Fiction: Chad and Stacy Forever
By M.C. Schmidt
When I find Robbie, he’s sitting alone in the gaming lounge, drawing an alien on his knee in purple sharpie. That offline HDMI screen—a sea and cliffs and a distant village in Italy, I think—is replicated on each of the mounted wall screens. It could be that I’m just emotional about our first season coming to an end but seeing the bank of empty recliners on either side of him makes it all hit home for me, the gravity of this moment. It wasn’t so long ago that this room was loud with the sound and smell and energy of excitable young men.
“Hey,” I say, friendly, so as not to spook him, “that’s a gray, right? I think you’re using the wrong color, dude.”
He looks up and I nod at the big-eyed triangle face on his leg. Over the last ten weeks, I’ve gotten used to the way these boys never quite look you in the eye.
I pick up the game controller from the arm of his recliner and rotate its little joystick with my thumb to show him no one is sweating a thing. “Take your time,” I say. “Everyone wants you to be comfortable. I ran into Stacy a minute ago. She was looking for you.”
Robbie makes a choking sound, and his wrist flicks in fretful circles, enlarging the eyes of his purple alien gray. “Tonight’s our one-on-one,” he says like we don’t both know that’s why I was sent to find him.
“You’ll be the envy of every man in America.”
“If I go through with it,” Robbie mutters. He flips his head to adjust phantom locks that have been gone since week five’s Beast to Beauty makeover episode.
“It’s the only way to become Chad,” I remind him. “Do you think Ted felt that way about his one-on-one with Stacy? I’ve seen the footage. I can assure he didn’t.”
This stops Robbie drawing. His face suggests a momentary hurt then returns to stone. “Fakecel,” he says of Ted. “I called it on day one. I knew from his cheekbones that guy could get laid.”
I hazard a step forward and touch his shoulder. “It’s not like that,” I assure him. “One-on-ones are strictly courtship. No hanky-panky. We have to keep you boys celibate until the finale. Otherwise, we don’t have a show.”
Robbie looks at my hand on his shoulder, then brings his eyes to my forehead in what I think was his best try for human connection.
“So?” I say, “how about you go get changed? Your suit is laid out. Go sweep her off her feet, Romeo.” I pull back my hand, a gesture that feels weighted with symbolic release.
Robbie rises, holding himself, at first, in his old potato sack posture, but then he shifts into the straight-backed, chest-puffed carriage our two final boys learned in last week’s episode, Finishing School.
He moves past me, and I watch his squared shoulders until he gets to the door. “Go get her, Chad,” I call, and then he’s gone.
I watch from a window as the caravan transports Robbie and Stacy to the one-on-one. The evening has grown dim, and I watch as they pull out of the studio, moving cautiously to part the assembled protestors, careful not to injure anyone. The crowd becomes animated, lifting their signs and chanting in unison that Robbie can go to hell.
When I was first hired on Becoming Chad, I had never heard of incels. I could have guessed that there were celibate people in the world, and that some fraction of that group was involuntarily so, but I didn’t recognize them to be a community. And I certainly didn’t know that they were a community comprised solely of men.
“These can be some real backward dudes,” Barry, a producer, told the crew in our first production meeting, “but if our show can give even one of these sorry suckers a new lease on life, then I’d say we’re doing God’s work.”
We were a dozen, sitting around a boardroom table, the electricity of a new greenlit show crackling in the air between us, forming circuits that were so tangible we may as well have all been holding hands.
I was less experienced than most in the room, but this wouldn’t be my first reality dating show. I’d played menial roles on the crews of Pound Town, a weight loss competition with the grand prize of marriage to a well-known former pornographic actress and Hot Beef Injection, which sought to find love among singles in the competitive eating community. But Becoming Chad would be my first job interfacing directly with a show’s talent, and I was elated.
A PA whose name I’ve never learned passed out stapled, photocopied packets of jargon, the boys’ private language, evolved over several decades of Internet chatroom rants about rejection and life’s general unfairness.
“Are they dangerous?” someone asked, leafing through her packet of terms.
“Dangerous?” Barry said, “No, they’re pussycats. Just a little mixed up. They’ll warm to you if you speak their language, so learn this terminology, people.”
I did, mostly.
In the parlance, the plot of our show was to take ten involuntarily celibate men (Incels) and, through a series of challenges and purity tests, weed out any contestants who were only pretending to be a member of that group (Fakecels) to find those whose lives had truly been kissless, touchless, hugless, handholdless, friendless and virginal (KTHHFV). We’d then expose the remaining contestants to our team of fashion, fitness, and relationship experts to turn one lucky winner into a sexually successful man (a Chad). Specifically, our Chad would win the opportunity to date our show’s preselected, traditionally beautiful and romantically experienced female (a Stacy), who was the show’s real firepower, and whose excitement and reservations about dating an as-of-yet untested boyfriend would fill nearly half of each episode’s runtime.
“Wait, so this girl is, like, his prize?” a woman at the far end of the table asked.
Barry glowered at her. “No, Deborah,” he said, “It’s love. Love is the prize.”
After seeing off Robbie to his one-on-one, my workday is technically over. Still, I hang around the studio, waiting out the protestors.
They started showing up a week ago. We’re still in production, so no episodes have even aired yet, and our streaming channel has yet to spend a single dollar on promotion. Still, Becoming Chad is already a low-key phenomenon.
It started, ironically, with the incels themselves. Our boys all signed non-disclosures, so I doubt they were the leakers. But this is a community with a lot of time on its hands and a serious knack for staying abreast of all things pop culture and media.
Whatever the source of their information, they started raising a stink on their message boards about how we were going to make fun of them or portray them as monsters or freaks, which is definitively not at all the agenda of this show. But, as soon as that Atlantic reporter who’d been monitoring their message boards published her article about the show, we began to have a daily mob outside the building saying we shouldn’t mainstream this community.
I haven’t read the article myself because Barry called it trash and told us not to bother. It seems clear to me, though, that what these critics don’t get is that this is a show about second chances. Not to steal Barry’s line, but love is the prize. I know it’s just a reality dating show, but, sue me, I believe it.
We established a strict rule onset that no one was to know the real name of our Stacy. “Stacy is an ideal to these boys,” Barry explained to us. “They’re like Gatsby in a way, staring across the water at Daisy’s blue light, building her up into a myth. Daisy would have been a much better name than Stacy, actually, but I don’t think these celibates are big readers.”
“If only Fitzgerald had written Gatsby as a role-playing game,” someone volunteered.
“Or a computer programming language,” someone else added.
“People!” Barry scolded. “Do you want to hear this or not…?”
You can imagine my surprise, when I finally met the girl who was cast as our Stacy, and it turned out I already knew her name. She was Hannah From Atlanta, a short-lived contestant on season three of Hot and Poor, 90210, a game show where attractive women living below the poverty-line participated in a series of swimsuit competitions and interior design challenges to win a job with a lucrative real-estate firm in Beverly Hills. I’d interned at the show during summer break at USC, working mainly as the chauffer who drove losing contestants (foreclosures) off camera, to LAX with a ticket home.
On those limo trips, I witnessed lots of different reactions from the cast-off girls—screaming fits and business calls to their talent agents—but Hannah From Atlanta was the only one who spent her ride talking to me. I lowered the partition glass when she tapped on it and said, “Ma’am?” like I was a real limo driver.
“Hey,” she said, “I was wondering: have you ever waited tables?”
I was unprepared to speak to her at all, so I probably sounded confused when I signaled that, yes, I had, in more than one establishment, waited tables.
“Did you like it as much as driving this car?”
“Do you think I’d like it? Would you believe I’ve never waited tables in my life? Isn’t that what you would expect I did for living, being ‘hot and poor,’ I mean?”
“I’m…not sure,” I said honestly.
Her eyebrows frowned in the rearview mirror. “You didn’t assume I was a stripper, did you?”
“No,” I said, “I didn’t assume anything at all.” She’d been cut too early for me to have learned about her real life back home.
“Well, I’m not. I work at Fantasy Farms, or I did. They may still take me back, but I’m not counting on it. That’s what got me thinking about waiting tables.”
“What’s Fantasy Farms?” I asked.
“A little kid amusement park. I was staff. Mostly, I took care of the donkeys. They have donkeys the kids can ride.”
“Oh,” I said, “cool.”
After a pause, she said, “They’re stupid, you know, these shows?”
I can’t overstate how shocking that statement was to me. I’d come from Stuttgart Arkansas, myself, and was just starting to feel like I could make it in LA, so I was big into the idea of the television industry’s potential to catalyze self-betterment and rebirth. “Why be on one then?” I asked.
“I’ve been on two, actually. They cut me out of the first one, though, so I didn’t appear in an episode, except in one big crowd shot. But I still did the show for a whole day and a half.”
“Why be on two of them then, if they’re stupid?”
“I don’t really know,” she said in a ponderous tone. “To feel glamorous, I guess, for a few days. Or just to pretend like that’s my real life, maybe? I mean, I wouldn’t want it to be my real life, not forever. But for a few days, it’s fun.”
“You think you’d rather be a waitress?”
“I’ve never been a waitress, so I don’t know. I wouldn’t be ashamed of it if it made me happy though. Being a regular person married to a regular guy with a regular job? If you’re happy doing it, I think being a waitress is exactly the right thing to be. Look at my nana—she came here from Poland with nothing. She was seventeen and the only one left in her family after the war. A regular job and a regular guy would have sounded spectacular to her, I bet. Why should it be different for me?”
“She was the only one left?” I asked.
“Seventeen years old and all alone in the world.”
By then, I’d pulled under the canopy outside of LAX. I offered to help her get her bags, but she said no worries, she had it. She was sweet. I still think of her as sweet, even though she’s interacted with me dozens of times on Becoming Chadand has never recognized me from that limo ride.
I do wonder how becoming the star of a show makes sense for someone who’s not looking for anything more than a few days of fantasy. The best I can figure it, it’s because the prize we’re offering on this show is a relationship with a regular guy. An underdog who turns out to be a prince. I like to think about it that way. It reaffirms my belief that we’re doing something good—creating entertaining television, sure, but also performing a service that’s laudable, noble even.
When I finally head home, there remains a smattering of protestors. They’ve broken into groups and seem more interested in chatting than picketing. Still, I brace myself to be accosted as I pass through the gate, but I only get is a few disinterested glances. I stand at the curb, apart from them, until my Uber arrives.
“Burning the midnight oil?” the driver asks.
I nod and close the car door. In the brief glimpse of her that I get before the interior light goes out, she looks young, my age or a little older.
“Well, you all are doing the Lord’s work,” she says then leans on her horn and waves at the protestors, some of whom rouse enough to shake their signs or fists, and I realize that she’s mistaken me for one of them. “Sorry,” she says of the horn-honking. “I try to show solidarity every time I pass by. It’s just disgusting to me, putting those people in the limelight.”
“No problem,” I say, glad when she finally pulls away from the curb.
“Good to see some men out there. It’s nice to know you’re not all creeps.”
I don’t answer. Instead, I lay my head back and close my eyes. If this woman only knew what I know. She will, eventually, once the show is streaming. If she can overcome her bias.
“Do you know the name Greg Granholm?” she asks.
I open my eyes to find that she’s staring at me in the rearview. “No,” I sigh.
“Yeah, not many people do out here. I just thought you might have since you’re into it enough to protest. He was one of these incel creeps from back home. That’s back in Baton Rouge. He’s the one that shot up that synagogue a couple of years ago, if you remember that.”
This catches me off guard. “Uh, no,” I say, “I don’t.”
“Yup. Then he ran at an officer with a gun, so the guy had no choice but to shoot him. Suicide by cop. Greg went all through school with my sister. That’s why I’m like, ‘no thank you to putting these people on TV and making them sympathetic.’”
“That’s terrible,” I say, because, obviously. “I guess you never know what’s going on inside people’s heads.”
She scoffs. “Well now, he made it pretty clear in his web posts on those incel boards what was going on in his head. And it’s just same as with all those guys.”
Against my better judgement, I ask her what she means.
“Well, you know how they are. They spend their lives whining about how girls don’t like them, instead of going out and getting to know enough actual women to realize that we aren’t all the same, that different women like different types of guys or girls or both. But their fragile male egos can’t handle rejection, so they give up on ever finding anyone at, like, seventeen, and they become toxic little shits. All because some perfect ten with big boobs isn’t breaking down their door to sleep with them. I mean, boo-hoo, right? And, as far as the synagogue—well, that’s just par for the course. Every hate group that’s ever existed has found a way to make Jewish people the bad guys. Those incels are no different, you know?”
I don’t know. And, honestly, I’m not sure I want to.
What I want is to believe in true love and second chances. I want the assurance that I can make it in this industry, in this town, that the effort I put into my small role can help lift our show off of the ground, that my effort can help make us a hit. And I don’t want to be made to feel bad about it. I want the satisfaction of working on a project that’s important. But, short of that, I’d be happy just to make good television. Who says reality TV is real anyway? Maybe Hannah from Atlanta was right that it’s all just fantasy. So, she’ll get a few weeks away from her real life, and then she’ll go home to live, humble and invisible, just like her grandmother who came here with nothing. I just don’t see the harm in it. I just refuse to believe we’re doing harm.
“You okay back there?” the driver asks.
I choose not to respond to her. I just watch a plane descending through my window.
“Sorry to get all long-winded there. It just all hits kind of close to home. If you want, though, we can talk about something else. I get chatty when I’m driving. It makes the night pass quicker.”
Grateful for a change of topic, I ask her how long she’s been a driver and if she likes it. She tells me it’s okay all things considered—better than waitressing, not as good as bartending—and she gives me the lowdown on each until she pulls up outside my building, where I can barricade myself away from her certainty that we’re doing wrong, where I can tell myself that everything is fine.
M.C. Schmidt's recent short fiction has appeared in EVENT, Spectrum Literary Journal, X-R-A-Y, Nonbinary Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the novel, The Decadents (Library Tales Publishing, 2022).