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The lonely hearts hotel, p.24
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.24

           Heather O'Neill

  Pierrot thought, She’s waiting for a lover, anyone can see that. She’s worried he won’t find her lovely. What type of fool wouldn’t find her lovely? She didn’t see him staring. Even if her lover came out of the blue and killed him, he wouldn’t care. He wanted to say hello to her again.


  And she turned.

  “Pierrot! How did you know it was me?”

  “No one in the world is so beautiful. I would know you anywhere.”

  She smiled. She put her face in her hands. She had not expected a statement like that so quickly. He had always professed his love so easily.

  “Thank you,” she said.

  “What are you doing here?”

  “Waiting for you.”

  “Waiting for me!”

  “I came into the movie. I recognized that tune.”

  “It’s your tune. I’ve changed it so much over the years.”

  “Have you? It sounded exactly the same.”

  “I . . . I’ve been wanting to see you lately.”

  “Really? I’ve been thinking about you too.”

  “You have?”

  They stood there with the snow coming down, making their shoes wet. Neither of them felt the cold. Neither of them wanted to move, in case the other disappeared. They hadn’t seen each other in six years.

  “I’m sorry. Can I just hug you?”

  They threw their arms around each other and stood like that, terrified of letting go, weeping into each other’s shoulders. For so many years neither of them had had a shoulder to cry on. They just wept now. They stopped for a moment and pulled away to marvel at each other’s face again. Then they hugged again and wept some more. They finally let go just to laugh. Although they didn’t know why they were laughing. Nothing was funny; it was all just so pleasurable.

  • • •

  THEY WENT TO the Little Burgundy neighborhood to go to the city’s most popular jazz club. It was run by a black man who had been a railway porter and a bootlegger. Pierrot loved the place and decided to bring Rose to it.

  He hadn’t gone in a while because the music put him in such a state—it was so close to being high—that it would push him over the edge, causing him to use drugs. There was a trombone player who made him feel the rush that comes right after shooting. Once there was a touring singer who, with her eyes closed, sang about being left by her lover, and it made Pierrot feel so melancholic, he couldn’t bear it, he had to get high. Beautiful things made him sad. But now that Rose was back, wonderful things would make him happy—there could be no such thing as sadness. Sadness was nothing more than a variation on happiness.

  They sat at a table in the corner and ordered a pitcher of beer. They sloshed it all over themselves as they poured it happily. The two of them were piss drunk by the time they pulled each other over to the dance floor.

  It was very wonderful. A perfect, splendid night. By the time Rose requested “Lovebird Nestle,” the orchestra was either drunk or stoned themselves. There were a couple of players who passed out. The drummer had untied his bow tie and was lying on the stage near the drum. The flute player, who was an insomniac, played a tune like a little breeze getting through a crack in the window. The piccolo sounded like a young child pinching his nose and singing like a cartoon character.

  Rose and Pierrot clung to each other as they made little steps and kissed each other’s faces. They couldn’t bear to be apart, even for one moment more. They danced around, and she swooped under his arms. They put their foreheads together. They shimmied away from each other. They clung together. The few customers drinking at the ballroom that night put their elbows on the table, settled their chins in the palms of their hands and watched. This was so much like performances they had done when they were children. Except they didn’t have to go back to an orphanage afterward and sleep in separate beds.

  They were adults. They could make love.

  • • •

  WHEN THE BALLROOM CLOSED, they walked down the street together.

  “When I went back to the orphanage looking for you,” Pierrot said, then paused. “I saw Sister Eloïse.”

  “That crazy bitch. What did she have to say?”

  “She said she told you about me and her.”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “We had sex in the bathrooms.”

  The spots on Rose’s cheeks began to glow bright red.

  “Starting when?”

  “I think when I was eleven. Yes, when I was eleven.”

  “Oh, it’s not your fault, my darling. She was a lunatic. Surely you can see that?”

  “You don’t think less of me?”

  “If I knew it would make you feel better, I’d go there now and put a bullet right in her brain.”

  “No, I don’t think I’m angry with her. It’s in the past. I just worry that it’s done something to me. That it’s rendered me in some way unlovable.”

  “Don’t be silly. I will kill her for you one day.”

  “Ha-ha-ha. What? Thank you, but you don’t have to.”

  And then Pierrot began to weep.

  “Look, since you’ve given me your secret, let me give you mine. I was a man’s mistress, as you heard, but when I left him, for money I would dress up in high heels and garter belts and make love to men dressed as zebras. And those little films are being shown in small rooms all over the world, and men are masturbating to them right now.”

  “Oh, I saw you in one of those movies! You were splendid!”

  • • •

  SHE OPENED THE DOOR to the Valentine Hotel and Pierrot caught it behind her before it closed. He came right up the stairs after her. She felt like he was her shadow. She felt as if he was stitched to her. The stairs were doing marvelous things. They were so much like the stairs in dreams. They were like accordions. Some of them took an unnecessarily long time to get up. Rose could fly up some of the stairs, gravity seeming not to exist.

  That was desire messing with physics: putting its finger on the record and then slowing it down, making sure you heard every word spoken, and memorized it.

  When they walked into the room, Pierrot pushed Rose up against the blue wallpaper. One of her legs was around his back. As soon as he was pressed up against her, she could feel his penis. She looked down in disbelief. She unbuttoned his pants and reached down and felt it.

  His jacket came off to the ground. She’d never been so excited to see someone take their clothes off. As she took off her clothes she was delighted with her own body, as though she were seeing it for the first time, and she was very pleased with what she was witnessing. She pulled her stocking off her leg and she was thrilled by how skinny it was. And then she wiggled the toes at the end of her feet, very satisfied with those too.

  When Pierrot saw Rose’s tits, he grabbed them with both hands and stuffed his face between them. He pulled off his suspenders. And he was inside her before his pants had even hit the floor. The belt buckle hit the ground like an anchor.

  They moved over to the bed. Pierrot held her shoulders as he pushed harder and deeper. She cried out so loudly that Pierrot was afraid the neighbors would hear. Not that he imagined they were the type to mind. They would probably quite enjoy hearing Rose’s lovemaking. But he wanted to keep it all to himself. It turned him on so much that other people hearing it would be like others seeing her naked.

  He pulled out and came all over her. And when he was done, he felt like his whole body was ruined in a wonderful way. Because she had squeezed every bit of life out of him. After they were done gasping for air, they looked at each other and laughed and laughed and laughed.

  He didn’t feel like a criminal for having made love to someone. How wonderful! He couldn’t quite believe that Rose was next to him. How wonderful! And she didn’t have any clothes on. How wonderful! He wanted to find her clot
hes and throw them out the window so that she would always be naked next to him, so that she could never go anyplace again.

  “What’s your favorite color?” Pierrot asked.

  “Dark blue. Almost black,” Rose answered.

  “What was your favorite age?” He pressed further.


  “Do you have a favorite bird?”

  “A robin.”

  “You seem like the type of girl who would like a robin. You appreciate what a devastatingly handsome bird it is.”


  “What is your favorite book?”

  “I saw a puppet show of Molière’s Tartuffe that made me laugh so hard.”

  “How are you so cultured?”

  “I used to read books to the children when I was their governess. They could understand anything. And even if they didn’t, they would just lie quietly through the adult parts.”

  “You probably ruined them for life! I don’t care what anybody says, all those strange novels about complicated problems only have the effect of making children melancholic.”

  “They’re rich. They’re going to end up melancholic no matter what.”

  “True, if you can afford to be melancholic, why the hell not?” Pierrot agreed. “Enjoy it. So what’s your favorite food of them all?”


  “Lobster! I’ve had it with these highfalutin answers. I don’t know what type of men you were dating before me. I can’t give you those marvelous dishes.”

  “I like toast and jam the most lately.”

  “Me too. I love eating toast and jam in the morning. You were always so good with all the younger children at the orphanage. You would make such a wonderful mother.”

  Rose blushed. Pierrot loved when her cheeks turned red like that. It always drove him wild with desire.

  “We should have a baby,” he said.

  “No, don’t say that. We can’t. You know that. We’re broke.”

  “I will make a fortune so that you can have our baby,” Pierrot insisted.

  “How will you do that?”

  “I do not know. But the baby will smell like pastry sugar.”

  “And it will have big, big blue eyes,” Rose added.

  “And dark hair.”

  “No, light hair like yours.”

  “And we will read it complicated novels so that it will be confused all day long!” Pierrot exclaimed.

  “And you should play it sad tunes on the piano so that it will weep for no reason at all. And we will say, ‘Baby, oh, our dear little baby, what in the world is wrong with you?’”

  “And the baby will have no idea what it is crying about.”

  “Let’s make it afraid of the world so that it will want more hugs from us,” Rose said, sitting up. “When it tells us that it thinks there is a monster in the closet, instead of telling it that it is a fool we will board up the closet with planks and nails.”

  • • •

  SOMETIMES WHEN PIERROT WAS NERVOUS about feeling good, to his dismay he would find himself thinking about Eloïse. He saw Eloïse anywhere out of the corner of his eye. He saw a woman in a habit step onto the trolley when he was riding back home from work. Anxiety spread through his veins like a hive that had been upset and all the hornets were buzzing out. He leaped off the back of the trolley. He dove into a roll and landed on the ground. Everyone on the trolley stuck their head out the window to look at him. The nun also looked out. It was obvious upon second glance that she was at least seventy. Sketches of all her old expressions were visible on her face like rough drafts.

  He suddenly wanted to get high. When he shot up, the heroin flowed through his body, turning on light switches in every part, like someone showing a child there were no ghosts in the house. And then he thought about Rose. She would never be with him if she saw him stoned. The feeling passed.

  • • •

  AFTER THEY HAD MADE OUT that night, Pierrot told Rose about his addiction. She instinctively looked down at his arms. They were covered in scars like black smudges. She knew they were track marks.

  “I’m not going to lie to you. During the years before I found you again, I was completely addicted to heroin. In part I felt that I had nobody in my life. I was a man without a family, and so I was in many ways a man without an identity. I didn’t care whether I died. The addiction gave me a purpose, even though that sounds pathetic. It is so pathetic. But I woke up in the morning knowing what I wanted. Otherwise the sense of loss I felt waking up was treacherous. Then I got it into my head that I could find you. And I wanted to be free of my addiction. I couldn’t bear for you to see me like that.”

  “And I didn’t.”

  “And you never will.”

  • • •

  PIERROT HAD A SUITCASE in one hand and a painting in the other. He went to stay at Rose’s apartment. When he came in, the powdery snow, like dust from a child banging two blackboard erasers together, was all around him. Rose left the room messy, like a girl who was used to having a maid. There were irises carved on the wooden back of the chair, though its cushion was totally ruined. The teacup was broken and it had been glued back together. The yellow blanket lay on the floor all jumbled up like scrambled eggs.

  • • •

  SHE LIKED THE WAY he got her undressed. But she also liked the way he got her dressed. He helped her with her buttons. Or he picked up her hat and put it on his head. It was like he forgot what was his own self and what was hers. She liked the way he rode her around on the handlebars of his bicycle. She liked the way when they had a conversation while walking, he’d jump in front of her and walk backward so he could look right at her when they spoke. She liked the way he laughed uproariously at any joke on the radio.

  He liked the way she would laugh uproariously at any joke on the radio. He liked that she would write words in the air with her fingertip. He liked the way she put her hand out to check whether or not it was raining, when it clearly was. He liked the way she helped out the older people in the hotel. He liked how all the children in the neighborhood seemed to know her name.

  She liked how all the children in the neighborhood seemed to know his name. She liked how he could fry up an egg while smoking a cigarette clenched between his lips. She liked the way he called up to her from the sidewalk. She liked the way he put his arm around her. She liked the way he talked about paintings when they went to the museum. She liked the things he noticed about the world.

  He liked the things she noticed about the world. He liked the way she looked when she was wearing underwear and sitting cross-legged on the bed and describing bad things that had happened to her. He liked when she read passages that she had underlined in novels. He liked how she got involved in other people’s arguments on the street. He liked how she always read the newspaper first thing in the morning. He liked how she made him feel about himself.

  She liked the way he made her feel about herself.

  • • •

  A YEAR PASSED, during which Rose and Pierrot lived in a happy state of penury. Because times were so difficult all around, Pierrot’s paycheck was often short. Rose sporadically found and lost jobs. She worked for a period in a dress factory, and then as a soda girl, and then as a maid at the fancy Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Every place she worked had to let her go in the end. Yet she and Pierrot still scrimped together enough to pay the rent and have a meal at the end of the evening, under a dim lightbulb in their hotel room. Despite the Depression, they were a happy unit, and it seemed as if the world, which had once been so cruel to them, had mercifully lost interest.

  Rose was scribbling in her black journal one afternoon.

  “May I look at your journal?”

  “Yes! It’s not private at all. In fact, I hope to one day share it with the whole world.”

  Pierrot picked up the book and flip
ped through the thick pages. The journal was filled with crude illustrations in black pen.

  What marvels were there?

  There was a sketch of a girl wearing a Napoleon hat. There was a drawing of a clown on a bicycle whose wheels looked as big as a house. There was an illustration of footsteps with arrows—a pattern to an extraordinary drunken waltz, no doubt. There was a drawing of a top hat with a lever so the crown could open and close like a chimney flap and smoke would come out of it. There was a tuxedo with a carnation tucked into its pocket, with holes in the elbows. The drawings on the paper became animated in his head, a Disney cartoon. It was Rose’s circus dream.

  Pierrot sometimes came across Rose doing something incredibly odd. But it wasn’t because his darling had lost her mind. It was because she was working on different things for the show, which she never quite gave up on.

  Once, she was balanced on the edge of the roof. A passerby might have assumed she was about to plunge to her death. Suicide wasn’t uncommon for women in the Depression. Having your husband home all day long drove women to great despair. But Rose happily waved to Pierrot.

  The next day Pierrot came up to the room and found Rose sitting with a wooden spoon with a rag wrapped around the top. The rag was on fire. She had a little teacup that she filled with kerosene.

  “Remember when we used to perform in those rich houses?” Rose said. “We seduced them. When we showed up in their living rooms, they didn’t know what had hit them. They were under a spell. We could have asked them to hand over the keys to their houses and they would have.”

  She took a sip from the teacup and breathed a huge bolt of fire that shot halfway across the kitchen. She hiccuped afterward and a small flame shot out. They were both a little bit startled and frightened.

  “I can’t believe I’m still here,” Rose said, looking up and down at her body.

  “Never try that again.”

  Rose shrugged. She wasn’t exactly sure how the plan would come together. But sometimes you just have to work at something for the end to appear in sight.

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