Short Story Confessional
Kurt had costars—and many ex-costars—claim their producers were like their best friends, their handlers, their editors, their priests.
It was as if Kurt had just awakened from the dream state: He was aware he had been talking for a long time but could not recall a single thing he had just said.
His living room overflowed with California sunlight, and his face was hot with 200-watt studio-lighting particles, pressing themselves prickly into his cheeks. For a moment he closed his eyes, hoping to transport himself. He went to his favorite place: happy hour on the shaded patio of Dos Caminos. A frigid margarita to his right, one of those pumice bowls of guacamole to his left. He inhaled and then he exhaled.
A few moments later he felt like he had regained consciousness; the cloudy water breached, his head resurfaced, his skin cells filling with vitamin D like little pumice bowls filling with guacamole. But Kurt still had no idea what he was talking about, so he deployed the oldest trick in his book: “Can I see the clip one more time?”
His producer, Remy, wore a typical expression of weary generosity. “Of course,” he said, and his hand arced through the air from the notebook on his lap to tap the spacebar on the open MacBook.
Kurt really had to pay attention this time, and so he did:
A preposterous yacht bobbing to and fro on a wide cobalt expanse, with a glimpse of marina in the background, anchoring the moment somewhere off the coast of Los Angeles. From the camera’s distance, the yacht’s multiple decks appear to swarm with pale ants crawling among giant Skittles. Zoom in, they are balloons, it’s a party. Closer shots display cheerful pastel decor, a cacophony of gifts in printed wrapping paper, a three-tier cake capped with an enormous 1 , rising like an obelisk from sunlit fondant. It’s a birthday party for a small child.
The smallest child, really. Dressed in a colorful one-piece swimsuit and radiant tutu, she is fussed over by many adults, but extremely fussed over by one in particular. Hair like gold, skin kind of like jerky, Rhodina, the honoree’s mother.
The clip cuts to a different deck of the same yacht, where three people—and Kurt is one of them—are drinking white wine.
“Cheers,” a gaudily dressed woman, his friend Yukiko, says.
“Cheers,” a gaudily dressed man, her husband Markus, says.
“What should we cheers to?” Kurt says, also a gaudily dressed man, but not, Kurt thinks, as gaudily as either of them. Just a simple white button-down, slacks, Rolex, and tasteful fingerfuls of jewelry.
His question inspires a brief pause.
“To open bars!” Markus finally says. Everybody laughs, because this is a joke: It was actually a cash bar.
“Okay, okay,” Kurt says, except it’s the him in the room and not the him in the video. “I’m ready when you are.”
The megawatt halo behind Remy is obscuring his facial features, but Kurt sees the shape of him nod. The room suddenly feels like a small but finite amount of air has been sucked out of it. A red light the size of a pinprick silently blinks on the camera’s face, cueing Kurt to speak:
“I found it very surprising that Rhodina had a cash bar at her daughter’s birthday,” Kurt was now saying. His body was slightly angled toward Remy, who he was technically speaking to, but his shoulders were square with the camera’s lens. “It seemed a little hypocritical from the woman who is always going on about hospitality.” He paused briefly and then thought of something else: “A glass of chardonnay was eight dollars—where does that money even go?” He paused for a slightly longer moment and then thought of something else: “I spent more on drugstore white wine that day than I have at a lifetime of weddings.”
Remy nodded again; his silhouette seemed pleased. Kurt liked Remy, even though he could not trust him with a molecule of truth. It was a popular point of advice among reality television cast members to remind themselves that their producers usually had different aims than they did. But Kurt also had costars—and many ex-costars—claim their producers were like their best friends, their handlers, their editors, their priests. Remy was just a kid. Sometimes Kurt felt less like a person to Remy and more like an apparition that materialized when summoned. Not even real, not even tissue.
Remy would also sooner transform into a dove and flutter into the endless sky than divulge any of his thinking to Kurt. So, over the past six seasons, Kurt had studied the language of Remy’s head movements to glean feedback on his performance. A jerk of the head was approving. A tilt to the side expressed confusion. When Remy played with the signet ring on his left hand, he was frustrated and would soon change topics. Sometimes the pompadour atop his head would rise a micrometer, pushed skyward by a raise of the eyebrows—a seismic event that indicated surprise or inflammation or the foresight that great TV was about to occur.
Whenever this happened—whenever a tremor ran across Remy’s scalp—Kurt was forced to remember the ordeal two seasons ago when he had made a neutral comment about Monica’s drinking that ended up igniting an ongoing temperance plotline. Reality Bulletin writing “TrueFabSoCal star Kurt Curtis SLAMS Monica de Beers’s ‘crazy’ wine habit,” ScreenLyfe saying he “BULLIED fan-favorite Monica to de TEARS,” TMZ reporting his bar tab at Flaming Saddles “WEEKS after SLAMMING costar Monica de Beers”—it all made him feel terrible, drove him to the brink of insanity, of believing he was a terrible person when he knew he was just striving for his best self.
Ever since, Kurt’s drinking had been under intense scrutiny, which made enjoying himself difficult. He could not safely enjoy a margarita on a restaurant patio without feeling the prying gazes of others, nipping at his conscience like those pedicure fish that eat the dead skin off of weathered feet (cast trip to Thailand, season five). Even now, people would say, “Oh, Kurt, another drink?” “Kurt, is that just sparkling water, or . . . ?” Meanwhile Monica was free to peddle her swimwear and plan her charity vows renewal benefitting her organization, Cheer Pup!: Dogs Against Depression. It seemed people had license to say terrible things about Kurt online related or unrelated to his drinking habits, which by the way were not nearly as severe as Monica’s, so, no, Remy was not Kurt’s friend or priest, but he did like him fine.
“Let’s actually cut for one sec,” Remy said, to the camera’s operator, “because we’ve got a little brow sweat,” he said to Kurt, “and could use some powder?” he called to a distant makeup artist.
A small kindness, Kurt thought. In the mental file that housed his opinion of Remy, he added a small Post-it-sized addendum to commemorate this gesture. Then he mentally flipped through the brouhaha re: Monica (several mental pages long) again.
“Thank you,” Kurt said, and he swore he could see Remy smile before he looked down at his notes. Kurt briefly wondered if he had sounded too grateful. Remy was not Kurt’s friend or priest, but he did like him fine.
A woman dressed in all black broke through the production phalanx in a dead sprint toward Kurt’s forehead. She fell upon him with a soft makeup brush, trading beads of sweat for itchy clumps of powder. Instinctively Kurt glanced at the video feedback screen before he remembered he lost that privilege three seasons ago; the screen faced away from him.
Remy, who could see the screen, of course, glanced at the image and, by way of approval, continued the interview.
“Was there anything else that surprised you about the event?” Remy asked. A classically Remy question. It was a polite way to get somebody to reveal their expectations of another person, which were unfailingly interpreted, by a group of insecure people, as statements about their character.
But none of this occurred to Kurt, whose mind was working itself into a small tizzy recalling the Monica incident.
“One more thing,” Kurt said. “I think, if you’re throwing a party for your daughter, you kind of owe it to your daughter to make sure the guests are having a good time.” He was still talking about the cash bar. “So, I think, in the end, if the party is a bust, it really hurts nobody but your daughter. And that’s why we’re all here anyway, right?”
If he was being totally honest, and at times he was, Kurt thought this was a kind of gorgeous leap, almost balletic even, from a party-planning oversight to an inalienable statement about Rhodina. Rhodina . . . Nobody liked Rhodina. She was so rich and so mean. In two short seasons, Rhodina had initiated a screaming match with every single cast member, including Kurt, on the topic of some disrespectful comments she made comparing his late father to his ex-husband. She was also, objectively speaking, so rarely in the right. The moral high ground was a vacation destination on her bucket list between Buffalo and Three Mile Island. A fan account had tweeted that exact observation recently, and Kurt thought it was absolutely right, which is why he retweeted it from his lurker account. The last time he checked, the tweet had over 1,200 likes, which was 1,200 votes against Rhodina, or 1,200 in favor of Kurt, however he decided to slice it.
Remy, however, seemed totally uninterested in the Rhodina-parenting comment. He pressed Kurt, “Anything that totally shocked you?”
There was clearly some kind of bait that Kurt was not taking—he could see Remy playing with his ring—but he only had to wait a moment before Remy’s conversational voice began to creep out from its professional sheath: “I myself was kind of surprised when Markus decided to go for a dip . . .”
God, Kurt thought, he had totally forgotten, but it was true that toward the tail end of the evening, Markus had gotten so drunk that he stripped down to his underwear—and he was wearing briefs!—to dive into the California sea—at a birthday party for a one-year-old!—and Yukiko and Kurt basically had to hold his pants up and padlock his belt buckle to his flesh. The worst part was that Rhodina had bore witness to the whole thing from the upper deck, guaranteeing that it would receive significant airtime. The second worst part was that Monica was also presiding over the scene, and she looked amazing, and Kurt could swear she wasn’t laughing.
Markus’s behavior was insane, and his capacity for drink vastly dwarfed even Monica’s. But Yukiko was a good friend, and so his first thought was how Markus’s behavior was going to be used to malign her. Of course, if he defended Markus’s toddler birthday striptease, it would spell disaster for Kurt, optically.
A single line drawn in the khaki Malibu sand. On one side, Rhodina; on the other, Yukiko and her drunk husband. Monica would be with Rhodina, not because they liked each other (Monica continues to bring up the Hawaii jungle dinner and subsequent helicopter episode), but because her values skewed right; she was happy to preach puritanical values wherever she could. Teri and Roman followed Monica’s lead, historically. Synthya was a friend, but her opinion held as much water as a martini glass in a Category 5 hurricane, according to another tweet Kurt had recently seen.
Quickly, back to Dos Caminos; margarita arctic cold, guacamole piled high, Kurt’s every angle cushioned by tipsy bar chatter, a waiter tending to him with the care of a hospice nurse, a woman of middle age ambling up to his side to issue the following admission: “I just want you to know that I’m a fan, and I think Monica was being really unfair to you. I think you’re a good person!” Kurt enjoyed the real world. He even owned property there. But he also could not help himself from constantly groping for the downy comfort of heaven, where his life was sweet like lime juice and agave, and he was sated, and his wallet never contained less than ninety dollars cash.
Kurt was not delusional. The others were delusional—especially Monica, and lately Synthya, and definitely Rhodina. They were recklessly cruel and needlessly indulgent. They were nearsighted and lacking corrective eyewear. They were bumping into walls and saying “Watch where you’re going!” and then throwing a drink. It must be nice, Kurt sometimes thought, to live as if yours was the only life that mattered. Kurt liked to remind himself that he was not like them and that if the pay had been this good in the jewelry-design business, he would have happily remained there, doing honest work, creating tasteful golden bands and bangles for women who founded start-ups that sold plastic suitcases, perhaps, or all manner of potions for hair and scalp.
But of course he and his castmates were not all that different. Kurt wanted to be adored as much as Monica and Teri and almost as much as Rhodina. He wanted six figures per season, business-class plane tickets to tropical places, and a public who assured him that he was kind and well dressed and that his life had meaning. And at the end of a long day, being treasured by a demographic with a median age of fifty and household income of sixty-two thousand dollars, he wanted to relax in a place where margaritas were two for one, or where some other generous deal was available; he had never actually been to a Dos Caminos.
Kurt chose his words carefully. It always felt as though he were fingering deep within some wallet—anything more or less than exact change and he would be maimed. Language was a weapon formed against him. It was almost euphorically satisfying to realize, again and again, that he did not have to explain his motives to himself. He lived within a sanctuary where the truth of his existence could be inhaled and exhaled like oxygen. Kurt is kind, Kurt is cool, Kurt is fine. Kurt is a good person, and he doesn’t have to say so, because every cell in his body already has this information.
Then he felt the foundation on his cheeks bubbling against the studio light.
“Ah,” Remy said, and Kurt was once again back in the white-hot room. “We’ve got a little more sweat, if we can . . .” But at the word sweat , the frenzied makeup artist had already sprung into action.
Another few moments passed, and the room was once again still, somehow slightly more airless than it was before. The red light blinked on again. Kurt didn’t know what to say, so he chuckled a little bit.
“Markus and his little dip,” Remy poked. His pen tapped at his notebook, and Kurt felt for a moment that it was pressing into his very own skin. “What do you have to say to that?”
Kurt felt weak. If he weren’t already sitting down, he would be on his knees. How he longed to absolve himself of the petty squabbles, the sins that weren’t his, the studio lights burning like torches. Between Kurt and liberation only stood Remy and a confession. Maybe Synthya was right at the last reunion: The truth will set you free.
Between Kurt and liberation only stood Remy and a confession.
“ Well ”—he stretched the word to buy a few more seconds—and then he just said, “ I probably would not have done that at a one-year-old’s party,” which was true.
Remy gave a tiny satisfied nod and turned the page.
As the crew nibbled on a lunchtime assortment of packaged salads, Kurt stepped out onto his patio. It curved around the length of a modest yard and culminated in a built-in fire pit and hot tub. There were no yachts, no jungle dinners, no skin-eating fish here in his home. No cash bar, for that matter. He could only see a short green expanse, a wall of leafy privet, and the built-in fire pit and the hot tub no one used. He could only feel the yellow-hot sun on his cheeks, still caked with foundation. He could only hear the wind going somewhere else—Cabo, perhaps. After a minute, he began to feel unbearably warm, so Kurt retreated back inside and faced the lights once again.
The thirty-second teaser for the episode featuring Rhodina’s daughter’s birthday on the SS Success , Teri’s husband’s company yacht, was released the following month. On cable, it played about twice an hour; online, it played nearly endlessly. It began with a bombastic male voice-over clearly speaking in all capital letters: “COMING UP,”
“TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS,”
The yacht is seen from a bird’s-eye perspective; then the camera zooms in toward the swarming decks, from a bird’s-suicide perspective.
“OR IS IT . . . TERROIR?”
A shot of Yukiko, Markus, and Kurt cheersing wine glasses. “To open bars!” Markus says. Cut to Rhodina hugging guests with her daughter placed decoratively in the background, barely sentient in her tutu. A shot of Synthya clothed expensively from her nipples to her mid-thighs, posing for a photo with strangers.
“A BIRTHDAY FIT FOR A PRINCESS . . .”
Rhodina unwraps a gift in front of her child and the crowd goes nuts: It’s a little Birkin bag!
“. . . TURNS INTO A ROYAL DISASTER,”
The music cuts dramatically to a black-and-white montage of Markus stumbling around the deck, with Yukiko and Kurt holding his pants up.
A woman, Teri, is captured mutely gasping. She appears in her confessional, surrounded by hundreds of pillows, saying: “I could not believe what was happening.” Her commentary initiates a short montage of cast interviews.
“I planned this party for weeks,” Rhodina says, “and it was ruined in,” she holds up a bony finger, “one minute.”
“ I probably would not have done that at a one-year-old’s party,” Kurt says, laughing.
Yukiko’s voice is muffled by her hands cupping her face when she says, “Oh my God,”
“AN ALL-NEW EPISODE,” the announcer screamed.
Rhodina has the last word: “All I wanted was to celebrate my little girl,” she says. As her eyes begin to water, an offscreen hand enters the frame and offers a tissue; a signet ring catches the light and winks.