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Lullabies for little cri.., p.20
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.20

           Heather O'Neill

  The system kids at Bobo Academy were proud of being messed up. There was a hierarchy there and they were somehow at the top. In moral religious education class on my first day, the teacher was fifteen minutes late. The kids sat around bragging loudly about their mental disorders, diagnosing their own conditions. As if they didn’t have enough problems, they had to insist that they were mentally ill. Being manic depressive seemed to be regarded as romantic.

  “I’m bipolar.”

  “That’s nothing. I have manic depression. I have it hormonally. My dad had it and his dad before him. I’m just not taking pills for it, either. It’s our way.”

  “I’m schizophrenic. But only mildly. It might get worse. I’m passive aggressive.”

  “Passive aggressive! That’s not a disease!”

  “Wait, it’s something. I can’t remember what the doctor said.”

  “I’m suicidal.”

  “So, I attempted suicide.”

  “You did not.”

  “I did so. Toby found me.”

  “You scratched your wrists. You didn’t even slice them open. They weren’t gushing blood or anything.”

  “It doesn’t matter how successful you were. Just trying counts as having attempted suicide.”

  “You just did it for attention. Because you knew that I was going to be back with the pizza in like one minute.”

  “Fuck you. You don’t understand anything about it.”

  The girl who claimed to have attempted suicide stood up and stormed off. It was a real blow to your self-esteem to have your suicidal tendencies challenged. She kicked the door of the classroom open, and it smashed into the teacher. She got suspended for that.

  At lunch that day, I sat with a gang of kids from my class on the school steps. They were all wearing flimsy clothes, as if freezing to death was the least of their worries. They were talking about the correct ways to beat other people up.

  “If you hit the guy at the bottom of the nose, that can kill him,” this guy Kevin told me. “You have to hit one eye and then the other to totally disorient him. Give him two black eyes. That’s my calling card. If you see a guy walking down the street with two black eyes, you know him and me tangoed.”

  Later I learned that Kevin was famous for having demonstrated a punch on himself and breaking his own nose.

  They spent the lunch hour telling stories about people they had tried to murder. Once you started telling these kinds of stories, you couldn’t talk about anything else. Everybody shut up and listened closely. It was like preaching the word of God. You could stand on a milk crate and tell these stories and all the system kids would gather around to hear them be told.

  “Do you have any good stories from juvie, Baby?” Kevin asked me.

  “I used to share a room with a girl named Simone. Her brother ripped off some drug dealers. So they found him and they buried him alive in his underwear. His mother had him cremated and she kept his ashes in a shoe box under her bed. She kept the blinds closed and lay there. That’s how come Simone ended up in detention, because her mother let her run around all night. One time her mother came to visit her. She was running up and down the hallways looking for Simone. She came into our room and she begged Simone to take off her shoe and her sock. Then she counted Simone’s toes. When she saw that Simone still had five toes, she was all happy.”

  All the kids were quiet. They looked at me, as if they were trying to recognize who the hell I was. I sort of felt as if I’d done something mean to them.

  I said good-bye and quickly headed down the stairs to the technical drawing class that was in the basement of the school. I sat down at my desk and, along with the other students in the class, took out my rulers and graph paper. For the next hour we tried to reconstruct and make sense of the universe. Luckily, most of our designs always ended up in the wastepaper basket. Lucifer was probably sitting there in the guise of one of these children, making his cryptic ambitious blueprints. He was the one child who still believed in evil. He was the one who hadn’t figured out yet that it brings you no joy at all.


  AFTER A COUPLE WEEKS AT THAT SCHOOL, it felt as if I’d been there forever. As for Alphonse, whose gift had gotten me into detention in the first place, I assumed that he’d forgotten who I was. I was coming home from school when I finally saw him. He was wearing a white down-filled jacket and had a skullcap over his long dreadlocks. I’d forgotten how well built he was, since I’d just been hanging around with scrawny high school kids. His blue eyes were bigger than I remembered too. I felt embarrassed about the way that I looked.

  I was wearing a black knit cap with yellow stars on it and my fur coat and these awful green moon boots. Jules had destroyed everything I owned while I was in detention. He said that he couldn’t be sure what had been given to me by the pimp and that he couldn’t take any chances. He’d even destroyed my old gym uniform. Why would a pimp buy me that? I was stuck wearing the dorky secondhand clothes that my social worker brought over. I thought that my ugly clothes probably made me look even younger than thirteen and that Alphonse would be turned off for good.

  I didn’t know how I felt about him, but I did know that I wanted him to like me. I couldn’t take the shock of seeing him. I put my hands over my face.

  “Don’t be like that,” I heard Alphonse say. “Let me see your face. I missed you. I thought about you every day.”

  I smiled at him through my hands and he smiled back. He had this way of making only one side of his mouth smile that always made me feel like a silly little adorable kitten. He leaned in so I could feel his breathing against my ear. I wasn’t sure if I actually heard what I think I heard. I was afraid later on that I might have imagined it, because it was what I had wanted to hear so badly.

  “You belong to me,” Alphonse had whispered, and his breath warmed the whole side of my face.

  I knew what all the hubbub about commitment was. I wanted desperately to belong to someone. It didn’t really matter who. Suddenly it seemed as if everything in the world was going to be all right.

  I MET ALPHONSE AFTER school at a tiny arcade. There were little tables in the back where you could sit and drink Cherry Coke for a couple hours with no one bugging you to move along. The place was so small that I walked back and forth and up and down the block a couple times trying to find it. There were eight crummy hot dog shops on that block, so it was hard to establish any landmarks. In the arcade, Alphonse and I played a game where you held a really big black gun and fired at people on the screen. I screamed out loud whenever I hit anyone.

  Afterward, as we were walking down the street, I showed him a handstand against the side of a building. We stopped outside the strip joint. There was aluminum foil in the window with pictures of nude dancers tacked onto it. Standing outside in the cold, it seemed impossible that anyone could ever be as naked as the girls in those pictures. Alphonse and I pointed out which strippers we found the prettiest.

  “I thought that strippers were supposed to be ugly,” I said.

  “These are guest stars. The ordinary girls are pretty ugly and they have weird tastes in music.”

  I went over to his house. I took off my winter clothes and sat in my jogging pants and yellow T-shirt. He made us a big plate of spaghetti, sprinkling pot liberally into the sauce, and it was the best I’d ever tasted. He put on a Nina Hagen record and turned it up hard. He’d always liked women singers who sounded like men.

  “She just totally rips me up inside,” Alphonse said, slouching next to me on the couch. “She opens up all my old wounds. Feel my hands. It makes my blood run cold, I swear to God.”

  Alphonse started making these plans for us to go to New York City to see Nina Hagen in concert someday. He said that we could live in a little hotel room there and become alcoholics. It was the most beautiful plan I’d ever made with anyone. I didn’t know you could make plans like that.

  We lay down quietly next to each other on the bed, listening to music. It was putting me under a spel
l, and when Alphonse put his hand out to me, I held it. Then he rolled over and moved on top of me. It shocked me when he took his shirt off. I’d never realized how big he was. When Jules took his shirt off, the shock was how skinny he was. The boys at the swimming pool always looked so much tinier and littler when they took off their shirts and stood there with their toes turned in. Alphonse seemed like he was in a whole other league of human beings than I was. He looked about the size of three of me. I couldn’t even imagine how it was that he was on top of me and not squashing me to death, but he wasn’t heavy. Although each part of me was able to move, I was still pinned down. I wasn’t sure what part of me was pinned down or how I was pinned down. We had become a part of each other.

  I hardly even touched him, but it didn’t seem necessary. Somehow every part of me was being touched by him. Every part of me was full of him. I couldn’t move a finger on my hand or my knee without squishing against him. I felt helpless. He sucked on my fingers and then he held my hand up against his face and licked my palm. My whole body seemed wet.

  He put his hand on my side and then slid his hand right up to my breast. I was stricken by panic for a second. I thought he was going to be freaked at how small my breasts were. They hadn’t even really started to grow yet. I had to look sideways in a mirror to notice them, and even then I thought that maybe I was just imagining their existence. But Alphonse moaned with delight touching them and suddenly I felt relaxed and at ease. He lifted up my shirt and put his mouth on my nipple. It sent waves through me, soft ones, and I hoped everything else would be soft the same way. He took my shirt off. Then he raised himself up and looked at me lying there between his legs.

  “God, you are so pretty,” he said.

  After he said that, his kisses began to feel good. They were like tubes of lipstick being crushed against my mouth. I took comfort in his kisses. They were so soft now. They made me smile. His lips tasted like my tears, so I realized that I was crying. They were like kissing baby’s feet. It was as if little babies were stepping on me.

  He turned off the light before making love to me. His room was dark like a grave. When I closed my eyes, it wasn’t as if he was on top of me. There was just a weight. I was making love to the Invisible Man. It felt like something terrible had happened to me and he was comforting me.

  As I walked home, the line of gray buildings seemed to be shoved together like the letters cut out of a newspaper and stuck together on a ransom note. The sky was the color of an X-ray of Jules’s lungs that used to be tacked to our wall. A well-dressed teenager yelled at me from across the street that fur was murder. That happened a lot, but now it really made me want to kill myself.

  When I got home, the apartment was empty. I peeled off my clothes and walked to the bathroom naked. I felt as if my insides were cold. I turned on the hot water and stuck my hand under it, waiting to feel warm-blooded again. I looked in the cabinet mirror and told myself that it didn’t matter. So I believed my reflection, since there was no one else telling me what to do. I filled the bathtub with hot water and the mirror became fogged up and I couldn’t see myself in it anymore.

  EARLY THE NEXT MORNING there was a knock at the door. It was a postman with a registered letter addressed to my dad. Jules was still fast asleep so I signed for it and opened it up in the kitchen. It said that we were behind in the rent and if we didn’t do something to rectify the situation they’d take action to have us evicted.

  I looked around and realized I would be glad never to come back to this place. What unsettled me was that Jules hadn’t been paying the rent. I hadn’t even realized this. Jules always tried to pay the rent. It was only when things were really bad that he couldn’t. That we were actually getting evicted must have meant that things were at their worst. I had been so busy with destroying my own life that I hadn’t realized he was doing the same with his.

  I should have noticed the signs that he was heading for the street. He didn’t eat anymore. He smoked all the butts in the ashtray in order to get one last puff out of them. He spent practically the whole night in the bathtub. He started collecting things that had no apparent value. He brought home a ceramic teddy bear with balloons; he washed it in the kitchen sink and put it on the coffee table in the living room. As I looked at it now, it was so ugly it broke my heart.

  I realized that he’d been sad. When he was depressed, he acted as if he were deaf, as if he couldn’t hear what was around him. He distanced himself from the world. He started to have the habit some homeless people have, of standing still. You see only the beautiful things when you stand still. You only see things that you don’t ordinarily notice. The birds are the prettiest things, I imagine.

  Jules always owned a tin of tiger balm. When I was little, I accidentally kissed him one day after he’d applied it to his neck. It felt as if I was being slapped in the face. All my sinuses were immediately opened up. He used to rub the balm on his knee for hours. He did this because there was something wrong with his circulation, he said, which was why he was always so cold. Tiger balm was the perfect cure for all ailments that were hard to believe in, that you couldn’t see the doctor about. Since he always smelled like tiger balm now, one could only assume that he was trying to treat some very deep wound.

  I hadn’t known because we’d been so emotionally distant lately. A week before, he had been singing a song in the bathroom when I got home. I wanted to ask him what song it was, but we weren’t really on speaking terms. And to ask someone what they were singing was a deep question that could lead to all kinds of other concerns. So I didn’t.

  I was hurting Jules and Jules was hurting me. Except for our conversation and our love, we were losers. We were both just lonely drifters. I didn’t even care what happened to me since he was being hurt too.

  I put a boiled egg and a can of ginger ale from the fridge in a plastic bag and headed off for school. I hadn’t washed and I smelled different, as if I was being followed down the street by someone else. If I was two people, I would have parted ways with myself at this point.

  I crossed the street without even looking, and a bunch of cars honked hysterically. I didn’t care. If you added up all the times I’d fallen off monkey bars and the like and come out unscathed, you’d have to agree that my chances for survival were incredibly high. I felt different in class. I suddenly didn’t feel as if I was friends with anyone there. I could no longer be afraid of the things that children were supposed to be afraid of.

  FOR THE NEXT FEW WEEKS, I fooled around with Alphonse a bunch of times. I was sitting on Alphonse’s bed this time wearing only my Cinderella undershirt and a pair of underwear with sailboats on it. The underwear were like three years old. There was a hole in the butt.

  “You should be ashamed to go around in those,” Alphonse said.

  I shrugged. I just didn’t like fancy underwear anymore. They had got me into trouble. It was one thing that I was always going to refuse to wear. I got funny when Alphonse wanted to make love. I curled up, got under the sheets, and crawled all the way to the bottom of the bed. He yanked me back up and pinned me down on the bed. I closed my eyes tight.

  “Why do you close your eyes when I touch you?” he asked.

  I shrugged. I opened one eye and looked up at him. Then he kissed me and I closed my eyes right away.

  “I want to know what you’re thinking about. Whatever it is, I can do it for you. Are you thinking about white horses, whatever? You can tell me.”

  Of course, I hadn’t been thinking about white horses. But it seemed like a nice thing to be able to think about while having sex. I tried to think about white horses as he ran his hands up and down me. The more he touched me, the more beautiful the white horses started to seem in my mind. They were doing fancy tricks and wearing those pink and blue bridles with gold buttons. They were just like the ones I had seen at a circus when I was little. I forgot all about Alphonse as I dreamed about white horses under circus lights with ladies on their backs.

  Then Alphonse exc
laimed suddenly that I wasn’t getting into the sex at all. So I had to get rid of the horses and think about dirty ugly things, which were the things that turned me on for some reason. I thought about being raped in an alley. That made me come. As usual, I felt guilty about having fantasized about that and I felt lousy for a few minutes. I lay there as if I’d been shot.

  My favorite part of sex was afterward. We lay on the bed after making love and he just gazed at me and marveled at my naked body.

  “Do you ever notice how when you walk down the street, everybody turns around and looks at you? That’s because you’re the prettiest girl in the neighborhood.”

  “I am not!”

  “Yes, you are. You’re better looking than those girls in the fashion magazines you read even.”

  Alphonse’s compliments weren’t like the lame compliments that the social workers gave me. They had a cue card tucked away in one of their pockets with compliments that they were supposed to give me. Some of them had used the exact same lines on me.

  “You’re a very strong person,” they used to say. “You can make something out of yourself if you want.”

  AFTER ALPHONSE NOTICED THAT I was beautiful, it seemed as if everybody in the world noticed it too. I was still afraid of the dark and I still dressed like a dope, but after I turned thirteen and got tall, things started to change for me. One time in the bathroom at a McDonald’s, the guy in the next stall peeked over the top at me. When our eyes met, he jumped down and scurried away. I had the same sensation that I used to get when I peed in the swimming pool.

  The lowlifes said really dirty things to me after I turned thirteen. The younger bums would come over to me with their cups full of change. First they would ask me if I had any change to spare. When I said no, they would start the dirty talk. They asked me loaded questions. “Do you want to come over to my apartment? I can teach you some sex moves.”

  I acted like I’d won the lottery when anyone bought me a Coca-Cola at the Burger King. A man with a beard, a green army jacket, and a fedora put his skinny arm around me at the park. He bent all over the place like spaghetti when he walked. He reminded me of how cartoon characters walked after they had been run over by a steamroller. He had a scrawny German shepherd with him that I was playing fetch with. The guy kept begging for a kiss, so I finally let him kiss my cheek. It was like a slug on my skin.

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