They are smiling, all of them. Why do people do that? Why do people smile even though it's obvious they're nervous? Why are they pretending to feel joy before the verdict has been made? Isn't that what smiling is supposed to be about? Joy. As if he won't be able to see through the facade if they just smile big and kind enough. Honestly it's rather annoying, maybe even a bit pathetic. John thinks this every time of course, but he doesn't say anything out loud. When he told his wife about his contemplations, she had spun around from the kitchen sink, where she was peeling carrots, peeler in one hand and vegetable in the other. Her expression had been one John had only seen a few times. All of those times, had been in the last couple of years. He wasn't entirely sure what it meant, most people John met only smiled that god forsaken smile, but he knew it wasn't good. He felt as if she was evaluating him, judging his character and then finding herself rather unsure whether she liked her conclusions.
John tries not to think about her gaze as he smoothes out his own face in a way that he's read in the tabloids, is both knowing and mysterious. In reality he's just relaxing every muscle and watching the people on stage, whose faces he'll forget in a week, the smiling ones. The heat from the lamps is suffocating and he can hear the breathing from Jennifer and James on each side of him. The papers love that, the three J's of the jury. John isn't sure why anyone would care about something as stupid as the first letters of their names, but apparently it´s very important. Important enough for James to go by the name James, instead of his real name, John has forgotten what it is. He knows Robert is backstage somewhere, on his phone, pretending to be important. He's already done his part, deciding who's worth continuing to put in front of the camera. The contestants are still smiling and John looks over at one of the girls who's about to lose. She's young, brunette and he supposes she's rather pretty, she's even good at singing, but it isn't enough. Her smile is even more nervous than the others. She wants this too much. It makes something crawl under John's skin. She doesn't have it, not yet at least. For now she makes better TV losing than winning. She'll probably be the one needing comfort from Robert tonight. After Robert has bought a beer for John of course, that's the tradition.
“Of course they are smiling,” John's wife had said, her eyes cold and the corners of her mouth pointing downwards in the way they so often did now, “They are trying to keep their heads high in front of the man who can make or crush their dreams.”
John hadn't been sure what to answer. He hadn't thought through the statement that closely - of course he hadn't, he was talking to his wife about his day not entering a police interrogation, and now all of a sudden he had to defend himself. He was too exhausted for her inquiring eyes and he wished he'd just nodded and agreed with her, because that was what you were supposed to do when you were talking to your wife. Comply and agree and then joke about it at the bar with your colleagues. That's what you did to keep them in check. It had taken him some time to realize this but he rarely made the mistake to talk back now, still the small condescending tone in her voice itched even worse than those nervous smiles.
“Honey, you know I didn't mean it like that. I just want to help people, you know that, help them reach their fullest potential. Sometimes I just wish everyone were more honest with their emotions, don't you think? Everything is so shallow nowadays.” John sighed and walked over to his wife, leaning against the dishwasher right beside her.
Smiling in that sad way he knew would make her forgive him. His wife hadn't seemed all that impressed by his choice of words. She'd only turned back to the sink with her carrot but the peeling had been a lot more aggressive than it had back when they first moved in here. Of course, she'd been peeling in an almost comically careful way back then. He'd laughed when she said she never peeled her carrots but then she'd pecked his cheek, saying that for him, of course she would.
John isn't sure but he thinks the girl, the pretty brunette, the losing one, is the same one he heard crying after her first audition. It annoyed him. Why couldn't they understand that this is nothing but a factory and they, the products. It was nothing personal. Just good TV. He supposes it had been something he said. It's always something he said, which annoys him even more because he probably hadn't even been honest. He's much kinder in his words than in his mind. She had sung some song everyone had heard a hundred times this year, and sure she'd been good, but picking that song meant she had to be the best. She wasn't the best. He had told her as much. You're not as good as you think. Jennifer had, with her most calming voice, said that she saw potential.
The brunette continued to the next audition. Jennifer's supposed to be the kind, understanding, gentle one. The tabloids love her, even though John knows how she talks about the contestants when they don't hear. Some magasines are sceptical regarding how Jennifer, as the woman, has to be the nurturing one, but that's only magasines with feminist somewhere in the title, and therefore neither John nor Jennifer read them, not that they would ever admit that openly. James reads them, though, and posts statements on all platforms that he listens and is going to talk to management about it. John doesn't think he ever has, since Robert is management and John knows all Robert knows.
Now she, the pretty brunette, is losing anyway. John wonders if she's going to cry again, that small hidden cry backstage. Is she one to try and hide her disappointment or be open about it? If she truly wants to continue in the spotlight she'd better know how to balance them perfectly. She has to be sad enough to awaken people's empathy but still strong enough for people to look up to her. Too much sadness makes people uncomfortable. It annoys John, how people are afraid of sadness but watch shows like this. He, John, only hates these false smiles. He ignores the disgusted feeling creeping up when he thinks about the girl crying in secret backstage. It's the false smiles that are the worst.
“What do you want them to do? Succumb to the fight between hope and fear eating them from the inside? What good would that do? Or do you want them to crawl at your feet? No, tell me, is it their submission you want so badly?” John's wife didn't say any of that. She knew what he would answer. Really the fight between hope and fear? Eating them from the inside? What else? Next you'll probably say I'm all about consuming their hearts, John the spawn of Satan and all that. My love, you are too melodramatic, and you know I love that about you, I suppose you can't help it, you are an actress after all, but I really need you to calm down. She would try and answer something back, something about how he wasn't allowed to release himself from the responsibility of facing her words by degrading her with unimportant details. Yes, that sounded good. She could answer that. Not that it mattered. He would just shake his head then. John could do that, choose not to answer and still win, somehow. Shake his head and laugh behind her back later. She knew he did that. After some time in silence, the sink was slowly being filled with orange peels and the warmth from John's body beside her felt as if it burned her skin and she had to concentrate on not taking an uncomfortable step away from him. Instead she muttered under her breath.
“Maybe people could be honest with their feelings if they knew it wouldn't be held against them later.”
Of course, John had answered by shaking his head, just like his wife had anticipated. Not that he knew that she had anticipated it. Or maybe he did. It didn't really matter if she had or not, he would still have done it.
The pretty brunette, the losing one, raises her hand to fix her hair. There is nothing wrong with her hair and her small gesture changes nothing, but it exposes a small stain under her arm and when John looks closer he can see the gleam of sweat on her forehead as well. Perhaps she won't be comforted in Robert's hotel room tonight after all. John's hands are slightly slippery and if he took off the dark gray jacket he suspects the white shirt would have been a slightly darker color under his arms and on his back. He doesn't take his dark gray jacket off. Besides, it wouldn't matter if he did. Someone could probably find a spare shirt somewhere, not that he needs it. He isn't being sent home today either way, nor does he have to be invited to Robert's hotel room of course, but that had never felt like a goal. John suspects that isn't really a goal for anyone on stage either, but none of that matters, he tells himself. He's on this side of the table, in a chair and the only similarities between him and the people on stage is the spotlight they share. Only, they can't tell him to leave it, no one can. That's how it's supposed to be.
It had gone several nights before they talked about it again, John and his wife. They lay on their respective sides of the bed and John's wife had closed her book. John had closed his eyes to hide how he was rolling them. She had noticed still, but let it go. Instead she had asked him what he wanted then, if he didn't want their smiles. John had contemplated pretending to have forgotten their earlier conversation but then answered the same thing he had last time - just some honest emotion. That was all he wanted. Once again he wished he hadn't told her any of his thoughts on the matter to begin with. She had asked him if he actually wanted to see how badly they needed his praise, some staking their entire careers, all their resources on his decision. The thought of the people on stage begging on their knees for his attention made something crawl inside him but he wasn't about to let her win. He had simply answered that it wouldn't be any different from the fake smiles they were now offering. Everyone was only pretending and it was all a charade.
Then John's wife had put her book down completely, rolling over to the side to face him. He had felt her eyes following the contours of his face, lit up by the bedside lamp. He gave her a side glance, putting on a calm smile, wondering what she was going to say next. Had she prepared for this? Practiced in the mirror. The thought filled him with distaste. Why would she degrade herself like that? He wondered if the words she was about to speak could be found in one of her old scripts. Probably one John himself had given her, wasn't that just his luck, having his own wife stab him in the back, after all he had done for her.
“Do you really want honest emotion?”
“I don't believe you.”
“Then what do you believe, my love?”
John's wife had been quiet again, fiddling with the closed book.
“I'm not sure. I haven't decided yet.”
“I have two options.”
“I don't think it's the smile. I think it's the nervousness, that annoys you, I mean. You want people whose smile is good enough to hide their nervousness, even from you.”
“That's the first option.”
John didn't say anything. He didn't want her to give the second option but he wasn't about to expose how much he didn't want to hear it. Instead he closed his eyes, as if the conversation bored him.
“Or maybe you just want people who care about your praise badly enough that they'll do anything you tell them, but also people who are immune to the feelings you deem… Well, pathetic, I suppose.”
John raised his eyebrows at that, eyes still closed. When his wife didn't continue, he opened them and gave her a small pat on the arm.
“Let's sleep, darling.”
“Are you putting yourself to the same standard, John?”
“Are you honest with your emotions?”
“Goodnight, my angel.”
The moment comes and goes. John sits in his chair behind the table, the lamps all around, still heating his back and he finds himself wiggling his toes. It's rather fun, he has to admit. Wiggling his toes in his shoes and nobody knows about it. Exciting. Is everyone secretly wiggling their toes in their shoes? He supposes not, they are too busy with everything else and he pities them. How is any of this interesting to them? Jennifer has used her most mysterious voice and James has given the contestants that half smile as he lets his gaze wander over them. John has seen him practice it in the mirror before. The contestants were all still smiling during Jame's and Jennifer's play for the camera. It made it itch under John's skin. Now, as John wiggles his toes, they aren't smiling, none of them. Some are laughing, jumping up and down. The others stand huddled together, they smiled at first that oh-I'm-so-so-so-happy-for-you smile - even worse than the nervous one, but now they don't anymore. John wonders if their face muscles have given in from all the smiling. He wiggles his toes some more.
John's wife hadn't always been an actress. She'd started out as a singer, John forgot that sometimes. She would walk around the house singing and that was when he remembered. Her voice would rise and fall, filling every corner of their house and John supposed she was rather good. Just not good enough. He'd told her as much back then, before they were married. That was why she had become an actress, it hadn't been hard at all - Robert had produced several films that year, it was before he produced this show with the three J's in the jury. Back when John was the one sitting backstage, deciding who would win and who would lose, not on the chair behind the table, wiggling his toes. John's wife only ever sang walking around the house when she thought he couldn't hear.
The pretty brunette isn't crying. It's a relief. Then Jennifer would have to go up on stage, the cameras would zoom in as she hugged the girl and told her that her time will come, that this isn't the end of the line. Even John's toe wiggling couldn't have saved him from vomiting in his own mouth then. James sounds sad when they meet up in the bar later. Robert hasn't arrived yet and John looks down into his beer, wishing James would find someone else to torment. It's always the same things he needs to get off his chest. He's sad that they have to send some of the contestants home, but it's worse today. Apparently someone, he doesn't name names so John supposes it's him, gave some unnecessarily humiliating critique. John says nothing. James does, however, continue, now about a girl, not the pretty brunette with the sweat stains that lost, but a pretty blonde girl who also lost. A girl without sweat stains under her arms. Apparently she'd been talking to Robert backstage afterwards. Then John mentions that she hasn't lost, not really - Robert liked her, wait a year and she'll have a supporting role in some blockbuster. James locks his gaze then. She won't get it for free, John. Why can't she just get it for free? Robert arrives then, asking who wants a drink. John does.
In the dark John had heard his wife twisting. Usually she wouldn't, she was a calm sleeper, it was one of the reasons he had liked her. It made it easier for him to sleep. It might even have been part of the reason he married her. Besides the pregnancy of course.
“Am I important?”
John had contemplated not to answer, pretending to sleep, but then decided against it.
“To me? Of course.”
“Do you view me as a person whose opinion is important? Do you ever think about me as anything other than someone who plays the role of your wife?”
“You are my wife.”
James leaves after Robert arrives. He never stays long after Robert arrives. Robert asks John about his wife and he says the things he usually says. Robert laughs and shakes his head, just like John does when his wife is carried away with her melodramatics. It's nice. Finally spending time with an equal minded. It distracts him. He hadn't been able to sleep all night. His wife had been twisting and turning again but when she finally stopped his slumber had been interrupted by her voice. Whispering into the darkness, probably thinking he was asleep.
“You just want people who care about your praise badly enough that they'll do anything you tell them. Even marry you.”