Brett Somers is sick this week, and it’s nothing like you’ve seen on television before. She holds a handkerchief up beside her head as she leans on her hand to think of an answer. Throughout the episode, you hear coughing coming from the margins of the shot. She is careful not to cough while she’s on camera—but she doesn’t seem to be covering the microphone. Because all week it has been, “Dumb Dora was so dumb—” *COUGH COUGH* or, “Horrible Hank was at it again—” *COUGH COUGH* and on and on. Last week, there was an episode in which Gene Rayburn had to pause for 62 seconds (you timed it, you rewound it on the DVR and opened up the timer on the iPhone) because the zipper on his boot was caught. Gary Burghoff ran over to help fix it, vamping jokes about the shoe being on the other foot, and Betty White grabbed him by the ankle and almost sent him ass over elbow into the contestant’s stand.
“I love it,” you said, eating pizza flavored Combos, lying on your stomach in front of the TV, your feet in the air, your soccer cleats dangling back and forth. “They didn’t even bother to cut to a commercial?”
This is the best thing about Match Game. Catching Richard Dawson sneaking a drag from his cigarette on camera. Brett complaining that she can’t think of anything to say. The fact that the show would just cut off after half-an-hour, even if the game wasn’t finished. Gene would hold up his impossibly long, absurdly skinny microphone and say, “That’s all the time we have! We’ll continue the game in our next half hour.” After a quick costume change, they’d tape the next episode, picking up right where they’d left off. Gene would stumble through this, charmingly, asking the contestant, “Where were we?” his crooked teeth and receding hairline reminding me of one of our fathers (but so much cuter, I thought—those lapels! those amazing ties!). We love how clumsy they are with the rules, how much fun they seemed to be having.
You were sick for a week, and when you came back to school you said, “There’s this show on TV—all these weird old celebrities make dirty jokes.” Your parents had just upgraded to the best cable package. We’d spent the last two weeks in the den after soccer practice, searching through the hundreds of channels for new discoveries. Reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, this show on the other food channel about which city had the best hot dogs, cartoons about Spider-Man from decades we didn’t even know made cartoons about Spider-Man. But when you discovered Match Game, we knew that our search was over.
We would watch, crossing our fingers for Charles Nelson Reilly as the jingle began, our shirts still damp from running laps around the field and darting in between cones, checking each other, but gently. They said we weren’t old enough for full contact. The thing we wanted most was an “Oops!”—the rare moment when one of the contestants would answer with a word that was forbidden by the censors. We’d giggle excitedly, wondering what they’d said, our newly pubescent, suburban Wisconsin vocabularies struggling to match the wit of a Nipsy Russell or a MacLean Stevenson. Our legs brushed against each other’s ever so lightly as we watched. The tiny hairs on your calves—you’d started to grow them, mine were still smooth—tickled me, and I felt it all through my body, like electricity, or the chill that would run down your back when you stepped out of the pool in summer, the moment before your mother wrapped a towel around your shoulders and kissed you on the cheek.
Once, only once, while Betty White was busy rolling up Gene Rayburn’s pant leg—a recurring prank she would pull whenever he stood next to her seat while he was throwing to commercial—I kissed you. I don’t know why. You never asked me. We stopped watching Match Game at the end of the fall, when soccer practice turned to hockey practice and you decided you didn’t want to play. I would go home by myself, eat Ruffles potato chips, flip through the basic cable on the little TV in the kitchen, settling for Wheel of Fortune, or reruns of Family Feud.
When I kissed you, I could feel the first whiskers breaking through the skin above your lips, tiny shoots in the loam. You looked at me. You said nothing. Your lips wet. Your mouth open. Your face blank. I couldn’t think of the right thing to say.