The Reality Show
I stepped out into the plaza. Noise erupted all around me. Disoriented, I stopped. Skyscrapers pinned the noise in so it echoed all around me. Hundreds of people I never met jostled each other to get my attention.
All these people waited in the muggy August heat to meet me. They waved to me, shouting out greetings from behind a metal barrier. Stunned, I waved back stupidly. The camera operator gave me an encouraging head nod, so I started toward them, trying to look appreciative. Thick, boiling air hit me harder with every step I took reminding me of my exhaustion – I couldn’t focus. The wet heat intensified the smell of baked bus exhaust mingled with boiling asphalt, grease frying from the corner vendor, and whatever was coming up from the subway grates.
A teenage girl stood in front of the crowd and yelled, “How could you leave Ethan? He’s soo cute. You should’ve fought Tess for him.”
Startled, I squinted at her. I did fight. I lost. Ethan wasn’t in charge of his life: he didn’t get to decide who to love. Julian, the producer of the reality: the wannabe god of his own little world, he decided. Not me, not Tess, certainly not Ethan. Julian sat upon his dais and ruled anyone weak enough to bow down before him.
No, I couldn’t think about it.
I forced a smile on my face. My auburn hair cascaded in heavy curls that bounced down my back as they had when I was a little girl. The loose lilac dress of a sheer material that ruffled delicately with each step inside the studio started to wilt onto my legs in the humidity of the plaza. Julian wanted me to look soft, wounded and now wilted. That is why I forced a confident, carefree smile on my face. I wanted to be powerful, not wounded.
It didn’t matter how I tried. Nobody cared. Nobody actually saw me. They already knew everything there was to know about me.
I am a reality show star, and they want to meet me.
I responded stiff and automatically to people calling out my name. I reached the crowd and people grabbed for me. I hadn’t realized so many people loved me. I began touching people’s hands as they reached out for me as if I were a rock star. One man proposed to me. I laughed at his joke, but couldn’t be sure he was kidding.
I talked to as many people as I could. I tried to give them part of me, but there wasn’t much left. I moved toward the young woman who’d yelled so desperately at me. Her pleading, dark eyes needed closure that I didn’t have, but would fake for her. My romance was her romance and it ended, and we were both broken-hearted. Something inside me needed to soften this for her.
“Ethan loves you,” she said when I finally reached her. “How could you leave him?”
“I had to go,” I said.
“You could of stayed,” she said, “You could go back again.”
“No, no, I can’t. Watching the show, you can’t understand what’s really happening.”
“But Ethan loves you!"
“It was the million dollars I competed for, not Ethan.”
“Come on Zoe, it’s all faked,” said a young woman in her early twenties standing next to her.
“Shut up, Mia,” Zoe said.
“You’re so gullible. How could he love her?” Turning to me, she said, “He played you, girl.”
The statement stabbed straight into my heart. I closed my eyes and nodded in agreement. I put a hand over my microphone. I’d be sued if Julian heard me, but I had to tell her something.
“She’s right, it’s choreographed.”
“I… I’m so sorry,” Zoe said.
Mia butted in again: “You played it too cold, too long. I would have. . ..”
My mouth dropped open, but she still rambled on. She openly admitted the show staged, and yet contradicted her own point. She could have kept Ethan? How? I clenched my jaw shut, trying not to look wounded.
Television personality Samantha Prowers stepped toward me. She interrupted the stream of advice now being spewed at me from many of the women in the crowd. They talked at me, arguing over my failure with Ethan, most implying I hadn’t been promiscuous enough. Didn’t they know I hadn’t been cast in that role?
“Ladies, here are a couple of complimentary tickets to the Reunion Show in four weeks. You can see the finale live if you’re available,” Samantha, said cutting off the comments as many hands shot forward.
“Oh, I’ll meet Ethan. I’d give him what he wanted,” Mia said, taking one of the slim white envelopes. Appalled, I shook my head at Zoe. That’s not what happened. Was it?
“Carrie, if you’ll follow me back into the studio, you’re up next,” Samantha said. I nodded and followed her still waving and forcing a smile for my fans. The relief of the air conditioner hit me when I walked back into the building, and I shoved my shoulders back feigning confidence. Samantha indicated I should settle into one of two matching armchairs in front of the ever-probing lens of the cameras.
Samantha, an extremely thin woman with short hair framing her face, perched herself on the end of the other chair like a delicate bird. She talked to someone about her coffee while a man touched up our makeup and hair. All while she watched herself in a monitor that hung below one of the three cameras aimed at us. As an afterthought she asked if I wanted to get the Barista back, I shook my head in the negative. Watching myself do it.
I’d never watched myself perform on The Whole Package. Mesmerized, I shook the drooping ringlets that spilled over my shoulders. The defined muscles on my arms and crossed legs stood out somehow, but the subtler features of my light beige face disappeared in the monitor like an instant airbrush painted somewhere inside the camera. Two perfect blush lines moved from my cheekbones toward my hairline, but they looked dulled compared to my richly enhanced auburn hair. My rosy brown eyes were meant to stand out with globs of mascara, but even they disappeared as I squinted in the studio lights.
I hated lights in my face. I hated trying to look normal with the glare bringing on a hot flash and a headache while the mask of make-up I wore melted.
A man behind the center camera pointed at Samantha. She turned to me. I nodded. The man put up three fingers, then two then one. Samantha addressed the camera while I fidgeted unsure what to do:
“Welcome back. We’re here live with The Whole Package contestant Caroline Carnegie. Following her, Mark will cook with French pastry chef Abril Durand.”
After she said this, the monitor showed Mark at a stove from the other side of the studio. Then our cameraman nodded to Samantha. She turned and focused on me entirely.
“Carrie, thanks for coming. How does it feel to be home?”
“A little strange, actually… I don’t think I’ve acclimatized yet,” I said.
“I’m sure. For those of our viewers hiding under a rock, Carrie is the daughter of renowned architect Arthur Carnegie. Have you read the extremely flattering article coming out in Architect Digest, about your father?”
“No, my mom got an advance copy while I was on the show. I’m excited to read it,” I said.
“I read it; it is mostly based on the article in Places Journal,” Then she turned to the camera and said, more for her viewers benefit, “the educational journal that published an article claiming your father should be considered one of the most influential architects of the twenty-first century. How does it feel to be the child of a cultural icon?”
“I don’t think about it like that, I guess. He was just my dad who went to work like anyone else’s dad,” I said. She continued, “He was taken too soon.”
“Yes, he was,” I agreed calculating the amount of respect my father’s mention should inspire, and allowing it to show on my face.
“But having been cited as one of the greatest modern architects of our time, he lives on with us all. Do you feel like he would have approved of your going on a reality show?”
“Maybe not,” I said with a laugh, which she copied.
“So, we want the dirt,” Samantha said, her cobalt eyes bright with interest. Her hands folded across her legs leaning toward me like she just had to know, “Why did you leave The Whole Package in such a dramatic fashion?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean for it to be dramatic. At a certain level, I always knew I was on TV. You know – you’re always kind of on edge – but it was more like with all the drama around me, I reacted.”
“You definitely reacted.”
“Well, it’s hard not to when you’re immersed in something like that. It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be.”
“Every reality show contestant I interview says that, but The Whole Package has been around for five years. You knew what you were getting into,” Samantha said.
I stammered, unsure what to say that wouldn’t make me look like a hot, emotional mess.
When I only shrugged to answer, Samantha paused, scrutinizing me. I could feel the burn of her next question in her eyes before it even left her mouth.
“Did you know polls had you winning five to one?”
“No. We were so isolated I didn’t know anything.”
“Well, let me tell you, people believe you have recovered from the hand fate dealt you better than any of your housemates. Your fans would have crowned you The Whole Package if they could have. The million dollars by all accounts was yours.”
“I didn’t know how many people were rooting for me,” I said.
“Maybe so, but you’ve won your fair share of the competitions. How could you walk away from a million dollars?”
“I guess two million is the going rate for my self-respect,” I said. Then I laughed to cover up my defensive tone. No amount, I promised myself. I would never again be driven the fool by money.
Samantha continued to question me about me about leaving Ethan, but she couldn’t ask much beyond what aired on the show. Julian had to save the real drama for the reunion show. She asked about the other contestants, and I refused to bash on anyone. She briefly asked about my fiancé’s death, not even calling Gordon by name, and she didn’t linger on the topic. After poking me over and over with a sharp stick about the stupidity of my choice, Samantha finally said, like we were best friends, “Well, Carrie I think considering what you’ve been through, we can all agree you were one of the more resilient women in the Manor House, and I am sorry you left.”
“Thank you,” I said feeling a bead of sweat trickle down my neck.
“Let’s take a look back at Carrie’s time on the show.”
A fifteen-foot screen set between us showed highlights of my time on The Whole Package put to music. I turned trying desperately to disconnect as it showed me climbing out of the limo, I could hear the people out in the plaza reacting. They made some kind of a muffled positive cheer when I turned to George instead of Ethan. I hated the vintage lace and silk dress I’d been wearing when I first met Ethan, but the plum color contrasted dramatically with my coloring and didn’t look too bad on screen. I crossed my arms in on myself when the screen showed Ethan’s amazing eyes laughing at something I said.
The screen blipped to the opera house. Ethan took my hand warmly in both of his to help me out of the limo. A trick, a device contrived to trap me into performing. It wasn’t right. He shouldn’t have closed both his hands around mine like I was special – like I was the only one. Oh, why did I smile at him like such a goof?
Then the screen showed me rock-climbing. I threw my arms up when I made it to the top of a cliff. I didn’t win that competition, but I made it to the top – my arms up in the air, raised in triumph for some reason. Everything I did on the screen was artistically beautiful, and a worthy of the two Emmy nominations Julian often bragged about.
The screen showed Ethan kissing me. I could still taste his minty kiss. I focused on the corner of the screen, not looking at the image, trying not to remember. Ten women for one man – it wasn’t right. No – it was all a game for a million dollars. Nobody told me to fall in love.
Watching the screen, I knew they’d encouraged it. One girl and one boy – that’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s what the enormous screen showed – my made-for-television romance in little blips. It didn’t show what actually happened. On the screen, it all seemed so high class—wholesome family television. Julian hid all my awkward moments, my fumbles. He dressed up his hooker to look like a princess. I fought to keep the emotion in my chest. They didn’t get any more of me. They wouldn’t get any more of me!
Finally, it showed Ethan’s heartbroken face as I walked out the door.
Despite everything, it made me sad. Could love grow in such a situation? The memory of the sweet emotion washed over me, begging me to believe in it.
No! Love turned me into a crazy person; it made me a reality TV star. I wanted nothing to do with it.
It seemed simple enough, quaint little segments set to music. A month and a half, my mini-life, all packaged up. Little slices, entertainment for the masses. But then, why did he look so sad when I left? Ethan. Oh, what really happened? I stood abruptly as the screen went dark.
Samantha also stood, trying to figure out what I was doing.
“Thanks so much for having me,” I said. I stuck a hand out to her and smiled.
“Thanks for coming.” As she released my hand she said into the camera, “We will return right after this.”
The camera operator nodded we were clear and she asked:
“Fine,” I said turning to the stage manager. He invited me to stay for the next segment. I declined. He directed me back into the green room, a large lounge area with huge pictures of Samantha and all her fellow co-hosts along the walls.
As I entered the room, Julian, my puppeteer stood, casting himself in the role of a gentleman from another era. Julian, a middle-aged man with ever-moving eyes, a short, grey ponytail, and a closely cropped beard, scrutinized me as I walked through the room.
He drew breath as I swiftly passed him. He said something but I didn’t stop. I stayed calm and drama free – I hadn’t looked wounded. I ruined the picture he created. It was my choice how I presented myself to the world – not his. Never again!
“You weren’t supposed to leave yet,” Julian said louder this time. I didn’t respond, but felt very conscious of where he stood behind me. Feeling his obsessive stare on my back, my neck crawled, waiting for him to pounce. I sped up toward my best friend, Andrea. Her peaked nose upturned slightly, giving an air of being unapproachable. She sat on a puce-colored sofa, her ever- moving foot impatiently waiting for my interview to end. She held up the bag containing my shorts and tee shirt. As I passed her I grabbed it.
I changed quickly, unhitching the microphone pack easily; I was so practiced at it. Getting out of all the body altering undergarments was harder. I came back walking even more swiftly than before.
“I left the microphone taped to the dress, everything’s in there,” I said pointing to where I changed.
“I think you can keep the dress,” the stylist said, looking to Julian. I forced myself to look at him.
“Carrie, I can still fix this,” Julian said.
“There’s nothing to fix,” I said.
“You were so close to the million dollars. I think –”
“Never to my benefit. I’ll be at the reunion show to fulfill my contract, then we will never see each other again.”
I turned before Julian could say anything else. Cut him off before he opened his mouth – that is the only safe way to interact with Julian Morrows.
I pulled Andrea up from her waiting. I hated waiting. They never showed how much waiting the contestants of The Whole Package did. Five seasons and nobody watching the show had any idea of how much waiting we did. A month and a half of my life wasted waiting on Julian.
I walked away while Andrea tried to keep up. We said nothing as my leather flip-flops smacked the smooth glossy floor. Andrea and I climbed into the elevator and pushed the button for the parking garage.
Andrea eyed me – waiting.
“It wasn’t what I thought it would be,” I said as we glided downward.
“It never is,” Andrea said.
“What happened?” I asked as the doors slid open.
“I have no idea, but we’ll figure it out,” Andrea said. She put an arm around my stiff shoulders. I crossed my arms over my chest and said:
“Do you know how much waiting we did? You couldn’t possibly understand what we… or I mean what I went through by watching the show… that woman….”
“She doesn’t understand,” Andrea said.
“I don’t even know what happened. How could she?” I asked.
“We’ll figure it out. Start from the beginning,” Andrea said.
“I don’t want to talk about it!”
“You’re just going to let this happen to you? Without a fight?”
“You just said you don’t know what happened to you, Carrie, you have to figure it out. You have to look at this,” Andrea insisted.
I said nothing. She was right. I couldn’t even remember how I knew she was right. Somewhere along the line I promised myself I would no longer stand on the sidelines of my own life.
“That day, I got into the limo, I knew I shouldn’t have, but I did.”
“Limos are kinda fun,” she said.
“Not for me,” I said.
“No, no. I guess not,” she said looking at me with the pity I always saw when people remembered how many cemetery curbs I’d pulled away from in limousines.
“Carrie – from the beginning,” Andrea said.