I came, anyway, to be loved. We all come to be loved. Some of us come for the exposure. Vienna sings on cruise ships. That’s what it says under her name: “Cruise Ship Singer.” I’ve heard her sing to herself at the end of a night. She sounds like she’s raking the bottom of her voice for meaning.
Men, when there’s a woman to win, get nominated by their sisters-in-law. They come in collared shirts and pastels. Drillers, salesmen, dentists. They high-five.
Women bring three suitcases too many. We leave lives to sign ourselves up.
When I got the call, I quit being my old self and bought ten cocktail dresses. Even if you only end up wearing one, producers advise: “Aim high!”
I wanted ones to make me memorable. Long prom sweethearts, sequined or slashed. Colors. Lace up to my chin with a lace-up back. I wanted one of those entrances when the lead turns to camera and whistles. I wanted to hear the whistle, hollow with want.
Our TV-owned home is occupied two months out of the year. During this time, we make millions of dollars for the Broadcast America Network by getting broken up with on a driveway.
Lauren H. left two kids to come here. She’s twenty-four. Kale is three. Bentley just turned one. How she got her body back enough to get on is a mystery to me, but Moana says the girls who get good edits got good edits because they poured themselves out properly. “Like,” she says, “in an hourglass shape.”
Moana is Brand Funny. The other option is Brand Angry. She doesn’t have a ton to choose from.
Who has ever in the whole of history spent so many days bikinied? We ride tractors in bikinis, we fry eggs in bikinis, we wear bikinis to a cancer kids’ puppet show. We paint nails to match bikinis to get seen by our Lead to get seen by TV to get seen on TV, probably by my half-asleep sister, scrolling through something on her couch.
Lady Sings the Blues, Topless and Barefoot, Cashmere Bathrobe, Starter Wife. We read nail polish names out to one another. Nikki, Tamzen, Lauren H., Vienna, Moana, and I.
After our Lead, I like Moana best. She’s got a name sounds like its own language even if she isn’t super pretty. I mean, she’s pretty in a way, but it’s hard to cut pretty in the right way when there are Nikkis and Lauren Hs passed out in permanent makeup, thick into the water lines of their eyes. Moana’s got this look like her youth is a laminate on the PTA president she’ll become. Also, she’s black, which means Moana is going home.
Producers say: “Whatever it takes to stay liked.”
Executives say: “When we cast for diversity, we feel guilty of tokenism.”
“We want to squeeze the black chicks in there,” the creator says. “But for whatever reason, they don’t show up.”
I ask Moana if she feels like we’re all racist.
“Don’t ask me that,” she says. “Ask me if I’m in love.”
We lie out on lawn chairs by an infinity pool, clink glasses in keeping with the white wine drink code. It is ten to two. We are a little drunker than cameras will catch.
“Are you in love?” I ask her.
Moana holds her pinot up to an eye. She blinks out the yellow swill, snorts, says: “I’m on TV.”
I ask her, What?
She points over my shoulder. “No,” she says. “I mean now.”
I look where, and there is a camera. There is a camera under the eaves. There is a camera overhead. There is a camera kitty corner to every bed in the house. The lens looks at us, and behind it, some guy.
In bedrooms, bathrooms, there are no cameras we know of. Anywhere girls get unbikinied. Anywhere we close our eyes.
Early days, Sports Dancer Shayne wiggled in with a loose-lipped boom guy. She made our first Brand Villain, getting seen where she wasn’t supposed to. Betraying her Lead for a smaller, meaner way to stay the only one.
“You think Nikki’s back from the island?” I ask.
Moana squints at the house. “I keep thinking I hear him laugh.”
There are phantom noises here. The first week, we all kept hearing our absent phones buzz. We perked during long cocktail parties, sat up in our beds. Then we realized the producers had phones.
“Last time,” Moana muses, “he seemed like he really had to pee.”
I snort. She says: “Did you just snort?”
He never seems like he has to pee when he’s with me.
With me, he’s different. Some not exactly making out but more than, sort of, at make out alcove. I was maybe drunk but. Producers say they saw it too.
“He kissed you?” I ask Moana.
“He kissed me.” She repositions herself on the lawn chair, unties the ties keeping her tits from a roll and flop. “I wouldn’t be here if not. Black girl gets two weeks in with no kiss, top 7 with one, top 5 tops.”
“She was Dominican,” Moana says. “Chantal Season Chad?”
“Okay,” I cheers, “Then you’ll make history. First black girl in history to make top two.”
I take her wine glass, emptied. “You win when I don’t.”
“No Pinot Grigio this time,” Moana calls. “Something sweeter, whatever they’ve got.”
More of the same, where inside women are loud with boredom. Tamzen’s taken to lugging barbells round each room’s perimeter. The deliberation room, the producer cave, the mixing center, make out alcove, the “tink tink” spot. There are 23 places to perimeter, more bathrooms than bedrooms. White women in imitation exotic interiors. Tamzen rounds teak tiki bars, Islamic entry gates, wears yoga pants rhinestoned with “Don’t Touch” on the butt.
“How’s the post-lunch routine?” I ask her ass, rounding a corner.
Ass becomes eyes, wide. “Dude,” Tamzen says. “Did they find you yet?”
I look where she hasn’t tanned, straps of white girl interwebbing bra. “Did who?”
“Vienna’s out of In the Moment.” Tamzen pumps weight in place. “Nikki came home, shocker there. They want you guys on a Heart to Heart.”
“You’re sure it wasn’t Lauren H.?” I ask.
“I’ve been sober and awake since 7am,” Tamzen says. “I’ve walked 15 rooms. They said you.”
“Someone was shooting B-roll of me and Moana like, five minutes ago.”
“They don’t want you and Moana.” Tamzen repeats. “They want Nikki and you.”
“They want Nikki and anyone.”
A twist in Tamzen tells me she’s picked up a Pelco.
“Upper left corner?” I mouth. Her eyes aren’t where I left them.
She says: “I’d kill for Brand Anyone.” Gets smiley. “I thank Jesus Christ I’m Brand Shown.”
“They’re not gonna show this.” I tell her.
She shrugs her who-knows-what-they’ll-show, snaggles eyebrows out of shot.
Producers live in Producer Cave, wall lit in feed, door closed. Girls live in bunk beds, out of suitcases, nap till we’re needed. Are we needed yet? No.
Places seen stay clean. High shine hair, high shine wood. There is a service that comes during downtime. There is a lot of downtime. Girls shower through the off hours. We wash our hair on location, in a location with art concerning that location on the walls.
Moana, outside, with closed eyes. I watch her out a window, baking blacker. Giggling over my shoulder, girl voice goes: “Raisin in the sun.”
“Nikki.” I turn. “Baby girl! You’re here! You’re home!”
“Was it wonderful?” I ask lens. “Tell me how wonderful it was.”
Nikki’s got that seen glow. I wonder how she contours, if they contour for her. How does a person contour herself? I wish Aesthetician Krisily were still on.
Nikki squeals: “Wonderful!”
“Wonderful?” I say, wonder: does anyone get the joke?
Nikki is serious when she takes my hand. “Wonderful.” She assures, upping each moment’s watchability seamlessly. “It’s not even about how we’re all dating him. I’m falling for more than the man that is our Lead.”
“A different person?” I ask, confused, per usual, by the how in how Nikki speaks.
“In a way,” she says. “He’s different when he’s with me. When we get to be alone.”
“Isn’t he different when he’s with all of us?”
“No babe,” she says. “He’s not.”
Production calls hold for airplane overhead. Nikki scratches her elbow: “Dry skin,” she remarks.
We’re a go then, but are we? No go, because no one’s going. A sound guy checks his phone. Nikki’s too busy smiling for anything but more stretch to come out her mouth.
“You don’t mean really alone.” I try, “Like, there was a lot of America seeing you, plus people behind cameras. You weren’t actually alone.”
“We were alone,” Nikki says. “We went to our own island. He helicoptered us and held my hand the whole ride. He helped me not be scared of how high we were. When I saw out, the world was so small. Who cares about cameras? I forgot about cameras. I forget about cameras all the time.”
I’d like to punch Nikki, except how I’d stay shown even after the punch hit. I’d have to keep on being a person, and Nikki wouldn’t bleed out any more than charm, charm, charm. She’s a Lead like no one is, like not even our Lead is. She leads him by the nose.
“Did he kiss you?” I ask her.
She says: “Sure, but that’s not what it’s about.”
“What is it about then?” I ask her. I look directly at the sound guy checking his phone, scrolling for the entertainment we’re not delivering. “Where is the else for it to be about?”
Nikki hails from a nowhere drunk on her drugstore pretty. Inside my head, I star her in local ads for chicken leg specials or ugly Halloween costumes. Sexy troll doll Nikki, Nikki who holds plastic-wrapped meat-wrapped bones to her smiling face. A Nikki decontextualized, a Nikki newly arrived in LA, knowing when she sees her same face on others just how much no one she is. Nikki on castings for Cute Girl #1, no name even, several steps below love interest. Nikki, whose dearest dream is to matter, married young to two weeks of tabloid fame, selling her story to stay relevant, now selling her selling of her story, trying to option a twenty-three-year-old’s memoir, authoring one of many obscure lifestyle blogs instead.
“I feel like I’m falling in love,” Nikki says.
This is the beat production was pushing for. Whatever I say here will be shown, no matter how nothing it is, because of its proximity to Nikki, pornographic in how thoroughly she drinks the Kool Aid, lets America watch her pee it out. Here is the first serious falling of the season, not counting Aesthetician Krisily, who called love so quickly our Lead was like what’s this girl’s name, then kicked her off. Other girls will take cues off this moment, waterfalling love into our Lead’s cupped hands. 6 of us left, no one can afford to dribble out.
If I add mine to Nikki’s, it will be a waste of the only guaranteed reveal I get. If I fail to say it soon enough, I’ll be Brand Hold Out, sent home. I’ve seen how girls get the boot for slowness, not that he didn’t see it with them, but that the love didn’t develop quickly enough.
“Me too,” I tell Nikki, “I feel like I love him, but I’m too afraid to admit it. Our last solo time was too long ago.”
My move risks Brand Crazy, as yet unclaimed so far as contestants themselves can see how we’ll be seen, but see how Nikki seems unseated?
“Week one does feel like forever ago,” she goes, unsteady. “But I wouldn’t worry. How could he forget about a person he’s kept around so long?”
“One of two unforgettable Lauren’s.” She reaches out to squeeze my shoulder. “Both unique and lovely human beings, whose friendship I am happy to meet.”
I hope there is a mash-up someone is making on the Internet of bizarre Nikki-isms, a sloganed broken English, adjacent to meaning, but so meaningfully said.
“I feel lucky to know you,” I say, stand, one hand mid-muss in her shiny bottle blonde. “Fingers crossed that when it comes to it, we’ll be the final two.”
“Final two!” Nikki toasts. She is not holding a glass.
“I thought maybe you’d eloped,” Moana remarks, when I hand her the bottle. She shades eyes at what I’ve given. “What is this? What you giving me this for?”
“It’s Riesling,” I tell her, “They have to peel the brand labels off.”
“Sweet.” She swigs. “How’d they let you take a whole bottle?”
“They want us drunk,” I slump on a lawn chair, inspecting usual spots for fat roll, “More mess they don’t have to manufacture.”
“Not sloppy drunk,” Moana says, “That’s how early girls get kicked off.”
“RIP eyebrow Lucy.”
Moana raises her own. “They had you with Nikki?”
“We’re best friends,” I tell Moana. “We had a Heart to Heart.”
I watch Tamzen across the lawn, barbelling the slick-rimmed hot tub. “She’s gonna fall,” I say.
“That girl came on here to hurt herself.”
“She’s coming over here.”
“Well,” Moana says, “Maybe she’ll tell us about her tattoo.”
Tamzen, heaving cleavage, arrives where we lie, bikinied, in luxury lawn chairs. She sets her barbells at Moana’s feet and gets on her knees, arching tits skyward. “It’s the Camel pose,” she says.
I quick chug some Riesling, watching where her sports bra dips low.
Moana says: “What do you think he does when he isn’t with us?” She’s fiddling with the hinge in her sunglasses, looking back where cameras watch Nikki and Lauren H. paint nails Chillato on the porch.
“Sleep?” I guess.
“Shower,” says Tamzen, “He always smells so clean.”
“When he’s shooting those long thought shots on balconies,” Moana says, “I mean, at least some of the time that he has to look like he’s thinking, he must actually be thinking about us.”
“Those girls sure are cute!” Tamzen goes, pitching her voice low.
I do the voice too. “The chocolate one especially, she’s got a real nice butt.”
Tamzen looks hurt it’s not her butt discussed. It cost a lot, she once told me, to get a conversation piece people only talk around.
Now, she sees how I follow her droop, straightens back to arch, asks: “Can’t we be chocolate?”
I look at her, then for cameras.
“You mean white?” Moana goes, sending eyebrows up.
“I mean—,” Tamzen stops, squints: “Wait, white chocolate? You mean white chocolate? Like, we can be white chocolate? If we want?”
“Creampuff.” I offer. “Shortcake.”
“Any color,” Moana says. “You guys are colorless. You get to be any color you want.”
I hear how Tamzen hears Moana. Where, after weeks of nothing new to look at but being looked at, she teeters her own rim into confession. “All I got was tall drink of water,” she says, falling back on her ass. “From him? That’s all I’ve ever got.”
“It’s a clear thing,” she clarifies. “Inside a clear thing.”
“Oh come on,” Tamzen looks to me. “Don’t pretend. You know what I mean.”
I’m too scared of having an opinion to have an opinion, so I tell her: “I don’t think Moana wants to talk about this.”
Moana reaches for the tote she’s toted out with us, not looking.
“I don’t want to be racist,” I say to her bent back. “I mean, I don’t think this is that Reality Brand. I don’t think they want the show about race.”
Moana turns her tote over on the lawn between us. She picks up the nail polish near her notebook, her sunscreen. Her used up crop and cutoffs. Her oil blotting strips.
“Cocktail and Coconut.” She reads. “Marshmallow.”
Bottles glint for the showing. Moana’s palms lighten where she holds the fat glass. “Angel Food. Lady Sings the Blues. Picket Fence. Show me the Ring.”
“Look,” Moana laughs. “This one’s straight up Delicacy.”
“Why is all your nail polish white?” Tamzen wants to know.
“It isn’t,” says Moana. “My elimination dress is.”
Tamzen narrows, alive with an expression she doesn’t want seen. I wish we were worth cameras catching it. “Matching can be hard,” she says, finally. “Did you hold them up to the dress?”
“It’s Lady Sings the Blues,” Moana says. She repacks her point, shuffling sound around.
“Is it weird,” I ask no one, “That Lady Sings the Blues isn’t blue?”
Moana steeples head in hands. She looks like she is asking herself for something she shouldn’t give. “I don’t know,” she says. Then: “Does it hurt him, you think, to hurt us?”
“Of course it hurts him,” Tamzen says, “Haven’t you seen other seasons? How much the Leads cry? It’s the hardest job of anyone here, disappointing so many people when you’re just trying to find true love.”
I wonder what fake love looks like, if I’d know it when I saw it. I think how our Lead looks at me when we’re alone with America. It feels like a real look, but maybe he is just looking, and the looking itself isn’t what makes it real.
“It’s in where you put your focus,” Tamzen is explaining to Moana. “Because, like my tattoo says, you can’t love someone else until you truly love yourself.”
Moana looks at me. I shut my eyes.
There are a lot of stories I would like to tell our Lead, or anyone, if I could figure out how they should be told. When the stories happened, they were made up from sensory action that seemed funny to me, or sad.
Imagine televising a date during which all the girl says is: “This is happening to me, this is what my me feels like, I am the person who is thinking the things being said.”
Would she be watchable? She certainly wouldn’t be entertaining, except in the way that performance art is entertaining. People say a lot how boring art is meant to be boring, that being bored is part of the experience of the boring art, and I’m like, well obviously. Have you tried entertainment? It’s similar to art, but you don’t have feel guilty when you get bored.
“I find it helpful,” Tamzen says, “just to think about the him he is when he’s with me, and the me I get to be when I’m with him.”
Moana wants to know if Tamzen made that up herself, just now.
“What do you guys mean,” I ask over Tamzen, who loudly reminds Moana her professional caption reads Tea Bag Philosopher, “When you say he’s different with you?”
“What do you mean what do we mean?” Moana says. “You say that too.”
“More attentive,” Tamzen says. “Or emotional. More emotional and attentive. Have you taken the five love languages test yet? It helped me out a lot.”
Moana gets up, abrupt. She’s sorry, she says, she needs to go inside.
“What was that about?” Tamzen asks her back, too far to hear. “Do you think she doesn’t like me? I feel like she maybe doesn’t like me?” She trains eyes on mine.
“Did she say she doesn’t like me? You have to tell me if she did.”
“She likes you,” I lie. “I like you. No one doesn’t like you. We all like you.” She keeps looking until: “A lot.”
“I’m trying to be open,” Tamzen tells me. She begins to cry, suddenly, and it is ugly. Her face looks like it lives underwater, some convulsing anonymous sponge.
“They said stay open,” she keeps saying. “Open is the only way we work.”
I move to block her from cameras. “Open is the only way the show works.” I tell her, “Production is counting on you crying, so they can make you seem like someone you’re not.”
“If you need to cry, cry without noise,” I tell her. “I’ve got the porch Pelco, but if they hear anything, a mobile unit will come.”
“Listen to me,” I say, muffling her head in my stomach. “Shut up. Listen. Brand Jesus is a solid draw. It’s won a bunch when it doesn’t break into Brand Crazy.”
“I’m not crazy,” Tamzen sobs, mucus slipping her mouth into my fat folds. “I’m in love.”
“We’re all in love,” I tell her. “No one who is still here is not in love.”
“Not how I’m in love,” Tamzen angry whispers. “We understand something about each other. You think it’s the same, but it’s different. He’s different when he’s with me.”
“They make crazy from emotion,” I say, unpressing. Our bodies squelch a satisfying sound. “You want crazy, keep crying.”
“I can’t tell if you want to help me or hurt me,” Tamzen says, and she looks like she means what’s she’s saying, but maybe she is only saying, like our Lead is only looking, and it isn’t the saying or looking itself, but what is made from the saying and the looking? We cannot all be producers of moments, I think, so who gets to produce, who gets to star?
“Will you just tell me if you are real?” Tamzen asks. “Are you really trying to help me out?”
“I am trying,” I tell her, “To help you see you how America might see you, if production gets the tools to make your personality a different brand.”
“I’m not normally like this,” Tamzen says, crying again.
“You are not a this,” I tell Tamzen. “Or, you are a this, but your this is only ingredients. They make a you from what you do.”
“Okay wait,” I say. “If what I’m saying was on one of your teabags, it would be like: ‘a man should be judged not by the things he says, but by the things he does.’ Does that help?”
Tamzen nods, confused. “I get it.” She says, “Like that actions speak louder than words?”
“Sort of,” I say. “Mostly what I’m saying is, don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying,” Tamzen tells me, but she is.
At night, we record video messages to send to Our Lead, pleading to be loved a week longer. It is unclear why these messages must be contained in their own videos, as the whole show is a video, and even if we did speak directly to him, it would end up on America’s TV. But I guess it’s important, too, to show that our Lead also watches TV, or watches us on TV. Our Lead is a looker, more America than we are, though he too is seen.
They shoot us shooting the videos. Later, they will shoot him watching the videos they shot us shooting. We are supposed to say stuff that matters in the videos. Nikki asks: “Similar to a Heart to Heart?”
“Speak from the heart,” Producers say, “Wear your heart on your sleeve. Just, lay your heart on the line.”
We watch Nikki deliver a tender performance through the glass window, Moana and I. She looks exhausted when she comes back through the door to hug Lauren H. To the rest of us, she tooth-smiles: “Long day. I’m spent. I need to go to bed.”
“Do you think she snores?” I undercover ask Moana.
“I’m her roommate,” Moana says.
Lauren H, following, shows photos of something, her kids? Vienna, of course, has written a song.
“I wonder what the chorus is,” Moana whispers. She begins to sing “Our love is like the ocean on a liner,” but then Vienna comes back through.
Tamzen’s got props: tattoo, bible. I can’t hear what she’s saying, but it looks like it contains the words “faith” and “us”.
“I’m sorry she chose today to go crazy,” I say.
Moana shrugs. Her eyes are on the other girls, packing themselves away for an early night. Jiggling out of shot, into bed, budging loose an airborne panic. Tomorrow, we become one less.
These long nights, we lie alone. Producers produce through contestants’ sweet dreams, a lit wall of bodies, cut into character, chunked out in brand. How, months later, we’ll be aired live in a Tell All special. Newest addition to the franchise, America watches us watch ourselves. What does it looks like, seeing yourself cut into a new meaning, a stranger’s story crammed in your mouth?
“The nail polish.” I start, stopping.
“You’re fine.” Moana says to me, anyone. “Don’t worry about it. None of you have done anything. None of you have done anything wrong.”
“Are you?” I ask her. “I mean, I know you are, but are you?”
“What?” Moana eye-widens, “In love?”
Behind the glass that keeps us from cameras, Tamzen has begun to cry. Her tears are bounce lit by a guy holding a reflector. “Wait,” I say to Moana, “Is her eyeliner tattooed on?”
Moana laughs, quiet.
“I don’t know.” She goes, “I mean, I can’t think about anything else.”
“What else,” I ask Moana, “Is there to think about?”
I look at her not looking, then down at my hands, nails painted Naughty-cal by the other Lauren in honor of an ocean-themed date. When it arrived, we read, out loud, the card addressed to all of us.
“Let’s Sea Where Love Takes Us!”
The same handwriting every season, signed by a different Lead.
Our date took us yachting, bikinied. Cameras waterproofed, boom guys ponchoed against the wind. Vienna, convinced of a hometown advantage, led our lead off on a tour of all the terms she knew. I sat solo at the prow, waiting for cameras to catch me contemplative, eyes on a gray and austere sky.
Moana, sensing something, hooked up with a camera she lured to ship’s tip. “Stand up,” she told me. “If this is the Titanic, then I get to be Rose.”
“Sshh,” I said, lowering my voice to our Lead’s register. “Give me your hand. Now close your eyes.”
A snort from Moana.
“Step up,” I offered a hand. “Onto the railing.”
Her laugh knocked around the b-roll crew, swerving heads.
“Step up onto the railing,” I repeated.
“There isn’t a railing,” Moana said.
“Step up onto the railing!” Then, tucking an invisible curl behind her ear: “The railing, my love.”
“Your love.” Moana agreed. She set her waist in my hands. “Your railing. Your railing love.”
“Keep your eyes closed.” I closed her eyes, mine. “Do you trust me?”
Moana cleared her throat, forcing a voice higher, younger. “I trust you.”
A newly-arrived Nikki broke the bit by laughing. “My God!” She called. “You’re a romantic comedy! You’re so cute.”
She snuggled up to camera and pretended she was a camera. She made a camera out of fingers and thumbs.
“Look,” Nikki said, showing the viewfinder her viewfinder. “This is what I was saying. This is what I want my love to look like.”
“Titanic is a drama,” I told her.
Nikki swished her hair in the salt wind, looking for where Vienna held onto Our Lead’s hand.
“Did you hear me?” I said. “Titanic is a drama. At the end, one of them dies.”
I’m after, second to last, the first of the final two shot. I stand in front of cameras, knowing I am supposed to mean a truth seen by everyone. An indifferent and couched America could be looking at anyone when I speak.
I say: “Do you remember?”
I say: “When you touched me but it wasn’t kissing? Just at the alcove, when we touched? I feel different around you. Do you feel different around me?”
“I can’t think about anything else.” I say, “I packed two suitcases to come here. I want to lie down on you.”
“I love you,” I say, “Like I want to be looked at.”
“I want to be looked at,” I say, “I have never felt more sure.”
I say: “What’s important to me is that you see what I mean here. Do you? See what I mean.”
“Would you tell me?” I say. “Is there a way to notify me before I’ll mean? How I’ll mean? If I’ll mean at all?”
A camera guy starts laughing. “Why are you laughing?” I ask him.
I ask Producers. “Producers,” I say, “Why is that guy laughing? Was what I said not good?”
Producers say: “What you said was wonderful.”
“Don’t worry,” Producers say, “We and he will know exactly what you mean.”
“You are wonderful.” Producers say, “We have been waiting for you. We have been waiting for this.”
I leave Moana on her own, to speak, walk to where I sleep with Tamzen. Next door is Nikki, passed out, Moana’s empty bed. I want an opening; I open Nikki’s door.
Her hair is a blonde she made. Her whole body is made by her: lovely, or something. Nikki is a love interest wearing an eye mask. Nikki is advertising sleeping, I think, by sleeping. I walk where Moana’s nail scissors are, next to Lady Sings the Blues, by her bed.
I cut Nikki’s blonde, I hold her. I am quiet, anyone. Anyone could be cutting the blonde but Moana. Moana is making meaning. Moana is not like me. She is different. She is downstairs.
I lay out Nikki’s long blonde hair in Moana’s empty bed. I put the blonde to sleep on her pillow. I want to give Moana a whiteness she can win with. I am clear in a clear thing, behind glass.
I had to fill out a form to come here. Everyone I love had to fill out a form for me to come here. The form was heavy because it contained a lot of forms. A lot of the forms asked questions like: “Is the contestant ready for marriage? Has anything happened to the contestant which might make the contestant better or worse at marriage? Has the contestant had previous relationships? Does the contestant love anyone else still?”
My sister, filling a form out on her couch, yelled across the apartment: “Dude, do you love anyone else?”
Then, when there was no answer: “Do you love other people? Why are you going on this show?”
Contestants who go on this show are not always girls, but when contestants who go on this show are girls, viewership ups. Contestants who are girls go on this show, end up scattered and photoblind. Girl contestants become bridesmaids at the winner’s wedding. Girls love separate from other girls. Girls love boys. Girls are white, and if they are not white, then girls are black girls. If girls are not black girls or girls, then girls are not-white girls, or girls who speak Spanish. Girls are never Asian. Girls learn a lot from this experience. Girls get to know themselves and others while dating the same guy.
I’m not an idiot. Before I was watched, I watched.
I wake up televised from sleeping untelevised. A person is screaming when I wake up. Moana is screaming. I wake up at 4:17am. Tamzen wakes up at 4:21am. Tamzen wakes up screaming: “Jesus Christ!”
There are no cameras when I get where Moana screams, but there is a camera following me to Moana. A guy and a camera, in my bedroom, watch me wake up. “What are you doing here?” I ask the camera, before I realize how dumb that question is.
Why would there be a camera in the room of Brand Anyone, except in the case that Sports Dancer Shayne got it wrong? She made out with the wrong boom guy, a misinformed boom guy, a boom guy idiotic enough to make out with Sports Dancer Shayne. He told her there was no one who watched us sleep.
Of course someone watches us sleep. Why else would the bedrooms look so nice?
Moana holds the whiteness in her hands, breathing hard at strands of Nikki, who blinks groggy in bed from the drugs she takes to sleep. The whiteness frays out of curls. It falls where Moana doesn’t hold the hair close enough.
“Oh fuck.” Tamzen says, behind me. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
Nikki squints at us, the camera. She looks adorable confused, but half her hair does not look adorable. “Good morning?” she asks. “Is He here too? Are we doing the surprise date thing again?”
No one says anything, and then Lauren H. runs in in her mom nightgown. “Nikki!” she gasps, pitching herself onto Nikki’s bed, “What happened to your hair?”
“Is it bad?” Nikki says, “I went to sleep with it wet.”
“It’s--” Lauren H. looks around wild, lands on Moana. “Is that hers? Are you holding it?”
“It was here when I got here,” Moana says. “I didn’t—it was already like this.”
“Why are you holding it though?” Tamzen asks, scrunching. “Why would you pick up another person’s hair?”
“It was on my pillow!” Moana says. Something is lit in her. “It was like this when I got here! I didn’t make things this way!”
“Someone should get the producers,” Vienna says. I didn’t even realize she was here, which is honestly Vienna’s problem in a nutshell. “I’m gonna get the producers.”
“There’s a camera guy in the room,” I yell after her. “You think they don’t already know?”
“What’s going on right now?” Nikki asks. She buries her face in her hands. “I don’t understand. You can’t wake me up until six hours after my pill. Last time I was given notice. Why didn’t anyone give me notice? I wish someone had told me we were gonna need to get up.”
“Sweetheart,” Lauren H. says, lightly stroking Nikki’s back. Her nails are painted Tequila Mockingbird. “This isn’t a date. This is a--someone cut off your hair, babe. Not all of it. Some of it. There’s still some hair left.”
“She’s holding it,” Tamzen says, pointing.
Nikki looks at Moana’s blonde, touches her head. She dizzy walks from bed to mirror, trips in her sleep high, straightens up. In the mirror, a shorter Nikki fingers her shearing. Until she turns to Moana, Nikki’s face is the best television I’ve ever seen.
“I’m gonna sue you,” she says.
“Not the show?” I ask.
“Wait,” Moana drops the rest of her blonde. She dusts her hands of blondeness. “Hold on. I’m not the criminal here.”
“You guys are making a huge assumption,” I say, siding. “Moana was the one who found it. We all heard her scream.”
“This is like a murder mystery,” Tamzen says, shifting into frame. “Like an actual real-ass crime. Do you know the kind of ratings we’re gonna get?”
“Maybe production cut it.” I get quick, reckless, watching the camera watch me. “Maybe we were boring and the ratings are why.”
The camera guy looks at me. I look at the camera guy.
“The ratings are good,” Nikki says, waving one hand at camera. She’s waking up, getting softer with each hair touch. She, too, is seeing the camera see her. I watch her thoughts move. One second she sharpens, another she warps. Her chin is wiggling.
“Why do you hate me?” Nikki asks Moana, and then she breaks down in tears.
“What?” Moana sounds hurt, and I know her enough to know that the hurt is not seeming. The hurt is hurt.
“You don’t like me,” Brand Tragic Nikki tells camera. “I try so hard to have you like me. I want you to like me.” She sobs at Moana. “Why don’t you like me? What did I do wrong?”
“I like you!” Moana starts, but too quick, Tamzen is talking.
“You don’t like me either.” She narrows at Moana, “Why are you here? You don’t like anyone.”
“I’m here for the same reasons you’re here,” Moana tries. “I’m in love.”
I want to hold her or hit her. I want to take her to an alcove.
“Is that why you did this?” Nikki asks.
Tamzen flips to camera. “She’s different when she’s with him. He doesn’t even know about her.”
“We’re all different when we’re with him,” I say.
Tamzen doesn’t even turn to spit: “Shut up, Lauren.”
Lauren H. goes: “Hey!”
“Sorry,” Tamzen pivots. “The other Lauren. I’m not talking to you.”
“No one thinks you were talking to Lauren H., Tamzen,” I tell her. “Literally the only person in this room who would ever think that is you.”
“Alright,” Lauren H. says. “Hold the phone. We don’t need to all attack each other.”
“I don’t want to fight with anyone!” Nikki says. She runs a hand through her hair and then begins to cry again. “I love you all too much for that.”
Here is her mistake. Before she can catch herself, Moana rolls her eyes.
“See!” Tamzen gasps. “Look at her!”
“Did you see that?” She asks camera. “Nikki is legit bald and crying right now! Did you see how mean she is?”
“Nikki is not bald,” I say.
“You owe us an apology.” Lauren H. mom-talks at Moana, her arms around a shaking Nikki.
“You are the problem with this country,” I tell Tamzen. I walk to Moana and hold out a hand. “Come on. Let’s go outside.”
“I’m not--” Moana says, but then her eyes flick to camera. “Okay. Outside.”
Downstairs, a covered up chaos worsening closest to Producer’s cove. Vienna gesticulates to someone with a headset and camera at the front door.
“Does this sort of thing make you think of your ex-husband?” I hear him ask her, when we elbow by.
Over the driveway, night is paling. By the biggest fountain sits a lone grip, sipping craft services coffee, checking his phone.
Moana breathes clipped. She crouches on the gravel, cheap polka dot nightie riding up her thighs. I can see her cotton underwear, stained faint with old blood at the crotch.
“It’s okay,” I say, getting down where Moana panics. I wrap arms round her, let her head nestle in my neck. “You’re okay.”
Moana’s breath evens while I hold her, gravel pricking into our bare soles. The grip eyes us, glances around for cameras, then heads around to the back of the house. I know that look. Only minutes now, before cameras come.
My thighs spasm from crouching. When we collapse onto the driveway, Moana pulls into herself. I want her body back. Gravel sticks into my butt.
Silence then, which I break, not knowing how: “Hey, did you know Vienna was married before?”
“What?” Moana says, raising head from hands.
“Sorry. Bad timing. Just the dude inside with Vienna said—but obviously it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter right now.”
“Are you kidding me?” Moana starts to speak, stops, shakes her head, and stares at me. “There’s a lynch mob of white girls inside the mansion right now.”
“It’s not like they can hurt you,” I tell her. “We’re on a television show.”
“What do you mean they can’t hurt me?” Moana snorts, angrier than I’ve heard her. “They’ve already hurt me. You think an accusation isn’t enough? I was barely staying under the radar already. This show literally lives and dies by the court of public opinion.”
“Like I want that white girl’s hair,” Moana mutters. “Fuck that.”
I look at her lips, wobbling where she struggles not to cry. Bee-stung flesh beds, pillowy. Moana sees me looking. Maybe for the first time.
“What are you doing here?” She asks me. “Whose side are you on?”
“You don’t really think that.” She says, “Do you?”
“Why are you attacking me?” I ask. Is this what hurt sounds like?
“You think you’ll get fan faves for befriending the black girl?” Moana cocks her head, face spread in a serious smile. “Is that what you mean when you say side? You’re like, a friend to the cause? That by not saying something racist, you’re what? Not racist? Standing up for me?”
“I just stood up for you,” I say. “I took us outside.”
“Outside of what?” Moana laughs. “Is this outside?”
“This isn’t my story,” I say. “It’s Our Lead’s. It’s about his journey to find love.”
“Funny.” Moana remarks, not laughing. “For someone making space for other people to speak, you sure get seen a lot. You know, there were no cameras before you came into our bedroom. You came with a camera.”
The quiet nearly teeters my rim into confession. Do we see each other now? I wonder. Is this how I am supposed to look?
“Do you even want him?” Moana is uncooked, plain. “Did you try to fall in love at all?”
Yes, I tried to fall in love. I came here why we all do. No different from anyone, but how I wish to Our Lead I was.
Moana picks gravel off her thighs for the forthcoming camera. “Why are you here? Honestly. Lauren. Look at me. What is this about for you?”
I want to tell Moana why I am here. How Our Lead snubbed me something essential. All the places I have failed to feel what I was supposed to feel. At the alcove, on a yacht. In my chest cavity, my ear cavity, my cavities not pictured on TV. Under bleachers, behind unused auditorium curtains. Empty classrooms, semi-finished basements, gym dances, dive bars. Walls, against them. Pulled down or pushed up.
I want Moana to know who I am, but I cannot think of a story about myself that is great television. What anecdote evokes the reasons a girl might sign up for a reality dating show, plead with another person to keep her around? Which way to say: I have never not been trying, the trying started long before I thought to try on television, the trying has taken up my whole life, and for the story of that trying to be meaningful, and not only to be meaningful, but to mean the meaning I meant the story to mean, to anyone other than myself?
I look at Moana. Any moment, we will be joined by a mobile unit.
“Exposure.” I say.
Sonia Feigelson is an MFA candidate in Fiction at NYU. Her work can be seen in or is forthcoming from the Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Whiskey Island, Split Lip Magazine, Two Serious Ladies, and Burrow Press Review, among others. Most recently, she was awarded third prize in Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers. You can follow her on Twitter.
Photo by m-marie photography.