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Megan Sheehan 

T.V. Land Is Funny 

 

Are you telling me that everyone has some kind of psychic ability?"

(I am.)

"So, what you're saying is, each one of us has our own psychic powers."

(That's right.)

"Amazing. Isn't that incredible? That's incredible."

-OK, thank you number eleven. That was nice. Number 12!

 *

I nail the audition, and that depresses me. I meet Ray for coffee afterwards. He's late. I sit at a miniature marble table in the cafe window, where I can watch people walk by on the street. Ray sees me from the sidewalk, and twirls toward the window, blowing kisses. Too bad, I was hoping he'd be in his depressed mode. I worked with Ray for a year on a gourmet food show on local cable, the year marking the beginning of my artistic collapse. He blows into the restaurant and gives me a dramatic hug. Stepping back, Ray puts his hands on his hips, and looks me up and down.

"Oh, are we mopey today? Did we have a bad audition?"

"Lay off it Ray, at least let me have my coffee."

"Oh, it's like that is it? OK, we'll talk about me." He wiggles his shoulders excitedly. Yellow sunlight stripes his side of the table; I'm in the shadow. "Adam called and he's hooking me up with a music video. One of those head-banger bands. They crash into a lush banquet and start a food fight. The set designer's talking about a 20-foot banquet table!"

"That's excellent Ray!" I make myself sound excited. I need to stop faking things so well. I need to stop hanging out with food stylists.

"I know! I'm having epiphanies every ten minutes! The ideas are just really flowing for me. I'm thinking, heavy on the creme puffs and things that will throw-well and splat all over. That will limit my last minute blowtorch work, too. Maybe just one huge turkey, and a ham or a roast beef - do you think?"

"Perfect, Ray."

"Oh I know!" he lets out a squeal, "I think the end of the network will turn out really good for us both, You know? It's challenging, I know, but we're really growing! It's a real experience!"

"I'll tell my grandkids."

"Oh, you. I'm not going to let you bring me down, oh no. I get a great gig, and I'm happy, and I thought that maybe - just maybe - you'd feel happy for me, for a second. But, oh-no, your life is too hard to feel happy for your friend Ray. What-ever." Ray picked up this "What-ever" expression from a twenty-year-old production assistant who used to work with us on our food show at the network. He imitates her exact intonation. I think he feels young when he says it.

"I'm sorry, Ray. It's just that I turn Thirty-Six next week, and I nailed my audition for the Psychic Connection this morning, and I don't know how this became my life."

"No Way!" He slaps the table, splashing my coffee, "You mean to tell me that you're the new psychic doctress?"

"That's right, Ray."

"So, what you're saying is, unless I ever get a life, you'll be keeping me company in the wee hours of the morning with more amazing stories on how the Connection can change me?"

No matter how Ken reacts, I'll be pissed at him. When I come home, he's blaring Schubert, and crying.

"What's the matter?"

"Genius. It's genius, and he was never recognized."

"Actually, he achieved fame. And he was quite arrogant about it," I tell him.

He doesn't lift his head. His eyebrows have grown in a furor, swirling and sprouting across his brow. I used to think they made him look intellectual and intense; now I think I could braid them, and I notice they're beginning to grey. I go straight to the bathroom and fill the tub. I go heavy on the bubbles, and light a candle. Avoiding the mirror while undressing, I plunge my feet into the bath. Lowering myself, letting the water creep over me until my skin turns pink, I let out a huge moan. A triangle of light pierces the room, and Ken's standing in the open door.

"You're looking at the new Psychic Connections infomercial hostess," I say to him.

"Oh, Maura, Say it ain't so."

"Well, I may not get it, and of course only the big stars can be spokes people, but I'd be the host of the mini-commercials that interrupt the larger infomercial show." My voice is shaking. I swish the water to distort it, but he knows. I'm breaking. He doesn't say anything. He's about to close the door and I want to stop him. I want to find someone who'll know what to say. "Would it kill you to have a sense of humor about it?" I blurt.

"Would it kill you to take yourself seriously?" He says quietly. The triangle of light folds into itself as he shuts the door behind him.

"Yes. I think it would," I say anyway.

 *

I get the call-back the next week. They think my look is too "edgy" for the host, but they'd like me to play a guest. They have me do a second reading:

The week before my wedding I had a vision. I saw myself in the passenger seat of a fleeing car and I was crying. When I woke up, my right hand was numb, and I couldn't move it for days. I called off the wedding. My friends and family couldn't understand; they thought I was nuts. Then we found out that my husband to be was an escaped convict! [Gasps, Applause]

*

I dye my hair red for the ads, but people recognize me anyway. At our dinner parties, Ken's friend asks, "Hey, you do those psychic commercials that I watch for my insomnia, right?"

"I'm not a psychic, but I play one on TV," I answer. He doesn't get it, and I see Ken's jaw tighten.

 *

"You were a serious artist," Ken says to me in bed. I roll over. "It's not as if we need the money, I . . . "

"Look, it's not easy. I'm almost forty. My breasts are real. I have cellulite, wrinkles, bags. It's late for me. I may never become serious. I tried that. It's all the same bullshit."

"Oh come on, Maura. The Psychic Connection? Art?"

"You're not fully satisfied with this artist? Just phone in and order a new one."

 *

He does. She went to Barnard. She reads bad poetry in the nude (no cellulite). She turned down her NEA grant, and the press went wild, transformed her into some downtown icon. She lives on the Upper West Side, but now they're moving to Soho together. He used to talk about her before I knew of their affair, "She's doing very important stuff, very important."

 *

He acts hurt while he's leaving me. He walks around with his shoulders up and his head lowered. "I was in need of something," he says, and his voice cracks. I smoke and stomp around the apartment. I'm getting to keep the place. "She's reawakened me to the power of ideas," he pleads. I walk toward him and blow my smoke at his eyes with laser-beam accuracy. I don't need to say it. He gets the message. I wonder what's left between us.

He discovered me. I was a doctoral student in Mathematics, and acted in an improv group for extra money. Actually, I didn't make any money, but it was a good excuse to stay in it. Ken was a founding member of the troupe, but he didn't have the natural talent, so he stayed in Law School. He encouraged me to go into performance art. My professors thought I should stay in school, but Ken had bigger ideas. He thought I'd be a revolutionary, combining math and technology and art. "You could do very important things, very important, " he told me. And I liked it. I liked being on stage. I liked the people. I felt like I was growing; I felt electrified. I still do.

The elevator door clanks shut, and I hear the chain release, carrying him down and away. The screech of its brakes echoes up to our apartment, and I rush to the window to glimpse him leaving. In a few seconds I see him, jog-walking diagonally across the street. "Look up, Ken," I mutter, "Come on Dick-Head, look up." I learned enough math to believe that nothing is linear. Things pent up and explode and subside again.

"He wasn't fun enough for you," a friend says. "He never made you happy."

"Happy?" I ask, leaning into the phone and writing my name in swirly letters across Martha Stewart's face. Who wants happy? Happy is what sends people carting machine guns into shopping malls. Happy is a dangerous mirage that leads to downright tragedy.

"This will be good for you, you'll see," She says. It's enough to make me beg him to come back. I'll show you how good it is for me. I give Martha a mustache.

"I don't want to be happy. I didn't ask him for happy," I start. An ant crawling across the kitchen counter distracts me.

"When I think of those graduate school years, I think of swimming," I continue, "He swam to me. He wanted me, and I just floated around for a while, happy to be in the sea. And then, after a year I said, 'Look!' And I twirled and whirled and butterflied. I but-ter-flied!"

"My baby's crying," she says. "Look, this will be good for you. Trust me."

 *

Before he cancels them, I run up the charges on his credit cards. I buy products from my own infomercials. Teeth-whiteners, gut-busters, sandwich-sealers, paper-shredders, leg-waxers, plastic-wrappers, shake-masters. The boxes pile up, and I don't unpack them. I stack and balance them, building a huge arch. I tear open just a part of each package, tugging out a hint of packing, and leaving it suspended from the box, like a Kleenex. I spend hours pulling and fanning, getting the material to stay just right. I salt the floor below it with Styrofoam peanuts. I come home from my auditions, my infomercials, lie under the arch and talk to it. It becomes my pet. I prefer it's company to Ken's, and I tell the arch how I don't even miss him. How things are funny in TV land, and as long as I can laugh, I can do it. I'll never do anything to please anyone else, and I'll always be true to my arch.

Ray comes over and is stunned frozen in front of it. "Liar! I thought you said you had given it up!"

"What?"

"Performing, you asshole - what is this installation?" He circles the huge parabola, bends low, stretches high, clicks his tongue, "You're going on stage with this shit."

I try not to, but I smile. I want to cry, but I giggle.

"You know what I'm saying?" Ray is on his tiptoes and his arms are flying around. "I believe what they say, being on camera is bad for your Karma. Every film clip sucks away a little piece of you." He makes pinching motions. "And here are your pieces Maura, peeking out from these little boxes! It's beautiful, man. It's really beautiful."


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