The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.3Heather O'Neill
While Pierrot was in the boys’ dormitory entertaining the boys, Rose was putting on a show for all the girls. Because of the separation of the boys’ and girls’ wings, they were never really a part of each other’s imaginative worlds.
• • •
THE NUNS WERE AWARE that Rose stuck out, and perhaps it was for this reason that she was punished more than all the other children. In fact, the frequency with which her name appears in The Book of Minor Infractions at the time is rather alarming. Sister Eloïse didn’t like how other girls paid attention to her. She was adored for being creative and witty, which was not right, in the nun’s estimation—she strongly believed that girls should be admired only for being good.
She hated that Rose was trying to better herself intellectually, something that a girl had no business doing. She caught Rose taking the newspaper pages that the fish had been wrapped up in out of the garbage can and reading them. She saw an old janitor pass something to Rose, which she tucked under her sweater. Upon investigation, the Sister found it to be a history of France, with the first chapter missing. Sister Eloïse knew that this couldn’t be the first time this clandestine exchange had taken place. In one of the bathroom stalls, she noticed that a panel on the floor seemed loose. She pulled it up and spotted a stashed pile of books there: Victor Hugo, Cervantes and Jules Verne!
As Rose’s punishment, nobody was allowed to talk to her that day. Rose wore a sign around her neck that read Ignore me. If any girl was caught talking to her, she would find herself wearing a sign just like it around her neck too.
Another time, Rose was made to stand on a chair for fraternizing indecently with her imaginary bear. She had to hold a great atlas on her head. The atlas was filled with maps of all the countries in the world.
Rose carried a white mouse around in her pocket, a gift from the gardener. At night when she slept, she kept the mouse in a jar at the bottom of her trunk. Upon discovery of the glass residence one morning, the Mother Superior filled the bottle with water in front of everybody and screwed the lid back on. The mouse floated about with its arms spread, as if it were truly amazed by life.
The cook always gave Rose cigarettes. The cook liked to have company when he smoked. She would smoke while perched on the counter with her legs crossed, listening to the cook rattle on about his brother-in-law.
When Sister Eloïse caught her, she made Rose stand in front of everyone and smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. All the children watched her smoking. She did it so elegantly. Rose blew a smoke ring and the children applauded. They had no idea how she was able to playact at being an adult so well.
“It’s very hard being a dragon,” Rose said, “no matter what they tell you. Every time I turn around, it just so happens that there is a knight standing there, poking me in the behind. Excuse me, but do I show up at your house and poke you in the behind? No, I do not.”
As always, laughter erupted around her, the way water leaps up around a statue in a fountain. Pierrot laughed the hardest. He thought Rose was marvelous. He thought she was a rebel. He was intimidated by her.
Rose felt as if she could smoke every cigarette in the whole damn city. Later that day, Rose found herself over a bucket, puking.
When she caught Rose with her arms around the bear again one evening, Eloïse decided she had had enough.
Ordinarily, Eloïse’s thoughts were like pieces of well-crafted china delicately placed on the shelf of a locked glass display case. When Rose came into the room, each of her words was like a mortar shell, and the shelves began to shake and the ideas began to fall off and smash to the ground. Eloïse’s anger was irrational, and it was also impossible to stand.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t want the little ones to be afraid of the dark. I want them to know that the creatures of night are sweet.”
“There’s nothing in the darkness. They just have to trust in God and everything will be all right. God is all around them in the dark.”
“But sometimes we like to imagine talking bears. I am inviting them to come out and to sit with us and have a cup of tea.”
“You’re summoning the devil.”
“No I’m not. It’s only a game.”
“How dare you talk back to me?”
Rose found herself sitting in the cupboard for the better part of three days. When she was finally released, Pierrot noticed her in the corridor, squinting because the light was blinding, her arms stretched out in front of her.
At the orphanage, those caught masturbating had their hands whipped with a ruler fifty times. And then they would stand on a chair in the common room wearing red gloves so everyone would know what they had done. There was a different little boy standing up on the chair every few weeks. And then one day there was the lovely Rose. Nobody could believe it. But perhaps most shocking was the look on her face. She stood with her chin up in the air, a look close to pride on her face.
Pierrot sometimes told people that was the moment he fell in love with Rose.
PORTRAIT OF BOY WITH UMBRELLA
Pierrot had his eyes scrunched up as he masturbated one night when he was eleven. His lips were screwed over to the left, and his toes poked out from under the blanket and were stretched out wide. He opened his eyes and was startled to see Sister Eloïse standing at the foot of his bed. He was horrified. His penis was making the blanket stand up like a tent.
He was certain he was going to be severely punished. Instead she gently took his hand while putting her finger up to her puckered mouth, indicating that he should be quiet. Making it seem as though she were somehow complicit in his crime. She tiptoed prettily in front of him and he followed. She took him into the bathroom with her. He thought that she was perhaps taking him away so that she might beat him without waking up the other children. She was probably going to make him climb into a bathtub filled with cold water, a not uncommon punishment at the orphanage.
At the sight of the bathtub filled with water, Pierrot began to tremble and shake. Children in Montreal had an absolute terror of the cold. You might assume they had built up a resistance to it, given the long winters, but the opposite was true. The cold had persecuted and tormented them to such an extent that they were more wary and frightened of it than children anywhere else. In the same way that children who are bitten by dogs are horrified by the creatures their whole lives.
“Take off your clothes and get into the bath,” she said.
Pierrot’s teeth chattered as he pulled his nightgown up over his head. His whole body trembled as though a train were passing by the window. Sister Eloïse looked down at his penis. Although it had lost its erection, it was still larger than the penises of other boys his age. When he noticed her looking, he put his hands over it, embarrassed once again. He stepped into the bath, forgetting the cold for a moment, as if it could hide him.
The minute his foot plunged into the water, he was shocked by its warmth. It was startling and felt so good. It was as if he had been expecting a smack but had received a wondrous, delicious kiss. He hurried into the bathtub and sank into its great warmth. He had never taken such a warm bath before. The baths the children took once a month were always tepid and filthy.
He didn’t bother with why or how he was allowed to have such a treat. There was no time for logic right now. He just loved the feeling. He was at one with the warm water. The faucet looked like an elephant with its ears flared out. Eloïse screwed its ears and more warm water spurted out of its nose and Pierrot closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, he saw that Sister Eloïse had taken off her habit. She was wearing a thin slip. It was odd to see her hair. Even though it had been cut short, he could still see that it was soft and fair. It was like something one might discover in a milkweed pod. She shook her head, as though she had long luxurious locks.
“I’ll wash you,” she s
Pierrot stood up and Eloïse began to vigorously move a bar of soap this way and that all over his skinny body. Her slip got splashed with water as she scrubbed and rubbed him. He could make out the shapes of her large round breasts under it as it became soaked. He couldn’t say why but he felt frightened.
The bottom of the tub was slippery under his feet and felt as insubstantial as a thin layer of ice. As though he might crash through it any minute and descend a hundred feet down into the cold waters that lurked just beneath him.
“Do you want to feel something strange but also really nice?” Eloïse asked.
Pierrot shrugged. Like any child, he was always up for experiencing new and possibly delightful things. Now, however, he hesitated. Although something prevented him from saying yes, he did not say no. In the future, he would always remember that he didn’t tell her no.
Putting the soap and washcloth on the side of the bathtub, she straightened up on her knees. She took his penis in her hands and leaned forward and put her mouth around it. She had just the tip of it in her mouth and was licking and sucking on it. His penis grew so quickly. He thought it would keep growing and growing. As if it were some magical beanstalk. He felt terrible, but so good.
He had the sudden urge to grab her head and ram his penis to the back of her throat. He tried to stop himself but his hands and fingers reached against his will. They just wanted to touch her silky hair with their fingertips. The moment he felt the hair, he couldn’t help himself. He took two fistfuls of it and pushed his penis deep into her mouth and it exploded. The feeling was so enormous that he didn’t know whether it was a good feeling or a bad feeling. It was more frightening than anything else. He also knew that it was something that he could easily spend the rest of his life doing.
His penis throbbed in her mouth. A tremor went through his whole body, as though he were a flag moving in the wind. She gagged and coughed. She pushed him back gently. She spit into the bath.
“You can go back to bed,” she said.
Pierrot climbed out of the bathtub. He dried himself off hastily and put his nightgown back over his head. He hurried back to bed, shivering now and on tippytoe. Freezing rain began to fall outside and it sounded like there were a hundred children running behind him. He had a chill and had to get under the covers so that he could go back to sleep and wake up out of this strange dream. He didn’t even know what they had done exactly. He hadn’t known what being sucked off was before then. But he knew it had to do with sex.
He was too young to be married to the nun. She was married to God! What would God say if He knew about this? And God knew absolutely everything, so He certainly would know about this. How could he have been so stupid, to go and upset God? He had been considering himself lucky of late, as he was no longer beaten like the other children.
He wept into his pillow. He didn’t know why he was weeping. The next day he began crying when he looked at his porridge. His big teardrops made the porridge tasty.
Sister Eloïse continued to wake Pierrot up in the middle of the night. It happened too many times for Pierrot to count. It continued to happen as the winter melted away outside. Once, he was concentrating so hard while Eloïse sucked him that it caused small buds to burst through the branches of the trees, and then the leaves unfurled when he came. The next day, he pulled his black turtleneck on to go outside. He had trouble getting it over his head and he sat on his bed and imagined he looked like a pawn in a game of chess. When he went outside, the spring wind had come back. It was telling the children about how it had gone in a ship to Paris, how it had taken a train to Italy. The children danced with the barefooted, carefree wind.
Pierrot didn’t tell any of the other children what was happening. It was as if the things that occurred between him and Eloïse were just dreams. It was rare that any of the children spoke of their dreams. What use was it to bring up a two-headed horse that had poked its head into the dormitory? At night the monsters under the beds begged him to come make love to them.
Sister Eloïse made Pierrot swear that he wouldn’t confess to the priest about what they had done. She said that what they had done was a secret, but it wasn’t a sin. And that being able to keep a secret was a sign of being in love. But the feeling of wrongness was there. Was that feeling proof of something? That there is a distinction between good and evil? But Pierrot didn’t dare tell the priest. And so, on top of everything else, Pierrot felt that he was going to hell.
• • •
OTHERS NOTICED a certain change in Pierrot. Whereas before he had always seemed to be an almost unfailingly happy child, he now was taken by great bouts of sadness. He would tell the others to leave him be, that he was afraid of death and needed to weep. He seemed to perform sadness.
He curled up into a little ball as though he were literally a ball of despair. And he rocked back and forth, until finally he rolled right around into a somersault. He would always act shocked when he rolled over, then he would stick out his limbs in all directions, startled. All the other children laughed.
He ran, threw himself up against the wall, smacked against it like a bird against glass and then slid right down again.
He was standing outside in the garden. He had taken the Mother Superior’s umbrella and was holding it over his head. The children asked what he was doing and he said he was waiting for it to rain.
The children ran up to Pierrot when he got into one of these moods. For some reason, his sadness made their own go away. Their unhappiness was something that could be very easily mastered. It made their bad moods seem like something silly. Sadness was nothing to be afraid of. You could laugh at it. It was as absurd as a sneeze. It lasted as long as the pain from the sting of a bee.
Pierrot just stood there, all alone under his umbrella. A hen walked by with its chest way forward, like a toddler learning to walk. All the children got tired of watching Pierrot and went off to have fun. Except for Rose. She was left staring at him. She tiptoed over, bowed her head and went under the umbrella with him. She held his hand and Pierrot felt better almost immediately, as though Rose were a solution to all great philosophical conundrums.
“I’m a terrible person,” Pierrot said to her.
“I’m quite wicked too,” Rose said, and she smiled at him.
Pierrot knew that Rose was punished every time she spoke to him. All her words were contraband, treasured items from the black market. A sentence from her was like a pot of jam during wartime.
“Does it bother you?” Pierrot asked her.
“No. We won’t be here forever. When we go, we can do as we please.”
What an idea! There was the possibility for escape? Pierrot had never considered that. He had been a child for his whole life, so it seemed reasonable to expect that he would continue to be one for the rest of it. But there was the possibility of being free.
Rose pointed across the field in front of the orphanage. You could see the city being built every day. There was a different cityscape every time you looked. There would be new turrets and garrets and roofs and windows and crosses. They were approaching the orphanage, a fleet of warships getting closer and closer to the shore.
Three nuns came out with sticks above their heads to separate the boy and girl. Rose dropped Pierrot’s hand and ran across the yard.
• • •
LATER THAT NIGHT Pierrot whispered the words “I’m quite wicked too” under his breath. He liked that. He liked to have her words in his mouth. He wanted to open his mouth and hear her laugh. He had a strange longing that he couldn’t put into words or logically understand: he wanted to be one with her.
• • •
ROSE WAS LET OUT of the cupboard and went back to her dormitory later that night. She was glad it was nighttime because the bright lights would give her a headache. She supposed she was lucky. She had been inside for only five hours this time, not days.
Sister Eloïse had told her that she was a slut and that she had been trying to tempt him. Maybe the sister was right. She did have an urge to be near Pierrot. It always got her in trouble. She risked everything for him.
The other girls had already gone to sleep. There was a full moon outside and it lit up the dormitory with an eerie light. She sat on the edge of her mattress, unlaced her shoes and tucked them under her bed. She reached beneath her dress and peeled off her stockings. She stretched out her naked legs in front of her and admired them. The nail on her right big toe was completely black and about to fall off, because it had been stomped on by a cane. Her left knee was dark blue from landing on it when she was knocked over.
She pulled her white dress over her head. She hadn’t unbuttoned enough buttons and she got tangled up in it, looking like a butterfly trying to get out of a cocoon. She wrestled it off, folded it and put it in her trunk. There was a violet ring around one arm where she had been yanked.
She took off her onesie underwear. It was thin, like a bit of smoke escaping from a cigar. There were marks across her back where she had been beaten with the cane. And her side was still light brown from where a rib had been cracked in a previous beating. There were three drops of blood at the bottom of her onesie because she had gotten her period. They looked like rose petals.
A young girl’s body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.
Rose pulled her nightgown over her body and leaped into the bed. She wiggled under the blankets. She thought about Pierrot. She didn’t know what it meant to always want to be close to someone. She wanted to have the same experiences as him. She wanted to hit him and have a bruise appear on her body.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes