by Katie Kalahan
Lolo had been talking for an hour straight when I realized she wasn’t going to spend the night with me. According to Lolo I was only in Palm Springs for the photoshoot, but according to me, I had extended the trip because Lolo invited me. Because her wife was out of town. But when she said she was going to head home and leave me here in this strange desert city with just a dark hotel room to return to, I was pissed. I knew it wasn’t cute. Anger’s never been cute.
“Why am I still here?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Ida,” she said. “I didn’t force you to come here.”
She said my name a lot when she was fed up with me. I wanted to be that cool person who is fine with being the second in line, the two out of two, chill, poly, whatever. I produced, that’s what I did. I convinced models and big shot photographers and camera people to all get along and get shit done and make it beautiful and come in on budget. But Lolo was un-producible. We met two years ago because she was collaborating with one of my photographers. They called her an environmental celebrity, she called herself an activist.
“I wouldn’t have come here if it weren’t for you,” I said. I knew I was repeating myself. I knew what I couldn’t say was that I was afraid of the desert. It was unstable here, in the place where the flickers originated. Starting two years ago here in Palm Springs, without warning everyone would disappear at the same time, and return at the same time. Each time there were reports of just a few people who didn’t disappear at all, and each time there were people who disappeared but didn’t come back. What I’d heard was that most people felt a sudden fever, and suddenly, time had passed. Now Phoenix, Las Vegas, and other cities were experiencing them too. The California governor was starting to suggest relocations, while Arizona’s governor refused to believe the reports. Actually, a lot of people thought the flicker was a conspiracy theory, even if they’d been through it.
“It’s just that we get so little time together,” I said.
“So, what, Ida, I’m not allowed to want to be alone?”
I was role-reversed into the spot of the people I dated back home (far away from the desert, in a place where time moved continuously and consistently) who didn’t understand my callousness and wanted to draw emotions out of me when all I wanted was to fall asleep, watch tv, see them in a week. I dated because I loved the feeling of wetness on skin and the strange sounds of desire. I didn’t like living without sex, like I didn’t like living without hard exercise or good cocktails. But I didn’t like the way I felt about Lolo, which was entranced. Or maybe I liked it so much.
I said, “How does it feel? When you go into the flicker?”
“Last week, my wife told me that she’s not disappointed in me, but she’s disappointed in our relationship. After that I couldn’t sleep. I got out of bed and I left. I’ll get to telling you about the flicker. The air was warm around my body and there was only a sliver of a moon and the sky was the deep velvet purple of a liver. I’ll get to it. I walked along the wide street with cars passing me fast but what bothered me was the noise and the wind from the cars. I wondered if anyone would see me and cause me trouble, as they say. If anyone thought I looked fuckable.”
She ordered another drink, one with vodka. She always chose the vodka drinks. Together we flirted with the hotel’s bartender, a small man in his sixties, gay. He winked at us as he dropped off her drink.
I said, “I hate that things are only good in the past or the future. That we think of the good things that we lost or the good things we could have. That we never see the good in the right now.”
Lolo looked at me and raised her glass. “To right now,” she said.
“Did I tell you that I used to go to AA?” she asked. “I didn’t like myself anymore, so I drank and I drank and I drank until I couldn’t feel myself in me. At some point I decided that couldn’t be my solution.”
She dipped a chip in salsa, I drank until the ice cubes fell against my face.
“Really what happened,” she said, “is that I got a DUI and I gained forty pounds and I couldn’t remember the last day when I hadn’t had a drink. So I decided that my new solution would be exercise. But the problem with exercise is that you can’t start doing it at 2 am when you can’t sleep or at 9 in the morning after you fought with your wife, or over and over again in one day. And it doesn’t make you pass out and skip a whole block of time. Suddenly I was seeing all the problems that I couldn’t live through, I couldn’t sustain. I couldn’t maintain. I’m getting to it.”
“So anyway,” she said, “I go for walks now. At any time. I leave work and go for a walk. I leave my life behind. That’s what the flicker feels like. On the one hand, it feels like nothing. On the other hand, it feels like leaving my life and going for a walk.”
I ran my finger along the top of her thigh and when she put her glass down I kissed her. She kept her forehead against mine for a moment before sitting back.
“You know there are people who think that someday no one will come back?” she said.
I always wished that one of these times Lolo’s wife wouldn’t come back.
“I bet they’re the same people who believe that cell phones will give them cancer and keep a bunker of emergency supplies and think that world peace is achievable,” I said.
“Humans have no way to fix things,” she said. “Only ways to move on. We make landfills, not recycling centers. My best efforts will leave you walking out into the distance and never turning back.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just mean my work,” she said.
“Leave the desert,” I said. “Humans don’t belong in deserts.”
She laughed and tapped my glass, still half full of ice. “Neither does this.”
We were both done with two drinks by then, and we went back to the hotel room so she could collect her bags. She talked and talked and I didn’t hear a word. I tried to embrace her, she said, “Not now.”
“The only time is now,” I said. “What about our toast?”
She sighed, stepped forward, and the booze on her breath mixed with her perfume and I was soaking up her smell, her ropy rangy body, her tumult of hair, her insistent gasps.
The shortest flicker reported was half an hour, though we all assumed there had been shorter, un-trackable ones. The longest reported was three days. While most people instinctively attributed the flickers to climate change, I saw them as the desert flicking humans away like a horse flicks flies. But impermanent. Others saw the flickers as a biblical prophecy come to bear—short versions of the rapture, though they couldn’t explain why people only got raptured for a short period of time and then came back to earth, or why everyone disappeared at once, even the heathens.
When we came back to the world it was barely evening and the sun was still blazing down on everything. She picked at a scab on her arm and suddenly she was bleeding in a little river of blood. Somehow between getting a tissue and patting it on the spot, we started fighting again; I wanted more than she could give, she wanted less than I could give. I was taught not to be angry so when it came on it came on hard like a wall of water crashing over me.
I trembled and she walked away.
Then we were barefoot, screaming outside the hotel on the sidewalk.
She hissed we can’t do this here and I claimed those words meant that she was a manipulator and liar and thief. She’d stolen this time in my life and I’d been crying for hours and I felt lightheaded and steamrolled.
“Someone is going to call the cops on us,” Lolo said, and we looked around.
Empty streets. Quiet air. No one on the sidewalk. No one in the parking lot. No one in the hotel office. No one in the restaurant.
“Calm down,” she said. Was I shaking, panicked, sobbing, ranting?
She dragged me, literally dragged me by the wrist as I whimpered, and said she was hurting me though I only said that to hurt her and she said, “I’m sorry but we are literally the only people in the world and I don’t want to fight,” and she dragged me back through the gate and into the courtyard and she pushed me into the hotel pool.
As I came up and sputtered, she shouted something about a therapist, “He suggested dunking under cold water to calm down. It stimulates the dive reflex. It’s like this thing you can do when you’re what he calls ‘activated’. It, like, tricks your body into thinking you fell into cold water and slows your heart. Helps with panic.” In the coming weeks, I would find the sink in the spare bathroom full of cold water and I would drain it, over and over, an unspoken ritual, and I would remember her words.
She was golden in the low-angle sunshine. The water was salt and diluted bleach and a little bit metallic like the smell of the blood on Lolo’s arm. She was still talking.
“It’s so hard to be a woman, to be gay, why do we make it even harder for each other? Oh, Ida. Maybe we just aren’t cut out for this.”
She tugged at her sleeves.
“The problem with love. It’s not about intentions. Trying to love feels like being a kid again—there are only things that you’re not supposed to do, but no one explains what they are. No one says what you are supposed to do. So you just end up fucking up all the time. I think I’ve been naïve about love. I thought if I was careful enough and found someone who wanted the same things that I could build something good. But everything rots. There is no version of love that stays true for any length of time.” Without pausing, she sat so that her feet were in the pool with me, gathered her hair back behind her neck and let it go. “In the flickers, where do you think everyone goes? How long do you think this will last? What do you want to do while we are the only people in the world?”
I said, “How long do you think it’s been going on? Could have started while we were inside.” She looked thoughtful.
I got out of the pool and took off my wet shirt and shorts.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I asked, “Did you really used to go to AA?”
“But you drink,” I said.
“Have you ever felt like you’re just throwing every solution you can think of at a problem? I’ve also tried being healthy, getting more education, a new job, religion, marriage…”
The cement underneath me grated my skin. Out of skepticism, I listened for human noises but heard only birds, bugs, wind. I couldn’t move for the longest while. I just lay on my back, fingers dangling over the edge of the pool, listening to the blank silence. In the quiet I found a groan of settling walls, a thrum of wind, a single chirp from an evening bird. I heard, too, the absence of human noise—no cars passing, no humming air conditioners, no trickling fountains, no doors slamming, no leaf blowers.
“I need to take a shower,” I said after a while.
In the shower I stood until the room was filled with steam. Lolo soaped me with the kind of tenderness that confused me and made me want to ask for the love I shouldn’t ask for.
She said, “I hope my wife is okay wherever all the flickered are.”
She had gotten out of the shower. She was rubbing a thin hotel towel around her calves.
I made a face, she told me I was being unfair, we fought.
We fought. Our fights were acidic. Our fights ate away at us. I yelled about her hypocrisy or leading me on, or whatever it was that time. Even in the liminal space of the flicker I couldn’t let go of the future. I wanted to know what her plan was.
“What if the world as we know it never comes back?” she asked. “What if it is just you and me for the rest of time?”
“Then we leave the desert,” I said.
“Fine,” she said. “Let’s go now.”
“Fine,” I said.
We didn’t go.
Instead, we went to an oasis. In cartoons, oases are relief, comfort. The reality of the oasis was like getting in a moldy shower after two weeks of not showering. Cleansing would not be the right word or the wrong word. The palm trees hadn’t been trimmed and their skirts of dead branches offended us. It was—verdant isn’t the word. Fertile isn’t the word. We wandered, touching palm leaves and looking for animal life. Instead of leaving the desert, we went to Lolo’s house and passed the hours.
The first morning I woke up shaking. I was inches away from the edge of the bed, so close to falling off. Terror had lunged at me with a force so strong that it pushed through my dream and hit me awake. The covers were all pushed to the bottom of the mattress, twisted and tangled in the way that I hated. I had been dreaming.
In my dream I was back in the first hotel room we desecrated, where it all started, wondering where Lolo was. I listened for Lolo among the sounds of hotel life—creaky housekeeping cart, fast Spanish, splash in the pool, child’s shout. She was never there when I woke and in the dream I knew that she was gone forever.
We talked about leaving, but reporters who tried to drive into Palm Springs disappeared. The flicker had edges around the city. Somewhere between their home and the desert, they would go wherever it was that the flickered went. Gone. So we were afraid to leave. We followed the news as other cities went dark or empty, depending on what station you were listening to. I told my work that I was stuck inside the flicker and someone must have leaked it to the press because we started getting calls and emails asking for interviews. We hadn’t found anyone else who was still around. We didn’t call the reporters back at first because Lolo is kind of well-known and there would be scandal.
We drank, a lot. At night we sat on the side of the pool beginning to fill with silk tree leaves. Every night we wondered if we would wake up to the same empty world or if something would change overnight. When she cried, I said anything I could think of. I went on and on, about how I didn’t know how to comfort people, about how I fell in love with her calves at that photoshoot, about my office politics and the color of the sky and the last book I read and what we should do tomorrow and the layout of my childhood home and when we woke it was lavender dawn and we traipsed inside and fell back into bed.
Eventually we got in touch with reporters, and finally, I got to produce Lolo. I set up the lighting from the generator and we laughed about still having cell service and I tucked her hair behind her ear.
The two things we did not tell the reporters were what our relationship really was, and that I woke screaming, shaking, or sobbing every night. Every time I woke, Lolo was gone. Each time, I was afraid I wouldn’t find her. In my dreams, she was dead in the desert. In my dreams, she wrote notes saying “I was bored,” and “I couldn’t help,” and “Oh, Ida.” When I woke, I was afraid to find out if she left to go walking because of my sleep terror or if it came on because she was gone.
What she did talk about to the reporters—and I hated it but I knew it was good for our story, our reputation, the ratings—was her wife. She said: “I imagine my wife stuck in a void like opaque jello or the voids in tv shows of another dimension, hypnosis, or the mind of an omniscient computer program. I miss her so much.” She talked about her guilt at not having done enough to counteract climate change. She talked to world leaders, diplomats, scientists. While she was on the video, she was radiant. As soon as I closed the laptop for the day, she would look at me and say something like, “It’s only going to get worse. Humans are fucked.”
After a month it seemed like maybe it wasn’t going to end, not this time. Things were starting to go rancid. You would think that this was exactly what I would want. To be stuck, indefinitely, with Lolo. But what happens after you get exactly what you want?
On the fortieth day, I got out of bed early. I put on fresh clothes and a bra and the sneakers I used to wear on set. As Lolo dressed too, I saw how skinny she had become without structure or a consistent vision of the future. The thin trail of hair on her belly that she used to pluck had grown out into wiry sporadic curls. I thought of the first time we met and how she caught me in her wild gaze and pulled me in with her smile and how torn I was between wanting her and wanting to be her.
Lolo was talking and talking telling me the plan we had come up with—we had to leave Palm Springs and make our way to a non-desert, where life continued as normal, without humans disappearing from the face of the earth and staying suspended in time until they returned. I thought about the people who were at death’s edge when the flicker began. Whenever it ended, they would breathe their last breaths, but for now, they were still alive.
She was still talking but I wasn’t listening. At some point during the past forty days I had stopped listening and I had started watching. She moved like a hummingbird, jolting and jerky and quick. I watched the mole above her knee and the light scrapes on her shin. I ached to bury my face in the darkness under her skirt and lose myself in sex, but she was buzzing with energy, would not be distracted. If we made it back out into the world, what would we be to each other?
We turned off the phones so that we couldn’t be reached by the reporters we’d been updating on the nothing inside the flicker. We left the doors and windows open. I don’t know if I wanted to leave but I wanted to follow her wherever she was going.
“Let’s walk,” she said, so we walked.
We walked through streets where dust was beginning to settle on the asphalt, through neighborhoods where we’d drained every pool, through parks where lizards were sunning themselves on the benches.
Lolo didn’t talk.
There was no one except us.
We walked. And we walked. Until we didn’t.
Katie Kalahan lives and works in Seattle. They are pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and hold a BFA in Printmaking/Drawing and English Literature from Washington University in Saint Louis. Their work is published in The Ear and Thin Air Magazine.