This is the twenty-seventh chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
These two words conjure up for me visions of fluffy tropical clouds, mauve and clementine skies, powdered-sugar sand and jade-green waters that slowly fade into aquamarine. I’m looking at this vision right now, actually — it’s getting close to sunset, and the light is starting to take on that not-quite-golden-hour yellow. The waves are calm today, barely causing a ripple as they push onto shore. From my thirteenth-floor balcony I can see out, way out, past the children playing tag and couples strolling on the water’s edge. If I want to, I can pretend that I’m on the edge of turning twenty-one, that Nevaeh is sitting at the white driftwood table with her laptop cracked open and a joint in her hand, waiting for me to read aloud the pages I’d written that day.
“Here’s the thing,” I told her after we’d officially made up, pacing back and forth in front of my bed like I’d seen Oliver do when he was deep in thought. All the founders had spent so much time together that we’d started picking up one another’s habits and tics. I did need to think that day: NipNop’s legal department had drawn up all of the appropriate contracts, but there was one thing I hadn’t realized I needed til now. “If I’m going to be writing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I can’t be in San Francisco,” I said. “I’m too … enmeshed in Silicon Valley. I can’t think here without wanting to spin my story into some sort of pitch.”
I made a face without stopping my stride. “Stanford creeps me the fuck out. It’s too manicured, you know? Too sterile. Those palm trees look fake. The sky looks fake. I feel like I’m in The Truman Show every time I step foot onto campus.” I shuddered. “I don’t know how you could live like that, to be honest. Plus, Palo Alto is still Silicon Valley.”
“Well, sorry that it’s not up to your pastel-princess standards,” Nevaeh sniffed, “but I still have classes and I can’t afford to just skip out on them.” She gave me a sidelong look. “Not all of us can drop out to work at unicorn companies run by fake boyfriends.”
Technically, a unicorn is a startup valued at over one billion dollars, and NipNop was only worth eighty million at the time, but I let her little blunder slide. “I’ll call the school pretending to be your mom,” I suggested, coming to a stop in front of her. “I’ll tell them that your grandfather is dying in Sarasota and he’s specifically requested for you to be by his side.”
“What? My grandfather actually did die in Sarasota just a few months ago. That’s why the condo is empty right now — my grandmother’s on some special month-long ladies’ cruise to, like, China or something. She said we could stay there for free.” Gently, I took both her hands in mine. “Come on, Nevaeh, the timing is perfect. And I’ll … I’ll pay you extra on top of it!” I was thinking on my feet now. “An extra fifteen dollars an hour, for every hour that we work on the proposal. I’ll also pay for your plane ticket, both ways, and all of your food expenses for the entire time that we’re there. How does that sound?”
She yanked her right hand away and touched it to her forehead. “It’s not about the money, dude. I’ve got finals coming up, and all these essays to finish.”
“So finish them from my grandma’s kitchen table in Florida. It’s gorgeous. You can see the ocean from the balcony, it’s like a tiny studio in the sky —”
Nevaeh sighed, wriggling her remaining hand out of my grasp. “Listen, writing is really important to me, okay? As in the actual task of writing, not bumming around and going to literary parties and talking myself up in front of pretentious white dudes who think that they’re writing the future Fear and Loathing in Mountain View. And when I’m with you I get … distracted, and I —”
“Say no more.” I knelt down in front of her and held up a red-polished pinky finger. “If you come with me to Sarasota, I promise that you’ll get a solid five hours of writing work done per day, every day. If only because I’ll be hunkering down myself.” I winked. “Remember, we’ll always have our mutual friend Mr. Orange Bottle for when we get writer’s block.”
Don’t let that viral essay in The Cut fool you: Nevaeh is every bit as calculating as I am. Probably even more so, if we’re being real here. I could practically see the gears in her head turning as she thought about everything I was offering. Free transportation, free food, free view, free Adderall. When she turned to look at me again, I could tell that she had made up her mind.
“You’re going to handle the phone calls and the emails from my professors,” she said. “And you’re going to make it sound as legit as you possibly can.”
“You’ll pay for everything.”
“I already said I would.” This was almost too easy.
“And both of us are going to write while we’re there. Not just you. Both of us.”
“I will personally see to it that we each come back with solid pieces of writing,” I promised.
“In that case …” A grin worked its way onto Nevaeh’s face. “I guess we’re going to Florida.”
I squealed and jumped up, pulling her into a hug. “I knew you’d come around! We’re going to write the next great American novels at this goddamn condo, just you wait and see. Let me have Bradley book the tickets and call your professors. Oh, and I can’t wait to show you the beach. I used to go every winter before I went to college and I’ve missed it so much. It’s so fucking cold here in the Bay Area, I fucking hate it.”
“I can see how excited you are to start writing,” Nevaeh said, amused.
I hit her lightly on the arm. “Listen, if you haven’t been to the Gulf Coast, you’re missing out. Sarasota beaches are whole echelons above LA beaches, okay? Siesta Key Beach was voted the number one beach in the country multiple years in a row.”
“The next great American novels, huh?” she asked, but I assumed the question was rhetorical and left it unanswered as I waltzed out of the room to finalize our plans.
I hadn’t been back to Florida since I’d left for college, and as Nevaeh and I stepped into the lemon-yellow hallway of my grandmother’s Lido Beach condo, I felt like I was stepping back not just in time but in maturity, reverting back to the quiet little girl who kept to herself, reading or sneaking onto the beach to look for seashells. I half-expected my grandfather to be in the master bedroom, a game of solitaire on his lap; it was disorienting to find the place spotless and empty, like an Airbnb. I swallowed down the feeling and turned to Nevaeh. “What are your thoughts on sharing my room and making this one into a sort of creativity haven? We could write, paint, take pictures in here. Make a few sets, that sort of thing.”
She looked at the mint-green walls, the king-sized bed, the little alcove with a pretty view of the rippling waves. “Definitely. It looks like the perfect place to write.”
“Perfect. My — our — room is right down the hall. It’s painted turquoise, just like my place in SF. I begged my grandmother to change the walls when I was twelve, and she actually listened to me.” I was chattering on now, but I didn’t care. It had finally hit me that I was back in Sarasota, land of a thousand magical winters. “I have my own bathroom, too. And it’s closer to the balcony …”
Nevaeh nodded appreciatively as I led her through the bedroom, the bathrooms, the pink kitchen area and coral-colored living room that led straight onto the balcony. Aesthetics didn’t set her creativity on fire like it did me, but I was glad that the place was working its magic on her just the same.
“I gotta say,” she remarked as we each took a seat on the wicker chairs on the balcony, “this view is amazing. I’m more of a mountain-and-river girl myself, but I can see why you love the beach.”
“It’s my favorite place in the world,” I said truthfully. “My childhood was pretty miserable, but I only have happy memories of Sarasota.”
Nevaeh’s eyes lit up. “Great line. You should use it for your book.”
“Really intent on milking all my sob stories, huh?” I fished my vape pen out from my dress pocket. “Helena Holloway’s humble beginnings. I kind of dig it.” We’d decided that And We Weren’t Like would just be a straight-up memoir of my life, with a message about business or art or feminism opening up each chapter. Why not open it up with a discussion of my less-than-stellar youth?
But Nevaeh was looking intently at the thin silver cylinder in my hand, her thoughts somewhere else entirely. “Is that from Cali? Did you take that on the plane with you?”
“Yeah, of course.” I pressed the button and took a hit. “I just dropped it in my pocket and forgot about it, honestly. Kind of weird that they didn’t flag it at security. I’ve got a few more carts and some pre-rolls in my backpack, too.”
“Unbelievable.” She shook her head when I held out the pen. “That’s technically smuggling drugs across borders, didn’t you know that? That’s a federal crime. You could’ve gotten in serious trouble. You could’ve gotten me in serious trouble.”
“But I didn’t.” I blew out into the clear blue sky, light as a bird.
In her essay, Nevaeh would also touch on her struggles witnessing first-hand what she called my “whiteness” — things that she, a half-Black person, couldn’t dream of getting away with. She would use this incident as an example. “There has to be a price for getting away with everything,” she’d say. “For never being held accountable for your actions.” But I’d offered her equal access to my privilege, and she’d denied it. Why didn’t she mention that part, too?
Looking back, I probably should’ve said something in the moment, but the weed was already hitting me, and I didn’t want to get into such heavy topics when the sun was shining and the waves were calling out to us. Fortunately, Nevaeh must have felt the same way. “So, do you feel like Eve Babitz yet?” she asked as she reached for the pen herself.
I glanced over at her, surprised. “Did I say that I wanted to be like Eve?”
“Yeah. The first time we hung out, you told me you wanted to be just like her.” Nevaeh held the vape pen between her polished fingernails, all understated glamour in her yellow bandana and white sleeveless crop top. “Remember? You said that you wanted to have crazy experiences and make art out of them.”
Oh, right. I’d forgotten about Nevaeh’s near-photographic memory, the ease at which she remembered what people said and when they said it. She really was the perfect person to work on a memoir with.
The question hung in the air for a good few seconds before I opened my mouth again. “I don’t think I’m social enough to be like Eve Babitz,” I confessed, digging my nails into my palms. “Eve seemed like she could get on with almost anyone, and I have such bad social anxiety.” I choked out a laugh. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from having the spotlight trained on me, it’s that.”
“Aw.” Nevaeh reached over and placed her hand on mine. “That shouldn’t stop you from becoming famous. Plenty of celebrities — especially writers — hate unsolicited attention. And I think that makes sense for you. Didn’t you always say that you wanted to be in control of your own narrative?”
Man, she really did get me. I was so glad that she was back in my life. “Yeah! I see myself as more of a Joan Didion or a Greta Garbo. You don’t see much of me, but when you do, I really make a fucking statement.”
“Mmm. I like that. You’re becoming more yourself, maturing, figuring out what you like and not being apologetic about it.” Nevaeh crossed one leg over the other. “That’s another good theme for the book, by the way: the tension between wanting to be a social butterfly and not really being cut out for it.”
“Hey,” I protested, thinking of my work at NipNop, the ease at which I spoke to my co-founders — even Andre — and how much I enjoyed giving interviews, talking about personal narratives and business strategy. “I don’t hate talking to people. I just can’t fucking stand small talk. And the pedestal they put me on. Is that bad or narcissistic to admit?” I was on a roll now; the weed was making my mouth run on all by itself. “When I meet fans — you know, the ones who gush on and on about how amazing I am — I don’t know how to react. It’s like anything I say will ruin that perfect image of me they’ve got, you know? Like I can’t be human around them.”
Nevaeh studied me carefully. “I can’t say that I’ve had that experience, but I can imagine. It sounds suffocating.”
“Like Saran wrap over the face,” I groaned, tipping my seat so far back that it almost fell over. Adrenaline shot into my chest and I lurched forward, bringing the chair back down onto the ground with a crash. Shit. I had to remember not to fuck around like that when I was high. “Do people hate the confident in long-form prose, too?”
“People hate the unrelatable. Even when it comes to aspirational characters — maybe even especially when it comes to aspirational characters. That kind of stuff is easy to overdo.” She drummed her fingernails on the armrest. “Even if you want people to envy you, you can’t be too perfect. That’s the secret: you have to be just flawed enough so that they know you’re still human, but also polished enough that you remain an ideal.” She got out of her seat and walked over to mine, eyes bright green in the sunlight. “You have to let them know that they can never be you, but if they try, they might … just … come … close.”
She’d leaned further and further in as she spoke; now we were nearly nose-to-nose. My heart pounded erratically. A human, but also an ideal. Imperfect, but still impossibly polished. So many standards to follow, so many lines to stick within.
“That’s very Machiavellian of you,” I observed weakly.
She drew back and playfully patted me on the head. “It’s just Characterization 101, baby. Which, by the way, you would’ve known if you’d stuck around for class.”
Not this again. I rolled my eyes. “My job basically requires that I crank out short stories every goddamn waking hour of the day. I’d like to think that I’ve gotten pretty far along with my self-education in creative nonfiction.”
“Well, if I’m Machiavelli, then you’re Peter Thiel. That’s a very formal-education-doesn’t-matter stance to take.” She leaned against the railing, facing me, and took another hit. “Not that it’s strictly wrong, of course. How often are you expected to post?”
My mouth was dry; I thought about asking Nevaeh to fetch me a glass of water, but decided against it. This was too good of a conversation to break. “There’s no set quota I have to hit, per se,” I said, chewing on my tongue. “I am the Chief Marketing Officer, after all. But I aim for at least one long-form caption a day on Instagram, and to never let my NipNop story go silent. Speaking of which —” I fumbled for my phone, heart rate increasing again as I realized what time it was. “Wanna take a selfie with me? I think I’m about to time out.”
She crouched down next to me, giving the camera a close-lipped smile as I tapped the shutter button on my phone.
> Me and Nevaeh on the balcony, squinting from the sun in our eyes, a “Sarasota, Florida” location tag layered on top — Went down South to finish up a very special project. AND WE WEREN’T LIKE: Coming to you soon!
> A panoramic view of the ocean from thirteen floors up — My office for the next month
> Me looking sideways, expression neutral and hopefully not too stoned — Lesson? If you can dream up your ideal job and life, you can create it.
Send, send, and send. I closed my eyes and tipped my face back, enjoying the sun’s warmth. Here I was, in my favorite place in the world with my favorite person in the world, working on a book that I’d wanted to write my whole life. It wasn’t always fun to be alive, but things had a way of working themselves out in the end. Perhaps perfection did exist, only in fleeting moments instead of as a dependable constant. That was what made life so precious, wasn’t it? The ephemerality of these perfect moments, so quickly taken away by problems and worries and disagreements?
“Hey, I’ve been wanting to ask you something,” Nevaeh began, fidgeting with her phone in her lap.
“Definitely,” I replied breezily, putting my bare feet up on the railing, not giving a single fuck whom I flashed below. “What’s up?”
“Is it true that NipNop employees can see everything that people send?”
And here I was, thinking just seconds ago about how far away my problems and worries were. “I’m not sure what you mean,” I said, feigning innocence.
“A friend of mine went on a date with a guy who worked at NipNop, and she came back really creeped out. Apparently, he told her that you guys had something called God Mode? God View? Something like that.” She turned the phone over in her hands, pressing the lock button over and over again, so that her screen kept intermittently lighting up, showing me a picture a stranger had taken of the two of us at the lavender fields. “He started listing off all of these facts he knew about her, things he only could’ve known if he’d had access to her private Nops.” She shuddered. “Obviously, we both stopped using NipNop after I heard that. But it’s not true, is it? It can’t be true. Oliver is sleazy, but he’s not that sleazy.”
She was looking right at me now, with an expression that suggested she wanted to be proven wrong, that she would accept any explanation in the negative, no matter how much it set off her bullshit detector. My dry-mouth was back with a vengeance. God, perfect moments really were fleeting.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said at last. “If this God-whatever is real, I’ve heard nothing about it.”
“Okay,” she said, eyes still on me. “I believe you.”
“You know how it goes with tech companies and all the rumors people spin. Was this guy an engineer? Maybe he hacked into her account somehow. I can ask Elio about it if you want.”
“I don’t remember his name,” she said slowly, “but yeah, I think he was an engineer.”
“Well, I’ll definitely mention this to Elio,” I assured her, wiping my sweaty palms on my dress as I stood up. “By the way, do you think you could get a picture of me here? The lighting is really good now. Matches my yellow dress perfectly.”
I could tell that she wanted to press further, but instead she just nodded at me and pulled up the camera on her phone.