I get high watching faces on TV. The detective is interrogating a suspect. The high school girls are bitching about some other high school girls. The high school girl detective is bitching at a suspect. The vampires are brooding sexily. This is all first-act stuff, I don’t pay much attention to it. The dialogue is bad. I’m waiting for the story beats to catch up, for the good stuff.
My friend Farai and I get high by watching faces on TV together. I forgot he was here for a second. He’s bitching at me now, like a high school girl detective. He wants the remote. He wants to skip between shows faster. I like a slow burn.
“Shut up, Farai,” I tell him. “My TV, my rules.”
“Actually, it’s my TV,” Farai objects, like he always does.
“Not when I’m here.”
* * *
Farai is one of those guys who will never amount to anything. His dada tells him so, and he believes it, and I believe him when he tells me. He flunked out of school in a fit of nihilism and is caught in a trap of existential, Lovecraftian dread which he can only survive by making sure his life is too pathetic not to be subject to judgement.
* * *
When we’re high and watching faces on TV, when we hit slomo, when we’re paying attention, everything is naked before us. Every little tic is blatant. Mid-interrogation, the detective’s stern face flickers to embarrassment for a quarter-second.
“She’s remembered she left the tap on,” Farai crows. His eyes flicker, oversized, in imitation. “The apartment will be flooded when she gets home.”
“She’s remembered she’s a D-list actress,” I say, “on the third-worst police procedural on TV. That was shame.”
“She wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up,” Farai says.
* * *
The detective is chasing a suspect around an anonymous urban neighbourhood. The high school girls are organizing a school dance at which there will be a dramatic denouement later on.
“Chekhov’s Prom,” I say, pointing at it. Farai laughs himself into a coughing fit. The room’s full of smoke. I’d open a window but the second acts are on.
* * *
When Farai’s mama was a teenager, she once told him (and he told me), she had wanted to be a stewardess. She thought that was cool and glamourous. When Farai was a kid he wanted to be a rapper. Neither of us understood the stewardess thing until they made retro TV shows glamourizing the old days when you could smoke on planes.
* * *
We don’t get high watching great actors. It’s the bad actors we want, saying their lines in quiet desperation, contorting their faces into clumsy approximations of emotion. We count the anxieties in their eyes, in their wrinkles, in their twitches, in the compulsive tightenings in the jaws and foreheads.
Their real anxieties, I mean, not the ones they’re ineptly pretending to have. Their jagged, unstable lives, their families, their homes, their debts, their obligations, their shame and public humiliations.
The brooding sexy vampires and the tiny penises they’re secretly ashamed of, the furtive eBay orders for pumps and suspicious enlargement pills.
The too-old-for-it men and women playing high school boys and girls, their fake foghorn youth.
The detective, who clearly has real problems on her mind—loveless marriage? sick kids? credit card debt?—as she tries to make it seem authentic that she would sacrifice peripheral vision during a chase scene just to have perfectly coiffed hair. How did her life come to this? Didn’t she believe in art, once? Wasn’t she going to be a star?
This is what we love. All that truly authentic human emotion you can only see on a bad actor’s face.
* * *
The detective has solved the murder. It was the third suspicious guy introduced at the beginning of the episode, not the second one—a surprise twist! The detective’s lips tighten, too grim for someone who’s just solved a murder and saved the day.
“Next year I’ll hold out for a better gig,” Farai whispers softly. He does the voice of wistful regret too often. It’s annoying.
“Next year I’ll do some art house films.” I match his tone, obligingly. I’m imitating his expression, not the detective. “Pay off my credit card, get better kids—”
Farai glares at me. He acts like he wants me to take the game seriously, and it makes me laugh.
* * *
I watch Farai sometimes instead of the screen, watching the working of his jaw. I know he’s thinking about what his dada said last week about how he’s a grown-ass man now and needs to get a fucking job and stop whining about the economy.
When he laughs at something on TV, it’s a little too high-pitched, like a drowning rat being held just below the waterline, and I can almost feel the water sloshing around my hands, wetting my sleeves.
* * *
The high school girl detective solved the episode’s case with the greatest of ease, but the season arc got way more complicated. She’s juggling up to five potential romantic interests. She’s still young enough to consider this job a step up. Farai and I watch the quirky, knowing grin she wraps around those perfect quips. Her lower lip is very shiny when she bites it.
“This face I’m making right now will go viral,” I say.
“GIF me, fandoms,” Farai says. “GIF me now and forever until the hour of my death.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I say. “She’ll never die.”
“The petit mort of cancellation.” Farai gestures. “I give her another season, max.”
* * *
If we were a TV show, Farai says, I’d be his imaginary ghost friend that only he can see. Charming at first, but increasingly creepy.
“Dada would say I need to grow up,” Farai adds, “and we’d have a scene where I storm off. Everybody thinks I’m crazy, except the audience. No, maybe even the audience.”
“Then I kill you in the finale,” I say. “And then I wear your face as a hat.”
“That’s way too dark for network TV,” Farai says. “Are we on cable?”
* * *
The vampires are doing a low-budget bottle episode. It’s terrible and wonderful. We think they have real tears in their eyes.
“Oh, for the day when they can Photoshop in the teeth,” I intone. “These prosthetics, they hurt me so.”
The bad actors are pretending to cry and are summoning up sad thoughts like their acting coaches told them in workshop. There’s always one or two that inadvertently summon up demons worse than they intended. Oh, those absent parents, those early heartbreaks, the cruel things we’ve said to the ones we loved, the hollow disappointment of this role. This is the crowning glory of the game, the perfect storm of inauthenticity.
When it happens, Farai and I end up with our arms around the TV, sobbing along. My face is warm against the glow of the screen and I’m squinting through my eyelashes because it’s too bright.
“Well, that was cathartic,” Farai says, eventually. The shows are over and we’re both coming down. He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand.
I watch him, in slomo. His face is naked, tracked with tear trails.
“That thing where you wipe your face with the back of your hand,” I point out. “You learned that from TV, didn’t you?”
“Normal people do it like this.” I demonstrate, using my fingers.
* * *
Later, I watch Farai sleep. Puffy clouds of breath in the cold. He doesn’t like it when I watch him sleep, but it’s my favourite of all the faces he wears. I like to curl up close while he sleeps. He’s so warm.
Later still, I go to the bathroom where I can switch the light on without his parents seeing. In the mirror I look at my face in slomo and I make my faces. I say my lines and I practice them.
“Normal people do it like this,” I say, and I watch the crinkling where there’ll never be crow’s feet, and the shallow pools of terror in my eyes.
Vajra Chandrasekera lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His fiction has appeared in Apex, Clarkesworld, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, among others. You can find more work by him at http://vajra.me.