A fire crackled in the stone fireplace of the festive living room, the silver tree ornaments mirroring the flickering yellow flames. A picture-perfect Yule, straight out of a Hallmark movie. Except that it was September, and this was definitely not a typical living room.
To my right, on a Christmas-red sofa, sat a middle-aged man and woman. The woman’s rosy cheeks gave her the appearance of having just come in out of the cold. She looked fit—a regular runner, I’d say. Her hair style was neck-length and utilitarian, and her jeans and shirt were plain but expensive. Her eyes were narrowed, like she was expecting trouble.
I was pretty sure the guy beside her did not share her dedication to fitness. His paunch was beginning to spill over onto his lap, concealing the waist that had to be under there somewhere. He wore a baseball cap, which I suspect covered a receding hairline, and sported a baggy T-shirt bearing an “I heart my gun” slogan.
On the two armchairs to my left sat a guy and girl in their twenties. I’m pretty good at reading people, and the guy was definitely military. He sat erect, and—in contrast to the older man—his flat abs were clearly visible. He looked nervous, casting anxious glances around the room. The bored-looking girl with pink hair beside him was harder to read. Didn't look more than 15, but I knew she had to be in her early twenties at least.
A man in a suit walked in, smiled at all of us and took the remaining seat in the room, beside the Christmas tree.
“Hi there, folks,” he began. “I’m Chaz Belvedere, host of “Family for a Day.” As you have already been told, this is a new reality TV show in which a group of strangers become a family. I want you all to act like it’s Christmas Day, as this episode—the pilot—will air during the 2012 holiday season. Right now, I’m going to introduce everyone, and then you can get started.
“On the couch, we have Lou, a 53-year-old long-haul truck driver, also known as “Dad.” Beside him is “Mum” Kerri, a 51-year-old women's studies professor. Now, Mum and Dad, let’s meet your “kids”—Shawna, age 25, a hairdresser, and Matt, 28, who spent several years in the military."
Then Belvedere turned his eyes to me. “And now I’d like to introduce you all to Brent. He’s a therapist and he’s here to provide expert advice on how you can improve your social skills. You’ve all told us there are issues you need help with when it comes to dealing with others—especially family. Brent’s going to guide you through your interactions today and give you some tips as you go along. He’ll also guide you through your day as a Christmas family.
“And now it’s time for me to step back. Merry Christmas to you, family!” said Belvedere as he exited the living room.
I was on. I donned my best smile and announced that the family would begin—as any family would on Christmas morning—by opening their presents. Each participant had been given some cash and the name of another “family” member, and had purchased a gift for that person, having nothing to go on but a name.
Lou was first up to present his gift; not surprisingly, he had Mum/Kerri. He grunted as he hoisted himself out of the comfortable chair and made his way to the tree. Fumbling around for a minute, he spied the gift he’d bought and clumsily wrapped, scooped it up and presented it to Kerri.
She raised her eyebrows. “Super wrapping job,” she deadpanned.
Though obviously peeved, Lou decided to be charitable. “I’m a trucker. I don’t do a lot of wrapping, but I really did put some thought into this gift. Got something I figured you’d really like.”
Kerri frowned and pulled off the sparkly wrapping, uncovering a small box. Inside was a silver cigarette lighter.
“If you look close, you’ll see your name’s engraved on it,” Lou grinned. “See? K-e-r-r-i.”
Kerri narrowed her eyes. “Yeah, it’s great, “husband.” Except that I don’t smoke. What am I supposed to do with it? And why would you assume I’m a smoker?”
Lou’s smile evaporated. “Hey, look; cut me some slack, lady! I don’t know anything about you. All I had to go by was what my girlfriend likes.”
Time to step in before “Mum,” who obviously looked down her nose at “Dad,” could deliver a scathing comeback. “I think this is where we can benefit from that clichéd but true statement that it’s the thought that counts. Now, Kerri, how about you? I believe you have something for Lou?”
Without speaking, Kerri pulled out a neatly wrapped box and handed it to her TV husband.
“Man, I love opening presents!” said Lou as he tore off the paper like a six-year-old. Kerri’s disapproving frown deepened.
“It’s a book!” he said, obviously bewildered. He held it away from himself as though it smelled bad. “It’s called…Inter…Intersec—”
Kerri could bear it no longer. “Intersectionality and You,” she blurted. “But I’ll be the first to admit that I made a poor choice. I wrongly assumed you’d be literate.”
“And I assumed you wouldn’t be an ignorant sow,” Lou shot back.
It was promising to be a great day. “Why don’t we see what the kids got each other?” I suggested, turning my eyes to the "daughter." “How about you, Shawna?”
The expressionless young woman presented her gift to her “brother.” “Merry Christmas,” she intoned, holding out a gift bag to him.
Matt pulled out a plastic box filled with various hair care products and held it aloft.
“They’re specially for men,” Shawna explained. “We carry this kit in my salon; they’re the best—”
It finally dawned on her that her TV brother was bald.
“Oh,” she said simply.
Matt put the kit back in the bag. “Thanks anyway, Sis. Like Brent said, it’s the thought that counts. And now I guess it’s my turn.” He fished a sizeable gift bag from under the tree and offered it to Shawna.
It was chocolates—a huge box of them.
Shawna sat holding the box and staring at it. “Well, this is awkward. I’m diabetic,” she said. “Man, I love chocolate, though. But no, I can’t.” She thrust the box back at him. “Dang.”
“Well, that all went swimmingly,” said Kerri.
“What’s with you, anyway, Miss Congeniality?” growled Lou.
“Ah, so you are capable of multisyllabic speech!”
I redirected the conversation. “I think it’s time for us to get to know one another a little better,” I said, turning to the “kids.”
“Matt, you’re an army man, right? Where are you stationed?” I asked.
The young man suddenly looked very uncomfortable. “We weren’t supposed to talk about this,” he whispered, obviously hoping only I would hear him.
But someone else heard him just fine.
“What’s that?” said Lou. “What weren’t we s’posed to talk about, Son? We’re family—least for today!”
“Matt,” I said. “I’m so sorry; I guess I didn’t get that memo. But maybe Lou’s right. Maybe it’d be a good idea to share. Remember, I’m here to help.”
He hung his head, obviously ashamed. “Dishonorable discharge,” he mumbled.
“What for?” demanded Lou.
“Look, I don’t wanna talk about it. Can we just leave it alone?” Matt looked at me, eyes pleading.
But Lou wasn’t about to let it go. “I got a right to know why you disrespected my country!”
“I served ‘your’ country for eight years and then did one dumb thing. I regret it and I’m sorry, okay?”
At this point, the ever-sensitive Kerri decided to jump in. “What kind of honour is there in serving in a sexist organization like the military, anyway?”
“What would you know?” yelled Lou. “You don’t even care about the boys who’ve died so you could empower women or whatever it is you do up there in your ivory tower!”
“See?” Kerri was right in Lou’s face now, pointing an accusing finger at him. “Boys! The boys who died?! What about the women who’ve been killed in the line of duty?”
“Hey, guys!” I yelled over the din. “Remember, you’re supposed to be a family, together for Christmas. Why don’t we start prepping for dinner?”
I got up and moved towards the kitchen area. “We’ve got a nice big kitchen with plenty of space for everyone. For the sake of time, our crew’s already got the turkey cooking in the oven, so all we need to do is get the veggies and salad ready. Matt, how about sitting over here at the table and peeling some potatoes?”
Once everyone was set up with a task, it was time to get the group talking again.
“Shawna, what do you like best about hairdressing?” I asked.
The young woman put down the vegetable peeler and the carrot she was working on and thought for a moment. “Mmm…colouring, I guess. And trying new cuts.”
“And what would you say is the worst thing about the job?” I asked.
“Talking to people,” she answered immediately. “I’m not very good at making conversation.”
“Well then, why on earth would you choose hairdressing?” laughed Kerri.
Hitherto quiet Shawna did not miss a beat. “I’ll tell you one thing, “Mum”! You’d be a lot happier paying me to do your hair than whatever butcher gave you that cut!”
“Ha ha, good one, kid!” Lou chortled.
“Those who can, do, and those who can’t, apparently become hairstylists,” quipped Kerri.
“For your information, I did two years of university. I was top of my class,” said Shawna.
Kerri asked the obvious question. “If you were such a brilliant student, why did you stop after two years?”
Shawna kept her head down and vigorously chopped a carrot.
“Well?” Kerri said. “Could it be that you were exaggerating just a tad?”
I intervened. “Listen, Karen—”
Everyone laughed. Kerri turned bright red.
I apologized profusely. “Kerri, I’m so sorry! It was a slip of the tongue. I truly did not mean to insult you!”
Kerri glowered at me as she prepared the salad, but thankfully, said nothing.
“Matt, what are you doing now?” I asked, before Kerri could think of another mean thing to say.
“Looking for work,” he said. “But it's been tough. You know, with my history. Nobody wants to give me a chance. But I paid my debt. Just doesn’t seem fair to me.”
“Aw, boohoo! Suck it up, princess. You made your bed,” said Lou. “I was in Rwanda in the 90s. Saw things no human should ever see or experience. But I stuck it out like a man should. What happened, anyway? Guard duty get a little too intense?”
Matt slumped in his chair, like the energy had suddenly drained from his body. He seemed to be taking a moment to get his strength back. “My twin brother, Mike, and I joined the Forces together. We loved serving in the military. But we always got different postings till my last one, when we were both posted to Afghanistan. We’d both done tours there before, but separately. One day, when we’d been in the country about a month, Mike led a foot patrol I was on. I was close enough to hear a “click” and to see his face as he turned around, just before the IED exploded and blew off his arms and legs.
“I felt nothing after his death. Came back home, got counselling and returned to duty—a desk job. Worked for a few months, then one day, I snapped. Stole some money, bought a plane ticket to Mexico and just took off. I was picked up and extradited in pretty short order.”
Lou walked over and put his hand on Matt’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Son,” he whispered. “And I’m sorry for what I said. Truth be told, I’ve never been the same since Rwanda. Still suffer from PTSD.”
“My mother was sick.”
We all turned to see where the voice was coming from. It was Shawna. Tears were running down her cheeks as she looked at Kerri.
“You asked me why I didn’t finish university. I went home to look after my mum. She died a couple of months later, and I just couldn’t concentrate on school after that. So I went back to hairdressing. I’m saving up so I can go back and finish, but hairdressers don’t make that much.”
Kerri was uncharacteristically silent. She’d stopped slicing tomatoes and her hands were shaking. She exhaled. “Look, I hate being a jerk. But I don’t know how to stop. Things have happened in my life that have put me on the offensive, and it’s become a habit.”
“Hurt the other guy before he can hurt you,” said Lou.
Kerri raised her head and smiled sadly. “Yeah, something like that.” She looked at me. “I was hoping you’d help me be—nicer.”
Matt stood and walked over to me, realization finally having dawned. “But you had no intention of helping her, or any of us, did you, Brent? If that's even your name!”
Shawna nodded. “It’s true. You’ve actually done the opposite.” She addressed the rest of the group. “Did you notice how everything he’s said has actually stirred things up?”
“That’s right!” said Lou. “Claiming not to know he wasn’t supposed to talk about Matt’s situation.”
“Asking provocative questions of each of us!” said Kerri. “And calling me ‘Karen.’”
Now I was the one in the hot seat.
“Guilty,” I confessed. “My name really is Brent, but I’m no therapist. I’m an actor, and yes, my job was to ‘stir the pot,’ as Chaz put it, to keep things interesting for the viewers.”
“You mean keeping us at each others’ throats to make us look like a dysfunctional bunch of losers!” said Kerri. “Well, you certainly did that and then some! I imagine you’ll get an award for your fine performance.”
“Afraid not,” I said. “More likely my pink slip. We are definitely off script here, and I am pretty sure I’ve just burned a huge bridge. But I don’t regret that; I never should’ve taken this job. I thought you'd just be a bunch of jerks, like a lot of the people I've seen on reality TV. But you're real people with real pain, just trying to figure things out like everybody else. If anyone’s a jerk, it’s me.”
“Well, I won’t argue with you there,” said Lou. “But I think this 'dysfunctional' family could use another member. You'll fit right in! What do the rest of you think?”
Matt slapped me on the back as the others accepted me as part of the family.
“But who will I be?” I asked. “The long-lost older brother, maybe?”
Shawna smiled. “How about the weird uncle?”
We all laughed as we set the table and prepared to carve the Christmas turkey.
Oh, and if you don’t remember ever seeing this reality show on TV, that’s because it didn’t get picked up by the network after all. In one executive’s words, "it was just too unrealistic.”