Vidalia removed her mask, tucked her hair behind her ears, and leaned forward instinctively towards the makeup artist. He sprayed something into his hand, applied it to her face, and cocked his head, so that he would have been looking into her eyes had she not already been gazing into the distance.
All contestants had been asked to come “hair and makeup ready” to the set each day, which Vidalia had assumed meant she could turn up in no makeup, but the producers had taken one look at her and blanched, which told her that at least she really was passing for a woman now. This was still somewhat surreal and funny to her—she had enjoyed upsetting people and was still getting used to the banality of not being gawked at in a skirt. In all honesty, she did not prefer it. It made womanhood a little boring, when what she generally liked about it was that it was anything but.
The only other contestant forced into makeup was James, a cisgender man with bright white teeth, biceps emphasized by his tight shirts, and an affable nature that manifested in a bashful hand run across his scruffy chin whenever complimented. The resulting eye and lip situation looked garish in person but lovely on camera.
All nine of them—Vidalia, James, a twin, a bodybuilder, a crypto trader, a mother of five, a competitive swimmer, an unassuming woman Vidalia kept forgetting, and a health nut—were there to compete in the first season of a competitive reality TV show about facing fears. Most stunts were physical, and, inspired by the success of a big cat-themed program earlier that summer, the show was named TerROAR, because of the tiger who would sort out the top three.
Vidalia did not know how they were expected to handle the tiger, except that she had been assured repeatedly by the producer that not only a medic but several experienced tiger trainers would be on set, and that the top three contestants would be extensively prepared for the experience. She expected the show to be short-lived and was only hoping to take part in the gaudiness, and the fifty-thousand-dollar grand prize, before it ended.
The makeup artist unscrewed something, blended it, and applied it to her face. He was short and probably transmasculine: shapeless in a gray sweatshirt and a fluffy blonde undercut, which she guessed he dyed based on his skin color. She disliked asking or being asked about her gender on principle and thus extended him the same assumptive courtesy she did James.
“What’s your name again?” she asked, suddenly recalling this as an option, and blinking as he applied something to her eye. “Excuse me.”
“It’s fine. Brayden,” he said—so definitely transgender. She almost laughed, only it would have looked cruel.
“That means ‘salmon,’” she said, holding still for him to vigorously swat at her cheeks with a fat, fluffy brush.
“Really?” He squinted at his work. He had a round, babyish face for his age, with two moles near his jaw. “How do you know that?”
“I hear it often.” She had no idea whether he knew she was transgender, and as he leaned back she wondered if that was exactly what he was working out. She couldn’t remember whom she’d told, except for the executive producer, who had immediately assumed she was a transgender man and made a fool of himself.
“You’re done,” Brayden said, finally, and, “Shoot’s in fifteen,” which meant they hadn’t gone over time today. She nodded, thanked him, and got up, sweeping her eyes away from the impromptu makeup corner and toward the rest of the set. She liked having conversations in public, which was why, she supposed, she was here in the first place.
James cornered her between shooting the announcement of the second challenge and the challenge itself. Interviews had begun in the order of competitors, assigned allegedly at random.
“Good job on the last one,” he said, first, and Vidalia nodded before remembering to thank him. They had been put on a balance beam at one hundred feet in the air, essentially a thick wooden tightrope. Vidalia did not have a fear of heights and therefore had felt luckily unbothered. James had needed several minutes to compose himself before walking out, all of which had been captured with ultratight zooms and the refocusing of six cameras. The bodybuilder and mother of five had been eliminated for falling.
“You too.” She added, “I appreciated your vulnerability.”
“It was real,” he said, though she knew it had been. “Anyway, I wanted to clear something with you. I think the producers are setting us up.”
“For me? Definitely.” There went the bashful run through the beard again. “Anyway, they kept asking me leading questions, and I think I managed to avoid most of them, but, you know, they can clip together whatever they want, so just in case...”
“I understand. I’m happy to play into it.” This seemed like a logical extension for a show about people debasing themselves for money before being fed to a tiger. “If you’d like.”
“Well, I don’t mind either way. I just wanted you to know. Also...” He winced. “They really wanted me to say something about you being a woman. You know, asking me if I think you’re too pretty to win, if you’re strong enough, stuff like that. I panicked and said the strongest people in my life are women, and they left me alone.”
“I’ll have to be prepared if they ask me about your biological disadvantage based on your relative lack of slow-twitch muscle fibers,” said Vidalia.
James looked very hard at her. “Is that true?” he asked, eventually.
She loved cis people. “Yes.”
She was surprised when they asked her directly, “What do you think about James?” Robbed of the opportunity to use any of her catty, subtle, prepared lines, she instead said that he seemed gentle and nice, which confused the prompter even though it was true. When they prodded for something else, she tried throwing in that he had a delicate gait, and when they didn’t give up after that, she said he would look wonderful in a sweater dress and was approaching the point where she would have implied he belonged in the kitchen when the prompter asked her to please take this more seriously; she’d signed a contract.
She had signed a contract. It had not included a clause reading NO FUN ALLOWED. It had, of course, contained infinite NDAs, which was fine with her because she had no friends and her family wasn’t on speaking terms with her lately.
The producer waved his hand in a semicircle and told the prompter to move on. Vidalia assumed they would find some way to cut her words up for the lowest common denominator. The prompter asked this time what she would spend the prize money on, and she launched right into a speech about how ever since childhood she’d been a big fan of a particular retro TV show about a batty professor who traveled through space, and if she won the grand prize she’d take herself on a congratulatory trip to its themed amusement park. The producer gave her a big thumbs up for that one, probably because he didn’t have to redirect her from student loans or medical bills. She smiled politely at him and congratulated herself on a decent, extremely pro-capitalism answer.
In reality, she was hoping to win so she could spend not a single red cent of the money on facial feminization surgery. Just to prove something.
“You should make me look hot today,” Vidalia said, and before she could add the rest Brayden said, “Aw.”
This stopped Vidalia for a moment, because initially she assumed he meant, Aw, don’t you think you’re hot as-is? Which she did, of course—but it would have been nice to hear. Then he continued, “I don’t do a good enough job usually?”
“Oh,” she said, and, “You do. It’s just that I’m now apparently romancing James.”
“Makes sense.” Brayden tucked one hand under her chin, tilting her face so he could get at her eyes better. She tried to feel out through his movements whether she was getting a cateye, the only style of eyeliner she could recognize. “I hear you did a good job on both challenges.”
She had. The second challenge had been holding her breath while attached to a ball and chain on a pool floor. Her time had been just slightly longer than the unassuming woman’s. James had nearly tapped out, but had visibly rallied at the last moment and held on for an incredible extra thirty seconds. Vidalia thought, personally, that putting a shark in the pool was overkill, but it had made for incredible television.
“I don’t know whether to act up for more screen time or completely ignore it,” she admitted. “I didn’t think through what kind of villainess I’d be.”
“I’m not supposed to influence the show.” Brayden crooked the corner of his mouth up in a smile. “Technically, I shouldn’t be talking to you. Telling you my name was kind of a no-no.”
“Aw,” Vidalia said. She hummed quietly, as if struggling to remember. “What was it? Jayden? Rayden? I know it wasn’t Aiden, that would have been too normal.”
“Brayden,” he said, and shook his head. He tilted up the other side of her face. “See? You made me do it again.”
The unassuming woman approached her just before the next challenge announcement, flanked by cameras. Vidalia, waiting completely alone by the dock, understood she was supposed to find this unsuspicious, and so opened with, “What’s your name?”
The woman stopped. She opened and shut her mouth a few times. Someone lowered a camera.
“Shiloh,” she said, finally.
“That’s pretty,” Vidalia said. “I’m sorry I forgot. I’m Vidalia.”
“Like the onion?” She had an interesting accent, perhaps Swedish.
“My parents were comedians.” Vidalia didn’t mention their assuming she was a boy, which was what she personally found funniest about them.
“I wanted to talk to you,” Shiloh said. She looked like she was gathering steam, and failing, like a train slowly realizing it could not climb the mountain it was already sliding down. “I wanted to talk to you about James.”
“Really?” Vidalia asked. “That doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.”
“The Bechdel test. You know, when two women have to talk about something other than a man?”
If anyone else had been there, Vidalia thought, they would have found it very funny. Unfortunately, it was her and a crew of cisgender people. She comforted herself with the knowledge that she was, in fact, being very funny. She gave herself two points.
“I want to know what you’re doing,” Shiloh said, now apparently ignoring everything Vidalia was saying—which was smart; it would be easy to cut out Vidala’s side in post. “What’s between you and James?”
“This is good television,” said Vidalia. “Two women fighting over a man? Captivating. It would be even better if we kissed.”
That morning, someone had leaked the news of a trans competitor to the press. Vidalia knew it was her but had enjoyed briefly the pretense of imagining it might be someone else; she would have liked for there to be a secret Bonus Transgender among them. Scrolling through Twitter, she’d read Tweets about what an important milestone this was and how everyone had better show up to support trans people in reality TV #TransTerROAR. She could not believe this was real and had looked up, half-smiling, to find nobody whatsoever looking back at her, not that she could have told anyone anyhow. Her favorite actor from the retro sci-fi television show had been trending, and when she’d clicked on his name, she discovered that he was being pilloried for saying that transgender women should not compete on reality TV because their maleness made them less scared. Vidalia was just relieved this conversation was unrelated.
“You’re insane,” Shiloh said now, finally seeming to find her footing. This was a good footing to find with Vidalia. The camera crew shifted their feet, zooming in and out.
“I was being serious,” Vidalia said, and then, “What’s in it for you if you meet that tiger?”
Shiloh gave her a strange, squinting look. Her eyes were the color of water in narrow canals, stippled, and with a shadow to them that made them look as if they were moving when they weren’t. Vidalia was sad, for a moment, that they were almost certainly not going to kiss after all.
“Have you ever been attacked?” Vidalia asked, when Shiloh didn’t answer.
Shiloh’s breath twitched the loose strands of her straw-colored ponytail.
“Yes,” she said. The cameras zoomed in. At the dock, the only thing in the frame would be her face and the water. “By my husband.”
“I was attacked outside a bar,” Vidalia said. “A man I didn’t know. He shouted at me, and then he hit me.”
“Why?” Shiloh asked.
Vidalia shrugged. “They’re men, not tigers. They don’t need a reason.” This was lying, at least in part. She sighed and shifted her weight, making the dock creak beneath her feet. “If I get to the tiger,” she said, “it’ll be the most frightened I’ve ever been.” Vidalia smiled slightly, though Shiloh’s face was so drawn that each symmetrical, lightly lined side looked like half of a locked double door. “I’d like that.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Shiloh murmured.
“The same thing you are.” Vidalia turned back to the dock, sticking her hands in the pockets of her jacket. The rest of the cast was walking up now, despite the camera crew’s desperate get out motions. “If you want the gentleman, have him. I’m asking you to leave me the tiger.”
The final challenge featured a padlocked coffin, with arm holes to work the locks, hanging from a helicopter above the ocean. Periodically, the coffin would be dunked into the water, though small holes in the bottom would allow it to drain. Only James, Vidalia, Shiloh, the twin, and the swimmer remained, and though Shiloh was going first, everyone was being filmed, so that if the spectators gasped or covered their mouths with their hands the camera could zoom in on them. Vidalia had resolved firmly neither to gasp nor to cover her mouth, but this only led to her stoic face being endlessly zoomed in on, perhaps because it made for easy splicing anywhere. Vidalia stood where she had been asked to stand, right by James, and watched Shiloh slowly work her way to the top of the coffin, where she clung as it twisted vertiginously.
“I hope she doesn’t fall,” James said, watching Shiloh be waterboarded. “Is that weird?”
The perfect canned dialogue, though in his case it was probably real.
“That’s not weird,” Vidalia said, to say something. And Shiloh didn’t fall, though the swimmer, up after her, did. James went after that, and Shiloh, dripping wet, was herded to stand so close to Vidalia that her breathing was louder than the chopper.
“He said he hoped you wouldn’t fall,” Vidalia said, to Shiloh. Shiloh nodded, teeth chattering, looking as though she was not ready to process speech.
“That must be why I didn’t,” she said, eventually. The twin cast a glance at the two of them, then looked away. “But that kind of attitude isn’t going to help him win. The whole time I was up there, I was praying every one of you would fail.”
“He’s a lover, not a fighter,” Vidalia said, just as a wave crashed. She could hear the cameras whirr as they raced to capture her.
“Could you say that again?” someone called off-camera, and she did.
“It’s good to see you again,” said Brayden the next time, presumably illicitly.
“Good to see you.” She had improved at holding still by now, and was able to tilt her head for him properly as he worked. Occasionally he would use his thumb to smooth out a contour, then seem to remember where he was before wiping his hands off and returning to brushes.
“Less precise,” he said, without her asking.
After half an hour, the silence became melancholy, as though preoccupied with her imminent exit from the show. They were running late, but he paused, looking over her face, before examining his eye shadow palette. He selected an electric gray, then a liquid violet, and worked both over her lids in meditative strokes.
“So what are your dinner plans?” he asked, as if there wasn’t a tiger between now and then.
“Salmon and onions,” she said. “There are a lot of recipes online. You can get it really spicy.” In case she wasn’t laying it on thick enough, she added the complete non-sequitur, “Real fish.”
He laughed, leaning forward to apply what looked like nail polish to her lips. It tasted peachy.
“So?” she asked, when he paused to reach for something else. “What about you?”
“I don’t think I’m allowed to say.” He uncapped a tube of clear gloss and peeked self-consciously at her, checking to be sure she’d gotten the joke. She smiled, and parted her lips as he applied the gloss, eyes closed. When she opened them again he turned away.
“Okay.” He scratched a hand through his hair. “I’m also not allowed to give you my number. If I did, it’d be pretty bad. It’s also—” he leaned back and reached for a pen, scribbling something on the back of a nearby business card— “definitely not on this card, which I’m leaving—”
She took it out of his hands.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll call you. If the tiger doesn’t eat me, that is.”
“You’re too tough,” he said, quietly. She smiled.
“Yes,” she said, “but I’ll look good between those jaws.”