This is the twenty-ninth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
New York City enables one’s main character syndrome like no other.
Every inch, every centimeter of every street, sidewalk, and subway station have stories upon stories upon stories, all intertwined and layered upon one another like glittering nodes in an iridescent graph. Tons of people move through it, way too many to count, but there’s a sense that everyone is the star of their own show, that every meeting is a crossover episode between separate universes. That it’s a place to see and be seen.
Oh, was I ready to be seen. In the last week of November I flew straight from Sarasota to JFK, using my NipNop company card to book seven nights at the Edge, a sixty-story luxury hotel that stood like a chic, rectangular drink mixer smack in the middle of Manhattan. My suite was on the fifty-eighth floor, with a king-sized bed, atmospheric lighting, and glass walls that boasted panoramic views of the city. I’d planned to explore the area before getting down to business, but I was so entranced by the sun glinting off of the skyscrapers around me that I cancelled all of my plans and ordered Sweetgreen delivery instead. My grandmother’s condo had made me seem like I was within the clouds; here, I felt like I was among the gods, on top of the world, a master of the universe.
I cracked open a bottle of Perrier from the mini-fridge, my nerves as fizzy as the liquid inside. Tomorrow morning, I would take a taxi to Falcon Ibis. Tomorrow at this time, I would have talked to two editors from big publishing companies, dipped my toes into the publishing world at last. This was really happening. This was it! My lifelong dream was coming true. If only I could figure out what to wear.
Spread out on the percale comforter were three dresses: one yellow, one black, and one baby pink. The yellow one had a high neckline; the black a stiff, chic skater skirt, and the pink featured puffed sleeves the size of my head. It wasn’t a problem of which to wear, really, but of which to wear first. All three were equally on-brand, equally Helena. Maybe the right move was to pick one at random and run with it.
Or maybe I could ask someone who had done it all before.
Marnie picked up on the first ring. “How’s it going?” she asked, her darkened features grainy through the FaceTime screen. “Sorry if my WiFi sucks. I’m hiding in a closet. Long story.”
“A closet, huh? You’ll have to tell me about that one later.” I switched to the rear camera so that she could see the options laid out on the bed. “Pink, black, or red?”
“For what? The next production of Little Bo Peep?”
I rolled my eyes. “My first meeting with potential editors is tomorrow. I’m meeting Wren at nine.”
“Is that really what you packed? My God. You’re gonna freeze your ass off.”
“I’m going to be inside most of the time, am I not?” I said. “I just can’t do the all-black jeans-and-sweater thing. I’d be so off my game that I won’t even know what I’m agreeing to.”
Marnie’s lip twitched at the word game. “Ah, so you want to be in state. This is less about them than it is about you. I can vibe with that,” she said, squinting at the screen. “I’d go with the pink one if I were you. Tons of girls wear red and black in this city, but not too many do the whole fairy-princess thing. Go big or go home, right? If you’re gonna stand out, you might as well make an impression … though I guess everyone already knows who you are.”
I picked up the pink dress and ran a hand over the soft organza skirt, unsure if she’d just given me a compliment or an insult. “That’s true. I included a picture at the beginning of every chapter.”
“Very Instagram-influencer of you,” she said. “You excited?”
“Hell to the yes.” I turned the camera back to face me, leaning against the mahogany bedspread. “Wren said he stayed up all night reading my proposal. I hope that these people will do the same.”
“You’ll do great. You’re, like, guaranteed to sell out your first print run because your name is literally everywhere, so don’t sweat it.” She blew a stray hair out of her face. “How’s Oliver and the rest of the gang? Are they in New York with you?”
I shook my head. “They’re holding down the fort back at NipNop headquarters. They promised me a huge party when I’m back, though.”
“As they should. You’ve been gone for how long now?”
“A little over a month.”
Marnie whistled. “Damn, they let you get away for that long? Aren’t startups supposed to take up, like, all of your time?” A loud rustling noise came through the speakers, and she disappeared from view. “Stupid fucking trenchcoats, why does she have so goddamn many —”
“We just launched Discovery, so I had some time to get away.” I checked in with Bradley and Oliver every other day, and things seemed to be chugging right along. “I got lucky with my team, I guess.”
“And with your boyfriend. All of my partners have been so damn clingy. I need to find someone like Oliver, who’s hands-off as fuck.” There were a few more rustles before her face came back on screen, hair mussed. “Speaking of which, my mistress awaits me. Nop me later? I want all the details.”
“So yeah, pink dress.” Marnie blew me a kiss. “Go get ‘em, tiger.”
Maybe it was the nerves, or maybe it was the Adderall, but I couldn’t fall asleep for more than a few hours at a time. I would wake up, check the clock, and uncomfortably force myself back into dreamless slumber. Then, at around 7 AM, my eyes opened to a soft cotton-candy sunrise, a pink-and-yellow wonder that drenched the room in gold and set the reflective skyscrapers ablaze. I leapt out of bed, pulled on the pink dress, and grabbed my tripod. Fuck trying to rest! The day was starting, and boy, was she beautiful.
— Me standing at the edge of the bed facing the skyscrapers out the window, orange light illuminating my face: Two years ago, nobody believed that I could turn my social media presence into a book deal. Not publishers, not literary agents, and certainly not the people I spoke to day to day. But I had a plan in mind: Instagram fame, book deal, career. I was in it for the long haul. I was committed to a vision where my readers could grow old with me, watch me fall in love, get my heart broken, get married. I wanted to redefine how humans engaged with autobiography. And so I made my choices accordingly. Two years ago, I got rejection emails that went “Dear Writer — no thanks.” I even got one that wished me the “best of luck in placing this with a more enthusiastic agent.” Today, I am going with my very enthusiastic agent to pitch my book to publishers. The moral of this story? Stay hungry, stay foolish. Stay determined, and never give up … unless, of course, you’re giving up your Stanford education to help found a startup! 🌅😎
It had been a while since I’d sat there on my phone, watching the comments roll in, but today I scrolled through for a full hour, gorging myself on envy and encouragement and support until I felt like I could open the windows and fly straight to Wren’s office. Life was amazing. Everything I’d done — everything I’d sacrificed — had been worth it, worth it, worth it.
When the taxi dropped me off by the office building, I paused by my usual spot near the side entrance to switch out my brown UGGs for a pair of open-toed sandals, barely noticing the chill of the morning and the glances of the passers-by. It was eight forty-five, and my meeting was at nine. I was right on time.
The first time I’d gone to Falcon Ibis, I’d been a near-nobody placing all of my hope onto a trick that I wasn’t even sure would work. When the elevators opened this time, Wren himself stood in the lobby, wearing a freshly pressed blue suit and a wide smile on his face.
“If it isn’t the lady of the hour,” he said, giving my hand a firm shake. “Good morning! Are you ready to do this?”
“I was born ready,” I answered, telling the complete truth for once. And ready I was. Publisher after publisher, meeting after meeting, I sat up straight and answered questions with my charm in full force, playing the character of Helena Holloway with complete sincerity. Yes, I took all of my pictures myself. Yes, I’d helped build one of the fastest-growing social media platforms in the world. Yes, I was only twenty — but I’d be twenty-one in time to have champagne at the book party, I’d assure each editor with a wink, making them laugh right on cue.
Never had I been so on top of my game. It helped, of course, that I already had a full first draft, polished and ready to go. The only thing that caught me off-guard was how much each editor kept asking me about newsletters and listservs and how I expected to get people to buy my book if I didn’t have emails. Emails! I tried explaining that I had over a million followers on Instagram and NipNop each, but they remained firm. I guess that publishing was just old-fashioned like that. No matter — I’d managed hundreds of campaigns at NipNop. What bother was one more?
At the end of the week, Wren called me into his office to offer me his praise. “Everyone is raving about you,” he said, a glint of pride in his beady brown eyes. “There’s almost certainly going to be a bidding war for your book.”
I crossed one leg over the other in the orange beanbag chair, unable to stop myself from beaming. “See? I told you that I could have a great proposal by November.”
He chuckled. “So you did. I’ve got to admit that when you came here in May with nothing but a folder of photos, I was almost certain that things wouldn’t work out. You’ve proven me wrong, and not many people in this industry can do that anymore. Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” Fuck yes.
Wren picked up a photo from the folder I’d brought with me — potential extras I wanted to include in the finished version of the book — and walked over to the glass display case. All the titles inside were new: Confessions of a Wannabe Slut. White Boy Wasted. Come Play With Me. The last book showed Marnie sitting in a claw-foot bathtub, fully clothed, smiling seductively. He opened the door with a small key from his pocket and dropped the photo into an empty space on the top shelf.
“There,” he said, locking the door with a click. “Some positive visualization. That’s where And We Weren’t Like will live.”
I got up to take a closer look. The photo was a nighttime version of the staring-at-the-sunrise shot I’d posted to Instagram: there I was, standing on my hotel-room bed in the pink puff-sleeve dress, looking out at a darkened New York. I was backlit, my entire face and body shadowy as the city glowed behind me, mysterious and alluring.
I blinked, hard, surprised at the sudden lump in my throat. This is really happening, this is really happening, this is …
“… not customary for editors to meet authors before the agent takes the pages out to auction, but when you’re a big-name founder or blogger or influencer, it pays off.” Wren was looking at me, nodding approvingly. “I know the meetings can be tiresome, but I’m glad you could make it out this week. Did you enjoy yourself?”
For a moment, I wondered what things would be like if my name didn’t carry such weight. Did anything ever happen on merit alone? Then I remembered that I had worked for this. I’d been the one to proposition Oliver, to sneak into Wren’s office. I’d written the captions and the campaigns and the proposal. I was here on merit. My skills and talent alone had gotten me into the funnel of winners.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “It was the best week of my life.”
“Good,” he said, “because there will be a lot more of those in your future, provided the process goes as well as I think it will.” He stood up, walked back over to the case, and patted me on the back like I was an eight-year-old boy who’d just won the big game. “If my instincts prove me right — and they almost always do — we’ve got a number-one bestseller on our hands.
“You, Helena Holloway, are going to be a star.”
He meant, of course, that the character of Helena Holloway — smart, witty, competent as hell — was going to be a star. Not me, with my obsessive tendencies and wobbly friendships and increasing reliance on drugs. But that was what I wanted, what I’d worked for: to be the main character in a narrative of my choosing. It was what I’d wanted all along.
I had made it.
I had arrived.
This was really happening.