Who Wants to Marry a Retired NFL Lineman
The following story was chosen by Joshua Ferris as the winner of the 2021 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize. The prize is awarded annually by Selected Shorts and a guest author judge. The story, performed by actor Kirsten Vangsness, will premiere as a part of the final Selected Shorts of the year on June 2: Virtual Selected Shorts: It Takes Two with Cynthia Nixon.
I have been chosen for reality television. I will compete to marry George, a retired NFL lineman. My sisters shout that I’m crazy. But I would thrive as the wife of a retiree—no suspicious sexy secretaries, no more financial despair. My sisters insist that shortcuts are a figment, that the world belongs to those who wake each morning and perform honest work. They say that what matters in the end is one’s FICO Score. Babies on hips, they caution against the trappings of minor celebrity—namely, that it’s nothing like major celebrity. They say viewers will pray I do something pathetic.
I quit my retail job mid-task, leaving a gown half-hung on its mannequin, and fly to an undisclosed tropical location.
I live in a cabin with mosquito netting and 24 other suitors. Most are women because George prefers women. A few are men because George is open-minded, or perhaps because the show has been panned for undue straightness. The producers separate us from our phones. The host conducts one-on-one interviews late at night. The interviews feel like therapy, or at least how I imagine therapy. When I tell the host, “I’m poor,” he asks, “Do you ever feel rich?”
I admit that I don’t.
“Even here? Now?”
“I mean, here, yes!”
“Complete sentences,” he reminds me gently. “Subject (I), predicate (feel)…”
Tears puddle my vision. “Brandon,” I say, “the truth is, I’ve never felt like this in my life.”
He nods, looking as though he’s really thinking. A little current runs through me. He says, “I’m sorry, Robin.”
Time drips like water color. We sleep in bunk beds and dream of George. Sometimes producers measure our waists and busts and thighs. Among the suitors, a general spirit of camaraderie, punctuated by occasional violence, persists. We have no contact with the man we might marry, but we glimpse him through our window—standing as though crucified for a tuxedo fitting or posing with his bicep flexed. The Southern suitors hold prayer circle by flashlight, cross-legged and barefoot, asking God to open George’s heart to them.
When the big night arrives, each of us receives evening attire. My gown is silvery, satiny, floor-length; it feels like a lover’s caress. We plug in so many hair irons, the electricity blows.
For my First Impression, I stand before George on the red carpet. I’ve never seen red carpet in person. I’m surprised by its rough texture, like fake grass on a miniature golf course. George has a chest like a wall and a wide, symmetrical face. He dips his enormous head to kiss my knuckles. I want to ask him what it’s like to be large, to be a person whom strangers respect. But too nervous to speak, I embrace him. Who could stand before such a giant without vanishing into his mass?
Before I can enter the cocktail party, Brandon says, “Follow me, Robin.” He leads me behind a palm tree. “How are you feeling?” he asks.
It is not a question to which I’m accustomed. I touch the bark. I wonder if palm trees are beautiful or tacky; I’ve never been skilled at discerning. Brandon’s hair poofs back off his forehead. In his bow tie he resembles a wrapped-up present.
It occurs to me that my sisters were wrong, that everyone was wrong, that I am, unexpectedly, the master of my destiny. “Amazing,” I say.
He scoops my waist and kisses me.
In a few months, I will understand: I am the contestant sent home on Night One for “cheating on George” with the host. Through the cracks of my fingers, I’ll watch the patched-together rejection scene:
Brandon, I say, weeping, the truth is, I’ve never felt like this in my life.
I’m sorry, Robin, Brandon says, looking sorry.
Prior to appearing on television, I never considered myself naïve. I considered myself well-versed in the world. Though I suspected the future would confirm my secret greatness, I always kept my head on straight.
Behind the palm tree, I kiss Brandon back. He tastes of top-shelf bourbon. I think I whisper, “Thank you.” I think he says, “You bet.” I float through the tropics, margarita in hand, stealing glances at Brandon who desires me and George who might marry me. My hair frizzes in the humidity, a hard nut of wanting pressing my throat. I am so alive, I don’t foresee it—bed stripped to its mattress, silver gown hanging empty in a room that was never mine.