The experiment – you know, the one you’d only participate in if your entire existence was predicated on craving the kind of fleeting faux fame that Fiji water girl just experienced – is now fully in swing over on Temptation Island. The couples have been split apart, the Tempters are calculating exactly what they need to do in order to snag the maximum amount of camera time without having to resort to either murder or actually developing a talent, and Javen is releasing deep sighs of relief into his pillow because every second of every day is no longer scored by the sound of Shari’s annoyed sighs. Oh – and two Tempters are rocking necklaces that may as well be fashioned out of rotting forbidden fruit.
It was my second day of college ever and classes hadn’t started yet. I woke up in a top bunk bed I’d never slept in before and tried from the moment my eyes flickered open to convince myself that this – that all of this – was simply my new existence and therefore every part of it was completely normal. Yes, I repeated in my head while I stood behind a flimsy curtain in the shower of the communal bathroom, it was normal to live in an L-shaped shoebox with two strangers. It was normal to tote a bathrobe with me into the shower so I would not run the risk of ending up naked in public, not even during a fire drill caused by some drunk person pulling the fire alarm. It was normal that my soap, shampoo, and razor were kept in a turquoise plastic bucket with a handle instead of on a shower shelf that belonged only to me. And it was totally normal that I was showering in flip-flops to avoid getting whatever sort of fungus had surely been left behind by the stranger who had showered before me and then bequeathed me a tangle of her blonde hair in the drain as a disgusting form of souvenir.
I’m pretty hard to shock at this point, but a lot of reality shows I’ve seen have seriously stunned me. Like, there was once a show where some woman dated men wearing Phantom of the Opera type masks to prove she was looking for love instead of looks. Do you remember it? The masked men would only get to remove their bizarre facewear in the pitch black darkness of a cellar where the woman would take them to go make out and, while they were down there, the woman would all but feel up the guy’s face to assure her obviously-terrified mind that no, this man who willingly donned a mask for twenty hours a day did not have boils growing off his cheekbones. Another show I watched involved two strangers marrying each other after a mock beauty pageant and it only came out later that the groom had restraining orders out against him for stalking. So yes, much of the reality television that’s come out has been (at the very least) mildly grotesque, but it was the first installment of Temptation Island that was on back in the day that freaked me out entirely – and now that nightmare is back.
Here’s the sickest part: I knew he would appear in my dream last night.
Listen, I can’t say that the knowledge of his upcoming presence appeared in any way like a linear thought in my mind. It’s not as though I went to sleep with perfectly muted lip-gloss on so I would eventually look all sorts of dewy and pretty for him in my dream state. But when I woke up several hours later and the last few spliced images of my slumbertime fantasy realigned into something resembling a cohesive order in my mind, I almost immediately remembered him standing there, the starring role he’d just played. I might have smiled softly. I most definitely whispered the words “of course” out loud into the emptiness of the night.
I was born during the height of rush hour on a snowy Monday morning in the first week of January. My father – less calm in a birthing scenario than my mother who thought it prudent to take some time to apply several coats of mascara to her lashes before heading into labor – almost ran down a school crossing guard in his quest to make sure I wasn’t pushed out somewhere along the Expressway on the North Shore of Long Island. He was promptly pulled over by a cop, received an immediate lights-blazing escort to the hospital, and I was born two hours later, my mottled and purple face the first visual indication of what would become my lifelong tendency to try to avoid the dread that comes with waiting.
I’ve taught Film for a bunch of years now, and the one thing that has stayed consistent over the passage of time is that at least two students a year will ask me to please start the course with a screening of Scarface. (They especially like that movie when the volume is turned all the way up. Apparently hearing Tony Montana fully snort that blow clear up his left nostril is absolutely integral to the experience.) I appreciate their advice – or at least I pretend that I do – but I usually choose to start the semester with a lesson on the concept of willful suspension of disbelief.
One time I watched as you leaned against the railing of my back porch. It was the middle of summer then, and the moonlight beamed hazy. All of it – the sound of the crickets, the heaviness of the air, the atmosphere itself – felt alarming, but only in the quietest of ways. It was just too close to perfect, I suppose, and the night seemed carved out of slippery silver. It was late, but not as late as it felt, and you’d just put my lighter into your pocket, a move done purely out of instinct. A few seconds later you’d realize it and you’d laugh and then hand it back over to me, our fingers touching in the kind of light and tempered way so different than how we’d touch each other later. But before – before the bedroom, before the shifted levels of control, before the way your face would go slack as I peeled off my shirt – we stood together in the sloping darkness. I felt my lips relax into an easy smile when your voice settled into that singsong sort of cadence. I recognized that cadence; it meant you’d reached your unfiltered state, the one usually so hard to get to with you. It was a sound that indicated you truly were happy. It was a sound that signaled that maybe I had made you truly happy. We shuffled on our feet – I was in flip-flops, of course with a wedge, and your feet were tan and bare, and we battled ravenous mosquitoes while ideas flew back and forth between us. You and I did a lot of things, but we never once talked small.
Remember how shocking it was when twenty-two utter fools actually managed to pair up correctly at the very last minute of the seventh season of Are You the One? Remember the fleeting look of accomplishment smeared across their faces as they sauntered off that island with approximately $40,000 and some very probable invitations to appear on even more reality shows in the way-too-near-future for my comfort? Remember when this cast acted like they were entirely capable of forgetting all the fighting and the furniture smashing and the sociopathic bullshit they’d inflicted on one another all summer long? Remember how they instead clung to one another super tightly and swore they’d be like family until the very last second of time? Well, it seems time is relative and this little televised family is even more dysfunctional than the Manson Family after a particularly potent acid trip. The sweet goodbye that blasted across our airwaves occurred months ago and the sweetness between these people faded – much like genital warts eventually do. Now it’s Reunion time, most of these people officially hate one another, and if you’re surprised that the majority of these relationships didn’t work out in the long run, you too are an idiot and such a thing means you should immediately apply to be on this show because you’d be a motherfucking natural.
My sweet readers, several zillion ultra-important questions have been swirling round and round inside of my head since Are You the One? aired a new episode. It’s sort of been hard to sleep, what with my grave fears about what could happen (nothing) should Nutsa and Brett turn out not to be an MTV-approved soulmate match. And that concern isn’t even slightly comparable to the wave of stomach-clenching terror I sometimes feel (it’s probably just cramps) when it dawns on me that this right here will be the very last time these people can try to pair up correctly. But the most ominous question weighing heavy inside of me (along with that fistful of Twix I consumed on Halloween night…and then the next night…and then the night after that) is the question about these contestants and their futures. Let’s just face it – the vast majority came on this show not to find temporary love, but to snag themselves very non-temporary careers as H-list reality stars on every show this network produces until the end of fucking time. I’m pretty sure what’s really been keeping me up nights is how very certain I feel that the very worst of these people are not going anywhere.
Since my mommy and my daddy committed a long time ago to the act of effective parenting, I was raised to be a decent human being. As such, I was able to muster up a bit of empathy for Kwasi when he lost whatever was left of his sanity. I mean, the man crumbled into the lap of a producer while wailing, “I came here for love!” Who amongst us hasn’t had a moment where real love seemed unattainable? Unfortunately, my empathy sort of shriveled up and died rather quickly because though I do happen to be a decent human being, I am also a smart human being and – though it saddens me to say this – intelligence and pragmatism kicks decency’s ass pretty much every time. And so as a smart person, I find myself feeling exactly nothing for Kwasi as he experiences a televised breakdown because what kind of faulty planning must be involved for you to decide that your greatest chance of finding forever love will occur if you enter a house loaded with booze, exhibitionists, exhibitionists drinking booze, something called The Boom Boom Room, and fifty-three cameras? And what insane lies did you need to tell yourself so you could become convinced that a show that’s been on for seven seasons and has ended with most of the couples breaking up both publicly and rather spectacularly would be your emotional safety net? As I cannot even force the decent side of my brain to attempt such a leap in logic, the only thing I feel for Kwasi right now is the hope that there’s some Xanax on the premises.