I’ve been thinking a bit lately about empathy, both as a broad concept and how it manifests specifically in my own life. Empathy comes easily to me (in much the way patience does not) and I’ve always been drawn to the empathetic sort, the kind of person who sweats great big drops of empathy after an intense workout that includes one-armed emotional pushups. See, I think that the tendency to comprehend someone else’s feelings and then adopt those same emotions as a way to connect on a deeper level is, in many ways, just an offshoot of being logical. Think about it: someone you know feels hurt or lost and you can see pain written across her face like a story that doesn’t have an ending – or one filled with far too many endings – and you take a second to trace back what it is that might have caused her to currently be curled up in a trembling fetal position on your living room floor. You know enough about her to realize it’s probably heartbreak and betrayal that’s been mixed into a shitty cocktail she drank through a straw without using a chaser. You understand that she feels momentarily broken. And you know full well that feeling broken is frightening, even if it’s been a good long time since you have been broken – even if you have sworn to yourself that, fuck no, you will never allow yourself to be broken like that ever again.
But maybe that’s the stumbling block for people who are unable to be empathetic – and yes, those people exist and they walk amongst us. Part of empathy requires sorting through your own personal storage shed of emotions and experiences to locate the one that will allow you to relate to the person sitting before you. Unfortunately, mentally stumbling back through experiences you thought you had successfully buried can be akin to taking a spiky garden rake to the face. (I was into my shed analogy, hence the rake. Please go with it.)
Relating profoundly to someone else’s emotions can result in you feeling shittier than you did before. Empathy is messy; it’s crushing to try to decipher and then share someone else’s pain, but I think ultimately it would probably be even more crushing to feel nothing. Still, there are definitely some perks to being emotionally barren. Without pesky shit like sentiment pulling my focus, I could maybe benefit all of humankind by solving cold cases or building sterilization chambers meant to stop much of the cast of Vanderpump Rules from ever breeding.
Yeah. So it seems that empathy might only get a girl like me so far when it comes to relating to the participants of a reality show. On the one hand, I totally understand the desire for exposure, for wanting to present a talent you think you have to the world and for believing that reality television is a viable option in your quest – even though it rarely works out that way. But on the other hand, when you have happily committed to impersonating a morally-bereft piece of hardened dogshit just so people know your name, I can’t even allow myself to slip my on empathy cloak (it’s black and very stylish) in an attempt to muddle through the trenches of fucking nonsense to locate a shard of what might be real. In fact, I refuse to even try to comprehend the level of pain these people inflict upon themselves and one another all in the name of narcissism. My empathy nerve – usually pulsating – goes numb and stagnant when I watch this show and I’m pretty certain it’s because so many of the people on it actively strive to be dead inside.
And speaking of one of my favorite lifeless souls, Jax is starting the celebration for Gay Pride early by not wearing a tie and instead unbuttoning his shirt halfway down his chest because that’s such a good look. Lisa’s hope is high that this year both of her parties for the big day will be successful. The party at SUR is for a charity and Lisa patiently explains to Jax that the party is to support the LGBT community and then has him repeat the letters of who he’s supporting back to her in much the way I learned how to conjugate the verb “to suck” in Spanish class when I was in the seventh grade. (Jax chupa, mis amigos.)
Later in the kitchen, Jax waxes philosophical. He’s been watching a show about a woman left with only five days to live and he’s since been plagued by the age-old existential question: If a douchebag explodes in a forest, will anyone hear it? Oh, wait – that’s not the question. No, he’s wondering what he’d do if he knew his time was running out. Scheana’s response is that she’d travel to Paris or Egypt and I think her music would sound excellent if performed atop a Pyramid. Jax’s plan involves far less travel time. He’d choose to murder a great deal of people who have wronged him and that’s a totally healthy way to spend your last hours on Earth and you’re the crazy one if you think any differently. As for the order of the hit list that I’m sure he carved into the crusty sock that sits by his bedside, James has snagged the top spot. Now listen, I am all about hating James. James is a ridiculous person. James sucks. (James chupa tambien!) James has, what I’m hoping, is an inferiority complex that has ballooned into a curious superiority complex that makes absolutely no sense given the person he presents himself to be. I might be snarky and all, but I’ve never seen it as a requirement that I verbally eviscerate anyone in my recaps and I certainly never reached into a hat and pulled out his name – which should only be written in lowercase because he is just that pathetic. I’m not stuck saying shit about some DJ because his is the slip of paper I grabbed. No, James has gleefully chosen to exhibit the most repulsive of all traits a somewhat evolved mammal can pull off and so I’ll go ahead and comment on all of it. Still, if I were going to off anyone in the world, James would not be first on my list. James would probably not even make it on my list, and that’s only partially because normal fucking people do not have mental hit lists.
As for Jax’s stinging vitriol against James, a lot of it is Lala-based – as are quite a few viruses, or so I’ve heard. Scheana understands his stance; it’s bizarre to her too that girls are chasing after a scrawny DJ who dresses like he lost a bet. Jax is not used to losing girls (saddest sentence ever), and he’s really unaccustomed to losing them to an asshole who’s an even larger and more leaky asshole than he is. However, the coupling of Lala and James shouldn’t be bothering Jax. He’s sort-of-kind-of-maybe-but-only-when-she’s-in-spitting-distance-of-LA seeing Kentucky Brittany and we get a sweet (or terrifying – it’s really about perception and I will surely have nightmares) flashback of the two of them kissing. He has a huge gash running across his forehead and shit shoved into his ear and she hasn’t run fleeing into the dark abyss for her life so maybe this is the girl for him. Jax likes Brittany and all, but he thinks Lala is beautiful and special enough to compare her to that car you don’t want to buy but you do want to barrel down the street. The guy is romance personified and he kind of nods when Scheana tells him he should just get Lala really drunk at Gay Pride and make his move, but this is Jax we’re talking about. He’s only bangs morons so he knows he won’t really need to get her that drunk.
In another area of the restaurant, Katie and Ariana check out the dresses they’ll be wearing for the party while they talk about how much better Scheana and Shay are doing now that he’s drinking the kale smoothies Sandoval whips up for him daily and not sequestering himself at his parents’ house. Those are positive steps for sure, but Lisa knows the guy’s issue has nothing to do with vegetable-based fiber. Shay has been taking pills for years and he drinks far too much and he’s got a problem that positive affirmations and flaxseed alone will not solve. According to Lisa, Scheana wants perfection: the perfect wedding and the perfect marriage, but what she’s chasing is surface and it’s not real and that’s an insightful comment to make about someone who maybe lives her life a little too much for show.
The other problem, of course, is that Scheana is a fucking idiot. She doesn’t seem to be a bad person, but being kind does not always include being smart and I’m going to skip out on a splintering and rotting limb here and say it’s the rather unintelligent person who thinks her addicted husband should join the all-day Gay Pride celebration and have a drink or two but not get shit-faced. She finds nothing wrong with that plan because the last thing she wants is to be married to a man who is committed to the sobriety he appears to desperately need. Sobriety is so not fun, you guys. You know what else is not fun? When someone you have called all kinds of nasty names (including “human smegma”) all of a sudden shows another side to him by perceptively explaining that Scheana inviting Shay to a party that will be marinated in alcohol is actually an action that’s just setting him up for failure. I actually nodded when he said that – and then I realized that I was agreeing with Jax so I contemplated swallowing a little bit of bleach so it could maybe clear my head before remembering that bleach would probably sting my throat a little bit and maybe kill me so I just gnawed on a Lysol wipe instead.
And now we’re at Lala’s apartment and James shows up in yet another fucking tank top, bringing the count this season to three hundred and eleven. He’s there to make music with her and also to make sure that he can violate her personal space for at least an hour during daylight because it seems that in addition to all of James’ other amazing qualities, we can also throw close-talker into the mix. But everything is good with them! He apologized for calling her “a basic bitch,” which is so much worse than being told by his ex-girlfriend that his other pet names for her are “slut” and “whore” and besides, Lala doesn’t hold grudges! She is ready to make up and write a song and get famous and maybe chew on the back of the guy’s arm later because he really likes that. First though, she wants to reiterate that she is not ready for anything exclusive and he reluctantly nods with a look on his face that is uncomfortably menacing, though maybe it’s just that I think he’s hiding all kinds of stuff (secrets, disease, snacks) in his chin dimple and that’s why I can’t trust him. It’s very important for Lala to trust him, however; they are about to embark on an artistic endeavor that will make her a star but again, wanting to be a star has nothing to do with why she got herself a hostess position at SUR. She did it for the fried goat cheese balls, people.
James has the words all ready for her to sing: “There ain’t nobody that I’m feeling like I’m feeling you.” Obviously that sentence will be my first tattoo. The rest of the lyrics are written on his phone and they sing it along with a beat he made. Lala’s voice is pretty good. It’s kind of soulful and she closes her eyes when she sings and it’s probably not just so she doesn’t have to see the face of the guy sitting beside her. And then James starts rapping and the correct reaction probably wasn’t for the listener to break into uncontrollable peals of laughter but that’s just what happened and I think we all should start to prepare for the time when James and Lala’s song becomes THE song of the summer, which will happen sometime during the Summer of Never.
But let’s not bet against James! James, you see, was born into the music industry. His dad managed Wham and George Michael is his godfather and I’d like to wake James up (and then smother him with a pillow and Jax’s crusty sock) before I go-go and thank God the band his father worked for was Wham because that joke would have been way harder to craft had the guy been a roadie for the Allman Brothers. Anyway, James knows how hard it is to make it in the music business so it’s really a good thing he’s this talented and comes off as so consistently likeable.
Now it’s time for the next phase of Shay’s Wellness Program and Sandoval and Schwartz are taking their roles as buff Fairy Godfathers very seriously. They’re at a gym to work out hard and they start with some pushups that leads to squats and then they all climb nylon ropes and engage in some boxing and it’s right about then when Shay goes outside to puke. I give the guy credit though. He wipes his mouth and rehydrates and gets back in the game just in time for some humping moves and watching Sandoval rhythmically grind against the floor finally allowed me to understand why Kristen has had such a tough time getting over him.
As for Schwartz, he’s totally excited that the ring he’s about to propose with is just about ready but he’s tempering his joy so as not to be insensitive to Shay, a guy who is really struggling. Shay really seems like a good guy and I hope he can get healthy and overcome his addiction because he has a lot to live for, including a wife who likes her new name because it involves alliteration. While Shay is sweating out toxins, pill residue, and his soul at the gym, Scheana heads to the DMV to officially change her name. Ariana accompanies her – and only an insanely good friend would willingly go to such a place so maybe Scheana should remember that the next time she tries to maintain that Kristen was just joking that time she said she wanted to filet Ariana with a rusty hatchet, baste her in a lemon and butter sauce, and roast her over an open flame in the town square.
Back in town, party preparation is underway and Ms. Vanderpump doesn’t see nearly enough pink in he midst. “Pink it up!” she pleads when she gazes around the set-up for Pump’s Pride party and then she sees James as he’s setting to DJ. The backs of the guy’s arms are layered in hickeys he calls “battle scars.” He maintains they weren’t left by the suction of Lala’s mouth and swears they didn’t come from Kristen’s ironic wisdom teeth either and it looks like maybe he’s telling the truth because rumor has it he nailed yet another hostess who works for Lisa and perhaps that means she only hires people who lack brain cells or taste.
Sandoval and Ariana ride over to SUR on a bicycle and they are really looking forward to a big party this year. Lisa all but ignored SUR last year to concentrate on Pump and the SUR staff made very little money as a result. But things are looking up. The girls are decked out in hot pink dresses with pictures of farm animals emblazoned across them and both places are packed. None of that matters, however. What is supposed to matter to us is that Lala is chatting with some hostess named Lauren, she of the hickey expertise, and they’re talking about how Jax keeps looking over at Lala. It takes but a mere moment of eye contact between them before Jax calmly bellows for her to come over to the bar. “How do my tits look?” Lala asks her unknown competition before she makes her way towards the greasy guy who wants to ride her like she’s a used Honda Civic. Lala asks what’s going on with his girlfriend and he evades her question like he’s an evil genius suffering from a bout of rampant stupidity and they make tentative plans to get a drink because Lala finds him adorable, especially his tattoos which are basically a list of the names of girls who have visited his crotch. They give each other a hug and, just as she walks away, Jax tells the first person he sees, “I’m gonna fuck her,” and my belief in humanity is restored but that’s probably only because I’m drunk.
Since he doesn’t officially work at SUR, Schwartz shows up just to hang out. He’s so relieved he doesn’t have to tend bar. It was just last year that he had a mini anxiety attack over at Pump because thirsty crowds make him nervous. He might need to pinch hit, though; Jax is hammered and he’s accidentally breaking glasses and if he perspires more, maybe he’ll win a prize. Halfway through the day, James leaves Pump and saunters his way down to SUR like a guy who has seen Saturday Night Fever eight too many times. He’s got his headphones slung around his neck because apparently they get him laid and he walks into the restaurant and immediately sees the two girls he’s currently fucking around with. He kisses them both hello and then Lala spots the welts running over the back of his arms and she asks him what they are. “Want me to be honest with you?” asks the prick. “I slammed someone else last night.” Seriously, do you have to be a total motherfucker to be cast on this show?
“Okay,” responds Lala – because she’s a Cool Girl and Cool Girls don’t get mad when the guy who has all but begged to be her new boyfriend enlightens her about last night’s slamming session. But then the façade fades and Lala admits she’s pissed off. And how does James react to hurting the feelings of someone he professes to really like? He tells her she’s beautiful and he’s pleased to have made her so jealous and she sends him away from her in a manner so benign that there’s not a chance in hell that it’ll take so let’s maybe wait before we collectively decide to nominate Lala for Woman of the Year.
(Lala’s in decent company though. I won’t win that award either.)
When Lisa and her wide-brimmed hat come to check out how it’s going at SUR, Jax makes sure to tell her that there’s a situation going on with Lala and James because Jax is a child who would totally steal your baseball cards and then deny doing so before taking his bat and his ball and running home. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Scheana meets up with Shay. He hasn’t had much to drink and they so clearly want his problem to be magically solved, but addiction doesn’t quite work that way. Being healthy is a choice – and that’s probably something Kristen’s therapist told her in a conversation about setting boundaries that I like to think went a little something like this:
Therapist: Last time we met we discussed some tips for how you can stop being such a pathetic masochist. Have you given any thought to not spending time in locations that are populated with the ex-boyfriends who hate you?
Kristen: It’s so fucked up that they hate me. I didn’t do anything! I was perfect and they cheated on me and everybody has wronged me for my entire life and that pattern has nothing whatsoever to do with my behavior. It’s just bad luck that it keeps happening.
Therapist: Okay, but don’t you think it would be nice to go drink your six bottles of wine in a restaurant where you weren’t fired for telling the manager to go suck a dick?
Kristen: When will I get my certificate that says I’ve grown volumes?
Alas, Kristen doesn’t listen to her therapist (or her conscience) and she arrives at SUR and coos over the pink hats everyone is wearing. Then she tries to jump into the employee picture because the woman is fucking crazy. Or maybe she’s the balanced one and I’m the one who’s crazy. Maybe it’s perfectly normal to get into a conversation with her ex’s roommate about who the guy she loved until yesterday slept with last night. Perhaps it’s a great idea to stand there while the guy with the hickeys comes over and flaunts them in her face. Maybe all of this needless exposure to pain makes her look strong – or again, maybe she’s just out of her fucking mind.
Not looking all that strong is Lala. She’s upset that the tables have turned and she’s not the one calling the shots with James and she vents about her pain to the very girl who nibbled on James’ arm last night like he was one of those ears of corn that never sells at the farmer’s market because half of the kernels look brown and like they’re soft and stinky. This Lauren chick tells Lala that she doesn’t need to know who the guy slept with and she should just let it go and then they hug and profess their love to one another and my guess is that Lauren’s cheap veneers will fly across the restaurant by season’s end and I’d like to recommend that the moment be scored by the awesome song James and Lala wrote together.
Gay Pride was a financially-successful day for the servers at SUR and Scheana is ready to take her tips and her husband to yet another place that’s known for welcoming sober people: a strip club. But before any of that can happen, Kristen wanders over to Lala – because again, that’s a totally normal thing to do – and Kristen isn’t next to her for one iota of a second before asking her what’s going on with James. Sensing sadness in Lala’s eyes, Kristen’s face lights up like a moldy Christmas tree that’s been wrapped in bulbs that flicker on and off like the mind of a schizophrenic who is off his meds. There are problems here, Kristen sees. There is a misery that is not mine! Huzzah!
The minute James sees Kristen catting with Lala, he bolts over to berate Lala for being upset with him, all the while smiling smugly. His smile fades when Jax wanders over and that’s when James reveals that it was Lauren he was with last night, the very same girl who just hugged Lala and told her that she loved her. Lala’s face goes slack and Jax – because he’s emotionally fractured – makes gestures of joy across the parking lot because he knows this is his chance. Jax is the male version of Kristen; they both love watching anybody else experience pain and should a hermaphrodite version of the two ever spring forth, it will undoubtedly be that hermaphrodite that brings about the downfall of civilization.
Boiling mad over the possibility of losing the very worst catch in all of England and America combined, Lala confronts Lauren who walks away like a coward. But it turns out to be Lala who bites harder than all of them because she walks right up to Lauren’s bartender boyfriend and informs him that his girlfriend cheated on him last night with a hideous DJ. Lauren is not willing to discuss any of this on camera – a real no-no on a show where cameras follow you around while you serve sangria – so I’m thinking that Lauren might not be Vanderpump Rules’ next ingénue.
Thank goodness Jax is there to pick up the pieces of a girl’s shattered self-esteem! He’s the kind of guy who goes for women at the very second when they are at their most vulnerable and he’s so excited to have momentarily bested the lamest guy in LA and that he’s finally going to fuck a girl he’s been interested in for an entire hour.
Next time, Jax tells Brittany that he wants to be with her for a very long time – until Lala makes a dick-sucking reference that leads him to question the advantages of monogamy. Oh, and James screams into Kristen’s face before spitting on her door because George Michael once taught him how important it is to make dramatic exits and watching all of this has made me feel rather dead inside too and I’m starting to wonder if maybe empathy is a condition that comes and goes.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.