She saunters stiffly beside him, her hands clenched into small fists at her sides. She looks directly ahead. Her counterfeit smile does not reach her cold blue eyes. Her long, satin magenta gown swishes around her feet with each step, a cascade of sparkles flashing before every photographer’s eyes.
His pursed lips morph into a grin as he follows her into the light of the stage and looks out at the crowd, displaying perfectly white teeth. He pumps his fists in the air––to which the crowd hollers in glee––and flaunts his magenta bow tie. He strides forward almost on his tiptoes, elongating long legs and emphasizing his casual, long gait. He chews gum loudly, his lips smacking together.
She grits her teeth, but smiles through them all the same, characteristically tossing her long, silvery white hair behind her. The crowd roars with approval.
He ignores her and pumps his biceps. The crowd howls even louder.
They approach the stage and, as if they are mirrors––and robots––they wave in identical gestures to the crowd, wide and unwavering smiles plastered on their perfectly powdered faces. They are well-practiced. They wave slowly and dramatically, each hand outstretched with waggling fingers. Finally, as the cheers fade to a low rumble, they step up upon the stage and sit beside one another on the white velvet couch. The piece of furniture is altogether too small; they must sit leg-to-leg, shoulder-to-shoulder.
She crosses her legs to appear smaller and avoid his touch. Her smile does not leave her face.
He scowls through a grin, trying to stretch his long legs while ignoring her figure.
The host asks them a series of questions about the show. Their experiences, their respective love stories, their competition against the other couples.
She answers them shortly with quick nods and small smiles. The audience does not notice her edging away from him bit by bit.
He takes his time, inducing giggles from the crowd, using his arms wildly to demonstrate his points, and laughing loudly and boisterously.
She rolls her eyes behind her long hair, which acts to shadow her from the many bodies and inquiring gazes beyond the stage.
The host dismisses them to chat to the the next couple.
He walks confidently off the stage and to the backstage area, where the other couples await.
She follows just a few steps behind, narrowing her eyes at his perfectly groomed and ashen brown hair.
They wait among black couches and suits and dresses and flickering gazes as the couples assess one another. They sit together, just millimeters apart, striking up an elementary conversation about the weather. Which is beautiful. It’s always beautiful at this resort, where they’ve lived for five weeks.
Some of the couples throw them dubious glances. They’ve convinced the audience; have they convinced their competition? She does not know. Neither does he.
All the couples raise their heads at the sound of loud applause right outside the curtains. They gather together, wishing each other luck. Some mean it; others do not.
She stands beside him. They fall in line behind another couple from the show.
One-by-one, names are called from the microphone just outside, and each couple is ushered on to the stage.
The cheers grow dramatically louder when she and he step up on the stage once again. They clasp hands now, fingers intwined. They both long to pull away.
Finally, each couple stands on the stage as the host steps to the middle. The crowd cheers wildly for him, and he shushes them after a few moments until their cries subside to silence.
Then, he begins to eliminate the couples.
She watches as the first eliminated couple bursts into tears, both waving sadly at the crowd, their heads hanging down and their feet pathetically dragging across the sand. She watches them until the lights and cameras turn back to the stage.
One-by-one, other couples follow the first couple off the stage, all eliminated and dejected and morose. Finally, only three remain upon the stage.
She holds her breath. He taps his foot nervously.
The second runners-up are announced.
She breathes a sigh of relief. His shoulders slump in relaxation before rising again as the host prepares to announce the winner.
He says their names.
A smile bursts across her face as she jumps up and down, clapping her hands together. It’s the first sign of emotion he’s seen in a long time.
He mimics her, whooping and pumping his fist into the air––his signature move, as the crowd knows and loves––and decides to pick her up and swing her around. She stiffens, but the crowd doesn’t notice. The audience only cheers louder; they whine when he sets her upon her feet. She avoids his eyes.
The host announces the next portion––the final competition. He leads the man to the right side of the stage, and the woman to the left. He gives them each an envelope.
She glances down. Her envelop includes two index cards. One reads “love”. The other reads “money”.
The host explains the rules: if both choose love, then they get to share the money. If both choose money, no one gets the money. And if one chooses love and one chooses money, the one who chooses money gets the money. Of course.
She glances at him. He glances at her. Their gazes are both unreadable. And yet their smiles are still plastered to their faces all the same.
The host begins to count down from ten. The crowd joins him. Three…two…one…
They both flip over their cards.
They both chose money.
The crowd is a mixture of jeering and cheering. The host shakes his head dejectedly, relaying the sorrowful news to the camera. The rest of the couples smirk, not feeling so down anymore after such an embarrassing display.
And just for a moment, for the very first time, the man and the woman smile at one another.
Until the cameras turn to them. She suddenly cries, sobbing, holding her head in her hands, tears spilling down her face. He swears and curses, angrily shouting to the skies above.
They are ushered off the stage as the show comes to an end and the exit procedures take place.
The woman and man––no longer needed due to their loss––slip outside the doors of the resort and away into the night.
They did not win the money. And for that, they celebrate. Not winning means no contracts. No ties to the company. No returns for later seasons. No signing their lives away to the show who made them, who funded them, who bought them. No longer forced to love one another for the sake of profits.
They walk into the night smiling and free, their hands finally clasped together with no threat of breaking.