Kristina Ten

Care and Other Things Free

Raven, 25 years old, small business owner from Hoxie, Arkansas, says mama instead of mother and nothing bad will happen to her ever. In the premiere, she wears a ruffled dress and then a camouflage jacket when it gets cold out. I expel my vulnerabilities into her long, black hair and she holds them there, graciously, sipping her vodka soda.

No one is sick on the new season of Bachelor in Paradise , or they are and they don’t talk about it. The pool has an inflatable swan and enough pool noodles for everyone. The hot tub flashes different colors and through the screen you can’t smell the chemicals that keep it clean. Everyone is at least the kind of okay that can withstand four weeks of filming. Everything feels of very little consequence: the palm trees, the love scenes, the communal breakfasts.

My friend who only watches documentaries, or watches other things but doesn’t talk about them, asks me what I see in reality television.

Dean, 26 years old, startup recruiter from Denver, Colorado, is kind of a fuckboy but blue eyes and saying you’re not sure yet will get you far enough here. He’s drunk napping in the sun on a pastel-striped lounge chair, and just like that, I know I can’t die from skin cancer. Impossible for me to stop breathing in the night. I shake my worries into his mojito and he swallows them, reassuring. He says, you know, it’s not just guys from the south who are gentlemen.

Jonathan the pediatrician or Mister, make that Doctor Steal Your Girl is zip lining into the water and I know mine won’t be a death by drowning. Everyone is beautiful and expertly applied, familiar without the effort of conversation. Everything is a joke played out: a personal trainer, a social media influencer, and a set of twins walk up to the bar. Their chests are slick with coconut oil and they look as if they might repel clothing if you tried.

I watch with my partner. I watch with my girlfriends. I watch alone but feel surrounded and I cry when Kristina cries. I strap my fears to Ben Z.’s ankles and he uses them as weights on his morning run down the beach.

Everything is safe, safe, light, light, champagne light, sunset light, audience light, ratings light and I know it. There can be no sharp spikes of panic when everyone only says things you’d see spelled out in neon, like dream on, stay wild, no regrets, and tacos. Girls, girls, girls. Open. Cocktails. Twenty-four hours.

Derek jumps the bonfire and I know it won’t be the smoke or the burns that kill me. Amanda and Robbie write a heart and their names in the sand, but they might as well be writing “Invincible.” I leave my sadness in a pair of strappy sandals and soon enough it gets stomped out. I wring my tears out into the sea and no one can tell the goddamn difference.

It’s cheap to make and easy, and the worst thing that can happen is someone says no to you, and the hardest part is living up to the importance—to a nation’s call that you, blue eyes, long hair, are a person of remark. To be yourself and still have fun. To come off as yourself in spite of it all and with a kind of permanence. 

Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer living in Oakland, California. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, The Awl, Jellyfish Review, Pantheon Magazine, and elsewhere.


JD Thornton