Panda and his bubble [Issue 4]

…continuing with Panda and his parents, and the boy who lived in a  bubble.


                                                Written by Jenn Topper

Panda had just turned 21 and couldn’t celebrate. He saw this birthday as a deadline, a chore, a reminder of a commitment he had made nearly 10 years before. He knew that soon he must get on a plane and fly to California to see his parents, and maybe his brother and sister. He couldn’t avoid it any longer. If he defaults on the contract to renew the relationship, the money wouldn’t come and the whole separation would be pointless.

Except it wasn’t pointless. Panda’s identity began to coalesce and he learned to have his own opinions, thoughts, and personality without cameras around. Instead of being the dark, cloistered kid who left home as part of an experiment years before, Panda flourished at Cooper Union in New York’s Greenwich Village and he was on track to become a brilliant design engineer. Few people now remember his past, so he had less and less to explain as the years went by. He was his own person now.

But in recent months, in the lead-up to his birthday in November, he knew that he had to face his parents on Christmas day. He spent a couple of weeks trying to ready himself for the meeting. As he always learned to do when things got particularly fucked up, he hunkered down and watched movies, in the hopes that seeing stories worse than his own wouldn’t make him feel so awful about his life and the deal he made in order to escape from his family.

After years of torment as the center of their reality TV hopes, Panda—even his name, which was an attempt to get an endorsement deal with the San Diego Zoo which had adopted its first panda when Panda was born—tried to escape his past. His parents made appearances on reality TV shows Wife Swap, Nanny 911, Cross-Cultural Family Ties and a half dozen more. All they wanted was a show of their own; they hoped that Panda would have sealed that deal for them.

The separation deal was made with the Riverside County district attorney who investigated the family when they pulled a hoax of gargantuan proportions, at Panda’s expense. It took a year of legal proceedings and another year in foster care for Panda to strike the deal—he gets $5 million from Donald Trump if he can stay away from his family for 10 years, and if they can manage to stay out of any media spotlight. Their incentive is that hopefully Panda will share the money.

First up was The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, the 1976 movie about the kid with no immunity who had to live in a sterile environment. Panda couldn’t remember watching the film as a kid, but the video rental guy recommended it. John Travolta played the sick kid.

“I’m looking for films in which children are, well, how do I say this carefully without sounding like a pervert—exploited? But you know, not exploited, just normal movies,” he said in kind of a whisper.

“I think I know what you mean. But are you looking for films about the exploitation, or films that just clearly exploit the child actors? Because there are a few of the first, but several of the second,” the video rental guy pressed him.

“Interesting distinction. I’ll have to think about it. Let’s have one of each and I’ll figure it out. I’ll be back later for more depending on how things turn out.”

He didn’t really think Boy in the Plastic Bubble fit the bill; and either the DVD was either a pirated version or its re-release contained inaccurate and sloppy copy, because it wasn’t based on a true story, it was just inspired by a kid in Dallas who had the same condition and was in the news a lot back in the 1970s. And the picture of Travolta was from a few years ago, not when he was in his early ‘20s and played a 17 year old. Plus, there were so many contradictions in the film though (e.g., like taking off his astrosuit because it runs out of oxygen while inside his sterile bubble—wouldn’t the outside of the astrosuit contain fatal germs?), that Panda focused on them instead of basking in the story’s exploitation of the boy. He didn’t feel any better, since his parents and the reality TV media had done much worse to him when he was a kid.

He went back to the video store to talk to the same dude who gave him the other recommendations.

“Isn’t there something that the kid is inherently messed up and the parents or his environment exploits?”

“Oh, I think I understand now. Messed up kids and the parents mess them up even more—unfortunately there’s more of that in real-life Hollywood than in fiction. Think about all the child stars, the ones who wound up doing softcore porn to pay off their crack dealers, like Dana Plato who played Kimberly Drummond in the 1980s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. Or the two Coreys—what a fucking train wreck they were.”

“Yeah, that’s true; I hadn’t thought about the real-life part,” and he recalled his roommate recounting a story about Corey Feldman nodding out at Grey’s Papaya on the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue at about 4am one night, hunched over a couple of half-eaten hot dogs and dressed like Michael Jackson, complete with face makeup.

Then he came across Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask and Victor Salva’s Powder, both about kids, but it was the kids who were messed up first .  Though they were equally fucked up in their exploitation of the kids, the stories surrounding them were more compelling but not what Panda needed to feel prepared to go back home.  Salva was convicted of child molestation, and midway through the shooting of the movie the whole cast freaked out.  Bogdanovich apparently trashed the studio for their final cut while in Cannes and disavowed the film thereafter.

Video store guy recommended Little Miss Sunshine, and though it was entertaining and demented, it was only the one perverse Superfreak scene that made him feel better. Panda didn’t really feel like the girl was adequately exploited to really damage her psyche to a magnitude anything close to his, so he kept searching for more stories. There had to be something that was worse than his own upbringing.

“Dude, everyone hates the holidays. Everyone hates going back to their family’s place. You can’t find a story bad enough that someone has documented out there that is worse than yours, because everyone has it equally bad,” the video guy told Panda. 

“Dick,” Panda said, and left the store.

He thought about what he said, and he may be right. But Panda thought about some of the ridiculous things his parents did to get in the media spotlight, like dressing Panda in ragtag clothes and showing him how to beg for money at the local mall. Or when the Sixth Sense came out, they totally copied the story and trained Panda—albeit poorly—to pretend to communicate with dead people and sent him on news shows. He was 9 years old at the time, and faced dozens of media interviews and even a shot on the Today show.

His life had been worse than the worst movies about children, and he had to face that now. Was $5 million worth it? How much would he give his parents, and would they learn to shut up? Couldn’t he just go on with his life? He had to inform Trump that he planned on going home, knowing full well that there would be a media parade in front of his parent’s house.

Flying out of JFK Airport on Christmas Day wasn’t as calm as he thought it would. He would have much rather been home to see the release of Godfather 4. Some of the world’s greatest movies were released on Christmas day, and he’d been there at each one for the past 10 years.

He stepped out of the taxi and hesitated before the long walkway up to the front door of his parents’ Swiss chalet-style house—quite an odd site for a suburban, southern California home.  There were fewer news trucks than he had expected, but perhaps because when he was 11 the trucks looked bigger and more intimidating. The agreement is such that he must have Christmas dinner with his parents before the check is issued and any media interviews are granted.

“Oh my god, oh my god, here he is, I can’t believe it, he’s beautiful, oh my god!” his mother shouted in an excruciatingly high, frantic tone, as he walked slowly up the front steps. “Get the door—go get him at the door! Do you have the video camera?” she yelled at his father, who already had the camera on the tripod set up in the foyer.

Panda was solemn and collected throughout the reunion. Neither his brother nor his sister attended. It was a lonelier Christmas dinner than he had spending it alone over the years. His parents were weirder than he remembered; but maybe the past 10 years in social isolation did that. 

He felt no connection to them, or anything, any longer. The emotional climax of the reunion didn’t come when they embraced him in the doorway, with the goddamned camera filming it and dozens of TV crews recording the event. The emotional climax came months before when he received the call from Trump Enterprises that a film production of his life was wrapping up and would be released on Christmas Day. Since he loved sequels so much, he thought he could set the stage for his life movie, part 2.

After dinner was complete and his father ran out to the front yard to call in the media and his mother picked up the phone to call Trump Enterprises to confirm the reunion was a success, Panda reached into his duffel and pulled out a large camera.

In the time it took for the Access Hollywood crew to set up on the front porch of the home, and others to camp out at the windows, he roped the camera’s lanyard from the rafter on the ceiling over the dining room table. It was a tight fit, but it would work, just as he thought. As he pushed the table from under his feet, he heard his mother come running in since it was quite a dramatic clanging and crashing of turkey carcass and dishes against the hardwood floor. He heard her screaming, but didn’t feel her tugging on him or trying to save him from suffocation.

“Are you filming this?” were the last words Panda heard.


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