Back in the Golden Lotus no one is sitting at the table reserved for Paul Zell, six o’clock, party of two. Billie sits back down anyway. She waits until 7:30, and then she leaves while the maitre d’ is escorting a party of superheroes to a table. So far none of the superheroes are ones that Billie recognizes, which doesn’t mean that their superpowers are lame. It’s just, there are a lot of superheroes and knowing a lot about superheroes has never been Billie’s thing.
She rides up the glass-fronted elevator to Paul Zell’s hotel room and orders room service. This should be exciting, because Billie’s never ordered room service in her life. But it’s not. She orders a hamburger, and when the woman asks if she wants to charge it to her room, she says sure. She drinks a juice from the minibar and watches the Cartoon Network. She waits for someone to knock on the door. When someone does, it’s just a bellboy with her hamburger.
By nine o’clock Billie has been down to the business center twice. She checks Hotmail, checks FarAway, checks all the chatrooms. No Boggle. No Paul Zell. Just chess pieces, and it isn’t her move. She writes Paul Zell an e-mail; in the end, she doesn’t send it.
When she goes upstairs for the last time, no one is there. Just the suitcase. She doesn’t really expect anyone to be there. The jeweler’s box is still down at the bottom of the suitcase.
The office building in the window is still lit up. Maybe the lights stay on all night long even when no one is there. Billie thinks those lights are the loneliest things she’s ever seen. Even lonelier than the light of distant stars that are already dead by the time their light reaches us. Down below, ant people do their antic things, unaware that Billie is watching them.
Billie opens up the minibar again. Inside are miniature bottles of gin, bourbon, tequila, and rum that no one is going to drink, unless Billie drinks them. What would Alice do, Billie thinks. Billie has always been a Lewis Carroll fan, and not just because of the chess stuff.
There are two beers and a jar of peanuts. Billie disdains the peanuts. She drinks all of the miniatures and both normal-sized cans of beer. Perhaps you noticed the charges on your hotel bill.
Here is where details begin to be a little thin for me, Paul Zell. Perhaps you have a better idea of what I’m describing, what I’m omitting. Then again, maybe you don’t.
It’s the first time Billie’s ever been drunk, and she’s not very good at it. Nothing is happening that she can tell. She perseveres. She begins to feel okay, as if everything is going to be okay. The okay feeling gets larger and larger until she’s entirely swallowed up by okayness. This lasts for a while, and then she starts to fade in and out, like she’s jumping forward in time, always just a little bit dizzy when she arrives. Here she is, flipping through channels, not quite brave enough to click on the pay-for-porn channels, although she thinks about it. Then here she is, a bit later, putting that lipstick on again. This time she kind of likes the way she looks. Here she is, lifting all of Paul Zell’s clothes out of the suitcase. She takes the ring out of the box, puts it on her big toe. Now there’s a gap. Then: here’s Billie, back again, she’s bent over a toilet. She’s vomiting. She vomits over and over again. Someone is holding back her hair. There’s a hand holding out a damp, cold facecloth. Now she’s in a bed. The room is dark, but Billie thinks there’s someone sitting on the other bed. He’s just sitting there.
Later on, she thinks she hears someone moving around the room, doing things. For some reason, she imagines that it’s the Enchantress Magic Eightball. Rummaging around the room, looking for important, powerful, magical things. Billie thinks she ought to get up and help. But she can’t move.
Much later on, when Billie gets up and goes to the bathroom to throw up again, Paul Zell’s suitcase is gone.
There’s vomit all over the sink and the bathtub, and on her sister’s sweater. Billie’s crotch is cold and wet; she realizes she’s pissed herself. She pulls off the sweater and skirt and hose, and her underwear. She leaves her bra on because she can’t figure out how to undo the straps. She drinks four glasses of water and then crawls into the other bed, the one she hasn’t pissed in.
When she wakes up it’s one in the afternoon. Someone has left the Do Not Disturb sign on the door of Room 1584. Maybe Billie did this, maybe not. She won’t be able to get the bus back to Keokuk today; it left this morning at 7:32. Paul Zell’s suitcase is gone, even his dirty clothes are gone. There’s not even a sock. Not even a hair on a pillow. Just the herbal conditioner. I guess you forgot to check the bathtub.
Billie’s head hurts so bad she wonders if she fell over when she passed out and hit it on something. It’s possible, I guess.
Billie is almost glad her head hurts so much. She deserves much worse. She pushes one of the towels around the sink and the counter, mopping up crusted puke. She runs hot water in the shower until the whole bathroom smells like puke soup. She strips the sheets off the bed she peed in, and shoves them with Melinda’s destroyed sweater and skirt and all of the puke-stained towels under the counter in the bathroom. The water is only just warm when she takes her shower. Better than she deserves. Billie turns the handle all the way to the right, and then shrieks and turns it back. What you deserve and what you can stand aren’t necessarily the same thing.
She cries bitterly while she conditions her hair. She takes the elevator down to the lobby and goes and sits in the Starbucks. The first time she’s ever been inside a Starbucks. What she really wants is a caramel iced vanilla latte, but instead she orders three shots of espresso. More penance.
I know, I find all of this behavior excruciating and over the top, too. And maybe this is a kind of over-the-top penance, too, what I’m doing here, telling you all of this, and maybe the point of humiliating myself by relating all of this humiliating behavior will only bring me even greater humiliation later, when I realize what a self-obsessed, miserable, martyring little drama queen I’m allowing myself to be right now.
Billie is pouring little packets of sugar into her three shots of espresso when someone sits down next to her. It isn’t you, of course. It’s that guy, Conrad. And now we’re past the point where I owe you an apology, and yet I guess I ought to keep going, because the story isn’t over yet. Remember how Billie thought the room key and the bus ride seemed like FarAway, like a quest? Now is the part where it starts seeming more like one of those games of chess, the kind you’ve already lost and you know it, but you don’t concede. You just keep on losing, one piece at a time, until you’re the biggest loser in the world. Which is, I guess, how life is like chess. Because it’s not like anyone ever wins in the end, is it?
Anyway. Part two. In which I go on writing about myself in the third person. In which I continue to act stupidly. Stop reading if you want.
Conrad Linthor sits down without being asked. He’s drinking something frozen. “Sidekick girl. You look terrible.”
All during this conversation, picture superheroes of various descriptions. They stroll or glide or stride purposefully past Billie’s table. They nod at the guy sitting across from her. Billie notices this without having the strength of character to wonder what’s going on. Every molecule of her being is otherwise engaged, with misery, woe, self-hatred, heartbreak, shame, all-obliterating roiling nausea and pain.
Billie says, “So we meet again.” Which is, don’t you think, the kind of thing people end up saying when they find themselves in a hotel full of superheroes. “I’m not a sidekick. And my name’s Billie.”
“Whatever,” Conrad Linthor says. “Conrad Linthor. So what happened to you?”
Billie swigs bitter espresso. She lets her hair fall in front of her face. Baby bird, she thinks. Wrong smell, baby bird.
But Conrad Linthor doesn’t go away. He says, “All right, I’ll go first. Let’s swap life stories. That girl at the desk when you were checking in? Aliss? I’ve slept with her, a couple of times. When nothing better came along. She really likes me. And I’m an asshole, okay? No excuses. Every time I hurt her, though, the next time I see her I’m nice again and I apologize and I get her back. Mostly I’m nice just to see if she’s going to fall for it this time, too. I don’t know why. I guess I want to see where that place is, the place where she hauls off and assaults me. Some people have ant farms. I’m more into people. So now you know what was going on yesterday. And yeah, I know, something’s wrong with me.”
Billie pushes her hair back. She says, “Why are you telling me all this?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. You look like you’re in a world of hurt. I don’t really care. It’s just that I get bored. And you look really terrible, and I thought that there was probably something interesting going on. Besides, Aliss can see us in here, from the desk, and this will drive her crazy.”
“I’m okay,” Billie says. “Nobody hurt me. I’m the bad guy here. I’m the idiot.”
“That’s unexpected. Also interesting. Go on,” Conrad Linthor says. “Tell me everything.”
Billie tells him. Everything except for the part where she pees the bed.
When her tale is told, Conrad Linthor stands up and says, “Come on. We’re going to go see a friend of mine. You need the cure.”
“For love?” This is Billie’s lame attempt at humor. She was wondering if telling someone what she’s done would make her feel better. It hasn’t.
“No cure for love,” Conrad Linthor says. “Because there’s no such thing. Your hangover we can do something about.”
As they navigate the lobby, there are new boards up announcing that free teeth-whitening sessions are available in Suite 412 for qualified superheroes. Billie looks over at the front desk and sees Aliss looking back. She draws her finger across her throat. If looks could kill you wouldn’t be reading this e-mail.
Conrad Linthor goes through a door that you’re clearly not meant to go through. It’s labeled. Billie follows anyway and they’re in a corridor, in a maze of corridors. If this were a MMORPG, the zombies would show up any minute. Instead, every once in a while, they pass someone who is probably hotel cleaning staff; bellboys sneaking cigarettes. Everyone nods at Conrad Linthor, just like the superheroes in the Starbucks in the lobby.