Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.23Heather O'Neill
Xavier put the snail in his pocket. He thought that it would breathe better in a cloth environment than in a plastic one. He said it would come out of hibernation if he put it next to the radiator.
“This goes into the project. A wandering rock. Do you want to come over now and label the boxes at my house? We have a label maker.”
“No, I have to meet a friend of mine. We’re going out to see a movie.”
“Okay then. That’s cool. Remember to sit through the credits at the end of the film.”
“Very important, you know.”
“Promise you will.”
“I swear to God, I will!”
I laughed and we both turned to walk in opposite directions.
Xavier called out for me to come back and see something. He pointed to the bottom of the fountain and then stuck his hand in the water, yanked something out, and displayed it in his red and trembling palm. It was a plastic figurine of a zebra that some little kid had dropped in there. Xavier held it up for me to see, as if it were a miracle.
“I read that no two zebras in the world have the same stripes,” I said reverently.
I knew all about wild animals, even though I had never even been to a real zoo. He handed it to me before we parted again.
I was taken aback that he would just give me such a cute little figurine without any hesitation and without wanting anything in return. No one had given me a toy in so long. I used to have a row of plastic animals that I kept on the windowsill and that Jules and I would play with together. Back then, I didn’t believe it was Jules and me making the voices of the animals, but that they just spoke themselves.
As I was walking away, I took out the zebra and held it up against my ear in order to hear what it had to say.
“Hello there, Baby,” the zebra said.
The sound of his voice was so sweet to my ears.
It suddenly dawned on me how late I was to meet Alphonse. We had planned to meet at the four o’clock showing, whatever it was. It was already four thirty. I put the zebra back in my pocket and ran down the street in a really good mood.
I GOT TO THE front of the movie theater and Alphonse wasn’t there. I didn’t even have enough money to get in. I hadn’t turned a trick in weeks. I counted my pennies and nickels on the counter, and they came up to eighty cents. Ninety-nine cents was the adult fare, but if you were thirteen years or under, it was only seventy-five cents. The guy at the counter didn’t believe that I was thirteen for one second.
“When’s your birthday?”
“November the nineteenth.”
“What sign are you?”
“Bullshit! You look like a Sagittarius.”
“Please, please just let me in.”
“I’ll let you in if you give me that pin you’re wearing on your jacket.”
I took off the pin on my fur coat that said “Fuck the Sex Pistols.” The pin had been getting on my nerves lately. Every time I wore it, my dad would make me stand in front of him with my eyes wide open for two minutes. He figured that if I wore a pin like that, I must be getting stoned. I gave the cashier my pin and he waved me past.
“Take your pennies,” he called back to me. “You’ll need them to eat tonight.”
I ignored him and pushed open the door to the theater. I ran down the aisle between the seats, looking at the heads and trying to spot Alphonse, then ran up the stairs to the balcony. I tripped on the carpet, which was rolling up at the ends.
“Hey, that’s a nice trick. Can you teach me that?” a stranger whispered.
Alphonse was sunk into his chair, watching the movie. I crawled over the chairs to get to him from behind. I climbed into my seat like a monkey, and one of my boots came off. When I slid down next to him, Alphonse didn’t turn around to look at me. I just sat there straightening myself up. Then I relaxed and tried to focus on what was happening on the screen. I realized, to my dismay, that the movie playing was Blue Velvet. I hated that movie. It creeped the hell out of me. Creepy movies were unfortunately very popular at this theater. I used to like to talk a lot during this movie to distract myself from what was happening in it: a naked nightclub singer kept prisoner in a terrible little suburban apartment.
Then Alphonse reached over and took my hand. He guided it between his legs, and I had to rub there during the movie. I hoped it would make up for having shown up late. He leaned his face into mine and we started kissing. Kissing him while Blue Velvet was playing made me feel as if I were kissing the people who were in the movie. Eyes closed, I could hear the characters whispering deranged unwholesome things. I felt dirty and uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to upset Alphonse by pulling away.
When the movie was over, I told Alphonse that I wanted to sit through the credits. He absolutely refused.
“Are you planning on writing each and every one of them to tell them how bad their movie is?”
“Then why do you need to know their names?”
“I don’t know. I just like to watch the credits. They’re important.”
“You hate this movie! Why do you want to read the credits?”
“Why’d you choose this film if you knew I hated it? Besides, I read the credits of all movies, even when they’re bad.”
“You loved Drugstore Cowboy and you didn’t need to read the credits when the movie was over.”
Alphonse and I had seen Drugstore Cowboy a little while before, and we’d gotten along very well the week after. I kept pretending to be the main character’s tough sexpot wife, and I started shoplifting chocolate bars from the pharmacy. Alphonse found it adorable when I shoplifted. I followed him out of the theater, nervously, wishing that he’d stop being mad at me and go back to thinking I was cute. We walked down the street, and since he didn’t say anything, I started whistling.
“Where were you?” Alphonse asked, angrily. “Hanging around those doofuses from your school? You want to end up like them? The whole gang of them are going to end up with rotten teeth and tattoos on their necks.”
“Okay,” I said.
He stopped suddenly and simply glared at me. I leaned against the blue tiles of the Chinese Laundromat, a little bit like a cornered rat.
“Okay?” he responded, sarcastically.
“Yeah, okay,” I said.
“What does okay mean?”
“That they’ll end up with rotten teeth and tattoos on their necks.”
“Are you trying to fuck with me, Baby? I hope to God that you are not.”
I didn’t know if I was fucking with him or not. I didn’t even know what that meant.
“It’s not my fault that you don’t believe me,” I said.
“Don’t believe you! You didn’t even tell me where you were! You didn’t even give me the benefit of an excuse.”
“Well, you see…”
“Don’t, Baby. Don’t shit on what we have.”
I just kept quiet. This whole conversation was over my head. Whatever I said was going to upset him. I was glad to be able to leave and head home. I wished that there was an easy way to get out of ever seeing Alphonse again.
When I reached our building, Jules was sitting on a bench next to another man. They were both stoned. The man he was with was wearing a baseball cap with a dolphin on it, a baseball jacket, and white track pants with dark blue stripes on them. Not many junkies dressed in jock clothing, so some of them used it as a disguise. He had an empty plastic bag in his hand. They leaned against each other, supporting each other so that they didn’t fall over. One of his friend’s sneakers dangled from the tip of his toes like a slipper. Jules’s mouth was opened halfway, as if he was pronouncing a syllable. His friend’s eyebrows were raised as if he was very interested in a new idea that Jules was putting forth.
What could Jules do for me now?
I LIKED BEING IN THE GIFTED CLASS because th
“Was the film you saw good?” he asked me, still flushed.
“Not really. Actually it was probably good. But it made me feel bad.”
“I love movies that do that! I’m going to make films when I get older. I have an artistic temperament, which is really a tragic thing. It means that I’m going to be miserable and go insane probably. I’ve already decided how I’m going to kill myself. My death will be my final work of art. I’m going to film myself in the bathtub overdosing on opium.”
“I would load myself up with painkillers,” I said. “Morphine or whatever they give soldiers so that they can’t even feel when one of their limbs has been chopped off. Then I would jump off a tall building. Just so I don’t have to feel all my limbs and neck breaking.”
“That’s so nice. That’s the prettiest way to die.”
“I’d jump off an opera house in Paris.”
I’d stolen that from Perry, a boarder who had rented a room in an old apartment of ours a couple years before. Perry used to have a black-and-white photograph of the Paris Opera on his door. He said that when he saved enough money, he was going to go to that building and throw himself off it. He had a jar for money especially for that in his room. It only ever had some dimes and nickels in it and pennies. He would gather them all up and spend them on cigarettes.
“I’m never going to be able to afford to kill myself!” he used to scream from his room completely out of the blue, when the house was quiet.
He had these great offstage moments that really made me laugh. I smiled thinking about him.
“You look really pretty when you smile,” Xavier said to me.
I was glad he thought I was pretty and that he liked me. When older men told me I was pretty, I always felt as if they were up to no good.
We walked home together again. This time just because we wanted to and not because of a science project. Instead of going our own ways, when we got to St. Christophe Street, we sat down on a wooden bench that was on the corner. The bench was totally lopsided, as if it was made to go on a hill and then got put on this corner by mistake. It was a very popular bench. Hardly any kid could walk by and resist the temptation of sitting on it. Xavier sat at the lower end of the bench and I perched at the top, but I slid down and sat leaning against him. It was impossible not to.
“This is my favorite bench,” Xavier said. “See if you can push me off. I’ll bet that you can’t do it.”
“All right, you’re on,” I said. “But I warn you, I’m much stronger than I look.”
I started pushing him. He held himself on the bench. I liked squeezing my body against his. We just sat there pressing up against each other. I wasn’t really trying to push him off.
“Forget it,” I said, laughing, “I can’t do it.”
“Oh, you lose the bet!” he squealed. “Now I get to decide what I win.”
“I don’t have any money. I’m flat broke.”
“I don’t want money.”
“Well, what do you want?”
There wasn’t even a point to me asking him, actually. I knew exactly what Xavier was wishing for. We both wanted the same prize. I was glad that I hadn’t won. He was the one who was going to have to ask me for a kiss. Xavier didn’t say anything, though. He just stared at me with his face close to mine. When two people are thinking the same thing, it sends a charge through your whole body. My veins were telephone lines with people laughing and screaming through them.
I wasn’t wearing any gloves that day. Now Xavier took off his own and shoved them in his pocket. He put the tip of his finger on my knee, testing to see if I would move away. I didn’t move a muscle. Then he put his whole hand on the back of my hand. I turned my hand over so that my palm was flat against his palm. Then we held hands.
And my heart felt so big. I just wanted to hold hands forever. This was like a promise, an agreement that we wanted each other. Holding hands meant that we each thought the other was perfect. For whatever reason, we’d rather hold hands with each other than anybody else in the entire universe. It was sweet because it meant that so much good stuff was going to be following. After we held hands, we were girlfriend and boyfriend.
I realized that this was the first boyfriend I’d ever had. Despite whatever else had happened to me, this was a brand-new and wonderful thing.
NOW THAT HE WAS using again, Jules basically didn’t care what I did anymore. The one single advantage of having a negligent parent was that you got to hang out and do what you wanted when you wanted. There was a very small period of glory when all the other children are jealous of you. And now Alphonse was ruining this for me. He wanted me to come to his house after school every day and not dawdle on the way. He didn’t push me to turn a trick very often, but he still set it up every few days. He said I should live with him, which bugged me. I didn’t even like the idea of him being able to boss me around twenty-four hours a day.
I started skipping going over to Alphonse’s after school to be with Xavier. He walked me home every day. He did some really nice things while we hung out. One time he serenaded me in made-up Spanish. He held my hand when we got to the street corners, as if I was a little kid who was going to dash out into the traffic. When he saw the coast was clear, he let go of my hand and let me cross.
His mother made him good lunches, and he always shared them with me. He had a book of jokes and would sit next to me in the cafeteria and read it to me as if it were a novel. A girl handed me a paper on my way to sit with Xavier. It was a petition signed by about twenty-five kids saying that they wanted him to change his hairstyle. I threw it in the garbage before I joined Xavier. None of the other kids ate with him, so we were left completely alone, which I found very pleasant. One lunch, he brought me a handful of mints. He had gotten them from a restaurant he’d eaten at the night before with his family.
“Here! Here! Eat up! You need these for your health. Yum, yum! Fatten you up!”
I’d become less tough since I had started hanging out with Xavier. I started doing weirder things, that was for sure. I went outside my building after supper to feed my leftovers to the pigeons. I could recognize some of the pigeons and I named them.
“You are Pablo. You are Antoine. You are Marco. You are Bonbon. You are Jesus.”
I had a box filled with pigeon feathers. Jules would be hysterical if he saw them. He claimed that pigeon feathers were poisonous and could kill you. But he had stopped going through my things. I flitted one in the air in front of me as if it were a paintbrush. It made the sounds of birds in the sky.
Xavier swore that he would never touch another woman as long as he lived. We had started kissing. At first, we’d lean forward and just peck each other on the lips nervously and quickly. It was like being at a petting zoo. You put your hand out for a deer to eat the grains on your hand. I liked that I was the only one who had ever kissed him. I knew that he really appreciated my kisses. He wasn’t that good of a kisser, though. He used to kiss me too hard. One afternoon, he pressed his lips against mine so hard that he ended up pushing me up against a wall.
We’d only gotten as far as you can go while hanging out in alleys and on street corners. He tried to put his hand down my pants, but my belt was too tight. Then he stuck his hand under my shirt and I screamed from the cold. He rubbed his hands together vigorously until they were a little warmer and then slid them under my jacket and my shirt.
“You don’t wear a bra?”
“You still wear an undershirt?”
He pulled the collar of my shirt and looked down.
“You’re retarded!” I yelled.
I slapped him in the face with my mitten and we both laughed.
Really I was nervous when he put my hand near my belt buckle. I acted as if touching someone else was all new to me too. I never even considered telling Xavier about how I turned tricks sometimes. I had no trouble having a double life. All teenagers start leading double lives anyhow; mine was just a little more extreme.
“Don’t forget to practice your lines tonight,” Xavier warned as he turned to head home.
“I won’t,” I promised.
Xavier and I were supposed to put on a scene from a Molière play for French class the next day. It was the first time that either of us had ever had to memorize lines from a play. He had his mother buy him a set of highlighters, specially for the occasion. He had written the words to his monologue on a Bristol board and thumbtacked it to the wall in his room. He forced his brothers to read my part in the evenings.
That night I met with a guy named Harvey in a hotel. I had started meeting him there every Thursday night around five. I sat at the edge of the thin mattress naked and whispered the words of the play under my breath. “Voleurs!” I whispered quietly so that Harvey wouldn’t hear as he took off his clothes. I certainly had less of a support system than Xavier, more distractions and more obstacles. But it was all right. It didn’t seem to affect our relationship. The next day, we both knew our lines perfectly and the teacher gave us an A.
ONCE I WANTED TO READ XAVIER some poems from a book I’d taken out from the library. We walked to my building, but I wouldn’t invite him up to our ugly apartment. I left him down on the street and ran up to my apartment to get the book. When I came back down, I saw that Jules had come home. He was talking to Xavier outside. I really didn’t know what to make of it. I never considered how he would feel about me being with Xavier. I had been keeping my life so separate from him. I watched them from the window in the front door.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes