A Thursday night in America. The year 2008. You sit on the couch in front of the television around 8:30 in the evening—thirty minutes after your favorite show has started because you are TiVoing it and want to fast-forward the commercials.
You wear your comfy clothes, stretched out pajama pants and a large t-shirt, or maybe you went to the gym after work and, too tired to shower, you lounge in your sweaty spandex, or maybe it’s just boxer shorts. A ratty terry-cloth robe with nothing at all underneath.
You’ve eaten dinner alone, something grand you pulled together by closely following a recipe from your mother’s old cookbook, or maybe it was just chicken tenders and tepid french fries from the college dining hall, a Hungry Man frozen meal pulled from the stacks of them in your second freezer.
Perhaps you’re married, husband out for the evening, kids already tucked in bed. You feel weightless, the one time of day that is completely and entirely yours. You consider pouring a glass of wine, but abstain—it’s only Thursday, no need to start a nasty habit you can’t quit in three months.
Or maybe you do pour a drink, because you’re eighteen and it’s your first semester of college and one of the older girls in your dorm came to the watch party with a cheap bottle of Chardonnay, not chilled, but then at eighteen, who can be picky?
Or perhaps it is chilled, beads of condensation belaying down the bottle, and it feels luxurious to have cold wine in a dorm room with only a mini-fridge, so you accept a glass gratefully, even though you haven’t had a sip of alcohol before. It’s only Thursday, and yes, you have an 8am class on Friday, but you are eighteen and it’s your first time living away from your parents and your freedom feels all-encompassing, intoxicating, so deep you could drown in it.
You’ve never watched this show because you’re not from here, you’re from a country across the ocean, from a country where this country, the one you’re in now, has always felt like the destination, and not only have you never watched this show, but you’ve also never heard of it, and you don’t fully understand the hype, but the girls in your dorm room are ecstatic about its return—the season premiere, they call it. It’s like a religion for them and what the hell, you’ll sign up, you’ve always loved a fervor. Consuming this show feels like a way of fitting in, of becoming, of leaving behind. You want that. The cultural know-how and the friends; the way one leads to the other and vice versa.
Or maybe the culture is so a part of you, you cannot see beyond it. A chilled bottle of wine but nobody to share it with. You’re twenty-five, in bed, stemless glass balanced on your flat chest. For you, the show is a balm; that’s why you’ve always loved it. You are a young man barricaded in the closet of a small, Midwest town and the show allows you to believe in the possibility for love, for happily-ever-after. Despite that, on screen, the possibility is only ever between a gorgeous man and many gorgeous women, and never between two men or two women, but Jesus, you love the outfits. Recently, you purchased a blood-red gown that reminded you of the dress Amelia wore during the Season Three finale—she was always your favorite.
But maybe there is no closet here. Your twin-size bed becomes a queen and your partner is under the covers beside you. It’s a show you both love, but guiltily—guiltily because you are Doctoral Candidates working toward degrees with niche focuses: Slavic theater post-Iron Curtain, Sociobiology with an emphasis on the relationship between humans and roadkill. Too smart to indulge in such garbage television, and of course, you’d never admit to it, but on Thursday nights at 8:30, it’s a shame you can share.
Or perhaps the shame is not something of comfort but of supreme self-loathing. No partner here, no closet, no deviance from the heterosexual norm, just you—a forty-eight-year-old man in Little Rock, Arkansas fantasizing about being a different kind of man, like the kind on your television screen, his quaffed hair and tight buttocks, that perfect man. Fantasizing about thirty women vying for your attention, the elaborate dates, candlelit tables on the beach, the private suites and helicopter rides, the hot tubs, a new body in your bed every night.
Maybe there’s a bottle of CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion, the kind with the pump, on the table beside your push-back recliner. You live alone, after all. There is no one to shame you here, but yourself.
That rush when the familiar theme song trills. You cross your legs on the couch. You situate yourself more comfortably in bed. You try to match the giddy excitement of the other girls in the dorm room; when you can’t, you drink your glass of wine quickly, then pour yourself another. It’s only Thursday, but this is the only time of day you feel free, like yourself. The kids are in bed. You have an 8am class tomorrow morning. Your partner’s breath beside you is hot. You kick the covers off. You lick your lips, push a meaty hand down the waistband of your XL pajama shorts. You cheer as the host appears on screen. You’ve missed him you realize, the way you might miss an old friend. You drink for something to do with your hands, and your mouth.
As this season’s women are introduced—Katie from Kansas City, Emily from Tampa, Sierra from Sacramento—you feel judgment. You feel disdain. You feel warm and angry. They are so pretty, these women, or not that pretty, or not pretty enough. You feel awe. Admiration. Disgust. Confusion. You want to see them win the favor of the man. You want to see them fail miserably. You want to know what the big deal is.
They should feel embarrassed, you think—who would parade themself on television this way? You require them to share in your shame. To feel responsible for it. And then, make you feel cleansed of it. You enlist these women for their service: the reminder of your own virtuosity. Look at them. You would never act like that. You would never say that, dress like that, beg like that, cry like that, curse like that, gloat like that, moan like that, flirt like that, fuck like that, humiliate yourself like that.
You would never be quite so human as that.