This is the thirteenth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
San Francisco has Blue Dawn, and LA has Pink Dusk.
The best times of day are directly before and directly after sunset, when the soft light turns the world ethereal for just a few moments. If life were up to me, I’d forever oscillate between sunrise and sunset, dawn and dusk, blue and pink skies until my eyes become too old to take it all in. Unless I get sick of them first — which, as shitty as it sounds, could happen pretty easily. I tend to overindulge in things I love until I can no longer stand them. Case in point: there was a period of time where I put a blue butterfly emoji in nearly every one of my Instagram captions, and now I can no longer even look at the damn image without wanting to roll my eyes to high heaven.
I saw my first cotton-candy sunset on a Tuesday evening in March as Nevaeh and I pulled into the City of Angels. She’d convinced me to spend spring break with her. We’d rented a red Mustang, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway from Palo Alto to Los Angeles with the wind roaring past our ears. Who knew that traveling in a convertible could be so loud? And it was kind of cold, too, at least at first. We put on thick coats and fuzzy pajama pants for the road, shedding them when we stopped in Carmel and Big Sur. By the time we got to Santa Barbara, we’d ditched those bulky outfits for good. Southern California, baby! We passed by a sign that read City of Los Angeles, and my heart swelled as I took in the iconic Lorax-esque palm trees lining the streets. What the fuck was I doing at Stanford? I should’ve applied to UCLA instead.
Next to me, Nevaeh swung her feet up onto the dashboard, her electric-blue toenails popping against her dark skin. She wore a canary-colored bodysuit tucked into a pair of high-waisted black shorts, her hair in hundreds of tiny braids cascading down her back. My eyes had nearly popped out of my head when she’d walked out of the rest stop bathroom a hundred miles ago. Following the initial shock was an instant swell of embarrassment over all the times I’d waxed poetic about LA cool girls. Nevaeh was the embodiment of an LA cool girl. It was clear that she’d grown up here, that she knew the hundreds of unspoken little customs that distinguished outsiders from natives.
Summertime, and the living’s easy
And Bradley’s on the microphone with ras m.g.
All the people in the dance will agree
That we’re well qualified to represent the LBC
“Me, me and Louie,” Nevaeh crooned, her smooth alto voice easily overriding the scratchiness of the lead singer’s. “We gonna run to the party and dance to the rhythm, it gets harderrrrrr.”
I nodded along to the beat, feeling like I was coming down from a bad acid trip. Finally, the two of us were in a good place again. It had been a rough couple of weeks, all terse text messages and interactions devoid of her usual warmth. I was spending too much time on my brand, on NipNop, on the book proposal that remained a blank document on Google Drive. She may have been the one actually keeping up with the draconian levels of reading and writing expected of a Stanford English major, but Nevaeh was no workaholic.
“Friendship,” she’d explained one night after she’d tried — and failed — to tear me away from my phone for the upteenth time, “consists of quality time, at least for me. Do you even like me anymore? Or am I just someone who keeps your bed warm until your fake boyfriend can lie in it?”
She had a right to be upset. Nevaeh had been the one putting in the effort since I’d made my feminist pivot on Instagram. How many times had she made the two-hour trek up from Stanford on the train, spending her own money in the process, just to vet my captions or listen to me complain about how I wasn’t growing fast enough? I was clearly the asshole here, and so I’d agreed to come to Los Angeles with her. I would meet her family and old friends and potentially get some nice pictures at the beach.
Me and my girl, we got this relationship
I love her so bad, but she treats me like shit
On lockdown, like a penitentiary
She spreads her lovin’ all over,
And when she gets home, there’s none left for me
I was determined to make it up to Nevaeh. I’d told my followers that I was taking a social media break for ten days. I’d even deleted the Instagram and NipNop apps off of my phone in case muscle memory got the best of me. On the drive over, it had been just the two of us again, and I’d felt that pureness of purpose that had drawn me to Nevaeh in the first place. But now that we were getting close to our destination, I was dying to get back online to see how many new fans I’d gained, how many people had left comments since I’d last logged on.
My left hand tightened around the wheel. Had it been the wisest choice to take a whole ten-day sabbatical — and during spring break, no less? Followers could be fickle people. I’d had 503k before the start of the trip, and I didn’t want to boost my numbers with fake accounts if I could help it. Plus, I really wanted to show off the berry-swirl sky before it fully faded into indigo.
Evil, I’ve come to tell you that she’s evil, most definitely
Evil, ornery, scandalous and evil, most definitely
“The tension, it’s getting hotter,” Nevaeh trilled. “I’d like to hold her” — a casual flick of the wrist — “head underwater.” She looked over at me, the corners of her pale green eyes crinkling into a dazzling smile.
I instantly felt like a total douchebag for even thinking about work. Here I was, on vacation with a Cool Girl who still considered me her best friend after seeing my dweeby core. Nevaeh alone, I reminded myself, was worth ten million followers on Instagram.
Summertime, and the living’s easy …
I grabbed her left hand with my right and sang along until the end of the track, marveling all the while at the soft pink clouds that remained, even after the sun had called it a night.
LA was less glamorous than I’d imagined. In New York City you could sense the excitement and bustle as soon as you stepped into the street. Here, it was all half-lit billboards and houses that reminded me of crooked teeth. Where were the parties, the glamorous hotels, the beachfront villas? If I’d wanted gritty, I’d have stayed behind in SoMa with the NipNop crew.
Oliver’s offer still hung in the air. Let me know in a week, or I walk, he’d said during our meeting, but he’d called me afterward and told me that I had until the end of March to decide. He’d be interviewing other candidates in the meantime, but the role was mine if I wanted it.
I obviously did want it, but there were a few considerations that made me hesitate. First, I didn’t know the first thing about actual marketing. Buying fake followers and forcing my way to organic popularity did not a scalable strategy make. How was I supposed to convert that experience into growing a company’s user base? Second, becoming an executive required more charisma than I had. I could fake my way around an online presence, but even the thought of having to be ‘on’ at work twenty-four-seven made me want to crawl under the covers and never come back out. Third, I did want to graduate from Stanford, if only to display the diploma in my future office.
Fourth, I was afraid that I’d stop seeing Nevaeh if I accepted the job. Startup life at a rapidly growing company was no joke — it had been hard for Oliver to even find time for photoshoots lately, let alone hang out without work involved. Nevaeh’s friendship mattered more to me than I let on; she was my true north, my voice of reason. I had a sneaking suspicion that the less time I spent with her, the more bad decisions I made. I’d told her about the offer the day I’d gotten it, but she refused to talk about it, insisting that I focus on the trip.
“On your right,” she said now, pointing to a house up ahead. She was practically leaning out of her seat, squinting. “Don’t get on the driveway yet. I need to open the gate first.”
Nevaeh vaulted out as I slowed the car to a stop by the crumbling sidewalk. There was a tall black gate with a PIN pad on the right; I watched as she ran up to it in a series of little leaps, a barefoot ballerina under the fluorescent glow of the streetlight. In went the code — beep, beep, beep, beep — and the gate began to slide open, revealing a looming structure almost entirely blocked by the haphazard branches of a thin, haggard-looking tree. Two other cars sat side-by-side before the entrance of the house. I pulled in slowly, deliberating. No matter where I parked, I’d be blocking someone in.
Whatever, I decided. It was impossible to not get obstructed on a driveway like this one. Someone would tell me if there was a problem.
“Watch your step,” Nevaeh advised as we wheeled our suitcases up to the front door. “There are a few asshole kids around here who like to throw glass bottles through the gate.”
“And you’re not wearing shoes because …”
“I am now!” She gestured to her beat-up Puma slides. “It’s the inside of the gate that you really have to worry about.” She opened the door with a little gold key and swung it open with a grand gesture. “Welcome to my humble abode.”
My eyes took a second to adjust to the dim settings inside. The tiny foyer I’d stepped into was lit by a ceiling lamp that resembled a bare breast. Matted, faded blue carpet covered the floor. I could barely make out a sitting room with an old-fashioned piano to the left, a wooden staircase to the right, and a long hallway directly front of me that disappeared into the darkness. Childishly, I hoped that wherever we were going wasn’t through there. I’d read Coraline and the Narnia books as a kid, and knew what happened to curious little girls who wandered into black hallways.
“We’re up the stairs,” Nevaeh said, picking up both of our suitcases with a determined grunt. I followed her, hoping that she wouldn’t slip and send our heavy luggage crashing back down onto me.
The first thing I noticed about the second floor was the sheer amount of artwork on the wall. Paintings, sketches, photographs, and cut-outs filled every available space, from floor to ceiling, extending as far as I could see. There was no discernable method behind how they were displayed; some sat proudly in gilded frames while others were carelessly taped to the surface. The majority depicted a topless blonde woman with a half-smirk on her face. She had a vacant look in her eyes that made me profoundly sad.
“That’s my mom,” Nevaeh explained. “She has a thing for commissioning art of herself.”
No wonder Nevaeh didn’t want to be the subject of her own stories. I tried to picture my own mother doing such a thing and I couldn’t.
Fortunately, my best friend’s room held no trace of this creepy shrine. It was painted a light yellowish green, with dark wood furniture and a small window covered with light-blocking curtains. A small nightstand lamp gave the room a cozy glow. Nevaeh dumped our bags down in the middle of the room with a huff and flung herself across the twin-sized bed in the corner.
“Home, sweet home,” she groaned. “Next time, we’re flying.”
If only I’d known at that moment that I’d be flying home in tears less than twenty-four hours later! But I didn’t.
“Oh, come now. Where’s the fun in that?” my non-clairvoyant self asked, squeezing in next to her on the bed. “I liked getting to see all those places with you. Especially Carmel.”
“That just proves my point. Don’t ruin a perfect memory by visiting a place more than once.” Nevaeh yawned. “I think my mom’s out for the weekend. Her car’s gone, and she hasn’t responded to my last five texts, so …”
“Does your mom do that a lot?” I asked, treading lightly. Nevaeh was usually cagey about her family situation. All I really knew was that her dad wasn’t in the picture, and that her mom had been almost famous in the seventies — both things that admittedly made me rudely curious.
“Yeah. She completely drops off whenever she gets a new boyfriend. Like, I won’t hear from her for weeks. When I was younger my grandma would come pick me up, but since I started high school, I’ve just taken it as a license to chill.” She gave her phone another glance before dropping it on the bed. “I like it now, honestly. My mom’s a loud person, and when she’s gone it means I have a better time writing. If she gets murdered, though, I’ll never think to look for her.”
Her life was so strange and so different from mine. As busy as they were, I couldn’t ever see my parents completely abandoning me for weeks on end. And I was an adult! I gazed at Nevaeh, feeling a sudden wave of admiration for her self-sufficiency.
“Anyway, we should probably go to bed,” she said. “Kayleigh’s meeting us at eight AM tomorrow, and we cannot do that thing when we wake up and fall back asleep for, like, two hours.”
I felt a little weird about meeting my current best friend’s childhood best friend — I’d read enough BFF dramas to know that these things could get very complex very quickly — but I’d forced Nevaeh to deal with Oliver too many times to count. It was only fair that she got the same grace in return.
The next morning, I woke up and hurried into the bathroom a full hour before my alarm went off. While Nevaeh snored on the cramped bed, I wrestled my tangled hair into two high pigtails. Then I got out my cosmetics bag and did my best approximation of a classic fifties look: dark eyebrows, with a soft cat eye and bright red lipstick. The grimy bathroom mirror did me no favors. Thank God I’d learned how to properly do makeup before this trip.
“How do I look?” I asked Nevaeh, twirling one of my pigtails around my finger. I wore a loose-fitting black-and-white striped romper that I’d bought at one of those super-cheap online stores that were really sweatshops. My San Francisco style was too twee for this town; hopefully this getup would show that I, too, could switch things up. Plus, the three of us were going to the Griffith Observatory. My dark outfit would provide maximum contrast against the stark white building.
Nevaeh squinted at me. “You look like … Sailor Moon,” she said, her voice still dopey from sleep. “Or Angelica from Rugrats.”
I hadn’t grown up watching TV, so I had no idea whether those comparisons were flattering or not. I thought I looked pretty good — and when Nevaeh emerged from the bathroom in a pastel pink crop top and light-wash cutoff shorts, I felt like I’d made the right fashion choices.
Not that I really cared, of course, but I’d Instagram-stalked Kayleigh back in San Francisco. Even though she only had three hundred followers, she was one of those girls whose natural charisma oozed through the screen. Hard femme 💋🌈, read her bio. NYU ‘18. Future journalist. Her pictures featured her laughing on the steps of a brownstone building, roller-skating down a road flanked with palm trees, making out with a pretty girl at a gay-pride parade. Kayleigh had a half-shaved pixie cut and could wear black lipstick without looking like she’d just learned how to put it on that morning. Kayleigh looked like somebody who would hate me on principle.
“Dude, I’m so excited,” Nevaeh squealed while I backed out of the driveway. Neither of the cars from last night had moved an inch. “You’re gonna love each other. Kayleigh’s into your work. She thinks you’re a great writer.”
“I can’t wait to meet her, either,” I said.
Nevaeh was too excited to pick up on the uncertainty in my voice. “Oh, it’s gonna be so much fun! Hanging out with both of you is going to be … surreal. Like a crossover episode between my two favorite shows.”
Kayleigh had instructed us to find her by The Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, but all I could see when I pulled up to the curb on Flower Street were hordes of pretty, thin couples milling about. Everyone looked impossibly toned, tanned, and heterosexual. There was no short-haired roller-blading femme in sight.
“She says she’s coming.” Nevaeh opened her door and scanned the area. “Wait here,” she told me. “I’m gonna go find her.”
“O … kay.” I shifted the gear into parking mode and idly tapped the wheel as I waited for her to return. My mouth was suddenly dry. Maybe Sublime would help calm me down.
I don’t practice Santeria, I ain’t got no crystal ball
Well, I had a million dollars, but I’d, I’d spend it all
Around the corner came Nevaeh, walking side-by-side with a girl exactly her height, both of them deep in conversation. The girl wore a ribbed gray tank top tucked into a pair of dark-wash cutoffs. I was ninety-nine percent sure that the braided belt threaded in the loops was for show.
What I really wanna know, ah, baby, mmm
What I really want to say, I can’t define
Well, it’s love that I need, oh
Nevaeh caught my eye and pointed me out to her companion. I raised my chin in a subtle nod.
I feel the break, feel the break, feel the break, and I got’ live it up
Oh yeah, huh, well, I swear that …
“… literally didn’t even tell me until last night,” Nevaeh said to Kayleigh as they walked up to the car. “I think her new boyfriend’s name is Earl or Ernie or something? It’s my mom, dude. You know how she is.”
“I’m sorry that she’s being shitty,” Kayleigh replied, opening the backseat door and sliding in directly behind me. Nevaeh climbed in next to her and shut the door. “Yeah, well, whatevs. Maybe someone will finally buy her fish paintings and make her happy.”
“Hey, I’m Helena.” I reached back to shake Kayleigh’s hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Likewise.” Kayleigh nodded briefly at me before turning back to Nevaeh. “You need to call her on her bullshit once and for all. She’s your mother, not your wayward little sis.”
What I really wanna say is, “I’ve got mine
And I’ll make it, yes, I’m comin’ up”
Nevaeh cleared her throat. “Helena, shouldn’t we get going? The traffic is going to be bad soon.”
“Yes, ma’am, whatever you say.” I rolled my eyes behind my oversized sunglasses and stepped on the gas.
Tell Sanchito that if he knows what is good for him,
He best go run and hide
Daddy’s got a new .45
And I won’t think twice to stick that barrel straight down Sancho’s throat
Believe me when I say that I got something for his punk ass
I learned more about Nevaeh’s mother on that drive than I did in over a year of friendship. Her name was Carolina and she was still convinced that she’d make it big as a Hollywood artist; she hung around college campuses hoping to score drugs; she’d once bought two designer kittens instead of paying rent. Nevaeh had no problem talking about any of this to Kayleigh, who alternatingly sympathized and galvanized.
Neither of them acknowledged me. My knuckles were white from gripping the wheel with all my strength. I kept the music going throughout the drive, if only because singing along would keep me from screaming. When the domed roofs of the Observatory finally came into view, I breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a weird start, a rough start, but we’d get to know each other better once we were face-to-face.