This is the twenty-second chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
I never hesitate to write about real people I know.
All of my experiences are mine to share. I have full custody of every memory, even if — especially if — the people in them didn’t behave in the best way. No one likes to read about healthy, high-functioning people, okay? A writer’s job is to collect stories, and if one happens to provide one while hanging out, they shouldn’t be surprised when it turns up in print.
Marnie understood this very well. She’d built her entire career telling anecdotes about guys she’d come into contact with, on their shitty pickup lines and embarrassing tics in bed. Her book had caused a small uproar when it came out; critics and friends alike branded her overshare-y, exploitative, a succubus in a crop top and denim cutoffs.
“Not that this bothered me,” she drawled as she laid out on the deck of the Summer Wine, shrugging the white button-down off her shoulders. “I figured, if they were getting all triggered like that, I had to be onto something good. So I kept writing, and now I’ve almost got enough material for a second book.”
“Damn.” I leaned against the railing, trying to appear nonchalant. In reality, I felt like I was on the verge of passing out. My tongue lay bloated and useless in my mouth; my throat was going to close up at any second. Marnie was so confident, so self-assured, that she made me acutely aware that my entire reputation was an act. “Care to tell me anything juicy?”
I blushed as I said the word juicy. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to notice. “It depends on what you consider to be scandalous,” she said. “Things in general are wilder now because a lot more people know who I am, and they kinda know what they’re in for when they get together with me. Like, there was this one guy who wanted me to come over and lock him out of his hotel room while he was completely naked, just so he’d be forced to go to the front desk and pass by tons of people on his way there. He got a kick out of it. He said it would make a good story.”
Holy shit. “Did you do it?” I asked, keeping my voice even.
“Yeah, of course. I made him get one of the corner suites at the Faena — it was right around here, actually, on Miami Beach — and put the room under my name. And I mean, like, this place was fancy. Huge windows, wraparound balcony, panoramic ocean views, the whole nine yards. We checked in at four PM and spent most of the day fucking. You know, just normal vanilla shit, nothing too intense. Then I made him take me to dinner at Fleming’s, where we both got good and wine drunk, and when we came back, I told him to strip and step into the hallway.”
Marnie’s blue eyes widened and narrowed as she spoke, matching the mood of her words every step of the way. She was a good storyteller; I found myself hanging on to every sentence, dying to hear what happened next.
“He complies, of course, and he makes this big show of knocking on my door and begging like a little bitch for me to let him back in. I’m sure that people were staring, because it was a Saturday night and that place was packed!” Marnie giggled to herself. “After about five minutes of this, I hear his footsteps retreating down the hallway, and a little while later, there’s this official-sounding knock on the door.”
“Was it the authorities?” I stared directly at her face, shyness fully gone.
“Well …” She looked off the side to the boats around us, rendered pale gold in the late afternoon light. “It was this super-serious voice, saying that he was with management. I opened the door to find the guy I’d come with, staring at the floor with a fluffy white towel wrapped around his waist, with these two really stern-looking dudes on either side of him. They were all, like, ‘Miss, is this your boyfriend? He’s violating several public indecency laws, and said you’d put him up to it.’” Marnie’s eyes widened again. “Apparently, he’d chickened out midway and went to the front desk with his tail in between his legs! Literally. Ruined the whole damn thing, in my eyes. So embarrassing.”
“So what did you do?”
“Ha! That’s my favorite part.” She pulled the hair tie out of her ponytail, short curls framing her face like a white-blonde veil. “I looked ‘em in the eye and said, “Nope! I’ve never seen this man before, and honestly, I’m quite offended that you chose to expose him to me, a single gal trying to enjoy my stay, just like that.” See, his name wasn’t on any of the official documents, and he’d paid with actual cash — I guess he wanted to impress me or something — and it all worked out in my favor. I got to enjoy the rest of that weekend alone in that suite, writing, without any further interruptions.”
I scoffed in disbelief. “What happened to the guy?”
“He texted me a few days later, asking if I wanted to do it again at the Four Seasons.” Marnie threw back her head and cackled like a witch. “I took him up on it, obviously, but when the officials came this time, I fessed up and said that he was with me.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “This time, it was me who couldn’t keep my shit together. We ended up having a blast, though. Can’t say I regretted any of it.”
“And you’re going to … write about all this?”
“Already did.” Marnie turned her gaze back on me. “He has a girlfriend now, some uptight East Coast chick who won’t even send him nudes. Ah, it was fun while it lasted. Now, I’ve got this story forever, for keeps. Like a pretty little souvenir. It’s titled ‘The Coldest Bitch In Miami.’”
I coughed. “What did Wren think about it?”
“He loved it. I sold so many books that he basically lets me do whatever I want now. He even let me pick my own cover for the latest print run of Fireball in Hell — did you see it?”
“Of course.” I recalled the picture, where Marnie perched on a mahogany bar top, legs crossed one over the other, daintily glancing down at her hands as she poured Fireball into a red cup shot glass. She’d looked youthful and worldly at the same time, wild but gracefully in control.
“I wanted it to be of me and me alone, no dudes in it or anything. I shot it at this one lady’s personal bar, actually, but they didn’t let me actually drink on set.” Marnie paused before breaking into a devilish smile. “Not that it stopped me — or her, for that matter.”
She looked so proud of herself that I decided to ask her for some advice. “Wren used you as an example the last time I met with him,” I began. “He said that I should try and be more like you.”
Marnie guffawed, clapping a hand over her mouth. “Did he really? That’s hilarious. I have, like, no discipline at all. Seriously. If you sat me down in front of a computer and told me to put something out right now, I wouldn’t be able to do it, because right now all I want to do is talk to you. I’ve just been lucky is all — I like writing down my adventures as much as I like going on them. It’s like re-living the moment all over again.”
“So your secret is … that there is no secret?”
“Um, yeah. If I tried writing anything other than what I wanted to, I’d be an utter failure.” Marnie thought for a moment. “I guess that if I had to give some advice, it would be to be authentic. Be real. I don’t try to put on any sort of act, or to push myself into any kind of box. Like, I choose to do some shit for the story, but I’m honest about that too, you know?”
I nodded weakly. “Total honesty. Got it.”
“You can embellish a little, but if you go overboard, it kills the story. People can smell bullshit from a mile away. I learned that lesson well in college.” She turned toward the waterfront, squinting at the ant-sized figures running back and forth where the waves sloshed up against the dock. “Most of the people there are master bullshitters, and that’s why I don’t like hanging out with them. They reek of verbal doo-doo.”
“Ah, I don’t know. From what I can tell, she’s just private. She puts it all out there in her songs. She’s been a celeb since she was, what, twelve? It must be hard, growing up in the spotlight like that. I don’t wanna judge her without knowing the full story.”
“Makes sense,” I said, but I was only half-listening. With the gentle breeze in her hair and the turquoise water against her red bathing suit, Marnie looked like she belonged on a vintage postcard, the kind that soldiers kept in their wallets on the battlefield.
“Don’t move,” I told her as I reached for my phone.
> Marnie sitting on the Summer Wine, golden-brown legs stretched out on the bleach-white deck, face turned toward the mansions on the shore — [no caption]
“Give me your phone,” Marnie said after I’d finished posting. “Let me take a few of you. The light right now is gorgeous, especially with your fluffy skirt.”
I jumped to my feet, buoyed by her kind words. “I’m glad you like it. I felt so awkward wearing it at the party, like I’d missed some dress code memo.”
“Yeah, that’s part of why I like it. You’re wearing it because you want to. Not everybody has that kind of courage.” She led me over to the side of the deck. “Are you scared of the water?”
“Mmm …” I thought of that cliffside journey I’d taken with Nevaeh, then Elio. “Not really.”
“Perfect. Go over the railing, then — yes, just like that — now grab hold of one of the ropes and kinda hang over the edge.”
My palms sweated a bit as I followed her instructions. I was leaning away from the boat; if my hand slipped, I’d drop into the ocean like a rag doll. As if responding to my thoughts, the wind picked up a little, ruffling my tutu skirt and blowing my hair away from my face.
“Ah, beautiful! Lean a little further, like you’re Jack Sparrow going full speed toward a land mass! Yes, yes, just like that! Fuck yes, Helena. Damn. You’re a natural.”
She was right. In the shots I looked exhilarated, euphoric, like someone had caught me in the midst of an adrenaline-fueled excursion. I was gripping the line just so, without looking like I depended on it; my weight rested on the one foot that touched the boat, the other gracefully suspended in midair. Behind me, the water was a deep aquamarine, the sky fading from pale yellow to blue. Marnie was a better photographer than I’d imagined — there was no hint of the awkwardness I’d felt while posing.
“Wow, I love these! Thank you so much,” I gushed. “I’ll definitely give you photo credits when I post.”
“Don’t worry about it. It was my pleasure.” When I looked up again, Marnie was staring at me with a singular intensity that made me acutely aware of my smeared makeup and messy hair. “You looked really pretty, that’s all. Just wanted to capture the moment.”
“I, ah, appreciate it.” The tongue-tied feeling was back.
“Do you want a drink or something, by the way? A hit from my vape pen? I just got a new blue dream cartridge from Cali.” Marnie gestured below the deck. “Sorry, I’ve been a horrible host. I was just getting carried away talking to you.”
“A drink sounds good.” Anything to take the sudden edge off.
Marnie reappeared with two cans of pineapple Truly. “I know, I’m a basic bitch, but at least it isn’t Smirnoff Ice,” she said, handing one to me. “Cheers.”
The drink tasted of bitter carbonation with the hint of overripe tropical fruit underneath, but soon enough, I was relaxed again. We were a good quarter mile away from the party; from this distance, I could fully appreciate how lucky I was to be invited, to be considered in the same league as the kids racing around in motorboats and jumping into the water. One day, I promised myself, I would throw a party that rivaled Hunter’s in scope and size.
I was already halfway there, wasn’t I? This time last year, I hadn’t even met Wren yet. Marnie had been a name on a book, a face on a cover that seemed further away from me than the satellites that orbited the earth. Now here I was, signed with Wren, hanging out one-on-one with the girl I’d once aspired to be. Throwing parties for the youthful elite was no longer the stuff of pipe dreams. All I had to do was to get more famous, convince Oliver to sell NipNop so that I could cash out and buy my own bayfront mansion, pen a Marnie-style tell-all about the truth behind my reputation, and live out the rest of my days as a chaotic socialite known for her sparkling wit and lively salons.
I didn’t notice that Marnie and I had fallen into a comfortable silence until she rolled onto her stomach and sighed happily. “I’m really glad that we got to hang out,” she said. “You saved me from having to hit on, like, Kieran Irving by the champagne fountain.”
“Ew, that dude with the super-detailed gossip blog? The one who claims that he makes himself invisible so that he can spy on important people?” I made a face, casually ignoring the fact that I checked his site a couple times a day. Kieran wrote like a modern-day Lady Whistledown, and his reports did always end up being correct. “He acts like such an incel.”
“That would’ve made quite the tale, dontcha think? I want to see him disappear in front of my eyes.”
I snorted. “What if he’s here right now, and we just don’t know it?”
“DM me, Kieran. I’d love to hear from you.” Marnie batted her eyes at the empty air in front of her. “Did you know that he’s, like, good friends with Hunter? Not in a sexual way, either. They go out to eat, like, once a week.”
“What the fuck?” Come to think of it, I’d never read a single piece about Hunter on the site. I took a deep swig from my can. These were the people I wanted to be associated with, goddamn it. Marnie, and Hunter, and Kieran Irving, who did have considerable cultural relevance no matter how cringey he was. I was spending too much time on NipNop, with people like Elio, who would probably live alone in the hinterlands if he could.
“I know, right. That’s another reason why I want to get to know Kieran. You get the best secrets during pillow talk.” Marnie finished her Truly and carefully set the can down beside her. “Anyway, how’s Oliver? You haven’t mentioned him once while we were here.”
Right, Oliver. My fake boyfriend, who was probably with his real boyfriend at this very moment. “He’s good,” I said vaguely. “He’s pretty busy right now. We’re launching some new stuff, and everyone’s moving into a new office soon.”
“He didn’t want to come with you?”
“Someone needs to hold down the fort.” My voice had gone up a pitch or two, was now a little too chipper. I could tell from the way Marnie’s eyes narrowed that she’d noticed. “He’s not, like, my life or anything. You know I like to do stuff on my own, too. I post about it all the time on Instagram.”
“Yeah, I know. I don’t mean to sound … I don’t know, pushy.” Marnie got up and sat next to me, putting her arm around the railing that I leaned against. “He just seems distant. Like he cares about his company — sorry, your company — more than he does his relationship with you.”
She smelled like coconuts, light and sweet and faintly exotic. I blinked rapidly. “No, he’s great,” I lied. “He’s really caring and attentive. I guess it doesn’t come across in interviews as much.”
“But he’s such an entrepreneur bro! I’m projecting. Sorry,” she mused, almost as an afterthought. “And he can’t write for shit. ‘Seven Ways How Meditating in the Morning Directly Increases My Bottom Line’,” she intoned in a mock-deep voice, sitting up army-straight and folding her hands in her lap. “‘How Doing A ‘Nothing Experiment’ Changed My Entire Outlook on Discipline and Decisions’.”
I laughed despite myself. “I agree that those aren’t the best titles —”
“You’re not like that at all.” Her pupils were large, despite the glare of the setting sun. “I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but I consider myself a body-language expert, and what you have with Oliver doesn’t exactly scream ‘cute couple in love’.”
I gripped a handful of pink tulle in my fist. “I’m telling the truth.”
“You’re completely happy with him?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I picked up my Truly and took another gulp. I’d only had half the can, but the alcohol was clearly going to my head. My pulse hammered in my chest, in my throat, in my ears.
“He just seems like such a gross boy.” Marnie snaked her arm back around the barrier, scooting even nearer to me. “And all your co-founders are cis boys. But you’ve always seemed more to me like a … girls’ girl.”
Her face was just inches from mine. I could see the pinkish sheen of her lip balm, sparkling ever-so-slightly against the light reflecting off the sea. How clear her eyes were, up close, how impossibly clear and bright and intense. I was going to stop breathing if she came any nearer, or my heart would give out and I’d fall back and down, down into the water …
There it was again, that crystallizing feeling of time sharpening to a point. A single, lucid thought ran through my head: Did I want to stop her?
A moment later, the truthful answer: No, I did not.
And that was the moment I leaned in and kissed Marnie Tucker.
Afterward, Marnie and I lay in the cabin, listening to the boat creak-creak as it swayed on gentle waves. The bedchamber, with its wooden walls that dovetailed into one another right where our feet met, brought back memories of being very small, rocked back and forth until I drifted off to sleep. I’d thought that being below deck would make me dizzy, but all I felt was warm, comfortable.
Marnie was right about secrets and pillow talk. Lying there in the darkness, illuminated only slightly by the sliver of moonlight through the ceiling window, I wanted to tell her everything. Oliver, Nevaeh, Wren, everything. She’d been surprisingly tender with me, nothing at all like how she’d described herself in her book — yet it was somehow better this way.
Now, as she ran her fingers up and down my arm, I was finding it harder and harder to not blurt everything straight out. It felt kind of like swallowing vomit, or desperately holding in a bout of explosive diarrhea. But I couldn’t let myself go, not like this and certainly not to Marnie Tucker. She was just like me, only worse, because she told the truth about people. Pushing everything down it was, then, until I could be fairly certain that I could act normal again.
“You should do something nice for yourself once in a while. And I really do mean for yourself,” she was saying. “Not for your audience, or for your avoidant parents, or for whatever glory you’re trying to chase. I thought once that getting published — getting famous — would make all of my problems go away.”
I turned so that we were almost nose-to-nose. God, she smelled good. I hoped that she thought the same about me, that she would say favorable things about me instead of making fun of my relative inexperience. “Well, did it help?”
“You’re famous enough now to know the answer.”
From outside came the sound of a squeal and a splash. Some girl, it seemed, had fallen — or jumped — into the water. I wondered if she was a guest at the party, if I knew who she was. If she knew who I was.
“Don’t you like the attention?” I asked.
“Not for the attention itself. Not anymore. Like I said, I just like what I do.” She was quiet for a moment. “I guess that I also write for influence. For people like my younger self. All my life, I waited for a female role model who was unabashedly sexy and sexual, the way a man could be. Someone who could roll with it and dish it out, on behalf of women everywhere. I was so tired of the idea that we were only in it for the emotional connection.”
“I wish I could write as easily as you,” I said. “And We Weren’t Like is about being a girl with big ideas, learning how to stand on my own two feet, that sort of thing. But getting the words on the page is like digging splinters out of my kneecaps with a dull set of tweezers. Painful and exhausting. I find myself procrastinating by writing emails for NipNop.”
“Maybe you’re trying to force yourself to write a certain way, and it’s not your true voice. I tried to be all highbrow and intellectual at first, and it definitely wasn’t for me. But you’ll find your way.” Marnie squeezed my arm in reassurance. “You’re smart and confident and aren’t afraid to go after what you want.”
A stinging feeling came to my eyes. “That means a lot, coming from you.”
“Wanna know something funny? You’re way chiller than I expected you to be.” Marnie turned on her back, facing the skylight. “Today’s been a pleasant surprise.”
“Really? How did you expect me to be?”
“I dunno, kind of princessy and stuck-up. I totally thought you faked your shroom trip.” She giggled. “Is that, like, totally shitty to say? You just did not seem like the type to try drugs off the street. But I dunno, I’d believe you now.”
Hmm, okay. I could be coming off a little too snooty in my captions. I made a mental note to try and sound more down-to-Earth. “Are you going to write about this?”
“If I feel like it. Don’t worry, I use fake names for everything. I’ll call you, like, Caroline or something. Caroline Colliday, American NipNop personality.” Another giggle. “Don’t worry, there was nothing to shit on about you. Which probably means I won’t write it up, actually. Talking shit is my specialty.”
“Are you cool if I write about you? Eventually.” It felt weird to ask, but wrong not to, somehow.
“In your grand coming-out story?” she teased.
“What? No! That’s not a secret.” I felt the room grow warm. “I don’t know, this all sounds kind of exciting, doesn’t it? We meet at this party, hook up on your boat at sunset …”
“And you cheat on your boyfriend with another girl. Spicy. I’d read it.”
Oh, right. I’d forgotten that I was with Oliver in the eyes of the public. I shrugged. “Stuff like this doesn’t happen to me too often, I guess.”
Marnie sat up, careful not to hit her head on the low roof. “Of course you can write about me, silly. Haven’t you heard that Anne Lamott quote, about how you own everything that happened to you? If other people take issue with how you portray them, they should’ve behaved better.”
I felt a tremor go through my chest. Marnie understood what it was like to be a memoirist, how important stories sometimes came at the expense of others’ privacy. She deserved to know the truth about Oliver, about me. But I couldn’t, I —
POP! POP! POPPOPPOPPPOP! POPPPOP POPPOP POPPPOPPOPPPOPPOPPPOP! POPPOPPOPPPOP! POPPPOP! POPPPOPPOPPPOPPOPPPOP!
It sounded as though a host of guns were going off right outside the boat. I peered through the skylight to see a reddish beam of light wiggle like a tadpole up to the inky blue heavens before bursting into a dizzying shower of yellow and pink. Even from my vantage point they looked dangerously, thrillingly close, like I could reach out my hand and have a spark fall on my finger.
“Oh, hell yeah, the fireworks are out!” Marnie jumped into action, scrambling to the door on her hands and knees. “Race ya to the deck. Last one there is a rotten egg!”
“Wait!” I called to her quickly retreating behind. “Don’t you want to put some clothes on first?” My hands dug around for my romper, which had to be tangled up in the sheets somewhere. The cabin suddenly felt stifling, claustrophobic. Why had we just tossed everything willy-nilly? I was taking inventory of my belongings from now on.
“Don’t be a fucking prude. Come on!” She doubled back and grabbed my hand before I could find my clothes, yanking me with such force that I nearly smacked my head in the doorway.
Too late, I remembered the anecdote she’d told me about her adventure with that guy at the Faena. “Marnie, someone will see us! The Coast Guard will arrest us for sure,” I yelped as she pulled me up the stairs. “I don’t want to get in trouble my first time down here.”
“Chill out! We’re gonna be fine, really. I’ve done this tons of times before.” She climbed up on the deck with a whoop, dancing around the deck to the music that carried over the water from Hunter’s now lit-up residence, clear as day.
I live my day as if it was the last
Live my day as if there was no past
Doin’ it all night, all summer
Doin’ it the way I wanna
Yeah, imma dance my heart out ’til the dawn
But I won’t be done when morning comes
Doin’ it all night, all summer
Gonna spend it like no other
I stuck only my head out of the cabin entrance, making sure that the rest of me was below deck. Marnie was bathed in light, smooth and graceful as a dolphin, the reds, greens, and blues in the sky a glittering backdrop to the private show she was giving me.
“No one’s looking!” she reassured me over the noise. “You sure you don’t wanna join?”
I shook my head vehemently, content to just watch.
“Suit yourself. I’m gonna take a little dip!” She bounded over to the railing, leapt over it in a smooth white flash, and disappeared over the edge. Half a second later came a loud splash.
Went low, went high
Still waters run dry
Gotta get back in the groove
I ain’t ever worried
Went low, went high
What matters is now
I blinked at the suddenly empty deck. Was she fucking serious? Why would she do something like that? Didn’t she know that there were tons of cops and drunken revelers out tonight, that she could drown in the waves? Reckless bitch.
Sighing loudly, I reached for my tutu, which I’d left outside when I’d let Marnie lead me to her cabin. Over my head it went, the waistband fitting right below my armpits like the top of a strapless dress. The tulle scratched at my bare arms and legs. I was never, ever throwing my clothes aside in the heat of the moment ever again.
I cursed Marnie one more time as I climbed out and peered over the edge. She was treading water, damp curls sticking to the sides of her head as she smiled up at me. I swallowed a scream. Of course my first time doing something like this had to be with a fucking exhibitionist.
“Come on in, the water’s fine!” she shouted up to me over the noise.
“Call your skipper!” I yelled back, shaking my head. “I wanna leave. Now.”
“Haven’t you been skinny-dipping before?”
“No!” I snapped. “I’m not about to start now.”
She laid on her back, kicking at the water with her feet. “You wanted a story, didn’t you? Fuck your boring-ass startup shit. This, Helena, is a story!”
I looked to my right, to my left. Marnie was right about the lack of witnesses: there weren’t many boats around us, and the ones that were seemed to be paying us no mind. Perhaps I could be a little more spontaneous, a little more fun-loving. A little more like Marnie Tucker. This type of thing had made her rich, successful, adored. Plus, the water did look awfully inviting.
One leg, then the other, over the ledge. For the second time that day, I found myself holding onto the rope, leaning away from the boat. This time, though, I wanted to fall.
“Yay, Helena!” Marnie cheered. “One of us! One of us!”
The lush life giving me a rush
Had one chance to make me blush
Second time is one too late
One of us. One of them. One like Marnie. One like Hunter.
There was a soaring noise behind me. I tilted my head back to see a bright flame streak into the night sky. It brought to mind the shooting star I’d seen back in high school, the night I’d gotten my acceptance to Stanford. Could it be a sign?
Below me, Marnie waited expectantly. Above me, the flame erupted into a thousand glowing orange cuts in the sky.
I let go of the rope and positioned myself so that I faced the water.
Had one chance to make me blush
Second time is one too late
Breathe in, breathe out. I wish that all of this will lead somewhere, I thought before I hurled myself off the edge.