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The lonely hearts hotel, p.9
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       The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.9

           Heather O'Neill

  Pierrot would read to Irving in the evening. Irving wanted the classics he had read as a boy recited back to him. Pierrot was such a good reader. Whatever new words he saw on the page one day would the very next day become second nature to him. They would be natural on his tongue. Because he could remember words intuitively without understanding them. He would glance over the newspaper and now all the words were in his pocket. His verbal dexterity increased over the years.

  “Do you ever wonder about all the stars in the sky? Science is always saying the most peculiar things about the heavens. But I don’t think they are at all true. I think if you got yourself a tall enough ladder, you could get up to those stars and then just pluck them down and put them in buckets. And all you would need is just one single star to stick inside a stove, and it would heat up your whole house for the winter. All you need is two brave men. One man brave enough to build the ladder that goes all the way up to the heavens. And another man brave enough to climb it.”

  “Well said, my wonderful child. Well said.”

  Is there any difference between acting like a really intelligent person and being a really intelligent person? Who in the world, just by looking at him, would know that he had been raped? The further away he got from those events, the harder they were for him to deal with. He realized how abhorrent and weird they were, and he had no idea how a person was supposed to behave after surviving such a thing. He had no other choice but to act as though it had never happened. And if no one could tell, perhaps it hadn’t ever happened? Pierrot hoped this were true.

  But deep down he knew, no matter how clever he seemed, that he was a creep.



  Some of the women in the neighborhood were quite satisfied with their roles as housewives. They would wave at Rose and the children. They would join garden clubs, drink iced tea and read books. Their hair would be mounted in an enormous bundle on their heads and sprayed until it stayed there. Mrs. McMahon could never bring herself to be one of those happy women. She seemed to be frustrated almost every day for the two years that Rose had lived there.

  • • •

  MR. MCMAHON’S WIFE WAS ALWAYS accusing her husband of cheating on her. She was miserable because of it. She took out her frustrations on everyone in the house. Her misery filled up all the rooms. If there were a teacup left on the table, it would be filled with unhappiness.

  She stormed around the living room, throwing things onto the floor and against the wall. Her face could display every kind of different expression imaginable. It ran the gamut. Each of her expressions was like an opera of sorts. She had been raised to know that women were supposed to look blank and that it was inappropriate for them to show emotions in public. That to openly have emotions would be like being a prostitute hanging out a window with her breasts exposed for all to see. But she didn’t care.

  She threw a vase at the wall and put a hole in it. Then she went over and tore the wallpaper off in great sheets.

  She held up a cushion as though she were considering devouring it or something. And when she seemed to realize that there was really no damage she could do with a pillow, that a pillow could never be a cannonball, she looked defeated by the awareness of her impotence.

  She sat down on the sofa, buried her face in the same pillow and wept. She sobbed—they were huge sobs that came from deep in her lungs, like someone bringing up a net of fish from the bottom of the sea. Her sobs were flung onto the deck, with all the contents of the deep flipping about, desperate and exposed.

  The family lived in terror of these rages. They made Mr. McMahon miserable. The children would sit quietly and look pale, incapable of doing anything until the woman was done with her fit. But Rose wasn’t a part of the family and so she felt herself to be free of their misery. She sat reading a novel.

  • • •

  SHE JUST WANTED HIM to admit that he was cheating. She needed some sort of absolute proof. He always denied it. She smelled it on his clothes. Rose stood next to her as she smelled all his clothes. And then the lady of the house collapsed to the ground.

  Rose took all the clothes and smelled them herself. They were wonderful, those smells that had upset McMahon’s wife so much. They were the smells of beautiful women on the other side of town. That was the side of town away from all this domestic life. Where all the theaters were. All the cabarets. All the traveling performers.

  Rose inhaled deeply. She imagined she was on a train with a brass band arriving from New York City. One of the singers, a beautiful black woman, laughed so hard she spilled her drink on her fur collar. Rose could smell the gin.

  She smelled cigars. That was one of her favorite smells. Maybe because it was a generous one. She imagined all these businessmen sitting around a table, smoking cigars and talking about work and making money.

  She would find herself fantasizing about being at that table. Which was a peculiar fantasy for a young girl to have.

  Rose thought McMahon’s wife was a psychic genius. She was able to tell what he had been up to on any given night. You could tell by his expression that she was right. She had no business being a housewife, really. She probably had a mind built for being the world’s leading criminal investigator. She could be out in the world tracking down society’s most heinous criminals or cracking enemy codes. Instead she was stuck in the house, focusing all her intellectual acumen and perspicuity on piecing together exactly what her husband had been up to that evening.

  • • •

  TO COMPENSATE HERSELF for the horrific treatment she had to endure at the hands of her husband, she bought herself the most expensive outfits. She was always shopping to remind herself that she had acquired some sort of power by being married to a rich man. All the fantastic couches covered in flowers. The paintings on the walls, the display cases filled with delicate china tea sets, the rich carpets that swallowed sound like quicksand, the closet filled with clothes—they were all beautiful evidence of her betrayal.

  And she would boss around the staff to feel as if she had servants. So that she wouldn’t have to feel like a servant herself.

  • • •

  ALTHOUGH ROSE WAS NOW SEVENTEEN, Mrs. McMahon wasn’t afraid of the girl stealing his affections. McMahon, she knew, wasn’t attracted to girls without large breasts. He had never been attracted to odd birds like Rose. She couldn’t understand how any man would be attracted to Rose. She didn’t act delicate or attractive. Rose kind of disgusted her. She had no feminine qualities, and yet the child went around acting as though she were a girl.

  • • •

  MRS. MCMAHON HAD ROSE COME and scrub a burgundy stain on the wallpaper, caused by having thrown a wineglass at it. Mrs. McMahon was sitting in an armchair covered in patterns of ships and anchors and mermaids as if she were in the fat arms of a tattooed sailor.

  “Does it bother you?”

  Rose just looked back at her, confused.

  “Being ugly, I mean.”

  “No, not at all.”

  “I mean, maybe you don’t realize you are ugly. Because if you look in a mirror you can’t really see yourself. It’s what men think about you physically that counts.”

  “I know, ma’am. But I’ve come to terms with it.”

  “I can never decide whether or not you talk too much.”

  “Oh, it depends on the forecast. My conversation is probably something like the rain. On some days it pours, and then on other days there’s just a clear sky—not a word in sight.”

  “I’m surprised they let you talk like that at the orphanage.”

  “I was sometimes punished for it.”

  “Sometimes I wonder if you’re safe around the children.”

  “That’s up for you to decide, ma’am.”

  Mrs. McMahon sighed, for a moment relenting. Rose kept knocking back the insults as though she were pla
ying tennis.

  “Oh, hush. You know those two monsters will go into hysterics if I send you away. You’ve cast a spell on the two of them. Tell me, have you ever known a woman cursed with two such contrary brats? They’re spoiled rotten. There’s no redemption for either of them. It’s not as though I don’t love them, but I just don’t have a lot of hope for them. It’s because their father has made me so miserable. That’s why they are the way they are.”

  She reached over and grasped Rose’s wrist, her grip like a handcuff. It was as if she had no intention of letting go until Rose agreed with her.

  “I should have married somebody else. I’m in the wrong marriage. I have the wrong children.”

  Instinctively Rose stepped back from Mrs. McMahon, as if her employer were a deep hole she might fall into. She was alarmed and confused by the older woman’s grief. She could sense the enormity of what had been taken away from her but could barely comprehend it.



  After three years of sending unanswered letters, at eighteen years of age, Pierrot could only conclude that Rose was eternally annoyed with him. He wished she would just write one letter back that confirmed his suspicions. But it seemed absurd to continue to write to her, and so in that third year he stopped. The lack of closure bothered him a little bit more every day, until it somehow became a part of the fabric of his being.

  He felt like something was missing from his life, almost as if something was supposed to happen by the end of each day but never came about. It was like reading a book and finding out at the end that the last two pages had been torn out. He often checked his pockets, not knowing what it was that he felt he had misplaced.

  He could never really get to know anybody in the way he had known Rose. He wanted to visit her, but he was afraid of seeing Sister Eloïse. He thought that somehow he would be a little boy again and that she would be able to hurt him. Finally he decided he would take matters into his own hands and go visit Rose. He would simply tell Sister Eloïse to get out of his way. He was pretending to be a rich man now, and he wanted to tell Rose that he loved her and that he was not the degenerate she believed him to be.

  He drove the car quickly down to the orphanage. He spun the steering wheel as though it were a lock whose combination he was solving. He honked his horn the whole way. He honked it in part so that everyone would stand back and he would get there faster. But he also honked it out of joy. He imagined Rose hearing the honking and looking up from scrubbing the floors, knowing it was him. He was like a flock of geese announcing their return from the south, and that all the false rulers should get right the fuck out of their thrones. The pigeons sitting on top of statues should move over.

  Sister Eloïse, having heard the ruckus of his car, came to the orphanage gates to investigate. She was surprised to see Pierrot, and to see the outfit he was wearing. Perhaps if he had been wearing anything else, she wouldn’t have been so cruel to him. But although she had braced herself for his presence one day, she wasn’t quite ready for the figure he cut as he stepped out of the car. If anyone were to see him, they would never have known that he was an orphan. He wore a tailored suit and polished shoes. He had a wonderful haircut. He reached into the backseat and pulled out a bouquet of flowers wrapped in brown paper. The flowers looked all tousled, like children who had been awakened by a fire alarm in the middle of the night.

  His manner too made him seem rich. He was light on his feet, the way rich young men without a care in the world are.

  For a second Sister Eloïse thought the flowers were for her. Then she realized she had been an utter fool. As Pierrot leaned against the gate, the bouquet was tilted toward her; there were roses inside, and she knew who they were for. She felt so deeply humiliated by her assumption that her face went red. How many times would she be surprised that he had forgotten his promise to love her?

  Pierrot hoped Sister Eloïse would just pretend that what had happened between them hadn’t occurred at all. It was criminal, after all. He began by playing that game, hoping she would go along with it.

  “I’d like to see Rose, please.”

  “She isn’t here anymore. She hasn’t been here for years.”

  “Ahhhh! Of course she left years ago! Because I sent her a lot of letters and not one of them was answered, which led me to believe she was not receiving them. Because, as I’m sure you will concede, Rose always had a particular fondness for me. And an affection like that doesn’t dissipate every day.”

  “You’d be surprised. Romantic love is a mirage. It was created by the devil—and like most of his creations, it is very short-lived.”

  “I understand. You know I’m always grateful when you share your life philosophy with me. And it is an interesting theory. Nonetheless, I would like to have Rose’s address. We’re both eighteen years old, and there’s no harm in giving me her address. Even if she doesn’t want to see me again, at least she can tell me that, and I’ll be fine with it. It’s just that we never got to say good-bye to one another. It gives me a feeling of loose ends.”

  “Do you think I would give you her address so you can disturb her? You idiot. Don’t you realize how many years it’s been? She’s married. She has three sons. I don’t know very much about her husband, but I understand that he’s very brutal.”

  “I never came to visit her because I was so frightened that she was angry with me.”

  “How stupid. How weak. You should have been much more courageous, don’t you think?”


  “Why would she like you? You’re a pervert. You seduced me. You ruined my life. You were the one who started all that filth between us. You’re going to hell. I’ll never forgive you. I told her about us.”

  “You did? Why? You said we were never going to tell anyone. What did she say?”

  “She wept like a baby and then said she never wanted to see your stinking face again. She was very thankful not to have been led into temptation.”

  And then Sister Eloïse walked away, satisfied that she had thrown water on that squalid little passion once and for all. Pierrot hurled the flowers on the ground. He yelled out once, facing the city, his back to the orphanage. He stood there for a moment, waiting to see whether his shout would have any effect at all, whether it would cause the city to topple down. It did not. He got in his car and quietly drove off, convinced only of his own cowardice.

  • • •

  IT WAS TRUE what Sister Eloïse had said. He was a pervert. He was grotesque. He was only good for dirty thoughts. He hated himself.

  As he drove home, he spotted a group of girls, each wearing a beige beret, which made them look like a cluster of mushrooms. He stopped in front of them and invited them to climb into the car with him. He thought that he might make love to every single one of them. They all giggled and yakked at the top of their lungs. They were having a swell and dangerous time, until they heard a honking behind them.

  A police officer pulled them over. He couldn’t quite believe there were so many girls in the car. He had no idea how they could have fit in there.

  The police officer watched the girls as they scrambled out. They all seemed to be in a state of disarray. As though they had been crammed in at funny angles. As if they were clothes that had been packed in a trunk and now they were straightening themselves back out. The officer couldn’t make out their entire bodies. It was like they were a box of doll parts that had gotten all mixed up. There was a shoe with a buckle. There was a bum in pink underwear, flashed for a brief second. There was a knee like a peeled apple waiting to be bitten into. There was a skinny arm, with fingers that were all stretched out toward heaven. There were a bunch of bouncing yellow curls.

  Pierrot thought they looked like a beautiful, exquisite beast with a hundred limbs that could take you into its myriad arms and make love to you. Pierrot sighed. What in the world would it take to
make him happy now?



  Before she turned eighteen, Rose rarely saw McMahon. He was always at work. He had some sort of massive club downtown that did really well. He never let his wife or his kids come to the restaurant because he kept those parts of his life separate.

  Everything she knew about him she learned from the other governesses at the park. She shooed the children away to hear more. “Leave me alone, children. I just want to talk to people my age. I will tell you a story about a seagull that swallowed an umbrella and then spent the rest of its life as a swan.”

  “Oh, oh, oh, oh! Tell it to us now!” the children cried.

  “No, I need half an hour alone.”

  But the children remained within earshot, so the governesses really couldn’t go into any sort of scandalous detail.

  “C’est un propriétaire de boîte de nuit. He runs the Roxy downtown.”

  “That big nightclub! I would just love to see the acts they put on there. I can’t wait to be old enough to go down and see all the shows. I think that I could be onstage.”

  “Pour vrai! Do you have any talent?”

  “Lots. I was a famous performer when I was a little girl. I went from living room to living room.”

  “Can you sing?”

  “No, I can’t carry a tune. I mean, I know how to make a tune sound funny.”

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