Family Anatomy

“I always knew my son was too good for public school,” his mother would say at the dinner table. “He doesn’t need to squabble with the riffraff in California."

Family Anatomy
Photo by Ivan Aleksic / Unsplash

By Jenna Schoepflin

Family Anatomy had been running on television since 1991 when Louis was only eleven years old. Long before spending the last four years on the show, his parents had excitedly been asking him to repeat, “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?” and placing him in perfectly unsoiled Ultra Pampers Plus diapers while laying on a white plastic changing table in front of a camera. From toy commercials, being an extra on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and finally landing a long-term, principal role as Anthony Smith on this instant American classic sitcom, Louis had even learned to read in television studios.

“I always knew my son was too good for public school,” his mother would say at the dinner table. “He doesn’t need to squabble with the riffraff in California. I was his first teacher, and now they’ve hired wonderful instructors to teach the children. Better than private school, I’m sure.” His father would agree vehemently, and then they’d pull out his script for him to study while he ate his piece of Marie Calendar’s lasagna that was still a little cold in the middle. However, Louis would wonder what it would be like to have gone to a normal school.

The first time he went to the local middle school, it was for the start of Family Anatomy. The director needed Anthony to stand up to the class bully to show the audience how brave he was. When they took him into the classroom for the scene, he couldn’t stop staring at the other children in the room. He counted the number of gleaming wooden desks–in much better shape than the ones in the studio–all filled with kids his age. When they sat Louis down with his group of 10-12 year-olds, he could smell lemon Lysol and chalk dust. And the noise! He and his mother had sat in rooms filled with dozens of children while waiting for his name to be called into an audition, but Louis hadn’t heard kids sound like this before. The cameras started rolling and the director called out for the kids to act “natural,” to which a chorus of laughing, whining, and teasing had rung out.

When the show had refocused on home life, the small meeting room with the four desks and one stained whiteboard from the 70s had lost its charm for Louis, but his parents knew what was best for him. Brandon, who acted as Louis’s older brother on the show, had been going through the same messily photocopied work packets and half-hearted lessons they’d received since Family Anatomy began. His character, Michael, was scripted to pick on Anthony and encourage him to get into trouble, but this behavior rarely left the set.

When Louis started on the show, before he'd ever gone into the bank with his mother to cash his monthly paychecks, he wasn't exactly sure what people's houses were supposed to look like. Of course, he'd been watching television practically from the womb so he had seen other places– hell, he was on a set with a perfect “family den” in it every week, but he knew the difference between what he sees on TV and what is real life by the time he was four years old. Most of the TV shows he watched were cartoons, where the living rooms were so bright. He figured houses didn’t actually look like that.

And yet, the first time Brandon had come over to his house, he knew that his must have looked different than everyone else's. It was a mobile home that had an extra bedroom, his room, added to one end because there had originally only been the master bedroom before his mother was pregnant with him. Suddenly, when he held the creaky screen door with tears in it for Brandon to walk in, he felt cramped and embarrassed. He led them into the living room and sank into the indigo velvet loveseat, specifically sitting on the little part where he knew foam would be sticking out. Louis used to love the texture of the old couch, and usually didn't mind the yellow foam in the cushion, but he saw Brandon sit on the edge of the good cushion and felt his stomach tighten into a knot.

Louis felt the need to apologize, or at least say something. They sat next to each other, Louis suddenly all too aware of the pile of old paperwork and ripped-open envelopes scattered across the surface of the desk in one corner of the room. He felt like the house was getting warmer and his throat grew dry.

His mother walked in humming to herself, some 80s song Louis couldn't place, and startled when she saw the two boys on the couch. "Louis! You didn't tell me you were having friends over," her voice sounded like it did when she was on the phone with his aunt, like it was made of plastic. "I'm sorry about the mess, we've been so busy this week! I usually get to cleaning on the weekends, but the church service went longer than normal. Didn't it, hon?" "Um," Louis said. He didn't remember the last time they had been to church.

"Well, I'll go make you boys some pizza rolls. Why don't you go play a game?" She said hurriedly, pointing to the stack of dusty cardboard boxes on the side of the couch before heading to the kitchen.

Brandon leaned over to see the games he had.

"You have Monopoly! I love that game. Can we play it?" He asked.

"It doesn't have all the pieces," Louis said and heat flushed to his face.

“The car still there?"

“I think so.”

“Then we don’t need all the pieces,” Brandon looked him in the eyes and smiled reassuringly. Louis felt the knot loosen the smallest amount.

Once Louis was thoroughly established as an important member of the cast after a couple of years, his parents started giving him a weekly allowance from his earnings. They hadn’t moved into the new condominium yet, but the small home he remembered as a child was filling with sparkling new fineries. His father was sitting in a corduroy armchair that didn’t have a worn spot on it yet, a cold beer in his hand, and his navy blue work pants still on. His eyes were glued to the big screen TV he hooked up a few minutes before. Louis had haphazardly helped him transport it from the tech company’s van when his dad told the driver, “No, we can get it from here, thank you. This would lower the moving fee, yes?”

His mother was sitting on the corner of the new cream sofa with one foot resting on the coffee table, delicately painting her toenails a deep shade of red. She wore a pleated white blouse patterned with pink roses and green vines with poofy, long sleeves that she rolled up when she opened the nail polish bottle. She was a skinny woman, but with curvy hips and stood at a decent height, about five ten. Her skin was tanned from the California sun, but the artificial television light sucked the color out of it so that it suited a woman who stayed inside each day cleaning up after a boy and working husband. Her hair was perfectly teased up and her makeup was so clean that it didn’t look like she had any on at all. Thirty-five years old, but she looked younger now. Louis could still see the smile lines on her face no matter how much foundation she put on. She glanced up at him when he walked downstairs into the living room.

"Now, you have to be careful with this, son. Put a few dollars aside for now, and then spend the rest how you like. You never know when you'll need it," she said. She put her feet down on the carpet they meant to replace with her toes pointed to the ceiling before grabbing her purse. She pulled out a crisp bill and handed it to Louis, who paused before taking it.

Recently, those $10 given to him every five business days had been spent at the food court of LA’s Brea Mall with Brandon. Having just earned his driving license, he would drive them there after filming for the day.

"We're actors, Louis. Celebrities from Hollywood. We could get any girl we want," Brandon said with one hand waving in the air for emphasis and the other on the wheel. “Right, right,” Louis agreed in a small voice. His eyes lingered on Brandon longer than they should have. He had an athletic build with broad shoulders and brunette hair that had to be dyed a few shades darker to match Louis and their on-set father. Brandon caught his gaze and he felt heat rush to his cheeks before turning towards the window. They were supposed to look like brothers, but to Louis, they couldn’t be more different. Louis was five eight with long arms and no baby fat left. His hair was dark brown and styled for the show to fall away from his face. Wide sections of it laid on the sides of his head, longer than some boys would have preferred it.

“Kylie’s cute. You should talk to her more,” Brandon said after a moment. “She’s a bit much, don’t you think? She’s always got this look on her face like she never knows who’s lookin’ at her. Like there’s no ‘off-set.’”

“What, because she smiles a lot? You’re so dramatic. Give her a chance.” Kylie’s character was introduced sometime last year as the girl who moved in next door. Long, blonde hair and light blue eyes were absolutely required, and she had to come from the midwest. Kayla, as she was called while the cameras were rolling, was poised to be Anthony’s love interest. With both Louis and his character hitting those wonderful years of adolescence where they acknowledge the existence of the opposite sex and start to recognize the other’s appeal, the director wanted something to boost the maturity of the main character. It was a big hit when Kayla and Anthony started high school together, but the audience had to have enough time to fall in love with Kayla as well.

Meanwhile, Louis thought about sex, whether or not his jaw would ever fill out so that he might look like Tom Cruise someday, and all the other hormone-related thoughts 15-year-old boys have, but he was certainly not thinking about Kylie.

When Louis wasn’t out with Brandon or at work, he was usually sitting in his room avoiding his parents. Two years ago, Brandon and he pooled their money together (with Louis holding a less sizeable share) to purchase a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, along with the newly released DOOM game that they pored over playing in Deathmatch mode. For hours they would feel their minds go to mush by killing each other over and over again in the best ways. Now, the second controller was gathering dust while Louis would still go through the game by himself, maybe with Brandon on the phone talking about girls or playing on his own system at home.

They were at the studio when everything started to go to shit for Louis. Kylie usually did her state-mandated homework in the lobby, where there was more adequate lighting and newer chairs. However, she joined the boys in the classroom for this particular day. She opened the door and Brandon set his pencil on his desk.

“Did you need something?” He said. Louis continued to stare at his worksheet. “The power is out in the front. I thought they might send us home, but the secretary just directed me back here,” She shrugged and sat down in the seat closest to the door. “Well, welcome to the hole,” Brandon said, then ventured badly into the midwestern accent she used for the show, “It ain’t much, but it’s home.”

Kylie scrunched her nose into wrinkles like she smelled something rotten, “Don’t take roles from Minnesota anytime soon. Also, that was a little south.”

Louis started to laugh and strangled it into a cough. Brandon’s posture slumped slightly and he scowled into his textbook that had pages ready to fall out.

“You seem to be the expert, then,” Louis offered.

“It’s kind of my job, so yes,” She said curtly, opening her binder and letting the front flap thud onto the desktop.

They sat in a strained silence, Kylie obviously avoiding eye contact with either of them and Brandon sulking in his hard plastic seat.

“How long have you been acting?” Louis asked.

“Four years. I have my own show being made soon,” She conceded.

“Impressive. When do you start working on it?”

“I can’t really talk about it,” She said airily, like she was bored with the conversation already.

Louis stopped trying to “give her a chance” as Brandon had first suggested and settled into his algebra lesson.

A few hours later, when Brandon and Louis were taking their familiar route to the parking lot, Brandon stepped in front of the passenger side door to his jeep before Louis could grab the handle.

“You didn’t exactly have my back in there,” Brandon said, leaning against the car with his arms crossed.

“What do you mean?” He was flustered.

“With Kylie. Do you like her? Did you guys do something without me?”

“I hardly know her. You’re the one who told me to talk to her.”

“I saw how she looked at you. And you guys made fun of me. Not fucking cool.”

“Do you have a crush on her? You’re paranoid. Why are you acting like this?” Brandon suddenly stepped close to Louis, putting their faces closer together. Louis was shocked, and a little scared. Though he normally invited closeness from Brandon, even in moments of intensity, now he was unconsciously putting some space between them on the asphalt.

“Look, I was just trying to be friends with her,” Louis said, putting his hands in the air with his palms facing the other boy.

“You like her. Just admit it,” Brandon pressed further.

“I don’t!”

“You’ve been acting so weird lately. What the hell is wrong with you then?”

“Brandon, you’re being a shitty friend right now. I’d rather fucking hang out with Kylie if you’re going to be just as bitchy.”

Louis didn’t mean to say that. His eyes widened to see that Brandon stopped closing the distance and his face fell from a look of hard anger and confusion to something that made Louis feel worse.

“Go to her, then.”

“No, wait–”

“Just, stay away from me, Louis,” Brandon turned around and walked to the driver’s side. “Brandon, wait!” He screamed then, chest tight and uncaring who else would hear him. Brandon peeled out of the parking lot and Louis felt like his body was too heavy to stand on its own anymore.

A few months ago, after his mother had spent hours unpacking boxes of stuff both old and new, Louis felt like he was starting to like the condo they moved into. His parents were immediately infatuated with its shaggily carpeted stairs, three bedrooms that were promised in the floor plan–no succeeding alterations needed–and a metal-rimmed balcony that had jutted out beyond the sliding glass door from their master bedroom. At dinner tonight, Louis sat on a lightly colored wooden chair with a blue and white plaid cushion on the seat. Matching curtains were hanging over the large bay window. A white table runner was spread down the table on which a vase with a few flowers of vibrant purples and blues sat in the middle.

His father sat at the head of the table, the top of his protruding beer belly snug against the wood when he pulled his chair in. Louis had heard that he lost his job earlier that week, but the way they spoke quietly behind closed doors about it made him feel obliged not to bring it up. His dad rubbed his face with calloused hands, running the fingers that used to ruffle Louis’s hair when they tossed the baseball back and forth across the lawns of the neighboring mobile homes in the park over a spot on his chin that was beginning to look darker than a 5 o’clock shadow.

His mother handed each of them a china plate and a set of polished silverware before disappearing into the kitchen to fetch the food. She had spent the last hour and a half preparing it, delicious smells of brown sugar caramelizing rounded cuts of baby carrots and baking meatloaf she had used her hands to form the mixture of ground beef, shattered saltine crackers, bright yellow egg yolks, and other ingredients she could name with a smile without having to read them off of a cardboard list. And of course, she did just that.

“Can you taste the barbeque sauce in the ketchup on top? I added just a pinch of sugar to it so that it was subtly sweet. I saw it on Food Network last night. Genius,” She beamed. “Yes,” his father replied, almost plainly, between bites.

“Oh cheer up Harold, we’ve got a lovely meal in front of us,” his mom chided him. His dad ate more slowly, like he was feeling for the texture of sticky syrup over the soft crunch of the roasted carrots on his tongue. When he opened his mouth to speak, he looked pointedly at his son from the head of the table, “Thanks to Louis, we have this food. The house. You just make it pretty.”

His mother pursed her lips and visibly took a deep breath.

Louis was taken aback. He knew he was making a decent income from Family Anatomy, but he’s only been seeing $10 of it every week. He missed the old house still. Where he could look out the window of his bedroom which was closer to the street than the rest of the building and see if any of the other kids in the neighborhood were out walking with their parents or grandparents.

“We appreciate you,” his mother sat down and reached across the table to put a soothing hand on his arm. He continued to eat and act as if it wasn’t there. Her fingers slipped off as he raised his fork to his mouth.

“Don’t we, Louis?” She turned to Louis as she said this, rallying his support. He didn’t know how to respond. His dad hadn’t been sad around him before. Or this angry.

“We don’t need the money from the farm, anyways,” she remedied quietly. “I’m not going to lean on my own son for support. He’s a child.”

Louis felt a wave of injustice rush over him making his head spin.

“Haven’t you done that already? You said it yourself, Dad. The cost for us to move here, your new TV, Mom’s huge wardrobe, where did that money come from? Do I have a college fund? What am I going to do when I turn 18? Did you save anything I ever made for me?” The words tore out of Louis like a bat out of hell. They ripped his throat open and burnt it raw as he got up from the table to escape down the hallway.

“Don’t think we don’t know who you are, Louis,” his father called after him, “A fucking queer. We’ve seen it since you were five years old. But you’re in Hollywood, so hold on to the dirty secret while you can, because you’ll end up jobless like me.”

He didn’t look back, but he heard his mother slam a ceramic plate down on the wooden table like a gavel dismissing a jury.

The following day at work, Louis had to be prepared for his first kiss to be televised for the rest of the nation to see. He must have read the script over a dozen times during lunch, though he could recall it by memory since last week. Near the end of the day, the scene was finally ready to shoot.

On the set, Kylie and Louis were by themselves in a kitchen that was supposed to be a room away from a classmate’s birthday party. Music was playing through the thin wall, but with the volume lowered so it emulated a house with better bones.

“Anthony, I pulled you aside for a reason,” Kylie said. She stepped close to Louis and caused him to back into the counter. He felt trapped by her presence and the cameras facing him. “Your brother let me in on a secret of yours. Have any idea what he said?” She continued. “Oh gosh Kayla, you’re givin’ me the third degree,” He said his line with a practiced laugh. His heart raced in a way that made him queasy.

“You have a crush on me. And I think I like you,” said Kylie quickly, like she had been holding her breath for a long time.

Louis looked at the rug on the tile floor, tracing the pattern on it with his sneaker. “Did you hear me? I said I like you!” She repeated desperately, grabbing his shoulders. “Yes, I like you too,” he responded without lifting his head. He had been dreading this moment since the day they introduced her character to the show. He knew what was coming next, and so did she.

She tilted his chin up gently and leaned close to Louis’s face. He closed his eyes and tried to think of anything else when her lips touched his. Brandon’s light laugh. The way his skin would shine with sweat and sand when they would go to the beach together in the summer. The sound of his jeep door flung closed before he caught a final glimpse of his usually consoling brown eyes with striking green circling his pupils. Louis’s own eyes burned like he’d been walking around in a wildfire haze beneath his closed eyelids. He and Kylie had never been this close before, and she smelled like spring flowers. There was still something pulling at the pit of Louis’s stomach, and he couldn’t wait to turn from her.

He had the chance to break away when the director called out for a cut. He looked out to the studio and saw his father standing by the snack table, waiting to pick him up. He was nodding his head approvingly while he chewed an animal cracker with his mouth slightly open, crumbs falling into his beard. Brandon wasn’t needed in this scene and had long since gone. They used to wait for each other, hanging out in the lobby or their makeshift classroom. But he had left. Without him.

“Okay, that was fucking awful. Have you never kissed a girl before?” Kylie said in a low, venomous voice. She looked up at the director and smiled sweetly, “Do we need to try that again?”

Jenna Schoepflin is a nonbinary, bisexual writer who specializes in fiction. They have earned an Associate of Arts from Linn Benton Community College and are pursuing Bachelors of Creative Writing at Oregon State University. Their work has been published by the literary journal Maudlin House and Linn Benton Community College’s The Commuter.