Heal My Life
Viewers don’t tend to remember the fake participant. One of us, taping to taping, is no different from the next. Sometimes I’m wearing a different blouse or jacket, fat gold earrings or no jewellery at all, a mole on one cheek, or overdrawn lips. But this isn’t harped on. Producers aren’t worried. At the microphone, the smell of hairspray and Lysol floods my nose. I channel childhood theatre; my turn as Linus in Charlie Brown Christmas, cat number 5 in Cats, and pre-teen Liesl in The Sound of Music, singing, “I am sixteen going on seventeen” to another girl, all bones, in a wig.
Some programs focus on physical contact. The build-up to a fight, a mess of elbows and extensions tossed around the stage, or a dry demonstration of the latest kitchen tool or household product in action, made for women everywhere. Our show is a delicate balance of both, taking the mess of questions towards clear, direct answers. I swallow it all willingly, and help the audience do the same.
Before taping, I assure the producers I have a sharp mind and excellent eyesight, strong enough to see an audience member and connect, to know who to sway. The set rotates: a chunky couch and a round table, vases with silk flowers for a natural touch, seats 500 at a time, taping twice a day. “Cue and mark,” a producer says off camera. I recite the question memorized from the beige index card I’m given, like a tour guide waving an invisible flag.
“Where you from again, FP? Like, really from?” the producer, a man with eyebrows that do not match his hair, gives me a full body scan during a break in taping. “Oh, it doesn’t actually matter,” his face relaxes. “You have that Where is she from? look an FP requires.”
The host appears on the couch minutes before we go live and performs in one take. Three, on an off day. When she likes my delivery, she’ll whisper over the stage riser, “That was good.” If she has notes, she places a soft hand on my rented blouse and says, “FP, let’s reset.”
When the room feels really hot, the host turns on her accent, a mix of Jamaican patois and British upper-class pronunciation, though it’s unclear if she is actually from either, and calls the audience her sweet little lambs, holding her big hands so they appear just on the edges of her caftan. She fondles a pack of cards and sloshes around tea leaves. When a question is serious, she rubs glass bowls that vibrate until the room is calm. “Thank you for your gifts,” I begin, “Can you tell me more about my missing husband?” or “I’m sick so often, can you identify the cause?”
“What do you need, sweetness? Who are we revealing?” The host asks. The audience leans towards me, the seemingly casual member in the back row with a certain sense of power, and I feel wet beneath my wig. This is the most critical moment of the show, the line of I’m being paid to say.
“I need you to,” I begin, and then I let the audience finish the rest for me. I never really wanted to be on television, though I did think about it, binging on the couch or in bed, who doesn’t? It started with simple problems: my house was sick of me, and my husband, and my plumbing, too. The issues grew worse at my receptionist job at the orthopaedic clinic off MLK, lunch in my car next to homeless men holding signs that said SPARE ANYTHING. The signs hovered over the tops of their sneakers as they stood at the light. Sometimes, I dangled a cigarette out a crack in the window, sometimes I simply stared at their state like a stalker, straining not to blink. On good days, I slept face up in the front seat of my car, my head full of shapeless dreams knocking to the tune of a drill on tarsals, metatarsals, phalanges.
The answer emerged in the employee bathroom. I locked the stall and held my knees to purge until finally I stopped seeing the feet. My husband was within reach, vibrating hellos in my blouse pocket, but still I kept going. After a particularly long session of release, I launched myself upright, my eyes level with an ad above the toilet. Do you have what it takes? The ad asked in a familiar chic style, meant for young, professional women with a discerning eye for design. Are you bold? Fun? Nice to look at? We’re ready for you . . . c’mere. It was the c’mere that did it, a pleasing tug at my wet blouse and chapped lips. I thought I’d finally found it, knees pressed to the cold floor, while down the hall other people’s feet were being cut open, shaved down, and remade. A sign.
The surgeon was squatting in a divot in the hallway, his coat bunched up at the crotch. The chart of a client, incredibly large bunions, was perched on the top of his head. “My husband, he’s,” I told him, breathless, and then gesture with my hands to imply a scene of bodily harm, too horrific to put into words. He gazed up with dread and the chart slid off, graphic images of skin falling all over the carpet. “Sometimes I forget to say hello to you in the mornings because you blend right into that yellow wall,” the surgeon often said to me instead of the typical greeting, and maybe this is why he barely raised an eyebrow, as if to say, farewell and good luck.
Before leaving my post forever, I sought out my fellow receptionist to say goodbye, my swipe card in the trash, my purse wrapped in my good coat.
“Is it already five o’clock?” She checked her watch, which spoke to her in Polish every hour on the hour.
“It’s my time,” I told her. “Me o’clock.”
My phone buzzed somewhere deep in my purse, but I ignored it. Her watch shouted instructions that probably translated to let’s get moving, let’s activate the heart, and I saw my out.
At the exit, I rolled down my car window and gave the men the rest of my cigarettes and the mints in the glove compartment. I gave them the change in the cup holders and the plastic ice scraper. I handed them so much they had to put down their signs to gather it all.
Heading to the studios, I drive with one hand on the wheel and use the other to open my phone. I rub my finger over my background photo, of a smiling man and a newborn, their cheeks both flush and bright, their eyes shining with love. He answers four rings in, but I know he isn’t screening his calls. Just has his plate full with the baby, his rigid exercise routine. Our schedules are out of sync.
“Good morning,” my husband says and then gurgles, imitating the baby, lolling around. He’s out of breath, trying to run in place and change diapers at the same time.
“Is it good,” I answer as a garbage truck cuts me off.
“Hold on,” he says, and then the speaker fills with smacking and cooing, the wet joy of something new.
“Hello, baby,” I say to the wetness, to myself in the empty car, speeding on the interstate like a character in a different story. The truck swerves and I brake, dropping the phone between the seats, the baby, or my husband, still gurgling on the line. I slide my hand between the faux leather seats to locate their voices, and then the studio lot comes into view. Better this way, I think as I focus on turning the wheel with both hands, of getting in on time. The baby, I reason, won’t remember I’m even gone.
The lot has become my favorite place on earth, with its cavernous mouths and bland looking buildings, a gateway to half made walls and fake plumbing. The show shares the lot with an infomercial that sells cleaning supplies, the host made up to look like a cross between a soccer mom and Mrs. Clean. Her arm muscles taunt as she scrubs dinner plates, her hair styled into a severe blonde bob.
I grab my purse and fling open the car door, nearly tripping over the show assistant. When the host is in a positive mood, she has her assistant bring me in first thing, for practice. We walk to the host’s dressing room, tucked behind the wall of the set, a room with round mirrors on three sides. The host is dressed down, black sweatpants and a long black shirt, her head bare and freckled, her nails sculpted to iridescent points for close ups when she turns the cards and makes the calming bowls sing. Her skin is smooth and unlined from a lifetime of letting her face fall slack, a blank slate. She pats the chair next to her, overstuffed like the ones on set. The assistant cradles her radio and shuts the door.
“How are we today?”
“Oh me? Well.”
“Do tell,” the host says.
“I need your help.”
“Tell me, sweetness.”
“It’s my boss. He puts me down and undervalues my work, he makes comments about my clothes and my appearance. He also doesn’t seem to know much about his own profession.”
“He made a pass at me.”
The host closes her eyes, taking in my information. She slides the glass bowls into her lap and the short wooden stick, moving it along the rim until the room is filled with a calming tone, triggering the brain in all the right ways.
“I see a much better job in your future with a boss who appreciates you and respects your boundaries.”
I lean forward, pretending and also believing at the same time.
“What kind of job?”
“Selling pharmaceuticals. No, insurance. A management role. A power position.”
She lets the last vibrations from the bowls settle in the room and leans back in her plush chair, reaching for her lighter. Sometimes I become so involved in my role as a participant that I forget her other rules, like be ready with the lighter when she needs it. She sucks on the joint and exhales a thick cloud of smoke, the smoke detector disarmed above us. I inhale, enjoying a contact high and the praise that is sure to follow, very good FP, you’re one of our best, thank you for your service. The host lunges forward suddenly and wraps her arms around me, a heady combination of weed and coconut scented body spray, her long nails running back and forth through my hair.
“You know why I like you so much FP? Because you can become anything you want, like me.”
Just as suddenly, she releases me, pointing to the door with the burning end of the joint. The assistant is waiting outside to lead me to the closet where I make myself up before taping. She wears a sly look like she heard everything and is mildly impressed with me, the longest participant on the show, outlasting even FP2, an effable woman with a semi-perm and a dolphin charm necklace that she wears under every costume they give her, as obedient as a designer dog, and just as easy to see through. I’d see her at previous stand in gigs, early entrées into the world of participants, sitting a few rows behind her at an awards show with the names of the real stars taped to our chests.
I’m halfway down the hall when the assistant’s radio garbles and she turns me around. “Don’t get overly confident, FP,” the host says through the half open door, as if she can sense my smugness. Another assistant is preparing her wig, and another is brushing her eyebrow hairs, back and forth. “One FP is as replaceable as another.” I curtsy as the door closes.
“Show biz, am I right?” I say to the assistant. She rolls her eyes and pretends she has an urgent call on her radio, leaving me alone in the closet to prepare.
The taping rolls on without event, feeling both new and familiar at the same time. A man comes up to me afterward, his face floating towards me like I’ve seen him before, behind my car window. He congratulates me for my performance, for holding so many characters inside myself. A fan.
Back in the closet, I undress and rub make up off my nose and neck. One missed call from my husband, a voicemail. “Hope you didn’t get hit by a car,” his voicemail says, “What time are you planning to be home tonight? We’ll wait up for you.”
“FP,” the assistant says at the door of the closet. “Great job today.” I say thank you and finish wiping make up off my face. I try to relax the muscles around my eyes, blinking and taking my reflection in like I’m seeing myself anew, the sound of my husband’s voice caught somewhere in the background, the volume turned down real low.
On my way home, I debate between signals, left or right at the stop sign, neon lights blinking over my shoulder. I take a moment and make the wanting choice, swerving at the turn.
At Quincy’s, I have a tab that began once the baby slid out of me and I could enjoy a real drink, my chest still heavy with milk. While I wait for the drink to be poured, I send a quick message to my husband to tell him I’ve taken a stop over after a hard, long day. He replies with a single question mark, a face cut in half and turned sideways. And then a second later, a thumbs up and a smiling face with rosy cheeks and no hair, so far from his true face, scruffy and sleep deprived. Since I only have time for one, I savor the drink in small sips. I talk to the woman who is always there, and might actually sleep at a table during closed hours. When I first started making these stop overs, I would tell her about the homeless men and their signs by my old job, the unquenchable well of sadness I felt looking at them.
“The preferred term is houseless, sweetie, and I hope you gave them something for your tears.”
I told her I had given them everything in my car and then some.
“That’s it, though, you can only give some, not all. That’s why it’s my favorite sin.”
We laugh about sitting in Quincy’s with its yellow lights and bad ice, tucked away from our families by choice. We ruminate on the stupidity of our decisions.
The woman only speaks to me if I bribe her with a shot of bar whisky, dispelling her brand of wisdom after the alcohol has cleared her throat. She always wears the same plaid scarf on her head and pays from a leather fanny pack of folded bills and coins. A patron once called her a racist term and she broke an empty bottle so fast, placing the sharp end against the vein in his neck, that he didn’t even have time to apologize before we booted him out.
By the time I check my phone again, I’ve outstayed even the woman, who leaves after several free shots, claiming she has a fight to get to. Three missed calls from my husband and a voicemail. I press play. “Honey, where are you, I can’t do this alone, what’s happened to you since you got on that show— ” My screen fills with more messages from him, a long line of sad and sleepy faces, the z’s crowding my husband’s face like desperate cartoon pleas. I try to stand and the world tumbles, my insides nearly spilling onto the floor. I chew handfuls of greasy onion rings from a tray on the bar, tasting of salt and old oil, and count my steps as I exit, past my parked car, my shadow bumping against darkened homes and flickering street lights, other people’s recycling bins lined up neatly on the curb.
The house reeks of oatmeal and shit, the diaper bin overflowing in the baby’s room, the mobile of fish turning along to a creaking lullaby. My husband sleeps soundlessly on the couch, face down, a sticky apron still tied around his waist. I take off my shoes and my pants and press my face against the crib bars to stare at her, a container of blood and bones and hair, her cells expanding as she sleeps, her lips blubbering as she breathes. I curl up on the floor and the world pauses its tumble, the fish turning happily on their strings. The room fills with her perfect, downy scent. You will be stunned to know how the world moves around you, I tell her in my head. You will never know such devotion.
The morning is dappled and warm, a small divot on the white sheet in the crib. On the counter I find my phone, its battery almost dead, and a text calling me the second sleepyhead, with icons of a man in a sweat suit moving his arms and legs in a frantic motion. I can see him in stride pushing the stroller with a firm grip, his athletic body gliding with ease in the morning sun along the pathway. The second text is from the host’s assistant. If you aren’t here in 15, we’re calling in another. FP2, the permed designer dog, who requires multiple resets and never really sells it, who once complained about the manipulation of the set up, as if that wasn’t what we had all signed up for? I splash my face with water and brush my teeth, rifling through the unopened mail on the counter for my car keys. A blast of mildew and rotting banana in the kitchen, grubby dishes in the sink and garbage piling up. It’s a lot to take on, I think as I try not to inhale. He tries.
I cradle my purse to my chest and step outside, shoving sunglasses on to block out the light. No door for my key, no car in the driveway. Quincy’s, I remember, the woman listing her failures as a mother between whisky sips, her plaid scarf pulled down over her eyes. I rush past garage doors opening, the sprinklers set to douse on the starling green lawns. My car is parked across two spaces and there is a note in someone else’s writing on the windshield. I squint. A parking ticket. Not a sign.
“Always better,” I whisper as I start up my car, ignoring the ticket flapping around in the wind. “Always bettering myself.”
At the studio, the assistant doesn’t bother with hellos or the usual showbiz jokes. She pushes me into the closet and tells me to change like my job depends on it. I stuff myself into the clothes on the hanger and add a mole below my left eyebrow, mirroring the woman in the cut out they’ve provided.
The host calls me in for a quick practice session. Her top half is done up for the audience, her nails running around the calming bowl on the table. “Incredible job yesterday,” she says, gesturing at the chair in front of her. “Now, I’d like you to tell me about him.” Him? Does she mean the man who complimented me after the show? My boss? My father? No, she shakes her head as if she can hear my thoughts. Him.
“We met in college, he had a full head of hair, good-seeming genes. Always fit, even when I couldn’t care less. He does.”
She nods and begins laying out the cards.
“Tell me, sweetness.”
“He does what I want and I like that.”
“He always wanted to be a father.”
“I think he’s sick of me.”
“Yes. Ever since I started this job, things haven’t been right.”
“But you like it, don’t you?”
“Most times. But I’m worried I’m starting to forget who I really am.”
The host continues to lay out the cards and I’m not sure if we’re still practicing, if I’m meeting expectations.
“Can you heal me?” I widen my eyes, as if she could deliver the cure right then and there, just like she does day in and day out, to an audience of hundreds.
The host finishes moving the cards, her face long and worn, her eyelashes crooked at the lid. The line of her wig slips back and I can imagine what she might look like under it all.
“Very good, FP. Thank you.” She sighs and the practice session is over. She gestures at the door and it opens, as if on command.
On set, she clacks her nails against the glass bowls, her face pulled taut into a triangle, her caftan deflated around the arms. “Spot check,” she snaps at the make up artist, pointing at the sweat on her forehead. “Where’s the FP? Don’t we have multiples? Spot check.” She points at her upper lip, a beautiful bloom of drops running into her lipstick.
“FP is ready,” I whisper from the audience, the other seats filled with bored looking people pulled from the street, realizing too late this wasn’t at all what they signed up for. The host rolls her shoulders back and presses her lips together. She gives me a quick side look. Time to commit. I’m so hot under my wig I can’t wait to remove it, pulling out chunks of my real hair, caught in cheap brown tape.
“Welcome, my sweet little lambs,” the host says, extending her arms out to a wall of applause. “How are we feeling? Who are we revealing?” She unveils the deck of cards, the bowls, the crystal bright under the stage lights, the room filling with energy. I scan the faces across from me, thrilled, child-like. I recognize several of the men, the ones who appeared behind my car window off MLK in another life, their clothing pressed and clean, their faces scrubbed, their hands slapping back and forth against each other with the force of a dream. The clapping becomes overwhelming, a roar, and I almost miss my cue. The host has to repeat it a second time, “Who has a question for me in the audience?”
Licking my chapped lips, I stand and open my mouth for my line.
“I do,” a man’s voice says behind me. I turn and there he is, my husband with the baby strapped to his chest, her little head nestled against his athletic wear, the first and only baby ever on set.
“Okay, sweetness,” the host says, fidgeting with her caftan, her eyes wandering briefly to the producer, who makes a rapid keep rolling signal. “Tell me, what can I do for you?”
“It’s my wife. She’s missing. She doesn’t answer when I call, and when she does, she isn't really present. It’s like she’s gone somewhere else.”
“No one is ever really gone. Let’s see if we can find her,” the host says, fumbling with the cards. She lays them out like she can tell, ready to go off script. I glance back at him, the top lights shadowing his face, and wonder if he sees me too, just a few seats in front of him. He must think this is all so ridiculous, and any moment now he will say it. He will claim the host is a fraud, a faker, like me.
“What do the cards tell us? Though you may lie, they never do.” The host, sensing his nervousness, instructs the crowd to start clapping, to cheer him on and give him support. I undo the buttons of my rented blouse. I tug on the side of the wig until it finally comes off.
“Alright, sweetness, the cards are telling me complex things. She will come back to you,” the host says. “But she will be changed. And you will need to learn to accept this change, to be happy together.”
“What kind of change?” my husband asks.
“Deeply rooted, necessary. And if you don’t accept it, I see chaos, I see further drifting away.” The producer is making the cut signal, a sharp hand against her neck, but the host ignores her and opens her arms towards my husband, who looks around at the cheap set until he spots me, my make up running, my hair plastered down with tape and sweat.
“And if I accept this change, she will come back?”
My husband places his palm over the baby’s head and remains standing, ready for my next decision. We’re frozen together, as the crowd claps and shouts around me, at my ruined disguise.
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