There’s a cough from the wall, here in the kitchen, what’s supposed to be my kitchen. I hear someone sucking at a straw, then a gurgle when all their soda runs dry.
They said I’d get used to the idea. Used to people shuffling behind walls. I was told to assume the visitors are watching at all times, and if I did that, every hour, every day, for weeks, I’d forget that anyone was ever watching at all. Two weeks in and I’m still not used to it, the people moving where I can’t see. They told me how the walls work and compared them to the one-way mirrors psychologists use to study patients. I am to be the subject: twenty-six-year-old female, bleary-eyed, occasionally skeptical and prone to fits of compassion.
I should turn to the wall and ask about how their day is going, ask about how nice the weather is, but they told me not to do that so I don’t.
When there’s nothing else to do and when Ari and Julian are playing foosball in Upper Rec, I stack sugar cubes – one by one – until they form buildings, bridges, art. I’ve made a replica of the Egyptian pyramids, at the kitchen table, using sugar cubes taken from a supply in the cabinet more plentiful than anyone could ever want, the boxes lined up like they are at Ralphs, asking me to be opened.
One of the only times I like the thought of being watched is when I stack sugar cubes. Ari and Julian never notice, neither does Maggie. It takes me a half-hour to stack the smaller cubes into a cube the size of a tissue box. After I pour a glass of water onto the stacked cubes, after the spilled water pools on the hardwood, after the drip drip from the table stops – you’d have to say what remained, the lump of melted sugar, looks like something sad.
“If you were a dog,” Maggie asks, hands up on either side of her head, “what kind of dog would you be? Would you have floppy ears or pointy?”
When she says “floppy” she points her fingers down and when she says “pointy” she sticks her fingers straight up. It seems all our conversations go like this, with exaggerated emotions, the ever-present potential for drama. She’s performing, I figure, for the people in the walls, the watchers, performing a routine she feels a responsibility to act, what she learned watching reality TV, the way reality stars fight for attention on Big Brother or all the fuckboy shows on MTV. She isn’t capable of normal human discourse, at least not here.
“What is it,” I ask. “Tell me.”
She takes a drink from her half-empty tumbler of Diet Pepsi and tequila, and says, “I saw a report that said they’re taking all the pointy-eared police dogs out of airports. People are more comfortable with floppy-eared dogs. That’s what the science says.”
“Then I’d be a German shepherd,” I say.
She tilts her head. “You’d make people feel uncomfortable.”
“Yes, I would. I would, I would, I would. Woof!”
I shouldn’t trust myself late at night on the internet, drinking, sitting cross-legged in a papasan. The posting for HomeView read like a hostage negotiation. I’d have to live for a year in a house – a big-ass modern villa of stone and glass in West Hollywood – with three other roommates, strangers, people who at any time could enter my room and crush my head with a brick. I’d have to agree to be watched at all times. Not in the bathroom, not in the Confessional Room, but in the kitchen, the gym, everywhere else, when I’m crying on the phone with my mom, when I’m sleeping.
It wouldn’t be vain to say that everyone here in the house is at least mildly attractive. They give us unlimited booze, health insurance. There’s a cleaning service. I didn’t say no. Jobs for people who don’t have jobs, where you don’t have to stink or stand on your feet, those are the jobs I usually can’t find. Whenever I think about calling my mom to ask her for money, whenever I give myself shit for buying something I shouldn’t have, it’s an elbow to my gut, like, hey, hey, you, it’s time to get in line. It’s time to smile and say hello.
Two nights in a row I’ve heard knocking from the wall. Not loud, but a steady knock, knock, knock. When I was eight, I went to the aquarium. I watched the rays glide by in the soft blue light, the sharks, squid, and I knocked on the glass, my way of saying, Hi, I’m here. My dad slapped my hand away and said to never tap the glass, that it was bad for the fish.
I hear it again: knock, knock, knock.
Julian opens his sunglasses with a flick of his wrist, a practiced gesture, and lowers them to his face. We sit reclined on the enclosed rear patio, looking out at our view, the streets of West Hollywood, Los Angeles, where palm trees bend at odd angles, stooping, as if they might fall over at any time. A layer of smog hangs in the air and it warps the light so that the sun’s shine appears orange, pink.
“Ten miles from here,” I say, “dolphins are swimming in the ocean. And still, we sit and do nothing.”
Julian drops a dab of oil onto the contours of his puffed-out pecs, then, with the tips of his fingers, he drags the oil in ever-widening circles around his chest, his abs, until his torso looks like it is coated in butter, like I could crack an egg on his stomach and get a good fry. His tan is immaculate, golden and deep-set, of a style usually found with the very best leather luggage. Out of all my roommates, he’s the only one I trust, the only one who will openly acknowledge the people on the other side of the walls.
“I know this is easier for me than you,” Julian says, pointing first to the wall on our left and then to the wall on our right. “Just as I know there’s some creepy dudes in there, right now, checking you out. I would.”
Julian has thousands of followers on Instagram and Twitter, more than anyone I know. He’ll spend hours sending out motivational videos in 30-second bursts. He’s the type to pose after a shower, flexing in the mirror, a damp towel held at his crotch the only thing covering his naked body. “I’d bet the creepers are here for you,” I say, and I believe it.
Going in, I knew part of the job was the creep. I knew guys would visit to watch, as if they were part of my life. Before I fall asleep, I picture the men behind the walls, maybe the women, sitting in their chairs, anxious, expecting something, anything, to happen.
I ask Julian, “Have you ever had somebody knock on the wall in your room?”
“No,” he says. “I caught a guy following me on my day off, which was upsetting, but not all that scary after we talked. He was a good dude. Someone knocked on your wall?”
“Yeah, a little. More than once.”
“You should get that checked out,” he says. “That’s not right.”
“I like it.”
I don’t say anything. Then, “I know.”
Miss Rebecca, our contact and manager, wants us to make a confessional video at least once a week. She told us to open up and be ourselves, to not hold back. She said to treat it like we were on TV even though this isn’t TV. I want to do what she says and be a version of myself who isn’t afraid – as my mother would say – to let it all hang out. Growing up, watching it when I was too young to really understand, The Real World showed me what to do, how to act, how to look into the camera and talk, confess, be real.
Inside the Confessional Room, this closet-sized box with black paint on the walls, I take a seat and press a button to start the camera. I look into the lens and say, “Hello, hey, this is Sara. I don’t know what to what to say, exactly, other than I’ve made mistakes. I ate Ari’s olive and cheese packet-thing, which looked expensive, like it was ten dollars or something at Whole Foods, and it wasn’t even good, I threw half of it away. I also ate a bunch of pot gummies and instead of getting me high, or in addition to getting me high, they made me feel like shit, self-conscious, like my life so far had been a failure. I get it, I’m twenty-six, blah blah blah, but damn. I’m terrible at finding work. I feel like an imposter, like I don’t belong. Before I got this job at HomeView, I didn’t have a job, and before that I worked the cosmetics counter at JCPenney. Five days a week I’d go to the mall. I’d flip on the lights and put out the displays, then stand behind the counter, trapped. That’s what it felt like. It also felt like I’d be there forever, slowly dying under the fluorescent lights. For years, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a toll booth attendant. I thought it was the best job you could get, being able to sit there all day. Now I know how ridiculous that is. Not that it matters. Soon there won’t be anyone sitting in a toll booth, a box, taking our dollars and coins. We’ll all just drive under some laser that’ll scan the barcodes in our brains, charging our accounts. We won’t make contact with one another. We won’t talk. Who listens to this, anyways? No one ever told me. I know this isn’t a TV show, but do they put it up online? Can anyone hear me?”
I lean towards the camera and tap my finger on the lens. Nothing happens. I stop the recording.
On my day off, I go and visit another HomeView house. I know I’m at the right place when I see a sign out front that’s the same at each location, with the HomeView logo – a house with an eye for a roof – six-feet tall in red neon.
I pay for a standard ticket – two hours of access – and enter. I walk through a darkened hallway to the kitchen where two roommates argue, the woman yelling about trust, the man shaking his head. Then I see the living room where a guy, shirtless, lounges on a couch, scrolling through his phone. I continue through the hallway, upstairs, where it’s still dark but lit by thin blue lights running along the floor. I turn left at the top of the stairs, towards a seating area looking into the gym. I find a seat with the others and watch as a girl in her twenties, maybe my age, practices yoga. She looks good, has the toned limbs I’m jealous of. I turn to watch the watchers, a group of six other men riveted by the sight of her bending and flexing. The men don’t seem to care that a woman – me – is witnessing their kink. There’s sadness here, surely, but I also understand. We aren’t alone, these guys aren’t alone, we’re here together experiencing actual life, not life on a screen. I go back downstairs to the kitchen, where a bigger crowd has gathered, both women and men. I work my way to the front, up to the wall, and watch with the others. The woman in the kitchen yells over and over, “You don’t even care, you don’t even care!” The man just stands there absorbing her words, her anger, not responding or lifting his head. The man’s back is to us, the woman faced in our direction. I see her open mouth and the knife in her hand. From her view, she only sees the guy, and behind him the cream-white walls that are the same color all throughout the house, the same color in all the houses. She doesn’t know how large the crowd is on this side, the way we are huddled and watching together. The woman pulls back and throws the knife at the man, but not really as it sails wide and smacks off the wall with a thud, which makes me flinch and step back, the sound from the impact trapped inside the viewing room, echoing from the speakers, and I can’t help but be impressed. There was a moment, here, shared at once both with others and alone, and now it is gone.
My contract at HomeView lasts for a year, and after that, who knows, maybe another year, if they want to keep me, if I can make it, if houses like this are still popular, something people want. The Kardashians were first. They had their house in Calabasas retrofitted for viewing, from the inside. Now you didn’t have to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians, you didn’t have to wait, didn’t have to filter the experience through screens and editors, distance, you could see them, literally, you could step inside their home. Tickets went for thousands of dollars, sold out in seconds. The reality of reality TV actually became real. You could bear witness firsthand.
I notice a pattern to the knocking. Monday night, Tuesday. 6:36, then again. Friday at 7:55. Weeks went by before I caught the repetition. Knock, knock, knock. A pause. I press my ear to the wall. Knock, knock, knock.
I’m not the type to watch the same movie twice, once I know the ending, the twists, but this, here in the Day Room where I watch Maggie cradle Ari’s head in her arms, it’s different. I’ve seen this scene before, last week, and the week before that, always at 8:30pm. The second time I saw them I thought: No, wait. What? By the third time I understood I was seeing a performance, something for the people in the walls. Tonight, I sit on the far end of the sectional, quiet and watching. I hear the rustle of activity from behind the wall: the visitors finding their seats and getting into position to watch. When Maggie says to Ari, You have to have confidence in who you are and what you – as a beautiful human being – have to offer, I also say the line, to myself. No one is watching me. Nobody cares. I want the attention and love just as much as anyone else, even more, but I can’t stand the idea of actually putting myself out there, all the way out, to the point of faux-catharsis and fake scenes for the benefit of strangers, which in turn would somehow – magically? – benefit me.
“He ghosted me,” Ari says, his head turned to the side and resting on Maggie’s knee. “Blocked me everywhere, won’t answer my calls. He met my parents! My sister knitted a sweater for his cat!” Ari pulls in his breath and holds it. The room is silent. “Maggie,” he says. “I’m poison. I’m toxic.”
The scene they constructed and perform is the moment Ari breaks down over the loss of his boyfriend, when the boyfriend, apparently, vanished from Ari’s life. They then connect this loss to the fact that Ari’s brother is in prison, that somehow the brother is in prison because Ari wasn’t there for him in a time of need, causing the brother to feel abandoned and hopeless, in turn reckless and drug-fueled, and ultimately imprisoned in Sacramento for robbing a pharmacy. But didn’t I see Ari talking to his boyfriend on Facetime last night? And I’m pretty sure Ari’s brother got a DUI and never went to prison. I want people to connect with me who want to connect with me, and not because they were tricked.
Ari lifts his head from Maggie’s knee and falls to the floor. He looks up at the ceiling, his arms held out at his sides. Maggie rises from the couch and kneels next to him. “It’s not your fault,” she says. Her hand is pressed to his chest. Ari covers his eyes with the bend of his arm. “It’s not your fault,” she says again.
I squint and it’s as if I’m watching a movie. Her dialogue comes across like the distillation of all movies, a wash of comfortable clichés.
“Ari, listen,” Maggie says. “It’s not your fault. You did what you could. It’s not your fault.”
I stand and begin to clap. “Bravo,” I say. “Bravo!”
We’re all together getting drunk in the kitchen. House music blasts from the stereo. I’m wearing my frog onesie, the one with a big-eyed hood that looks like a frog’s head, and Ari keeps hopping around the kitchen going Ribbit! Ribbit! even though he isn’t wearing a frog onesie and instead is wearing his zebra-print speedo with a fishnet tank top. Maggie, at times, will scream Yeahh! Yeahhh! and then she’ll twerk her ass in the direction of the nearest wall. Julian sits on the island and drinks straight whiskey from a coffee mug. The more he drinks the more his upper body sways, loose, his eyelids fluttering. Basically, we are all acting like idiots, but at least happy idiots with purpose, and I think, yay, I get it. I can do this.
“Hey,” I say. “Watch.” I take a box of sugar cubes and dump them all out on the table in a heap. There’s a charge of electricity in the room, a quivering connection between the four of us that goes unsaid but is clearly there, an understanding that we are in this, this house, together, bonded, and all of that energy is now focused on me – I can feel it – as I take Maggie’s White Claw and pour it over the pile of sugar cubes.
“Gross,” Maggie says.
Everyone continues to watch, vibrating.
I reach my hand into the sugary goop and lift it, the wet sugar falling in ropes from between my fingers, then I turn and throw what’s left in my hand against the wall where it hits with a Splat! I scoop another handful and throw – Splat! I hope the people in the walls can hear the impact. I hope they’ll go and tell their friends about what they’ve seen.
At our mid-month briefing, with the two of us sitting across from one another and doing our best to be pleasant, Miss Rebecca tells me she isn’t happy with my sugar stunt. On the table, her laptop flickers, continuously, with a loop of my arm reaching back and throwing the goop. She tells me about the fourth wall and the dangers of breaking it, about how that’s what I did. She tells me the customers want to see a show, not become a part of one, and all I want to say is yeah yeah yeah, I know, but I don’t. I nod and say yes, yes, okay, yes. There’s an octopus caught inside my chest, its arms wrapped around my rib bones, banging against my lungs, and when I open my mouth to swallow a gulp of air, I wonder if she can see it, hear it.
Miss Rebecca closes the laptop before she speaks. “You do remember why we brought you here, right?”
She’s referring to my application video, where I presented myself as someone who is happy and well-adjusted. I presented a version of myself I thought they wanted, and it worked. At one point in my video, I had a group of cheering people – people who I had just met that day in the park – hold me up over their heads, joyous, as if I was surfing a crowd. At another point, I plunged down a waterslide at high speed, my arms crossed on my chest, as water shot out from my sides in long arcs. There was a scene where I downed an entire boot full of beer in one drink.
“It’s just,” I say, “that I’m still having trouble adjusting to the house.”
“You’ve been here for two months,” she says. “Get adjusted. Be who we thought you were. Be you, do you, but you need to stop moping around the house and throwing shit at my walls.”
She lifts the laptop and slides it into her bag, stands. She doesn’t appear to be all that concerned, and yet, I don’t want to disappoint her. I tell her not to worry, don’t worry, again and again, until I’m convinced she believes me. She doesn’t mention the octopus.
Tuesday night I sit on the floor with my back against the wall and wait. At 6:34, I close my eyes and straighten up. In the darkness of my mind, my other senses are heightened. When I went back to the aquarium as a teenager, without my dad, my friends and I split a bag of mushrooms before we went inside. After the effects settled in, the psilocybin rearranging my expectations of reality, all I wanted was to retreat into darkness, the bright lights were too much. Separated from the main exhibits, I found a room that held creatures from deep in the sea, and it was dark. Alone, I took a seat on the bench and opened my eyes fully, my pupils widening, comfortable with the absence of light. In the black tank before me, a single jellyfish inched itself along, pulsing, trailing its tentacles like loose strands of bioluminescent hair. It glowed a purple-blue I’d never seen before and all I could think about was how lonely this creature must’ve felt, so hopelessly lonely. Its bioluminescence, its light, was a signal going unheard. When my friends found me, I was in tears, unable to stop. Now, at 6:36, sitting in my own darkness, I hear a noise on the other side of the wall, steps, a shuffle, then a knock above my head. I wait a moment and knock back. Silence, then knock, this time lower, closer to the floor. I knock twice in return. The next knock is right where I am and I can hear it, feel it. I turn around and dig my fingernail into the wall. I’m surprised when it gives and a flake falls to the floor. Knock, knock. Focusing my effort, I pick and pick and pick and pick, chipping off bigger and bigger pieces of the wall. Tired and done for the night, my fingertips red and sore, I’m able to fit my fist in the crater I’ve created. Knock.
“I’m going to start shaving my thighs,” Julian says.
We’re in the gym and I’m watching him lift weights with his legs, which already look smooth and hairless. He’s told me before that he shaves his arms and chest, his stomach.
“I haven’t shaved my legs or pits in weeks,” I say, lifting my arm to smell what’s there.
“Good,” Julian says. “You should use that. Natural, organic, that’s your brand. Start making your own hummus. Brush your teeth with charcoal.”
“You sound like Miss Rebecca, and I don’t say that as a good thing.”
“Stop saying ‘Miss’ before her name all the time. She’s not our madam.”
Julian is trying to help me develop my platform. He says the key is honesty, cut-open-your-guts honesty.
“Never underestimate the power of an ugly cry,” he says. “It wasn’t until after I shared my breakdown that I got all those followers. You know how many guys there are on Instagram with muscles? And the best part is that it feels good, being honest. It helps me as much as it helps them.”
When he says “them” I look towards the wall. I want to know how many are watching. I also want the watchers to know that I’m trying to be honest when I lie. I want to believe.
In the Confessional Room, I start the camera. “Hello again, it’s me, and I have to say that one of the saddest parts of this process, what really got me down, was the fact that not a single person in my life was supportive when I got the job here at HomeView. My best friend – if you want to call her that – Jessie, she said it was a waste of my time and weird. My mom said I’d be murdered or become the target of a stalker. She told me – with tears in her eyes – that I was being put up for sacrifice. Nobody said, Hey! I’m so happy for you! You got a job! I was happy. I was proud, but yeah. And it’s hard to be happy and proud when everyone else is shitting on your head. They didn’t think about how difficult the decision was for me. And with no one supportive of my choice to come here, I can’t help but feel alone and maybe a little foolish. I don’t want to be like that jellyfish at the aquarium. I’m better than that. Right? Stupid fucking jellyfish. Julian keeps telling me to use this opportunity to build on something for the future. He sees value in being here, sees it better than I’m able to. He can just keep going, without getting bogged down by details and bullshit, the small-scale stuff I can’t escape. Okay! Confessional time. Have you ever seen Julian’s eyebrows? Really looked at them? Now, Julian is the perfect male specimen, all of it, don’t get me wrong, but he’s got this hair growing out from his eyebrow, hanging down like a stray strand from the top of his head, a lone and long strand, but not in a sexy way like how strands that stray can be, à la Leo DiCaprio in the 90’s, how breathtakingly gorgeous he was with that hair, how it was both messy and planned at the same time, but this strand from Julian isn’t like that, not sexy in the least, because this one comes from his eyebrow. I don’t know how he hasn’t noticed. I’d tell him, but, I admit, I like to have this one thing over him. And how stupid does that sound when I say it? Stupid. Small-scale. I’ll have to put something together – piece by piece – and show you.”
I sit and wait, the wall behind me. Friday night. The lights in my bedroom are dimmed or turned off, and I’ve thrown a T-shirt over the camera that hangs from the ceiling. At this point there’s little doubt that when the time comes, there will be a knock, and several more if I hesitate and withhold my own knock in response. When I hear the knock tonight – on time – I don’t respond. I tell myself to sit still and be patient. I want to feel their desire radiating from the other side of the wall, that need to connect with me no matter the method.
After six knocks ring from the other side without my response, I knock, lower, next to the hole I had started days before. Once more I turn and begin to chip away at the wall, deepening the hole, a small pile of plaster and dust collecting on the floor underneath. This time, I hear digging from the other side. I hear effort. This effort, like a radiating heat, in turn fuels my own drive to dig at the wall and I do, to the point where I can hear both of us chipping away at the same time, making a music, and if not music the steady beat and rhythms of work being done. We stay that way, digging, for what seems like hours but can only be minutes, each of us tunneling towards one another not sure of what happens next until it happens, then it does. Initially, I’m not sure if it belongs to a woman or a man, but a finger pokes through the hole, suddenly flesh where there had only been wall. The finger pushes deeper, searching and growing, extending itself towards me. There’s a brief moment – as if crystallized and suspended in thought – when I’m horrified by the sight before me, but it fades, quickly, like waking up from a dream. I reach out and wrap my hand around the finger, then I squeeze it, shake it.
Hi, I’m here.