The green room floor was carpeted in red. The walls were white with posters in glass cases hanging on them. A streak of light sliced across them at different angles, different entry-points, and made them difficult to read. Deanna, sitting on the cream couch, squinted and looked at the poster directly across from her. She could make out a rictus grin; a city skyline rising from the white dagger going across the middle of the poster; beneath that, she could make out some letters, and squinting, filled in the rest: The Star Show w/ Roger Pearson. Applause rumbled through the building. A disembodied voice called ‘is that the best you can do?’ and the applause came again. The studio band tooted saxophones, tapped cymbals, etc. From her own recollections of The Star Show w/ Roger Pearson, she could see the man himself— the eponymous Roger Pearson— crossing the stage by way of a twist-cum-jive-cum-parody-dance, hitting his mark dead-centre, over his left shoulder the famous mahogany desk and potted plant, and beginning his monologue, a stumbling, bumbling, fumbling recitation of the week’s events: did you hear about?; the President today said; a woman in Kyrgyzstan; all accompanied by raucous laughter. The TV in the corner— a flatscreen hanging from the ceiling, suspended by wires— showed all this, but Deanna couldn’t bring herself to look at it. She stared at the straps of her heels, crisscrossing between her painted toenails and over the white skin of her feet, and choked back nausea. The man beside her set down his paper plate on the floor and looked at her. −Nervous? he asked. She replied that yes, she was. He nodded. She watched the crumbs roll around the plate and come to a stop. −Don’t be. Nothing to it. She told him that she knew that, she was just being silly. −Just go out, smile, tell a joke, you’re done. She told him that she’d done talk shows before, the butterflies were just worse this time. He sucked air through his teeth. In the middle of the table was a fountain pouring sheets of chocolate over its sides into a lake of fallen marshmallows and submerged strawberries. He speared a slice of apple with a cocktail stick and held it under the fountain, drizzling it with chocolate and popping it into his mouth. −Pretty girl like you shouldn’t be worried, they’ll lap you up. Deanna smiled, twirled her hair, put on the act. The studio door opened. A man, predictably dressed, clutching a predictable clipboard, a predictable headset predictably encircling his face, entered, and called the man out. From the TV, Roger Pearson said: −Our first guest tonight is a Booker prize-winning writer. His most recent novel, ‘The Trees’ has been hailed by The New York Times as ‘a startling what-if of conservationism’. Please welcome Harry Price. Deanna strained her neck, forcing herself to focus on the TV. She couldn’t. −Pretty girl like you shouldn’t be worried. Almost verbatim, those words had been spoken to her last night, the voice coming from the bathroom of the hotel room. She told the voice that that was no answer. Phillip, her husband, poked his head out of the bathroom door. She was lying on the bed, wrapped in a dressing-gown. She covered her feet with the blanket. −You’re gorgeous, you shouldn’t be worried about anything. Just do it the way Richard said. She said what if Richard was wrong? Phillip shook his head. His brown eyes peered out above a sudsy mask of shaving foam. In his left hand was a razor, the blades all choked with short hairs. −There’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Pearson’s been informed, he’s not gonna ask you anything too leading. She shook her head. Wet strands of hair tickled her shoulders. She pulled the gown tighter around her neck. She said it wasn’t about that, she didn’t care about ques. −It’s gonna be softball bullshit. He dropped the razor in the sink and sat on the edge of the bed. −Pearson knows the story. He knows his show’s days’re numbered. He knows that any adverse publicity on the show’ll only do him more harm than good, in the long run. He’s not gonna jeopardise the twilight of his salary by orchestrating a witchhunt. Trust me. She opened her mouth to reiterate that she wasn’t concerned about Pearson’s questions, that it was the blatant disingenuousness of it all that bothered her, that worried her, but she snapped her mouth closed, took a breath, smiled, and said you’re right, you’re right, I’m just being stupid. The veracity of the lie surprised her, the convincing way she’d delivered it, and she was almost convinced that, if she could fool her husband, she could fool some anonymous studio audience. She was alone in the green room. She hoped herself and the writer weren’t the only guests, as she had no inclination to force light-hearted repartee beyond the fifteen-minute slot she’d been allocated on the once-famous talkshow couch. On the screen, Pearson had just asked Harry Price how did he write female characters so well. Harry shrugged, said: −They’re human beings, y’know? An important thing, he continued, after another wave of polite laughter, −is to strip them of sexual characteristics. Not just in fiction. See women as people, not just sexual beings. It’s very important. Pearson said: −That’s how my wife sees me. At that, Deanna practiced her laughs. One after the other, levelling up from ‘humble’ to ‘self-deprecating’ to ‘raucous knee-slapping because a male guest just made a filthy joke and you don’t want to be seen as a prude’, just like Richard had advised her. Her laughter only made the room feel emptier, the anechoic chamber absorbing the sounds and refusing to return them. She picked a cocktail stick out of the little paper cup and picked up a marshmallow. She held it under the chocolate fountain and went to eat it. However, her stomach lurched, and her teeth fused together, unwilling to separate. She put it down on the table, ensuring to leave a napkin beneath the dripping head. The door burst open. A man in a leather jacket flopped down on the couch. He sat with his legs open. −Hey, what’s up? he said, shucking off the leather jacket. His right forearm was tattooed with a tiger hiding amidst a floral design. Unsure of the proper response necessary, she deflected, asked how was he? −I’m fucking a-one, he said, nodding, −a-fucking-one. He surveyed her. She broke his gaze, feeling her face flushing red, fairly certain she knew what was coming. She wished she’d wore jeans, the belt loops or the edges of the pockets being something she could fiddle with. As it was, the crimson dress was pretty shit in that regard. −Classy, Richard— her agent— had suggested, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin. With a fork, he sieved through the puddle of gravy in the middle of his plate, looking for stray scraps of chicken that hadn’t been devoured. Nothing. He set the fork down, crossing it over the knife, and sat back. −Classy, he repeated. −No jeans, nothing too modern. We don’t want to alienate people. You know Atonement, right? The waiter was hovering by the next table. Phillip beckoned him with a quick nod. He came down and began to take away the plates. Deanna felt his eyes on her. Searching her face— where do I know it from?. Upon placing it, a satisfied smile spread over his face as he left the table with a stack of dishes and glasses. She thought that by sitting with her back to the restaurant, looking at the black-and-white Paris trapped behind canvas on the wall opposite, and never once looking left or right to see who was entering or exiting, she could avoid this. She could practically hear the excited whispering, the debate between the kitchen team whether or not they’d fuck her. −Dee? Phillip said, nudging her. −Richard is talking to you. She said yeah, she’d read it. By Ian McEwan. Richard waved a hand. −No, no, the movie. She led with oh, then went on to say that no, she hadn’t seen it. −You’ve seen it, Phillip? −Yeah. −I’m thinking she should wear something like that green dress Keira Knightly wears. A little less booby, perhaps, but you get the gist, right? −Kinda floor to neck job? −Yeah, yeah. Classy, like I said. She’ll radiate elegance, propriety, but she’ll still look desirable. The way people see her will change. And if we can get the first Google results of searching Deanna Bauman to be: ‘Deanna Bauman kills it in sleek green number’, or ‘best talkshow dresses of all time’, then all the better. −Man, the man said, taking a mint from the pocket of his leather jacket, −you’ve blown the internet up. He put the mint in his mouth. He held it, static, between gleaming teeth, before he crunched down and, with his tongue, drew the fragments of white back into the recesses of his maw. She flushed. He sat up, faced her. −You’re on here to talk about it, right? he asked. She shrugged, said something noncommittal, he laughed. −‘Course you are, ‘course you are. Smart shit, I think. A great way to keep your career going. She frowned, hoped he hadn’t picked up on the flash of annoyance that crossed her face, asked him what he meant? −Y’know, now they’re putting the final nail in the TV coffin. She asked who. He replied: −Businessmen— women, too. Smart people who see the future. This, he waved a hand at the TV— Pearson had just laid the groundwork for a commercial break. −is all dead. Streaming’s where it’s at. You know that. You’re getting off the TV boat before it sinks. She didn’t know what to say, decided to say nothing. He nodded, ‘hmm’ed to himself. −And those pics, they’ll get some producer interested. Daring, fresh, raw. Definitely streaming material. What happened, the TV show start to tank? Lose ratings? She said she didn’t really keep up-to-date on that stuff. −Come to you in a dream or something? He laughed again. −Whatever, you’re smart to be getting out. The aide appeared at the door. −Mr., uh, Ze? Mr. Ze sighed, climbed up with his hands on his knees, turned to her at the door. −I might be seeing you real soon. −My next guest is a multi-award winning artist. His work in hip-hop has completely revolutionised the face of modern music. Coming on tonight to talk about his new streaming service, ‘Hubble’, please welcome Kra—Ze.
There had been a gnawing irritation in the back of her mind since the show had come on. She had thought it was just nerves exacerbated by the TV’s reminder of the couch’s relentless march towards her. Now, as Pearson and Kra—Ze embraced, she realised what it was. The laughter. The constant laughter on the set. Pearson’s throaty, head-back laughs, the studio band’s smiling nods, the audience’s smatter. It was making her sick. The last thing she felt like doing was laughing. She felt dejected, exhausted, sickened by the parasitic movements around the nucleus of her misfortune. There were two main camps, into which you could lump most people with any sort of opinion on the debacle. There were the Disapproving, who ranged from foamy-mouthed conservatives decrying the possible corruption of today’s young to the coolly detached tones of online articles for fashion websites, written with a ‘poor-you-but-that’s-what-you-get’ attitude; and there were the fervently In Favour, who encompassed the entire spectrum of liberalism. I.e., those who believed the nudity to be a self-leaked statement on the patriarchal norms hegemonically embedded within our psyches, to those who shrugged it off, reckoned that as long as it wasn’t in their backyard they didn’t care. Deanna had no such notions, and she didn’t intend to live in such bad faith. She, unfortunately, found lying quite difficult, as the truth was always like a burning ball that choked her if allowed to incubate too long. If you were to ask her younger self, she would have admitted to doing it purely from horniness; if you were to ask an older version, she would have lamented a supposed need for validation. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Anyway. She had no inclination to laugh, despite what Richard advised and Phillip parroted. −Just laugh it off, Richard had said, leaning forward over his white desk. Scattered all over the desk were pictures that turned her stomach to look at. She ignored them, alternating her gaze between her husband beside her, her agent across from her, and the view of the city through the floor-to-ceiling windows that spanned one wall of the office. She didn’t allow her gaze to wander towards the photographs on the desk, though Richard and Phillip seemed to have had no trouble using them— as props, as references, as something to toy with while they waited their turn to speak. Richard went on: −They can’t chastise you if you own it. You know? Phillip nodded, indicating that he, indeed, comprehended what Richard had in mind. −If you just go and own up to it, Phillip said, turning to her. −Isn’t that what you’re saying? −Yeah, yeah, exactly. Like when you’re driving and some asshole tries to merge. The only person who can stress you out is yourself. Just go on, laugh about it, then no one has power over you. You ever fall in public? −Sure have, Phillip said, −especially at New Year’s. −And what’s best to do? Go red, lose your cool, shout at everyone laughing and look weak? Or go along with it, laugh it off, own it? −Laugh it off, all day. −Exactly. So, he looked at Deanna, −that’s what you do. Laugh it off. Don’t let the bastards think they’ve got you. (‘Bastards’ being the sobriquet used for the person/persons unknown who had mined the deepest bowels of her online presence and leaked naked photographs for the world to see on a website called wankshade.com.) Right now, in the green room, turning the pictures over in her head, she pondered what would happen if she told the truth. If she, instead of laughing it off, putting the invasion of privacy down to pure camaraderie or jokingly condemning her own limp password choices, talked about the four times in her college bedroom— during her short-lived tenure studying Nursing—she had lay despondently touching the infected scars an entire secondary education of bullying had left within her mind; if she talked about the four times in college she had, in a state of semi-drunkenness induced by crippling self-loathing and cheap vodka, trawled internet chatrooms for purposes that could have been motivated by either loneliness, masochism, or sadism, and had been led into sharing pictures of herself with anonymous men/women/men pretending to be women whom she never saw. She wondered how the laughing faces of the audience— always, in her mind, one individual: a fat, red-faced man with a curl of brown hair falling from a thinning crop to shadow his pasty forehead— would take that news, how the images they’d absorbed through various media outlets had been elicited into life. The etiology of those pictures would surely strike the wrong chord with an audience who’re accustomed to amusing anecdotes and grinning admissions of guilt. She wondered how the truth would play out, on live TV; how the audience back home would react; how Roger Pearson would react, fumbling forward in a state of semi-delirium through the next questions on the list he’d been given by Richard, how the next queries about her plans for Operetta would be rendered moot. But did she care? Now she’d been seen naked, it seemed like nowhere would hire her. How could they, the producers and directors, in good conscience give her any form of role when they have an audience of masturbators to placate? Why bother teasing nudity with skimpy dresses, with above-the-neck shower scenes, with fade-to-black, when they could just search her name and pump themselves from the comfort of their own homes? She practiced her laugh again. Kra—Ze was reaching the end of his monologue. Pearson was turning to the camera, about to announce another commercial break. Deanna took a deep breath. She thought back to the first picture she’d taken. Her sponsor— who’d prefaced every message with an asterisk, and whose messages were replete with rhotacism— had requested a full-mirror shot, replete with what he called a ‘cum face’, and she’d complied. After the picture had sent, she’d stood in front of the fingermarked mirror, wondering what had become of her, feeling grimy. She’d took another swig of vodka. Downstairs, her housemates had been having a party. She recalled the cold feeling running over her, awaiting a knock on the bedroom door, shouted demands to be recompensed for the missing vodka bottle. She never thought she’d become such a star. She gave a laugh— her own, bitter, ironic. The aide appeared again. As she got up, she wondered which of her was going to appear on the couch: the laughing starlet, or the neurotic college girl breathing vodka fumes. Through the curtains, as Pearson gave her introductory spiel, she could see the audience: seated, tiered shadows. In the wings, she registered her discomfort, appearing as herself for the first time ever. −ease welcome, Deanna Bauman. She stepped out on the stage. Smile. She smiled. The applause was hearty. Richard had called the audience the litmus test for how her appearance was going down, a barometer for how the world would view her the next day. All she had to was laugh and smile. The audience didn’t need to imagine her naked; via one format or another, they had seen everything. This formality could be avoided. She grazed Pearson’s cheek with her lips— her skin crawling— and sat on the edge of the couch. −I, she began.