On Friday night, Helena is lying on the couch. She’s wearing a pink T-shirt with a picture of a cute bunny smiling and waving on it. Beneath the bunny are the words Sometimes You Make Me Want to Throw Up a Little. The shirt cracks me up. Her head is in my lap, and I’m stroking her hair while she flips through the channels. There are a million of them.
This house looks just like every other house that’s owned by grown-ups in Mattoon, except a little bigger and with some Mission: Impossible security system. The kitchen is huge and immaculate, the family room has pictures of Jesus and little signs that say, Bless This Mess, and the television is placed in the strategic center. The whole place is designed to funnel you into the television room. If you brought a caveman who had no knowledge of modern technology into this house, he’d walk through the door and inevitably gravitate toward the couch, where he would sit and see if any NASCAR was on. The only two rooms that really matter here are the kitchen and the television room. Everything else is apparently where you rest up between those two.
I won’t lie: we would love a home like this.
Helena flips past two old white men yelling at each other on the news channel, a group of midgets playing tug-of-war with an elephant, and an inexplicable rock-paper-scissors tournament. She lands on some sort of reality television show where people tear apart a house. Girls always end up on the wrong stations when they have the remote.
“Yes!” she shrieks. “I thought this was on tonight!”
A young, blandly handsome man is telling us about the Bluth family. They live in Omaha, Nebraska, and their family home has fallen into decay. Mike Bluth, the dad, looks into the camera and says he’d love to fix the place up but just doesn’t have the money. The blandly handsome guy comes back, puts on goggles, and smiles. “It’s time to change the Bluths’ life . . . EXTREME MAKEOVER STYLE!” He then takes a sledgehammer and smashes it into some worn plywood posing as a wall, and the camera starts zagging all over the place and some cheesy music starts playing at a frenetic pace.
“I love this show,” Helena says, smiling. “Do you like it? Do you want to watch it?”
I never understand why people love these shows so much. I mean, when is Helena going to renovate a house? She can’t even keep her room clean. I decide that these shows are like porn. People can’t stop watching them, even though they’re full of stuff they’ll never actually do.
“That part where he started hitting stuff with the sledgehammer was pretty cool,” I say.
“Oh, come on, you’ll like it,” she says. “Half an hour in, you’ll be begging for more.”
So we watch the rest of the show. For the first half, the handsome guy—who never wears his goggles after that first shot—destroys everything in sight, and they show him firing up a chain saw ominously, though, to my eye, he never actually used it. (Which is a shame.) The family is sequestered somewhere, where they talk about how miserable their lives are and how that house is all they have in the world. The second half, after the place is a mess of drywall and two-by-fours, a perky, well-chested woman who absolutely cannot stop smiling comes in with some kind of crew and changes their entire house around, bringing in new furniture and painting it and turning it into something that doesn’t even remotely resemble what it was before. The place looks nice, I suppose, and the family starts crying when they see what blandly handsome man and smiling breast lady have made for them.
The whole thing seems empty and brainless to me. So some people got a new house. Big deal. The way that house looked initially, they’re destined to make a disaster area of the new place within a couple of months anyway. I’m about to make this observation to Helena when she looks at me, lit up and nearly teary-eyed.
“Wasn’t that incredible?” she says. “That place is beautiful! God, I love that show.”
“Really?” I say. “I mean, I guess the house looks nice, but so what?”
“So what?” she says, her voice rising. “Don’t you get it? Their lives have totally changed—like that. They were stuck in that place, stuck in their lives, and then, before they even realized it, they had a brand-new start. They can do whatever they want now. Wouldn’t that be great?”
A single happy tear rolls down her cheek.
“I guess,” I say. “It’s just a house.” But in that moment, I see it. I see it all through Helena’s eyes.
I see the disappointment she’s had to live through and the shitty hand that life has dealt her. I see what her dreams were—and how those dreams never came to be. I see where her anger comes from—and her hope—and exactly how a show like this can move her the way it does.
I know. I look at her, and I know.
I want to change Helena’s life. And mine. There is no question. I want them to change together.