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The lonely hearts hotel, p.36
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.36

           Heather O'Neill

  • • •

  WHY HAD SHE DONE IT? She wasn’t sure. It was to end her body’s pining for Pierrot, perhaps. It was to remind her that it was only sex but that, as a woman, she could give herself away to love so easily.

  The sex had been good. There was nothing like having sex for the first time with a man who has been pining for you. He tore you open like a present and found wonderful things inside. Something wonderful inside that he had to stand back and admire.

  Meaningless sex meant you could make love, put your clothes back on, get up and walk down the street and leave it behind you on the bed. Like discarded nightclothes. There was something freeing about it, the feeling of having power over sex. Of having it and then not being a slave to its drives. Or having it and not feeling ashamed of it. Or having it because you find yourself between a rock and a hard place.

  • • •

  WALKING BACK TO the Honeymoon Hotel the next morning, Rose passed a hotel that had a paddy wagon parked out front. Police officers came down the stairs single file, each with a girl in handcuffs. They were being loaded into the police van like a group of stray dogs that had been rounded up by the dogcatcher. The last girl to go in had on an orange-flowered cotton dress and dark blue high heels with the felt scratched off the toes. Rose could see the bump under her dress from her round potbelly. She was probably four months pregnant.

  Rose thought about the time she had spent with McMahon. What had she been other than a prostitute? She had worn her white fur hat around to all sorts of fancy places and ordered great meals in restaurants, acting as if she were a member of an empowered class. While the only females in society who had any real bargaining power were the dopey little virgins with rags safety-pinned to their underwear, filling up with blood the color of fallen dead rose petals. The minute they gave themselves up, they really had no agency whatsoever.

  • • •

  ROSE COULDN’T put her finger on what had happened to her. But she had fallen from grace. That was the most surprising thing. Because she had not realized that she had been in a state of grace. She had at least figured that as an orphan she had been born with nothing to lose. When you fall from grace, time passes quicker. Time begins to make sense. It moves in a linear fashion. It begins to trickle through the hourglass. It no longer belongs to you.

  Her cheekbones seemed higher when she looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her teeth were yellowish. They were the color of a wilting white rose. She was wilting. She realized for the first time that she had a face that could age. Was actually aging. Now that Pierrot had left, she was no longer young.

  • • •

  SHE LEANED UP to the reflection in the mirror. Her lips were almost touching her reflection’s lips. Her reflection was seduced despite herself—despite the fact that if she were to enter into this relationship, she would be dominated and told what to do all the time. The reflection closed its eyes and puckered its lips, waiting for the kiss.

  Rose whispered, “Whore.”

  The reflection’s eyes shot open and she bolted back.

  • • •

  ON HER WAY HOME, she had noticed an abandoned skipping rope lying on the sidewalk like a chalk line around a dead body.



  Fabio knew what had happened the night before. Everyone knew what had happened the night before. News of such a coupling spread in the underworld quickly. Fabio assumed that Rose would want to postpone leaving again. On some level, she had bought herself some time.

  He went down to the lobby to talk to the clowns, who were standing around there, to tell them that they might not be going anywhere that day. They had given up their hotel rooms and packed their bags. Their trunks were piled in the lobby all in a row. A clown sat on top of one of the stacks of suitcases, smoking a cigarette.

  As Fabio explained the situation to said clown, the clown squinted and pointed behind Fabio. Fabio turned his head to see.

  There was Rose. She was coming down the stairs in a black dress and a coat, perfectly composed.

  She had done something with her rage and her anger. She knew that exhibiting it was a sign of weakness. She knew that she didn’t have to show it anymore. She didn’t have to engage in ridiculous, over-the-top displays of rage. It was already obvious how angry she was. Her rage permeated her entire body. There was a feeling that she was dangerous. You felt it intuitively. Even people who had just walked into the hotel that moment averted their eyes and moved out of her way. The way that every creature in the jungle gets quiet when a jaguar is passing.

  People would no longer address her in a familiar way. She had closed the door on her private life. Whereas before it was something she had paraded onstage for everyone to mine, now she would have people enact her rage for her.

  A bellhop followed behind her. He was carrying all her extra baggage, as she had purchased so many clothes while she was in New York.

  • • •

  THE GANGSTERS CLIMBED onto the train with all the dancers. They mussed up their hair and fidgeted with their ties and dabbed a little bit of alcohol behind their ears so they could more properly pass themselves off as traveling clowns.

  Rose oversaw each member of her entourage as they stepped onto the train. She saw a black car pull up, the back door open and Jimmy Bonaventura step out. He approached with another man beside him. He looked up and down at the train with the mixture of incredulity and amusement that he maintained for all things Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza related. He walked over to Rose and stood on the steps opposite her compartment.

  “This is Tiny,” Jimmy said. “He’s going with you.”

  Rose looked at Tiny. He looked like a gangster, not a bohemian, like the rest of the men traveling with her. She took hold of the front pocket on his jacket and in a swift motion tore it off. Then she mussed up his hair.

  “Here,” she said.

  She handed him a book of poems by Baudelaire for him to peruse on the train. He needed some practice in introspection in order to pass as a tormented clown.

  Tiny opened the book at random and read out a line. “An artist is an artist only because of his exquisite sense of beauty, a sense which shows him intoxicating pleasures, but which at the same time implies and contains an equally exquisite sense of all deformities and all disproportion.”

  His delivery was awkward and the words came out sounding stilted and rough, like those of a tough guy.

  “Very nice,” Jimmy said.

  After Tiny stepped onto the train, Jimmy and Rose both laughed. And in that moment Jimmy was glad that Rose was leaving town. His feelings for her frightened him. If she stayed in New York any longer, he would end up wanting to see her every day. She would end up owning him. Jimmy saw what Rose had done to Tiny. She had turned him into a clown.

  They stared at each other and then blinked. For a second each imagined the other completely naked. And then they blinked again and they were both fully dressed. And it was all over.

  A gray poodle that had a bandage on its head where it had lost its ear walked up to the train.

  “Hello there, Treacherous Storm Cloud,” Rose said.

  When Rose had mustered up the courage to look into the dog-fighting ring, to her absolute shock, she saw that it was the boxer that lay on the ground. Sitting woeful in the corner was the poodle, very much alive. The poodle now looked up at Rose hopefully, as though making sure she hadn’t changed her mind about it coming.

  “We’ll have to change your name to Trix.”

  Rose nodded to the dog and it jumped on board, wagging its tail joyfully.



  McMahon had been drinking since five o’clock that afternoon. The last shot of whiskey seemed to swim around his belly like an eel. The air was heavy, and time slowed down. He couldn’t hear what anyone was saying to him. For a mo
ment he thought he might faint. He was waiting to receive word that Rose had been shot, and it was making him nervous. He decided that he’d better go home and wait for the news. Who knew how he would react, and he didn’t like other men seeing his emotions.

  He stepped out onto the street and waved to his driver.

  As the car headed toward Westmount, the downtown lights receded behind him. It was as though he were departing from the Milky Way. He stepped out of the car and told the driver he could go home for the night. He stood outside his house for a moment, watching the few snowflakes come down, like bits of confetti falling to a ballroom floor.

  He knew the big house would be empty. His children had gone to live with his wife’s parents. The servants would have gone to their own homes. He no longer liked having people living full-time in the house.

  • • •

  ROSE’S TRAIN came to a rest in Old Montreal. The trip back had been so much longer than the way there. She had stayed alone in her compartment, looking out the window. She felt lost and terrified leaving Pierrot behind in New York City. Every mile seemed so long.

  When the troupe stepped off the train, the clowns and chorus girls fastened the top buttons of their coats and tightened their scarves. The air was so much colder here. You always forgot how cold Montreal was until the minute you arrived. Everyone kept yelling how tiny the city looked to them after coming back from New York. It looked like a row of dollhouses!

  She walked home to the Valentine Hotel, with the gray dog hopping behind her. The street was more beautiful than she remembered it. She noticed all the details on the outside of the hotel with such affection. It was hers.

  • • •

  WHEN MCMAHON OPENED THE DOOR to his house, he was taken aback by its eeriness. The house was so dark and quiet that he felt as if he were in his coffin. The darkness in the houses in Westmount was lush, like velvet. It never got this dark in houses downtown. Lights from the streets always got in. There was always the noise from the cars and the people passing by. The streetlights made it so that you could always see the naked body of the person whom you were sleeping with. Nobody could sneak up to you in the dark.

  • • •

  WHEN SHE STEPPED INTO the lobby of the Valentine Hotel, the old woman who worked behind the desk greeted her but had no idea that Rose now owned the place. She put her suitcase down next to her. The carpet didn’t sink underfoot the way it did at the Romeo Hotel. It had been worn down and was as hard as the floor, the patterns hidden under dirt. She stood taking in the room.

  Everything in it belonged to her. It felt like she was home in a new kind of way. She felt proud of it. The wallpaper was telling her an old children’s story. There was an iron faun in the grate of the fireplace.

  She noticed that the golden velour couch had springs coming out of it. She used to be able to ignore the broken things before. But now they were her problem. She liked that. She felt responsible for them. She knew exactly what this hotel could look like. There was a mural on the ceiling at the entrance. It was all grimy and dark. But if someone got up on a ladder with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, the stars and planets would begin appearing and shining once again.

  • • •

  MCMAHON OPENED THE CLOSET in the hallway to hang up his coat. He was startled and leaped back. There at the bottom of the closet was Rose, her hands over her eyes as she counted to ten, playing hide-and-seek with the children. But then he realized, of course, that it was just a folded blanket that had fallen from the shelf.

  He walked to the staircase that led to the bedrooms. There was Rose again. She was wearing a three-cornered hat and a tuxedo jacket, a thin mustache drawn on her face. She was on her way to the masquerade with the children, no doubt. He hurried up the stairs, knowing it was too good to be true, then realized it was a coatrack.

  He looked up the flight of stairs to the third floor. There was a tiny plume of cigarette smoke escaping from the keyhole of the nursery.

  • • •

  AS ROSE TURNED UP the stairwell she stopped abruptly. There was McMahon at the top of the stairs, just around the bend. He’d come to kill her. He’d come to put her in her place. She almost dropped her suitcase, but then she realized it wasn’t McMahon at all. It was the curtain on the hallway window that had been puffed open by a breeze. She walked to the second floor. The lightbulb had burned out at the end of the corridor that led to her room. There was a black shadow lingering by the door.

  It occurred to her that Jimmy might have betrayed her. How did she know that this was hers? Perhaps he had told McMahon her plan. Perhaps he had allowed McMahon to kill her. McMahon was still alive. Maybe Tiny had been put on the train to kill her. She hadn’t seen where he went after they arrived in Montreal.

  As she approached the door her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she could see that there was nothing at all in the darkness. She stood outside the door of her room. She heard something inside fall to the floor.

  • • •

  MCMAHON OPENED THE DOOR of the nursery very slowly and carefully. He thought he would have a vision of her in there. He was sure he would see her. She would be eighteen again. She would have no one else but him. She would be a virgin. With an apple balanced on her head. Waiting for him. Wanting him again.

  “Rose,” he whispered.

  The pug, looking like a butted-out cigar, tiptoed uneasily around the house.

  • • •

  SHE OPENED THE DOOR to her room. She thought he would be there, sitting on a chair, waiting for her.

  “Mac?” she whispered.

  The poodle carefully looked into the room, as though it had come home late and was trying not to disturb anyone.

  • • •

  THERE WAS THE SOUND of a gunshot.

  • • •

  ON OPPOSITE ENDS OF THE CITY, McMahon and Rose clutched at their hearts. Each had arranged to have the other killed. Who had actually shot whom? Neither of them seemed to know. An act like that takes down both the victim and the aggressor. They both closed their eyes.

  • • •

  ROSE OPENED HER EYES. She felt sick to her stomach. She could have sworn at just that moment that a bullet had entered her. She looked down, searching her body for the bullet wound.

  She felt nothing. She wanted to feel the bullet hole. She needed to feel the bullet hole. She wanted to ascertain the gravity and reality of what she had just done. She wanted the bullet to kill her too. But she knew that it hadn’t. It would take a very long time for her to understand how she had done something evil like that.

  • • •

  MCMAHON OPENED HIS EYES for the last time. As he lay on the floor, the last thought he had was, Thank God. Thank God I meant something to that lovely girl. And he looked up at the heavens and hoped, probably without any reason, that he would be going up there. And then he saw nothing ever again.

  • • •

  THE POODLE BARKED at the rat on the shelf that had knocked over the vase. The rodent hurried out through the crack it had come out of.

  Rose closed the door behind her. How had she abandoned all the men in her life? She felt the grandeur of being responsible for oneself. She was independent, and her actions had enormous consequences. What she did mattered. She had to get on with her path in life.

  The pattern of red flowers on the carpet spread out around her like a pool of blood.



  Rose had a pink suitcase filled with money delivered to Pierrot at the Forget-Me-Not Hotel a few months later. She felt that he had earned it, after all. Rose treated everything in life as if it were a business now. She knew that Pierrot had helped her inestimably in her theatrical revue, so he was due his share of the profits.

  Pierrot put the suitcase on the bed. The bedspread had a pattern of orange and brown autumn leaves and tiny red
berries. He was reminded of a storybook for children, Babes in the Wood, in which two children were abandoned in the middle of a forest. He unlatched the suitcase and stared at the money. He had never been around this sort of money. He had hardly been around money at all, since it was Rose, and before that Poppy and before that Irving, who handled all the finances. He had preferred it that way. He sat on the edge of the mattress, the money next to him, and imagined the two of them abandoned together in the middle of the forest. It seemed to be the fate for orphans in fairy tales. He wanted to lie back on the quilt and imagine the sound of crickets and birds chirping.

  But the money said, “Spend me, spend me, spend me.” That’s what money wanted. It wanted to be spent. And it really wanted to be spent on luxury items. Its greatest thrill was just to be gambled away. It wanted to change hands. It wanted to find itself at the racetrack, it wanted to be thrown into the center of the table at a casino. Money is a masochist.

  He wondered whether Rose wanted to kill him by sending him all that money. But that would be assuming that she cared. Underneath all the money was their wedding photo.

  • • •

  PIERROT HOLED UP in his tiny hotel room. The walls were a dingy off-white. He hung the wedding photo of himself and Rose from a nail in the wall to have something to look at while he lay in bed. He had no intention of even trying to fight the addiction now. He would wake up in the morning and shoot up. Occasionally he wandered outside, looking for some sort of human intimacy. Women wouldn’t come close to him. Sometimes when a woman walked by him, he would reach out his arms to her. She would shrink from him and hurry away. It wasn’t that he actually wanted to touch them. It was that he missed the feeling of reaching his arms out toward someone. He missed that tenderness.

  He lived in the hotel for almost a year. When he got to the end of the money, he was not at all surprised. In fact, he was surprised that it had lasted that long and that he was still alive.

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