Mada hated bright lights, gaffers, video cameras on wheels, teleprompters, live studio audiences, and she only realized it right now, because she’d never been subjected to them before right now. Her heartbeat pummeled. Fifteen feet away the talk show host had her nose powdered and a lavalier mic clipped to the inside of her suit jacket. She looked smaller and older than she did on Mada’s TV. The talk show host, an amphetamine-waify blond named Jizelle!, was yelling something about her cottonmouth, and a small manboy with hair parted to the side came immediately with a bottle of water, which he raised to her lips. Mada was alone onstage in a chair that looked cushier than it felt. The lights were hot like little suns, her makeup was pancake batter on her cheeks and she had to remember not to touch it. My God, girl, your complexion, the gum-smacking makeup girl had said. What a face. If it weren’t for, you know, you could be a model. Mada had never worn makeup before. There had never been a reason. Mada’s mother was in the front row, eyes on her daughter, clutching her purse in her lap as if she was ready to leap up and run out of the studio at any moment. You okay? her mother lipped. Don’t worry, I’m fine, Mada lipped back. She touched the stroller with the daisy baby blanket draped over it, the plastic tube that led to her head. My brain is fine.
After the music came on and the teleprompters’ blue screens burst with words, Jizelle! came running in with jazz hands and the studio audience clapped and the music played and the cameras rolled around as Jizelle! sat in a matching cushy-looking chair, crossed her pantyhosed legs and talked into the microphone. She talked in an emotional voice about Mada’s condition, so rare it was named after her, Mada’s disease. She knocked Mada’s head with her bony hand to display its hollowness, her diamond ring dinging Mada’s scalp. The audience gasped when Mada lifted the daisy blanket and revealed the pink mound in the baby stroller, the brain in a large plexiglass jar, seatbelted for extra protection, connected to Mada’s spinal cord through two and a half feet of veins in rubber hoses that led from the jar to the back of her neck.
“Has it ever gotten, like, disconnected?” a man with his shirt on backwards asked the microphone when Jizelle! moved on to audience questions.
“No — I would be dead if it did,” Mada said. “That’s why I don’t leave the house. We have to be so careful all the time.”
“Bummer,” said the man. “Good luck.”
“Do you wish you had a more ‘normal’ teenagehood? High school, prom, boyfriend, all that?” Jizelle! asked.
Mada nodded. “I want to backpack through Europe and learn trapeze.”
“Well, here on my show, we like to make dreams come true,” Jizelle! said elusively. “So we’ll see what we can do.”
Mada smiled. This was why she had called the 1-800 number to get on the talk show in the first place: because at the end of Jizelle! each day, she had a surprise for her guests, and Mada wanted, more than anything, to be surprised. She was so tired of her room, the flowered wallpaper she saw so often it was there imprinted on her eyelids when she shut them, her tiny TV and computer her only friends, her daybed, calisthenics, comic books, the worried face of her mother, the baby monitors she kept on all day, the food and textbooks she brought to Mada on a tray, never letting her downstairs; this is how Mada had spent her whole life, and she had dark thoughts that had bloomed in her recently, thoughts that started in her plexiglass jar in the stroller and moved through the veins and tubes and scared her in her body. She thought that if it didn’t change, if this was all there was to life, then one day soon couldn’t she wouldn’t be able to help herself. She would take a pair of scissors and cut her own cord.
Jizelle! brought out her second guest, a white guy named Wallis with cornrows in his hair. Apparently his heart was where his brain should be and vice versa. Wallis’s Disease. He was Mada’s age, seventeen, but he struck her as very arrogant and a couple times gestured toward Mada as he explained he wasn’t “as bad off as some.” Jizelle! put her bony hand to his forehead and felt his pulse. Amazing! she said. She asked about his dreams, his wishes. Did he regret being homeschooled? Did he miss having a senior prom? Naw, dogg, said Wallis. I just watch TV all day, it’s chill. Wallis said he wanted to become a rap artist. He stood up and freestyled something like, “I’s born in Manhattan, backwards, and now I’m rappin like a gangster, release my anger, I’m a coathanger…” The audience clapped. Mada hated Wallis, especially because when he took his theatrical bow after the freestyle rapping, he bumped his hand into her stroller and didn’t even apologize. No one even seemed to notice, except Mada’s mother, who stood up immediately and opened her mouth like she was ready to shout. Mada gave her mother a look that said, Sit down mother, and her mother sat down.
At the end of the show, Jizelle! had a surprise for them: a curtain lifted in the back of the studio and there was a fake senior prom setup. A bunch of actors in prom dresses slow dancing with each other, and a DJ onstage. A long table decorated with food and a punch bowl. Festoons and garlands in red and black. Happy senior prom, the banner screamed in Comic Sans. The scene hit Mada with sadness, it seemed so pathetic, and she realized at that moment that all the guests on this show got surprises they didn’t even want. Jizelle! asked if Wallis and Mada would like to do a slow dance together for the audience but Wallis said he’d rather go onstage and freestyle rap with the ill beats the DJ provided. So he did. And Mada pushed her stroller next to the long snack table and listened as Wallis continued.
“I want to be famous, like Amos, and Andy, feeling dandy like a panda bear, I don’t care…”
The manboy with the sideparted hair and the headset on who had fed Jizelle! bottled water earlier came up and asked Mada if she would like to dance. The cameras on wheels closed in on them. Mada was flattered, her embarrassment at being denied by disgusting, terrible Wallis assuaged. She pushed the stroller out onto the dance floor, careful with her cords, and put her left hand on his left shoulder. The audience oohed and ahhed and Jizelle! said, lookie here, a suitor! There was a flashing of lights and then applause.
The manboy had a faint mustache growing in over his acne. His eyes were very blue, so blue they implied pain somehow. Mada wanted to know what went on inside the manboy’s head. Was she pretty, to him? Was she a freak to him, a part of the job? What was she, to other people? She felt her skin goosebump as his hands gripped her waist. They didn’t move much, because of her brain and cords, but they swayed to Wallis’s ramblings over the DJ, and looked into each other’s eyes. Mada wondered if the boy wanted to put his penis inside her. She decided at that moment she would not stay upstairs anymore, and she would not be kept inside.
“Do you like me?” she whispered as the audience clapped and the song ended and the cameras retreated and Jizelle! talked into the mic again about tomorrow.
“I think you’re pretty,” he said after a moment. “Manny’s in the exit right now.”
“Sorry, I was talking into my headset.”
“Thanks for dancing with me,” Mada said. The audience stood up, the lights faded, Jizelle! unclipped her lavalier mic and said, Jesus Christ I’m having a hot flash. The fake prom began disassembling itself around her, and Mada’s mother walked toward her, brows scrunched in worry.
“Part of my job,” said the manboy.
“You’re pretty hot though,” he said. “If your brain wasn’t in a stroller, I — ” He stopped, listened to his headset. “Roger that.” He walked away, toward Jizelle!, and fanned her with what appeared to be a script.
Mada’s mother approached and looked around at the crew bustling to remove the snack table. “People around here are so careless. Did you see that man bump into your stroller? This was a terrible idea, let’s get you home before something happens.”
Mada didn’t want to. Even though she hated the lights, the stage, the fake music, the audience that clapped when blinky lights told them to clap, and Wallis —who was signing an autograph for a stupid little girl —she hated it all, she would rather be here than at home. Mada’s eyes filled with tears and she thought of what a single snip of the scissors could do.
“Let’s go,” Mada’s mother said.
“Don’t we have to check out with someone? That guy with the mustache — ”
“I don’t care, this place is a madhouse and I’m getting you home.”
Mada pushed her stroller toward the nearest green glowing EXIT sign. She got to the metal door and looked behind her, hoping the manboy was there. She liked him. In fact, she was maybe in love with him. She had never been that close to a manboy before, so it was hard to tell.
“Girl with the brain in the stroller!” she heard someone shout. It was manboy, jogging toward her. He had a pen and he took her hand and wrote on the back of it: jaggertucker@theJizelleshow.com. “Just email me if you want me a copy of the show.” And he jogged away again.
“This place is a zoo,” Mada’s mother said as they left the building and entered the parking lot that smelled like dumpsters. “Unprofessional. That is how TV is made? Running around you like that, what is he thinking? And dancing? In your condition, what are they all thinking?”
Indeed, Mada too wondered what all these people were thinking, but in a different way. She wondered if manboy — Jagger Tucker, apparently — wrote his email because he loved her and/or wanted his penis inside her. Mada said nothing, climbed into the backseat of the van, hoisted her stroller up, locked it into its custom-made divots in the carpet and strapped it with a seatbelt. She sat beside it, re-draped her brain-in-a-jar with the daisy blanket.
“That was just awful to watch, just awful. That rapper boy with the braids in his hair was just atrocious,” Mada’s mother said as they rode home, past the palm trees like green fireworks and the movie theaters with their neon lettering. Past red restaurant signs and other cars and people, people, people.
“That woman Jizelle looked like her face had been lifted a thousand times. If I ever look like that, please, just put me out of my misery,” Mada’s mother said. After a long silence, and a lot of whizzing roads, Mada’s mother pulled the van into their driveway, squeezed the car into a gravelly parking space in front of their apartment building, which appeared to Mada, from the outside, like a giant cardboard box.
“You’ve been awful quiet,” said Mada’s mother as she tried to help Mada unstrap her stroller.
“I can do it myself,” Mada said, swatting her hand away.
“Touchy. Fine, big girl, do it yourself.” Mada’s mother stood back. “How did it feel for you, to be up there? How was it for you?” she asked in a quieter tone.
“I hated it,” Mada said. She put the stroller on the ground and shut the van’s sliding door. She looked up and a cloud was there, stunning, like a huge face smiling down on her. It sailed, it moved and glided across the sky, and the sight of it poked Mada’s heart, which was correctly located beneath her ribcage. She touched her chest and felt it beat. At least she wasn’t like Wallis. At least she had a heart in the right place. She looked at her hand, which she vowed to never wash again. “It was the best day of my life.”