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Lullabies for little cri.., p.28
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       Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.28

           Heather O'Neill
 

  I had to turn tricks every night now. Since I’d started living with Alphonse, he had a shorter temper and didn’t cut me any slack in that department. I had to go meet him straightaway with the money at the end of the evening. I wasn’t allowed to stop at the arcade or the comic book store. There were more rules living with Alphonse than there had ever been living with Jules. Jules didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, so he was never sure if he should, or if he even morally could, punish me. It was impossible for Jules to even send me to bed without feeling guilty. Alphonse, on the other hand, had rules that I was always crossing.

  One night I put my sneakers on the radiator to dry. Alphonse found this revolting and said he couldn’t take my filthy ways anymore. He told me that I was white trash and he slapped me, which left an imprint of his hand on my face for three days. It made me sick to my stomach thinking about why I’d been slapped. Slapping is never a good thing, but there should at least be some sort of legitimate reason behind it, like an exclamation mark needs to follow an exclamatory sentence. I remembered the teacher who’d made fun of me for doing that. You can’t just put an exclamatory sentence anywhere!

  Since Alphonse spent all the money I made on dope, we were broke. I didn’t really mind that, as I was so used to poverty by now. But I got really pissed off when he yelled at me for wasting four dollars on a John Le Carré novel I’d bought at the drugstore. I couldn’t even look at him for the rest of that afternoon because I thought he was so cheap. Sometimes I went without a meal, too. One night I hadn’t eaten and I went to the store and tried to pay for a carton of chocolate milk with the pennies and nickels that were hanging around the hotel room.

  “I’m not going to count that shit,” the guy at the counter told me.

  “Come on,” I said. “Please.”

  Alphonse only gave me a flimsy cut of the heroin he bought, and I never seemed to get high enough. I had to wait in the hotel room while he went out and scored. I hated that. Anticipating the dope would make me start going through withdrawal. It made me feel like an insect had crept into my ear and was crawling around under my skin. I felt crushed when I sat still, as if someone were squeezing me between a bureau and a wall. I got uncomfortably hot too, like I was standing under a bunch of lightbulbs.

  To kill time while I was waiting for Alphonse to score, I would come up with ways to murder him. My best idea was to drop a jar of frozen tomato sauce on his head. People often kept frozen foods on their windowsills in the winter. No one would suspect it was anything other than an accident. This one night, I pushed the bed aside and drew a pentagram on the floor with a piece of cockroach chalk and wrote his initials in the middle of it. I prayed for Satan to strike him dead before pushing the bed back and continuing, unsatisfied, to wait for him.

  As soon as I heard him open the door, I stood up on the bed, pointing at him. “Where’ve you been!” I yelled. “I’ve been waiting a whole fucking hour!”

  He smacked me hard and I fell off the bed. I didn’t even know where any of my limbs were until they smashed against the ground. My head hit the radiator and I rushed to put my hand up to the sharp pain. Jules had always warned me that if your head hit the radiator, it would surely crack open. I was stunned to find mine still in one piece.

  I didn’t think I deserved to be hit for yelling at all. The injustice of it made me start to cry. I didn’t want to let Alphonse know that he had made me cry, but it’s hard to hold it back. One time I tried to keep my head under the water in the bathtub to see if I could drown myself. It was likewise practically impossible.

  I gave up on trying to exercise restraint and sat in a ball on the floor, crying and imagining alternatives to my life. I planned to go to Hollywood to become an actress. Then I changed my mind and decided I was going to live in the desert outside Las Vegas. I briefly considered getting a job as a traffic cop. All these wild escape routes opened themselves up to me when I was angry.

  “You’re a crybaby,” he said after he shot up. “It’s not a bad thing. One day you won’t cry anymore, and I’ll always be poking and pinching you to see you cry. Your eyes look so blue when you cry.”

  He handed me the syringe with what was left of the dope in it. There wasn’t much, but it was enough to make all my anger dissipate. As soon as I was high, I couldn’t even remember what my escape plans had been. I wasn’t upset that Alphonse had slapped me ten minutes before. It all seemed to have been make-believe, the way that a magician’s assistant is cut in half and then magically steps out, looking lovelier than ever.

  THE NEXT EVENING, I put on my winter clothes and went outside. It always seemed as if it had been winter forever. The windows of closed stores were plastered with posters for unknown French bands. They flapped around like a flock of seagulls. The only birds were the ones on the mannequin’s polyester shirt. It was just getting dark. The lights were just coming out, like when you lay bread out on top of the water and the fish come out one by one, but slowly.

  My running shoes were already wet after five minutes of being outside. It’s harder to pick up a trick when you’re wearing a yellow pom-pom hat, as you just looked like an ordinary kid and it hid your good looks. But it was simply too cold to go without a hat. I pretty much had a lot of regulars anyway. That was the only point in my life when everyone I met was falling in love with me. It was because I was so young, I think. It’s like at the pet store—everyone wants to cuddle a kitten more than they want to cuddle a cat.

  Despite my lifestyle, I could still be pretty immature. I always asked little kid questions. I couldn’t help it, as I was curious.

  “Do you have any idea what a mockingbird looks like?” I asked a trick once. “Is it a real bird or something mechanical?”

  My breasts were still too small for bras. I went into an Outreach Center to get some birth control pills and condoms, and a social worker gave me a plastic bag with boys’ underwear that were covered with little fighter jets from the Second World War. So far, I’d had no complaints about them from customers.

  Like this one guy, Marcel, held my hand and touched a phone number that I had written on my skin in ballpoint pen, as if it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He kept fondling my bracelet that was made of tiny monkeys holding hands. I had gotten it for a quarter from a vending machine. I always hoped to get a rubber crazy ball but ended up with cheap jewelry.

  I didn’t know if there was anything different between men who chose to be with younger prostitutes and those who didn’t. They were the only men I knew, and because of them I didn’t have a very high opinion of adults. I didn’t think there was any point in going to school or having a career. The adult world was filled with perverts, so it hardly seemed like something worth preparing for.

  That night, I was waiting for a trick named Harvey on the corner of St. Catherine and St. Dominique. He had a crooked nose that looked as if it must have been broken at some point. I spent most of the time with him wondering what he would look like with a straight nose. He finally showed up about ten minutes late. I threw my hands up in the air, as if to say, What the hell?

  We walked together over to the Hotel of the Stars. The outside was whitewashed cement, and people were always autographing it and drawing pictures on it with ballpoint pens and markers. I noticed someone had scribbled the words “Fuck the Police” in ballpoint pen on the wall. Suddenly, the words seemed to crawl several inches over, as though they were some sort of insect. Sometimes I wouldn’t even know when I was stressed out anymore until something weird like that happened.

  The reason this hotel was called Hotel of the Stars was because there were some signed photographs of actors, who I’d never even heard of before, in the lobby. It wasn’t fancy anymore. Harvey paid for the room through a little slot in bulletproof glass. There was a microphone. You’d shout into it, but they never heard you because it didn’t work. You had to lean your face down and talk through the money slot.

  I knew the girl working at the desk. Her name was
Aileen, and she had a crush on Jules that he never reciprocated. He used to call her Boney Bones behind her back because he said she had no figure. To win him over, she was always trying to act as though she was my mother. She would run up to me and tie my shoelaces in the middle of the sidewalk and do other ridiculous things like that. She was all right, though, and I’d stop by the hotel sometimes just to hang around with her a bit. She was always touching me, which I really liked. When she played with my hair, it tingled and felt like the roots were falling out. And she had given me my new favorite T-shirt that said “Kiss me I’m Polish.” I thought it was pretty damn funny.

  Right then, however, I tried to avoid eye contact with her. I gave her a glance that indicated that she should shut her mouth and not bother me right now. She just looked at me blankly, making as if she didn’t recognize me.

  I couldn’t help but hop along the patterns in the tiles on the way to the room.

  “I think these tiles are the steps to a Viennese waltz,” I shouted.

  When we got to the room, I took my winter clothes off. My pockets were filled with Tic Tacs and other tiny things that fell all over the floor. When I took off my hat, it seemed that I’d been sweating. I looked in the mirror, and my hair stood up like a wet cat that had been dragged out of a well. I had a cord with the key to the hotel room around my neck. It also had the keys to my last two apartments on it, even though I didn’t have any magic shoes and wouldn’t be returning to them anytime soon.

  Harvey switched off the overhead light and turned on a lamp on the night table that had a net of plastic chandelier beads as a lampshade. Each bead was like a penny catching the sunlight. The candles made everything the color of stained glass, the color of a brand-new tiger tattoo.

  “Do you need to get ready?” he asked me.

  “How do you mean?” I asked, genuinely confused.

  “Do you want to dance for me?” he asked.

  “Without any music?”

  There was a clock radio on the night table that he turned on. He held me in his arms and we started dancing. I remembered the songs that Felix used to sing into his tape recorder. It’s funny, but if I could have chosen any songs in the world to listen to right then, I would have chosen his. Harvey and I continued dancing when the radio announcer came on and started talking. I wasn’t sure whether I should stop or not. He didn’t seem like the type of person who really even understood what music was. Finally he stopped and he looked at my face.

  He kissed me. The kiss sat on my face like a real physical thing. I could smell the kiss sitting on my face. I almost recoiled from him. Lately, I hated being kissed so much that I was wondering how much longer I could possibly bear it. It was hard to imagine not charging anyone to touch me. Then I remembered how I used to feel when I touched Xavier. I liked when we would be next to each other in class and knock our feet against each other’s. I liked holding his hand. I liked when we would take off our shirts and draw imaginary tattoos on each other. I wondered if he had been looking for me.

  Because I was thinking of Xavier, I almost smiled when I took off the rest of my clothes and climbed into bed.

  Afterward, as I laced up my running shoes, I realized that I couldn’t stand to work anymore that night. I usually met Alphonse at the Vietnamese restaurant at nine. It was only six o’clock now and he would have expected me to turn at least another trick by then. It was Friday and he always hung out with Leelee that night, so I wanted to enjoy the time alone. I wanted to maybe go to the bookstore and read for a bit.

  I leaned against the door with my clothes on and looked at Harvey. He was still in bed, looking at the ceiling and waiting for me to leave. He always liked to be alone in the room a while after we were done.

  “Hey, Harvey boy,” I said, trying to sound cute.

  “Yeah,” he said, looking at me.

  “Can you pay me for the next time too? I didn’t get any presents for my sisters, and I’m going to see them tomorrow.”

  “You have sisters?” he asked, surprised.

  “Yes. They’re little they live outside the city. They both have birthdays in the same month.”

  He looked sad when I mentioned my little sisters. I knew he would somehow. He was very sentimental, and thinking about my family was probably more than he could deal with.

  “Okay,” he said and nodded. He pulled out a couple extra twenties. “Have a nice trip then.”

  I snatched the money and hurried out the door. I ran down the hallways and stairs as fast as I could, just for fun. I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I still really liked the feeling of sticking it to Alphonse. I was skidding across the marble lobby floor when Aileen called out to me from the money slot.

  “Baby!”

  I stopped and stared at her.

  “Yeah?”

  “I wanted to tell you that Jules was around here asking about you a week ago.”

  As soon as she said the name Jules, I felt like a coat that had just been pulled off its hanger and hit the ground. I felt like collapsing and just lying on the floor until my heart slowed down. Instead, I just leaned against the wall for support.

  “What’d he say?” I asked, cautiously, not really sure I wanted to know.

  “He wanted to know if I’d seen you.”

  “You’re not going to tell on me, are you?”

  “No, I’m not going to tell on you. I was just passing a message that your father was asking around for you, and he seemed very interested in knowing where you were.”

  “And…,” I said, annoyed.

  “And he’s staying at the Mission Shelter if you want to get in touch with him.”

  I looked her straight in the eye. She tried to look at me tenderly, but I refused to respond to her pity. Suddenly I was very angry with her. Her telling me that Jules was looking for me had upset me very much, and I wanted to take it out on someone.

  “Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah!” I said, sticking my face near the slot. “Jules doesn’t like you whatsoever. So get over it!”

  I kicked open the door of the hotel and stormed out. I would have liked to take out my aggression on Alphonse, but I couldn’t. As I walked down the street, I imagined slapping Alphonse over and over again in the face.

  It made me sick to my stomach with guilt to think about Jules. I missed him, but I was too afraid to go and see him. I couldn’t handle the idea of him being angry with me. I couldn’t even imagine how mad he could get at me for something like this. Each day made me feel a little worse because it was another day that I had gone without seeing him. It seemed more and more impossible to ever go home. I wished that he hadn’t laughed the last time I’d seen him. I would think about him laughing, and it would make me want to die. That day, I hadn’t thought about him for a straight eight or nine hours. I could have strangled Aileen.

  I missed the way that Jules used to kiss me. I missed being kissed like a baby. Once he tied me to a chair with a skipping rope so that I couldn’t move, and he kept kissing me while I screamed and begged him not to.

  When I was really unhappy, I realized how much that street stank. It smelled like rats and beer. My body felt dirty, as if it was covered in too many fingerprints. The wind was a man with a lisp talking about people who had stabbed him in the back. I hurried to get home and escape him. The moon was a child’s face squeezed against a screen, yelling curses down at us.

  Then I remembered the solar system that Felix and I had built when I was living at his house. I started thinking about a moon we had made from papier-mâché. We were going to paint it, but we had decided that it was beautiful just the way it was. I wished that was the moon that was up in the sky. I wished the universe was innocent again.

  I decided at that moment that I wanted to get high. Actually, I wanted to get really high. I wasn’t going to wait for Alphonse to give me an infinitesimal hit; I was going to score the stuff myself.

  Alphonse never introduced me to his drug dealer because he wanted to make sure that I’d give him all my money to scor
e. People were ridiculous about giving up their dealers in general. They acted as though it was an important business partner, or a secretary of state or something. The drug dealers in this neighborhood were all white, and they all had bad haircuts. They tried to look punk but came off looking more like cats with mange. Just like squirrels in certain areas take on certain characteristics, so do heroin dealers. The biggest jackasses in the world dealt heroin in Montreal. The guy who tried to sell you a vowel on Sesame Street was more menacing.

  I did know one dealer, who I’d met on thirty or forty separate occasions: Jules’s old drug dealer. Stacey was a squirrelly kid who rode his bicycle with a dog on a leash. But the dog wasn’t even obedient, and it always pulled Stacey right into the traffic. Jules couldn’t stand him because he was always telling a story about how he had slept with Patti Smith. Jules said it was just plain crude. He was always at the Electric Bumbum after five o’clock every night.

  The club was only three blocks away. It took up half a block on St. Catherine. There were monsters and UFOs painted on the wall out front, and inside was a huge sprawling bar. You could walk around in there for half an hour before anyone who worked there found you and carded you. Early in the evening like this, they hardly cared anyway. I walked up a narrow staircase and found Stacey sitting in front of an empty stage. He stood up and hugged me when he saw me.

 
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