Sanjena Sathian for theatlantic.com, | September 28, 2021

The Missing Limousine

A short story.

Read at theatlantic.com

Watching The Bachelor was supposed to make life easier. I started getting into it a year or so after I began working at my brother’s salon. I had a regular stable of clients, but none was particularly in love with me. The problem was not my skill—I am talented at hair removal and competent at mani-pedis. The problem was our Yelp reviews, which said things like “Good eyebrow threading but that one girl makes you keep your eyes open for a whole minute before she starts and the way she stares makes you think she’s trying to suck your soul out.” Which I thought was dramatic.

When he saw that particular review, my brother came into the back storeroom where I was taking my break and waved his phone around like a distress signal to get my attention. I was reading a blog about people who believe they’re already dead, and how psychologists find it very difficult to treat those settling into the placid state of afterlife. They are basically unconcerned with going to work, and surprised you can see them at all.

“Earth to Avanti!” My brother read the review aloud. “Can’t you just learn to make small talk like a normal person?”

I was willing to learn.

He conferred with his girlfriend, who suggested I watch The Bachelor. She said it was like the NFL for women. Like if the whole world shared the same high-school friends to gossip about. She said there were blogs and podcasts and tabloids and Instagram feeds and brackets and betting pools. She said that everyone watched it, that even some men indulged, discreetly and lovingly. It would let me into the world, this show.

This happened in the spring. Outside, the Bradford pear was stinking up the parking lot and dropping petals that looked like used Kleenex. As summer set in, I binged, taking careful notes inside my studio apartment, with its thin walls and rattling window AC unit, while the humid days thickened outside.

By late June, my eyes were starting to hurt and my hand was starting to cramp and my social-media feeds were crowded with images of all that normalcy, and yet I still was not much better loved by clients. Until Camrynn Hare—an old high-school classmate—walked in. Some years ago, a white girl would not have come to our salon, but eyebrow threading was now mainstream.

When she leaned back, I began staring into her cement-colored eyes but stopped myself. I asked if she watched the show and she made an intense mmhmm noise. I remembered how she’d passed around a tube of snake-venom-infused lip gloss by the lockers, her whole clique pursing their slick, plump mouths.

“What do you think of that Earl guy?” I asked. Earl was the villainous country singer with the snake tattoo coiling up his right arm.

“Oh my God,” she said. “He was in SAE at SMU with my maid of honor’s fiancé, and—” and then we started to talk. I lost track of my limbs as we discussed Earl’s true motivations, his upcoming gigs in Nashville, and whether or not he’d secretly had a girlfriend the whole time.

As she opened her eyes to blink at her newly pruned brows in the mirror, she cocked her head. The hair that had once been bleach blond was now chestnut brown and rose in a country-club pouf above her head.

“I know you from somewhere,” she said.

I agreed that she might. However, neither of us could place me. I booked her for another appointment four weeks out and mentioned that we were on Yelp.

But the point is what happened on The Bachelor during Season 12. This was the year that David P. Li’s huge Asian blockbuster movie came out, and everyone was psyched about representation, which was another way of saying that people who previously felt invisible now felt like the world was made of infinity mirrors and they could see themselves multiplied and omnipresent, like a clone army. So when everyone found out that superstar David P. Li was super-single, ABC was like, Let’s cast him, and it did.

Harry Chettiar came into the salon just before the premiere, in early fall. His parents are from Singapore, like David’s; his mother is Chinese and his father is Tamilian and his real name was Hari, but he’d changed the spelling. He enjoyed having his eyebrows plucked. Not threaded. Something about the many tiny pings of pain (pleasing) instead of the single dull stretch (numbing).

“What’s new in the world, Avanti?” he asked when he checked in at the cash register. I looked past him, through the salon windows, at my trifling world: the rest of the strip mall and the Ethiopian restaurant and the Target and the gas station my uncle owned. The sky was the color of overwashed denim.

“Not much,” I said. “Are you ready for the Bachelor premiere?”

He admitted he wasn’t. I led him to the back room, where I tend to take male clients, who find the front of the salon too exposed. I explained about David.

Harry hadn’t seen the blockbuster. “Was he in those vampire rom-coms?”

“Yes,” I said. “He was the vampire boyfriend’s best friend.” In those movies, David P. Li worked out next to the main vampire, and over moonlit sessions at the gym they discussed the vampire boyfriend’s love for his human personal-trainer client.

Harry lay down on the waxing bed.

“I got the scoop on all the contestants,” I said. “Want to hear?”

I engaged with all Bachelor Nation media. One of the brainier blogger/podcasters, who likes to remind people that she attended Williams College, invited me onto her show once, as the superfan guest. I did not click with my fellow panelist, Dr. Donna Linklater, a professor of cultural studies and the author of When Reality Isn’t Enough: Nonscripted Television and the Rise of the Modern “Romance” Lexicon. When I asked her if she believed in love, true love, she invited me to sit in on her freshman seminar to have my mind blown with critical theory, but I had to work, and anyway, I didn’t think that the way she talked, full of isms and citations, would help with small talk.

“Tell me,” Harry said. He liked to have me talk while I plucked.

I pulled from the middle of his face first. When his brow furrowed, I pressed my thumb to it and reminded him to relax.

“There are 30 women,” I said. “They’ll all show up the first night in limos, right. And they’ll strut out and say, Hi David, it’s so wonderful to meet you, you’re even hotter in person, I learned this word of Mandarin for you, etc.!” I moved to his right brow.

Harry exhaled. I felt the ring of his breath on my chin, just the size of an engagement ring.

“Thirty women.” He gritted his teeth. “I can’t even wrangle one.”

“They’re going to make the first limo all Asian women,” I went on. “I submitted an audition tape, see, and if they’d picked me, I would’ve been in that bunch.”

“I’m glad you didn’t get picked,” he said.

“That’s not nice.” I paused, tweezers in the air. There were mirrors all around us. I shook my head and gave myself the spins from the many incarnations I saw of me.

Harry opened his eyes as I finished the right brow and leaned toward the left. I looked away because I didn’t want to be accused of soul sucking. I used to think the moment before a beauty treatment required intimacy. I’d gaze at the whites roped with red, the ringed retinas, the black-hole pupils. I thought that if I stared hard enough I would fall into the right pair of pupils. I would tumble through the black hole and disappear and no one in this earthly reality would ever ask me to remove another hair again.

My brother knocked on the door. “Avanti, your next customer is here.”

Small talk, not big talk, he kept advising.

“Would you like to watch the show with me sometime?” Harry asked.

And then I did look into his eyes. They were light brown. It would be like muddying around in a tiny wading pool if I fell in there. I would not get lost; I would still be stuck on Earth.

Season 12, teasers.

David gazes out at a sapphire-blue ocean.

David grabs the face of a faceless girl and brings it to his. Both their faces disappear as the camera zooms out. They are in a hot-air balloon the same color as the hot sunset.

David’s voice is saying, “It’s so pretty here.” Girls’ voices are saying, “So pretty,” “So gorgeous.” Above them hangs a cratered afternoon moon.

A brunette says, “He’s from, like, Planet Sexy!”

Girls cry. David cries.

A blond girl says, “When I’m with David, the world just falls away.”

A girl whose face is obscured growls. She says, “I want to make all of them disappear.”

Before she told me I was anti-feminist, Dr. Linklater had a lot to say about how the couples—Ben and Becca O., Robert and Aimee P., Peter and Bekah L.—never last, and how it’s because they’re forced to speak in these preordained platitudes that, by virtue of cultural dribble-down, imperil the rest of us too. I told her we shouldn’t blame them, because you know those moments when they’re staring out at the sky above the ocean and saying things like so pretty, amazing, I’m ready, this journey, find love, late fiancé, single mom, last relationship, etc.? You know those moments you called “Orwellian-level deadness”? Those moments are when they’re seeing something so magical that they lose all the words they once knew. That thing is floating in the sky above the Java Sea. Like a UFO, maybe, or a distant galactic rock where the mysteries of truest love dwell.

At least they saw it, I told her. Have you ever? Seen it? Have you ever looked out at the great space above a sea, or above a mountain, or above the teeth of a city skyline, or even above the asphalt in the parking lot of the salon where you work, and have you ever thought you saw something, something alien you could never put words to if you tried? And have you ever thought, I want to rocket there as fast as I can? If you saw even a flash of that galactic love meteor, what could you say? What would be good enough?

Spoiler: When David’s limos rolled up on the first night, there were only 25 women. Not one was Asian.

I went to Harry’s house for the premiere. He lived in a midtown loft overlooking the park, with exposed-brick walls and a blackboard by the kitchen where he wrote his grocery list in green chalk. He ate a lot of green things. Kale. Celery. Spring onions. Spirulina. Chard.

Harry’s house was full of pictures of his dead mother, who was petite with disproportionately big breasts. I should say that I am petite with disproportionately big breasts. I have some northeast Indian in me, which means sometimes I am taken for Chinese or Thai. I will just say it. There is no way around it. I look a lot like Harry’s mother.

I approached one of the images of her, mounted above the television, which turned out to be an oil painting. Her eyes were totally black. The painter had neglected to give them variation in color and light, so they looked like two buttons on an otherwise human face.

Harry served gimlets and popped organic popcorn. He said he’d already had a few drinks before I arrived, he’d gotten nervous, he’d been wanting to ask me out for forever. He started talking and talking. It was endless, how much he had to say, as if the entire time he’d been asking me to talk while I plucked his eyebrows, he was biting his lip not from the pain of the plucking but from the pain of not speaking all these secrets. He pointed at the painting and told me that when his mother died, he had been at summer camp, lost in the woods during a game of something called Predator Versus Prey. He was the Prey. Right around the moment she died, he was being caught by the Predator, a huge white boy named Jimbo.

He asked me about my parents, and I told him how my dad had left when I was a teenager and how my mom had gone back to India as soon as I moved out of the house, and she died there. I didn’t tell him about my mom joining the creepy ashram where she had to wear white all the time, or how when I talked to her on FaceTime, I could see her slowly departing, replaced by this intensely faithful devotee to something invisible. I prayed very hard to the gods she believed in when she decided to starve herself to death for fear of accruing new, bad karma. You go your whole life in America not knowing that starving to death is a thing people do, and then someone you love does it, and you become aware that a million imperceptible forces exist in the universe that compel people to do this. In my audition tape for The Bachelor, I had obviously not shared this information; I just said I’d lost my parents, because you have to let other people fill in the rest, so they see you as normal, lovable, fixable.

“I’m so sorry about that,” he said. “You seem strong. Maybe because of it.”

I nodded. Then I kissed him on his elbow when he lifted it to take a sip of his gimlet. I had one hand in the popcorn bowl and I squeezed it so that I touched all the popcorn, even the dead kernels at the bottom.

“Why did you do that, on my elbow?” he lowered his drink. He didn’t seem mad. “You’re shy, aren’t you?”

I am not shy. I am easily mistaken for shy. I nodded.

He did the rest of the work. I felt vaporous, or like I didn’t exist.

“Is it okay?” he asked, in the middle.

Mostly.

Then I looked at the clock. My head was dangling backwards over the arm of his sofa and I saw the red numbers on his microwave, upside down. “It’s going to start soon,” I whispered.

“What?” He grunted. A bead of his sweat dripped onto my chin.

“The show.” I snapped my head back up. He put his hand behind my neck, to cushion it.

“Oh. You really want to watch the show?”

His breath came very fast.

I blinked very fast.

“Don’t cry,” he said. He had one hand on my right breast. He moved the other one from my neck to my left breast and squeezed both. My head dropped upside down again. Watching Harry’s inverted kitchen was like floating the wrong way in antigravity. I felt nauseous. He seemed to be going faster, though I couldn’t feel very much.

“I’m not crying,” I said as the blood rushed to my head. “But I want to watch the show.”

“Fuck,” he said. “I lost it, anyway.”

How many things could a person lose in a moment? This was one of the best messages of The Bachelor: In every moment lurks the possibility of great love but also great loss. If everyone saw this, everyone would live differently. They would take great risks for love, like going on television. They would demand more. A man I slept with for a while told me if I wasn’t careful, the world would never be enough for me. I said he was the one who should be careful.

Harry went to the bathroom. While he was gone, I reached for the remote control and started the show. That was when I found out about the missing limousine.

First night. Los Angeles, Bachelor mansion. Champagne sprinkles the air. The tongues. Everything seems to be giggling. The women, the house, the Southern California night.

Contestants: Twenty-one white, three Black, one Cuban woman. Fifteen blondes. Five brunettes. One redhead, dressed as a vampire in tribute to David’s first movies.

Kelsey, 24, wedding-dress designer from Bend, Oregon, steals him first. They sit outside, tucked under a bright-green shag blanket. Other women are visible through the doorway, no longer giggling. The vampire chews her lip with the fake teeth. Someone points and shrieks. Fake blood drips down her chin.

Kelsey, wearing a top hat, pulls a multicolored handkerchief from David’s ear.

David: Wow, that was like real magic!

Kelsey (leaning forward): Well, now you know that I believe in magic. Do you?

The near-kiss is interrupted by the vampire. She has taken off all her clothes except her black cape and is creeping up behind David. There are little blurred blobs in place of her undoubtedly perky boobs. She pops up when Kelsey is close enough to breathe on David’s nose. The vampire teeth connect with David’s neck. The vampire pulls back. The teeth do not come with her. They stick to David’s skin, they are so slick with fake blood. Kelsey screams. The women scream. David cracks up. The vampire gets the final rose that night.

In the morning I called the brainy blogger/podcaster and asked if she was surprised that the all-Asian limo never showed.

“What?” she said.

“You sent me the footage,” I said. “Of the first limousine. When it was five Asians, and the host came out and shook David’s hand and was like, ‘We’re so excited to shine a spotlight on representation this season,’ remember?”

“Oh. Yeah. Hm. They probably just filmed it as a teaser and found it didn’t test well or something. They cut people all the time, babe.” She panted. I could hear the roll and hum of exercise machines around her. I was locked in the supply closet at the salon between the huge tower of waxing strips and the courtesy tampons that we kept in the bathrooms. Outside, my brother was asking the other stylists where I was.

I thought I remembered some of the missing women’s names. I recited them back to her.

“I dunno, babe,” she said. Her breath slowed as she began walking on the treadmill. She glugged water.

“Don’t you think you should do a post or an episode about it?”

She sighed. “Look,” she said. “I went to Williams College. I like a sharp analysis of pop culture as much as the next person. But I’m not gonna do a whole episode on this. Dr. Linklater fucked up my downloads for a month. Maybe you should pitch a think piece or something.”

My whole body felt dense, like concrete, like I was one of the walls of the storeroom.

I hung up and searched my email for the footage I swore she’d sent me. I found nothing. Maybe she’d Snapchatted it? Or maybe I’d cleared my iPhoto? I couldn’t find social-media handles associated with any of the women I was sure were in the first limo. Perhaps I was wrong about their names.

I clicked and clicked and clicked until my thumb cramped.

A few people had written snarky posts about how The Bachelor shouldn’t be celebrated for casting an Asian man as the lead, how the airwaves could handle only one minority at a time: Did anyone else notice that the few nonwhite competitors got zero camera time? One writer said she’d heard reports that Asian women had signed up for the show but that ABC had canceled several contracts using the network’s new background-check system, so perhaps all those women had turned out to have DUIs or STIs.

I found just one post on a blog I’d never heard of that seemed to recognize my reality. It was by a woman named Mrinalini Rangapadmanabhan. I did not envy her that name. She said she knew—for a fact—that five women of various Asian descents had signed on for David’s season. She said they had disappeared off the face of the planet. Fact-check her, she dared you: There were no missing-persons reports, no social-media evidence; no one had noticed these women being subsumed by the void, by aliens, by covert ops, by another dimension, by something wicked. She ended the post with: “CAN ANYONE FUCKING HEAR ME OUT THERE.” I clicked on the neon-green Contact me link, but then my brother pushed the door open so suddenly that a wall of super-absorbent tampons fell on me.

“Avanti,” he said, waving the storeroom key. “What the fuck.”

That day, I did a mani-pedi, several Brazilian waxes, a bunch of eyebrows, and Camrynn Hare’s entire face-threading. It turned out that all those years in high school, Camrynn had been waxing most parts of her body.

As I spread witch hazel on her skin after, she said, “Aviva, I think you might need to let this one go.”

“Let it go?”

I had been talking to everyone, all day, about the missing limousine. These were clients with whom I always discussed The Bachelor. Most watched; those who didn’t enjoyed my recaps.

“You’re starting to sound a little crazy,” she said. I wanted to hold up the hand mirror to her face and go, You look crazy, like a stripped peach pit. But that would have resulted in a damning Yelp review.

“You always like The Bachelor,” I said in an even tone.

“I like to gossip,” she said. “But I’m not interested in discussing existential things when I’m getting my face done.”

“Existential?”

She sighed and went to pay. She tipped me 12 percent and neglected to book her next appointment.

That night I wrote to Mrinalini Rangapadmanabhan and told her I believed her. The Asian women had been ripped from the Earth. Aliens made sense to me.

The next Monday, I drove to Harry’s house. He seemed surprised to find me at his door.

“I only meant watch it that one time,” he said, but he let me in. I’d arrived 30 minutes early. As soon as he shut the door, I dropped to my knees and gave him a blow job. When he was done, I went to turn on his television with time to spare. I left him with his corduroy pants around his ankles in the front hallway.

“You’re kind of insane, aren’t you?” he said, sitting next to me. Above the television was that portrait of his mother, still dead, still resembling me. I did not offer my opinion about his sanity. Instead I told him what I’d been saying to Camrynn Hare regarding the missing limousine, and I complained that she said I’d been talking too existentially. I had not heard back from Mrinalini Rangapadmanabhan.

“I guess alien-abduction theories might strike some people as existential,” he chuckled. He poured two glasses of wine and placed the bottle on his dark wood coffee table. “My sister watches this with a bunch of girls,” he said. “Why don’t you do that?”

“Like a ‘girls night.’” I used air quotes.

“Yeah.” He grinned. “You have wine lips.” He licked his thumb and pressed it on my lips. It was a bothersome, effeminate, maternal gesture.

I had briefly attended a watch group for one of the summer spin-offs at my brother’s girlfriend’s house. There was a lot of rosé and vegan baked goods that no one touched. I sat between a tall blond woman named Holly Greer and another tall blond woman named Molly Peele, and I mixed them up. People were cold to me after that. Also, I found it difficult to simultaneously track everything being said on the screen and in real life. These women jabbered over the events of the show; I don’t know how anyone would have been prepared for small talk during the following week.

“I wouldn’t do that,” I said, edging away. “I wouldn’t have anything to talk about with women afterward, see.”

“How come you feel like you’ve got nothing to say?” He reached for a stray lock of my hair and tugged on it hard. I wondered if he was going to ask me to choke him. I have had sex most ways. Here is my opinion about sex. Sex is a bunch of grunts and flails you make with your body and voice. It can be nice. But in my opinion it has little to do with the things you say when you look into the sky and all the good words are lost.

The show was starting. I asked him to please be quiet.

I began to sleep over at Harry’s on Monday nights after the show.

“Do you ever feel like something has just swooped down to Earth and stolen your words?” I said, during week seven, after sex.

“Like your aliens?” He smirked. “I guess. Sometimes. But if aliens came here and the best they could do was steal my lines, I’d think that was a waste of a trip.”

“That’s what I feel like,” I said. “You asked me why I don’t have enough to say.”

“Hm,” he said. “Well. What’s one thing you always want to say but can’t?”

This was why I did not date much. I hated the risky, slow striptease, revealing everything about yourself, only to wind up exposed and cold in an icy wood, so to speak, when the other person decided they’d seen enough. Out there, alone, freezing, naked, you looked around and wondered if anyone had been watching the whole time. It seemed better to love in neat phrases or in silence, gazing out at a sapphire sea, with a camera as witness. That way, even if your lover didn’t properly comprehend you, 8 million to 12 million viewers might.

I put my ear to Harry’s shirtless chest and looked out his bedroom window at the night. You can’t see stars from homes like Harry’s, because of the city lights.

“Hey. I can’t tell if you’re asleep.” He shook me and my bare breasts flopped. “Earth to Avanti?”

“I’m not asleep,” I said. “And I’m not shy.”

“That’s what you always want to say?”

“What?”

“That you’re not shy?”

I lay back down on his chest.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Do you like my view?” he whispered.

He started to massage my head. At first his nails felt like bird’s feet scrabbling along my scalp, but then it felt nice, and I felt bad, because he had been so clear about the shape of all his loss and I was letting him slot me in even though I knew I couldn’t fit. Obligingly, I considered his view. I saw only skyscrapers. The one that looks like a perfectly sharpened pencil. The one that looks like the head of a parasaurolophus dinosaur.

I nodded sure, he had a cool view. My head knocked against his chin. I did not say it was pretty or amazing. I couldn’t give him that.

Fantasy suites. Thailand. David and the vampire redhead, now known as Melissa, 27, small-business owner, Salem, Massachusetts, are in a hot tub. One-on-one, Melissa is gentler. Good at letting David in on her vulnerability: Every man she has ever been with has cheated on her. This information has made her a fan favorite.

Melissa: I was made to feel like I wasn’t enough for them. That’s why I became such a big personality.

David: That whole journey, it brought you here.

David lifts her out of the hot tub, carries her toward the fantasy suite. There is a risk. That she is not enough for David, either. But she takes the risk. Because the invisible, loving, omnipresent gaze of Bachelor Nation is saying, “You are more than enough. For us.”

In the morning, David leans on his forearms on the bamboo balcony while someone totes in Danish leaking blood-colored jelly. Melissa curls up in a ball in bed behind him, wearing glasses and a pajama tank top, braless. The camera doesn’t linger on David’s face, which viewers have memed on social media by covering it with a question-mark emoji to indicate enigma. Instead the camera brushes over his abs and lands on Melissa, her hot-red hair flaring over her shoulders, her eyes pooling.

The night of the finale, I went over to Harry’s as usual. I no longer spoke with clients about The Bachelor. Harry was my final companion in franchise consumption.

He told me he had joined an office betting pool.

“It’s me and a bunch of women,” he laughed, handing me a bottle of white wine from the fridge. The condensation chilled my hands. I drank straight from it. No popcorn, not since the first night. “Don’t be jealous, though,” he added, bringing his warm breath to my cheek. “They’re all moms and stuff.”

I sat on the floor in front of him as the episode began. He was doing that hair-scratching thing as I leaned against his bony knees. Kelsey was crying and Melissa was crying. I was getting drunk and Harry’s hands were moving down my neck and drumming on my collarbone.

“Wait,” I said, when one of his hands moved toward my breast.

“Sorry,” he said. “I know you don’t like to be distracted, during.”

“No, just wait,” I said.

Melissa was crying and David was crying and Kelsey was crying and even the host was tearing up as David sat across from him and worried aloud that some part of him would always be lodged in the girl he dumped that day. And then, as Kelsey stepped into a tiny rowboat to cross the blue lagoon to the island where David stood, alone, in a blue tux, surrounded by swans and yellow daffodils, I got up and straddled Harry.

“What’s going to happen?” he said, craning to see.

“She got there first,” I said. “Which means he dumps her and proposes to Melissa.” I started to fiddle with the zipper on his jeans. He wiggled out of them, still on the couch, his mouth slack.

“Within minutes?”

My lips were on his inner thigh. “What?” I said into his skin, which was sweaty and pungent.

“He dumps one and proposes to the other in, like, the same half hour?”

“Love is about extremes,” I said.

I lay on my back on Harry’s soft alpaca rug and pulled him onto me.

“Now just wait,” I said, when he went for my skirt.

Wait?”

“Until Melissa gets there.”

He was pantsless and underpantsless, kneeling above fully clothed me, and I was turning my head a little awkwardly and watching David watch Kelsey approach. I was watching David accidentally drop to one knee in front of Kelsey, watching him shake his head like he’d been possessed, watching him admit that he’d been horribly confused. I was watching Kelsey punch the camera so hard that blood sprinkled the lens, watching her suck her hand like a self-cannibalizing vampire, watching her sprint away, holding her stilettos, bawling as she entered the black SUV that would take her to the airport. I was watching so closely that I didn’t feel the heat of Harry recede from me. I noticed only when Melissa arrived and I reached for Harry’s body—I had timed it all, so carefully—and I found that he was gone.

I made do alone. I watched David and Melissa say yes, yes, yes, love, love, love, while my breathing got fast and then I went home without saying goodbye.

David and Melissa broke up on Ellen, in front of 4 million viewers. Melissa took out her final rose and started chewing each petal and then even the stem shorn of thorns and then attempted to swallow the princess-cut Neil Lane engagement ring while shouting, “No one will ever be enough for you, you jerk,” while Ellen bounced on her toes and cried, “Hey, hey, guys, be kind to each other!”

After that night, after the tabloids declared that David was hot for the host, after the host sued them, after some of the bloggers finally started to note that there had been a sixth limousine that never showed, and wondered if David P. Li was self-hating and canceled the Asian contestants so he could successfully assimilate into white American society … after all that, David P. Li vanished.

People said he got plastic surgery in Korea. People said he moved to a part of the world where no one had seen the vampire movies or his blockbuster or The Bachelor or Ellen. People said he’d been kidnapped and killed by a crazy fan; people said all kinds of things about crazy fans. People said he’d always been shallow; hadn’t anyone noticed? There were the Bermuda Triangle theories. There was the suicide cover-up hypothesis.

I don’t talk to people about my theories, because I don’t want to be accused of being existential. I now discuss only the properties of hair follicles and clogged pores with customers; these topics cause people to believe I am a salon savant uninterested in chitchat. My Yelp reviews are adequate. All talk is small.

But. Just the other day, I did something. I posted a video to YouTube. Like those radio waves we broadcast into the cosmos in case any aliens are trying to get in touch.

Season 12, audition tape, unedited. Salon storeroom.

Behind me, a white plaster wall; edging the corners of the frame, piles of cosmetic wipes and aesthetician’s thread and waxing strips and those courtesy tampons. My hair, straightened, brushes my breasts; I’ve worn a lacy bralette that peekaboos through a plunging neckline because I’m not stupid; I understand how this works. I speak into my laptop camera.

Avanti, 24, aesthetician/Bachelor superfan, Decatur, Georgia. I spend all day trying to make people their most beautiful selves. It’s so important to me to try to make life as beautiful as possible. My parents aren’t around anymore. Family is so important. I have trouble opening up, because I know what it feels like to lose people. I am very afraid to have someone just disappear out of my life again, but with the right person, I’d be willing to take a leap of faith—hang on—

My brother knocks on the door a bunch of times, but I sit there silently. He says my name over and over, says he knows I’m in there, says I’ve got five minutes before I need to come back out. The knocking recedes. I adjust my bralette and sit back and for a second my picture freezes and I wave my hands to test whether it’s still recording, whether anything is there, in the machine, looking back at me.


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