“As Seen on TV”
When Phoebe first tried on Joshua Melz’s skin, she was surprised to find it wasn’t soft. The face Phoebe saw on TV was flaccid and smooth as a baby; the face she saw didn’t have moles dotted along his chin or the gap between his front teeth. No, the Josh she knew wasn’t this fat either. He was still lean and didn’t look so puffy. He liked to smoke occasionally during interviews but never this much. The Josh she remembered didn’t breathe so mechanically. Nor did his smile — the charming, boyish smile that made her love him so intensely to begin with — reveal so many wrinkles.
He gave his trademark gesture — licked his teeth, bit down hard on his bottom lip —except the look she once found so attractive was suddenly undesirable. Phoebe wanted a refund. The infomercial claimed the rubbery replica of his flesh was one-size-fits-all, a fit so snug she would feel like Josh before his sitcom was canceled and his acting career reached an unexpected halt.
No one was certain if he was alive. In fact, the infomercial host, led by one of Josh’s former co-stars, spoke about him fleetingly in a way that suggested he was a ghost, in a way that suggested she hadn’t known him after filming four seasons together. The good thing — the only good thing — about this was Phoebe finally had what seventeen-year-old, fresh-faced, college-bound Phoebe would’ve wanted, and it was him.
She rushed to slip outside his body’s skin and stuffed it back into the foam-filled box it came in once she heard the front door slowly click open. The silence was soon followed by booted feet padding against the carpet. Her boyfriend came home reeking of salty brine and gutted fish. He hadn’t said hello. He stood there gaping at her briefly, before retreating on their plastic-wrapped couch with his exposed feet kicked up to the coffee table. In other words, he was Not Joshua Melz.
Not Joshua Melz was everything Phoebe could’ve hoped for in a coastal New England town: pale, tall, with a bored face framed with sun-bleached blonde hair and laugh lines deepening by the hour. She liked to believe she saw a resemblance between Not Josh and the real one. Yet, aside from the blonde hair — Phoebe wouldn’t realize until later her boyfriend’s blond was a touch too light — there was nothing redeeming. Nothing to love. They had lived in an apartment together for three months now, constantly surrounded by cream walls so dingy they browned into beige. Only when they were silent could they hear it: the tide’s feverish rush to land. The young, rich families who vacationed there running mindlessly toward something exciting.
When Phoebe kept staring, hoping to rouse some reaction from her boyfriend’s stupor, he said, “I need a smoke.” And he smoked on their tiny balcony barely facing the boardwalk’s edge, his hand trembling to steady his cigarette between his lips.
When he smoked, he lacked the same grace and form as Joshua Melz. This made her hate him more. Hoping to still her thoughts, she runs her fingers over her collectible VHS set of Josh’s movie, though they had since left the VHS player in the closet when Not Josh deemed it irreparable. She fingered the loose tape inside but it didn’t comfort her. She looked up Josh’s Wikipedia page but it didn’t comfort her either, especially knowing the picture used for his entry had not been updated in nearly a decade. She even began to watch old interviews before his first breakdown, a time when Phoebe could proudly comment “omg he is so hawt!!!!” without another user flagging it on YouTube.
Instead, she retreated back to their bedroom and stared at the box on their floor filled with fake flesh so rubbery and taut it might have been real. She tried it on, terrified by how loosely it clung to her small frame, terrified how even as it threatened to slip from her body she couldn’t bring herself to let it go.
Once she was able to secure the zipper, Phoebe faced the glass doors leading to the balcony. Not Josh still sat there dragging the same cigarette. Smoke clouded the window. He had asked something, but his voice was muffled behind the sliding door. Again, he asked the same question when she didn’t answer. Not Josh still refused to look directly at her and the way he set down his cigarette suggested he had and didn’t want to look anymore.
He probably saw how the flesh hung loosely from her own. He probably saw how poorly it fit her; maybe he felt pity for how desperately she tried to get it to fit. Phoebe said nothing at first but swayed her hips slowly, moving in a way Not Joshua Melz might have once described as sexy. Finally, she had his attention.
It took her a moment to realize the lungs her heart was pounding against were not Josh’s lungs but her own, and even longer to realize the meaty, large hands fitted over hers were not her own. She continued this striptease, zipping free from the rubbery flesh, pulling her hand free from the sleeved body, no different than removing gloves, while Not Josh continued staring. It was all very sexy. The world suddenly smelled of fish and solitude and she did not stop hating this strange boyfriend she could not claim fully as hers.
In the end, with the cheap flesh piled at her feet, all she could taste was bone.
Brianna McNish’s stories appear in Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, Juked, and elsewhere. She writes from Connecticut, where she studies modernist literature and creative writing at the University of Connecticut.
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