They were the color of books whose pages had been ruined in a flood.




  McMahon was vaguely aware that one of his fences was making a fortune off the objects that a handsome junkie was selling to him. When Pierrot stole and then sold a tiny Modigliani sketch, McMahon became interested in this thief. Despite his aversion to drug addicts, McMahon had Pierrot come into his office.

  McMahon stared at Pierrot, trying to figure him out. Although he was a handsome sort, he was clearly an addict. His arms curved around the back of the chair, and his head was slung forward as though he were stuck up on a crucifix. Not like Jesus but like one of the fellows next to him.

  Pierrot did not behave like typical drug addicts off the street. He had these odd movements—he looked up into the air with his lips pursed while considering a thought. It made McMahon conjecture that he had come from a wealthy background. He seemed like a youngest son who had been disowned, possibly for being a sexual degenerate. It was hard to imagine his story.

  There was something oddly familiar about him. Pierrot reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t put his finger on whom.

  “How old are you?”

  “I’m twenty-one.”

  “Where were you educated?”

  “You know, I don’t know that I ever was. I did attend Selwyn House School briefly before they tossed me out on my ear. I’ve read a few of the classics, though. I stopped reading them because they gave me such a sense of ennui, you know? They made me deeper, and I didn’t feel that I needed more depth. I feel like I’m at the bottom of a well as it is. Novels and ice cream—both are things whose depths of feeling I try to avoid.”

  How he had ended up with Poppy was a mystery too. McMahon told Pierrot, as a gesture of kindness, that he would erase Poppy’s debt and obligations to him. Her criminal record was beginning to look embarrassing because there were so many arrests. It made the entire police system look ineffectual. In return,
Pierrot would bring all his stolen goods only to McMahon.

  McMahon looked forward to Pierrot’s visits and finds. His art dealer came to the meetings. They would lock the office door after Pierrot entered, and he’d unveil his latest theft. No matter how much McMahon thought the painting or object of art was worth, it always turned out to be more valuable. Pierrot never argued about the money they offered him. Because of this, McMahon was a little more generous than he would have been with the average goon who tried to bilk them for tasteless items. But he needed Pierrot to run out of money so he would go steal more things, didn’t he? So he had to keep Pierrot broke.

  One afternoon Pierrot came in with a small pen drawing of a snowflake in a cheap frame. He was stoned—the irises of his eyes looked like garden flowers encased in ice. He held out the drawing as though it were going to bowl them over, exceeding any expectation they might have of his capabilities as an art thief. But this one turned out to be of no value at all.

  “It was probably drawn by one of the children in the house and then framed by a parent in a fit of sentimentality,” the art dealer said. “I can’t imagine that this was made by any professional.”

  Pierrot looked disappointed. It was rare for someone as stoned as he was to experience genuine disappointment.

  McMahon gave Pierrot five dollars for it nonetheless. He didn’t disrupt the lucrative business they had. He put the painting on the hearth. He told Pierrot not to worry, as he would keep that painting for himself. Pierrot walked out.

  The moment the door slammed shut, the back door to his office opened and Rose walked in. She instantly gravitated toward the etching. “What’s this drawing? Ooooh, it’s so beautiful.”

  “Take it if you like it.”

  • • •

  ROSE HUNG THE FRAMED SNOWFLAKE on a hook on her wall. Later, when McMahon walked out of the bathroom, Rose was staring at the drawing. He came at her from behind. He put his hands around her waist. After they had done making love, she got back up and stood looking at the snowflake, completely naked.

  “This makes me feel so at peace, I can’t even tell you.”

  Well, she was an orphan after all, wasn’t she? McMahon thought. Sometimes he almost forgot. She put on so many airs, and she always did her best to impersonate what upper-class people with money acted like. Sometimes she actually had him fooled. But her admiration of this drawing reassured him on so many levels. She was a silly piece of trash that he kept for his own entertainment. She was so beneath him. He could treat her however he wanted.

  • • •

  AFTER MCMAHON LEFT, Rose had an urge to be out in the snow in her big coat and her fur hat and her four layers of stockings. She felt as though she had been swallowed whole by a hibernating bear. She lay in the snow just like she had when she was abandoned in the park at two days old. It had been the snow that had first comforted her. It had taken her in its big fat loving arms and it had whispered into her ears that she should just sleep, sleep, sleep and that everything would be okay. It was the only thing that had ever mothered her. There were piles of snow on the heads of the stone angels, making them look like they had on the same fur hat as Rose. Getting up from out of the snow, she made up her mind.

  • • •

  WHEN SHE STEPPED OUT of the Darling Hotel with her suitcase on Christmas night, she was surprised to see that the world had completely changed. She climbed onto the crowded trolley. There weren’t any seats free, so she grabbed on to the pole. All the different mittens one on top of one another made it look like a totem pole. On the trolley, everyone’s face seemed to have so much emotion. She could read everyone. She understood that everyone was living a great tragedy. Her tragedy had taught her the language of tragedy—and made her able to read that of other people. In that way, she supposed it was a sort of blessing.



  Poppy was standing in front of the window. She wore a yellow dress with golden stains in the armpits and a skinny white belt around the waist. The dress made her ass look so perfect. Pierrot was looking at her with something almost close to lust. She immediately went over to the bed. She knelt at the foot of the bed with both her breasts in her hands and her mouth puckered.

  He would be a criminal not to have sex with her. If he could make this openhearted messed-up girl happy, shouldn’t he take the opportunity? He propped his head up on the pillow and began to masturbate his penis with one hand until it was hard. He closed his eyes for a second and imagined all the pretty girls he had ever made love to. He imagined Rose lifting up her gray orphanage dress, showing him her underwear and smiling. He opened his eyes and gestured for Poppy to come to him.

  She hurriedly climbed over and on top of him. She lowered herself on his enormous penis. It was larger than the penis of any man she had ever slept with, and she had slept with a lot of men.

  The condom broke. Condoms almost always broke when Pierrot wore them. So he ejaculated inside her. She felt so warm and peaceful. Everything in the world was okay. Poppy’s special gift was her ability to see the world in a grain of sand: to be happy with the small things. But is it a blessing to be satisfied with so little? Or is it a curse?

  The condom lay on the floor, as if a snake had just shed its skin.

  • • •

  HE FELT GUILTY after sleeping with Poppy. The dissatisfaction reminded him that deep down, for some ridiculous reason, he only wanted to be sleeping with Rose. His longing for Rose became so overwhelming that it felt akin to paralysis. He lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling, picturing Rose. She was sitting on a bench in the hallway in the orphanage. She had her palms in front of her, pretending to read a book. She laughed heartily at the invisible words. She licked the tip of her fingers and turned the imaginary page. It was a stupendous performance. Even though she did not look up, Pierrot knew that the pantomime was for him.

  Poppy, seeing Pierrot grinning stupidly, asked him what the hell he was thinking of.

  Pierrot decided to tell Poppy about the girl he was infatuated with named Rose. It seemed ridiculous, but he thought that if he confessed his obsession, it might lose some of its power.

  “Oh, I know Rose. She’s really sweet, right? She’s a lot of fun. Always dancing.”

  “You know her? Is it the same girl? She’s our age? Black hair and very pale skin?”

  “Yes, it’s the same one. She grew up at the same orphanage as you. You both have a similar manner, come to think of it. I can see that you grew up together. But that was a lifetime ago, buddy. You should be happy with what’s in front of you right now.”

  “I know, I know. Does she have a whole lot of children?”

  “No. That girl is footloose.”

  “She doesn’t have children? But she’s married, though, right? Do you know her husband?”

  “I’m beginning to think we might be talking about different Roses after all. She’s not married. She was a rich fellow’s mistress. Everybody knows her. She used to be at the Roxy every night.”

  “If I go there, will I find her?”

  Poppy was momentarily disconcerted, realizing that Pierrot wasn’t simply engaging in nostalgia, but was prepared to actually go look for this Rose.

  “Who is this rich man she’s seeing?” Pierrot continued probing.

  “You’ve never met him,” Poppy lied, determined not to give him any more clues. “And I said was. They split up. She left him. He completely lost his mind too.”

  “Well, I’ve got to go find her.”

  “What! Why?”

  “Because I never explained anything to her. Because I never told her that I loved her.”

  “She goes with men for a short while, and then when she leaves them, they go completely mad. This rich fellow stopped being able to see prostitutes. He used to see two of them at a time. He just cries after having sex. And he paces bac
k and forth. He can’t sit through a movie. And he just wants to talk about how awful Rose is. The only way that you can get his attention is if you insult Rose. It’s really boring.”

  Poppy saw Pierrot’s expression and realized she had just made things worse.

  • • •

  PIERROT LEFT THE HOTEL, saying that he was going to wait in the work line. Twenty minutes later there was a knock at the door. Poppy flung it open, expecting to see Pierrot, but there she was. She was looking at the girl with the black bob. The girl with the pale skin. The girl who had grown up in the same orphanage as Pierrot. It was Rose. She wondered if she was dreaming. It was as though she had willed her into existence, like some sort of genie.

  But Rose didn’t act as if anything supernatural had occurred. She was looking for her fortune to be read again. Poppy led her into the kitchen, saying that her husband was out but would be back soon. Rose sat at a chair at the kitchen table, took off her gloves and said she wouldn’t stay long. Poppy placed five cards on the table in front of Rose. They were all cards that had hearts on them.

  “I think there is love on the horizon for you.”

  But Rose waved her hand as if waving away that useless fortune. “You can see the future, can’t you? Do you think that it’s possible in the future for a woman to start up her own company and for it to be successful?”

  “Yes, it will be possible, but not for a long, long, long time.”

  “I mean, if it’s possible in the future, then I might as well go ahead and get on with it now.”

  Poppy shrugged. “Nobody gives me anything and I’m a woman.”

  She looked at Rose. When Poppy had first met Rose, she looked like any of the other underweight girls who walked up and down the street. Now she noticed how pretty Rose was. She was the most beautiful girl. Poppy looked at her pale skin and the two pink spots in her cheeks that looked as if they had been painted with a thin brush.

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