As Seen on TV by Daniel Guzmán
Suzie and Phil invited me over for dinner at their place. It had been about two months since the last time I’d driven to see them, the usual stretch of time between our gatherings. As I walked up their driveway, Suzie ran up to me, flawlessly blonde and floral-printed, and gave me a hug.
“Phil’s got something new,” she confided. “He’s been spending weeks in the garage inventing things again.”
I thought of the strange contraptions that I had to sit and observe in the living room after our dinners, like some sad version of show-and-tell. Suzie saw the look in my eyes and laughed.
“No, nothing like those,” and then she added, “Really, I think this might be the one.”
Phil was a tall man, standing with shoulders hunched forward. At 33, he was no longer the pimple-faced boy I first met in high school, no longer the nervous kid reading comics in the back of our American History class. He was still young, but years spent in front of computers for his day job, then several hours each night bent over his worktable coming up with new inventions, had taken its toll, giving him the widening midsection and soft, bifocaled stare of someone’s dad. A far cry from the boy that had once slipped a love letter into my locker. Even after all these years, I still felt a moment of guilt at having never responded to his note, at pretending like it never happened. It must have crushed him – but, then, again, none of us had gotten what we wanted, had we?
“Hey, Miss TV Writer,” he said, his usual greeting. “How is life in Hollyweird?”
How was life? Let’s see: I lived in a tiny studio apartment above a Chinese-Mexican combo restaurant, you know, the kind with a funny name like Wok-N-Roll or Don Wong (get it?). I wrote for a shitty cable TV cop show that was probably going to get canceled as soon as people caught on that it sucked, and I moonlighted as a script doctor and ghostwriter for other people’s crappy projects. My sleepless nights were filled sweating in front of a window fan, staring at the detritus of a novel that could never quite come together, the fatty aroma of pork dumplings and steak fajitas now and forever registering in my mind as the smell of failure.
After dinner, Phil had us sit in the living room. Suzie sat next to me, each of us holding a glass of white wine; she, already on her second and anxiously tapping the armrest of her side of the couch; me, hoping I had time to get home before one of the neighbors stole my parking spot again. When Phil brought out the television set, I was confused. It wasn’t even a new TV, just an old model from the fifties or sixties. Those large sets that had a solid presence to it, like an heirloom dresser or a small convertible. There was something like a DVD player on top, making the TV seem even more out-dated. The screen was large and dark, a magic mirror of sorts. I didn’t get it. Was he going to show us a video of his invention?
“Wait, let me guess,” I said. “You invented television.”
Usually, Suzie would laugh with me, but not this time. She was anxious for Phil to get to the good part already.
From on top of the DVD player, Phil pulled a keyboard, and began typing. On the TV, the image of a beach at sunset glowed into view. It was that perfect hour when the sun sits big and red on the ocean horizon, that magic hour that exists in parts of the world, regrettably used far too often in TV shows, movies, and computer screensavers so that we come to see it as a cliché, like if God was just a hack writer reusing the same time-worn formula to keep audiences happy.
He finished typing, and set the keyboard back on top of the TV. Then, without saying another word, he put one foot through the TV screen as if it were an open window, and climbed through. He was on the beach, waving at us, looking like a home movie, just some happy tourist vacationing somewhere, saying hello to the folks back home.
When I first got into TV writing, a good friend and veteran of the industry once confided to me over a pitcher of sangria the sad truth of what to expect: “Listen, honey, if you think you’re in it to write compelling stories or to make a name for yourself, I recommend you go back East and crank out that Great American Novel everyone talks about. Out here, you’re just another salesman, understand? Except you’re not selling clothes or furniture. You’re selling emotions. That’s all.”
Soon after, he became my boyfriend. Moved in with me, talked about marriage. By the time the TV pay got a little more consistent, though, he had quit the business, quit me for some younger woman, moved East, tried his hand at novel writing again, then gave that up and settled into copywriting or something. Happily married, I think, or maybe not. I don’t remember. See, that’s the thing about when people leave town, it’s like they cease to exist. Like they were just written out of the show entirely, or worse, replaced by someone younger, sexier, eager to show them all.
It was around that same time that Suzie came back into my life. After graduation, we’d lost contact. I’d heard talk from my mom (she and Suzie’s mom were good friends back home) that she’d tried her hand in acting for a while, first in New York, then moving out west, too. She and Phil got pretty serious, got married. Then, about five months after I heard the latest news from my mom, I got a message from Suzie online, said we should meet up, being that we were in the same area and all.
Suzie was beautiful in all the ways I was not. In school, even teachers did their best not to stare. However, none of that had translated into a career. She’d done some commercials, a few TV shows as an extra, but that was it. I had the feeling that she was reaching out to me because she’d heard of the work I was doing, and yeah, I tried to help her get some leads, but that was like the mailroom clerk of some office trying to help a friend be Vice President. I wasn’t exactly capable of making calls on anyone’s behalf, not then, and not even now, really. After that, I thought that was it. But, then, the invites for dinner started coming in. They had relocated to San Diego, where Phil’s company was now based, and Suzie worked as a receptionist at a doctor’s office. They didn’t have kids. And Phil working long hours, both at the job, and in the garage, I could tell that Suzie wasn’t just looking for another gig when she called. It wasn’t quite a friendship, but it was definitely hitting the demographic.
After Phil’s TV, we started having more and more dinners at their place. Not really dinners so much as a quick meal followed by spending hours playing around with his invention. You type a setting or situation in the keyboard and the TV would bring it to life. At first, Phil wrote out the scenarios. His ideas were pretty generic, hotel pools, beach resorts, hiking excursions. Good stuff, don’t get me wrong. Travel commercial stuff. He’d write up a pretty afternoon by a waterfall, and then we’d climb in, spend a few hours splashing around, hearing the parakeets and monkeys just beyond the trees. Fun, but I felt that his invention could go a lot further. Soon, I offered up to do the writing, which considering they both knew I wrote TV scripts for a living, was probably what they always had in mind.
The scenarios were things I’d always wanted to write, but couldn’t, given the fact that I had no final say on my own creations when writing for a show. Here, I wrote up favorite landscapes. Medieval castles, the bottom of the ocean, or flying above the clouds. As the adventures got more daring, I spent more time sitting by the TV with the keyboard while Suzie and Phil climbed inside and lived out my stories. It was a rush. Unlike my other writing, there was no lag time, no waiting for actors and directors to come along, for editors to package the thing into pieces squeezed between commercial breaks. Here, the stories happened just the way I wanted them, acted out in real-time. And they loved it. Suzie and Phil would come back after an adventure, looking like Christmas morning.
I started pushing things even further. Time travel adventures. Trips through space. We’d sit in the dining room after a session, figuring out what to do next time. Suzie and Phil shouted out premises while I wrote everything down.
“A trip to Saturn.”
“No, vampire hunters.”
“No, no. Secret agents in Berlin.”
Suzie was excited with the lives she could live. It was better than acting. That was really her flying over London. That was really her catching the winning ball in a game. We should have spent time talking about how we could possibly market this thing. Instead we were all too mesmerized by what it could do for us. There was no limit to our wishes. And so, it was only a matter of time before it showed exactly what we really wanted.
The idea came to me that week as I worked out new scenarios for the following week. My dead novel sat rotting in a drawer. I had barely spent any time on the TV scripts and rewrites before sending them out, which surprisingly made them better in the eyes of my bosses. I guess the trick is just to stop caring.
I watched late-night shows and tried to imagine where I could take Suzie and Phil next, when I saw the singles ads and began to think of my ex-boyfriend. I thought of Suzie and Phil. And then, perhaps a little too drunk, I started writing.
Our old high school seemed like the obvious setting, except the cast was filled with every actor or actress we’d ever wanted to meet. Suzie wrote down grocery lists of actors. But, it was specific characters, not just actors. Kirk Cameron from “Growing Pains.” Scott Baio from “Charles in Charge.” I offered up Johnny Depp from “21 Jump Street,” and Don Johnson from “Miami Vice.”
We collected all the names, and I began feeding them into the TV. There were other requests, too. Uncle Jessie from, Joey from “Blossom,” Kelly Kapowski, David Hasselhoff – both the “Knight Rider” and “Baywatch” versions. Suzie had drunk a little too much wine, and was suggesting up even more as I typed. Alex P. Keaton, Doctor Jack Shepherd, Denise Huxtable, and Mr. Belvedere. (I shot down Mr. Belvedere).
Suzie was already in her dress and climbing into the TV screen. The sounds of all those dream people, like the greatest high school dance ever, was too exciting. The wish was fulfilling a deeper desire than any of us had expected. Here, she had a second chance at being someone.
After Suzie was gone, Phil gave me a look. It was then I realized he didn’t have the soft look in his eyes anymore. He wasn’t even wearing glasses, had switched to contacts a while back. He had lost some weight, partly because he wasn’t inventing new things anymore, and because the scenarios I wrote (riding dinosaurs, chasing supervillains over city rooftops) kept him fairly active. I realized he was looking at me intently, and there it was. The unanswered question that I knew he had been waiting on for so many years. And then, I knew. The dinner invitations hadn’t really been Suzie’s idea. They had been his. As was the inventions, specifically this one. It was all just one larger version of a love letter in a locker. Another bid for my attention. And I also knew how much I was hurting him, even now.
“Look, Phil, I…” I said.
Phil nodded. “No, I know.” And he jumped in.
I didn’t get a phone call that week. The weekend rolled around, and I still hadn’t heard anything. When I finally did get a call, it was from the local police, asking me if I’d like to answer a few questions. I thought it was a joke, a prank that me and a few writing friends used to play on each other years ago. The idea was to see how long you could play along, whether you could keep the story going for as long as possible.
However, after a few more minutes of their story, I knew this was real. Apparently, Suzie had come down one night and found Phil in the TV, living out a fantasy where he and I were married and living together. Nothing exotic. No spaceships, no deep-sea adventures. No dance hall full of famous people. Just the two of us going about our normal daily lives. We’d have meals together, go for walks, then go to bed. We didn’t always have sex, but when we did, it was pleasant, satisfying. A high school kid’s secret fantasy.
There was a fight. Eventually, Phil turned on the TV and ordered up his emergency scenario, the one where he was back on that beach, in his own twilight solitude. Suzie screamed for him to come back, and when she had enough of that, she did what she thought was the logical thing to do. She yanked out the television cord from the wall.
I still remember Suzie and Phil. Those names as sharp and as crisp as the early days when the world was switching over to high-definition. Those first moments, when we’d turn on to the HD digital channels, and the school of fish would come swimming out in rainbows. Or, the flip side of the technological revolution, when we watched our first awards show in high definition, seeing our beloved actors and actresses reduced in the withering light of enhanced clarity, sweaty, crinkly, every powdered scar, every concealed pimple, all those unplucked hairs and deep wrinkles like highways baked under a noonday sun. With the first impression, that of the fish, we thought, this must have been what it was like when the moving image appeared on a screen, all those frightened people diving out of the way of a black and white train hurtling towards the camera. With the second impression, that of the humanizing of our film gods, the revelation that their fleshy traps are just like ours, we thought, this must have been what it was like when silent film stars had to adjust to talking movies, former screen stars offering up their squeaky, cracking voices to the world, offering up a confession of guilt, like in a crappy TV homicide show, something I know far too well.
© Daniel Guzmán 2012
Daniel Guzmán is a writer of surreal fiction, essays, and film reviews. His work has appeared in the New York Press, Cinespect, the L Magazine’s Literary Upstart Reading Series, and Rio Grande Review. He has performed at such venues as The Slipper Room, Cornelia Street Café, and the Bowery Poetry Club. He is the producer of the Exquisite Hotel, a noir-styled cabaret reading series.
As Seen on TV was read by Amber Bogdewiecz on October 3rd 2012