The Television Room
by Lizzie Perrin
Runestone, volume 3
Lucille’s addiction to television was quite literally killing her. She was flipping through the informational pamphlet on The Dangers of Sedentary Life, from Dr. Futon, while sipping on a Cherry Coke. The Television Room was alive with the banter from NCIS. Phrases like “cardiovascular disease” and “mindless eating” lit up on the pamphlet whenever the television’s glow became brighter. The light from the television heightened the harsh angles of the pamphlet’s shadows. She never turned lights on the Television Room, so as to not disrupt the quality of the show, so she sat in the dim glow of the television. She squinted trying to read the fine print so that she could tell Seth that she had at least attempted to read the whole thing thoroughly.
Lucille stretched her legs to reach the yard sale tarnished coffee table, mindful of not knocking over the empty soda cans and McDonald’s bags crowding the space. The stench from the leftovers was becoming strong enough that Lucille could smell it from two feet away on the couch. She made a mental note to take the trash out when the episode ended.
She was reclined in the same position when Seth got home from school Monday night; draped across the couch like an oversized blanket with one hand leaving greasy food stains on a pamphlet. Seth’s insistence was the only thing that could have convinced her to go to the doctor in the first place. Her son’s constant appeals for her to become more active finally pushed her to make the appointment. For a 14-year-old, he had more persistence than she gave him credit. Seth was small for his age and a bit disproportional with a round tummy and a small head. Lucille compared him to the future swoon-worthy nerd on a sitcom. He would be more college handsome than high school handsome, she believed, after he outgrew some of his baby fat. He walked in the room making a humming noise, as if he could hardly wait to speak. She smiled at his entrance, briefly happy that he was home, and then she focused her gaze back to the television.
“How was the appointment, Mom?” he asked, standing in front of the television, arms crossed.
“Will you please step to the left just a little bit, dear?” Lucille asked.
“Mom, what’s on the pamphlet?” he asked.
“Just a tad over,” she said.
She held the pamphlet out for him to take. Seth crossed the room while taking a loud, unsteady breath. He yanked it from her and walked to his room down the hall. Lucille jerked her attention away from the television, surprised at her son’s uncharacteristic aggression. She thought about going after him, but Seth went through these moods sometimes. She opted to check on him in 10 minutes or so when the NCIS ended.
Lucille had fallen in love with Seth’s father, Harry, by their second date when he invited her over for dinner and a movie. Harry was a quiet, passionate kind of man. He wasn’t known for being the brightest guy in their grade, but he had a reputation for being one of those students who never contributed anything in class and then surprised everyone by ruining the curve on their tests. He was shy and, as he told Lucille, it had taken him two years of middle school and three years of high school to finally work up the courage to ask her out.
On their second date, he had picked her up from her house and driven her all the way to his place to cook dinner. The whole way there, she was pulling her skirt so that it wouldn’t be so tight on the rolls of her thighs which were much more prominent due to how close her knees were to the dashboard. After dinner, his parents excused themselves to their room upstairs and made sure to let them know the door was wide open. Harry and Lucille decided to watch whatever was on television at the time, and they settled on a showing of Casablanca. The whole time, she found her gaze wandering back and forth between Humphrey Bogart and Harry. After a few minutes, his resting face told her that he wasn’t aware of her presence anymore. Harry’s eyes were milky, foggy in a way that he was seeing something she couldn’t. His lips were parted like a slit, slightly puckered. His face looked as though he had discovered some verifiable truth but was not quite willing to share with her yet.
That look was the inception of her love for Harry. Anyone who could look so lovingly at a screen of make-believe people must have some level of vulnerability that others didn’t. Harry’s perception of people seemed to have transcended her own to the point that he was that invested in everyone, even people who could not exist.
“It’s so real, isn’t it?” Harry asked her later when she caught him wiping tears away at the end of the movie.
It was the first time she felt connected on a spiritual level to anyone. She felt like someone was squeezing her heart, as she wrapped her hand around Harry’s. This feeling, this floating sensation of first love, wouldn’t have happened without the beautiful story of Casablanca, and for that, Lucille would always be grateful.
Lucille was saved the trouble of going to check on Seth because he walked in and turned the television off with a blunt “We need to talk.”
She pushed her feet off the table, sending an empty Coke can tumbling to the floor. She said, “Sweetie, what have I told you about when I’m in the Television Room? You’re not—“
“It’s a living room, Mom,” Seth said, sitting beside her. He picked up the can off the floor and put it back on the table.
“—supposed to turn the television off,” she finished, turning the television on but muting it.
Seth seemed to hesitate then, like he wanted to rethink his words. “Look at this room, Mom. It’s a mess. Don’t you want to get up and clean?” he asked.
“It’s not that bad, sweetie,” she said.
“Last week I found a fuzzy piece of pizza on the floor. Fuzzy, Mom,” he said.
“So it’s a bit messy. I can clean later.”
“Later. Of course you can clean later. It’s always later for you, isn’t it?” Seth said, kicking the side of the couch with his toe.
“What does that mean? What’s the big deal about the mess?”
“The big deal is we can’t keep living like,” he gestured around the room as he spoke, “like this. You can’t keep living like this.”
Lucille sighed. She leaned over to push a few strands of hair out of Seth’s eyes. She hadn’t noticed the few pimples forming on his cheeks until the television lit his face. She wondered when he got old enough to outgrow the small boy with chubby cheeks and clear skin. She knew he wanted to tell her that she was killing herself. She could see it in his sweet face, his concern for her.
“I’m worried about you, Mom,” he said. “Weren’t you supposed to get a medicine today? For your heart or something?”
The low frequency squeal from the television reverberated as they held each others gazes, his firm and hers wavering. She remembered when Seth was younger, and he used to beg for just a moment more of “TV time,” his teeth gapped in the middle and smiling as if her approval was even more important to him than any talking dinosaur or blue dog. Now, he looked at her with his slightly pimpled cheeks and pursed lips like she was a reality show, equal parts distasteful and provocative.
“I know, Seth. I’m trying,” she said.
Without saying anything else, Lucille pushed against the couch cushions with her arms to help herself as she got up. She had gained more weight than she realized and the force of pushing herself up left her temporarily winded. It didn’t take Dr. Futon’s warning or Seth’s pleading for her to know how bad she’d gotten. All it took was the exhausting act of getting off of the couch after sitting on it for the past few hours.
“I’m going to the pharmacy,” she said. She hoped the medicine would help with the breathing issues she’d been having. “And then we can talk more about this…mess when I get home.”
She began to bend down to pick her purse from on top of the table, but Seth reached down and grabbed it for her, and placed it around her shoulder. When his hand grazed her shoulder, he left it there and squeezed. Lucille imagined there was a Full House score playing in the background just then, with swelling string instruments affirming their love for one another. She pretended she couldn’t hear the television’s squealing, and she ignored the fact that Seth’s hand barely indented the flab in her shoulders.
“We’ll call it the Television Room,” Harry had declared with his hands resting on top of the television. He drew the vowels of the word “television” out so that it sounded more like some SAT vocabulary word than a household item.
“It’s just a living room,” Lucille replied, pecking him on the cheek and wrapping her arms around him from behind with her head resting on his back.
Harry and Lucille had been married for about a year now, and they had decided it was time to finally buy a house. With the baby to make an appearance in a few months, they had hurried to unpack so that they could inventory what they needed. It had taken a little over two weeks, but this particular room had taken the longest because Harry would not rest until his final vision for the room was mastered.
“What is the centerpiece of the room? The lamp? The cheap table we got at my old man’s yard sale? No. It’s the television,” Harry said.
Lucille couldn’t argue with him. Most of their furniture was mismatched and second-hand, which made the room look even smaller than it already was. The lighting from the two large windows would have helped, but Harry insisted on keeping them covered so that the light from the television wouldn’t be disturbed. Everything looked dilapidated in the living room, or “Television Room,” except the actual television, on which Harry had spared no expense because it was the newest and largest model.
“It looks lovely, dear. Just lovely,” she said.
Harry moved away from her to turn the television on. He plopped on the couch with the remote in hand. He patted the spot beside her. “Let’s see what’s on. Celebrate our settling in with a break.”
“Okay. But just for a moment. You know I don’t like watching that much,” she said.
They sat together for at least three hours watching back-to-back episodes of Law and Order. Lucille held Harry’s hand the whole time, even though they started sticking together after a half hour or so. She loved the way she could tell exactly what Harry was feeling just by his hand. She could sense when he found a moment humorous by the way his grip loosened; she could sense his tension when he found something dramatic by the way his fingers became slightly stiffer. All the while, she never even had to look away from the screen. She was content with following the story of courtroom crime drama and absorbed by her husband’s unyielding passion for the characters.
When she got up to go to Walmart to buy their groceries, she noticed that he his attention didn’t divert from the screen. He nodded his head at her goodbye and squeezed her hand. His eyes were so focused she questioned whether or not he fully grasped she was leaving. She wondered, purse on her shoulder halfway out the door, the last time he looked at her with such intensity.
It was not an altogether unpleasant trip to the pharmacy. Seth was right. Lucille had been inactive since she was laid off from her last job. She had been sitting at home for the past few months as a freelance journalist, writing articles in her spare time with various soap operas and daytime shows playing in the background. She kept one hand on the phone for interviews and one on the laptop to type, just as she kept one eye on the television and one on the computer screen.
Now as she walked around the pharmacy, she had to take deep breaths in order to walk at a normal pace. The harsh lights buzzed louder and deeper than her mute television, and they made her keep blinking because of how unused she was to that much yellow lighting. People were sneezing and laughing and crying. In the line, everyone kept a polite distance from one another. Lucille avoided eye contact with everyone, letting her mind wander. It would have been reasonable to stay in her car and go through the drive-through, but she felt some sort of need to prove herself to Seth. She pictured it like a cathartic scene from a dramedy, one where the dad told his daughter he wouldn’t make it back from work in time for her ballet recital but then, last minute, showed up and stood in the back, and the daughter beamed from ear to ear. Their moment wouldn’t be exactly like that, Lucille knew, but she hoped Seth would have some semblance of that look in his eyes, the assurance that she could help herself, that she was trying.
Lucille visualized all of this as she waited in the long line at the pharmacy and, finally, walked back out to her car, the effort causing her to pant. The sun had gone down by now and the air felt sticky with humidity. Lucille’s back ached and she sat down in the driver’s seat with relief. The air conditioning welcomed her back with a soft hum that reminded her of the initial moment a television is turned on, right before the sound of the show begins, when there was a high pitch sigh of a pointed squeaking note, as if the television were relieved to be used. Seth loved turning the television on and off when he was small. Maybe she could convince him to watch some new show with her tonight. He always liked those ridiculous family sitcoms, or at least he did when he was nine. She remembered him with his head tiled back against the couch cushions, laughter in his eyes, the light from the television acting like a spotlight on his moments of joy. He never laughed out loud, only made slight exhalation noises. Boy Meets World was the last thing she remembered him loving on television. It was also the last thing she remembered him watching since Harry left.
Lucille tugged her shirt. It was sticking to her stomach from sweat and from being a bit tight for her now. She thought of that young girl who was worried about her thigh rolls in her boyfriend’s car as she drove home.
She had wanted Harry to scream and come close to hitting her, like they do in crime shows, something to justify her overwhelming confusion. She thought they should be yelling and having fights where one of them storms out and never comes back. It would be a scene where there was no music, only the sound of heavy objects slamming against the floor. There would be clutter everywhere and so many camera angles it would be almost too chaotic to follow.
But their divorce was much quieter.
Falling out of love with Harry happened much more gradually than falling in love with him and she had no recollection of the exact moment it began. Harry took later shifts, and Lucille was alone more nights than not, with nothing to do after putting Seth to bed than to watch television. When Harry came home, he would join her. His hand would be wet and sticky from the condensation of the beer he was drinking and he would only talk to her during commercial breaks. Then there were other days when they would sit in silence in the Television Room, watching some show only Seth liked as he sucked on a lollipop after dinner. Those were the days when it seemed as though Seth sitting in between them acted as nothing more than some kind of doll, casually propped up in between two vacant eyed, silent statues.
There was no way for her to place the moment when she realized Harry didn’t love her, but she did know the moment when she didn’t love him. She had just come home from work after a late shift of copy-editing, and Harry was still up. Seth was already in bed, and Harry had eaten dinner, so he was sitting in the Television Room watching Lost. It had been such a long day of staring at a computer, and her neck ached from holding it in one position all day. She felt relieved to finally step inside the dark familiar room.
Harry didn’t even look up when she opened the door, though she knew by the way he stiffened that he heard her come in. He had the intense television look on his face again as he focused on some kind of commotion happening on the screen. She wasn’t angry that he didn’t acknowledge her presence, she just was sad. Had he even been waiting for her to come back?
Lucille knew the answer to that question the first time she left this finished room with a deflated epiphany. He had never looked at her with the same kind of intensity. His love for her could never surpass his passion for the stories on the television. He preferred that vision to reality, and Lucille could not even begin to grasp how to compete for his attention with people who did not even exist.
They agreed to a divorce the next week, both of them cordially saying they were no longer in love. Lucille kept the house and custody of Seth. Harry took the television. “For Seth and me to have something to talk about,” he had said. She wondered if Harry knew then that the father and son would stop talking after he moved hundreds of miles away to California.
Lucille had every intention of purging herself of television altogether if it hadn’t been for Seth going through so many changes from the divorce. Keeping his childhood home as close to the same as before seemed like the best course of action for both of them. The day after Harry moved out, she and Seth picked out a new flat screen for their Television Room.
Somehow, she found herself watching the television more and more as Seth grew up, as he pulled away from television, and eventually, from her. First, she watched it because it reminded her of when she and Harry were happy. She told herself that maybe she could get inside of Harry’s head if she found the right show. Maybe she could understand the look he had the night of their second date.
She soon became invested in specific television shows, in particular characters and stories. The struggle of these people became her own, and she found her pulse racing and tears streaming for people who were not even real, these people whose overdramatic and adventurous lives far outweighed her own mundane one. These characters felt as real as anyone she might meet on the street. They were complex and dimensional heroes and villains and everything in between. Before she realized it, she was watching over 4 or 5 hours of television a day.
After she lost her job, Seth became desperate to pull her away from the Television Room, begging her to pick him up late after school for band practice, or soccer, or SGA. She half wondered if he was participating in all of these extra activities or just making them up to get her out of the house. She began looking for postings online as a freelance journalist and stayed home. Everywhere outside of her house felt too bright and too noisy with too many people wandering around, looking blankly ahead. These people were nowhere near as alive as her dear fictional friends on television. By the time she met with Dr. Futon, she told him she must have been watching about 12 hours of television a day.
Seth was not alone when Lucille got home. Vaguely, she recalled him mentioning having a friend over to study last week. She wondered why he hadn’t reminded her. She could hear soft voices coming from his room when she stepped inside the Television Room. She had picked up two Zaxby’s salads for dinner, hoping to show him she was taking another step in the right direction by not getting them McDonald’s again. At the time, she considered even going inside to order the food, but then last minute, worried the physical exertion might make her pass out. Besides, isn’t that what drive-throughs were for? She paused in the hallway, listening to the cracked open door. She positioned herself just enough to angle her eye over the doorframe.
Seth and this girl were sitting on the floor together with binders and various sheets of notebook paper scattered around them. He had turned his Captain America comforter to the other side so that the comic book logo wasn’t showing. The girl was around Seth’s age with dark hair that curled around her slim shoulders. She had an air of confidence about her, and her chin was tilted slightly upward as if she were leading Seth through a difficult problem. Though they weren’t touching, they were leaning close together as if they were used to being near to each other. They were talking in low voices and studying their notes.
Lucille thought about announcing her presence and asking when this girl arrived. Her parents must have dropped her off. Would they have done that without checking to see if Lucille was home?
Lucille pressed her lips tightly together and leaned further into the room, when a gesture caught her eye. She saw that when the girl leaned over to pick up a pencil, her hair fell in her face, and Seth brushed it away. They both blushed, but neither said anything. He had stopped looking at the notes and was looking at the girl. She either didn’t notice or chose not to and continued speaking about something on the paper in front of him. Lucille could tell Seth was beyond listening at this point. This girl absorbed him. He was no longer a gap-toothed kid sitting in between estranged parents. Seth, her baby who used to watch kids’ shows on television with that kind of awe. Seth, who used to look at her with such a need for approval. There was something too genuine in his face to compare the look to any actor’s she had seen.
Backing up slowly, Lucille retreated into the Television Room. She set the salads on the table and collapsed onto the couch, letting her lungs catch up with the straining effort of so much activity. The aroma of the fresh lettuce clashed with the sour smell of expired soda and old catsup. She still hadn’t turned the lamp on since she came in, and the darkness in the room made her feel chilled. Lights from headlights of passing cars skimmed under the edges of the curtains. She thought that she could hear the low hum of the television on mute mingling with the engines of the vehicles. The frequency of the noises didn’t quite fit, and something about the mournful sound of a passing car making a brief, shadowy appearance in her Television Room before continuing on its way to its destination made her miss something she couldn’t quite name, a fleeting feeling or an old friend, perhaps. After sitting like that for a few minutes and wiping the tears away, she realized she hadn’t even turned the television on.
Georgia College and State University
Lizzie Perrin is majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. She has loved film her entire life, and she hopes to become a screenwriter one day. This is her first publication.