Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.24Heather O'Neill
They both seemed to be fascinated by a skunk that was waddling down the street. Xavier was telling Jules that baby skunks didn’t have any spray. Jules said if you raised a baby skunk with a cat, it would think it was a cat. I think he got that idea from Pepé Le Pew. Xavier said they liked strawberries. Jules said they particularly liked our garbage.
Jules was wearing a long pea coat over a suit. He’d been sleeping in that suit since the day before. I always found that he looked completely removed from the everyday world when he was wearing a suit and hanging around in the park. The bums in suits were always the craziest. Xavier wouldn’t know this, though. He probably thought that Jules was coming home from a business meeting. I walked out of the building and up to them. I waved to Jules and introduced them quickly. Then I gestured for Xavier to come on along.
“Good-bye, sir,” Xavier said to Jules.
As we were walking down the street, Xavier told me that Jules was good-looking for a dad. He couldn’t be good-looking, I thought, because he had never had any girlfriends. “He’s just young for a dad actually,” I suggested, but Xavier disagreed. I smiled.
If Jules was the type of person all the time that he was in Xavier’s eyes, then things would be okay for him. Then again, if I was the type of person all the time that I was in Xavier’s eyes, I think I’d also be okay. Wouldn’t that be a nice life? Xavier wasn’t put on earth to witness the bad things like Jules and I were. He had been put here to notice lovely things, things that God had created and no one had any complaints about. Leaves turning red in autumn. How when the tide goes out, the shells are left on the shore. I was put here—Jules and I were both put here—to see sadder things. We had to stand in the rain and explain why the world was a lovely place.
That night, Jules called to me from the other room while I was lying in bed.
“Hey, cookie? I liked your friend. What was his name? Xavier?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t know what to make of his words to me anymore. I crawled to the end of my mattress and up against the wall. If was as if I was avoiding his words. I didn’t like at all that he was making his voice sound like we were getting along.
When I was younger, Jules would always feel really guilty later in the night for having yelled at me. He’d call out to me from his bed in the other room, apologies and compliments hanging in the dead air.
“I like that drawing that you brought home from school. That was beautiful!” he’d say.
“It’s all right. I’m not mad anymore!” I’d call out.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. You’re a perfect kid.”
I used to like our conversations through the wall. I’d run my fingers over the designs on the wallpaper while he said nice things. I suddenly wanted to call something back. I almost had to put my hand over my mouth to stop myself. I didn’t want to reassure him.
Things were different now. I wasn’t just going to forgive him for not taking care of me during the past year. Instead of saving me, he had rejected me. If he hadn’t sent me to a center for rejected children, I wouldn’t have become such good friends with Alphonse. I would be a virgin. I needed to be angry at someone other than myself. Being angry at Jules kept my head above the water. Only when I was done being unhappy with that would I let him be done being unhappy too.
So I didn’t call back and Jules was quiet. From the way that people have always talked about your heart being broken, it sort of seemed to be a one-time thing. Mine seemed to break all the time.
I ONLY WENT OVER to Xavier’s house for the first time after we’d been going out for three weeks. He begged me to come, taking my hand and pulling me toward his home. I gave in finally. He still insisted on holding my hand the whole way so that I couldn’t dart away.
We took a shortcut through his alley. There was ice all over the ground, with dirt and sticks and crushed Coke cans frozen in it. I fell over about three times on the ice. Xavier kept catching me and then falling on top of me and howling with laughter. My palm was cut and bleeding by the time we got to his house, but it didn’t bother me at all.
Xavier’s house had yellow clapboarding all over it. That was something I loved because Jules and I had stayed in a hotel by the sea once with clapboarding. I mistakenly thought that all houses by the sea looked like that. I looked at his house and thought of the ocean and waves and seagulls, and it made me feel good.
“My dad’s back from his business trip!” Xavier shouted, pointing to one of the cars in the driveway.
I had always lived in apartments, so I thought that all houses were enormous inside even if they looked quite small outside, but Xavier’s house was tiny. There was wallpaper with green leaves all over the walls that made it look even smaller and cozier.
There seemed to be hundreds of coats and boots in the entrance. Xavier hung both our coats together on a hook and we walked in. His parents were lying squashed next to each other on a couch in the living room that was off the kitchen. His two brothers were upstairs in their room, and from the pounding they just seemed to be running around in circles. After introducing me quickly to his parents, Xavier led me upstairs. He was the oldest, so he had his own room. He closed the door to his room, but the walls in the house were very thin and it sounded as if everybody in the house was still in the room with us. How I liked that! All the voices and spoons falling and everybody getting on each other’s nerves!
I took a look around Xavier’s room. His bed wasn’t made. He had a gym award tacked to the wall. Next to it was a project we had made in art class. It was a sunset made out of a bunch of ripped-up yellow and orange tissue paper. I didn’t know that anyone kept these projects. Seeing that made me wish that I hadn’t thrown out all of my own. I remembered that I had drawn a bird with a top hat in grade five that I wouldn’t have minded seeing again.
Xavier put the hook on the door, but he didn’t seem to think that would do the job, so he pulled his desk over and then a chair. I sat on the side of the bed watching him. He pulled on the doorknob hard. When he seemed satisfied that nobody was going to be able to get into the room, he turned and dove, all the way from the door, onto the bed. He knocked me over. We were both lying next to each other now.
“Goddamn!” I screamed.
“I’m sorry, Baby,” he said. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Nooo…,” I whined.
“I’m going to ask you one anyway.”
I put my hand over my ears. I suddenly had a crazy foreboding that Xavier would ask me the right questions, that he would ask about Alphonse and the johns. He wrestled me down on the bed. He grabbed both my hands and pried them away from my head. He pinned me down and sat on me.
“Just for once. I need to tell you about my feelings.”
“I want you to be my girlfriend.”
“Look, why do we have to have a name for it?”
“I think that there’s a really good energy between us both.”
He started pointing from me to him and then from him to me, over and over again. He had a questioning look on his face as he waited for me to agree that there was good energy between us. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to admit anything.
I had never actually called anybody my boyfriend. My dad had advised me against having a boyfriend. He told me that the jealousy would just kill me. He said that when you are in love with someone, you want to follow them to the bathroom. He said love just makes you pathetic.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll be your girlfriend.”
“Great!” he exclaimed.
We lay on his bed quietly for a bit. We pushed our bodies gently against each other. We kissed for twenty minutes until we were all kissed out. I took the ends of his shirt and pulled it off over his head. He had a big birthmark that was shaped like a heart below his collarbone. I put the tip of my finger on it. But he pulled my finger back down quickly. I felt like going all the way, but Xavier was too scared.
We just kept kissing each other. Each kiss made my heart beat quickly. We were surprised by every one. No kiss was lost or was insignificant. I had as little experience in kissing someone that I really liked as Xavier had. Alphonse used to kiss me all the time, and I just kissed him back, almost to be polite. I had become numb and desensitized to it. His kisses didn’t disgust me the way they had at the beginning, but now they bored me to death. I was always impatient for him to knock it off.
Downstairs Xavier’s brother was having a temper tantrum. His mother was making one threat after another. She kept repeating his name over and over as she threatened him.
“Benjamin, don’t you dare talk to me that way. Benjamin, it’s time for you to change your attitude, mister. Benjamin, look at me in the eye politely when I’m talking to you.”
What it must be like to have your mother scream your name so many times in the space of a minute!
“That was the first time I did anything like that, okay?” Xavier said.
“Okay,” I said.
We lay under the sheet holding each other until his dad called him from downstairs and we hurried out of the bed.
“That was really cool, huh?” Xavier whispered as he moved the barricade away from his door.
We ran downstairs together. His parents asked me about a million questions because I was the first girl that Xavier had ever invited over. They said that he talked about me all the time.
“Where do you live, Baby?” his mother asked me.
“East on Christophe Colomb Street.”
“Oh, there are some beautiful houses there.”
I didn’t tell her that she was thinking of the houses above Sherbrooke Street and that I lived below.
“And Xavier tells me that you live with only your dad?”
“Wow! He’s really a courageous man. It’s not often you see a man raising a kid all by himself. But he did a great job with you!”
“Thanks, but I’m not that great.”
“Xavier tells me that you scored a hundred percent on the geography test.”
“Yeah, but it was multiple choice, so it was easy.”
“You’re so modest. See how polite she is, Xavier. You should learn from Baby.”
Xavier’s cheeks were red. He kept grinning ridiculously for no reason whatsoever. He would turn and face the wall to avoid having anyone look directly at him. His parents didn’t seem to notice anything was unusual with him, though.
His mother took a picture of me even though I warned her that I looked terrible in pictures. She said that I looked like a movie star. That was my favorite compliment ever.
I always found sex painful physically. I kept hoping it would stop hurting, but it didn’t. It wasn’t that way when I was cuddling with Xavier. Fooling around with Xavier was like climbing into a hot bath. It was like popping a piece of orange into your mouth.
THE NEXT TIME I WENT OVER to Xavier’s house, we didn’t even fool around. Xavier took a loaf of bread and a jar of chocolate spread out of the fridge, and we went onto the covered back porch to eat it. We sat on the old couch out there and listened to a tape of his cousin singing. Philip sang at weddings and things like that and had made himself a promotional tape. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, but Xavier almost choked himself laughing when he listened to it. We ate almost the whole loaf of bread.
We started putting together the ingredients for bombs: baking soda, water, and plastic Seven-Up bottles. We both put on swimming goggles, set up the bombs in the middle of the yard, and then ran and crouched down by the porch for cover. Each bottle made a beautiful, hard, perfectly catastrophic noise. The bottle lay on the ground, ripped open like some sort of exotic flower. After our last bomb exploded, Xavier and I just lay on the ground. One of Xavier’s cats came tiptoeing all confused over the scarred battlefield.
They had three cats in their house, which were named Roland, Harold, and Arthur. The cats were always on the tables. They would jump up onto chairs that you were about to sit on. I’d never cared about cats until I started hanging around at Xavier’s house. Xavier and his whole family were madly in love with their cats. They took pictures of them, and they laughed when the cats had funny expressions on their faces. Harold was supposed to be an existentialist because he spent most of his time under the bathtub. Arthur was supposed to be absentminded but generous and sweet.
I crawled over to Arthur. I picked up the skinny cat and held it in my arms and declared my love.
“Poor little shit head. Poor wee little shit head. Nobody loves you.”
Xavier put his hands out for the cat. He wanted to declare his love to the cat also, so I gently passed Arthur over to him. We whispered to the cats until it was supper time and I had to go home.
Alphonse didn’t have any problem with me having sex for money. When you’re young, sex doesn’t mean as much, it isn’t sacred. Children make the best prostitutes because they’re the most perfunctory about the whole encounter. The whole act is like a dare, like kissing a frog or something. It’s nasty while it’s happening, but you forget about it soon afterward. And sometimes it isn’t even that nasty. Whatever it is, it’s so far from love, it was easy for me to understand why Alphonse never got jealous when I was with a trick.
I knew, on the other hand, why Xavier would make him jealous. When I hung out with Xavier, I didn’t want anything to do with Alphonse. I didn’t need him. When Xavier and I would eat toast with melted peanut butter in the rain, I was happy and didn’t even mind being motherless. I didn’t mind being a child. And like any child, I preferred the company of another child.
WHEN I GOT HOME THAT DAY, I noticed there was a letter with no stamp on it for me in the mailbox. It was from Alphonse. I felt terrible when I saw that letter. I felt as if I had only been pretending to be an ordinary kid lately. It was time to face the facts, I thought as I opened up the letter.
There was a single piece of a puzzle inside the envelope. Alphonse was trying to be mystical, and usually I really liked when he did weird enigmatic stuff like that. But I wasn’t interested now in what Alphonse was thinking at all. I threw the letter in the wastepaper basket in the lobby of the building. And just like that, I realized that Alphonse meant nothing to me anymore.
I had been avoiding him for the past couple weeks. I hoped that Alphonse would simply figure that things were over between us and stop coming around. After all, he did have about five other girlfriends. Seeing the letter, I realized I was wrong. He must be desperate to see me if he was venturing near my building. No matter how scrawny Jules was, Alphonse was worried about ever running into him. In fact, Alphonse was probably the only person in the world who was afraid of Jules.
The next day, I walked to school feeling nervous. I looked around every corner, expecting Alphonse to be waiting. I was really being paranoid, as he never got out of bed that early. Still, I was relieved when I finally got to school.
It was on the way home that he got me. A dark burgundy car pulled up when I was a half block away from my building. Alphonse got out of the car and quickly came around toward me and pushed me inside the car. I had planned on spitting in his face and saying some vile things to him. But instead I found that I liked the feeling of being abducted. I found it sort of exciting and suspenseful, almost. I’d been fantasizing about being kidnapped and raped since I was nine years old. My head hit the top of the car as he shoved me in, and my heart beat happily. I hoped it would leave a big bruise on me. I realized that the situation called for being somber and not excited. I sat in the car very quietly, not saying anything.
“Whose car is this?” I asked, but he chose not to respond.
I had no clue if he was angry with me or what. I followed him up to his apartment. He had spray-painted “I love Baby” in red in the lobby. I didn’t know how this relationship had become one-sided, b
Alphonse made me sit next to him on his little leather love seat. He was too close to me, and I felt as if I was suffocating. He took out a picture of me from his wallet. When I saw the photograph, I felt myself flinch. I hated looking at pictures of myself. I always perceived myself as being really tough and fashionable and foxy. When I saw myself in pictures, I was always shocked by what a skinny, scrawny nerd I was. In the photograph, I was leaning against a car with my hands shoved deep in my pockets. My hair was a mess and my shirt looked two sizes too big. I looked about nine years old.
“I realize that I freaked you out,” Alphonse said. “I know the way that I feel about you is so heavy. I don’t love the way that other people love. I was just born with so much love; it’s like a burden to me. I shouldn’t make it a burden on you just because I’ve fallen in love with you. I found this photograph the other day. I took it when we first started hanging around together. I looked at it and I realized, this girl really loves me! She really loves me! But it’s my fault. I pushed you away by being too intense.”
“Okay,” I said.
“So I want things to be okay between us again. I don’t want there to be any bad blood.”
“Okay! ’Cause you know I’m crazy ’bout you. I bought you something.”
I was a very shallow person. I felt like jumping into Alphonse’s lap when he said that he had a present for me. Alphonse always gave me the coolest gifts. Once he gave me a red fake fur scarf that made me feel like a Russian princess. The girls in my school were jealous of it. He bought me things that only adults could afford.
In a way his gifts were way cooler than Xavier’s. Xavier gave me paper clips that were twisted into stick figures and stuff like that. Once, he’d given me a stone that he thought had a crack in it that looked like a smile. I kept Xavier’s gifts on my dresser at home, and my dad was always mistaking them for garbage and throwing them out. Anyway, it’s a terrible thing, but I wasn’t thinking of Xavier at all when Alphonse handed me a pink paper bag.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes