This is the second chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
Wow, that’s … a compulsive habit of mine. I didn’t know it went so deep. Sorry.
The truth, Helena. The truth.
Pause. Rewind. Deep breath.
The truth is that Stanford wasn’t my top choice. Not at first. I wanted to go to Harvard, to Yale, to Princeton, to Columbia — to any of those snooty East Coast schools that carried with them an air of unavailability. I wanted to be elite. Prestigious. Untouchable. I wanted to party with clean-shaven boys in argyle sweaters who would take me back to meet their CEO mothers and invite me to summer with them in the Turks and Caicos. I wanted to read poetry on impossibly green lawns and join a secret society and sweep into class every day just disheveled-looking enough to appear interesting.
But Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia didn’t want me. I applied for the first time during my junior year as Nicole, then again the next year as Helena. I was rejected both times by all four universities. Luckily, I took my college counselor’s advice, adding Stanford and Cambridge to my list the second time around. Both were happy to have me. In the end, I chose Stanford because temperate Palo Alto seemed like a good alternative to the dreary UK.
The parts about the shooting star and the champagne are true, though. I really did feel as though my life was coming together back then. Maybe I’d been rejected from the Ivies for a reason. Maybe I was meant to start my journey on the West Coast.
Stanford called for a slight image tweak. The school wasn’t associated with snooty, old-money snobbery, but it was known as a place where intelligent, laid-back people went to study. And it was located in the heart of Silicon Valley, land of the young and arrogant. Instead of being a real-life Blair Waldorf, I’d be a type-A workaholic with a whimsical side — basically, a young, blonde, manic-pixie Elon Musk.
I would be both sweet and cocky, with a side of California nonchalance. Pretty in an elegant, non-threatening way, like a daffodil or a rose. Sharp and witty enough to hold my own during intellectual debates. I would be someone who could quote Marcus Aurelius while rolling an impeccable joint. Someone who could entertain philosophical conversations while high.
Helena was essentially Nicole, upgraded. I already loved to read, and I was willing to do whatever it took to become a successful author, even if it meant writing away deep into the night. I had the plain-but-pretty looks and requisite cleverness, too. I just needed a new wardrobe and some more confidence.
I filled my closet with vintage dresses that toed the line between modest and frumpy, cut my honey-blonde hair so that it fell evenly around my shoulders, learned a practical no-makeup makeup look that made my eyes seem two times wider than they actually were, and practiced talking to random strangers on the street until I no longer felt any hesitation starting a conversation with anyone. By mid-July, I had morphed into someone graceful, quick-witted, and charismatic.
This didn’t mean that I was done. I couldn’t just go to Stanford and expect to become famous without doing any further work. There were over a thousand kids in my cohort. Charm and aesthetic would only take me so far.
I had to go in with the seeds of fame already planted. But how?
The answer, as it turns out, would come to me the first time I tried cocaine.
Helena needed something that I did not yet have: experience. Especially drug experience. Especially, particularly cocaine experience. I wanted to show up on campus as a suave expert amongst wide-eyed fledglings, but I hadn’t tried any substances aside from weed and alcohol. I needed to make up for it, fast.
The only drug dealer I knew in Falls Grove was Austin Chang, who lived across the street. It was an open secret that he was the unofficial supplier for all the kids in town. His parents, busy doctors both, were either clueless or didn’t care about the steady stream of “friends” filing in and out of their home at all hours of the day.
A large KEEP OUT sign hung on Austin’s bedroom door. Inside, light-blocking curtains made afternoon seem like midnight. Young Thug blasted from a speaker hidden in one corner. An episode of The Office silently played on the wide-screen TV under the lofted twin bed, sans subtitles. The air smelled heavy and sweet, a concoction of scents — Febreze? Candles? Incense? Weed?
Austin himself sat by the window with his feet up on a metal desk, sporting a pair of heavily ripped jeans and a tight black T-shirt that read Anti Social Social Club in wavy white letters. Dark hair flopped into his eyes. If not for the glowing vape pen hanging from the corner of his mouth, I would’ve taken him to be a middle schooler deep in his scene phase.
“Sup?” he asked.
“I’m here to buy some coke,” I said. All the talking to strangers paid off: my voice sounded self-assured and authoritative.
“How much do you want?”
“As much as fifteen dollars will get me.”
He burst out laughing. “Fifteen dollars? Fifteen dollars will get you nothing. A line, maybe.”
So much for appearing knowledgeable. “Fine, then. That’s what I’ll have.”
“First time, huh?” Austin grinned and dug a small set of keys out of his front pocket, which he used to unlock his top desk drawer. Out came a small wooden box. He inserted an even tinier key into the lid of the box and fished out a tiny baggie filled with white powder.
I shrugged. “I wanted to try some stuff before I go to college.”
“Glad to be of service.” He dumped a tiny amount of cocaine onto the table before sweeping it into a thin line with a stray index card from the desk. The fine white substance reminded me of the cornstarch that had gotten all over the counter the one time a friend and I had tried to make Oobleck in my parents’ kitchen.
I knelt down by the desk. “Aren’t I supposed to have …” I pointed at my nostril. “You know, to go in …”
Austin sighed dramatically. “Do I look like a full-service drug dealer to you?” From his pocket came a leather wallet. He fished out a crisp twenty-dollar bill and rolled it up into a tight little straw.
“Grab it,” he instructed, “and don’t let it fall apart. Now put it right at the edge of the line —”
I did as I was told.
“Is it, like, kind of in your nose?”
“Yeah,” I replied, feeling slightly ridiculous. The coarse carpet was starting to burn into my knees.
“Good. Now, hold your other nostril shut with your index finger — yes, just like that — and inhale as hard as you can. As hard as you can. Don’t stop until it’s gone. Try not to leave any of it on the table.”
I took a long drag from the makeshift straw, pushing it along the line as I went. Immediately, there was both a sharp pain and a numbing sensation deep in my nasal passage. Tears sprung to my eyes without warning. My right nostril lost all feeling; I was vaguely aware that I was sucking up air through the $20 straw like a deranged vacuum cleaner. When I was sure that I’d gotten all of it, I tilted my head back and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.
“Niiiiiice.” There was new respect in Austin’s eyes. “You really went for it.”
I made a face at the odd dripping sensation in the back of my throat and sudden bitter taste in my mouth.
“The nasal drip is the worst,” Austin said sympathetically.
I forced myself to cough. “Ew. Is this” — cough — “gonna last” — cough — “forever?”
“Nah, although you may have a stuffy nose or a nosebleed soon. You feel it yet?”
As soon as he said this, I realized that all of the things that had been dragging me down — the pressure of upgrading my personality, the anxiety of not knowing exactly what narrative to create for myself , the embarrassment of being so obviously a coke virgin — no longer bothered me at all. I once again felt that unwavering sense of certainty that I was on the right path, that the Universe was conspiring to give me exactly what I wanted.
An idea started to take shape in my mind.
Social media was just starting to become an established part of culture. People had yet to take it too seriously — “social media manager” wouldn’t be a real job for a few more years — but it was becoming clear that Facebook and Twitter were here to stay. These platforms had recently been hailed as the new Great Equalizers; those who’d been traditionally shut out of the press and the media could now publish their thoughts online to ever-growing audiences. My favorite authors didn’t use social media, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t. What better way was there to cultivate fame, to spread a persona, than through social media? What better way was there to reach hundreds, thousands, even millions of readers?
I thought of Internet celebrities I knew who had spun their large followings into book deals, television shows, apparel and makeup lines. What was keeping me from doing the same?
“Ah, you feel it,” Austin observed.
Oh, I felt it, all right. An involuntary smile spread across my face. I could make … an Instagram page! And use long-form captions to draw people in! Maybe even use cliffhanger endings. Bitches loved cliffhanger endings.
I could be a writer! On social media! Maybe even exclusively on social media? It wasn’t like Instagram was being used for anything other than heavily filtered shots of coffee art paired with captions like #Valencia. If I did this right, I could tap into a market no one else even knew existed. Sure, I knew jack shit about photography, but nothing stopped me once I had a goal in mind. I would learn how to create photos that matched the beauty of my words. I would learn to write for the medium.
My smile widened as I realized the implications of what I was doing. I wasn’t just going to start an Instagram account. I was going to invent a whole new way to use it, disrupting the old ways of being. It was some serious innovation! Maybe I belonged at Stanford after all.
“Man, you’re feeling it,” Austin said. “It makes me want to celebrate with you, but unfortunately I have somewhere to be in five minutes.”
I didn’t care. I had work to do, goddammit! I had pictures to pose for and a lots to research and —
“Want another line for the road?” Austin asked. “I’ll give it to you for ten.”
I opened my mouth to say fuck yes, but something in my mind stopped the words from escaping my lips.
“No thanks,” I said instead, setting a crumpled five and ten-dollar bill on the desk. “Appreciate the experience, though. See you around.”
Austin nodded, gaze unwavering from behind his mop of dark hair. “Good luck.”
I walked through the door as calmly as I could. Once I was out of sight, I nearly flew back to my house, heart pounding in my chest. Now that I knew what I needed to do, it was time to get down to business.