We first saw her on that mini-season of the Real World that only ran on MTV3. The one in Nashville where they all worked at the Ford plant and drank Budweiser at honkytonks? We were in junior high and we just knew that we’d stumbled upon something special, only for us. No one else at Warren G. Harding Middle knew about reality shit. They just knew about parties and grades and Nirvana. Me and Racetrack and K.B.? We knew about relics.
“Yo,” said K.B., “yo. The shorty in the Reeboks.” He bounced on my grandparents’ flowered loveseat. We were in my basement.
The shorty was in the interview booth . the sandalwood walls in the background covered in pictures of the ’84 Lions and Sam Goode. She was blond back then and had this lisp and really bad 90s hair with the flip at the bottom and the big sides.
I noticed the unfortunate prison tattoo on her left elbow. A big ace of spades.
“I don’t know why they all hate me,” she said, her voice high and squeaky. “I didn’t mean to get all drunk but it isn’t, like, a big deal. Just I thought Tommy (Tommy was the big dumb hunk with the flannels) looked like Gene but then I was like how would Peter think of me since I’d been making out with Tommy, because really I’m into Peter Criss, you know? And then I was afraid that Peter might see all my old love letters to people who weren’t him. It must have been all that absinthe I was drinking. I threw that ceramic night light at Tommy’s head but I didn’t think it would hit him, you know? It’s just a few stitches between friends, right?”
I think she was drunk then, too, ‘cause she kept babbling. She must have known her time was limited. David had already been kicked off the Real World in California, so there was precedent. She was obviously a little crazy and couldn’t handle her booze in a good, ratings-friendly way, but I couldn’t even care about that. I was 13 and at the time, all I could think of was her short shorts and her bitchin’ tattoo and her bra strap.
# # #
The next time she popped on my screen, she’d dyed her hair and wore really preppy clothes and looked like some mid-aughts Technicolor monstrosity. To anyone else, she was a different person, but I saw the tattoo on her elbow during a close-up of her holding a lamp like it was microphone singing Afternoon Delight. The ace was disguised as a Legend of Zelda triangle, due to her new nerd girl angle, but I could see the curved tip and the remnant fleur-di-lis. It was her.
I got on IM, ignoring my roommates’ pleas to change the channel. They always complained. But who doesn’t watch six hours a day? Who I ask?
TheJetsHateBenny: The Goddess is back.
Racetrackskills: what do you mean, the goddess is back??
Kindbuddzzzzz: the goddess? The fucking goddess?
TheJetsHateBenny: Big Brother Wales marathon right now..
We messaged each other through the marathon until our girl left. Big Brother Wales was kind of janky–definitely not as good as Korea–but still better than the US. Only problem was the whole cast was trying for drama. A good show needs a mix: couple chill hombres and a 2-Pac Machiavelli and a hot dumb chick who won’t put out.
Our girl was outclassed. She couldn’t cry loud or sexy enough; she didn’t have the sheer crazy to out-crazy the one who cut the Union Jack into his ass; she wasn’t macho or sad or anything. She did lame shit like sing into a lamp. Sorry, girl, that ain’t gonna cut it.
On her way out halfway through the season, she turned to Blonky the neo-Nazi and said, “I thought we were pals, Blonky.” She had this real good Cockney accent. “You said you wouldn’t do this to a friend.”
Blonky shook his head. He had real nice, big blue eyes that bugged out at her like, what show do you think you are on?
Kindbuddzzzzz: That was hard to believe. I CAN’T believe she was back.
TheJetsHateBenny: I can’t believe she went out so soon.
Racetrackskills: Was that even her?
TheJetsHateBenny: How can you even say that?
Racetrackskills: I have to bounce. Mid-terms tomorrow.
Kindbuddzzzzz: Yeah, and this weed ain’t gonna smoke itself.
TheJetsHateBenny: Dudes. This is important. Don’t go.
# # #
I saw her occasionally over the next few years, mostly on off brand shows, though sometimes she came up to bat in the majors a la Casey Jones. I watched eight hours daily by this point, rushing home from the gas station to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I’m sure I did though.
Racetrack and I were watching American Idol. I hadn’t seen him in over a year and we exchanged small talk before I saw her in the outtakes (the season before William Hung got famous). She wore this little cowgirl getup and her boobs were watermelon big. She was skinny too and looked stretched out. Her calves seemed barely attached.
She opened her mouth to sing and it was frogs dying. She maybe got three bars in before Randy Jackson Aw Shucks-ed her off the stage. He wore a really nice suit; his teeth sparkled. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, dog.”
“I thought you’d be nicer. You seemed like a nice guy on TV,” she said before they cut away to Randy’s mugging.
“Racetrack,” I said.
He held up a meaty finger. He’d gotten fat. He was on the phone. “Pepper, onions and sausage.”
“Yes, extra cheese.” He hung up. Frowned. “Dude, change the channel, ok?”
# # #
K.B. didn’t want to hear it when I told him that I saw her on Cambodian The Amazing Race. He was dressed in his lawyer suit, the one with pin stripes. I’d been ten hours in (I watched the unedited version) and several bags of chips. There was something about the haze of television and pork rinds that got me to nirvana.
K.B. ignored the facts: Cambodia had television, it wasn’t hard to dye skin and get a breast reduction. Where are we without facts?
“Ben, seriously. You need to get out more. Get a real job instead of that Craigslist nonsense. Look at yourself, look where you live.” He gestured at my little apartment like he was too good for roaches and no working toilet. Just because he lived in a nice neighborhood and owned his house didn’t mean he needs to judge.
The television called me and while I spoke, I kept my good eye on it. You can’t miss a thing. You just can’t. The episode was in The Mall of America and all these Cambodians had to find the fattest American who would teach them to eat six chili cheese dogs. And she did it in record time. If that wasn’t proof that it was her, what was?
“Benny.” His eyes crinkled. “You need to grow up.”
I went on. That when she was eliminated, she and her partner turned out to not even know each other. She said afterwards that she actually liked him and hoped that they’d get closer.
“Maybe it’ll really work out for her.” I really wanted her to be happy. “You think so, K.B.?”
“Stop calling me that. Just call me Kevin.”
# # #
I think it’s really unfair how you were treated. The way Heidi Klum said “auf weidersehen” had that undertone of disrespect that you were right to call out on. You worked very hard and to say that you were an ‘obvious fraud’ is bullshit. It was a dumb season, anyway. All menswear? Some Spike TV experiments are doomed to fail.
Look. I know your name on the show was Gwindelyn, but I addressed this envelope to your real name. And I know it’s you. You can disguise yourself to all the others. Gwindelyn might have blue hair and a tattoo sleeve on her left arm and tan skin and a beauty mark under her eye, but that’s all subterfuge.
I’m hoping we can meet soon. Let me know where you’ll be next. I’ll be there. You said it when you were packing your sewing kit, “… thought I’d meet kindred souls who understood design. Understood me. You have to keep looking.”
Well, look no further, I’m here.
# # #
When I feel clearer, I understand why my friends don’t come over. But it hurts to see what my life actually is and it hurts to not hunt for the Goddess. And so I don’t. But when K.B. and Racetrack stopped by, I put on a happy face and kept Goddess news to myself.
Real friends always want you to be better than you are.
I know it was her on The Real Housewives of Myrtle Beach. Her boobs were back to normal and she’d ditched the contacts and her hair had that flippy thing again. Her cheekbones were daggers now, though, and her lips about burst from collagen. I almost questioned if it was her.
It was the tattoo that sold it. Or the space that it wasn’t, her arm a mass of red flesh from tattoo removal. She said she was in a motorcycle accident. During one of her interviews, she said, “The motorcycle accident was pure Krhys Kriss. I am just too fabulous to not walk away from such a fiery inferno. Krhys Kriss to the mixedy-max.” Whenever she said her new name, she flashed the peace symbol with both hands. She tried hard for a catch phrase.
In this one, they asked her why she hadn’t been invited to the big gala. She stuttered her way through her answer before saying, “These girls – Shawna and Shayna and Sharonda and Shay – we’re best friends, right? They wouldn’t intentionally not invite me. I’m sure my invitation just got lost in, in all the other invitations I get all the time.” Her smile cracked, and I knew she’s thinking of the shit-talking and man-stealing and weave-pulling. “All the time.”
K.B. and Racetrack just wouldn’t understand, how when she said that, something broke inside me and I cried and I cried and I cried. So I don’t tell them about it and when next they come over. And when I move, I don’t give them my new address.
# # #
I haven’t seen her. She hasn’t responded to my letters, I haven’t left the apartment in a long time. My water gets turned off and the landlord tells me he’s evicting me but my cable bill is paid in full. It has to be.
I watched Brazilian Survivor in the hopes of seeing her. Then I watched the Canadian Iron Chef and the Norwegian Bake-off though she’s never appeared in anything Scandinavian.
I watched all of them, but I never saw her. Until I do.
There, in the audience during the finale. The handsome host said the next season is casting and she wrote down notes.
I grabbed my phone.
# # #
It’s nighttime and the heat is still heavy. My tribe is asleep, the few of us that remain. Just across the river are the Kamparases. Tomorrow, the tribes merge.
I miss the endless glow of the television. I can’t sleep at night. But I remind myself that I have purpose now. I have a reason. I have the Goddess.
She’s heavier now, a layer of fat around her caesarean scars. Her eyes are beyond tired. She tries to speak to her teammates, but they don’t listen. They sense the desperation. This is her last chance.
With the moon a sliver, I rise and leave camp. We’re forbidden to cross the river because that’s where the television crews camp, but they’re asleep and the guards are always drunk. The crocodiles of the Louisiana bayou do their job for them. And the crocs are easy to avoid.
The river mud is warm, like I imagine the sludge in Fear Factor would be. The air is thick, the mosquitoes surprisingly silent.
Kamparas is a sea of snores, but I creep along the perimeter. She’s there, sleeping half a dozen feet away from the shelter, exiled by her teammates. She’s awkward and slow, easily frightened. I’ve seen her do lose it time and time again. Hasn’t she figured out how to be what they want her to be?
I crab-walk, determined not to wake her. She stirs but settles down. The night is alive with song from the wind and the crickets and the bullfrogs.
The moon casts a shadow on her bare shoulder. My hand, soft and without any force, touches the curve of her back. Her eyes open and she fixes on me, settle on sleepy acceptance. “What do you want?” she murmurs. Her real voice is soft scratch.
“I’m here,” I say, sliding to the ground so our backs touch. I sense her uncertain spine. “I’m a friend.”
“A friend?” Her voice quavers.
“Forever.” I wait and wait and my breath gets slow and even. I find myself drifting and my soul wants to slide into space, into the television broadcasts and the silent hum of the world from a screen, but when she turns and her strong arm reaches around me, slowly, like she isn’t sure what she’s doing, I’m dragged back to the corporeal and I wonder if this wasn’t what I was missing for so long. I’m perfectly still, breathing shallow. I can’t spook her.
The night continues and I wonder about tomorrow. There are rules of conduct I know I’ve broken. But they will find us like this and just maybe they’ll all love us again.