People assumed that Robbie lived for drama. As he was a reality TV producer, their assumptions weren’t inexplicable, nor completely unfair. Like so many things, though, it was more complex than that—far more gray than the black and white dichotomy that people, including the cast members on his show, like to assign to this, that, and the other.
Technically, with his life as it currently stood, Robbie did need drama to survive in the most simplistic of senses. Without drama, the 20-somethings (now 30-somethings) he wrangled on their golf course playground would make logical, sensible decisions, and as such Sub-Par would have no plot, no timeslot, and no capital to pay to him in biweekly installments.
Whereas some of his coworkers acted like the adrenaline rush that came from an intense, volatile, booze-fueled scene was their personal cocaine, Robbie could get the same high from an high-octane energy drink. Actually, he might’ve preferred the can of Monster, considering that it came without questions of morality and human decency versus ratings.
So, no, he did not “need” it. To the surprise of most people, Robbie believed that too much drama could kill him. Like church and state, fact and fiction, polyester hair extensions and open flames, separation was imperative.
“You can’t carry it all with you,” he told people when they asked how he could handle working in an emotional whiplash environment. That was why he set parameters for himself: keeping work conversation to a minimum, steering the situation and himself towards calm when he could manage it. Confrontation, yelling, conversations with catty tones, excess inebriation—he avoided them all, sometimes to a fault.
His boss, Lou, loved what that placidity gave way to during the work hours: a doggedness for chasing a story, heightening emotions, and drawing out the theatrics. Robbie understood the humanity of the stars—their hopes, their flaws, the things that made them hurl drinks in each other’s faces—sometimes better than they did.
He knew how to use people to craft good television. He didn’t just smell the blood in the water. He put it there, be it in drips or great spurts. Then, at the end of the day, he stashed away the knives, cleaned the crime scene off him, and went home. As people crazed themselves over the storylines he curated for them, Robbie was nothing but zen.
Except, he should’ve learned as someone who trafficked in chaos by day, that rarely does it abide by the boundaries you set. In the words of the Joker, chaos led to anarchy, upsetting the established order, disrupting everything you hold dear. Just as easily as people could use it for their own gains, it could be turned against them to their detriment.
But Robbie didn’t learn. Not until the crew he helped organize and direct daily was stationed in front of him, flicking on bright lights, readying the camera, tucking a lavalier mic down his shirt, touching up his makeup, did he realize the Rubicon had been crossed, the chaos had overrun him, and he was no longer an agent of it, but a casualty.
“Sorry.” Robbie’s eyes raised from the spot of plush green carpet they had been fixed on to his coworker, Amon, who had his hand down the back of Robbie’s shirt, trying to mic him. To be honest, he didn’t know what Amon was apologizing for—maybe an incorrect clipping of the microphone, or having to shove his armpit near Robbie’s face to get the wire arranged.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
Amon snaked the wire up the back of Robbie’s shirt, and shifted to Robbie’s side to pull it through the collar of his cream henley. “How you doing?”
It was the first day Robbie had seen his coworkers since the news broke, other than his best friend, Hank, who had been with him nearly every day. The show had asked to come sooner, to set up a conversation between him and Monica at his home, but he unilaterally denied it. This story was blowing up already, and he did not need his house to become a stop for obsessed fans on their Hollywood reality tragedy tour. Just because the fourth wall had been broken didn’t mean that the audience got to see into his own.
Surprisingly, without any argument, Lou had agreed, and asked Robbie how he would proceed if this was any other scandal, if this was anyone else. Robbie asked to meet Monica in a third-party location that had no ties to him or her, one that he wouldn’t mind never setting foot in again, because after their conversation, he never would want to. His second stipulation: before he and Monica ever sat down, he got to talk it out in front of the rest of the crew—his people—whom he had hoped would act professionally, but also empathetically. Had he always been the latter? No, not as much as he should’ve.
Robbie sighed, and reached up to massage his tired eyes, until he remembered the concealer he had beneath them to cover the dark rings borne out of days with no sleep. “I mean—”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Dahlia interrupted, waving her tattooed arms at them “Save that for the camera.”
“Why? Want to capture my pain first-time fresh?” Robbie asked, only half kidding. He had used the tactic over the years. Don’t ask too many questions before you’re rolling. Save it all for the camera.
The corner of Dahlia’s mouth slant into a sad smile. “Don’t want to make you talk about this more than you have to.”
Was that the truth? Robbie couldn’t say, but he wanted her act of kindness to purely that, ulterior motives left for the cast, who had signed contracts and received paychecks much bigger than his to deal with this shit. Robbie’s throat tightened with emotion, and he had to clear it before it choked him.
“Thanks,” he said and she nodded at him, before returning to doing final checks on camera setup. Around him, the crew moved with frenetic energy, driven less by the adrenaline shots of days past, it seemed, than a rolling undercurrent of anxiety. Or, it was possible Robbie was just projecting, because anxious was the only word he could think of to describe himself. Other than betrayed of course.
Then, when the spot on his chin no longer shined beneath the lights, and his mic passed the “check one, two, three” test, the crew took to their spots, and those who were not needed on that set that day lined the back of it, like his own personal wall of support, or, just as likely, as rubberneckers wanting to spot the carnage of the mega car crash in front of them.
“Okay, Rob, you ready to go?” Dahlia asked.
He considered saying “I never will be,” but that would’ve delayed the inevitable, even if it was the truth. “Sure. Let’s just get it done.” Another truth, but only half of one.
“First, how are you doing?” she asked and a laugh escaped Robbie’s lips.
“I’ve been better, not much worse, I’m not going to lie, but I’m hanging in there,” he said. “It’s been a rough six days.”
Was there humanity in that? It depended on how one looked at it, he guessed. If he was on the other side of this, he could say that in not delaying it, you weren’t drawing out the anticipation of having to go in front of a camera. However, being on this ridiculously uncomfortable bar stool (seriously, how did the cast not have severe ass pain after shooting their talking heads?), he wished it could’ve been at least a week, maybe a month, before he had to do this.
“I bet,” Dahlia replied. “Can you tell us how we got to this point… how you found out about the affair?”
Affair. The word felt like a punch with a pair of brass knuckles, or if he was keeping with the Sub-Par theme, a driver right to the groin.
“It was a Sunday night. I told my girlfriend, Monica, I was going out with my friend to watch the Chargers game, and she said that she was going to go out too and meet a couple of friends for drinks, which wasn’t out of the ordinary.”
Knowing the types of questions they were going to ask, Robbie had been rehearsing answers since they set the date for this recording. This one he had practiced the most, recognizing it would be the hardest to get through, the reliving of it all. But his speech felt stilted anyways, as if he wasn’t just saying this for the first time, but speaking for the first time period.
“After the game, my friend had to get home, because his daughter got sick, so I headed home, too, and Monica’s car was in the driveway where it had been when I left. Again, not out of the ordinary. We share a house. She can come and go whenever, but usually when she goes out, she stays out until at least 11. But I didn’t think anything was up until I got in the house, and I heard it.”
His skin prickled with sweat under the camera’s eye, and he wondered how the cast didn’t break into a sweat each time the red light of the camera turned on. It took a special sort of person to be on reality TV, but, Robbie guessed people could say it took a special sort of person to produce it, too.
“Heard what?” Dahlia asked when his breath turned into a 10-second pause.
“Them screwing.” The moans, the groans, the pillowtalk of baby, it had been playing in Robbie’s mind on repeat like his brain had invested in the worst elevator music ever. “Didn’t even make it upstairs. It was right on the couch.”
Robbie didn’t hear the disgust. The crew had all learned how to react without making a sound. But he saw the winces, the shaking heads, the clenched jaws.
“And by they you mean?”
“Monica and Axel,” he supplied.
A male model turning elite golf course caddy, Axel was built like Thor, and had the self-esteem—and a list of romantic conquests—that would put Iron Man to shame, and yet somehow could manage to craft the pile of shit that was his decisions into an award-winning sculpture. To say the least, he was a production dream, and now Robbie’s nightmare. “It’s cliché, I know. Everyone says this, but I was completely shocked. I never, ever would’ve put them together.”
“Did they give any signs of it? Looking back, can you see anything that would make you think that maybe something was going on?” Dahlia asked, the questions steeped in curiosity.
Automatically, Robbie shook his head. “Nothing. Yes, she seemed more distant at some points, but most of the time it was business as usual, and she never acted like she liked him. It was the opposite. When we watched the show, she was usually criticizing him for sleeping around or flying off the handle.”
“I don’t know how you work with him,” Monica had said to him during one of the episode after-parties. “I can barely stand being in the same room with him for a night.” While watching the show, she had always said that she was grateful that Robbie had his calm demeanor, rather than the quick-trigger temper of Axel. Was it always, though? Or had it been in the past year as she was trying to cover her tracks and make him think that she still loved him?
For years, he had watched people manipulate and lie to each other to achieve their end on Sub-Par—get a promotion, blacklist a friend-turned-enemy, hide their dalliances—but even that experience had not destroyed his faith in humanity. He dismissed it, confining the behavior to that singular group of people who got paid for bad decisions. There was no dismissing it now, and his faith—his trust—were in tatters on his living room floor.
“How did you react? You said you were shocked?”
Needing some way to expel the pain, the anger, Robbie picked at the stylized fringe on his woven bracelet, tugging it until it tore. He shouldn’t have done it, he knew. This band was provided to him by wardrobe, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He would pay for it if he needed to. Actually, he was already paying for it as far as he was concerned.
“Um, yeah, I mean I flipped out. I yelled, I, uh, flew out of the house.”
To expand on it further and say he broke down sobbing as he screamed expletives at a half-naked couple, trying to shield themselves with throw pillows, would be to willingly douse himself in kerosene and give someone the match. No thanks. “I drove over to my friend’s house. I could barely see. It was like everything had gone red.” That, and his eyes were wet. He was so overwhelmed, heartbroken, you name it, he had to stop on the way to throw up his beer and tailgate snacks. “They both tried calling me, but I didn’t answer. The first time I went back to the house was yesterday, and I made sure she was gone before I did.”
If there was one saving grace, it was that the house was in Robbie’s name, purchased before they were together, so Monica was packing up her things as he was filming. By the time he returned home, she promised there would be no reminder of her, but that was bullshit. All that house would be was reminders. All he would see was her and goddamn Axel on that goddamn couch for the rest of time.
“But don’t you want to know why? Isn’t that eating at you?” Monica asked, cocking her head at him, pressing him like they had been taught to do to the cast to bring out things that may otherwise never make it on film. In the gallery behind her, Robbie could see his coworkers waiting on his answer. If Robbie didn’t want to know, they sure as hell did, if for nothing more than fodder to use against Axel and Monica when they interviewed them later.
“Nope,” Robbie said. “They ruined it, you know? They ruined everything.”
First to go was his trademark placidity. “You know what they told me when I caught them? That it ‘just happened.’ As if taking off each other’s clothes and having sex just happens. It was all an excuse, and it wasn’t even true! It’s been going on for a year! A year! And there’s no explaining that away. There’s nothing they can do to change the fact that they’re terrible people. Why they did it, it doesn’t matter. It will never make sense. It will never be okay.”
Robbie’s body quaked with the aftershocks of his speech, the emotion that powered it dosing his bloodstream with the same adrenaline his coworkers sought out on this set. In the eruption, tears ran from his eyes, and he swiped at them, ignoring the streaks of tan on his skin from the concealer.
Across the room, Dahlia and the rest of the team either stared at him or made uncomfortable eye contact with a random prop, most likely trying to process the cargo-load of emotion he had dropped on them. Or possibly consider how to handle him in this incredibly raw state.
Dahlia brought her fist to her mouth, the vines tattooed down the side of her hand and arm, forming a leaved coil. “I’m sorry, Robbie,” she said, and although Robbie hated to admit it, the offering of sympathy was a small bucket of water to the fire burning within him.
“Do you think you could do that one more time? But not pull at your bracelet or look at the floor? You know how these things work.”
The heat within died out in a rolling wave of frigidity. Of course he knew. This was exactly how they worked, everything and anything to get the perfect take. Before this week, he wouldn’t have classified it as cold. It was another facet of the job—do your work efficiently and well at the best level you can, no matter what it takes.
Now, he understood that still, but it also seemed incredibly indecent, unkind, and detached. A case study in antipathy. So we’re just jackasses. Manipulative, cold blooded, out to get what we want with no care for the human toll. Just for the drama.
Why had it taken him this long to see it? Because like the cast members, it didn’t matter until it affected him.
“Sure,” he said, monotone. “Where do you want me to start?”