Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.21Heather O'Neill
Thinking that certain people were scum was a defense mechanism I didn’t have. Why would anyone kiss a boy who had scabs all over his hands and a tattoo of Porky Pig on his neck? I could have told you back then.
I HUNG OUT WITH ALPHONSE almost every day. Jules didn’t notice. He had just decided not to see what I was doing anymore. A lot of kids from my school had parents who did that too. They pretended that when we were outside, we were in a cardboard box with the controls for a rocket ship drawn in crayon on the inside. We couldn’t actually fly to the moon in that ship, they believed. I knew Alphonse was a pimp and that sooner or later I was going to have to turn a trick. For some reason it seemed as natural as growing wisdom teeth. I didn’t even question why I was going to have to. I wanted to be brave. I didn’t want to be afraid.
Alphonse had some other girls who worked for him. Two of them who lived together never spoke to me. One of them went by the name Baby. She got all upset that my given name actually was Baby. One day she came up to me and told me that I should change it.
“I came up with Baby first,” she said. “I’ve been using it since before you were born.”
“I’m not going to change my name. It’s on my birth certificate!”
“Man, I hate these fucking little kids,” she said, looking up at the sky. “Don’t you have a curfew?”
“It’s four o’clock in the afternoon.”
“Then go home and do your homework.”
Everyone within earshot laughed at that one.
Leelee still spoke to me, though. She thought she was smarter than me and always wanted to give me the lowdown on things. It was ridiculous, really. She came up to me one day and wanted to sit down and have a long talk. She bought us both coffees, although I couldn’t even stand the taste of it. Leelee got me to sit down on a bench with her at an outdoor café by the skating rink. She was wearing a skinny, gold scarf that seemed to wrap around her neck about twenty times.
“Things used to be a lot different between Al and me,” Leelee said.
I started fidgeting nervously. I knew I was in for a long stupid speech, and I was impatient for it to end already. My butt was cold.
“He used to like me a lot more,” she continued. “But now you’re his favorite. Sometimes I think that I’d like to see you gone. Just vanish. I mean if you ever wanted to get out of this town, I’d help you. I’d loan you some money. You know it wouldn’t even be as if I was doing you a favor, because in a way it would really be as if I was doing myself a favor.”
I nodded in an exaggerated way because I knew she expected some sort of thanks for being so goddamn honest. This unfortunately caused her to elaborate.
“I’d be able to get these hateful thoughts out of my head. Always thinking about putting rat poison in your coffee—crazy, crazy, crazy shit like that—I’m not even kidding. Not that I’d ever do it. Because I’m not like that by nature. No way! Not one little bit. I’m like truly a spiritual and good human being. Like all that stuff about helping your neighbors out and all that—well, I don’t go to church—but I really do believe in that. I really do!”
I’d had enough by this point. I took a sip of coffee for politeness but let it drool out of my mouth onto the sidewalk. Leelee didn’t even seem to notice, though. She was too busy appreciating the wisdom that was coming out of her mouth.
“Fuck, there are supposed to be six people in your life that mean anything to you,” she continued, as if I was interested. “And I think you might be one of them. It’s just that Alphonse and me used to have some great times in bed. Now he doesn’t even want to touch me. He doesn’t feel anything physical when he’s around me. He’s just too busy crying his eyes out when you’re not around.”
She looked like she was trying to make herself cry. I thought she looked downright pathetic. I used to admire Leelee because she had a tattoo of a butterfly on her wrist. Now I just wanted to avoid her. I missed how I used to think of her as some sort of free-loving, stylish adult. Now she just seemed like a skinny tramp that Alphonse didn’t even want to touch anymore. She was the only person who’d fallen out of grace for me. Eventually everyone would fall one by one like stars dropping out of the sky, leaving me standing in the dark. But during those first days of delinquency—there’s nothing that ever tastes sweet like that—most everyone still dazzled my eyes.
ONE AFTERNOON, WHEN I WAS OVER at his apartment, Alphonse started talking about how he was going to give me a hundred dollars to go down to the Spanish Social Club and sign up for flamenco lessons. The Social Club was in an old ballroom. I could hear the dancers stamping their high heels on the floor from outside on the street. Every time I passed by, it seemed as if the building had a heartbeat.
Alphonse had made up a plan where we were going to tour Europe. He would be the ringmaster and stand out on the street corner and announce when my show was about to begin. He would set up a wooden box for me to dance on, and all the world would adore me. He had a pretty travel book of Spain that he would open up on his lap and stare at. I bought a Spanish-English dictionary and tried to learn a few words a day, as if I could learn the language that way. Alphonse said that when I learned the language, I should teach it to him. Anything seemed possible to me at the time.
“You’ve got to make some money, girl, so we can get our asses to Europe. It’s nice to be rich. Fuck this poverty shit.”
“Okay,” I said, brushing it off.
“Okay. So go out with Leelee. She’ll show you where to hang out and all that shit. You two get along, right?”
“No! She just talks and talks and I feel rude to just stand up and walk away.”
Alphonse just left it at that. One day soon after, I was walking home from school by myself. I was wearing my gym uniform under my fur coat because it had been my last class in school and I’d been too lazy to change out of it. I stopped to wait for the bus that would take me to my building.
Alphonse came up out of nowhere and grabbed my hand. He walked a little ways with me. This was unusual because I’d noticed that Alphonse made it a point not to touch me in public. He would never do something like hold my hand. We always walked apart on the sidewalk. When people passed, we let them go right through us instead of around us. That day he held me close to him.
“Get into that brown car,” he said suddenly.
Alphonse pushed me toward a brown car parked on the side of the street. I twisted around and Alphonse’s hand came off my wrist. I stood a couple feet from him.
“No, I hate brown cars. What kind of dope would buy a car the color of shit?”
“What the fuck are you being crude for? You know you’re a lot of talk. Don’t be something ordinary. You’re special. You’re the best. You’re better than all that.”
“Whatever,” I said and held up my hand.
“He just wants to have a few words with you. He just wants to give you a lift home. Remember how you said you liked to hitchhike last night?”
The night before, I’d had a glass of wine with Alphonse and I had started talking about how I was the greatest hitchhiker in the city. According to my tale, when I put out my thumb, cars smashed into each other trying to stop for me. I claimed that I hitchhiked everywhere. Actually I’d only hitchhiked once. Someone had offered me a ride home while I was in the pouring rain. I’d been so afraid the whole time, even though it had been a woman who’d picked me up.
I bent down to take a look at the guy in the car. A man with brown hair and a long face leaned over and smiled. He looked ordinary enough to me. All adults looked the same. There were no doves with their heads bitten off or chain saws in the car, so I guessed it was safe to get in. Suddenly I wanted to see what the consequences would be.
My whole body was resisting, even though I told it not to. It was like once when we tried to put my friend Miro’s dog in the water. All the other dogs were in there having such a good time, but Miro’s dog kept scrunching up and twisting his body every time I lowered it near the wate
Alphonse shut the door for me. I waved good-bye to Alphonse, as if I were going on a holiday. As the car drove away, I continued looking out the window.
“You can take me to St. Christophe Street,” I said.
He turned the car toward the overpass. I felt a little comforted, seeing that he was going in the direction of my house. I wanted to ask him to drive faster, but I didn’t know him, and that’s not the kind of thing that you can ask a total stranger. We crossed over the overpass that went over the neighborhood. All I could see were the church spires. They looked like a group of hobgoblins going off to war. For a second I started to believe that this guy was just going to give me a ride home.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Diana,” I said, not wanting to have a conversation about how unusual and cute my name was. I didn’t want him to have anything to do with my name. All of a sudden it seemed precious to me. I thought I would stab that other hooker if she kept using it.
“Diana. That’s lovely. How old are you?”
“Fifteen,” I lied.
“Wow! You’re a brave little thing, aren’t you?”
I shrugged and smiled at the window but not at him.
“I want to have sex with you,” he said suddenly. “I’ll give you a hundred bucks.”
“No,” I answered, not even looking at him, looking straight ahead.
My heart started beating really quickly. It made me nervous, like watching a toddler knowing it was going to trip. I wished my heart would knock it off.
“Come on. I really like you. You’re beautiful.”
“Well, you can look at me then,” I said, hoping that sounded witty and tough and would make him back off.
“If I pull up behind that school, could you take your shirt off? I’ll give you fifty bucks if you take your clothes off.”
I didn’t say anything. He pulled into the parking lot of a closed factory, leaving the engine running so that we wouldn’t freeze to death. There were vines everywhere because the factory had been closed for a long while. They were brown and gnarly and naked. They climbed up the fences and the telephone poles. They climbed along the electrical wires and along the telephone cables, going as far and as high as they could. I thought about climbing up one of those vines just like Jack and the Beanstalk. I could steal myself a golden goose that laid eggs and a golden harp that would play and sing whatever song I wanted it to. I would request “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. I liked that song.
I was lost in my reverie, hoping he wouldn’t interrupt me and just change his mind and drive me back to St. Christophe Street. Instead, he handed me a fifty-dollar bill. I took it quietly and stuck it in my boot. He got out of the car and got into the backseat. I climbed over the front seat and sat next to him, deciding to get it over with. It all seemed out of my hands, somehow. It had to be done and money was money. He reached over and started fumbling with my gym T-shirt. I lifted it up under my coat and pulled my jogging pants down to my boots. I couldn’t take the boots off because the money was in one of them and it would get lost for sure.
We sat next to each other in the backseat while he nervously touched me here and there, as if he was pointing something out. I squirmed myself into a horizontal position and he got on top of me. I didn’t really know how you were supposed to ask guys to put a condom on, so he didn’t use one. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was worried I would somehow get broken in the messy position he was banging me into.
I think my body went numb from lack of circulation because I didn’t feel much. Every time I’d had sex before, it had been kind of painful. That time I didn’t feel a thing. It was hard to believe he was even inside me when he was there. I didn’t know it was over until he started buttoning up his pants.
HE DROPPED ME OFF at St. Christophe Street and sped away. I took the condom that Alphonse had given me and dropped it down the sewer. It was yellow and I knew that Alphonse was going to look through my things to see that I had used it. It didn’t seem to me as if Alphonse could possibly know what exactly went on with me and that guy. I felt that if he knew he wouldn’t be attracted to me anymore. I knew logically that Alphonse was wise to what had happened between me and the john, but it was still hard for me to grasp. It was still a little hard for me at that age to even accept that the rest of the world was having sex.
When I got back to my apartment building with the white bricks, I stood there a bit, just looking at it. Nothing had changed. The universe looked exactly the same.
Jules hadn’t come home from work. He was probably going to be out late, selling quilts in the country. The same circulars were lying in front of the door as when I had left that morning. The bowl that I’d eaten my cereal in was still there, warm milk pooled in it. The radio hadn’t changed stations. Jules’s jacket had fallen off the hook when I had grabbed my own, and it was still there, lying on the floor. Not even an earthquake could pick that up.
I put the money in a wooden box for Cuban cigars with a sparrow smoking a cigar on the lid. I slid it under my bed. I stank differently. I didn’t smell like myself. I smelled like cigarettes and somebody else’s hands. It started to get dark in the room. Usually when I was alone in the house during the evening, I had to turn on every single light, but I just didn’t care that night. So what if a hand came out from under the bed and grabbed me? That would be nothing. They say that certain things are going to be terrible and that they are going to destroy you, but they don’t. I sat on the side of the bed. It was as if my soul had been frozen, and I waited for it to thaw, in order to get on with life.
THE SECOND TIME WAS MUCH HARDER. Alphonse introduced me to a short man with black curly hair and a kind face. We walked down the street together.
Most of the buildings were two stories around there, and the first floors seemed to have a lot of trouble holding up the second floors. There was a hotel on the second floor of a building, up on top of a tattoo parlor. We had to walk up a stairwell whose walls were painted black. The word “Fuck” was scratched into the black paint over and over again. Fuck seemed to be the only constellation in the night as you climbed up those stairs into the sky.
Inside the room, there were paisleys on the wallpaper. They were like the made-up eyes of silent film stars. A couch the color of an orange tennis ball with brown shepherdesses on the print was in the center of the room. It reminded me of Christmas wrapping paper. He told me to take my clothes off. I made my clothes into a little pile like I was at the doctor’s office. I held them in my hand waiting for him to tell me where to put them. When he didn’t give me any instructions, I sat down on the couch and put them next to me.
It seemed like a terrible thing to sit on a couch undressed. I’d never done it before and it seemed unnatural. It was an uncomfortable, scratchy couch, too. I couldn’t lean back on it. I just sat up all proper, as if I had a glass of lemonade in my hand. He got undressed and came to sit next to me. He turned toward me and put his arms around me. It was difficult to hug on the couch. It was like when puppets try to hug but can never really get their arms around each other properly.
I didn’t mind kissing. I guess I considered it being polite. It was strange to put his fingers in my mouth because he bit his fingernails.
He had a large bottle of beer with him in his bag. He made me drink it. I drank it so quickly that I had trouble keeping my balance as I walked to the bed. I was glad to lie on the bed. I pulled the sheet over my head, feeling that he would never find me under there. The bed seemed to be tilting all over the place like a raft. I felt seasick. He lifted the sheet.
“Cuckoo,” he yelled and I laughed in surprise.
I didn’t want to sleep with him. I told him that I had changed my mind about the whole thing, although I didn’t offer to give the money back. I just lay on the bed with my legs crossed really tight.
“You can’t go inside me
He got on top of me and rubbed against my belly. I kept my head turned toward the wall, as if he was trying to pick me up on a city bus and I was ignoring him. He sounded like he was crying when he talked.
“Oh, you’re so pretty, so sweet, you’re mine. You’re mine.”
It was like he had just dragged me naked out of a river and had fallen in love with me. Afterward, he lay on the bed next to me, looking as sad as I was.
“You never did this before, did you?”
I lied and shook my head.
“How old are you?”
“Thirteen,” I said.
I often lied about my age to people. When I said my real age, they would laugh and tell me to get lost and go play soccer in the park. This guy, however, started to cry. He begged me to come home and live with him. He said that he had been in a group home when he was little and knew what I must be going through.
Once I was outside on the street and alone, I sat down on a chair with a blue-and-gold linoleum seat on it that was sitting right out in the middle of the sidewalk. Objects sometimes got misplaced like that in the winter. This chair could be on the sidewalk for months because no one would want to go through the trouble of moving it until summer. The buildings across the street all had little storefront windows filled with colorful things. They were like a row of Easter Seal stickers. I felt very sad, hollowed out. I started thinking about every bad thing that I had ever done. I started thinking about the time I stole some bus tickets from a friend of mine. I thought about how I had told a boy to fuck off when he wanted to go out with me. I wished that I was on the badminton squad. I wished that I had friends who lived at home and who were worried about their science projects and who had boyfriends who played on the football team, even though my school didn’t even have a football team.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes