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6. Tableau Vivant

6. Tableau Vivant

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

I am smart as fuck, hot as fuck, and hard to fuck.

So hard to fuck, in fact, that I never fucked Oliver Fang. That’s right: I never actually had sex with my tech-bro love interest from the Stanford era, my muse and subject of half a million whimsical Instagram captions. I just made our experiences sound like sex because I knew exactly what would sell.

In reality, Oliver wasn’t into femmes at all. Everything we did, we did for the camera. But we looked cute together, and we legitimately enjoyed one another’s company. At the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters?

Oliver Fang is now a twenty-four-year-old multimillionaire who travels the world and publishes long thinkpieces that nobody asked for on his personal website. He is considered tech royalty for co-founding a viral short-video app called NipNop. Not to brag here, but the only reason you know about Oliver and NipNop is because of me. I made Oliver Fang. If not for the story I spun about him on my Instagram account, if not for my moral support and pictures of me, NipNop would be nonexistent, and not a single soul would know his name.

He helped me out a lot, too, of course. The point is that, while our courtship and subsequent bliss was the envy of my growing fanbase, Oliver was never the love of my life. What we had was not a relationship, but an agreement.

The character of Helena Holloway was great on her own, but she needed a partner. Yeah, yeah, we love to talk about “empowering femmes” and all that good shit, but I personally wanted to have it all, and not in the reasonable way that feminists did, either. I wanted to be the independent boss bitch and the princess who got saved by a dapper knight. Basically, I wanted to do my own thing while dating someone who was both beautiful and rich.

Any beautiful rich person would have been enough, but as luck would have it, I snagged an eighteen-year-old startup CEO. Oliver was my next-door neighbor in San Francisco. His office had a bay window that directly faced my turret. The first time we met, we actually did lock eyes through our respective windows … but it wasn’t nearly as romantic as I made it out to be on Instagram.

It was in October of my freshman year. I was plucking a fresh orchid bloom from my plant to put in my hair when music started blasting from his room. It was so loud that I could feel my walls vibrating to the bass line.

All my life I want money and power⁣
Respect my mind or die from lead shower⁣
I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower⁣
So I can fuck the world for seventy two hours

I don’t listen to rap. I hate rap. I know, I know, it’s really … I mean, I also don’t like classical music, so I feel like that balances it out. It’s not a race thing at all. When the blaster of the music came into view, bobbing their head and flailing about to the thumping beat, I gave them a look withering enough to turn them to dust.

Damn, I got bitches⁣
Damn, I got bitches⁣
Damn, I got bitches⁣
Wifey, girlfriend and mistress

They were vibing so hard that they didn’t even see me, at first. Then their gaze landed on me, and, noticing my expression, they reached over to his glowing speaker and turned the volume up even louder, hollering the words at top volume all the while.

BEEOTCH! (No way)⁣
BEEOTCH! (No way)⁣
BEEOTCH! (No way)⁣
BEEOTCH! (Okay)⁣

I’m never living life confined⁣
It’s a failure even if I’m blind⁣
I can tell ya who, what, when, where, how⁣
to sell ya game right on time

That did it. The audacity of this bitch! I shoved on a pair of Keds and marched across to their house. Outside, the music was even louder. How did their other neighbors put up with this? I banged on the front door several times. When nobody answered, I turned the doorknob and followed Kendrick Lamar’s booming voice up to my shithead neighbor’s room at the top of the building.

If they were surprised to see me, they didn’t show it as they mentioned for me to come in. They were saying something, but I couldn’t hear them over the throb of the beat.

“WHAT?” I shouted.

They cantered over to the speaker and turned the volume down. “I said ‘hey there.’”

Up close, my neighbor was about my height and solidly built, with lightly tanned skin and shoulder-length black hair brushed back like a lion’s mane. Their brows were thick and dark, as though they’d applied Glossier Boy Brow that morning. They were attractive in an exotic way, like an anime character, but it didn’t make them any less annoying to me at that moment.

“Hey,” I replied flatly. “Do you mind killing the tunes? You’re welcome to play your shit while I’m down at Stanford.”

“Ah, a Stanford student,” they said, flopping down on their unmade bed. “Tell me, what is it like to go to such a good school? You must be soooooooo smart.”

“Are you making fun of me?” Arrogant asshole. Attractive or not, I wasn’t looking forward to having to deal with them in the future.

“You’re welcome to play your shit while I’m down at Stanford,” they mimicked. “Is that what matters to you? Going to a fancy-pants school that churns out techie sellouts?”

“As a matter of fact, I run a business when I’m not in class, and I want to work on it in peace without hearing about how big you’d like your dick to be.”

“As a matter of fact, I also run a business, and ruminating about penis size helps me to focus.” They looked me straight in the eye. “I also went to Stanford, by the way. I dropped out last semester.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I’m running this startup with two friends of mine. We found out that we got into the house in May, so …” They shrugged. “We’re full-time founders now.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “What house?”

“The one you’re standing in right now.” They pointed behind me, where someone had spray-painted #STARTUPHAU5 in red all over the cream-colored wall. “Startup House. It’s an incubator for early-stage companies.” 

“So they’re letting you live here for free while you work on your project?”

They chuckled. “I wish it were for free. Nah, Erik — the guy who runs this place — gets five percent of the company in exchange for room, board, and a little seed money. So if one of us makes it …”

“… then he gets a lot of return on his investment.”

“Exactly.”

“Has anyone succeeded yet?”

“Startup House has only been around for two years. It’s not that easy to get into, you know. Certainly harder than Stanford.”

“Right.” I kept my face neutral. “What kind of startup do you run?”

They reached over to their chrome-and-white IKEA nightstand for a MacBook Air covered in nerdy stickers. Major League Hacking, read one. Google Reader, said another. YC. A black cartoon cat with octopus tentacles standing in a puddle. A black rectangle with white words printed on it in code font: Can I fork your repository? They typed something in before shutting the laptop. “Actually, I should ask my co-founders if they’re okay with you seeing the actual UI. I can tell you what it is, though. We’re building an app where people can send disappearing pictures to one another.”

“Like … for sexting?”

They shrugged. “Or illegal drug deals. There’s a huge market of people who could benefit from photos that don’t stick around forever.”

“Oh, no, I believe you,” I said, thinking of Austin and how much smoother I could’ve been if I’d bought cocaine through an app. “I bet the degenerates would love it.”

They nodded, eyes shining. “We call it NipNop. We’re still in the MVP stage, but I can talk to Elio and Andre — they’re my co-founders — about making you a beta tester, if you want.”

A genuine smile spread across their face, and I realized with a start that this person had the boy-band good looks worthy of a teen-mag centerfold. Their face, I thought, was the exact kind of face that young girls loved to rip out of magazines and tape to their bedroom walls.

Hmm.

“Yeah, I’d like that,” I said noncommittally, not wanting to show just how eager I was.

“I’m Oliver, by the way. He/him.”

Already, I could see the pictures, the almost-cliché sentence on the page about our meet-cute that my fans couldn’t help but eat up: We locked eyes through our respective windows.

“I’m Helena. She/her.” And I am going to make you mine.

Helena and Oliver, I thought. Oliver and Helena.

Perfect.

The character of Helena Holloway needed a partner, and this one would do just fine.

I started hanging out with Oliver whenever I could. Despite our shitty first interaction, we got along beautifully. Our ambitions complemented one another like meat and cheese on a charcuterie board. Oliver understood what it was like to want to be famous more than anything else. He never judged me for my ambition. He never thought that what I wanted was dirty or wrong. I could be my true self around him, and he me. After a while, I didn’t even mind the awful music he was so fond of.

Like me, Oliver was also from a rich family. Unlike me, his parents had placed strict expectations upon him since he was a little boy, instilling in him an iron work ethic while at the same time fostering a solid sense of hatred towards authority figures. As the first-born son of two wealthy Chinese immigrants, he was to be a doctor or a lawyer. Dropping out of Stanford to pursue a purely ‘fun’ venture like NipNop was a solidly satisfying fuck-you right in their faces.

“That’s why I want this to succeed so badly,” he explained one day as we sat on my bed, idly scrolling through social media. “I want to show my mom and dad that building a company is just as valuable as going the conventional, secure route.”

“You’re already on your way, aren’t you? You’ve got investors.”

“Well, I’ve got one investor,” he sighed. “Erik’s been pushing me to launch within six months, but honestly? I don’t know if we’ll be able to get enough users, and I’m afraid that it’ll flop without enough initial hype.”

This was my moment. “I have an idea,” I said as I crossed my fingers behind my back.

“What is it?”

I turned to him. “We could fake date. Like, make a publicity stunt and boost each other’s profiles on social media. People love couples. People especially love power couples. They would eat us up. I bet we could each get over five thousand followers from the first post alone.”

Oliver raised an eyebrow. “Tell me more.”

Without practice, I am not good in front of crowds. I’m not even too great in small groups! But if there’s one people-skill I naturally do have, it’s convincing others to do things my way. Put me in front of a single person — better yet, a single person who wants something just as much as I do — and I can work some real magic.

“I’ll appear in any pictures you want to post on your social channels.” I twirled a lock of hair around my finger. “I’d be an excellent plus-one for any fancy founder events you want to take me to. I clean up well, and I know how to make a good impression.

“I’ve been thinking that I should have a partner for Instagram,” I continued, “but I don’t actually want to date anybody. Relationships take way too much time to sustain, and my first love is my work. I’m sure you can understand that.”

He nodded.

“I’ll make my captions longer and more story-like. I’ll spin up a cute story of how we met and started talking. We’ll stage photos together, and I’ll tag you in everything. We’ll make it seem like the cutest real-life fairytale one could imagine. Right now, NipNop is just another app, but if the founder — you — have a compelling personal backstory, public interest will increase exponentially. Think of Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street. Do you know that he’s making more money now as a motivational speaker than he ever did at Stratton Oakmont? It’s because people know his story. They say that sex sells” — I batted my eyelashes and put my hand below my chin — “but I think that story sells better.”

“And what do I get in exchange?” Oliver asked.

“Isn’t getting more famous enough?”

“I’m also trying to build an empire here.”

I rolled my eyes. I’d had this part planned out too, of course, but I also knew how to negotiate. “I’ll make original content for your platform. The whole point is to send private pictures to whoever you want, right? Well, I’ll just make it so that anyone can add me as a friend on NipNop, and I’ll send behind-the-scenes pictures to my entire friends list — two for every Instagram photo that you appear in.”

I could tell that Oliver was thinking about it.

“You can still keep hooking up with your guys, of course,” I said, referring to the anonymous people that Oliver often brought over to his office in the wee hours of the morning. Unfortunately, loud music wasn’t the only noise that ended up drifting over to my room from his. “Just make sure that you don’t get caught. If you cheat on me, our followers would be totally devastated.”

“So, let me get this straight — you’re suggesting that we pretend to be in a relationship in public so that we can both benefit from being attractive, accomplished teenagers?”

“Wow, you are good at elevator pitches.”

He laughed. “I love the way you think. If I weren’t so exclusively into masc-presenting people, I would probably actually like you.”

“So are you in?” I held out my hand.

“Definitely.” He gave it a firm shake, as if I were one of those venture capitalists he was always going on about. “You have a deal.”

Oliver had the whole thing drawn up into a contract, and also had us both sign NDAs. He was thorough like that. Once everything was sorted out on the legal end, it was time to put our plan into action. He and I took photos together — lots and lots and lots of photos, which I then turned into posts. Oliver respected marketing, which is to say that he was a little bitch out for clout, just like me.

— Me and Oliver standing against a background of green palm leaves, a cartoon heart doodled in white between us: I have to tell you something: I have a boyfriend. We’ve been dating for a few weeks, and I wanted to wait until the right moment to break the news to you. How did we meet? Glad you asked! I was arranging flowers on my balcony when I heard a familiar tune come through the open windows. Was that … Sinclair White? I looked up to see who was playing that music. It was a boy my age. We locked eyes through our respective windows. Thirty seconds later, that boy was at my door.

Oliver, leaning against my fireplace wall, holding a new orchid plant in his arms with a boyish smirk on his face: “Hi,” he said. “I’m Oliver, he/him, and I was wondering if you wanted to walk around the city with me. It’s almost never this warm in the city, and all of my friends are busy.” It was ridiculous to say yes, of course — he didn’t even know my name yet. But I was tired from school and wanted to do something out of the ordinary.

— Oliver dipping me in a kiss against a bunch of palm fronds: “I’m Helena, she/her,” I said as Oliver and I wandered up and down streets flanked with Victorian houses like little gems. When he found out that I’d just come from the East Coast, he became every part the charming tour guide. He showed me the Grateful Dead house and the street corner where you could buy the best acid from hippies. When we came to Buena Vista Park, where several people were sunning themselves in the green grass by a set of rainbow-colored steps, he pointed to the rolling hill. “And that’s where I kissed this pretty girl I know. Just not yet.”

Oliver and his co-founders launched NipNop on the iOS app store just two months after Oliver and I made our little agreement. I became familiar with the “Send to All” button as I dispatched ephemeral photos, which I dubbed “NipNops,” to my ever-expanding friends list. It was kind of genius, actually: I sent pictures of adventures with little context, and people would flock to my Instagram to see what was going on. Nearly everyone replied to my messages, but just like with the comments on Instagram, I seldom bothered to continue the conversation.

Thanks to my photos — and perfectly timed social-media promotion — five thousand people signed up on the first day alone. Instagram was like a magazine, cold and detached. NipNop, on the other hand, relied on “one-on-one” interactions. Getting photos directly from Helena Holloway on NipNop felt personal, even if everybody got the same ones.

— Oliver sitting on a grassy hill in Buena Vista Park, the light turning his black hair a reddish brown: We sat on that grassy hill until it got dark and I learned about Oliver’s “zero-tolerance policy” for boring talk. When I asked him what he studied, he said playfully, “I dropped out of school, if you must know. But that’s strike one. You have two more boring questions left.” I found out that he was the co-founder of a disappearing-photo app called NipNop (link in bio if you want to sign up!), and that he’d gone to boarding school in Britain, where he’d snuck into secret society meetings. He worked just as hard as he played, and eventually graduated at the top of his class. He went to Stanford for a year to study mathematics, but instead he found his real passion: business. NipNop started as a silly app he made with his friends to send photos back and forth to one another, but eventually it took up so much time that he convinced those friends to drop out and form a company with him. “And that’s why I’m here with you,” finished Oliver. “Isn’t life just marvelous like that?”

For the relationship announcement post, the two of us went to a beautiful palm frond-lined wall on campus. I picked out his entire outfit — from the maroon shirt to the black pants to the sensible-but-still-stylish shoes. We had to look great together, like we were having fun. Which, of course, we were. We took several shots of him looking at me, me looking at him, us holding hands.

“Okay, now kiss me,” I directed.

To his credit, he did it in an incredibly romantic way, dipping me down low and softly placing his lips on mine as I frantically pressed down on my Bluetooth shutter. He smelled like clean sheets and tasted like peppermint. I harbored no real romantic intentions toward this boy, and yet I felt a slight swoop in my stomach, a slight quickening of my heartbeat. I could see why people could be into this sort of thing.

— Me lying with my head on Oliver’s lap in my bed: Oliver would later tell me that he fell in love with me the first time he saw me trekking up the hill up to my house in a pair of five-inch heels. “I thought you were the most determined girl I’d ever met,” he’d say. “It was like you knew that you wouldn’t twist your ankle in those things.” We got together for the first time during my second week at school, when I was so homesick for Pennsylvania that I knocked on his door in tears. “I need you to lie next to me and stroke my hair and watch The Wolf of Wall Street until I fall asleep,” I told him. “Otherwise I am literally going to die of sadness.”

The Oliver in the Helena Holloway universe was debonair, the ideal rom-com love interest: a boy who dressed nice and sent good-morning texts because he wanted to, not because he had to. Confident, suave, self-assured to the point of bulldozing over other people’s feelings, yet attentive and sweet to me.

It was contrived, fake, and manipulative … and it was the beginning of real fame for both of us. By November, I had 249k Instagram followers and NipNop had over a hundred thousand users. Oliver, Elio, and Andre raised a $500k round of funding from an angel investor and hired another developer to build the Android app. All thanks to me.

Nevaeh and I were already close by the time I started “dating” Oliver, but I didn’t disclose to her the true nature of our relationship at first, making excuses for them not to meet. They were both my actual friends, but they represented the two most polarizing parts of my personality. Oliver brought out my competitive side. With him, I was unabashedly sharp, strategic, and witty — an alpha bitch making alpha moves. Nevaeh, on the other hand, made me feel totally at ease. With her, I could be dreamy, sensitive, soft — like my old self. I had the feeling that introducing her to Oliver would corrupt her. So I kept them in separate realms.

— Oliver and me sitting on his front steps, sharing a cup of frozen yogurt: The phrase “… or I will literally die of sadness” is an old inside joke for us now. “If I don’t get this shot …” “If this code doesn’t run …” “If you don’t come back and give me a proper kiss goodbye …” However, the first time I said it, standing in his doorway crying like a little bitch, I didn’t see how anything about it could be funny. Even when Oliver grinned and said playfully, “So do you mean metaphorically, or …?” I just said, “No.” And when Oliver came into my room a couple minutes later, I was already in bed watching Margot Robbie, dressed in all pink, push Leo DiCaprio away with her sexy magenta pumps. He climbed into bed next to me and I laid my head in his lap. With one hand, he stroked my hair. Neither of us spoke. We sat like that for a long time, just watching the movie.

“Listen carefully,” I said, pausing dramatically one day in my room as we both refreshed our Instagrams over and over. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“The sound of a million little hearts fluttering in the chests of a million little American girls.”

Oliver laughed. He had a nice laugh, loud and hearty and sincere-sounding, like he legitimately thought that you were funny, even if you weren’t. Oliver had no trouble with people. He was a good CEO and public figure, through and through.

“Well, then, it’s time to celebrate. And I know just the song for this moment.” He typed something into his laptop, and a few minutes later, Kendrick Lamar’s forceful voice burst forth through the speakers.

All my life I want money and power …

This time, I sang along.

Next chapter

Chapter 7: Life of the Party

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