Debbie, 35, wearing a small black dress and heels, carefully unwraps her Seamless order: Pad Thai from the place next door, sprouts on the side.
Dishes lie piled in the sink. She plunges a hand into the filthy basin and fishes around for a mug that doesn’t have cereal residue stuck to it. After some time she finds one, and fills it with ice and wine. The lights are out, except for the television in the living room.
Debbie sits down in front of the TV. It’s exactly 8:30, and time for her favorite show. She takes a sip of wine and changes the channel just as the title credits start. She sprinkles some of the sprouts on the noodles, careful to not recklessly overload the dish with vegetables.
The laugh track blares from her newly installed speaker system. Debbie listens closely, her ears attune to the specific laughs. She hasn’t heard Him yet. But then again, the jokes so far have been weak, mostly slapstick, and He has a more refined palate.
The laugh track goes again, and this time she hears Him — His smooth, rich, full laugh. It’s music to her ears; it fills her body with warmth. She laughs along with Him, and then giggles at the thought of their new inside joke. The show continues, as Debbie sips her wine and keeps an ear out for his voice. Ah, there it is: creamy, like a chocolate, but also charming, and pleasant, like a spring day. She laughs along again, careful to not be too loud, lest she miss His soothing, rhythmic chuckles.
The show cuts to commercial, and Debbie remembers when they first met, three months ago. It was during the pilot, on a night much like tonight. Debbie had just come back from work, and was eager to sit and unwind. His laugh caught her by surprise, like being swept off her feet in a gust of wind. It was both shocking and familiar: exotic, like the fruits in smoothies that you can’t pronounce, but sweet, like your roommate right before she tells you your fish died while you were on vacation. Fleeting, like a sailboat in a hurricane, but forever, like the mold in your shower.
Debbie felt like she had laughed with Him her whole life, like He was a family member who she shared secrets with, or a stalker, who followed her around wherever she went. He filled a void that she didn’t even know existed, sparked a flame where she didn’t even know there was a fire-pit, propane, marshmallows, thirty bottles of beer, all her friends, and the beach bonfire she wasn’t invited to.
After the show ended each week, Debbie would lie awake in bed hoping it wouldn’t be their last night together. It would have ended as quickly as it began. Another missed connection, a lost opportunity to add to the book (or at least post on Craigslist).
But unlike the others, this one stayed. He was different. He didn’t “forget” to call back; He didn’t “accidentally” meet other women in bars. He never “confused” her name with someone else’s. He was always punctual, always reliable. He was her un-wavering, joke-fueled rock. Every week she would learn more about Him, every Thursday night at 8:30, she would fall a little more in love.
Ricky, Debbie’s last boyfriend, had left her for a girl he worked with, and Debbie, in despair, had turned to television. The new romance had caught her by surprise, and the rush was exciting and fun. She loved His sense of humor. She loved the way His laugh sounded. It didn’t take long for their taste in comedy to grow similar, for them to start to grow together. They found solitude in their weekly 22-minute excursions. The show was their secret island away from everything.
She remembers the week her cat died, when she was too upset to leave her house. She stared at the television for hours, waiting for 8:30. And there He was, laughing away, just like He did every week. His laugh stopped her crying, and for the first time since losing her cat, she smiled.
Debbie, blushing from the memories, turns to the TV as the show comes back from commercial break. The smile doesn’t leave her face.
After the show ends, she opens her laptop, eager to relive their moments together through recaps and screenshots. Like an online scrapbook, like their secret treasure chest that maybe they also shared with millions of people on the Internet. But as she scrolls through the message boards, Debbie comes across an article that quickly drains the smile from her face.
She drops her third glass of wine, and as it soaks her couch in a slightly diluted red, all Debbie can do is stare back into the computer screen. Under an article titled, “192 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite TV Show,” there it was:
“54. The laugh track is the same one that was used on early episodes of M*A*S*H, an ode to the producer’s favorite childhood TV show.”
She read it over and over. The “same” one? He was a copy? A DUPLICATE? M*A*S*H?
It was like being slapped in the face a million times by a tiny bird, or being tripped by Santa Claus after he ate all the cookies and didn’t leave you any presents. Or even Easter, and you’re looking for eggs in your backyard and you’re five and the sun is shining and it smells like fresh coffee in your house and your Mom is making pancakes, but she accidentally burns one, and just as you smell the burning batter, you also quickly realize that every single hidden egg in your backyard is actually a real egg that’s been rotting there for months, and that also your Mom isn’t your real Mom, and actually an impostor who’s been leaving eggs in your backyard for months.
Nicole Boyce is studying fiction and screenwriting at New York University. When she’s not at school, she’s at home in California eating avocados.