This is the seventh chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
Helena Holloway, Stanford-educated Instagram personality.
Helena Holloway, Stanford-educated scammer.
Helena Holloway, Stanford-educated mess.
I kind of like it, you know? It has a nice, oxymoronic ring to it, especially considering how I never spent any time at Stanford.
The reason was simple: For all of its prestige, Stanford University was ugly and plain and boring. Instead of secret societies, students in school ties with navy blazers, and classrooms with stained-glass windows that reflected the afternoon sunlight in reds, purples, and greens, there were running clubs, students in ill-fitting T-shirts with tech company logos slapped in the center, and hundred-person lectures in dim auditoriums that smelled like feet.
I dreaded having to get up early and spending over an hour on the train just to talk about Gothic architecture, or what the achievement of happiness could look like, or precisely separated turquoise from sky blue. I’d picked classes based on what I thought the character of Helena Holloway would like, and I was bored out of my mind.
It didn’t take me long to start skipping class altogether, emailing my professors with excuse after excuse about why I wasn’t on campus. Fortunately, most of the courses I took were graded based on papers rather than class attendance. I stayed on top of my assignments and showed up for tests, and that was enough for me to slide by. If I wasn’t so relieved about getting away with it, I would’ve been pissed that my parents were paying a little over fifty grand a year for me to teach myself philosophy, creative writing, and art history.
But hey. At least I’d get to add the “Stanford-educated” qualifier on top of anything I did for the rest of my life.
One of the illusions I’m most proud of pulling off is that I was popular at Stanford. It couldn’t be further from the truth! If you carefully look through my early photos, you’ll see that I’m always alone. Even with all that practice, I’m pretty uncomfortable with real-life attention, unless it’s from someone I know well. I know how rich that must sound coming from me — I can see the “American Instagram Personality and Self-Obsessed Mess, Helena Holloway, Claims That She Hates Attention” headline already — but please, hear me out. There’s a difference between online love from abstract strangers, and the physical, in-your-face insistence of strangers in real life.
Even now, it’s easier for me to think of my readers as an amorphous mass, rather than as actual people with actual thoughts. This is also why I tend to screenshot my DMs and post them to my Instagram stories instead of directly replying to the sender. I’d rather scream into the void than deal with the pressure of having an actual conversation.
No matter how much I practiced being a social butterfly, I could never quite get the hang of small talk, or figure out how to accept compliments with grace. Of course I wanted a #squad of equally beautiful friends around me at all times, but I didn’t know how to manage such an endeavor, and I didn’t care enough to really try. I was enigmatic on campus. Other students knew me as the girl with the popular Instagram account who lived in San Francisco, constantly having adventures in lieu of participating in student life. I saw it as a win-win: I didn’t have to pretend to like hiking or robotics or whatever the fuck everyone seemed to love so much, and I maintained just enough mystery to keep them interested in me on social media.
It was for the best. In real life, I was dull, invisible, passed over. Fortunately, I was online enough that I wasn’t reminded of that fact too often.
A few weeks after moving in, I decided that it would actually be nice to have a desk, if only as a surface for miscellaneous books and vases full of semi-wilted flowers. Now, a lightweight wooden one — white, like all of my other furniture — sat pushed up against the front windows of the tower. In the afternoons, I often sat in the matching swivel chair with my feet up, writing and staring at the tops of the Victorians across the street.
I’d just put the final edits on a caption that kind-of sort-of maybe referenced getting high in Dolores Park when I heard heavy footsteps clomping up my stairs. Oliver always walked like he had lead blocks for shoes — no shame, I did it too — but there was an aggressiveness to each clomp that day, as though he was kicking the shit out of the floor.
“I’m a loser, a failure, and an embarrassment,” he said by way of hello, leaving behind a sharp trace of Old Spice as he stormed into the tower. “It’s like they specifically derive pleasure from telling me how disappointed they are.”
“Nice of you to knock,” I said dryly, even though I didn’t really mind. Barging into one another’s rooms unannounced had become an inside joke between Oliver and me, a little reference back to how we’d first met.
He ignored me. “Why are my parents like this? They just accept their position in society without question. Without thinking ‘oh, maybe prestige isn’t the end-all-be-all to life. Maybe a high social status isn’t the key to happiness.’
“You know why they called me this time?” he asked, pacing back and forth on my new white rug. Fortunately, he’d removed his shoes downstairs, just like he’d been taught. Old, ingrained habits died hard, no matter how much of a rebel you considered yourself to be. “Sean Yu — that’s my mom’s best friend’s son — just got an internship offer at Google, and it made my mom feel ‘incredibly ashamed’ that I’d dropped out of Stanford.”
I listened silently, feet remaining on my desk. I never quite knew what to say in these situations; my own parents were nothing like Oliver’s. My mom and dad were perfectly happy with my situation. Okay, maybe not perfectly. They had no idea that I was spending all of my time in the city. But still.
“At this point, they’re calling me up just to make me feel bad,” he grumbled. “As if I didn’t already have all these investors on my ass.”
“Yikes,” I said in what I hoped was a sympathetic tone. White parents were so different.
“Aw-lee-ver, you have a doo-tee to this fam-lee, to us,” he singsonged in a falsetto tone. “Duty! They’re always going on about my goddamn duty, like I owe them something just for being born. I never fucking consented to being born in the first place! I don’t owe them shit.”
I swung my feet off the desk. “Did something, um, special happen? I heard more yelling than usual.”
“Oh, we got into it.” Oliver stopped pacing, a wild gleam in his eyes. “My dad threatened to cut off my inheritance.”
Both of my eyebrows shot into the air.
“He said he would give it to Karen,” Oliver snickered, “his perfect little Chinese daughter.” He clasped his hands together and batted his eyelashes.
Again came the falsetto tone: “Ooh, Mommy! Oh, Daddy. I’m your servant, available at your beck and call. No parties, no boys, only studying and hard work.”
“What did you say to your dad?”
A devilish grin spread across his face. “I threw my hat over the wall, so to speak.”
“Which translates to …”
“I told them that I didn’t need their support, now or ever, that I’d pay them back for birthing and raising me. This way, they wouldn’t have a single damn thing to hang over my head anymore.”
Oh, shit. “And how’d that go?”
“They hung up on me.” The grin widened. “I hope that they never call me up again. Fucking assholes.”
I looked at Oliver, with his sweaty man-bun and reddish face, feeling something like admiration. He wasn’t just being a melodramatic teenager — he was going against not only his parents, but his entire culture. Oliver wasn’t afraid to make alpha moves. I was glad to have him on my side.
“Ashamed at me dropping out of Stanford,” he snickered. “What a load of shit. Did I ever tell you that they were ‘ashamed’ when I didn’t get into Harvard or Yale?”
My ears perked up at the words Harvard and Yale, as though they were the names of long-ago crushes whom I’d never gotten over. “I didn’t get into Harvard or Yale, either,” I confessed.
“Yeah, fuck, they gave me shit for years. My mom, especially.” Oliver dropped to his knees on the rug, suddenly looking very much like a dejected little boy as he picked at imaginary loose threads in the rug. “Nothing I ever did — or do — is good enough for them.”
Emboldened by his confession, I strode over to my nightstand and pulled out a mirrored box from the bottom drawer. My godmother had given me the box years ago, intending for me to use it for makeup products. Instead, it was stuffed with trinkets I’d collected from fancy places, like a human magpie. I handed Oliver the box and plopped down across from him on the rug.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Oliver lifted the lid, taking out the objects one by one. Postcards from Harvard. An elaborate metal button from a man’s dinner jacket. A little black book filled with illegible but beautiful cursive. A single turquoise earring, shaped like a tiny chili. At the bottom, folded up into tiny squares, were all eight of my rejection letters, four from each year that I’d applied.
“This is my Harvard box,” I explained. “It’s supposed to motivate me to create the life and aesthetic that I want.”
“A Harvard box,” repeated Oliver, looking at the assortment just pulled out, “is what my parents wish I’d marry.”
“Oliver!” I felt the blood rise to my cheeks.
“Sorry,” he said, looking not very sorry at all as he unfolded the letters one by one. “Harvard, Columbia, Princeton … Jesus, Helena. You’re just as bad as my parents are about this shit. I bet my mom has my Harvard rejection letters stored in a box somewhere, too.”
“Yeah, well, I’m mostly over it. I did get into Stanford and Cambridge.” I shrugged. “I wish I’d picked Cambridge, though, honestly. I could be attending fancy balls and going on fox hunts with actual British royalty right now.”
“Fancy balls?” Oliver turned up his nose. “Those sound like parties for snooty rich kids with heads shoved so far up their assholes that they get a mouthful of their own bullshit.”
“And that’s different from you and me how, exactly?”
“Touché. Okay, maybe we’re not any less snooty. At least there’s this feeling that we’re disrupting something, you know? Refusing to do things the same old way. Building something great.” He folded up each letter and gently put them back into the box. “I have something like this too, by the way. It’s just an old MacBook box filled with hackathon tags and conference badges. Oh, and a napkin with Paul Graham’s signature on it.”
“Who’s Paul Graham?”
“The Jesus of startups. Look him up sometime. He’s an investor who also writes really good essays. A true thought leader.” Oliver handed my Harvard box back to me. “I want to do what he does, one day.”
I wrinkled my nose. “A thought leader sounds like an influencer, only with words instead of pictures and business bros instead of vapid white girls.”
“I’m not that shallow.”
I gave him a pointed look.
“Okay, maybe I am. We both are.” Oliver brushed back a stray hair that had escaped from his bun. “Anyway, your talk about fancy balls reminded me of something. My birthday is coming up.”
“Really? So is mine.” It was mid-November. “I turn nineteen on December fifth.”
“Really?” Oliver’s face flushed again, but this time he looked excited, not angry. “I turn twenty on December third.”
“Are you thinking …”
“… what I’m thinking?” he finished.
I swear that it was creepy sometimes, how similar we were.
“Joint party?” I asked.
“Joint party,” he agreed. “We can have it at my house. The other guys could use an opportunity to let loose.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me. “We can even make it a fancy costume party if you want.”
“A party at Startup House?” I said, trying to contain my Pomeranian enthusiasm. “Sounds like fun.”
Even though it was a private affair, I posted the invitation on Instagram, because why not? It was an easy way to drum up some envy and gain more followers.
— Oliver and I standing in front of a solid blue wall, me in a bright red dress and gold heels, him in a light blue button-down and freshly ironed pants, my arms thrown around his neck, his hand on my waist: December 4th — Oliver and I are turning 19 and 20, respectively! We’re sending out invitations tonight. If you’re on the guest list, arrive at 7 PM sharp, bring two bottles of something bubbly (if it makes a POP sound when you open it, you’re golden), and come ready to have one of THOSE evenings. 🌸🧚🦋 The dress code is ART. If you’re a guy, wear a costume themed “The History of Art.” If you’re a girl, dress as a literary character who had some sort of impact on you. If you fall anywhere along the nonbinary spectrum, show up as your favorite work of modern art. If you’re questioning your gender, wear whatever you want, as long as it isn’t clothes. Please go all out. Please feel free to even COME OUT if you’re comfortable. More details soon!!!
On the night of the party — a day before my real birthday, and a day after Oliver’s — I positively sparkled as I made my way over to Oliver’s. On my head was a set of brown bunny ears, on my feet were a pair of dainty white wedges, and fixed to my ass was a gigantic white puff.
All right, the tail wasn’t actually fixed directly on my ass. It was attached to the back of my dress with a safety pin. I wore a floaty sky-blue dress that wrapped around the front and tied into a huge bow to my left — a cute, demure, gender-swapped version of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit.
It was freezing outside, but fortunately I was not to wander far. Oliver greeted me at the door in a loincloth made from a rainbow-colored pillowcase. I had never seen him without a shirt on before, and I had to admit that he looked great, ridiculous getup and all. He resembled an Asian David, with well-sculpted arms, a six-pack, and a small serif tattoo over his left pec that read stay hungry, stay foolish. A good choice for a fake boyfriend, indeed.
“Questioning your gender, huh?” I asked, nodding at his lack of proper attire.
“I’m questioning everything,” he replied with a wink. “You make a ravishing Peter, babe.”
Oh, right. I had to pretend to be his girlfriend for the night. The thought of having to fake it in real life made my stomach twist. So far, our “relationship” had been digital only. I tried to shrug off my nerves as I followed Oliver inside. Lorde’s bare, scratchy voice drifted in through invisible speakers.
I’m in a clique, but I want out
It’s not the same as when I was punched
In the old days there was enough
The card games and ease with the bitter salt of blood
“A good song, huh?” Oliver asked, catching my eye again. I nodded as casually as I could. He’d gone out of his way to play music that I liked! The knot in my stomach dissolved a little further.
As I walked through the place, I realized that I’d never stopped to appreciate the inside of Oliver’s home before. Unlike my own house — which retained its full Victorian glamour — only the shape of the original building remained, as though the place had been overrun by the Silicon Valley aesthetic. The outside was painted a sleek black; the inside was all marble and chrome, with outlets and screens everywhere. A true techie heaven.
Be a part of the love club
Everything will glow for you
You’ll get punched for the love club
For the love club
Most of the furniture had been cleared out or rearranged for the event. Two long beer pong tables were laid out in the living room, red Solo cups pre-arranged in triangle formation at the ends, patiently waiting for rowdy guests to gather ‘round. Bottles of beer and wine lined the shelves of the smart fridge. Sheets of Jell-O shots in red, blue, orange, and green were spread out over the countertops.
On the kitchen table sat ten handles of assorted liquors. In the middle, under a domed glass cake stand, stood a large, round cake covered in white buttermilk frosting and pink roses. Happy Birthday, Oliver and Helena! it proclaimed in pretty red cursive.
I’m sitting pretty on the throne
There’s nothing more I want
Except to be alone
“Wanna know a secret?” Oliver asked as I stopped to snap a photo of the cake. “That’s got marijuana in it. Biscuit — he’s another founder who lives here — runs a THC startup. He wants to start making edibles for events.”
I resisted the urge to lift up the dome and take a whiff for myself. “Is that even legal?”
“Eh.” Oliver waved his hand dismissively. “They’re working on it.”
Your clothes are soaked and you don’t know where to go
So drop your chin and take yourself back home
And roll out your maps and papers
Find out your hiding places again
The guests started arriving — first, the other founders from their rooms, then from outside. I met Biscuit, a tall, gangly redhead who I was ninety-nine percent sure was trying his best not to hit on me, and made small talk with Elio, one of Oliver’s co-founders. As NipNop’s CTO, Elio wrote code and preferred to stay on the down low. He had a mop of curly dark hair and a sweet, shy smile. If he talked more, he’d be even cuter than Oliver.
Unfortunately, only about half the guests seemed to have gotten the message about the costumes. I was a little disappointed when I realized how many people were showing up in their regular clothes. They also didn’t seem to realize that it was a joint birthday party: they acknowledged Oliver, but not me. One guy — who, to his credit, was dressed up as John Dos Passos, complete with fake circular glasses and a real cigar — gave Oliver an elaborate box of chocolates while giving me a dirty look. An ex, evidently, who had no desire to be an ex.
Oliver was too busy to notice my silent plight. With each new guest, he seemed to inflate, becoming shinier, bigger, grander. He excitedly hugged everybody, accepting presents and chatting about the time that they went to Tahoe together, and wasn’t it so funny sneaking drinks onto the lake, and what was that cute girl’s name that they met?
I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket with a text and immediately excused myself to open it, excited for any reason to escape from cold-intro hell. It was Nevaeh, sending her apologies — she was feeling sick, and couldn’t make it.
I felt my stomach flip again. Great. I checked Instagram — another seventy-eight likes since my last refresh five minutes ago — but even those notifications, expertly designed to release dopamine into my system, couldn’t bring my mood back up. It was time to find the bathroom and hide out, just like I’d done with social situations in the good old days.
I politely shoved my way through hordes of drunk girls and stoned guys and couples making out, only to run into a line five people long in front of every restroom. Everybody looked happy, flushed, high on life.
“Happy birthday, Oliver and … Helena? Who’s Helena?” I heard someone slur from the other room.
I wasn’t at Oliver’s and my joint birthday party, I realized. I was at Oliver’s birthday party, in Oliver’s house, not as a host or a guest of honor but as a friendless loser, the one busy scrolling through her phone so you wouldn’t think that she had no friends.
Wordlessly, I turned and made my way back through the narrow hallway, parting the sea of people like a millennial Mosees, ignoring the stinging in my eyes until I was safely back on my side of the lawn. The tears started to fall as I made my way up my stairs. By the time I reached the tower, I was sobbing openly, not giving a damn about who heard me.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been friendless, but that’s the kind of feeling that sticks with you forever. It’s the kind of loneliness that tells you there’s something wrong with you, that you’re marked, flawed, defective in some way that everybody but you can see. You could fake it, make it go away for a long while, even trick yourself into thinking that you’re better, cured now, even popular. But you’ll never be able to get rid of that feeling completely. In moments like these, it’ll always come back to get you.
I saw it now — I was just boring, friendless, loser Nicole, who didn’t know how to socialize. No amount of pretty pictures and raving followers could change that.
I pulled myself closer to the window and stared out at the party that was supposed to have been mine. Stupid, stupid, stupid girl.
A dark figure wearing next to nothing darted across my lawn. I continued to face the window, staring into the luminous windows of the house next door. I kept my feet on my desk and my arms crossed over my chest.
Gentle footsteps started up the stairs. The door creaked open. I smelled Old Spice as the lights switched on, squeezing my eyes shut — but it was too late. Echoes of light remained on the backs of my eyelids.
“Helena — Helena — Helena,” Oliver sang, his slightly wavering voice filling up the room. “All the guys would say she’s mighty fine. Mighty fine! But mighty fine only got you somewhere half the time …”
“Please, turn the lights back off,” I said, not bothering to turn around.
“Hey, are you okay?”
I shrugged, and he came over to where I was sitting, leaning his sweaty back against my desk. He’d clearly been having fun; his loincloth looked freshly tied, and the eyeliner I hadn’t even noticed was smeared around his eyes. I didn’t want to think about the state of my own eyeliner at the moment.
“I went looking all over for you, but you disappeared,” he said. “And then I thought to myself, ‘where would Helena go at a time like this?’” Oliver gave me a little smile. “I was right.”
“Don’t you have a party to get back to? What are you doing here?”
“It’s almost midnight, and I wanted to wish my co-host a happy birthday.”
“Didn’t seem like I was your co-host back there,” I said.
“I’m sorry.” Oliver looked down at his glittery purple toenails. “I just snapped into party-host mode. I grew up here, you know. Those people aren’t exactly the people I talk to every day. I just invited them because they’ve been coming to my birthday parties forever.”
“It’s okay. It’s your party.”
“Stop saying that.” He lifted my face and looked directly into my eyes. “The Helena I know would be thrilled to have a party thrown in her honor.”
“The Helena you know doesn’t exist.” I ducked my chin away and hugged my knees to my chest. “It’s all just a big fucking lie. My Instagram is just filled with followers who envy me because they don’t know that my ‘life’ is a made-up story. I’m a fucking loser. I can’t get along with real people, no matter how hard I try.”
“I’m a real person.”
“How do you do it?” I asked.
“Be Oliver. The guy everybody has to know. Charming, charismatic, gregarious. The life of the party.”
“How are you Helena? The girl everybody has to follow? Beautiful, enchanting, magnetic?” He smirked, as though he had a secret that I wasn’t in on. “It’s all just pretenses in the end, isn’t it? I’m faking it, too; I don’t like all of those people in there any more than you do. I’m just faking it in person while you fake it online.”
“But you seemed like you were having so much fun.”
“Helena, you’re an influencer. You should be able to see through people who look like they’re having so much fun.”
I laughed. “I guess that’s true.”
“You have that quality, too,” Oliver said. “It’s just online. There’s no way I could do what you’re doing on social media. You’ve helped NipNop so much just by being you.”
“It’s not so hard. I just grew up reading books. Writing gets easier if you consume a lot of words. And I just got lucky with the whole online presence thing.”
“And I grew up around my sister and all my little cousins. So maybe childhood had something to do with it. The point is, Helena, that you’re not a fucking loser. You’re my best friend, and you’re the only person who I’d actually go out of my way to get a birthday gift for.”
Oliver picked up a turquoise gift bag that I hadn’t noticed before, and placed it in my lap. “Open it,” he urged. “I think you’ll like it.”
Inside was a flat, circular object, wrapped haphazardly in a mess of light blue tissue paper and tape. Oliver must have done it himself. I struggled off the paper and found myself staring at a white plate with a blue house printed on it, with a thick border of fruits and flowers around it.
“Look on the other side.”
I flipped the plate over. The words FUCK IT were scrawled across the back in thick black marker. Underneath it, printed in blue, were the words Harvard University. 1927. Harvard Hall. Lionel University.
“It’s a Harvard plate,” Oliver explained. “Like, the fancy kind that they sell as collectibles. I think that this one’s an antique. I bought it on eBay.” He grinned. “Fuck it, you know? Stop feeling bad about shit that didn’t happen to you. If you hadn’t gone to Stanford, then you wouldn’t be here right now.”
The stinging feeling in my eyes was back, along with a lump in my throat. I willed myself not to cry in front of Oliver, but my eyes were too quick. Before I knew it, I was bawling.
He stiffened awkwardly. “Are you …”
“I’m fine!” I quickly wiped my tears away. “It’s just … it’s just a good gift, that’s all.”
“Really? You’ve never received something this stupid and personal before?”
I shook my head.
“Wow, you really are a pathetic loser.”
I laughed weakly. “Shut the fuck up, asshole.”
“Come on,” Oliver said, offering me his hand. “Let me take your picture. Not to post, but just for you. For memories.”
I followed him outside. It was freezing, but I felt glowy, sparkly again as I held the plate up. Oliver snapped photo after photo after photo.
“Happy birthday, by the way,” he said as he handed my phone back to me. The time on the screen read 12:01 AM. “Make a wish.”
I wished, half-seriously, that Oliver and I liked each other romantically. That we could like each other romantically. Of course, he wasn’t completely to blame for the fact that we couldn’t. Still, a girl could dream.
In the final picture I picked, I’m standing in Oliver’s backyard, doing my best approximation of a cool-girl pose with the Harvard plate at my hip. My makeup is smeared and my eyes are a little red, but I look happy, light, free. Out of all the pictures and fan-art that has been made of me since, this one is my favorite.
This picture I wouldn’t post. This one I would keep just for me.