Jenny bit her lip nervously backstage. Watching the show from a monitor, she’d just seen the first contestant walk away with an alcoholic. Not that he wasn’t a very attractive alcoholic, but he was a far cry from the worldly scholar the girl had described to Jenny moments earlier as they’d chatted behind the curtains to take their minds off it. Jenny felt sorry for her now as she watched the new pair walk off stage, the girl’s face one of bleak acceptance as she removed her microphone clip. With a twinge of guilt, Jenny thought, Better her than me. Because, although it was always sad to see contestants go home with less than they’d hoped, this was, after all, a game. The girl had played the game and she’d lost, and there was no use crying over that.
Amid peppy theme music and the audience’s chanting of the show’s catchphrase “You get what you get! You get what you get!” Jenny watched a stocky, dejected-looking man shuffle onto the stage. She listened as the pristinely coiffed host, America’s salt-and-pepper-haired darling, poured forth the sad circumstances, his words flowing with honey-glazed sympathy. This man had been the former lover of the first contestant, and when she’d unceremoniously dumped him, he’d been dragged into this charade of gambling for new partners on live television.
“How does it feel to see your ex-girlfriend get stuck with a drunk?” the grinning host prompted, raising one eyebrow. “Bet that feels pretty good, huh?” The audience cheered in agreement.
“I just want her to be happy,” the man responded quietly, and the audience chorused, “Awwww.”
“Looks like there’s no chance of that! Am I right?” the host bellowed, and the crowd hooted with laughter. “But let’s get down to business and find you a new Ms. Right! Let’s make a deeeaaall!”
Jenny continued watching on the monitor as the man was lead through the motions of choosing doors and making decisions. It seemed to her that he lacked any kind of enthusiasm, as if he had no hopes whatsoever for winning someone worth having. Upon choosing his first door and finding a plain but decent-looking flight attendant who enjoyed backgammon, he opted to keep her. The other two doors held no temptation for him, even amid the host’s sparkling attempts to remind him of the glamorous, exotic women which could be waiting just behind those doors. He seemed just to want to get it over with.
It occurred to Jenny that this was a broken man, and again she felt those nasty little pangs of pity. How did it get this bad? How had this man and this woman, before they’d even had the time or the privacy to grieve their failed relationship, been catapulted into this unforgiving game of chance in front of a ravenous public? She well knew the societal implications of a solitary life–wretched, ridiculed, even exiled in some cases; single people had become strictly taboo. The wild popularity of this very television program depended on the belief that a relationship, any relationship, is better than none. And yet she had always felt, more than that, it was something else–a gripping fear of loneliness that coerced the whole country into a state of constantly coupling up.
Through the fog of her thoughts she suddenly heard her name, “…next contestant, Jennnyyyy!” followed by the roar of whistles and applause. Her feet were welded to the ground for a full ten seconds which dragged on while her heart dropped to her knees. Squeezing her eyes shut and inhaling sharply, she could see his face so clearly, and her overwhelming desire was to bolt. Ben. Her sweet husband. Her sweet dead husband.
She could see him now, exactly as he’d looked twelve years ago, standing on a stage just like this, one of many. Back then they’d hailed her as a jackpot winner–a handsome, educated cousin of Spanish royalty was waiting behind her final door. But more than that, when the stage lights had dimmed and the crowd had dispersed, she’d discovered a gentle heart and a piercing mind. And for some reason, he’d loved her. He couldn’t remember that the trash always went out on Wednesdays, or that she hated those Dr. Pepper boxer shorts he insisted on wearing, but he had loved her.
Her friends and relatives had given her three weeks to mourn his death before the guilt trips began. They couldn’t stand seeing her so sad and alone, but mostly alone. They couldn’t deal with the thought of what people would say about her, how they would treat her. They said she needed to get back in the saddle before it was too late, before she’d be alone forever, and they’d said it with such horror and persistence that she’d finally relented. This whole grieving business was bad enough without her entire support system turning against her
And it was they who appeared to her now, their faces that somehow led her heavy feet onto the stage, into the waiting glare of light bulbs and the host’s pearly whites. She squinted around for the cameras, a face, or whatever she was supposed to be looking at, let her eyes latch onto a shiny pair of men’s black leather dress shoes, and shuffled towards them. And suddenly it was theatrics and small talk that she didn’t even hear. He kept looking at her expectantly, and she would mumble the appropriate responses, each one met with a hearty roiling laugh or a communal groan of sympathy, peppered with applause from the audience. Her sad tale was being told with as little of her help as possible; the host was explaining why she was entering the game without a bargaining chip. Unlike most contestants she had nothing to trade, no significant other that she’d grown tired of because hers was dead, and “We here at Let’s Make A Deal think this young lady’s suffered enough already.” Wink. Finally, after her sad tale had been exploited for all it was worth, it was time to begin the game.
All she had to do was pick a door. “Let’s go with door number two,” she said immediately. Don’t give him an excuse to drag this on, she thought. More theatrics and boom, a Russian dancer. Gorgeous, too, and boy did they lay it on thick, confetti cannons bursting like she’d struck gold again. “What are the odds, what ARE the odds?!” laughed the host, apparently stunned. You just didn’t get this lucky twice, so obviously someone backstage had rigged it. You really could do anything with enough money. He was preparing to shake her hand to wrap up this deal and call out the next contestant when he heard faintly, “No deal.”
“Excuse me, miss? What’s that?”
“I said ‘no deal’. I’d like to try another door.” The room was silent. And it wasn’t that they were shocked to see her turn down a good prize; they were settling in to witness a real whopper of a letdown. If she was one of those dumb ones who always tried to angle for bigger and better, she’d get what she deserved. The next door would be a balding plumber for sure, or a used car salesman, maybe even a Klan member.
And she didn’t care if it was. She stood there and she thought of Ben and she could not fathom any other life, any other happiness. She could not imagine a way to calmly accept this prize, this man she was supposed to feel lucky to have won.
So she chose another door, almost hoping to get a garbage man or some other disappointment. But she felt her heart sink in absolute horror at her latest score: a Yale professor, published poet, and the spitting image of Ben. She nearly fainted.
The cheers were deafening and the flashing lights were enough to induce anyone into an epileptic seizure. The frenzy that this development caused was astounding–either this woman would go down as having the best luck in the world or she was setting herself up for a mind-blowing failure. Either way, this was entertainment at its finest. The host had never looked so thrilled as his eyes lit up with one word: ratings.
And Jenny was as an animal trapped, her world upturned and bouncing off the walls all around her, and she stood motionless, powerless to act, speak, or even think until the commotion passed, the panic setting in because once it did pass she would be expected to make a decision. And this abomination was staring at her, thoroughly unnerving her, standing there looking relieved because hey, he could’ve had it worse. She felt a streak of indignation rise up suddenly, as the ticker-tape still fell around her, her face growing hot. Where did they find this clown who looked like her husband and how in hell’s name did they expect her to accept this shoddy substitute like she should be so lucky? Who did they have waiting behind the third door, the freakin’ president? Or maybe just some degenerate Ed Hardy-wearing asshole to humiliate her in front of the whole country?
She didn’t know, and in the midst of her building rage, she reached a point of clarity in one resounding thought, as the whole damn charade froze around her: I don’t care. Not about finding a new mate, not about being alone forever, not about what her friends would think, not about being ostracized, not about anything any of them could do. It was all at once freeing and embarrassing and confusing because what the hell was she doing here?
She walked off the stage–into what, she didn’t know. Not only was this taboo but extremely against the rules, and if anybody else had ever tried to pull a fast one like this, she’d certainly never heard about it. But she walked away, leaving the whole spectacle aghast. She walked into the darkness backstage and felt justified, for a tiny moment before all hell erupted. For one small instance she felt certain that the choice to be alone could never be wrong. And the rough hands that reached out from the darkness to bind her arms, that clamped over her mouth were unnecessary because she wouldn’t have fought, wouldn’t have screamed anyway.
Charlotte Cuevas is a UCF grad who spends her days as a school librarian, her nights doing whatever it is hipsters actually do, and every spare second in between writing. She has a soft spot for poetry, a penchant for sarcasm, a weird obsession with beards, and no appendix. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her attempts at poetry at http://charlottecuevas.wordpress.com/