“HORROR HOTEL” by ALICE FLORIDA XU

ONE/FOUR

On a Tuesday, Alice decides she will be unfaithful to Peter, her boyfriend of three and a half years. It is 10:43 in the morning and rain is drumming the roof of the building where Alice works. Alice chews on a pen and wonders when she will do it, when she will fuck someone else. Alice looks at the computer. Soon, Alice decides. Alice looks at a window and her gray chair squeaks. She chews on a pen and thinks, I am going to cheat on him soon. I have to do it soon. I have to cheat on him and I have to take control of my life.

 

Alice loves Peter. Or Alice used to love Peter. Or Alice never loved Peter. At one point Alice loved Peter, probably. A year ago, or maybe two years ago, Alice loved Peter. I love Peter, Alice used to think. Then something changed. Or nothing changed and Alice never really loved Peter. Maybe loving Peter was what Alice wanted, so Alice pretended it was happening. When Alice was twelve she believed she would be a veterinarian. Alice was very sure of it because she wanted it to happen. Every day she would think, I will be a veterinarian. Maybe loving Peter was something like that. Or maybe it wasn’t. Or maybe loving Peter and not loving Peter are the same thing, or so similar as to almost be the same thing, and there is no sense in thinking about it, especially not now, especially after Alice has decided that she will be unfaithful to Peter, an idea that feels very clear, and very large, and very unlike the question of loving Peter, which is very vague, and very small, and very confusing. Someone yells something outside Alice’s cubicle. Alice stares at her computer screen. Alice stares at a graph it is her job to make. Alice thinks, I need to finish this. I need to focus on my job. I need to be a good employee so I can keep my job. I need to be a good employee so I can buy a house. I need to be a good employee. My life is not in control. My life is out of control. I need to take control of my life.

 

My life is out of control, Alice often thinks. Alice thinks it when she is at work. Alice thinks it when she is watching TV. Alice thinks it when she is eating dinner with her parents. Alice thinks it when she is at the bar with her friends. Alice thinks it when she is at the movies with Peter. Alice thinks it when she is walking her dog. Alice thinks it when she is having sex with Peter. Alice thinks it when she is driving to work. Alice thinks it when she is in the supermarket. Alice thinks it when Peter talks about the wedding, when it will be, who will be there, what it will be like. Alice especially thinks it then, when Peter is talking about the wedding. Alice thinks it when she remembers Peter proposing, when she and Peter were at Disney World, and Peter getting on one knee and all those people watching. Alice thinks it when she remembers saying yes in that automatic and unthinking way. Yes. My whole life is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. That automatic and unthinking yes. My life is out of control, she thinks. I have no control over my life. I need to take control of my life. I need to be fucked by some dude, by some other fucking person.

 

Alice wonders who the person will be. Maybe a person from her past. Or maybe someone from work. Maybe her boss. Or maybe her neighbor. Maybe the tall guy across the street. Or maybe a stranger. Or maybe the person doesn’t really matter. She just needs to pick a person, any person, or almost any person, and then fuck that person. Alice decides on a person the next night, a Wednesday, while she is eating with Peter. Isn’t this good, Peter says. Alice turns from the TV and looks at Peter. Peter is holding a slice of pizza, a cheeseburger-themed pizza Peter just ordered for the first time. Alice says, yeah it’s fine. Peter says, I think we’re going to have to get this again, cause I’m really surprised, like I wouldn’t have thought it would have been this good. Alice looks back at the TV. Peter says, have another slice, hon. Alice doesn’t respond. Have another slice, Peter says. I’m full, Alice says. And then the person comes to her. Brian, Alice thinks. I’m going to get fucked by Brian.

 

Brian is Peter’s younger brother. Brian looks like Peter, except Brian is taller and more attractive, if only slightly. Peter is Alice’s age, twenty-six, two years younger than Brian. Alice has not seen Brian in over a year. The last time she saw Brian was at Brian’s house. It was a Friday, and Ashley, Brian’s girlfriend, or maybe Brian’s fiancé, had just broken up with Brian. Peter told Alice that his brother had just been dumped. Peter told Alice that their spending some time with Brian would be a nice thing to do. Alice reluctantly agreed go to Brian’s house for an hour or two. After three or four hours Alice was bored and irritated as Brian and Peter laughed about stuff that had happened a long time ago, stuff from Brian and Peter’s childhood and adolescence, stuff Alice knew nothing about, stuff Alice cared nothing about. Brian seemed happy. Peter was drunk. Alice was largely quiet, though she sighed every three or four minutes so to indicate boredom. Alice watched Peter drink more. Alice shook her head and stood and walked to the couch and looked at tabloids and fashion magazines Ashley had left behind. Brian said, how you doing over there Alice? OK, Alice said, not looking up. Around midnight Peter stood and walked into another room. Brian again asked Alice how she was doing. Fine, Alice said. Brian asked Alice about her job. Alice spoke, at first reluctantly, then more fluidly and with greater comfort. Brian spoke to Alice in such a way as to suggest a genuine interest in her life. Then Brian said, wait, where is Peter? Brian stood and left the room. Alice opened another magazine. When Brian walked back into the room he was smiling. Peter threw up, Brian said. He’s asleep in the guest bedroom. He told me to tell you he’s sorry. That’s Peter, Alice said, standing up. I can give him a ride back tomorrow, Brian said. OK, Alice said. I was enjoying talking to you, Brian said. Brian was staring at her, and he said, it’s a shame you have to go. Alice decided that she didn’t have to go just yet, maybe she would wait to see if Peter got back up. Alice sat down and she and Brian drank and talked for an hour. Brian sat next to her. Brian put his hand on her leg, then leaned toward her and kissed her. Alice kissed Brian. Then Alice stopped kissing Brian and said, it’s really late. Alice stood and left.

 

Alice feels good. Peter is asleep next to Alice in their dark bedroom. It is the middle of the night and Alice is so excited she cannot sleep. Alice is staring at the ceiling. Alice is taking control of her life. A car drives past and a page of light slips across the ceiling. Alice feels good. Alice masturbates, slowly, careful not to awaken Peter. Alice is thinking about Brian, then a man from TV, then her boss, then another man from TV, then no one at all. Alice is taking control of her life. Alice feels good. I feel good, Alice thinks. I am finally taking control of my life.

 

On Thursday morning, while Peter is in the shower, Alice finds Brian’s phone number in Peter’s cell phone. Alice writes down Brian’s phone number and puts the piece of paper in her purse. During her lunch break, Alice calls the number. Hello, Brian says. Brian, Alice says. Yes, Brian says. This is Alice, your brother’s fiancé, Alice says. Brian doesn’t say anything. I was wondering if you would like to get a drink, Alice says. A drink, Brian asks. Yes, Alice says, a drink. When, Brian asks. What’s today, Alice asks. Thursday, Brian says. Then tomorrow, Friday, Alice says. You, me, and Pete, Brian asks. No, just, I was thinking, you and me, Alice says. Brian pauses for a moment then says, sure, his voice cracking a little. I think that would be OK, I guess.

 

It is Friday and Alice is waiting for Brian at the bar where she told Brian to meet her. The bar is dark and nearly empty. It is just after 7:30 and snow is falling outside. Alice is wearing a black dress and the pearl necklace Peter bought for her a year ago. Adjacent to this room, there is an enormous vacant ballroom, visible through large windows. Alice watches the bright and empty room. It reminds Alice of a high school gymnasium. The way the floor gleams or something. Then it reminds her of an old movie, a horror movie in which hundreds of ghosts dance melancholically. Something she watched with Peter. Alice tries to think about something else. Alice wonders how many drinks she and Brian will have. Alice wonders if Brian will want to order dinner. Alice wonders if they will have any difficulty renting a room in the hotel next door. Alice remembers the hotel across the street from the hotel next door. So that’s good if this one’s booked, she thinks.  Alice wonders what their room will look like. Alice thinks about a show she watched, an exposé about how filthy the average hotel room is. Alice puts that idea out of her head, and tries to think about nothing. Alice watches the three or four elderly couples dining. Alice orders another vodka cranberry. She feels uncomfortable, ostentatious. Alice wonders if she resembles a prostitute, or maybe an insane person. Which I am, she decides, I am insane. Alice hears a door open. Alice sees Brian. He’s late, Alice thinks, but still she waves and smiles. Brian is not smiling. Brian is wearing a blue dress shirt and khaki pants and there is snow in his dark hair. He looks the same, maybe slightly more attractive than she remembers. Hey, Alice calls out. Brian nods a little, but does not smile, even as he stops in front of her and says, I almost stood you up but I decided that would be wrong. Alice opens her mouth but doesn’t say anything. Brian removes a fifty-dollar bill from his pocket. Brian places the fifty on the counter and says, OK, I mean, I know what this is, and I don’t want to be a part of it, like, on any level. I’m not going to tell Peter, but I decided there’s no way I’m going to do this. I should not have agreed to it. That was wrong. Also, Peter loves you and if you’re trying to do what you’re I think trying to do, you’re a cunt and he deserves better. Alice nods softly. Sorry to waste your time, Brian says. Brian leaves. Alice sits very still and stares at the chandelier. Alice almost cries. Alice doesn’t cry. Maybe this is better, Alice decides. Alice turns, her stool squeaking. Alice asks the bartender for a glass of water.

 

TWO/FOUR

Alice is on a lawn at dusk. She is wearing a white dress and facing an enormous building, a great black square on the purple horizon. The building is a hotel and Alice knows this because she has stayed here before. Alice is not sure when, just that she has stayed here, and that certain hazy things have happened to her here. Some of the lights of the rooms are on. Figures and parts of figures are visible in the illuminated windows. A room goes dark on the left side of the building, and Alice watches an airplane slowly slip across the horizon. A wing of the airplane is bright and red and blinking; it resembles a flickering Mars falling horizontally. The airplane drifts behind the hotel and is gone. Alice walks toward the bright entrance.

 

As Alice walks across the lawn, she feels nothing. Or she feels something very small, almost imperceptible, something like a finger on her shoulder, a nothing feeling or an almost nothing feeling. A warm breeze crosses her, then rattles softly in the trees behind. I feel something, but it is a tiny feeling. Or no, Alice decides, I feel nothing. I feel nothing at all.

 

Alice enters the lobby of the hotel. It is very glossy and empty, like a ballroom, a vaguely familiar ballroom. Something she saw in a dream, or a movie, or in real life. Or a ballroom from a dream and a movie and real life, a ballroom that follows Alice around like a lost dog, continually inserting itself into her life. That thought disturbs Alice and she whispers, I am confused. And I am lost. Alice looks around and thinks, but I don’t feel uncomfortable. Like I feel fine. Like this is where I belong, and I would only be more lost, hopelessly lost, if I were anywhere else. Alice walks to the front desk. The space behind the front desk is large. Something about the front desk reminds Alice of a pharmacy, a pharmacy where all the drugs have already been sold, a desolate pharmacy with nothing to offer to anyone. A hunched woman is walking around in the wide space behind the desk. The hunched woman is old, Alice thinks, though she cannot see the woman’s face. The posture says old. Excuse me, Alice says. What, the woman says, not turning around. I would like to rent a room, Alice says. You already have a room, the woman says. I do, Alice asks. Room 501, the woman says. Oh, Alice says, thank you. The old woman groans, either in pain or acknowledgement. Alice walks toward the elevator.

 

As Alice rides the elevator, she thinks, I am in a state. I am in some kind of odd state, she repeats, and I shouldn’t feel afraid because this is just a state, an odd state, a trick. Or no, she decides, this is not a state. This seems like a state, but it is not one.

 

Alice walks down a red hallway with a green carpet. The green carpet looks like moss and Alice thinks, whoa this carpet looks like moss. Alice looks at the carpet and Alice sees that the carpet is not moss, but is just a green carpet. Oh, Alice thinks. Alice finds room 501 and walks inside. Room 501 is dark. A man is sitting on a red upholstered chair. The man is facing a TV that casts his face in blue flickering light. The man turns to Alice, and the man’s face is obscured darkly, as though there is a tiny cloud of black smoke that hovers in front of his face. Alice thinks, that man’s face is covered by a cloud that thinks it is a mask. Alice takes two steps inside. Alice watches the cloud slowly dissipate. Alice sees the man’s face. The man reminds her of someone, a person whose name she cannot recall. Come here, the man says. Alice walks toward him. Come closer, the man says. Alice stands next to the man. Look at the TV, the man says.

 

On the TV a black rabbit is held in a small spotlight, a milky circle of light. The rabbit is in a street. The rabbit is facing a curb. All around the milky circle of light, the asphalt is dark. This video was made in the night, the man says. The man’s voice sounds like it is coming from somewhere far away. Alice watches the rabbit try to get up the curb, but it cannot, because its back legs are broken, run-over. The rabbit flings itself at the curb, but it cannot get up the ledge. The rabbit runs rightward. The milky circle of light follows the rabbit, keeping the rabbit framed there. The rabbit tries to get up the ledge. The rabbit twitches and flings itself at the ledge and Alice hears a very distant squeaking, a sound not coming from the TV. This video was made in the night, the man says. Then he says it again: this video was made in the night.

 

THREE/FOUR

Alice is eating a turkey sandwich and sitting across from Tom, a thirty-three year old paralegal she met in a supermarket. Alice has been seeing Tom for four and a half months, on average twice a month, usually on Saturdays, usually days when Alice lies and tells Peter that she is visiting her parents. So how’s your job, Tom says. Eh, not great, she says. The one girl I got along with got fired. Tom makes a face and says, oh that’s a shame. Alice and Tom are quiet for a few moments. They look at the other diners. So how’s your job, Alice asks. Tom shrugs. It’s a job, he says. Alice nods. Yeah, she says.

 

Fifty minutes later, Alice is performing fellatio on Tom in the living room of Tom’s apartment. Tom is saying, oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah. Alice can sense that Tom is acting, that Tom is imitating something that he has observed, probably in porn. The way a person having sex is supposed to act or something. Alice sucks Tom’s penis more vigorously, more chaotically, in a semi-conscious effort to elevate Tom’s behavior into something authentic. Tom repeats oh yeah a few more times, and then puts his hand on his penis and removes it from Alice’s mouth. Tom points the head of his penis at Alice’s forehead. Turn over, he says. Let me see your ass. Alice turns around and sticks her ass out in a way that feels animal, dog-like. Tom fucks Alice for four or five minutes then ejaculates weakly Alice’s slightly dimpled ass.

 

Tom is one of three people Alice cheats on Peter with. Alice also cheats with a man named Mike. Mike went to Alice’s high school. Mike saw Alice at the gym a few months ago. He walked up to her and asked if she remembers him. Alice fucks Mike once every other week on average, always in the middle of the day, always on her lunch break, always on days when her boss is not working, when Alice can get away with taking an hour and a half for lunch. Alice also fucks a guy named Rich, a person from the office. Alice is not attracted to Rich, but she likes the idea of fucking someone from the office. Weirdly, she likes the idea of fucking someone from the office whom she is not attracted to. Thinking about that makes Alice yearn for it, sometimes desperately. Alice used to fuck Jay, a different guy from the office, a person she was attracted to, very much so. After she and Jay had fucked three times Jay told Alice that he was no longer interested in continuing their thing, and that her situation makes her uncomfortable. What situation, Alice asked angrily. You are screwing that guy Rich, right? Alice didn’t say anything. And you have a fiancé, right? Alice didn’t say anything. That’s your situation. OK, Alice said. I hope there won’t be any hard feelings, Jay told Alice. No hard feelings, Alice said. Jay and Alice wave when they pass one another in the hallways and break room. How’s it going Alice, Jay says. Grinning falsely, Alice responds, hey Jay, nice to see you.

 

After fucking Tom, Alice drives home and walks into her house. Peter is on the couch. Alice used to worry that Peter knew, that he could smell unfaithfulness on her, that she was spelling it out some secret way. Today she walks right up to him and kisses him on the cheek. Alice feels calm. Alice feels so calm she doesn’t even perceive her own calmness. She is just a person in the world, flat and relaxed. Nice to see you honey, she says. How are your parents, Tom says. They’re well, Alice says. They told me to tell you hi, she says. That’s sweet, Tom says. Tell them I send my love. Will do, Alice says, walking toward the shower.

 

Alice is still engaged to marry Peter. If anything, Alice now feels less conflicted about marrying Peter. Cheating on Peter has somehow fixed Peter in her mind. She no longer notices his protruding belly; she no longer is annoyed at his fawning devotion to her. Alice looks forward to their wedding. Alice looks forward to their life as husband and wife. Alice sometimes thinks that when they are married she will stop. Other times Alice thinks that she will not stop. Most times Alice thinks it doesn’t really matter. She may stop; she may not stop. Whatever she does or does not do will be fine. Sometimes it is hard to imagine the future. Sometimes it is hard to imagine there will be a future.

 

The first time Alice cheated on Peter, Alice slept with a guy whose name she cannot remember. Three weeks earlier Alice had been rebuffed by Peter’s brother, and by now she was over that minor humiliation, and even over her desire to cheat on Peter, which seemed like a phase, something she had moved beyond, or simply forgotten about. She was at the bar with her friends. A guy, blond, muscular, middle-aged, started a conversation with her. He gave her his phone number. While driving home, dutifully returning to Peter, she pulled over and called the number. Alice drove to the man’s house, fucked the man for an hour, and got home just before four. Peter was still up. He didn’t ask her any questions, and when she tried to explain, claiming she went to Wendy’s house after the bar, Peter cut her off, saying, I’m not your dad, you don’t need to explain things to me. Alice felt terrible for a week, crying in the bathroom at work, staring at her engagement ring and whispering, I should die. I am not human. I should die. I should kill myself. Then those feelings faded, and new feelings arose in their place, a new contentment, something like joy. (Though behind the contentment, there is something else, a thing Alice can sometimes glimpse, but rarely apprehend. A half-feeling, or sub-feeling. A quiet discomfort, a lack of ease in the world. A small thing that she only sometimes notices. A small thing that vanishes when she reaches for it.)

 

Alice is watching TV with Peter. Alice sees a rabbit in a commercial. Alice stares at the TV, at the rabbit on the screen. A black rabbit, like a rabbit she has seen once before. Alice feels a tightening in her chest, like something ballooning up between her ribs. Something about that rabbit reminds her of something, something vague, but also large and somehow threatening, as though she is watching at the surface of the ocean, as though she is seeing a great black mass rise from the seafloor. Peter turns to her. What, Peter says. Alice pauses, staring at the screen, at the rabbit. What, Peter says. The commercial ends and Alice turns, agitated. What do you mean what, she says. You gasped, Peter says. I didn’t gasp, Alice says. You didn’t gasp, Peter asks her. I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about, she says. Jesus, I’m sorry, Peter says. You don’t need to be sorry, Alice says. I just didn’t gasp and you saying I gasped is obnoxious. I’m very sorry, Peter says. Seriously, I’m sorry. Don’t be sorry, Alice says, standing. Do you want something from the kitchen, Alice asks. I’m fine, Peter says. And I really am sorry. Don’t be sorry, she tells him. There’s nothing to be sorry about. Alice walks into the kitchen. She opens the refrigerator and pretends to look around. She closes the refrigerator and removes her phone from her pocket, the actual reason she left the room. When Alice is annoyed with Peter she does this. She leaves the room and checks her missed calls. She usually sends a text message, something bad, something that helps to make her feel less trapped. Alice notices she got another call a few minutes ago from a phone number that shows up as PRIVATE. This is the third call she’s gotten from an anonymous number in the last week. Alice looks at her text messages. She sees two text messages from PRIVATE. Why aren’t you picking up, the first one reads. This is about you and me and Peter, the second one says.

 

Alice cannot sleep. Alice is worried about the text messages from PRIVATE. Alice is worried about the reference to Peter in the second message. Alice is worried about what that person’s intentions may be, the person behind PRIVATE. Alice eats sliced turkey at midnight and ice cream at two. Alice finally falls asleep around four. Three hours later, just before she wakes up, Alice has a dream. Alice is on the beach. Alice is facing the ocean. Alice is standing beside a woman who is talking about a pet rabbit. Alice turns and looks at the woman. The woman is seated and wearing a hood that obscures her face. The rabbit was dying, the woman says, and I felt very sad about it, but then I thought to myself, why does this rabbit deserve my tears? Alice turns and looks at the ocean. The woman says, and I decided that this rabbit deserves no more sympathy than any other rabbit, just because this rabbit was close to me, physically, just because it was my pet, that doesn’t make it any more or any less deserving of my sympathy. Some other rabbit somewhere is being assaulted, is being attacked with a hammer, is having its foot amputated so someone can have a keychain of it. Why don’t I care about that one? Why don’t I cry for it? It’s basically the same as my pet. The only difference is proximity, familiarity— The woman’s voice goes dim and then soundless, though her lips continue to move. Alice hears nothing. Then she hears the ocean. Then she hears something like a distant car accident. Alice turns, and sees upon the beach, dozens, maybe hundreds of animals. Sea creatures, big blue and gray tubular bodies, slick and gleaming, thrashing and dying on the shore, beached together in a vast pile.

 

Alice goes to work under-slept and achy, a feeling something like a weak flu. Around ten she gets a text message from Tom. What R U Doing, it says. Nothing, she writes back. I was seeing if U wanted to get together this week, he writes back. I don’t know, she writes back. Then she writes, I think I want to rethink some things. She doesn’t know what it means, but it seems right; she does want to rethink some things. Maybe she wants to let Tom go; maybe she’ll let all of them go; maybe now is the time to be faithful, to be committed to Peter. Then she writes, You haven’t been texting me from a private number, right? Tom writes back, what. Then a few seconds later he writes: Send me a text if you feel like getting together some time. OK, Alice writes. A few minutes after that she gets another text, this one from PRIVATE. We need to talk about a few things, it says.

 

During lunch PRIVATE calls her. She picks up. Hello, she says. Alice, a man’s voice replies. Who is this, she says. My name is Hippie, the man says. Why are you contacting me, Alice says. Because you haven’t been acting . . . appropriately, the man says. What the fuck are you talking about, Alice says. Like I said, you haven’t been acting appropriately. You need never to contact me again, Alice says, or I’m going to call the police. I know about your men, the voice says. I’m hanging up, Alice says. Never call me again. Alice hangs up. Twenty seconds later, Alice receives a text message, a photograph from PRIVATE with the caption: THIS IS YOU.  It is an image of Alice standing in front of a mirror, a motel mirror. Alice has lipstick on her cheeks, lipstick that she is using as blush. A man with an obscured face is standing behind her, naked, fucking her. Alice receives ten more picture messages, all of her with this man, all of her being fucked. She doesn’t know who the man is, or when the photograph was taken, or where, but it is her, there is no doubt that it is Alice.

 

Alice tells her boss she is sick. Alice leaves work and drives home. Alice gets another call at two PM, again from PRIVATE. Alice picks up and says nothing. Are you ready to talk to me? the voice says. What does that mean? Alice says. I would like for you to meet me. I would like for you and I to talk about a few things. Or what? Alice says. Or I send all of these pictures, and all my other pictures to Peter. What is Peter’s phone number? Alice asks, assuming he doesn’t know. The man begins to slowly recite Peter’s phone number: 4 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 9 . . . 9 . . . 6 . . . 8 . . . 2— Alice cuts the man off, and says tearfully, why are you doing this? We can talk about this, and everything else, when you see me tomorrow. I’ll call you tomorrow at noon. The man hangs up.

 

Alice turns off her phone. Alice doesn’t know what to do. She wonders who it is. Peter comes home. She hugs him tightly, and holds him for a long time. What is this, he says. Nothing, Alice says, crying onto Peter’s shoulder. I just love you very much. That night Alice has more dreams about rabbits, a dream about moons, a dream in which she is in a vast hotel, a place with hundreds of floors and tens of thousands of rooms, many of which produce strange sounds, cries Alice hears in the labyrinthine hallways, sounds that at first sound animal and then sound human and then sound like some conflation of the two. Alice wakes up at five AM. Alice turns her phone back on. Alice sees thirty-two text new messages from PRIVATE, each with an attached photograph. There are photographs of Alice having sex with Tom and photographs of Alice having sex with Mike and photographs of Alice having sex with Jay and photographs of Alice having sex with Rich. There are other photographs of Alice having sex with the man with an obscured face and there are photographs of Alice having sex with a man she has never seen before, a man who resembles Alice’s late uncle, a man she hopes is not her late uncle. There are photographs of Alice having sex in places she remembers and places she doesn’t remember and places she is sure she has never been. Alice cries for a few hours and showers and leaves the house at 8:25, as though she is leaving to go to work, but she doesn’t go to work. Alice buys a cup of coffee in a Starbucks. She drinks half of the coffee in the Starbucks, then she feels afraid in a vague way and she walks outside and sits in her car. Alice sits in her car for a long time, considering calling the police, but not calling the police.

 

At noon Alice gets a call from PRIVATE. Hello, she says. Hello, the man says. Why didn’t you go to work today, he asks. I didn’t feel well, Alice says. Are you ready to discuss a few things with me? he asks. Yes, Alice says. I’ll pull up next to you in forty-five minutes. I’ll be driving a black car. You’ll know its me, he says. Do you need to know where I am, she asks. No, the man says. See you in forty-five minutes.

 

As Alice waits for the man, she thinks about things. Things she has never thought about before, things that are nothing like the things she usually thinks about. She wonders about her life, about what it means, about what it means for her to have been born and to have lived, and to have lived in the way she lives, rather than her having lived another way. The black car pulls up beside her. Alice looks and sees the passenger door open, exposing the car’s vast interior, a featureless place, a pocket of night, or something like night. Or like outer space, but emptier than outer space, sunless and starless. Alice moves from one vehicle to the other. In her head she hears the words, Thank you for answering my questions. Alice is inside the dark car. She watches the door close silently, slowly. The black air is smoke, and then a dry foam, or something else, a third thing she doesn’t have a word for. Alice breathes deeply, and it enters her, a heavy and familiar substance she vanishes inside of.

 

FOUR/FOUR

The hippie is middle-aged. He is short and somewhat overweight. He wears corduroy vests and velvet bellbottoms. His hairy belly hangs over his waistband like a great swollen lip. He smells like patchouli and marijuana, and beads of sweat often dot his forehead. He wears glasses with wire frames and rose-colored lenses, glasses Alice can remember seeing in old photographs of rock musicians. The hippie calls cowardice “copping-out” and refers to sex as “balling” and laughs often and brightly, sounding at those times less like a man than a child or bird.

 

Alice and the hippie live together in a white room with no doors and one window. The view from the window is of a green field and a distant city: its many tall buildings sit like a row of teeth on the horizon. Above the city, there is a blue sky and two baguette-shaped clouds. Always the same blue sky, always the same two clouds. The window is locked and impossible to open. The walls of the room are mostly blank, mostly white. On one of the walls, there is a crumpled poster of Jimi Hendrix. On another wall there are two large metal drawers beside an intercom. The drawers are painted in flowery and twisting florescent lettering. One drawer reads INCOMING. The other drawer reads OUTGOING.

 

When Alice wants something, she walks to the intercom and states it. “I want a cooked lobster,” Alice says. Alice opens the INCOMING drawer and pulls out a cooked lobster. “I want two million dollars,” Alice says. Alice opens the INCOMING drawer and pulls out two million dollars. “I want a hamster,” Alice says. Alice opens the INCOMING drawer and pulls out a large brown hamster. She holds it softly, letting it pulse inside her cupped hand. When Alice is finished with the things she asks for, she puts them in the OUTGOING drawer, where they vanish. For a while, Alice makes lots of requests. Then as time passes, Alice loses interest in the drawers. She asks for less and less. She no longer is delighted by the objects of the world, the things that used to give her life meaning. They have become silly relics, confusing toys. Eventually she asks for nothing at all.

 

Alice and the hippie have sex many times every day. Alice no longer gets hungry or thirsty. Alice sleeps a lot. Her dreams are rich and vivid. When Alice is awake she no longer worries that her life is out of control. Alice no longer cries. Alice no longer wants things. Alice feels complete peace in who she is and what she has. The hippie and Alice meditate for many hours every day. Together they focus on thinking positively, and staying optimistic. With the power of their efforts, they are able to end all worldly conflicts. By our thinking positively, the hippie declares, we have banished all hate and evil from the face of the earth. Alice claps and laughs, delighted in their great accomplishment. One day, after clapping and laughing, Alice becomes uncharacteristically sad. What’s wrong? the hippie asks. I wish we could leave this room and see the new world, Alice says. The hippie takes Alice’s hand and says, You know that’s impossible.

 

When they are not meditating or making love, Alice asks the hippie lots of questions, all of which he patiently answers. What is this place? Alice asks. A very special hotel room, the hippie says. How did I get here? Alice asks. In a black car, the hippie says. What happened to Peter? Alice asks. Peter worried about you for a long time, the hippie says. He wondered where you went. Then he found someone new and after a while, he stopped thinking about you. Alice nods, understanding, and says, What happened to my mother? Your mother became sick, the hippie says. She left the world. Is she coming here? Alice asks. No, Alice, this place is just for us, the hippie says.

 

Alice asks the same questions day after day, having no memory of the preceding days, and months, and years. Every morning she wakes to a room that seems new. Every morning she wakes with a great sense of hope and purpose. And through the days she enjoys the stillness inside her mind, a feeling akin to the effects of a powerful tranquilizer. Alice is never panicked, and though she understands little, she is never frustrated or confused by her situation. Alice is grateful. Alice has become a happy person.

 

For twenty-five years Alice is happy. For twenty-five years nothing changes. Then at around thirty years, the scene outside the window–the field and the distant city–begins to shrivel and wrinkle. It is just a poster, Alice notices, it is fake.

 

Then for ten more years, nothing changes. After forty years, the hippie walks up to Alice and says, I have some bad news. What is it? Alice asks. Peter died, the hippie says. Who is Peter? Alice asks. Peter is a man you loved a long time ago. How old am I? Alice asks. Twenty-six, the hippie says. I’m still twenty-six? Alice asks. You’ll always be twenty-six.

 

That night Alice dreams she is standing on a vast green lawn. It is dusk. Alice is wearing a white dress, and is facing an enormous building, a great black square on the purple horizon. The building is a hotel, and Alice knows this because she has stayed here before. I have stayed here, she thinks. I have stayed at this hotel. Some of the lights of some of the rooms are on. Figures and parts of figures are visible in the illuminated windows. A room goes dark on the left side of the building, and Alice watches an airplane slowly slip across the horizon. A wing of the airplane is bright and red and blinking; it resembles a flickering Mars falling horizontally. The airplane drifts behind the hotel and is gone. Around her feet, a rabbit wearing a cartoon smile hops in large arcs. Alice walks toward the bright entrance.

 

As Alice walks across the lawn, she feels nothing. Or she feels something very small, almost imperceptible, a feeling equivalent to a finger on her shoulder, a nothing feeling or an almost nothing feeling. A warm breeze crosses her, then rattles softly in the trees behind. From some secret place, a fifties song begins to play. It is called Horror Hotel. The singer says the words Horror Hotel over and over as the instruments seem to crash and fall apart. The song becomes construction noise in a busy city before fading away completely. I feel something, Alice thinks, as she moves through the empty hotel, but it is a tiny feeling. Alice enters an enormous ballroom. Or no, she decides, I don’t feel anything. I don’t feel anything at all.

  • qtl

    brilliant

  • spigot

    I enjoyed it