I’m thinking I may sell off Constant Bliss, too, if anyone wants to buy her. If not, it will have to be Magic EightBall. Or maybe I’ll sell both of them. But that’s part of the story I haven’t gotten to yet.
And, yeah, I do spend a lot of time online. In FarAway. Like I said, it’s not like I have a lot of friends, not that you should feel sorry for me, because you shouldn’t, Paul Zell, that’s NOT why I’m telling you all of this.
My sister? Melinda? She says wait a few years and see. Things get better. Of course, based on her life, maybe they do get better. And then they get worse again, and then you have to move back home and teach high school. So how exactly is that better?
And yes, in case you’re wondering, my sister Melinda Bowles is kind of stunning, and all the boys in my school who despise me have crushes on her even when she flunks them. And yes, a lot of the details I fed you about my life, Billie Faggart’s life, are actually borrowed from Melinda’s life. Although not all of the details. If you’re still speaking to me after you read this, I’ll be happy to make up a spreadsheet of character traits and biographical incidents. One column will be Melinda Bowles and the other will be Billie Faggart. There will be little checkmarks in either column, or both, depending. But the story about shaving off my eyebrows when I was a kid? That was true. I mean, that was me. And so was the thing about liking reptiles. Melinda? She’s not so fond of the reptiles. But then, maybe you don’t really have a chameleon named Moe and a tokay gecko named Bitey. Maybe you made up some stuff, too, except yeah, okay, why would you make up some lizards? I keep having to remind myself: Billie, just because you’re a liar doesn’t mean the whole world is full of liars. Except that you did lie, right? You were at the hotel. You left me the key to your room at the hotel in an envelope addressed to Melinda Bowles. Because if you didn’t, then who did?
Sorry. This is supposed to be about me, apologizing. Not me, solving the big mysteries of the universe and everything. Except, here’s the thing about Melinda, in case you’re thinking maybe the person you fell in love with really exists. The salient thing. Melinda has a boyfriend. He’s in Afghanistan right now. Also, she’s super religious, like seriously born again. Which you’re not. So even if Melinda’s boyfriend got killed, or something, which I know is something she worries about, it would never work out between you and her.
And one more last thing about Melinda, or maybe it’s actually about you. This is the part where I have to thank you. Because: because of you, Paul Zell, I think Melinda and I have kind of become friends. Because, all year I’ve been interested in her life. I ask her how her day was, and I actually listen when she tells me. Because, how else could I convince you that I was a thirty-two-year-old, divorced high-school algebra teacher? And it turns out that we actually have a lot in common, me and Melinda, and it’s like I even understand what she thinks about. Because, she has a boyfriend who’s far away (in Afghanistan) and she misses him and they write e-mails to each other, and she worries about what if he loses a leg or something, and will they still love each other when he gets back?
And I have you. I had this thing with you, even if I couldn’t tell her about you. I guess I still can’t tell her. Which is even weirder, I guess, than the other thing: how for so long I couldn’t tell you the truth about me. And now I can’t shut up about me when what I really ought to be explaining is what happened at the hotel.
Billie gets into an elevator with a superhero and the guy who blew off Aliss. The superhero reeks. BO and something worse, like spoiled meat. He gets out on the seventh floor, and Billie sucks in air. She’s thinking about all sorts of things. For example, how it turns out she doesn’t have a fear of heights, which is a good thing to discover in a glass elevator. She’s thinking about how she could find a wireless café, go online and hang out in FarAway, except Paul Zell won’t be there. She wonders if the guy who bought Bearhand is trying him out. Now that would be weird, to run into someone who used to be you. What would she say? She’s thinking how much she wants to take a shower, and she’s wondering if she smells as bad as that superhero did. She’s thinking all of this and lots of other things, too.
“Now that’s how to fight crime,” says the other person in the elevator. (Conrad Linthor, although Billie doesn’t know his last name yet. Maybe you’ll recognize it, though.) “You smell it to death. Although, to be fair, to get that big you have to eat a lot of protein and the protein makes you stinky. That’s why I’m a vegetarian.” The smile he gives Billie is as ripe with charm as the elevator is ripe with super stink.
Billie prides herself on being charm resistant. (It’s like the not having a sense of humor. A sense of humor is a weakness. I know how you’re supposed to be able to laugh at yourself, but that’s pretty sucky advice when everyone is always laughing at you already.) She stares at Conrad Linthor blankly. If you don’t react, mostly other people give up and leave you alone.
Conrad Linthor is eighteen or nineteen, or maybe a well-preserved twenty-two. He has regular features and white teeth. He’d be good looking if he weren’t so good looking, Billie thinks, and then wonders what she meant by that. She can tell that he’s rich, although, again, she’s not quite sure how she knows this. Maybe because he pressed the Penthouse floor button when he got on the elevator.
“Let me guess,” Conrad Linthor says, as if he and Billie have been having a conversation. “You’re here to audition.” When Billie continues to stare at him blankly, this time because she really doesn’t know what he’s talking about and not just because she’s faking being stupid, he elaborates: “You want to be a sidekick. That guy who just got off? The Blue Fist? I hear his sidekicks keep quitting for some reason.”
“I’m here to meet a friend,” Billie says. “Why does everyone keep asking me that? Are you? You know, a sidekick?”
“Me?” Conrad Linthor says. “Very funny.”
The elevator door dings open, fifteenth floor, and Billie gets off.
“See you around,” Conrad Linthor calls after her. It sounds more mocking than hopeful.
You know what, Paul Zell? I never thought you would be super handsome or anything. Don’t be insulted, okay? I never cared about what you might turn out to look like. I know you have brown hair and brown eyes and you’re kind of skinny and you have a big nose. I know because you told me you look like your avatar. Boggle. Me, I was always terrified you’d ask for my photo, because then it would really have been a lie, even more of a lie, because I would’ve sent you a photo of Melinda.
My dad says I look so much like Melinda did when she was a kid, it’s scary. That we could practically be twins. But I’ve seen pictures of Melinda when she was fifteen and I don’t look like her at all. Melinda was kind of freakish looking when she was my age, actually. I think that’s why she’s so nice now, and not vain, because it was a surprise to her, too, when she got awesome looking. I’m not gorgeous, and I’m not a freak, either, and so that whole ugly duckling thing that Melinda went through probably isn’t going to happen to me.
But you saw me, right? You know what I look like.
Billie knocks on the door of Paul Zell’s hotel room, just in case. Even though you aren’t there. If you were there, she’d die on the spot of heart failure, even though that’s why she’s there. To see you.
Maybe you’re wondering why she came all this way, when meeting you face-to-face was always going to be this huge problem. Honestly? She doesn’t really know. She still doesn’t know. Except that you said: Want to meet up? See if this is real or not?
What was she supposed to do? Say no? Tell the truth?
There are two double beds in room 1584, and a black suitcase on a stand. No Paul Zell, because you’re going to be in meetings all day. The plan is to meet at the Golden Lotus at six.
Last night you slept in one of those beds, Paul Zell. Billie sits down on the bed closest to the window and she even smells the pillows, but she can’t tell. It’s a damn shame housekeeping has already made up the room, otherwise Billie could climb into the bed you were sleeping in last night and put her head down on your pillow.
She goes over to the suitcase, and here’s where it starts to get kind of awful, Paul Zell. This is why I have to write about all of this in the third person, because maybe then I can pretend that it wasn’t really me there, doing these things.
The lid of your suitcase is up. You’re a tidy packer, Paul Zell. The dirty clothes on the floor of the closet are folded. Billie lifts up the squared shirts and khakis. Even the underwear is folded. Your pants size is 32, Paul Zell. Your socks are just socks. There’s a velvet box, a jeweler’s box, near the bottom of the suitcase, and Billie opens it. Then she puts the box back at the bottom of the suitcase. I can’t really tell you what she was thinking right then, even though I was there.
I can’t tell you everything, Paul Zell.
Billie didn’t pack a suitcase, because her dad and Melinda would have wondered about that. Fortunately nobody’s ever surprised when you go off to school and your backpack looks crammed full of things. Billie takes out the skirt she’s planning to wear to dinner, and hangs it up in the closet. She brushes her teeth and afterward she puts her toothbrush down on the counter beside your toothbrush. She closes the drapes over the view, which is just another building, glass-fronted like the elevators. As if nobody could ever get anything done if the world wasn’t watching, or maybe because, if the world can look in and see what you’re doing, then what you’re doing has to be valuable and important and aboveboard. It’s a far way down to the street, so far down that the window in Paul Zell’s hotel room doesn’t open, probably because people like Billie can’t help imagining what it would be like to fall.
All the little ant people down there, who don’t even know you’re standing at the window, looking down at them. Billie looks down at them.