All of the white idiots are deeply tan. I am a white idiot so I am deeply tan. Exfoliation, tanner, oil, sun. Because I am a “thinking man’s” idiot, my tan is amber, not umber. Sometimes I wear glasses, but the lenses are just glass. They frame my eyes without fucking with their perceived size, an advantage. Still, some hunks here rage at me for reminding them reading exists.
There are two Black idiots and there is one Southeast Asian idiot and they focus mainly on moisture and sheen, going so far as to apply sunblock to avoid a deeper shade. I am thinking jealously how they will not stain the fabric of the outdoor couches with the self-tanner needed to encourage the expected hue. Often I find myself thinking of the outdoor couches because it is one of the few things production will hassle about.
Previously, I’ve heard, there was catering in a hidden part of the villa, but these days we are given only a full fridge and kitchen implements in a covered, outdoor kitchen that is more flirt station than galley. Some of us cook and some of us can’t and I am in the “can’t” column, which is how I find myself, two or three times a day—if I cannot scam another’s cooked snack—urging a blunt butter knife past the alligator skin of a ripe-ish avocado into its boring, lipo flesh. As a kid my little sister called avocado a “butter vegetable” and I think that’s brilliant but she doesn’t exist anymore because nothing exists; brilliance doesn’t exist; war and pain and the stock market don’t exist; nothing besides the idiots exist, not if it’s outside the flood-lit spread of bristling turf and stucco spans of nouveau mission-contemporary walls: smudged plastic drinking glasses in gem tones and oily barbells and shoes by the upper deck piled like in the Holocaust Museum; and a nervous style of sinuous A/V cords taped down to the floor, running under rugs, up the wall at the seam; and the heavy mic fanny packs that spoil the lines of the flammable fast fashion outfits we have been paid to wear at appointed times, not to be repeated because when we repeat, we hear, the fans complain—I’m rubbing the avocado across some untoasted white bread, a slice corseted neatly by a tight crust. The bread tastes like cotton candy but bread, nothing I’d eat at home, and it dissolves against the wax fat of the avocado and was this something I am meant to enjoy? I am supposed to fall in love. Who falls in love, with food like this? The counter of the outdoor kitchenette is crummy and butter-loved; we do the washing-up, but poorly. No one is awake but me and my mouthful of bad food, my sensitive white-white teeth clicking through the mess. I’m not meant to be up yet but production can’t stop me. Rising early isn’t against the rules exactly and so sometimes I let myself do it, departing at daybreak from the orphanage-bordello room where they put us, bed after bed body-stocked two-by-two.
“No matter what, I have found love here,” Kimber told us girls last night. Her plump lip pulsed. “I’ve found it with you all at the very least.” We disarranged the coffee table and several throw pillows to accommodate a politely soggy group hug. But then Kimber had to go. Overnight production has straightened the pillows and furniture. They will do that, at least. And there is a local cleaning crew every week or so, for surfaces. They come in yellow suits, usually when we’re off somewhere doing a challenge, throwing our bodies through whipped miasmas of curdling foam for brags. We’re riding toy ponies in our bikinis or playing some fluffed-up version of suck-and-blow. Early on, at the head of the returning throng, post-frothy abasement and strutting down the villa’s drive, I caught a look of the cleaning crew trundling down the drive with sacks of detritus, like zookeepers or astronaut janitors. Embarrassing.
I do not wash my plate, but I put it in the sink. It is the foundation of the daily pile. We all contribute but only the person most bothered does the work of its soapy disassembly. No one here, including me, understands the power of the collective. At the salon I made schedules as equitably as possible. The stylists appreciated this. After I posted the schedule to the system, they would switch shifts like trading cards and that was fine. I let it happen, winding the ends of my hair around my index finger while watching the monitor display at the Lasik center across the mall hall, which televised looped, recorded laser surgery on the naked eye, all day long. Here it drives me mad that everyone forgets to be a team. We could be a team against production. We could get what we want, make them see it our way. We could have a true stake, make the show a different thing, something more interesting and more sexy and more true; we could unite!
Instead, I don’t wash my dish, and I preen along the pool lip with my toe dipped in like a come-on to no one. I’m coy to myself about the surveillance cams I know are there. A monokini, a filmy robe: I am an idiot who has been to a museum, and not just to take my picture with the Mona Lisa. Do I smile like her now? Saskia is awake now, advancing toward me. She has already flat-ironed her hair. She has already contoured her face into another face. It is like a comic book now, like a Lichtenstein I could say. I can see her features in the morning light from fifty feet off. We are friends of a sort. Sometimes, between our ratcheting giggles, I hear the scythed cry of a seagull and feel the pain of my own absence from the wider world. I am here, though, and it isn’t purgatory. We’re all getting paid.
As of last night, Saskia is no longer partnered with Brad. I have Tony; I’m lucky. Tony is fine. Brad will go home, we expect. He is alone here. He has a few days, maybe a week, unless there is a public vote first. Early days, I thought I myself would flirt with Brad. He has a certain brooding allure. But then four o’clock one afternoon, while we were spotlit together wearing poolside gear in the white cushioned cabana, gelatin crust in Brad’s quiff from that day’s challenge, he’d asked if we could get serious for a moment. Soon we would dress for dinner, I mean, dress to drink, in club gear with robotic shimmer. I was thinking about what I would do with my hair. He’d smelled, in the high heat—a sporty drugstore fragrance cling-wrapped over a winy musk—and I’d curled into his bristle chin as he’d whispered the fact of his life. I’d kept my smile, and later in the confessional reported that we had “gotten deep,” without detail. No one here is looking for detail. Everyone here prefers contour.
It will be better that he leaves this place. His mother has lupus and it will be better, maybe, if after he’s departed to whatever dim twin bed lodging production has stocked him in to wait until it’s all done until we’re all done until someone wins. Maybe they’ll let him call her daily till the winners prance live. He was never going to win anyway. His mouth stayed too open too often like he needed more oxygen than what was on offer. At home he had no career but carer and the whole thing wasn’t anything any of us were supposed to chat about, was not on the list on encouraged topics we’d received by email prior to arrival and barely skimmed in the van to the airport, in the security line, or while drinking sludgy smoothies and trying to charge our phones. The phones would get taken away from us anyway, switched for a kind of text-based walkie with which production could let us know where to go and who to talk to.
After Brad told me about it all, it was a week or so of me feeling weird. It wasn’t that he told me a truth. At home, I would’ve researched holistic community clinics with sliding scales, delivered a print-out before a blowjob. It was his unwillingness to play with us, to play pretend with us; it was such early days to be fucking with our pretension that pretending was sustainable. Had we not agreed to this upon arrival!
There he is now, awake with a dour scowl in our direction and in the outdoor gym area throwing a medicine ball back and forth with the other boys as part of an elaborate daily circuit routine that even sad Brad knows by heart. This is how it is, one person up and then another and then everyone comes to life in the sunlight as if waking is a virus communicable by air.
Saskia, the free agent, is holding coffee here at the high-top by the kitchen and confiding aloud, loudly, how she wishes there was Kahlua. That’ll be cut. Liquor does not exist here. We are dosed each night with two drinks only, wine or beer, and if we seem disjointed it’s because we’ve been strategic about the contents of our stomachs. In real life Saskia is a nursing assistant and I imagine latex gloves snapping smartly at her wrists as she talks, in earshot of Brad, about how he never really seemed that into her, that she suspected it was just for the game. I train at her some bland ejection, how she deserves real passion, how maybe a new boy will show up and be a bit of her. All the while I am noticing how my tan has gone streaky across my inner forearm and I am wondering about Brad’s mother—recreating at the community center and eating salads from fast food restaurants, with plastic forks and condom-y packets of translucent orange dressing, and having some good days and other days capitulating in a sucking storm of exhaustion—and I am also wondering why Saskia couldn’t have been more empathetic given her line of work, and I am also tracing a pattern of small imagined noises, the medical gloves snapping at slim tan wrists like tongues clicking roofs of mouths over and over and then it is time to assemble on the pool deck because everyone is awake and we have a roster of conversations to perform.
Saskia’s hair is like a supernatural mirror in the rising sun, dark and reflective and surprising as she moves toward Trina to discuss a perceived slight. Farther, on a lounger, is the issue of Tony, and me having to talk to him. In basketball shorts he is barefoot and grinning, has his arm out in a half-hug position, waiting for me to cross the expanse. Walking here, over the same square footage day after day, has begun to feel like VR. His arm hair is blond and weeping like wheat in the sun and isn’t it beautiful? I want it for myself. I try to glide over but I scrape the tender skin of my high arch on a sharp edge of turf and curse. “Oopsy-daisy!” he booms in his high masc tenor. They will cut the whole sequence, and I mourn the loss of his performance, which is more authentic-feeling than his usual ones: basically gym selfies in motion. But I am not the clumsy one, so this won’t be part of my central narrative. At most an entry into the blooper reel during a rehash ep while the editors are busy clashing together new storylines and stretching out old ones like gum. I’ve watched other seasons. As many hours as they offer of us, less than three percent of our lives will be reported. I rely on this. I think of the way I shape my nails with an emery board. I shape myself this way. And then they will reshape me. I have my ideas regarding control and getting more of it. Nothing good or solid yet.
I get to Tony’s half-hug at last and he vises me. We’ve been assigned to talk about our future as a couple. On the outside, we’d hold together about as well as a paper bag in the rain. However, we’ve got plenty of established cultural models to parrot. “I want to take you to meet my folks.” “I can’t wait till it’s just us.” He offers me a coffee and I let it wash the bread from my molars. “It would be fun to have a place together, wouldn’t it? Someplace to have some one-on-one time?” With his thumb he pinches at my freckled shoulder skin. I refrain from twisting the choker that holds his lav. “I’d like to take a trip somewhere,” I say. “Like this?” he asks. “No, nothing like this. Somewhere on the ocean. Somewhere with shade and people to do things for you.” “I’ll do things for you.” “I bet you will!” I make an oozing giggle, let it ferment in the sun. He gives me a small nod and then sails forward until we’re mouth-to-mouth. I let our tongues show, get it sloppy. We make noises that will be overrun by a pop riff or classic tinkle. Every moment of kissing is a moment we don’t have to talk.
Then Brad is standing right there, close, clearing his throat stagily and Tony says he’s “finally” going to finish his workout and I make a tiny head toss that disarranges my mane into moodiness for just one moment until I toss it back. I look at Brad and I look through Brad, knowing he’ll be gone soon unless there is some conniving production pry, which is possible. Their unpredictability relies on our inattention. But I am locked on, a fritzy device. Brad is mournful. Brad is tucking his chin like a crane. His hands are clasped at his groin. “What?” I say. He says he could use a hug. “Fine,” I say and advance. We fit orbits and then he whispers the sentences that make me feel like a sleeper cell waking. It isn’t a revelation so much as a new and better game. “I’ve been watching you,” he says. “You’re easier to read than you think you are.” I say that’s surely possible. He tells me I’m bored and it lights me up. “What then?” I whisper. He taunts: “You figure it out.”
It’s just a moment of the air seeming to heat around us before Tony calls my name twice from the gym area. He wants me to sit on his back while he does push-ups. “It’ll be cute,” he says, once I’m standing over his prone glossy trunk with its delicate acne at the edges. He says, “Come on. It’ll be worth a vote or two.” I plummet and vamp onto him without thinking. I make my eyes sparkle hard. My lash extensions were, for this moment, worth the money. Then Brennan, who’s “spiritual” and sometimes wears neutrals, shows us how to do a couples’ yoga pose and we all fall down.
I have stopped shaving. I have also stopped applying makeup and tanner. After one week of this, my own pet plot, it becomes obvious. In the mirror my face appears less feminine, but still, lashed and cartoonish for it. I feel as if my pink is receding. This is thrilling if minute and fleeting. The less thrilling thing is how much time I have to kill—half a day to ablutions and lacquers, freed. The free time makes my disturbances more obvious. In the disturbance, though, there is flavorsome possibility. In the disturbance, the set feels more like a set than it did in the beginning, which is when it already felt like a set, 2D and wavering in a strong wind. I kick at the LED ropes strung along the edges of the patio. I am a ready player, sure, up-lit by neon and wearing a two-article dress that involves a bodysuit and turtlenecked netting. My bristles poke from this netting and I clock Saskia as she blanches, noticing. There is a new guy named Vlad who likes the way she yelps and flushes when she’s excited. She jokes about “impaling” with a broad, lilting laugh. I call her corny and laugh too, as my body hair continues to grow.
Meanwhile Brad, having been voted out by the public for his ostentatious sadness, is days gone and I can’t remember what I ever said to casting to permit me entry. I know I said I wanted adventure. I know I said that I liked to make trouble. I told them I didn’t believe, really, in monogamy. I told them I was looking for a bit of fun, that my worst quality was how competitive I was, and that I didn’t mind stepping on toes. That I have always been contrary with petty tyrants and boring dates.
My worst friends had said, “Sign up. You’re hot enough now.” I’d always been hot enough. But recently my follower account had gone boffo. After briefly dating a regional celebrity gone viral for saving a cat, my selfies—oft flat-mouthed and starkly lit—seemed to hit differently. Binging the show on my phone in bed, the screen right up on my face, I found I wanted to intervene. Then, I had been without strategy; it was not clarifying, just the urge.
Now I stroke my underarm crop absently; I ask Saskia if Vlad is a real cop or a rent-a-cop. She says she doesn’t know, that he said he collects weapons, rifles and shotguns, for fun. “Not here, though?” “Are you joking?” she snorts, says they’re for hunting or historical or something. I don’t know why she still aligns herself with me, a person working so un-winningly against our collective candyfloss pageantry, a real Brad-in-the-making, surely unpopular with the viewing public. Historically they don’t tend to like an aberration. But who else is Saskia going to talk to? Kimber is gone and Kelly is mean and Tony’s hooked up with Lana now and for some reason, neither of them will talk to us unless they’re asked to. Afternoons by the pool or up on the observation deck, Tony brings Lana up on his lap and smacks her ass and zings her strings, with an angled glower sent toward me that I can’t, later in the confessional, be bothered to comment upon—even through production would prefer it otherwise.
Week 2 since Brad left and I’m not showering anymore. I won’t even get in the pool lest swimming leave me cleaner. It’s a wrinkle in production, I imagine, that I’m still here. An unmannered surfer named Christian arrives, proclaims he likes “natural girls” and tells Saskia and Lana, who’s talking to us again, that he fancies me and doesn’t care if ignore him, that he’d wait all day for a girl like me. He’s been watching us on the telly so I take his word for it and accept his hand as a measure of safety while I play this new game. His hair and lashes and brows are the color of salt and the longer he’ll stay, the deeper his tan will get and the more he’ll look like an alien hero: weirder, better, a Hollywood version of “the future.”
On the evening of his arrival day, having neglected to pop a balloon between our groins during a couples challenge, we watch the deflating thing stutter over the pool deck and I ask him if he’ll help me “go all the way.” Quickly he says yes, but it’s unclear to either of us what that will entail. Mostly I want an ally, a cover, an available harbor, a fortification on the cliff as I go off the deep end, or not. Could he be a comrade? Too unfocused. He is for now a tarp to hide behind as I determine the winningest reveal.
Newly confident, by the next morning, I’m eating my avocado and bread and letting the green crust at the corners of my mouth like a preschooler. I think of the precision of the laser, seeming to cut redly into the eye. Not once do I think about anyone I know back home, not anymore; they don’t exist. Saskia and Vlad are still together and they call themselves #goals. What happens to a goal attained? Does it dry up in the sun of a minor European country with big tax breaks for video productions by companies based in the golden, rotten land of superpowers?
Because I’m a dolt, and because the illusion of boy-based safety is truly not enough, I ask Caz, who was formerly a math teacher, if he can explain the probability of my enduring presence on the show. He points out that it’s not really worth thinking about. I ask if he’s bothered that it’s so clear he’s not going to get much screen time, that the production staff is racist, that he won’t be here much longer, might not even outlast me, that I’m dirty, dirtying, scuzzy, and white, but he says: “Are you joking? No.” He says he just needed a break, wanted to use his handsomeness and decent personality while he was young and unsettled, wanted to launch into a career in sports broadcast journalism. “Right on,” I say, and drift to the one spot on the far edge of the patio where I can smell the lavender that’s planted on either side of the dusty driveway. My dandruff riffles in drifts on the wind. I grin.
By Week 4 I’m a star and production can’t help it; the show is broadcast with only a week’s delay and the viewing public slavers for my unctuous skin. Or, this is what I have interpreted based on the one moment yesterday when production swept me aside round the villa to say: “Look, we don’t like what you’re doing, but we can’t stop you now. Could you at least think about a bath?” I smelled the lavender. I shook my head. Some people think they’re friends of ours, production. But I see no opportunity for amity in the imbalance of power.
And then last night I was voted safe and we said goodbye to Saskia and Christian, of all people. Christian dipped me in a prolonged but chaste kiss-off, then gave everyone a high-five as he jogged from the villa, his tote bouncing against his back. “I’ll miss you the most,” Saskia—changed utterly, in her city clothes with a peek-a-boo neckline and boots to her thighs—sobbed to me while Vlad ferried solemnly her luggage to the foyer. “Why?” I mouthed and walked away. There go some friends, I thought and tuned back in.
Tonight, we’re having a party for a new arrival named Gilly, a redhead in a green dress, which means there are camera operators around to direct our revelry in high def. They make us dance to tinny music of a phone, in a tight clump; on screen, it’ll approximate the body knots of a rave, except for the blowy margins where you can see beyond our sequins to the empty decking. They give us specialty drinks on these nights: something bubbly with strawberries in it, or a tropical-smelling concoction to be quaffed from chrome plastic pineapples. I do dance, but I don’t drink. I can’t give production any excuse and as a result I feel the conditional nature of our stays all the more keenly; though my adoring public would be loathed to hear it: this game I am playing, this job I am doing, is not who I am. Currently, I long to drink a bathful of rosé and the next day attend bootcamp classes in the sweet green grasses of the park and shop for specialty cosmetics in muted pastels on Instagram and, even, invigorate the salon schedule with a new design template that feels both inviting and orderly, perhaps with a reviving sans serif. But, for now: no drinking, no physical violence, no slurs, no way to be vanquished and later gossiped to ashes.
I want to be recognized for this game I am playing, for this job I am doing. I have this weird job now, made weirder because I am no longer playing to fall in love as a means of survival. I’m caterwauling with my body only; Vlad is approaching, shirt open with tuxedo pants thin as paper, because I am confusing to him and now he is alone and so am I. I had not before realized that confusion and attraction could be in any way linked; it is a juvenile feeling, disconnected from the groin, a hunch into “whatever works.” Vlad is anthropoid abs mostly. His pecs are bulletproof shields and you could chip a tooth on his glutes. His body, articulate, does not confuse me. Marginally it attracts me. “Gingers aren’t for me,” he opens, and perches on a slatted lounge chair beside where I have been standing staring into the indigo night unspeaking. I think of his gun collection and imagine instead of barrels a row of tidy penises.
Wouldn’t it have been pretty if I had cadged Vlad to my side, if slowly like the Blob we had overtaken the cast at large, unkemptness begetting same? Rather after a moment of unspeaking he decides that Gilly looks like a good place to drape, is an exception to his rule. Here, everyone’s rules are bendy as straws. Indeed, even I make an exception by considering the glittering pool and its charms. I am so, so sticky and soon I find myself descending slowly down its stairs into the chlorinated water. A wake of grit leaves my skin. The pool water licks at me. There are stones in my pockets. I mean there are no stones in my pockets. I don’t want to drown. I want now to perform the spectacle of drowning. I find the nearest camera, lodged on a pergola and wreathed in fake grape leaves. I lock my little sludgy eyes on it. I want to perform the death of my labor, not the death of my body. I am ready to go. I pretend that Brad is watching on a monitor, not in some nearby hotel straightening the coverlet and crying. In the floodlights the lens is beetle iridescent. The water—which I can feel and cannot feel as I walk toward the deep end—is cold as a glacial melt. I tip my body forward.
At the water’s edge, the medic with lifeguard training is saying something, begins to wade. My chin and lips and nose and shut eyes submerge and my saturating clothes drag in the stir. I imagine I am being tugged at by everyone, everyone who will watch my grand performance. I let my feet lift up until I am in a dead man’s float.
Once I am fully submerged I flip and open my eyes, surface, buoy with a closed-mouth smile. My heart is abacus beads tabulating likes and faves, fast and automatic and tick tick tick. Brad, idiot, be calmed. There is nothing but this moment. Legs coming toward me. There is not even, I worry, any death in this death.
The water is stirring more now; there are several people in the pool, now, and I can see their bodily noise in my periphery. I can feel them upsetting the water. I am just floating. I am no longer dying. They recede, get out of the frame.
The seagulls cut lines in the darkening sky. I sense a person closer. Small air bubbles skip along the skin of my back, tender and creepy. I have no sense of direction. It is easy to imagine that I am somewhere else. The water seems to chill further. I wonder how long I’ll stay here: a stubborn, triumphant pool float. I think: solidarity unmakes exception, and I’m not ready for that. Then I wonder why the gulls never land on our deck, never land in the pool. Is it the chlorine? The constant light and sound? Is there some sonic apparatus keeping them at bay? The person is standing beside me now; it’s Vlad of course, encouraged by production into this role. He shrugs my slug body into his arms and rises. “You’re safe now,” he projects, as he carries me away from my stage. “Don’t worry.” I confess I am glad to be saved. I am glad.
Week 5 and I’m sitting with Vlad, glossed and buffed back into compliance. Of course, I think to myself, dripping into his arms. We are just about to play doubles volleyball with Gilly and Carter when production asks can I come to talk. Soon we are in the dusty driveway. The lavender is rippling my nose hairs: what pleasure. “We need you back the other way,” they say. I say, “I didn’t think you liked that.” “We didn’t,” they say. “You were uglier. Weird. It isn’t what we want.” Then why I ask. “Our bosses,” they say. “Our bosses see your shtick as marketable.” I say: “Are you truly a worker if you do not recognize yourself as such?” “What?” they ask. I wipe sweat from my lashes. Dust has adhered to my foundation. Weeks will pass, weeks and weeks of my own production. It will be so easy to be gritty again.