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28. Illusions of Grandeur

28. Illusions of Grandeur

Blurry shot of a brown rabbit in a white dress with turquoise flowers on it, standing on the beach at night

This is the twenty-eighth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.

So began those days, those golden days, those long, warm, drawn-out days with the neverending mornings and the aureate afternoons. 

Nevaeh and I woke at ten; after breakfast in bed or a long, leisurely walk on the beach, we each popped an Addy and got right down to business. Writer’s block threw its things in a suitcase and sped the fuck on out with Nevaeh in my presence. She was good at teasing things out of me, encouraging me to talk about my real motivations, how I really felt about certain events. 

Our goal was a chapter a day; we’d talk from noon until two, and then I’d write until the growling of my stomach was too loud to ignore. After dinner at a waterfront steakhouse or a seafood restaurant — or at an IHOP, if we were feeling trashy —  I’d read that day’s pages out loud in what Nevaeh would later call “that beguiling voice” of mine, and cut anything I didn’t feel comfortable with. It was an amazingly productive workflow, even if Nevaeh did end up having to skip some classes and miss a few deadlines in order to make last-minute edits.

— Nevaeh and me standing on the balcony, facing the blue-green water and smiling back at the camera: Greetings from my little studio in the clouds, where my best friend and I are hard at work bringing you the project I can’t seem to shut up about: AND WE WEREN’T LIKE, a memoir about hair bows, daydreams, Victorian houses, and how one Instagram writer became the co-founder of the fastest-growing startup of the year. This book has mystery! Intrigue! Romance! All the best qualities of the adventure-pulp books we grew up reading. I’ve been saving the juiciest parts of my story for these pages, and I can’t wait to share them with you ❤️

— Nevaeh sitting at the kitchen table, reading a chapter of mine on her laptop with a champagne flute of water in her hand: Forgive me, I haven’t properly introduced you to Nevaeh. She’s very camera-averse (she JUST got back on NipNop after I convinced her that we weren’t trying to steal her data), but she agreed to one small photoshoot. I’m so glad, because look how gorgeous she is!!  If Nevaeh looks familiar to you, that’s probably because you admired someone very similar to her in high school. To the naked eye, Nevaeh does look like the calm, cool, and collected It Girl™ who always has her shit together, no matter what. Yet despite her killer style and overall sparkle, Nevaeh has developed a personality that’s fucking awesome. She’s curious, goofy, kind, wild, and terrifyingly brave. She’ll go on adventures by herself, easy. There have been many a time where we’ve been hiking and I turn my head and she’s just … gone. Moments later I’ll hear “hey, Helena,” and see Nevaeh waving at me from a rock the height of a two-story building. Like me, Nevaeh has always wanted to be a writer. Unlike me, her words have been printed in actual magazines! When she’s not killing it in Creative Nonfiction or bringing everyone to tears in Modern Poetry, Nevaeh can always be counted upon to roll the perfect blunt, start the uncomfortable conversation, or race you to the end of the pier and back (and kindly let you win). This is my best friend.

— A backlit Nevaeh doing a cartwheel on the beach: Also, did I mention that Nevaeh took a break from Stanford to write this book with me? Thank God her professors are too old to use social media! I love her so much. I appreciate her so much. I appreciate you so much, too, dear reader. It’d be a very lonely business telling stories without ya!

By the end of our fourth week in Sarasota, Nevaeh and I had a book “proposal” that was really a complete first draft — one hundred and three single-spaced pages, written and illustrated and polished, with all of the parts I considered too gritty or close to home carefully edited out. The manuscript told the story of how I turned my childhood dreams into reality and became a triple threat — writer, influencer, founder — who smashed glass ceilings and made history with my smart, capable boyfriend by my side. People were going to eat it right the fuck up, I just knew it.

“… aaaand sent to Wren,” I announced the night of November first, slamming my Macbook lid down with a snap. “Nine days ahead of schedule. Fuck yeah.”

Nevaeh and I sat criss-cross-applesauce on the balcony facing one another, empty pizza boxes and Monster Energy cans and various other debris scattered all around us. I pulled out my phone and snapped a Nop of the studio, making sure to leave any orange bottles out of the shot. Not that they would really show up, anyway — the sun had set some thirty minutes ago, shrouding us in shades of hazy indigo. A sharp swipe of red remained at the spot where the ocean met the heavens, slowly fading into a shade of pale apricot. Closing time, I captioned.

I felt strangely faint, dizzy, lighter than air. My mind and body wanted to do a million things at once — to whoop, to holler, to dance, to empty the contents of my stomach onto the little residential area thirteen floors below. I’d done countless launches at NipNop, but this felt different: it was my experience, my success, for my dreams alone. I swiveled around, stretched out my legs, and laid my head in Nevaeh’s lap, inhaling the scent of her pomegranate soap.

She didn’t say anything, just ran her hands through my hair in slow gliding movements. The waves rolled onto shore below us, sloshing and hissing as they dissipated on the sand.

This, I thought, was happiness. Darkening sky, emerging stars, my best friend next to me watching me become somebody at last. Gone were the days of staring at a blank screen, unsure of what to write. Gone was the feeling of a deadline looming, an incessant voice in the back of my head screaming at me to get back to work. I had done it. I had delivered the work I’d promised.

Tears pricked my eyes and I did nothing to stop them from running down my cheeks. Finally. Finally. Here was something I’d done for myself, for my own vision, not for NipNop or Oliver or anyone else. For me. From here on out, things were going to take off. I was sure of it. Wren would read all hundred and three pages and restore his faith in me. Together, we’d meet with editors of all the big publishing houses — Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette — find the perfect match, and then I’d be a published author like I’d always wanted.

I shut my eyes and thought of my younger self, Nicole Helena Holloway, the girl with too many books and not enough friends who escaped into fictional worlds whenever she could. The one who dreamt of being the star of her own stories, someday, of being the heroine of a story so big, so beautiful, that people had no choice but to be sucked in. Now, here I was.

Congratulations, I thought. We’re on our way.

I was going to be just like Eve Babitz — no, I corrected myself, better than Eve Babitz. I was going to be the greatest memoirist who ever lived, who always lived a life worthy of being turned into art. And turn it into art I would. Over and over and over again. This book was only the beginning.

Shaking Nevaeh’s hands off, I stood up and walked over to the balcony’s edge. It was fully dark now; the water faintly visible in the faint starlight, its crests eerily white in the distance. So unyielding, neverending, alive. Gripping the edge of the railing, I made myself a new promise: I would never, ever, ever stop trying for as long as I lived. I would never stop trying for something more, to be more, to shine bright and never burn out. I knew what I wanted — had always known, really — and I would dedicate myself to my stories, for as long as I lived. For as long as I could tell stories. Precise, sharp, and always relevant. Forever and ever and ever.

“Forever and ever and ever,” I mumbled. “Forever and ever … and … ever.”

And ever and ever and ever.

There was a reply in my inbox the very next day.

Helena,⁣

Read your proposal in one sitting. The talent you show, both in the writing and the photos from the entire story, is this rare, remarkable thing. I have high hopes for it.⁣

Can you be in NYC the week of November 20? Will try to schedule back-to-back meetings with publishers then.⁣

Cheers,⁣
Wren Falcon

The email had been sent at noon, which meant that Wren had likely been up all night reading my proposal. Hell yeah. I wondered if Marnie’s first draft had been as engaging, or if Wren said nice things to all of his clients. Then I put all of those thoughts out of my mind and celebrated with Nevaeh, getting so high off of a combination of crushed-up extended-release Adderall and medical-grade marijuana that I ended up yelling a slew of things off the balcony and sending a bunch of NipNops that still embarrass me to this day, so I shall not mention their contents here. By the time we got our shit together, it was a few minutes past midnight and all of the good restaurants in the area were closed.

“Why is there literally nowhere nice to eat right now? This place really is a goddamn retirement community.” Nevaeh stopped scrolling and set her phone down in frustration. “God forbid I want to get fancy later in the evening.”

She and I sat around the kitchen table, passing between us a joint that had gotten so small that I’d stuck it between the prongs of a fork. The condo was dark save for a single lamp in the corner that illuminated the coral walls, setting a reddish tint over the room. I felt blurry, fuzzy, like I was dreaming. Had Wren even emailed me that morning? Had Nevaeh and I really finished the proposal?

I put a hand over my mouth to conceal a yawn. “I dunno,” I said. “I’m cool with, like, getting some champagne and staying in tonight.” The room was starting to resemble a movie set, and Nevaeh looked ethereal perched on her chair in a black bralette and long floral skirt. Through the open balcony door I could hear the sea singing its eternal song. “We live in a nice house on the water,” I mumbled, resting my head against the table. The smooth wood felt nice and cold on my ears; somehow I could hear the ocean even better form this position. “Let’s go night-beaching.”

“You’re soooo far gone,” she giggled, leaning over to pinch the tip of my nose. “You sure you don’t want to hit up a bar? We could go to Pangea or Daiquiri Deck.”

“Ugh, I don’t wanna risk it.” I still had two months before I turned twenty-one, and though I had a fake ID, it was getting harder and harder to avoid being recognized. The 1337, Valley Girl, and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune had all covered my “writer’s residency” in Florida. As much as I loved the attention, I could no longer really use my fake ID, which claimed that I was a twenty-three-year-old New Yorker named Dasha Nekrasova.

“You’re twenty-one,” I said to Nevaeh. “Why don’t you get us something?”

She looked out toward the balcony and then back at me, wrinkling her nose. “Since when did I become the party girl between the two of us?”

I pulled the remnants of the dead joint out of the fork on the table and flicked it into the trash can. “For the record, you’ve always been better at doing substances. You introduced me to LSD, remember?”

Funny, how that whole side of her would disappear in her essay. The Nevaeh in that piece admits to smoking and taking Adderall but never once mentions the other stuff she introduced me to. If there’s one thing you should take away from this whole saga, it’s that stories — no matter how true they are — only contain a fraction of what really happened.

“Right,” Nevaeh slid out of her seat with the reluctant grace of a slouchy ballerina. “Fine, I guess I’ll get us some sparkling wine. Meet me at the beach in thirty?”

“For sure.” I took my NipNop company card from my wallet phone case and slid it over to her. “Get me some pink moscato, please. I’m in a basic bitch kind of mood tonight.”

An hour later, the two of us sat facing the churning waves, two bottles of Barefoot Bubbly between us. We’d laid one of my grandmother’s floral bedsheets down on the sand; my feet stuck off the edge, half-buried in the powdery white stuff. A thin but bright sliver of moon illuminated the beach, making it seem like a pale, foreign land. No one was there aside from the two of us.

“Okay, this was actually kind of a good idea,” Neveah admitted, pouring herself another full glass. A pink foam sat at the top, hissing until it disappeared. “I’ve never been to the beach at night. It was always too spooky.”

“Really? I would’ve thought that you did that all the time in LA. Bonfire parties and all that, 90210-style.”

She snorted. “My life before college was less 90210 and more Bojack Horseman, minus the actually famous people. My mom had a lot of artsy friends who were into all of that stereotypical LA-glamour shit. Trust me, when you grow up in it, there’s no more fun to be had.”

I froze mid-sip. Nevaeh and I had talked about lots of things since resuming our friendship, but her mom had not been one of them. I hadn’t wanted to bring it up given what had happened in Los Angeles, which had left my burning curiosity unsatisfied. “Yeah?” I asked, treading with caution.

“Yeah.” She took two large gulps, wincing as the bubbles made their way back up her throat. “It wasn’t too bad when I was younger, I guess. My mom had me when she was twenty-one, and she used to push me around in this stroller and take me to auditions and agents’ offices and friends’ houses, and everyone would gush over me and want to hold me and stuff. And she let me eat whatever I wanted, which was cool at the time. I really liked butter as a kid, did you know that? I was so chubby as a toddler because I would guzzle entire sticks of butter. That’s why I can’t touch the stuff now.

“And then … I grew up, and I started asking all these questions that she hated answering, like who my father was and what he liked to do and whether he was alive, and I also got less cute or whatever, so she basically lost interest. She’d either drop me off with my grandparents or just leave me in her apartment for days at a time, and then she’d get back and get mad that I ate all of her salads or whatever.”

My mouth dropped open. I thought of my dad’s fresh apple pies, crunchy at the crust and gooey in the center, of my mom’s intense interest in everything that I did. Then I recalled the paintings and Polaroids of Nevaeh’s mom lining every available surface of her second-floor wall. “Holy shit, that’s fucking horrible.”

Nevaeh smiled wryly. “The good part was that she had all of these really cool books that she just kept piled up around the house. Nabokov, Plath, stuff like that. Blank journals, too. I would spend all day reading and writing, kind of zoned out in my own head.”

“Me too!” I exclaimed. “Oh my God, I was just thinking yesterday about how I had, like, no friends as a kid, so all I did was make up my own stories.”

She nodded. “That’s how I started writing. It was my way to cope, to process everything.”

“You took Eve Babitz’s books from your mom’s collection, didn’t you?” My eyes widened as it all clicked together in my mind. “And that’s why you love writing but hate being seen, because … because —”

“Because my mom is a total slut for clout, and my whole entire life I’ve been cringing at her antics?” Nevaeh’s nostrils flared. “Ding, ding, ding! You hit the nail on the fucking head.” She finished her drink and flung the empty glass at the sand. “It sucks now, you know, because I’m afraid of success. I’m so afraid of going public, of getting famous, because I don’t want to be anything like her, with her delusions of grandeur and desperate attempts to entertain.”

I frowned. “Have you seen a therapist about these issues?”

“Yeah,” she said bitterly. “One of the Stanford ones. She told me that I had narcissistic tendencies, but I hid them well.”

Damn. Good thing I’d stuck with good old Dr. Phillip Martinez. If a licensed professional had said such things about someone like Nevaeh, I couldn’t imagine what they’d say about someone like me.

“Anyway …” Nevaeh looked over at me, eyes glittering in the moonlight. “I guess that’s partially why I’m so drawn to you. You’re so confident, magnetic. You’re not shy about openly going after fame, no matter what people say about you.”

“Am I —” I almost didn’t want to ask. “Do I remind you of —”

She shook her head, one side of her mouth turning up at the corner. “No, you don’t remind me of my mom. You’re nothing like her. She’s all talk. You actually deliver.”

“With your help.”

“Right. Well, you are technically paying me.” Nevaeh paused, hugging her knees to her chest. “I guess one of the reasons I’m so eager to help, too, is because I don’t want you to even remotely go down that same path. It’s horrible, chasing attention for attention’s sake. And the slope is pretty slippery.”

I exhaled. This night was turning out so much more intense than I’d expected. “You don’t need to worry about me,” I assured her. “Last night I made a promise to myself. I’m gonna be really careful about the stories I tell and how I present my image, especially after the book comes out. Because it’s, you know. Different from the stuff I’m doing at NipNop. This is my own thing, separate from Oliver’s. No more ‘Oliver’s girlfriend’ shit. And We Weren’t Like is my time to shine.”

“And what of me?” Nevaeh asked quietly. “Will I mostly be known as ‘Helena’s collaborator’?”

For the second time that night, I was stunned. I had never thought of things that way before. Looking at it from Nevaeh’s point of view, though, it was easy to see how she could be in my shadow, riding on my wave of glory. “Of course not,” I said at last. “Not only because, you know, your name won’t be on the book, but also because you will be an amazing writer on your own.”

“Oh, right, the NDA,” she sighed. “I mean, I don’t really care if I get credit or not. It’s been a lot of fun working on this with you. When it comes to us, though, I guess what I really want is to make sure that …”

I leaned closer to her. “To make sure that what? You’re mumbling.”

She mumbled something else and then buried her face between her knees. I put down my drink and knelt in front of her, the skirts of my dress crinkling into the sand. “Nevaeh? It’s just me you’re talking to right now. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Apparently those were not the right words to say, because she burst into tears, her entire body shaking as loud sobs emanated from where she sat, hunched over into a little ball. Man, was I bad at emotional support while tipsy. I decided to shut up and sit with her instead, awkwardly wrapping my arms around her until she quieted and lifted her head.

“I hope you won’t forget about me when you get to where you want to be.” Her voice was a little hoarse but held steady. Dark mascara tracks streaked down her cheeks, but her gaze, solemn and serious, never left my face. “I really care about you, and I hope you feel the same way about me.”

“Of course!” I pulled her into a hug. “The feeling is totally mutual. You’re my best friend, remember? I love you.”

“Then promise that you won’t leave me again, the way you left me in LA.”

There it was: the real feelings, the raw hurt and resentment that I knew she still harbored deep down inside. At times during the writing process, especially when she had to give up a class or an assignment to do something for And We Weren’t Like, this look would come over her face, the same look she was giving me now. I deserved it, for sure. And if I could do or say anything to make those awful feelings go away, I would.

So I did. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” I promised. “I will never leave you behind, even if I get super fucking famous beyond my wildest goddamn dreams. You will always be my best friend, Nevaeh. Forever and ever and ever.”

Could I have foreseen, that night, how everything would go? How our friendship would unspool and deteriorate, slowly and then all at once, how I would wake up one morning to an email from Nevaeh saying I’m writing you to give you a heads up that I’ve written a personal essay about my experience working with you, and as such someone from The Cut might reach out to you with fact checking questions.

Fuck no, is the answer. No way. No fucking, fucking way. Because, while a good chunk of the fallout was due to me, Nevaeh wasn’t completely innocent, either. Even back then she had other plans, ulterior motives for being my friend and helping me out. Had I known what would go down between Nevaeh and me that night, I would never have made her that promise. I wouldn’t even have stayed with her on the beach. I would’ve stood up, taken my finished proposal and my pride and my dignity and run as far away from her as possible.

Next chapter

Chapter 29: Main Character Syndrome

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