Fourteen and Thirty-Four
Andrea is thirty-four. Andrea has a ritual. Flick the off switch on the lights by her workspace at reception. In the dark grab a handful of jellybeans from the bowl. See none of the colors. Chew all the colors into mud. Squirt hand sanitizer into the palms of her hands. Rub them together. Dry-wet stickiness. Walk out the door. Lock the door with her Tweety-bird keychain jangling. Take the elevator down just one level. Exit the elevator. Exit the lobby. Into the outdoors. The parking lot. Unlock her Toyota from a distance just to know from the beep it’s still there waiting. Lock it again in case of intruders. Stay between the glowing white lines. Unlock her Toyota. Drive in silence. Slowly, just in case a deer jumps out. Pull into the lot outside her complex right in front of her apartment door, like a motel. Step out of her car. Lock the car door. Unlock the front door until it clicks. Stand in her studio looking into all the dark spaces. Say, stop it, out loud. Turn on the light. Open up her laptop still in its place on her couch. Look up The Show. Find her old posts. Find herself again. Slip into sweatpants. Masturbate. Microwave dinner. When the microwave goes off, leave her body. Try to become whole by watching The Show. Go to sleep with The Show still running. Wake up in the middle of the night. Rewatch the episode. Fall asleep.
Andrea is thirty-four. She looks for a facsimile of herself online. Other than the fanfiction she wrote when she was a teenager, which wasn’t even under her real name, all she finds is a picture of herself originally taken at work for her identification badge. She prints it out immediately. Today, she spends extra time looking at her ID photo, which she has taped by the computer as a reminder, its colors running in graph-like lines from low ink. Her computer has been warning her to replace the ink for a month now. She rarely prints in color, so she hasn’t gotten around to it. Andrea Shales, Receptionist, the caption beneath the photo ID reads. Her hair looks dirty and unwashed. Her glasses reflect bare trees from the office park where her picture was taken. Her body is dumpy and ugly, and this Andrea isn’t the one she wants to be.
There is only one place on the Internet that belongs to Andrea, The Show’s fanfiction forum where she pens tales of Girl Character and Boy Character, lovelorn, where other obsessives love her posts, where they love Andrea, or her avatar anyways. This is where she spent her childhood, her face lit like sclera by the harsh glow of a computer screen in the dark. The computers changed as she got older, from the sturdy beige hardware of her childhood to her current sleek MacBook, but the forum stays the same. Time doesn’t matter, the forum is where the fans gather together forever sharing the space of The Show’s pilot episode, or the one-hundred-and-thirtieth episode, when Girl Character’s lips brushed Boy Character’s. Not quite a kiss, but not not a kiss. If Andrea could choose a memory to be her own, this would be it. See, Girl Character and Boy Character are always nearly touching, but not quite, as if some physical field keeps them apart, caught in freeze frame. Girl Character and Boy Character behave like teenagers living in their parents’ homes where the cardinal rule is to prevent the cardinal sin; the door must always be kept agape like a mouth in protest. But Girl Character and Boy Character never seem to mind the separation. They never seem to mind all the almosts. It’s like they know The Show would be over if they ever came together in unholy union.
Andrea remembers the first night she watched. She was thirteen. She wishes she could sit on her couch, turn on the television, and find The Show for the first time all over again. She can’t access what it felt like, exactly. She’s tried but it’s never the same. Always something tweaked in the memory: an emotion, her hair, the way her fingers felt on the remote. If she could, she would pay to have the memory as it really was. She would give all her money in exchange for that perfect feeling. The first time she watched.
But that memory always comes poisoned by what happened after. Andrea’s father stumbled into the room and slumped into his favorite chair. He sat in the worn leather chair and asked what she was watching. She was still young enough to believe he was interested and explained the premise of the show. Her face was flushed with excitement as she spoke. Her father just kept on staring. He smiled for a minute, but it looked like his smile was covering something else up underneath. He leaned forward, towards her and said, “Those superhero-detective idiots won’t ever fuck, see. They have you fooled.” Andrea didn’t speak but balled her fists. “They will never fuck each other or anyone else.” Her father went on to say, “and if they would, you would not be a great candidate because of your ugly, busted mug.” He then stared Andrea straight in the eye and told her to get off her ass and change the channel back to basketball, cutting her off in the middle of the next episode.
How could she have been so stupid as to think he would care? He liked to be particularly vulgar like this when his breath smelled like whiskey. When he was sober, he was nicer. He would bring food home like an apology the next day. Sometimes it would be a full brown bag dripping with grease from the local fast food joint. All for her. Then he would be drunk again. Privately Andrea referred to the sour smell of drink on his tongue as his manure breath. Publicly, Andrea said nothing and excused herself upstairs to the family office, Internet connection slowly dialing, alternating loud and quiet like a fever dream.
Andrea is thirty-four. She tries to find evidence online of her existence as an adult. She doesn’t find anything more than her work ID badge photo. In the background of the badge photo, Andrea’s office building looms with its numerous windows mirrored like spider eyes. She might as well be there at work now, like she will be for the rest of her life.
It wasn’t always like this. Andrea’s fanfiction was what she could be proud of because so many other people liked it. She wrote about black bras peeking through white shirts and getting drunk off of seven G & T’s. She thought G & T’s, especially abbreviated, sounded classier than beer or whiskey, and more like something Girl Character would drink. Andrea’s father always had at least seven drinks, so Girl Character and Boy Character did, too. Andrea’s father would never touch Gin and Tonics, only whiskeys neat, and thin, wheat beer that tasted like cat piss, which she knew because once, for research, she tried her father’s beer warm from his dusty stockpile in the basement. It lay sour on her tongue long after the swallow.
Andrea had a reputation online during the era of The Show. She was known all across the fanfiction forum for her words, for her portrayals of Boy Character and Girl Character, her incisive understanding of how the characters really were. She felt she knew the characters better than the showrunners themselves. Andrea allowed them their growth outside the rigid structure of a primetime slot. They were no longer just two characters in a procedural. Boy Character and Girl Character came alive in her mind. Under her guidance they became more complex, full beings than any of the showrunners intended. They became saviors. Andrea’s fans would post that they should hire her as a writer on The Show. They begged her for more, always more.
You are such a good writer, her fans would type in the comments section under her latest installment, You show things how they should be.
You show things how they should be. Not how they are.
Today, Andrea notices her hands across the keyboard. They look dead. It’s the first time all day she’s noticed a part of her body. I should get a LinkedIn, she thinks. She wants to prove she is alive in her adulthood. Her last record of herself is archived fanfiction with all its black bras and alabaster skin and bodies melded together in bed. Embarrassing. She stopped writing a long time ago. Andrea couldn’t think of anything good to write about and besides, normal adults didn’t give two shits about The Show. Anyways, if there were fans left, they didn’t want to read her take. No one wanted personal fantasies. They wanted The Show preserved in amber. They wanted nostalgia, not now. Writing seemed pointless when she could just think Girl Character and Boy Character into existence, and there they’d be, ready to fuck again.
Time keeps happening, over and over again. This is what The Show teaches Andrea with its many seasons and cycles. Time is happening all at once. Andrea can’t change anything. She is suspended in time like molasses, sugar-coated and difficult. On The Show Boy Character and Girl Character always catch the bad guy and sometimes they shot people and they are always inches away from fucking. Something, someone stops them from fucking, and it is the tragedy of Andrea’s life. Sometimes, before bed, Andrea imagines both Boy Character and Girl Character tag-teaming her, their spectral bodies solidifying under the warmth of her duvet, their skin dewy with latex chemicals that Andrea has a feeling that only celebrities excrete. When Girl Character touches her shoulder, Andrea always inexplicably starts to tear up, and the bed starts to sweat so that when she gets up to make it the next day, the sheets are oceans rippled in the shape of her body. They are twisted in on themselves in whirlpool shapes, damp with Andrea’s melting. When she thinks about Girl Character, Andrea’s orgasms are always a little painful, like her clit is electrified right through.
After, Girl Character gently pries Andrea’s legs open and shines her flashlight on the sore, reddened flesh. Kissing what hurts with ice dripping cool from her mouth, Girl Character apologizes over and over. You don’t have to apologize, Andrea reassures. Boy Character is usually absent during these episodes, and Girl Character usually explains it away by claiming he’s cracked a case and is looking for the one clue that’s going to cinch it and put the abusive bastard away. In the end, Andrea’s glad. She doesn’t want to have to deal with Boy Character’s complexities.
Always, reruns screen on TV after work, and even though Andrea owns the box set, she gathers her blankets around her and forgets about dinner, forgets about preparing her lunch for the next day in the divided Tupperware she buys on annual trips to The Tupperware Store in the downtown complex, which is really just several office buildings jammed together in service of selling knock-off home goods, each building hawking a different product. Sometimes, when Andrea cuts up her peanut butter sandwiches and lays the baby carrots one by one in the next divider over, she says, bon appétit! to herself aloud. Sometimes she pretends she’s a sushi chef on a timed television show, preparing a bento box against the countdown. She saw this once on a Japanese reality show. Andrea doesn’t have the stamina to cut her food into manageable, cute pieces like the chefs on the show. She always buys pre-packaged and pre-cut. If she didn’t, she might swallow something whole.
Today, Andrea realizes she is nearing the end of The Show’s full series. Again. Andrea’s couch is sagging with her body, warm with her body, exhausted with her body. Andrea would rather kiss Girl Character, but Boy Character comes in close second. The Instant Noodles she zapped during the last commercial break fall on her lap in intestinal curls. She eats with her hands. The noodles, wet around her fingers, cling stubbornly before she tips their coils into her mouth, tongue arching beneath salt and MSG, and she finds pleasure in both.
When Andrea was fourteen, her mother left for a work trip, leaving Andrea home alone with her father for a week. For the whole week, Andrea would eat only Instant Noodles in front of the computer, her back curved toward the screen like it was her center, coils of pasta dripping wet over the keyboard as she ate. Andrea never noticed any of her mess. For the whole week, she slept outside in a red camping tent the family never used.
Back then, Andrea wasn’t allowed to go online unattended. Her mother had set many password controls to keep her off and away from the Internet’s corrupting influence. The culprit was her eighth-grade presentation on Christopher Columbus. Andrea received a low grade and a phone call home because she’d used multiple perspectives that diverged from the Pennsylvania state curriculum, many she’d found from what the school called unreputable sources on Yahoo or Ask Jeeves or a nascent Google. On the classroom whiteboard, Andrea drew Christopher’s name in letters dripping with blood and said he was a ruthless murderer in front of her whole class. After the presentation, the teacher called Andrea’s mother to come pick her up early. Andrea’s mother arrived wearing a sweater and pursed lips. Andrea stood looking at the ground when the principal met them both in the linoleum hallway, his arms crossed in threat over himself. Andrea’s mother spoke to the principal in low murmurs, promising him that she would limit Andrea’s Internet usage, that Andrea had always been overdramatic and interested in stories, “that such a flagrant display of disrespect for the country would happen again over my dead body.”
Dead body, Andrea remembers thinking, and an image of her mother’s flesh stiff and purple arose. She pushed it away with thoughts of Girl Character’s glossy white skin dripping chemicals, an image of how Girl Character’s breasts might look bare.
Fourteen-year-old Andrea and her mother walked to the parking lot without speaking.
In the car turning the heater on full blast, her mother said, “I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I will not come to your school again.”
In summertime, her mother often turned the heat up in the car when she was angry with Andrea. In wintertime, she would turn off the heat and open all the windows, including the sunroof.
When Andrea was fourteen, she knew her way around the parental controls, which at the time, were not very advanced. The password was Andrea’s grandmother’s birthday. Easy enough. Andrea would sneak online in the middle of the night. She was known for posting her fanfiction at strange hours of the evening and Fridays, when her mother left with her girlfriends to run around the high school track. Sometimes, like the weekend her mother left Andrea alone with her father to go on a big work trip, Andrea was allowed to use the Internet without limitation. Andrea’s father didn’t really care enough to enforce the rules. That was the good thing about him. His attitude was, you stay upstairs, and I stay downstairs and we don’t bother each other until I want to be bothered.
When Andrea was fourteen, she just wrote because she wanted to. She didn’t care about her Internet fame. She didn’t want to be remembered because as a child, she just was. She hadn’t yet gotten in the habit of looking for herself. But Andrea did develop a list of rules for survival, like every kid does by a certain age.
By fourteen she knew:
Using search engines inappropriately could get heat turned on in the summer.
Other kids could be cruel when you left school all the time at your parents’ whims.
The only people in the world worth knowing are TV characters.
There is a forum where you will find others who get it.
If your dad is drunk and your mom is away, camp out in the backyard and
bring extra blankets.
If your dad is coming home, use your inside time wisely.
Microwave some instant noodles before you starve.
Be startled by the piercing sound signaling the food steaming and ready.
Have the red tent already up before he gets home.
Steal downstairs after he falls asleep from all the whiskey.
Bring lots of extra blankets.
If possible, get a padlock.
If possible, lock up
your sleeping bag.
If possible, lock up
The microwave goes off when Andrea is fourteen—its carousel slowing to a stop, Instant Noodles steaming and Andrea needs to watch The Show before her father gets home. The microwave goes off when Andrea is thirty-four—its carousel slowing to a stop, Lean Cuisine steaming, and Andrea needs to watch The Show before she leaves her body.
She leaves her body.
She leaves her body.
When Andrea tries to find herself in a hazy state, the lucid dream she always falls into when she is fourteen and thirty-four at the same time, she finds a picture of herself as a child sleeping in the woods stretched out for miles and miles and miles behind an uneven brick house, wind whipping against the taut plastic of her red tent. Every night in the tent Andrea whistles The Show’s theme song to herself and Girl Character visits her nightly in her mind, this time not bothering to explain Boy Character’s whereabouts.
In the tent, Girl Character touches Andrea’s freezing shoulder, but then there’s a noise outside. Girl Character convinces Andrea to unzip the front of her tent. Along with the wind, the zipper screams, high note to low note.
This is where she tries to change what happened, tries not to rerun the episode.
Andrea has no remote.
It’s time to go, Girl Character says.
Outside is Andrea’s dad in his flannel pajamas. His eyes in the dark are just whites.
This isn’t real. This didn’t happen.
What really happened is not this.
What really happened is this.
Andrea chooses not to remember.
But Andrea remembers.
Andrea wished her father would die.
She wished her father to death.
What kind of daughter would do that?
Andrea is thirty-four. She has to remind herself her father’s heart attack five years ago wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t a wish come true. It’s just something that happened. Andrea’s father in his retirement home. Andrea’s father in his easy chair watching TV. Andrea still visiting him every other weekend. Andrea’s father in his chair watching TV when his heart stopped. Andrea hadn’t visited him the weekend before. So that was it. She’d never see him again. Did she feel relief? Did she kill him with her thoughts? Did Girl Character fulfill her promise after all? The shitty therapist, who she saw for a grand total of two months, told Andrea this was called magical thinking. This wasn’t the right magic.
Sometimes when the microwave goes off, Andrea will try the grounding techniques that the shitty therapist taught her. “You need another tool besides that show,” the therapist told Andrea two weeks into their work together. The therapist had a lot to say about Andrea. Andrea did not have a lot to say back, especially after the therapist criticized The Show. That was private. And embarrassing. The therapist had cat-eye glasses. The therapist had blue eyes. The therapist had a rainbow flag sticker on her door. The therapist gave Andrea a diagnosis co-sponsored by the Ivy League degree above the overstuffed chair where she sat teaching grounding exercises. Andrea didn’t like the diagnosis, but therapist said having a diagnosis would be nice; it would validate Andrea’s pain. Instead, when she heard her diagnosis, Andrea felt fourteen again. Someone was telling her what she was. But instead of doing it with her body, her therapist was doing it with words. Andrea felt defined. If you didn’t like someone’s definition of you, you could leave, couldn’t you?
Andrea did leave. She left without so much as a text message. But she does admit she did get something from therapy. What she got was a living thing. What she got was a fish. The therapist said, “It would do you some good to take care of something living. To remind yourself that you are too.”
Andrea already knew she was alive, but the therapist had a point. Watching for a heartbeat, even one that lived in a tiny fish chest, was thrilling. Sometimes, Andrea would watch the fish in its reflective glass tank and she would touch her hand to her own heart and then watch her reflection in the glass touching her hand to her reflection’s heart, her body shimmering in the tank waters like she was submerged and swimming alongside the betta fish with its trailing fins. Watching her reflection in the tank was sort of like imagining herself whole, but better. Andrea bought a betta because therapist said that kind of fish would be easiest to take care of, so Andrea bought the betta and resented the therapist for assuming that she was too fragile to deal with complexity. Complexity like an angel fish. A fish requiring multiple temperature checks and water changes. The therapist didn’t realize Andrea would have done anything for the fish. Andrea would have done more for that creature than anyone else in the world.
She watched the betta in her own reflection. It was far easier to see someone else in her stead. The betta was beautiful. Orange, black and red with those long, trailing fins, it swam through the waters of a green tank Andrea bought for cheap off Craigslist. The betta didn’t have a name. She thought about naming it after Boy or Girl Character, or some amalgamation of both, but that felt wrong. Naming felt wrong. Andrea didn’t feel like she owned the fish. She and it were coexisting. The betta took care of her just by being alive.
Andrea’s father won her a fish for her tenth birthday. He brought it home in a plastic Ziploc and it lived in a drinking bowl meant for a dog. He said he had won it for her at a county fair. Every year, he would drink his way through the fair with a couple of his buddies, so when he gave the fish to Andrea in the Ziploc bag, he reeked of beer. She could see the fish in his hands, in the clear baggie. It was a goldfish, small and faded orange. Her father smelled so much like beer she could swear the fish had been drinking too. The fish didn’t look very healthy. But the way her father said, “I won this for you,” and then patted her back with affection, was everything. That fish was everything. It died a week later. Andrea wanted to bury it outside and say a prayer. She wanted to cradle its little soaking body in her cupped hands. Her dad told her it was silly to cry. He’d win her a new one with his buddies next year. He flushed it when she was at school. She never saw the body, never even saw it float, given up to the surface in glittering ascension.
Andrea would give the betta a better life. Sometimes watching the betta dragged her firmly into the present. Sometimes it led her into the past but guided her safely, so she could tolerate being there. She imagined holding on for dear life to the betta’s trailing fins as if a balloon. If she let go, she would lose it forever in the sky.
Now, in this moment, Andrea thinks of her father dying and she can’t get the image out of her head. She tries everything the therapist taught her. The slowed down breathing. The counting of cracks in the ceiling. The harsh cold of an ice cube in the palm of her hand. She even flushes his corpse down the toilet. None of it works. Andrea feels her body slipping back to fourteen. Back to her body melting under his. She finds the betta. She touches her hand to the glass tank. It is cold. Cold like outside, like in a tent. No. She feels herself losing grip on the fish. Going to sky. She tightens her grip, watching the small, beady eyes, looking for a blink. They stay so wide open. Wide open like the eyes of the dead. She can see her father still moving in to hug her.
If you watch hard enough you can change
If you watch hard enough you can find a version
of yourself worth being.
Maybe you’ll find
Maybe you’ll find a safe way to bridge the gap in the space between
The microwave goes off with Andrea’s Lean Cuisine steaming. Andrea feels her stomach lurch with the sound and smell of it. Looking at the fish, a living thing, isn’t enough this time. Andrea presses play on The Show.
When the episode ends, like it always does, she falls away from her body again on her sagging couch, the laptop perched on her thighs, and this time just Boy Character visits, his body cold on top of hers. She wants him, but she doesn’t want him to bring the red tent when he comes. His fingers are powdery but not latex. He is beautiful. He is repulsive. She tries to touch him, but he gets to her first. Boy character is complicated. Boy character loves Andrea more than she loves herself. His eyelashes are so long they look like spider legs. Sometimes when he visits, she tries to fuck him, but ends up stopping it prematurely when it hurts too much. Today, during this ritual, between her thighs hurts more than usual. Boy Character says he is sorry, that he will tell Girl Character to come back. Andrea says she is sorry too, that she loves him, but that sometimes love isn’t enough. The fish, the show, the couch, none of these are enough today.
It is the day of the tent, when it all started, twenty-some years later. She knows she purposefully tuned out at her calendar on the bottom righthand screen of her computer. She must have written the date a thousand times on paperwork today. But on her phone an alarm rings, coupled with text that says it’s today. pay attention. do something nice for yourself. She has programmed her phone to alert her on the anniversary. A leftover from the shitty therapist, who wanted Andrea well prepared for this day. But it does nothing. Andrea hates herself for leaving the alarm to remind her. Today is another day. Today Girl Character will save her. But Girl Character only saves her for a moment. Andrea can’t get out of this rerun. She lets go of the betta fish’s fins. She loses herself to the sky over and over. When she comes to for a moment, after the last episode ends, after she leaves her body, she will have to start over again, from the beginning.