Lullabies for Little Criminals, p.29Heather O'Neill
Despite having known me since I was nine years old, Stacey wasn’t at all freaked out about selling me dope. The heroin was in a folded-up lottery ticket, as it was done back then. The tickets had the same little squares as were on the answer sheets on our end-of-year exams. He offered to buy me a beer. He said I had to stay at the table with him for a little bit so that it wouldn’t look suspicious. I hardly thought that was necessary since we were the only people in the room.
“Hey, did you know that Sherlock Holmes was a junky?” he asked me.
“Mmmhmm,” I said, politely but unenthusiastically.
Some junkies had an obsession with listing off historical heroin addicts. I didn’t want to get stuck having to sit there and have a conversation with Stacey for the next hour, so I decided to cut it short.
“I gotta split, okay? I’m underage. They’ll throw me out on my ass?”
“No, it’s okay. No one cares. Come on, have a seat. Keep me company.”
I waved and walked away. You had to be that way with heroin dealers. They possessed the worst aspects of a child that you don’t want to have anything to do with: neediness and loneliness. Who needed it?
I WENT INTO THE BATHROOM on the first floor. There were twelve stalls in there with peach-colored doors. Since the bathroom was empty, I took a syringe out of my pocket and quickly filled it with a little water from the tap. I walked to the one at the end, where I could have the most privacy. There was a framed photograph of a mermaid on the wall of that stall, advertising soap. Public bathrooms were often good places to shoot up in because the fluorescent lights made your veins stand out as much as the phone numbers scribbled on the wall with blue pen.
I sat on the toilet lid and took my works out of my fur coat pocket. I cooked up the dope by mixing it with the water in a spoon I carried around. I cooked it with a lighter that had a sticker of a moose on it. Then I stuck a tiny bit of a cigarette filter in the spoon and stuck the tip of the needle through it and pulled the plunger until the tiny creamy mixture had climbed into the syringe. I pulled down my pants and shot the dope in my thigh. That’s where Alphonse had suggested that I shoot up these days so that it would be less noticeable. I hadn’t cooked up all the dope because I wanted it to last through the night.
Before I’d even pulled up my pants I started to feel the effects of the heroin. It hit me even harder than it had the first time I had used. This dope was different. I could hear the sound of my own heart beating. The woman in the picture began combing her hair. I whispered the word “Shit” and it came out of my mouth in calligraphic letters, like in a cartoon. I looked up at the ceiling and noticed a toy seagull fluttering around up there. It was a Styrofoam seagull with real feathers for wings that Jules and I had hung on our door for three Christmases in a row. “I know you,” I said, pointing to the bird. Again my words came out of my mouth in fancy white letters. I decided I’d better keep my mouth shut. I was way too stoned.
I stepped out of the stall and went over to one of the mirrors and looked at my reflection. The snow that week had made my hair look curly and the heroin was making my eyes bluer. I decided that I looked particularly pretty. I was really excited about how good I looked, and it occurred to me that I would like Xavier to see how pretty I was too. Right then, feeling like a brave soldier, I decided to go see Xavier again.
I went out in the snow and started walking in the direction of a music studio where I knew that Xavier took piano lessons every Friday around this time. The studio was above a car dealership, and you entered through a glass door that led to a narrow staircase. I went inside and sat on the stairs. I could hear someone playing piano slowly and badly. It might have been Xavier, but I wasn’t sure. I was staring at the brown and white tiles, slowly hypnotizing myself. My head gently fell off my neck and rolled away. I heard my name cried out in a terribly joyful way.
“Baby! I can’t believe it.”
“Hey,” I said, standing up.
Xavier ran down the stairwell to meet me. Between his winter clothes and his piano books, he made a lot of noise. He sounded like an orchestra shuffling into their seats. It was so good to see him I felt like lying on the ground laughing, the way the bums do. We grabbed each other’s hands instinctively.
“I tried calling you, but your phone wasn’t working. Then I went by your apartment and you had moved,” he said, emphasizing the word as if it was the craziest thing that any child could ever do.
“Yeah, I moved.”
“Did you try calling me? My mother wouldn’t give me the messages if you did. I’m not allowed to hang around with you anymore. My mother went and spoke to the guidance counselor at the school. They told her that you were a troubled kid and from a broken home.”
“I don’t come from a broken home! My parents weren’t divorced. My mother died,” I shouted, genuinely insulted. “So much for confidentiality. I can’t believe she told your mom that. I should sue her.”
I was trying to play it cool. For the past year, I’d known that I was from an unstable home, but I desperately didn’t want Xavier to know it. He was the one person on earth who didn’t know about all that stuff.
“I told them how nice your dad is,” Xavier insisted. “They were considering changing my school until the principal phoned and said you’d run away.”
“I’m living with my uncle,” I lied. “He’s a salesman. I’m going back to school soon. It’s perfectly legitimate.”
That was a stupid thing to say. Only lowlifes claimed things were legitimate, classy, or exclusive. But Xavier didn’t seem to notice; he just nodded solemnly.
“I don’t care what anyone says, Baby. They’re all ignorant. You are like my favorite person on earth.”
“Well, I like you an awful lot too.”
“Where do you and your uncle live?”
“I’m staying at this hotel. Over off St. Catherine Street.”
“A hotel. Like the Holiday Inn?”
“No! Not one of those big tacky ones. I’m staying in a European-style hotel, where poets and stuff stay. You know…on St. Hubert.”
“Oh…those buildings. I always wondered what they were like inside.”
“We’re not going to be staying there very long, though. We’re going to move. I just live three blocks away. We could meet sometimes after you finish school.”
“Can I see where you’re staying?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Please. I want to go over for like five minutes.”
I think the drugs were messing with my reasoning skills. I’d made one successful dare by coming to see him, and I wanted to make another one. It was half past six and there was still loads and loads of time before Alphonse came home. Although the thought of bringing Xavier up to the room made a cold tremor run through me, I was stoned enough to think I could somehow get away with it.
We opened the door of the music building and walked side by side to the hotel. As we walked up the stairs of the hotel together, he craned his head all over the place, looking around. He found it fascinating and new. I was happy to see that he didn’t know what to make of it. I opened the door with one of the keys on the cord around my neck and swung it open.
“Voilà!” I said.
“There’s only one bed here,” Xavier pointed out, after looking around.
“Don’t be so bourgeois,” I exclaimed. “It’s all we can afford right now.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“That’s quite all right,” I said with a British accent, and we both laughed.
I turned on the radio on the nightstand the way Harvey did to make things romantic. Xavier sat down on the bed and took his winter coat off. I was happy to see that he still didn’t know how to dress. He was wearing corduroy pants and a purple sweatshirt with a Transformer on it. He looked embarrassed when he took his moon boots off because he was wearing gym socks that didn’t match.
I sat on t
“Look what I have,” he said, digging through his pocket. “I’ve been carrying it around everywhere because I knew that I’d eventually run into you.”
He pulled out an IOU for a kiss that I’d written him once on the corner of a piece of paper. He held it up to my face and smiled at me.
“I’d like my reimbursement, s’il vous plait.”
We put our arms around each other and held each other. I almost melted when I felt how small and gentle he was. I was used to men, who could toss me into bed with one hand. I pushed Xavier down onto the bed and pinned him there. He struggled, laughing, but couldn’t get me off. We stayed in that strange position, enjoying each other’s company.
“You know what would be so cool?” I asked.
“If we had a little baby. We could name him Cotton; wouldn’t that be the most beautiful name for a baby? I would never ever send our baby to school. I would miss him too much while he was at school. I would kiss him a hundred times a day.”
All street kids wanted babies. It’s a terrible kick. You should never start talking about it because once you started, you wanted that baby so bad you could almost faint. I couldn’t resist, though.
“I like the name Loulou,” he answered, much to my delight.
“I’d save up our money and buy our baby an electric blanket, I don’t care how much money it would cost. He would never be cold.”
“I’d like it if the baby had your hair. You are the prettiest girl in the whole world.”
I let Xavier go and lay next to him. I reached over and touched his cheek. I liked the way his skin was so soft. Touching him felt like picking up a baby animal that you weren’t supposed to handle. Because once you touched the animal it was spoiled and its mother wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it.
Xavier and I leaned in and kissed each other on the lips. I gave him my most secret unconditional kiss I’d saved up for special occasions. It was like taking the glass off a framed moth and letting it fly.
Then we both closed our eyes. I kept mine closed so tightly. I felt like a negative that had been exposed to light. If I accidentally opened my eyes, then I knew we would both be destroyed somehow. I knew that Xavier was going to keep his eyes closed the whole time too.
He tickled me everywhere that he touched me. I kept laughing and he would laugh too. But then we got quiet. It was like we were hidden in a dark closet playing hide-and-seek. We buried ourselves deep down in the closet, hidden under the sweaters and warm leather shoes and slippers, and we did our business.
WHEN WE’D FINISHED MAKING LOVE, Xavier pulled his long johns back on and lay next to me with just one sock on. We hadn’t said anything to each other yet because we were both feeling so perfect and quiet. He held his hands up in front of him, seemingly admiring his fingernails. We looked over at each other and smiled.
Then I felt nauseated. I rolled off the bed and ran into the bathroom to throw up. I turned on the water so that Xavier couldn’t hear me. Feeling genuine emotion while on junk had made me sick to my stomach. But I felt better once I’d thrown up, and I sat on the toilet lid to make sure it had passed.
As I turned off the water, I heard the sound of the door opening and Xavier saying hello to someone. I had the feeling you have after you’ve slipped on the ice and your body is stuck in the air a split second before you fall. It is an awful hollow unknown feeling that smashing to the ice afterward hardly compares to. I pulled open the bathroom door and ran out into the living room. Alphonse was standing in the room, staring at Xavier. Xavier was scrambling to get his clothes on.
I thought he had a schedule. I thought that I knew this schedule. I thought that he went over to Leelee’s apartment around seven o’clock. They always did that. But I had forgotten that Leelee had gone to visit her parents. All the stars in the sky had decided to change places. Someone had taken the lights from the Lite-Brite set and had rearranged them in a new pattern. I had forgotten how simple something like that could be.
Alphonse turned to me and looked me right in the eyes. It seemed like the first time that I’d ever seen Alphonse’s eyes. The whites had turned yellow. He had eyes that looked like they had been crying, not for an hour but for a hundred years! His eyes were the color of water stains on drapes. They were the color of water in a puddle. They were the color that pennies would make when they left stains at the back of the porcelain sink. I couldn’t believe that anybody was allowed to look at me like that. It was wrong. It made me feel as if it had eroded my heart. I felt like I had lung cancer. I felt rotten inside, like a bag of toys that someone leaves outside the Salvation Army in the rain.
Then he turned back to Xavier.
“What the fuck are you doing in my house? You have some nerve coming here. I’m going to call the fucking cops for trespassing.”
“I came up here with Baby,” he whimpered.
Xavier looked horribly worried. He believed he’d done something terrible. He really had no idea what was going on, but I could tell from his face that he knew it was bad.
“This isn’t Baby’s place,” Alphonse said, disgustedly. “This is my place. She doesn’t pay the rent here. I do. She’s a fucking thieving whore. A whore. You’re in way over your head. I’d be afraid to touch her.”
“I want to go,” Xavier said, beginning to cry.
“Let him go,” I yelled. “I just ran into him by accident. I won’t invite him here again.”
Xavier went to the corner to gather his moon boots and bent over to put them on. Alphonse kicked him in the ass, and he fell to the ground, completely startled. I ran toward them, but Alphonse shoved me backward and I fell over the chair and was on the ground too.
He grabbed Xavier by the throat and held him against the wall. He whacked him in the face. Everything was going too fast. I just wanted Xavier to get out of there. It was probably the first time that he had ever been hit like that. I wished that Alphonse had hit me instead. It was much, much worse to watch it. He looked terrified, like a baby.
I got to my feet and started jumping up and down futilely. It was like when you tried to get puppets to run just by jerking their strings up and down and they just end up getting all tangled in themselves. There was nowhere to run and nothing that I could do. Alphonse was insurmountable because he was an adult and we were just two kids. All that children can hope for is that the adults who were around them would be kind. All they can do is beg for mercy.
“Please, please, please,” I yelled at Alphonse.
Xavier’s nose was bleeding now. Alphonse stood back, giving him enough space to get his things and leave. And he did. The sound of his moon boots going down the stairs sounded loud, like thunder. I didn’t feel any pain when Alphonse slapped me on both sides of my face. I could feel both my cheeks getting all warm and tingly.
I couldn’t cry, and this was the one time I really wanted to. Crying helps you not see what’s going on around you. But I couldn’t get the crystal-clear image of Xavier being hit out of my mind. Seeing Xavier in my universe was the most shocking thing I’d ever seen. I put my hands up to my eyes to try and wipe the image from my mind.
“Give me the dope,” Alphonse said, blankly. “I heard you scored from Stacey.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out what remained. I took my works out of my pocket and gave them to Alphonse. I had a handful of change that I splattered out on the table too, as if I was trying to prove that I wasn’t hiding anything else from him. He would shoot up first and then he would get around to killing me.
“Now we’ll have to split before he tells his parents about us,” he said.
“He’s not going to tell his parents!” I cried out. “He’s not even allowed to talk to me.”
“We’re getting the fuck out of here. We’re going to Toronto.”
He poured the rest of the dope in a spoon, cooked it up, and shot it all at once on the side of the bed. He sat there for a second while the color drained out of his face. He slowly laid his body down on the bed and became perfectly still, not uttering a sound. The storm was over. I remembered how great that heroin was and I wished I had some more of it. Naturally, he hadn’t left me any at all. I climbed up on the bed and lay down as far away from Alphonse as I could. I would just have to rely on my natural defenses to erase the events of that evening.
I had lost Xavier. But I had lost all the children that I had been close to, so why had I expected things to be different with Xavier? I was very religious about other children, and I wanted so much to believe that they could save me. I had tried to be rescued by the most powerless group in the world. Children were neither real nor dependable. Alphonse was real. He was the one who would make sure that he was in my life. He was, unfortunately, the one who was strong enough to fight for me.
I didn’t ever want to see Xavier again now that he knew all about me. A part of me was destroyed, a part of me that made me feel really good about myself. Before, when I’d been upset, I’d been able to think about the times that I had been with Xavier, like when we had spent the afternoon hugging the cats. But I wouldn’t be able to think about those things without remembering what had happened tonight. I didn’t know where I was going to find that feeling now. I felt traumatized and dark and ugly.
I needed to have a really pleasant thought so that I could fall asleep like a baby. I thought about this time when Jules and I had brought some paper and pencils down to the riverbank to sketch the landscape. We’d brought along a plastic bag with a picnic in it and had spent the whole afternoon there. I couldn’t remember if our drawings had turned out nice, but that was one of my favorite memories.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes