I plopped down next to my sister, Cassie, and clicked on the TV just in time to see a graphic of a giant pink heart—made out of tiny paw prints—materialize on the screen. Schmaltzy music poured out of the speakers. The screen flashed with a close-up of a beautiful golden dog, while over its head formed the words we’d been expecting: The Love Dog.
Cassie gave a heartfelt sigh.
“Give me a break,” I grumbled. My cat, Zephyr, walked across Cassie’s lap and settled onto mine.
My sister rolled her eyes. “Do you have to be like that? Is it something they teach you in paralegal school? At least let the show get started before you tear it down. Ooh!” Cassie pulled one of my throw pillows close. “There he is.”
And there he was—the show’s leading man, Mr. Love Dog himself: Mason Hall. Smiling into the camera as if he knew each viewer personally, as if he were best friends with all fifteen million of us. I could almost hear the thud as half the women in America swooned. Technically, I reminded myself, he wasn’t perfect looking. His nose was dented a little on the left side and he had a white scar that cut through his eyebrow. His auburn hair was styled in that purposeful-messy way that made me think of surfers and extreme rock climbers.
“I think his hairline’s receding,” I said. Cassie thwacked me with the pillow, making Zephyr flick her ears. I laughed, because deep down, even I knew I was being ridiculous. “What?” I said, chuckling, “I really do. In three years he’ll have to comb those bangs over from the center of his head.”
Cassie gave me the evil eye, but when she saw me laughing, she smiled, too. I turned back to Mason and let a tiny, begrudging piece of myself admit that, flaws or no, he was an absurdly attractive human being. Which he probably knew perfectly well.
On-screen, Mason stood in front of a midnight-blue wall, his thumbs hooked boyishly into his belt loops. “Love,” he told us, with a quirky little smile, “is a universal truth. It’s something we all long for, but it isn’t easy to get or to keep. As a wise man once said, the course of true love never did run smooth. But tonight on The Love Dog, Apollo is going to show you something that has to be seen to be believed.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Tonight you’re going to meet the dog who mends broken hearts.”
The camera panned back, showing Mason standing on a typical talk-show-type stage, artfully arranged with a comfy velvet chair, a red velvet couch, and a tiny table that held a vase of yellow tulips. “I give you,” he said, with a sweep of his hand, “the Love Dog.”
As the music rose, I dropped my chin and mumbled into my collar. “Who writes this stuff?”
“Shh!” Cassie’s eyes were glued to the screen. “Here he comes.”
Zephyr gave the screen a wary look as Apollo, the show’s canine star, trotted onstage, his blond locks flowing. He cruised in, his furry paws flicking across the carpet. The breeze created by his own movement fanned his hair back like Farrah Fawcett’s.
At Mason’s encouragement, Apollo leaped onto the red velvet couch and settled down, paws drooping over the cushions, his big brown eyes meeting the camera without blinking.
Not even I could deny Apollo’s beauty. He was truly gorgeous. He was lightest-haired golden retriever I had ever seen. Long, stunning waves of champagne-colored fur flowed behind him whenever he moved. I might have had my issues with Mason, but I had to hand it to Apollo. He deserved to be a star.
Of course, that didn’t mean I believed he was a “love dog,” whatever a love dog was supposed to be. No such animal existed. Neither did mistletoe magic or Cupid or fairy godmothers. I knew this from experience.
While a recording of an audience hooted and hollered for Apollo, Mason walked over to the dog and rubbed the side of his head, just below his ear. Apollo beamed up at Mason, giving the impression that the two were old buddies. I quirked one eyebrow at this. The blogosphere—one of my favorite places—was full of speculative questions about whether Apollo belonged to Mason. As with most things, I had my doubts. They probably did this little routine to add to Mason’s likeability. After all, if the dog adored him, he had to be a great guy, right?
“It’s just such a sham,” I mumbled to Zephyr.
Next to me, Cassie stiffened. “If you think it’s so fake, why do you watch it? I swear, you do this every time.”
“Ruin the whole show with your snarkiness.”
I looked down at Zephyr and lifted her paw onto one of my fingers, balancing it gently. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to ruin it. Hand over the popcorn—it’ll help me shut up.”
I meant what I’d said—I didn’t mean to ruin the show for Cassie. It was a hazard of my chosen vocation—not what I did for a living, filing paperwork for a law office, but what I did to put meaning in my life. I, along with two other women, wrote a blog that warned about the dangers of believing in fairy-tale love, the kind of love that only one person in a million ever experienced. On our blogging team, reality television was my purview. I watched The Love Dog because it was one of the most popular reality shows on television that focused on romance. This show was the enemy. If I could poke holes in its façade, my battle would be halfway won.
I hadn’t been successful yet, though, in persuading my own sister that The Love Dog was a pile of hooey. Cassie loved fantasies of all kinds, especially ones that involved true love and living happily ever after. I didn’t want to quash that in her; I just hated to see her so dreamy-eyed and vulnerable. Her blind trust in love had already driven her into trouble more than once.
When the show took another commercial break, Cassie and I both got up. In the kitchen, I filled her water glass, added a slice of lemon, and pushed it across the counter to her while with the other hand I hid a pile of rejection letters. Cassie knew I’d sent out some of my short stories, but I wasn’t ready to broadcast my mountain of rejections.
“So,” she said, taking a sip and smiling brightly. “What’s new?”
Poor Cassie. Every time I saw her, she bravely asked this same question, even though all I usually had to talk about was work, or Zephyr, or the song I’d been practicing that week. I was trying to learn every song in the Beatles Songbook on my little Gretsch guitar, and nearly every week I bored Cassie with another long story about the chord changes in “Blackbird.” But this time, things were different.
“You’ll never believe who sent me an e-mail,” I said, leaning on the counter. I’d been waiting so long to share this with someone, my pulse picked up in expectation.
“Who?” Cassie’s eyes searched my face. “Wait. No.” She stared at me. “No way. He wouldn’t.”
“Yes way. He did. Richard. Can you believe it?”
Cassie set her glass on the counter and shook her head. “What did he say?”
I shrugged, though nonchalance was the last thing I was feeling. “Not much. Said he felt bad about the way things ended and just wanted to say hi. Wondered how I was doing. That sort of thing.”
“He felt bad?” My sister’s shoulders dropped in disbelief. “He felt bad?” She slammed her glass down on the counter, her face turning beet red. “That asshole. That blooming king of assholes!” She snatched up her glass again and thrust it toward me to underscore her words, sloshing water onto the counter. “Unbelievable! Un-be-lievable. Clearly he has no sense of decency. I mean, gnats are more self-aware.” She leaned in and stared at me. “Doesn’t it freak you out to think how close you came to being tied to him forever? Forever, Sam!”
I nodded, elated by her indignation. “I know. It is terrifying, isn’t it? And he was so bland in his e-mail—almost like nothing had ever happened. Can you believe it? Yeah. He said he got a new research grant. As if I care.”
Cassie swung herself onto a bar stool, her face still pink. She grabbed one of my kitchen towels and wiped up the water she’d spilled, shaking her head. “I’m so stunned I don’t even know what to say. But what about you? How was it to read all that? What did you do?”
The truth? I’d ranted around my apartment for half an hour, shouting at the top of my lungs. I’d thrown balled-up socks at the computer. I’d terrified Zephyr with the evil things I screamed about Richard and his entire family. And then I’d sat down and read the e-mail again.
“I deleted it,” I said, as coolly as I could, fanning my finger across a smudge on the counter. I wasn’t above faking strength and superiority for my big sister. “No way am I writing back.”
“Yeah, but that’s it? You didn’t plant a virus on his hard drive or something? Nuke his entire neighborhood?”
If only I knew how. Actually, I’d printed the e-mail and lit fire to it with great ceremony on my apartment’s little deck. The ashes were still scattered in my geranium pot. And before I burned it, I tried to get Zephyr to pee on it, but she’s not the kind of cat who takes orders.
“I don’t want to hear from Richard ever again,” I said, hoping I looked noble as I sipped my water. “That chapter in my life is closed, and I am glad, glad, glad.”
Cassie shook her head again. “At least you’re a writer. You can put Richard into one of your stories and make him suffer a thousand awful fictional deaths. You can whack his balls off and have him get eaten by piranhas or something.”
I gave a little sigh. “Yeah, maybe someday I’ll be ready to write about it. Just not anytime soon.”
Cassie picked up her water glass. “Then here’s to someday,” she said, clinking her glass against mine.
* * *
The show came back on, and we hurried to the couch in time to see Mason give Apollo a final scratch. Then he stood and turned back to the camera.
“Apollo is a unique dog—he specializes in broken hearts. Broken relationships. Without speaking a single word, with nothing but his heart and his soul, Apollo brings love back to those who have lost it. Tonight he’s going to do that for a very special couple that’s come here all the way from Colorado. I’d like you to meet Jonathan and Keisha Tate.”
We cut away from Mason and Apollo to a video montage of two people, a husky football-player type and his dark-skinned, dark-eyed bride. We saw photos of Jonathan removing Keisha’s garter at their wedding, pictures of their honeymoon in Hawaii, shots of the two of them out with friends, martini glasses in hand.
“Jonathan and Keisha began their marriage with the best of intentions,” Mason’s voice-over told us. “They vowed to love and honor each other. But every relationship has its rocky moments, and theirs was no exception.”
We cut to a recorded scene of Jonathan and Keisha fighting over whose turn it was to do the dishes. Apparently it was Jonathan’s turn—it had been for the past five nights, but he kept skipping out to the garage to watch wrestling instead.
Cassie snorted. “I’d like to see how Apollo’s going to fix that. He can’t genetically alter Jonathan, can he?”
Next we saw a clip of Keisha on the phone, talking about how Jonathan left his dirty socks on the floor and spent the whole weekend watching football. Then the camera turned to Jonathan, who said, “She calls her mother every day. Every single day. I think she spends most of the call complaining about me. Whenever she gets off she’s in a nasty mood for hours.”
“Well,” Cassie turned to me and said, “we’ve never had that problem.”
“No way,” I agreed. “Our apron strings got cut a long time ago.”
On the screen, Mason brought Apollo out to meet the couple on a pale beach with a promenade that looked like the Santa Barbara boardwalk. We saw Apollo playing one-on-one at the beach with Keisha, heard her tell him how she worries about her mom. “She’s been so lonely since Dad died,” she said, stroking Apollo’s silky blond ears. “It hurts to hear the sadness in her voice. I want to tell Jonathan about it, but he always thinks the calls are about him. He might be what we talk about, you know, day to day, but that’s not what our talks are really about.”
Later, Jonathan and Apollo spent time shooting hoops with Mason. We heard Jonathan confess that he feared he’d never be good enough for Keisha. “Ever since her dad died, I feel like she’s comparing me to him in her head. And I just don’t measure up.”
As the show broke away for a commercial, Cassie exhaled in a heavy way that let me know something was on her mind. My sister was a single mom, so I started by asking the obvious question.
“How’re the kids? Is Lulu excited about school?”
“Super excited. She’s had her first-day outfit picked out for weeks. Oh, that reminds me.” Cassie threw a piece of popcorn into her mouth. “Can you babysit on Friday? Just for Lulu. Jacob’s going to his dad’s.”
“Of course. What’s up?”
She smiled coyly and slid her hand behind her neck. “I have a date.”
I tried to smile for her—honestly, I did. But it took some serious effort.
“Who is it?”
“His name’s Liam. And don’t go giving me that look.” She leaned closer and bumped me with her arm.
“What look?” I had hoped I looked supportive.
“That overprotective little sister look. I know you’re suspicious of every guy I date. But you don’t have to be that way about Liam. He has a son. He knows what it’s like to be a single parent. We aren’t going to do anything impulsive.”
I considered mentioning her second husband, the one she ran off to Vegas with. He had also been a single dad who should have known better than to do anything impulsive. But love was like that. It made people lose their heads.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” I said, aware of how trite I sounded. How many times had I heard people say that in movies? Just because I really meant it didn’t make it sound less canned. But that was my role, to be the supportive character who frowns when the leading actress starts gushing about her new love.
“I know you don’t. But this time’s gonna be different,” Cassie said, looking starry-eyed and confident. “You’ll see.”
* * *
Back on the show, Apollo was in full swing. The show (twenty-two minutes of actual footage after subtracting the time for commercials) had entered act 3. If Apollo was going to transform Keisha’s and Jonathan’s lives, it had to be now.
His first move clearly had everything to do with the show’s producers and nothing to do with Apollo. The show flew Keisha’s mom to L.A. where she had a heart-to-heart with Jonathan. We saw two minutes of it. Next, Apollo walked with Mom on the beach and “helped” her meet a few single older men. Back on the set, Mason played this footage for Keisha, who let out a Himalayan-size sigh of relief. “Mom looks so happy! Good work, Apollo!” Fake audience cheering filled my speakers. I rolled my eyes.
Apollo trotted onto the set carrying a dish towel in his mouth. He took it to Jonathan and set it on his lap. “I know, I know,” Jonathan said, laughing. “I’ll do the dishes!”
While the audience roared, Apollo trotted offstage and returned with two slips of paper in his mouth. He took these to Keisha. As she looked at them, she leaned toward Jonathan and smiled. “You’re gonna love this. It’s tickets to see the Broncos play the Rams. I guess if you do the dishes, I’ll have time to watch football with you. As long as you tell me what’s going on.”
“Babe, I’ll make you a football expert,” Jonathan told her, grinning like he’d just scored a touchdown.
And just like that, they were fixed.
“There, isn’t that sweet?” Cassie asked. “They made up. What’s not to like?”
Ah, a quandary. Should I assume her question was rhetorical and keep my big mouth shut? Or say what I really thought? I waffled, and I was just about to choose the former when she went on to say, “I wonder if Apollo could have fixed things between David and me.”
“No, Cass, no. Don’t even go there. This wasn’t a real fix.” I waved at the TV screen. “You can’t fix a marriage by handing out towels and football tickets—you know that. This is just TV, period. Real relationships can’t be patched up in twenty-two minutes of on-air time. You’ve been married and divorced—”
“—twice. You know the issues go a whole lot deeper than one person not doing the dishes and another talking to her mom too often. That’s surface stuff. Made-for-TV nonsense. Excellently rehearsed, scripted, and acted for an audience that isn’t even sitting there.”
“Acted! What do you mean?” Cassie looked horror-stricken.
“I mean Keisha and Jonathan are probably actors. Nice, out-of-work Hollywood types who’re happy to play these parts on a reality show. Heck, they might not even be paid. The publicity alone is worth thousands of dollars. But I’d bet you anything that they know how to act.”
Cassie clutched the pillow to her stomach and turned back to the TV screen, which was airing a commercial for a lawyer you could call at 1-555-DIVORCE. “I’m never watching this show with you again. Ever. You’re such a cynic, Sam. Can’t people enjoy some dreams once in a while? What’s the matter with believing in love?”
I paused, not sure what to say. “Every time we talk about this you get mad at me.”
“Okay, so this time I won’t. I want to know. Why do you hate this show so much?”
I shrugged, as if that could take some of the punch out of what I was about to say. “I don’t hate it. I just think it’s fake. And not just this show—all of these reality love shows. First Date. The Fiancé. Loves Me, Loves Me Not. They’re a bunch of bunk, and they do people a real disservice.”
“Disservice.” Cassie snorted softly and took a drink of her lemon water. “They’re just TV shows.”
“Sure. But they feed people’s hunger for that big myth in the sky.” She looked blank, so I connected the dots for her. “Love. They make people think all that hokey stuff is real. That couples like Keisha and Jonathan are real. I hate to tell you this, but these couples don’t stay together after the show.”
She crooked an eyebrow at me. “How do you know?”
I sighed. “Have you never read our blog?”
Copyright © 2013 by Elsa Watson