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Lullabies for little cri.., p.25
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.25

           Heather O'Neill
 

  I looked inside and saw a skinny kind of pocketknife. It had a thin blade that swung all the way around, the way insect wings did.

  “You know what this is?” he asked.

  “No.”

  “It’s a butterfly knife.”

  “Is that really what it’s called! A butterfly knife?”

  “You’re only interested in the name. Not the thing!”

  “I love the word ‘butterfly.’”

  “I know you do. But that’s only part of the reason why I bought this for you. I bought it for you ’cause you fit it in any pocket and hide it. No one will spot it. You can just whip it out and cut the guy who’s bugging you in the face.”

  “Won’t I go to jail!”

  “Well, don’t cut his fuckin’ throat or nothing. No dickwad’s going to call the cops after he’s just banged a thirteen-year-old.”

  I held up the knife and spun the blade around, trying to figure out exactly why it was called a butterfly knife. I was pleased with it anyway. I swore to myself that I would get a tattoo of a butterfly on me before I turned fourteen.

  “I like taking care of you,” he said. “You like taking care of me?”

  “I guess so.”

  He leaned over to kiss me. I closed my eyes as tight as I could, and I leaned in to kiss him. It was then that I started thinking about Xavier again. I wished that Alphonse was as small and skinny as Xavier. Xavier and I wrapped around each other perfectly. With Alphonse it felt as if he were drowning and was taking me down with him. It seemed as if the bus had stopped really quickly, and his body had rammed against mine in the aisle.

  As I was sitting on the floor by the front door putting on my boots, Alphonse squatted down beside me.

  “You’re not seeing anyone else, are you?”

  “No,” I answered, concentrating on tying my shoelace as if it were a calculus problem.

  “Because you know I couldn’t take that, right?”

  “I’m not seeing anyone.”

  “I’d fucking want to kill you.”

  “Jesus Christ!” I screamed, picking up my schoolbag. “Lighten up, would ya?”

  He smiled as I patted him on the head and ran out the door.

  I didn’t listen to Jules anymore, I thought as I hurried down the street away from his building, so why should I listen to Alphonse? I was terribly annoyed that Alphonse was trying to tell me what to do. I walked down the street, happy, thinking that I could do whatever I wanted. I didn’t need to turn tricks because I didn’t mind being flat broke. I’d been broke since the day I was born. Alphonse was the fool who needed money all the time. Let him find some other way of getting it, I thought defiantly. Still, I knew that I’d best stay out of his way.

  I CONTINUED SEEING XAVIER as if nothing had happened. I made sure to try and stop by Alphonse’s house a couple times a week. I told Alphonse that I had exams and I would be really busy for a while. I told him that if I got anything lower than a B, I might have to go back to detention. That was, of course, a lie. Alphonse seemed to want to believe anything in the world other than the fact that I had a boyfriend.

  About a month after my abduction, Xavier and I were walking home, as usual. I picked up a stick and was swinging it around. It was a habit from childhood that I hadn’t been able to shake. We stopped at the library and went down to the children’s section. We sat across from each other at a table that was too small for us, as we couldn’t fit our knees under it properly. Xavier was experimenting with the punk rock look that day. He had pushed all his hair back with gel and was wearing a tight black sweater with holes in it that he had cut himself with a pair of scissors. He took his notebook out and looked in it, seeming preoccupied with something.

  “You have to promise me that you aren’t attracted to any boy, other than me,” Xavier turned and said to me.

  “All right,” I said, putting down my own math notebook.

  “Do you mean it?”

  “Yes.”

  “I made a list here of all the boys in our grade,” he said, showing me his notebook. “I would like to go through each of them with you so that you can fully consider whether or not you are attracted to them.”

  “No.”

  “Please. It’ll only take a second.”

  “Fine. Hurry up, though.”

  “Gordon Baxter?”

  “Who?”

  “Peter Campbell.”

  “Who’s that?”

  “You know. That blond kid who rides the BMX.”

  “No.”

  “Gary Wheeler.”

  “Which one is he?”

  “He looks like Mel Gibson.”

  “I’ve never even seen him before.”

  “He sits right behind us in science class and you don’t know who he is?”

  “Maybe. I can’t picture him, though.”

  “Well, I guess that means you’re not attracted to him, right?”

  “Right.”

  “Those were the best-looking guys. The ones I was worried about!”

  “Well, you don’t have to worry anymore then.”

  The lights turned on and off, signaling that the library was closing.

  “Damn!” Xavier shouted. “I was having such a good time.”

  We headed back outside and started walking homeward.

  “I have to go down this street now,” he said meaningfully when we got to his corner.

  When we got to the street corner where we parted ways, Xavier and I always took our sweet time saying good-bye to each other. We were addicted to kissing each other. We would kiss in shock, as if we had two buckets of water dumped on our heads. We would kiss sadly, as if the dog was lost in the night. We would kiss like cockroaches headed for the cracks. One time we decided to see if we could set some sort of record. We stood there like hens pecking grains off the ground. We kissed each other fifty times, but then I started to get dizzy, so we had to knock it off. Once, on a particularly cold day, he had kissed me with his ski mask pulled down over his face. It was like all that existed of him was that kiss.

  We faced each other now and held each other’s hands, swinging them back and forth. Then we started playing mercy and squeezing each other’s fingers really hard. We yelped and kicked at each other’s ankles.

  Then a small white bird feather floated through the air between us. If you caught one of those in your hands, you got a wish that would certainly come true. It was much more reliable than eyelashes. Xavier and I jumped up and down trying to snatch it while pushing each other out of the way. It sailed down to the ground and landed gracefully on the sidewalk. We both dove after it. Xavier captured it and held it down under his cupped palm.

  “I have it. I have it!” Xavier cheered.

  As I was getting to my feet, I almost fell right back down again. There, standing across the street, was Alphonse. He was staring right at me. Once I met his gaze, I couldn’t drop it. I turned to look the other way, and when I looked back, he was still staring right at me.

  I jumped to my feet. My heart was beating so fast that the goddamn thing was choking me, jumping right into my throat. I had been hanging out so long with both Xavier and Alphonse and we’d never bumped into each other, so I assumed that it was somehow impossible for either of them to occupy the same physical space at the same time.

  Xavier stood up too, oblivious that anything was going on. He held the feather in his glove and was taking his time making a wish. I was scared that he was going to spend all day deliberating on his wish. I leaned over and wiped the feather off.

  “Hey!” he yelled. “Why’d you do that? I was about to wish for something really nice.”

  “You should have wished that we were invisible.”

  “Anyhow, we don’t have anything now. I was wishing for world peace, you know, and now you’ve messed it up for everyone just because all of a sudden you’re in some sort of mood. Very self-centered.”

  I turned around and took a few steps away from him. I hoped Xavier would also do an a
bout-face and head off in the opposite direction. I needed him to walk away so that I could walk over to Alphonse. I knew that Alphonse was probably getting madder by the second waiting for me. When I turned around, Xavier was still standing in the same spot. I knew that he was waiting for his good-bye kiss.

  “You can’t go no place without giving me a kiss,” he said, smiling.

  He put out his arms, just like a toddler waiting to be picked up and hugged to death. Now I was really terrified.

  “I’m in a hurry. I can’t give you a good-bye kiss today, okay? I’ll owe you one for tomorrow,” I pleaded.

  “What are you talking about?” he said, looking confused. “A kiss takes approximately point five seconds. You could have done it already. It took you like ten times as long to explain how you didn’t have time to give me a kiss than it would have to just give me a kiss.”

  I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to get away with not kissing Xavier. I leaned in and gave him a sloppy kiss on the lips. He jumped back and pretended to be electrocuted. This was his new thing. He walked off down the street all shaky and crooked, as if he were still experiencing the effects of electric shock. When he turned the corner, I walked across the street toward Alphonse. I looked at the ground. I wished I had telepathic powers and could make Alphonse think that he hadn’t seen what he’d just seen.

  “What the fuck was that!”

  I shrugged. He took my hand and dragged me down the street and pushed me up the stairs, I looked at my wrist. I hadn’t felt any pain, but there was a red ring where his hand had been squeezing. The sight of it made me want to sit down and cry. I ran up ahead and waited at his front door. I stood to the side as he unlocked it. When he flung the door open, I ran inside ahead of him. I didn’t know where to go. I just stood there, like a fool, I guess. He pushed me hard toward the bedroom. I fell on the ground and skinned my knee on the carpet. Before I could even feel it, he picked me up and threw me onto the bed. He held down my hands and sat on me, pinning me down. I was afraid he was going to spit in my face, since his hands weren’t free to slap me.

  “Who was that kid?” he demanded.

  “He’s best friends with my cousin. I have to hang out with him.”

  “You’re lying.”

  “My dad’s best friends with his dad.”

  “I don’t believe that. That’s a lie.”

  “My dad likes him so he lets me hang out later at night if he thinks I’m dating him.”

  “I guess that sort of makes sense, but it’s still nasty.”

  “I won’t hang out with him anymore. He’s a virgin so I don’t have to sleep with him.”

  “Has he seen your breasts?” he asked bitterly.

  “No! He’s a baby. He just likes to kiss good-bye.”

  “I want you to stay away from him. You’re my lady and it looks bad. What are you doing to me?” He sounded like a little boy. “Now I have to walk down the street like a fool. How many people I know have seen you with that little bastard? I feel like packing up all my bags and getting the hell out of here. I’m so fucking cool. Did you see that little pipsqueak that you were with?”

  “Okay.”

  “Fuck you with your okays, Baby.”

  “Okay.”

  “Don’t push your fucking luck. I forgive your ass now. Let me just say for the record that that was the saddest-looking kid I have ever seen, and I don’t know how you could kiss him. You! Who pretends to be so goddamn fussy all the time.”

  I lay there staring at him, not knowing what to say about my love for Xavier. It was much too dear for me to explain it to him anyhow. It would be like giving your pet mouse to a cat. I was also afraid that if I explained to him what I liked about Xavier, he would just say something to prove how idiotic I was. Even the stupidest adult was a better debater than me.

  Alphonse looked at me tenderly. He reached over and started playing with my hair. Love made his eyes go the way that junkies’ eyes went: all welled up with tears that are never going to fall.

  I told Alphonse that I had a meeting with my social worker. He rolled off me and just lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. I flipped off it, almost hitting the floor again, and ran out the door. I decided that I was only going to see Xavier from now on. To hell with Alphonse. As I was leaving his house, I kicked one of his boots down the stairs and left it there.

  THERE WAS A SURPRISE WARM DAY. You still had to wear a coat, but the snow miraculously thawed by noon and everyone was out and walking the streets. I should have stayed inside with Xavier, but he wanted to take advantage of the weather to ride his bike. As we doubled down St. Dominique Street on a bicycle, it was my turn to sit up front and pedal. Xavier had his arms around my waist too tightly, and he kept screaming about how his ass hurt. How could we not be noticed by the entire city? He sounded like a dog that had been hit by a car. We passed rue Napoleon. I knew that Alphonse and his friends used to meet at a small club on this street during the day. I had a crazy urge to turn down it, and so I did. As we approached the club, I began to feel nervous, as if I was going to pee myself. I could see a small crowd of black men gathered out there, and among them I could easily make out Alphonse, with his red hair and turquoise coat. Xavier kept his arms wrapped around me, alternately singing and moaning loudly in pain. He started to tickle me, and I flinched so suddenly that we crashed on the side of the curb.

  Alphonse and all his friends turned to look at us, mangled up with our bicycle on the sidewalk.

  “Quick, get up!” I yelled to Xavier.

  “No, my butt’s broken. I need to lie here for a while.”

  “Come on. There’s someone coming to kill us. Hurry! Hurry!”

  You might have thought Xavier was too old to play this game, but he was not. He untangled himself from the bicycle, screaming, “They’re coming! They’ll torture us!” He got on the front of the bike, yelling at me to jump on. I climbed behind him and put my hands on his shoulders. After a few false starts Xavier managed to get the bike upright and going. The whole time we were screaming because our imaginary enemies were coming closer. They were practically on us.

  Xavier cycled us right past Alphonse. I’d never seen Alphonse look so pissed off, and it gave me a rush of strength. I yelled loudly to Xavier that our enemies had dogs and that they were now at my feet. I knew that I was offending Alphonse’s dignity by ignoring him and acting like such a child, but I wanted to do much more than that. I wanted Alphonse to know for sure how I felt, that I thought he was a worm. I turned back and flipped him the bird. I wasn’t smiling either. Alphonse and I stared at each other, deadly serious.

  7

  I WAS IN MY BEDROOM when I heard a crashing noise in the living room. I walked in to find that Jules had knocked three lamps off the coffee table. Lately he had started picking up every lamp he found in the garbage. They lined his bureau and the floor. When he learns to make them all work, I thought, his room will be filled with so much light.

  He was wearing a big blanket with a hole cut in the middle of it over his head. That’s what was making him clumsy.

  “Oh, no!” I said. “You’re going to be one of those guys who wears a blanket on their heads.”

  We both started to laugh at that. I helped him set the lamps back up, and I realized that I didn’t feel like being alienated forever from Jules.

  LATER THAT NIGHT SOME KIDS I knew from remedial stream came by my building. They started hollering my name from the sidewalk down below. I leaned out my bedroom window to see what was going on. Zoë waved at me.

  Zoë had been working on her fucked-up image a lot during the past year. She didn’t look thirteen anymore. She had big boobs and wore a tight black plastic jacket to accentuate them. She bleached her hair and wore giant leather boots everywhere. She was the most popular girl in our circle of juvenile delinquents. She wouldn’t hang out with anyone who wasn’t a badass poor kid. For some reason, she always insisted that she was my best friend. Maybe it was because my apartment was fi
lthy, I didn’t have a mother, and my dad fell asleep on benches. She had made being down-and-out into a religion.

  She thought the same things about me that Alphonse had thought. He thought he had chosen the perfect girl when he had seen me in the park with a black eye. He must have thought that I was so mature. He must have thought that I was sad and sweet and vulnerable. But he had chosen wrong. I wasn’t like that at all. There was a part of me that was smart and original and nerdy too.

  When I thought of my old friends Linus Lucas and Theo, I realized they were not really criminals either. They were like me. We were just acting out the strangest, tragic little roles, pretending to be criminals in order to get by. We gave very convincing performances.

  I put on my coat and my running shoes. I decided against my moon boots since these kids hated anything practical like winter boots more than anything else in the world. Since we’d be riding in the car, I didn’t think it made much of a difference anyhow. Zoë pointed proudly at her girlfriend Cherie’s new car. It was a big blue embarrassing Chevrolet that was impossible to park. The leather seats were wide and made it feel as if you were sitting on a couch, which was nice. There were a bunch of kids crammed in. I smiled down at Zoë and all of a sudden I wanted to squeeze into the car with all of them.

  Alphonse wasn’t the only person who didn’t like me hanging out with Xavier. None of my remedial friends were very fond of the idea either. I’d just stopped hanging out with them altogether. In truth, even though I was one of them, I was a little relieved to get far away from them. I was tired of their superiority complexes. Maintaining a superiority complex, especially when you were a loser, took a lot of mental effort and denial.

  Zoë’s new girlfriend, Cherie, the loudest girl on the planet, was behind the wheel. She was playing with Zoë’s curls as she drove. There were three boys in the back; one of them was a kid everyone said was cute named Greg. Zoë had implied for months that Greg and I would be perfect for each other. She motioned for me to sit next to him. I climbed over the laps of the two other boys and sat next to Greg in the backseat, just to make everybody happy.

 
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