72% of couples breakup in the first year. That's what my best mate Freddy told me when I was picked to be on that godforsaken show. I looked it up. He was right. So I kept my expectations low. But when I brought Zoey home, he’d patted me on the back. “Well done mate,” he had said, “she’s perfect. She’ll be a GREAT mom to Jamey.”
Perfect? I let out an audible scoff. Yeah, right.
A buzz in my pocket catches my attention. Pulling out my phone, my stomach tightens as I see her name glow across the screen. The first time she’s messaged me in three months.
**Zoey Gardner – 1 Unread Message**
Taking a deep breath, I look out the limo's long windows as we zip by traffic on the L.A. highway.
Get ahold of yourself Jason. Exhaling slowly, I swipe.
**I’m here. They’re asking me where you are.**
Shit. I'm late.
“Excuse me, driver? How close are we to the studio?”
“Ten minutes, sir. This is our exit.”
I shoot back a response.
**You’re late, Jason. Just make sure you have the ring.**
Groaning, I slide my phone back in my pocket.
Pulling off the interstate, I spot the top of the studio in the distance. My insides turn to snakes as they slither over one another, tying themselves into knots. The last thing I want to do is sit in front of a live audience pretending to be madly in love with my ex-girlfriend.
Zoey and I made it 8 months before she suddenly decided she wanted out. One night, for seemingly no reason, she said it just wasn’t going to work.
The next morning I found her ring on the counter.
It was horrifyingly painful. I had to have my sister pick up my 4-year-old daughter Jamey. It had taken days for me to leave my bed, and almost two weeks after that for me to leave my house. After Jamey, Zoey was everything to me.
Thinking about having to see her in person makes me feel very, very small.
“We’re coming up on the studio now, sir. We’ll be there in a few moments.”
A lump forms in the back of my throat. The seedling of a pounding headache sprouts in my temples. Approaching the complex, the driver pulls past throes of fans screaming and crying at the entrance of the studio. It makes me cringe.
We’re stopped briefly at the guard shack before being let through and directed toward an entrance near the back of the studio, away from the fans and cameras. It’s quiet. Dark.
“Here we are, sir. Give me a moment; I’ll open your door.”
“No need, I’ll be fine, thanks.”
As he pulls away, I’m left in front of the massive entrance covered with a big “3C” in yellow paint. I want to run. There’s no way I can do this. I can’t see Zoey. Not right now.
A stage hand peeks out from inside. Her headset askew, her all-black clothing stained by some sort of white powder - she’s clearly having a rough night.
“Jason Carenzo? Oh thank God, we’ve been waiting for you. We go live in 34 minutes!”
She grabs me firmly by the arm, guiding me through the studio and hissing into her headset.
“Yeah Chuck I’ve got him - calm down. Me? Rebecca. No, Rebecca. Oh for God's sake Chuck, I've worked here for seven years. I'm the first assistant - Rebecca? Okay, forget it. It doesn't matter. He’s here. I’m taking him to hair and makeup now. No, we can’t skip – he needs it. He’s a mess.”
Rude, I thought to myself. But she’s probably right. Winding through the dark and bustling corridors, various stage personnel run to and fro, adjusting the cords that creep up the walls like wild ivy and sprawl across the ground like tree roots. The air is thick with hairspray and sweat. Almost everyone has a headset, clipboard, and matching exasperated scowls.
Rebecca hands me off to an older lady. “Come find me ASAP when you’re done. Myrna? You have 15 minutes. Work your magic.”
“Oh darling,” she croons, “I’m working with a beautiful canvas here, I only need 10.”
Rebecca rolls her eyes and heads back into the frenzied backstage jungle. Myrna slowly looks me up and down, her spectacles perched on the tip of her nose, and her wrinkly face covered with age spots.
“Alright love. Let’s get you ready, shall we?”
Following her into a trailer, I sit before a large, lit mirror and let her get to work. She styles my hair using an assortment of gels and sprays, before starting on my face. We’re almost done when I feel another buzz.
**I’m stage left with Rebecca. We need you here in 5.**
“Uh, Myrna? I think my time’s up.”
“No problem darling, you’re ready.”
Heading towards stage left, my breathing grows louder as I know I’m getting closer to Zoey. God, she makes me so angry, and yet I can’t seem to ever get her off my mind. Weaving through the camera stands and set pieces, I finally spot her. My heart stops.
Her long hair – sleek and softly curled – is pinned back on one side exposing her bare neck. Her collar bones are prominently accentuated by her off-the-shoulder sapphire dress that catches the light. But there’s something different about her that catches my attention. Something I can't quite name. She looks a bit pale, and she’s lost weight. Myrna seems to have gone a bit heavy on the makeup and fake lashes. But Zoey has always been beautiful, makeup or no makeup.
Clearing my throat, I adjust the tie around my neck - had it gotten tighter? Taking a moment to remember how to breathe, I glance at her once more from a distance, my heart threatening to burst from my chest, while at the same time my temper flares. Why am I so angry?
Calm down, Jason. There’s $100K on the line tonight.
Taking a deep breath, I move to meet her and Rebecca.
“Ladies,” I say quietly.
“About time,” whispers Zoey, daggers in her eyes as she stares at me, taking me in head to toe. “Myrna does good work.”
Caught off guard by her compliment, I feel heat rising in my cheeks, and find my mouth suddenly dry, making it difficult to spit out a response.
“Uhhh, no. I mean, yeah. Thanks.”
Zoey rolls her eyes. “Do you have it?”
“Have what?” I ask, confused.
“The ring, Jason. We’re engaged, remember?” I pull the ring from my pocket and she slides it on her finger. It’s loose and threatens to fall off. “We’re contractually obligated to be doing this, Jason,” Zoey says, avoiding my eyeline. “Regardless of what happens tonight, I’m going home when this is over. Ideally, I’m going home with $50,000, but regardless, I’m going home.”
An angry spark of rage flashes in my stomach as each word cuts into my flesh, burning like a brand on my chest. At one time, “home” had meant the house the three of us shared. It breaks my heart all over again.
Zoey and I wait in painful silence as the other TV couples from the season start showing up. One by one they all headed to separate lanes. Most, if not all, look happy. Maybe Zoey and I really are the only ones who didn’t work out.
72%, Jason. Remember the odds. There’s no way they’re all happy.
Suddenly, the house lights dim, and music begins playing out over the audience. The host’s voice booms over the intercoms.
“Welcome to the live finale of Lover’s Trials, Season 15! I’m your host, Hugh Stillman. And I don’t know about you, but I am VERY excited to check back in with our lovely couples. As you all know, tonight you will be caught up on our contestants’ lives since the end of the show. You’ll get to ask them questions, and then YOU will vote on who takes home the grand prize. So, without further ado, let’s bring out the couples, starting with David and McKenna!”
The crowd roars as one by one, Hugh calls on the couples who take the stage, a spotlight following them each to their assigned seats across a plethora of couches and loveseats spread out strategically across the stage.
A cold sweat breaks out across my forehead as I anticipate our turn, when suddenly I feel a soft fabric pressed into the palm of my hand. Looking down, I see Zoey has slipped me a tissue.
“Don’t let your foundation get streaky.”
“You sweat when you get nervous. Even though I can’t see you very well in this light, I’m assuming you’re nervous. But dab, don’t rub, or else it’ll take the makeup off.”
Following her instructions, I dab lightly at the beads of sweat forming on my forehead.
“Thanks,” I whisper, shoving the tissue into my pocket.
A few more couples are called, and I start shifting my weight anxiously from leg to leg, unable to stand still. Abruptly, I feel Zoey lace her fingers gently through mine.
“What are you –”
“Jason, you need to calm down. We’re about to go on international television. For the next hour, you need to work under the assumption that you and I are happy, engaged, and in love, okay?”
My heart is pounding in my chest so hard that my ribs are rattling around like beads in a glass jar. I nod, gripping her hand for support. It feels nice. It feels familiar.
“And next,” says the announcer, “please welcome Jason and Zoey!”
The crowd goes absolutely wild as I feel Zoey pulling me forward by our interlocked hands. I throw on a smile and follow her lead as my eyes squint under the harsh glare of the spotlight. Together, we wave at the faceless crowd and make our way to the red sofa stage right. I’m taken aback when Zoey sits and crosses her legs, angling her body towards mine and placing her hands intimately on my thigh, shooting tendrils of fire through my body. I find myself aching for more of her touch.
“Put your arm around me,” she whispers through her gritted, smiling teeth.
In a bit of a haze, and confused by my own reaction to her touch, I slide my arm around her waist, pulling her close, intoxicated by her perfume as rich notes of white lily and orange blossoms swirl around us.
The next hour passes painfully slowly, filled with clips from the season, video montages filmed during the first few months after the show, and questions from the audience. Zoey takes the lead on most, answering with grace and poise. At one point, she leans over, placing a light kiss on my cheek, further ushering me into my own clouded mind. I’m confused. Angry. How can she so easily fake it? I find myself becoming more and more frustrated by her convincing acts of compassion. I’m grateful as the host wraps up the evening.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to vote! For all of you watching at home – text the number on your screen. For those of you here with us tonight, take out the tablet in front of you and let us know who is going to take home $100,000!”
The lights dim as the studio hushes. Zoey’s grip tightens on my hand. But amid the tension, I can’t care less about the money. I just want to get her off me and go home. After several minutes, the lights come back on, and the music changes.
“All right, folks, we have our winner! The champions of Season 15 will be revealed when we come back!”
A collective boo from the audience makes me chuckle condescendingly. Of course they aren’t going to reveal the winner immediately. They need time to rig the vote in the way that gives the studio the best outcome. If the most popular couple wins, that won’t generate any social media buzz. I find myself chuckling at the naivety of the audience.
“All right pretty people,” calls out Rebecca from side stage, “we’ll have you exit the stage and follow us this way, please. Empty the stage! This way!”
“What’s going on?” asks Zoey.
“They’ll probably only have the winners stay. They’ll let the rest of us go.”
Zoey keeps ahold of my hand until we’re off stage. As soon as we’re clear from the audience, I tear my fingers from hers.
“Well, that was interesting,” she says, a hint of venom in her tone.
“Mhmm,” I mumble back.
“You weren’t very talkative during the Q&A.”
Of course I wasn’t very talkative, Zoey. How am I supposed to talk about how much I love you when you broke my heart?
“What do you think our odds are?”
“Who cares, Zoey.”
“I care, Jason! It’s $50K and you were completely dry out there. You didn’t even try to contribute to the fan questions!”
Frustrated, I turn away, unable to look at her any longer without my heart tearing into two.
“Jason, what’s your problem?”
“Leave it alone, Zoey.”
“No, Jason. Seriously, why are you acting like this?”
Furious, I turned back to her, anger and pain dripping from every syllable.
“You want to know why my heart wasn’t in it tonight Zoey? Because you broke it three months ago when you left with no explanation.”
Zoey stared back at me, stunned. She took a small step forward.
“Jason, I'm sorry. I never wanted to --"
“I loved you, Zoey! You were my world. You were my everything. You and I were endgame. You and I were going to beat the odds.”
Zoey had tears in her eyes, and her mascara was beginning to smudge around the edges.
"It wasn't going to work Jason - can't we be adults about this?"
“Adults? You want to know why I can’t be an adult about this Zoey?” I asked, my voice beginning to break. “Because I’m still in pieces, lying on the floor, right where you left me.”
Tears were streaming down both my face and hers.
“Jason, you don't understand. With Jamey, I just couldn’t--”
At the mention of my daughter, I feel my cheeks burn white hot. How dare she use my daughter as an excuse.
“Stop it, Zoey. You think I was out of it tonight. And maybe I was. But I was present enough to watch how well you faked it. If it was so easy for you to up and leave, then you must have been faking it the whole time. You never cared about me or Jamey.”
"Jason, that's not true!" she cried.
"I'm done, Zoey. Keep the ring, and the money if we win. I'm going home."
I turn and head for the exit.
“I’m sick, Jason!"
Zoey’s voice stops me dead in my tracks. Turning to face her, I'm frozen, confused as I watch her slowly reach up and pull handfuls of clips and bobbi pins from her hair.
“I’m so, so sorry,” she says in a broken voice as she slowly, gently pulls off the long, dark wig revealing a shaved head beneath.
Helpless, every ounce of anger that ever was, or ever had been, evaporates into mist, replaced by a heavy fragility.
“I never stopped loving you, Jason. And I think about Jamey every day.”
Numb, I feel my knees giving way and grab hold of a nearby set piece to steady myself. My head swirls and I like I'm about to vomit.
Closing the gap between us, Zoey places a light hand on my face, caressing my cheek with her thumb.
“I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, Jason," she whispered, "I couldn’t put you through that. And I couldn’t put Jamey through that.”
She left to protect us?
Unable to stop myself, I grab Zoey and pull her into me, burying my face in her neck, letting my tears fall freely onto her shoulder.
“I’m so sorry Zo,” I sobbed, “I’m so sorry.”
Zoey wraps her arms around me and holds me tight, shushing my sobs and running her fingers through my hair. After a moment I pull away and take both of her hands, gazing into her eyes. She looks away, but I gently pull her chin back to look at me.
“Zo – you are my everything. You always have been. Please. Please come home. We’ll do this together.”
Zoey bites her trembling lip. I can see that she’s fighting herself.
“Zoey,” I plead, “when I proposed, I knew that meant one day we would walk into a church and say ‘for better and for worse, through sickness and in health, I do’. As far as I'm concerned, I made that vow the day I got down on one knee. I don’t need to have a priest witness it to make it official. Please. Come home.”
"Jason, this? The chemo? It's a long shot. If it doesn't work --"
"The odds might not look good, Zo. But every moment, every second, of a life with you, is worth it."
Zoey lets out a sob and collapses in my arms. My chest swells, and relief floods my body as I hold her. I wipe the last of the tears from her cheek as Rebecca approaches.
"Jason, Zoey - we need you stage left in 5 minutes."
I glance down at Zoey, who shoots me a confused glance.
"Why?" I ask.
"Why do you think?" Rebecca smiles, before running off.
Grinning at the gorgeous woman in my arms, I kiss the tip of her nose as she starts frantically pinning her wig back in place and dabbing the mascara around her eyes with a tissue. After a moment, she lets out a deep breath.
"I'm ready," she says.
“We’re going to beat the odds, Zo.”