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The lonely hearts hotel, p.5
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.5

           Heather O'Neill

  One afternoon in the common room, Rose and Pierrot placed their chairs next to each other’s. They shook up and down as though they were trembling on some train tracks. It was such a simple pantomime and yet it was so delightful that all the children found themselves laughing and laughing. They were surprised that something so simple could be so humorous. They kept rumbling on their little train seats for about half an hour.

  Rose imagined that she saw, out the window of the train, places she had seen in books. She imagined that she was in Paris. She had seen a drawing of it in a children’s book. The hero of the book, a goose that carried a suitcase in his hand, declared that it was the most beautiful city in the world. She passed crowds of people, all wearing berets and striped shirts, with baguettes under their arms and cigarettes between their lips.

  Pierrot wasn’t even imagining what was going on outside the train. He was imagining the suitcases all stacked on top of their heads and the stewards coming and going with little trays of sandwiches. He was imagining that he and Rose were rich and they were able to afford the sandwiches.

  Finally a nun came in and swore she would beat the two of them if they didn’t knock it off. What would she have to do in life to be on one of those trains and to see those amazing things? Rose wondered as she marched off to bed.

  • • •

  DURING THIS TIME, Pierrot began to feel more conflicted than ever about Sister Eloïse. What perhaps disturbed Pierrot the most was that he couldn’t stop thinking about their sexual acts. He would relive what they had done together the night before. The image in his head was bestowed with such a mixture of shame and pleasure that it made his penis grow hard. He began to think about dirty things all the time. He was horrified by his thoughts. They were completely mad. They were like the people at the foot of Mount Sinai engaged in an orgy.

  He imagined all the girls lined up on their knees as though they were waiting for Communion, waiting to give him blow jobs. He was somehow absolutely horrified by the knowledge that he wanted to fuck all the girls at the orphanage. He thought that Sister Eloïse must have seen it in him and that was why she had brought him to the bathtub.

  He tried not to think dirty thoughts about Rose. Because he spent so much time with her, he thought she would find out. But he thought about her more and more. Rose hardly had to do anything in the fantasy to bring him to a climax. He imagined her chewing on a lock of her hair. He pictured her dropping a book and then bending over to pick it up. And once he had a fantasy where she took the tip of her finger and spelled out the word prick in the air.

  Perhaps sensing that Rose was beginning to dominate his inner life, Eloïse wanted more and more from Pierrot. She didn’t want to be a virgin anymore. She wanted to have sex with Pierrot. Then they would be husband and wife, in her mind. Then they would have something that he and Rose did not have. Then she would be his first love and he could never abandon her. Everything would be as it should in the universe. The problem was not that Eloïse did not have a sense of right and wrong—she most certainly did. Perhaps the most dangerous people in the world are the ones who believe in right and wrong but what they ascribe to as “right” and “wrong” is completely insane. They are bad with the conviction that they are good. That idea is the impetus behind evil.

  So one night Eloïse brought Pierrot into a small coatroom beside the chapel. There was a pile of hymnals on top of a radiator that was covered in a pattern of roses. It was where plumbers and doctors hung their coats when they visited. There was an old couch for them to sit on and tie up their boots. Although it had been destroyed by a cat, you could still see the pattern of a medieval princess frowning and pointing at a dragon like it was a naughty dog. Eloïse lay down on the couch and told Pierrot to go inside her. Pierrot at first couldn’t figure out how to do it. They fumbled with his penis together. Once he was inside her, a strange feeling of guilt seized hold of him. The sordid reality of what was happening struck him. Eloïse’s big tits had rolled off to either side of her body. He could see the blue veins in them, as though she were made of marble. Her blond pubic hair seemed to cover half her torso. He wanted to get out of her but couldn’t figure out how other than to come. He was afraid that he would lose his erection.

  Pierrot closed his eyes and imagined Rose. And he only pictured her lying beneath him as he held her nipple gently between his teeth. He ejaculated like a white wild mustang bursting forth from its enclosure. He lay there on the couch, sweaty and stinky and depleted, but he felt like the first time had been with Rose. And he would be faithful to her from now on. Pierrot decided right then and there that he would rather die than touch Sister Eloïse again.

  “I think we should wait until we are married to do all this again,” Pierrot said. “It’s disrespectful to you. I want to be with you once everyone else and especially God can witness it.”

  This is what Pierrot told Sister Eloïse in order to escape her embraces. Sister Eloïse had never felt so happy.



  One afternoon when Rose and Pierrot were performing at a patron’s house, a huge snowfall began to tumble down from the sky. The snowflakes fell in big clumps, as though they were children with their arms wrapped around one another and toppling downhill. As Rose and Pierrot performed their little routine, unbeknownst to them, the city was being covered with snow. As soon as they were done with their show someone parted the curtains and noticed that all the trees had turned white.

  Pierrot and Rose were underdressed, both having arrived in only their black threadbare coats. And although they both had thin scarves tied in knots around their necks, neither of them had a hat on their dear head. When the lady of the house saw them ready to leave in those outfits, she rummaged through her things to find them some headwear she didn’t want. She found Rose a white fur hat. It was too large and extravagant for a girl so young, but it would certainly keep her warm. She gave Pierrot a man-size overcoat and a pair of galoshes that were two sizes too big.

  She gave them a fruitcake to take back to the orphanage and a suitcase filled with old teddy bears. And off they marched down the street like an old couple who had been turned into children by a witch’s magic spell. The snowflakes settled on their hats and shoulders as they headed home.

  “She was really nice, wasn’t she?” said Pierrot as they walked down the street. “Or was she too nice?”

  “I think she’s sad because she never fell in love. Except she needn’t worry, because love doesn’t exist.”

  “How do you know that?”

  Rose wiped a large snowflake from her eyelash and raised her head to try to catch one with her tongue. Pierrot put his hands out to catch some.

  “I read it in a Russian novel,” she said, looking at Pierrot again. “The Russians have figured everything out because their winters are so long. It makes them very thoughtful.”

  “How do you know all these wonderful things?” Pierrot asked.

  One of the things that Rose really enjoyed about Pierrot was how quick he was at understanding what she said. She couldn’t count on her hand the times when she had told an especially clever thought to one of the nuns at the orphanage and their response was to consider having her lobotomized.

  They passed a billboard with a group of posters plastered to it, advertising a show that was going to be performed downtown in the near future.

  There were the Parisian cancan dancers. There was a group of tap dancers from Poland. There were aerialists from Bulgaria. There was a contortionist who claimed she had mailed herself in a box from Germany. There was the White Bat Orchestra from Russia. There was a group of Ukrainians who shot themselves out of cannons. There was a Russian flea circus. A man with a big mustache and a fur hat yelled at the wee little fleas. He brought them across the sea in a suitcase with a fancy lining. They each got their very own matchbox to sleep in. Pierrot and Rose agreed that if they had any mon
ey, this was the show they would go to.

  “I think I would like to make a show of my own,” Rose said. “I am going to find all the clowns in the world and take them out of whatever circus they are in and make them perform in mine. I am going to find really, really sad ones too. I need some who can ride on bicycles.”

  “Oh yes. You should have a clown who always falls off buildings and then cries.”

  On the trolley, Rose took a piece of paper out of her pocket and a stub of a pencil. She put the paper on the seat between her and Pierrot. She began to write down everything she had just told Pierrot.

  “We can travel from town to town and be world renowned. There will be stories about us in the newspaper.”

  Pierrot looked impressed. As he always lived entirely in the moment, it never occurred to him to look into the future. But Rose was always looking so far ahead.

  “Let’s leave our act to the very end,” Rose declared. “Let’s make a giant moon, and we’ll dance underneath it together.”

  “What if the moon falls on our heads and kills us?”

  “We’ll hang it from really strong ropes.”

  “What will the revue be called?”

  Rose looked at him intently for a brief moment. And then she looked back down at the paper and scribbled on it. She held it up afterward, and at the top of the page, in bold letters, was written: The Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza.

  “What do you think?”

  “Lots of clowns, right?”

  “All the clowns we can find.”

  They knew they worked well together. The melted snow dripped down from Rose’s hat and fell on her nose, warm like holy water.

  “If you have a good show, then you get to travel the whole world. Can you imagine that?” Rose said. “Packing all our gear into trains and boats and heading out to the world’s most wonderful places.”

  “I never did. That’s a marvelous thought.”

  Pierrot sat there for a moment, letting his head grow and expand so he could fill it with all this new information. He considered her dreams to be downright miraculous.

  “It’ll be a lot of work, though,” Pierrot said. “I personally consider myself a very lazy person.”

  “Well, my darling, you can be lazy when you’re lying in your coffin.”

  The trolley came to their stop and they descended the steps onto the sidewalk and back onto the road. The snow fell all around them. They began to cross the field to the orphanage. The top layer of snow had hardened and now cracked under their feet like the surface of crème brûlée, something they’d never had the privilege of tasting.

  “I like it when you call me darling,” Pierrot said.

  “You do?”

  “Yes. It’s surprising just how much I like it.”

  “Why don’t you try saying something like that back to me?”

  “Okay . . . well . . . how are you today . . . sweetheart?”

  They both started to giggle.

  “Well, and so, how did that make you feel?”

  “Really, really good.”







  They paused, just staring at each other. The snowflakes fell down, landing on their noses, landing on their lips, melting and turning them redder.



  And their lips shone and grew darker and became more and more enticing to each other. This was how they made a marriage vow at thirteen years old.

  • • •

  THEY CONTINUED TO TOUR AROUND the city into the spring. Colors began appearing everywhere on what had previously been a white page. The blossoms were like underwear blown off the laundry lines. The orchids hung over the cast-iron gates like girls in just their petticoats yelling at the postman for a letter. And they continued to tour into the fall, when all the leaves were like colorful candy wrappers, leftover from the very sweet days of summer.

  Rose and Pierrot performed in all the big houses in Montreal. They were perfectly bilingual so they were able to perform in both French and English households. The city was the most magnificent in the world. It wanted to tell the two orphans its stories. What city doesn’t like to brag about itself? The gargoyle fauns leaned off the front of the buildings, whispering about their sex lives. The fat catfish in the greenhouse swore they had stock market tips. The horses on the carousel reared their heads, ready for a battle against the mermaid statues in the pond. An electric train rode around and around a tiny mountain in the toy-shop window, while its Lilliputian passengers dreamed in tiny berths. Rose and Pierrot’s feelings for each other during this time grew deeper and deeper.

  Two years passed in this way. In 1929 they were both fifteen years old, and so what happened next was probably inevitable.

  When they were inside the orphanage, they were often separated, as all the girls and boys were. Rose was coming out of Confession when she saw Pierrot. He was sitting on a bench by the wall outside the visitors’ coatroom, with a big, stupid smile on his face.

  “What are you thinking about?” Rose asked him.

  “I don’t want to tell you because I think I might upset you and make you really rather angry.”

  “Oh, just tell me what you were thinking about and stop playing this ridiculous game.”

  “Can I tell it to you in your ear? I don’t want anybody who is passing by to hear what I am saying.”

  “Nobody can hear us.”

  “I would be mortified if anyone else knew what I was thinking.”

  Rose turned her head forward so he could get up close. She could feel his lips against her ear. His breath entered into her ear before his words did. Her impulse was to both pull away to stop this unpleasant thing from happening and to pull his head closer to her. The duality of this sensation made it so intense.

  “I want to take off your stockings, and I want to look at each and every one of your toes. I want to put each of your toes in my mouth.”

  The words were just shocking. The reason they were shocking was because she did not quite believe them. She had heard rumors of such words, naturally. But she hadn’t quite accepted them as being absolutely true. It was as though he were holding up a jar with a mermaid in it. Or walking down the street holding a unicorn attached to a leash.

  She opened her mouth to respond, but she found that her mouth was dry and her throat seemed to be empty, with no words at all. It was like opening an icebox and expecting to find bottles of milk but finding nothing.

  “And then I want you to touch my penis. Just take it in your fist and squeeze it really hard.”

  She looked down and she could see his penis pushing up his pants.

  “It grows and gets hard anytime I think about doing these types of things to you.”

  • • •

  SISTER ELOÏSE NOTICED that they were whispering. She hurried into the chapel and went into the coatroom through its back door. She sat on the couch in the room and listened through the transom to what Pierrot and Rose were saying on the other side of the wall. There was an opening of some sort in every wall for this purpose: no one could have any privacy.

  Pierrot wasn’t actually whispering when he put his mouth up to Rose’s ear. All he had done was lower the register of his voice to make it huskier. It was almost like his words had taken their clothes off. And so Sister Eloïse heard each of them.

  She was so angry. It was so vulgar. He didn’t want to have anything to do with her physically yet pretended that he was a pure child wanting an innocent and holy union. And now here was Pierrot with the vocabulary of the Marquis de Sade, as sophisticated and well versed as Casanova.

  She was filled with a terrible and uncontrollable rage. But, as a
lways, her rage was not directed toward Pierrot. She was filled with loathing toward Rose, who was really only the passive listener. Rose hadn’t even been able to respond. It was as if Rose were being offered a box of chocolate-covered cherries to eat. It was as if Rose were going to receive everything Sister Eloïse had ever talked herself out of wanting.

  • • •

  ON THE OTHER SIDE of the wall Rose stood up quickly, frightened by Pierrot’s words. Or it wasn’t exactly that she was afraid of them, but they made her feel like doing odd things. It was as though her body had a mind of its own. She wanted to strip naked. She wanted him to call her Mrs. Pierrot.

  Rose needed to reflect upon these strange knee-jerk reactions before acting on them. The new sensations and desires she was feeling were delightful and confusing all at once. So she jumped up and darted off. She had just entered the dormitory and was leaning against the wall when Sister Eloïse came for her.

  • • •

  SISTER ELOÏSE hated Rose’s face too. It was so calm and blank, open to everything. It was a face that all sorts of people fell madly in love with. She always wanted to take that face like it was a piece of wet clay and mold it into a different expression, one that was bitter and filled with rage and discontent. But no matter what she did to Rose, Rose always looked up at her afterward with that same unscathed face.

  Eloïse stopped herself from doing anything to Rose at that moment. She thought she would kill the girl if she didn’t walk away. She hurried off down the stairs.

  Rose looked after Eloïse. She had never understood the Sister.

  • • •

  ROSE WAS MOPPING THE FLOOR in the vestibule by the front entrance of the orphanage. The tiles at the bottom of the flight of stairs were brown and white. There was a yellow stained-glass window with an image of a lamb that the light shone through. It shone on Rose as she assiduously mopped up the area, for it was where the most footprints seemed to gather, like they were fish in a net.

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