This is the seventeenth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
The first impression I give is: Dumb bitch. I know this.
We say we love people who are smart and pretty, but in reality we believe that they should only have one or the other. To be in possession of both brains and beauty seems like too much good luck for one person. I was young, blonde, and conventionally attractive. Culturally fuckable. It was only natural for others to assume that I was stupid.
Weathering these assumptions was the price I had to pay for my God-given gifts. Yet the feeling of having to explicitly showcase my intelligence — to prove myself — dogged me at NipNop, an invisible hand that pushed my nose to the grindstone day after day. I suspected that many of my new colleagues thought that Oliver exaggerated the quality of my skills because I was his girlfriend. If only they knew that, in reality, it was the opposite.
It’s only a matter of time, I thought, standing back to admire the fruit of my frenzied labor. My desk looked like that of a mad scientist’s. Sample user flows had been drawn and crossed out on sheets of computer paper that lay on top of one another at haphazard angles. Crumpled-up Coke cans huddled together in one corner, awaiting their journey to the recycling bin by the kitchen. There were so many tabs open on my monitor that only the favicons remained visible. Black Inkjoy pens and colored highlighters threatened to roll off my desk. Mixed in amongst the supplies were a few long, golden hairs from the multiple times I’d untied and retied my ponytail out of frustration.
No, not the workstation of a dumb bitch at all.
My own original idea had been slotted into a presentation deck only two slides long, shining and complete. The deck showcased functionality and nothing else. If there was one valuable thing I learned from Stanford humanities classes, it was that presentations should rely on as little visual aids as possible. Making your audience stare at a wall of text was a surefire way to lose them.
I picked up my MacBook, wincing a little at how feverish it was to the touch, and went in search of Oliver. He had his own little corner on the other side of the office, but he liked to work in unusual places. It wasn’t uncommon to see him perched on the fire escape, or to angrily bang on the bathroom door after an hour of holding it in, only to have him emerge, laptop in hand, with a sheepish smile on his face. I’d even caught him typing away at the foot of the staircase once.
Today, he was nowhere to be found — not even on the toilet. Weird. I did another lap around the office before slumping back into my seat. It wasn’t like Oliver to just disappear, especially not when I needed him.
“Looking for someone?” Elio glanced back at me with one eyebrow raised, still half-typing.
“Have you seen Oliver? I just got this really good idea for a new feature, and I want to run it by him.”
“He’s at the Whippersnapper Summit for the rest of the week, remember? Andre and I dropped him off at SFO this morning.”
“Oh, right. Another downside of taking the train, I suppose.” The Whippersnapper Summit was a business retreat exclusively for CEOs under twenty-five who ran multi-million dollar companies. NipNop technically had yet to make a profit, but VC funding — the good old money vote — evidently counted for something. I pulled up the Messages app. Call me ASAP, I wrote to Oliver, watching with dismay as my text inserted itself into a green chat bubble. Oliver only turned off iMessage when he really didn’t want to be disturbed.
“You’ve got a really good idea for a new feature?” Elio turned around to survey me with curious brown eyes.
I nodded, chest tightening a little under his gaze. Elio’s brain seemed to have twice the processing power of anyone else’s. I’d once joked while stoned that I wanted an Instagram bot that automatically liked every comment; an hour later, Elio had shared a file named `helenas_bot.py` with me on Google Drive. Weeks later, I continued to be delighted every time I logged in to see that all of my tedious engagement had been done for me.
“Can I see?”
I glanced at the presentation pulled up on my screen — its pretty colors, every user avatar a picture of me. Dumb bitch, I imagined Elio saying after clicking through, even though he was the last person I’d expect to curse at all.
“Only if you want me to,” he added quickly. “I know I’m not Oliver, but …”
He was looking at me with interest, not disdain. I glanced over a sea of monitors to the sliding glass door of the larger meeting room. “Meet me at the Condeaux in five,” I said before I could change my mind.
The Condeaux, the fancier meeting room, had exposed brick walls, purposefully scuffed wooden floors, and a window that overlooked the tops of other office buildings outside. A long wooden table with swiveling bar stools. Elio sat in the middle with his back to the window, surveying the whiteboard that I’d just filled up.
“And what do you want to call this feature?” he asked, rotating back and forth in his circular seat.
“NipNop Stories.”I capped the black Expo marker and surveyed the five screens I’d just drawn, depicting a sample user flow. The first showed the standard Messages page, with a list of people someone regularly connected with — only with a turquoise border around the users’ circular avatars, indicating that they had a new Story to view.
“True stories are never complete,” I continued, gesturing to the following slides that depicted one girl going on an adventure and documenting it through a series of Story slides.
> A close-up selfie of a cartoon girl — Bored and broke, so I’m going to hop the turnstile today. Wish me luck!
> A badly drawn turnstile at the BART station — Here I go.
> Another close-up selfie, the girl’s expression joyous — Made it!
> A wooshing railway car — HERE IT COMES
> A quick shot of the other passengers in the car, indicating that the girl was now on the train — MADE IT!!
> A third close-up selfie, the girl’s pupils wide enough to make her eyes look almost black — Can’t believe I got away with that. My adrenaline is ⬆️⬆️⬆️
“Each little slide is like a chapter, a tidbit,” I finished. “A part of the larger thing. There’s always a new twist, a new part that can be added.”
“An additional installment to the never-ending saga of life.”
I beamed, letting out a breath I hadn’t noticed I’d been holding. “Exactly.” He got it.
Elio considered this further. “We should save all of the Stories in an archive, so that the users can view them even after they disappear from the public. It’ll be a good way to keep memories.”
“You think so?” I thought of God View, which I still had to get access to. Apparently NipNops were truly self-deleting — even God-Viewers could only view them for twenty-four hours. In a way, they’d been using NipNop Stories all along.
“I never take pictures for myself, but I do send a lot of Nops about stuff I think is otherwise too trivial to note. But, if you think about it, the so-called boring details of a story make a memory so much richer. Once you start re-telling an epic event, all the little things sort of melt away.” Elio swiveled around to gaze out the window. “If we collected all of the public Nops together — for the user only — we’d automatically make a scrapbook for them.”
“You’re into scrapbooks?” I hated the infliction of surprise in my voice.
His cheeks turned a little pink. “My mom is big into the Victorian era. She loves collecting ephemera. Scrapbooks and diaries of the long dead.”
In my mind’s eye I saw the Lavender Fairy notebook I’d used to practice my signature, over and over again. I’d sell it when I became famous-famous, of course, but it was nice to know that there were people like Elio’s mother, who thought such things valuable even if they didn’t belong to anyone of importance. “And you?”
“I enjoy taking trips down memory lane once in a while.”
“We could call the archive ‘Memory Lane,’” I suggested, warming up to the idea of having an archive. I never saved my NipNops, and how many hours had I sunk into that part of my brand? “Or just ‘The Scrapbook.’”
Elio went up to the whiteboard, selected a green marker, and wrote NipNop Memory Lane / Scrapbook on the top left-hand corner. “You’ve got a talent for naming things.”
I smiled serenely. “I know.”
“‘Nop’ was your idea, right? Sending a Nop. Receiving a Nop.”
I shrugged, deciding to go the humble route. “I just started using it colloquially — like, in my pictures and captions. People just follow suit.”
“Well —” Elio capped the marker and returned to his seat — “you’ve got a gift. I’m envious.”
Now it was my turn to flush. “You are?”
He looked at me and nodded vigorously, as if to say of course.
“But you’re such a good coder. You’re the fucking CTO. So many people would kill to be you.” Especially dumb bitches like me. “Marketing and wit are overrated skills.”
Elio laughed. “You want to talk about overrated skills? Look around. Everyone can code here, but most of them spend their days Googling solutions and pasting it all together. There’s no real sense of creativity when coding for business, unless you’re at the senior level. I wish that I were better at art.” He frowned. “Or rather, I wish I had the gift of rallying people around me.”
I shook my head. “That gift brings only clout, not money.”
“Not really.” Elio tapped his fingers on the wooden table. “There’s this pervasive myth that Silicon Valley money lies in the code — that, if you become a software engineer, you’ll strike it rich. But that’s not the case at all. Look at all of those ‘engineering-first’ companies that tried and failed.
“No, the real money is in promotion. Attention. Eyeballs on your shit. Without users, without that live ecosystem of interactions, an app is just a pile of dead code on your laptop or phone.”
I shifted uncomfortably by the whiteboard, thinking of the forty thousand fake followers I’d bought back when I’d started my Instagram account, of the bot that Elio had built to take care of engagement for me. What good were these things — these piles of code — if I didn’t actively use them, if I didn’t actually care?
“Anyway, sorry for the rant,” said Elio, mistaking my unsettled expression for annoyance. “I really like this idea, and I think that Oliver will, too. This has the potential to get really big.”
My focus snapped back to the present moment. “You think so?”
“Sure,” he said in the same way he had when he’d told me he could write an Instagram bot in an hour. “Actually, I’m going to start mocking it up right away. It’s six thirty. I could use a break from tracing bugs.” He pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and snapped a few pictures of the whiteboard. “Can you share your deck with me?”
“Of course.” Not a dumb bitch after all. I glanced at Elio’s exuberant face, then to the foggy weather outside. I felt buoyant, like I could run around the block a hundred times and not break a sweat. Elio liked my idea! It was going to be a thing.
Suddenly, I wanted to celebrate.
“Before you go, do that though,” I blurted out, “Would you like to go somewhere with me?”
Located at the westernmost part of San Francisco, the Presidio was almost always cold and misty. Goosebumps erupted across my arms the second I got out of Elio’s car. I ignored them. I’d done enough photoshoots to know that the chill was a temporary discomfort.
“It’s beautiful,” Elio breathed, staring at the Golden Gate Bridge, a shock of rusty red against the white sky. He took out his phone and snapped a few photos. “You know, I’ve lived in the Bay Area for three years and still haven’t seen the Bridge up close. Until now.”
“Where we’re going is even better.” I motioned for him to follow me. “I hope you like to climb.”
Elio’s face turned the color of the fog. “Um, I don’t, really. Didn’t you bring me here just to look at the bridge?”
“Technically, yes. You’ll have an even better view where we’re going.” I strutted confidently along the dirt path, remembering the time I’d come here with Nevaeh. Had it already been a year since I’d crab-walked myself down the cliff’s edge in a long dress and sandals? Why did it seem like I’d just been here yesterday, whereas events that had happened more recently — meeting Wren, dropping out of Stanford, joining NipNop — seemed ten years in the past.
Time, man. It fucked me up.
Elio made a small squeaking noise in the back of his throat when he saw where I intended to go: the beach, all the way at the bottom of the cliffside.
The fog created a thin veil over the bottom, hiding somewhat the silver waves and the steep drop from crag onto sand.
“No,” he said. “No no no.”
“That’s exactly what I said during my first time, too! Don’t worry,” I reassured him. “The climb is way scarier than it looks. Go on all fours if you’re really worried. You’ll have plenty of rocks to hold onto.”
He stepped onto the path, legs visibly trembling. “It’s slippery.”
“You’ll get the hang of it soon enough.” I started down the side of the cliff without looking back. “Just holler if you need help.”
I was too concentrated on getting myself to the beach to pay attention to what he said after that. No longer a total novice, I stood upright the whole time, trusting my balance. I hopped onto the beach like a wild hare and looked up the cliffside for a curly-haired boy in a zipped-up North Face.
“Elio!” I called. “Wherefore art thou, Elio?”
From a few feet away came a grunting noise. I looked in its direction and spotted a pair of black skinny-jeaned legs dangling a few feet from the sand. Elio! He must have come down by a different route. I fought the urge to giggle as I spotted him wedged in between two rocks, a few dark curls clinging to his sweaty forehead.
I held out my hand. “Need help?”
“I — I think I’m good.” Elio took a series of quick, deep breaths before pushing himself off the rock. He landed on his feet, creating two deep footprints on the sand. The minute he touched the ground, his eyebrows unfurrowed and the color came back into his cheeks.
A flash of red caught my eye. Elio’s left hand looked as though it had been sliced into with a knife. There was a deep gash on the right side of his palm; some of the blood had been smeared around the edges, as if a little kid had made fingerprint art with the blood.
“Are you okay?” I asked, gesturing to the wound.
“Yeah, I went down on all fours like you said, and accidentally cut myself on a passing rock.” Elio winced. “It’s all good, honestly. I can barely feel the pain.” He shoved the offending hand into his jacket pocket and turned to look at the slate-grey waves that exploded against the shiny dark rocks. “I’m glad you made me come down here. This place is just so —” he pursed his lips, looking for the right word — “timeless. Classic. Especially with the Golden Gate Bridge right there. All those generations before us could’ve stood here and seen the exact same view.”
As he spoke, the fog became thicker, covering the top of the bridge like a bridal veil. I shivered in my cherry-print sundress, which had already been a risky choice in the forty-five-degree morning and was doing absolutely nothing to keep me warm now. “I read somewhere once that being inside fog was like being inside a cloud.”
“They’re made of the same stuff, only clouds are formed in the air and fog near the ground.” Elio swiped at the damp air in front of him. “When I was a kid, I used to think that the clouds were like cotton candy. I wanted to attach a power shovel to the bottom of a helicopter and bring home a harvest of delicacies.” He laughed. “I was so determined to do it, so convinced that it would work.”
“Really? When did you give up on that idea?”
“My dad got me a set of science books when I was six, and those things destroyed my magical-thinking innocence forever.”
“Damn.” Books did have a way of exploding your world wide open, of taking your innocence when you least expected it. I thought of the slim volumes of gay male erotica that I’d found in my father’s drawer in elementary school — my first sex ed class that allowed me to skip any sort of birds-and-bees talk.
“Oh, I was long overdue. My imagination was getting the best of me.” Elio kicked off his sneakers and started walking towards the irregular foamy white waves that rushed in and out. I did the same, shuddering at how cold the sand was upon touching.
“Did you know that waves are mostly caused by wind?” He rolled up his pants legs just as the water came roaring back, threatening to get us both soaked. “The suddenly-moving air creates friction with the water’s surface, forming waves.” He took a few steps forward and turned around so that he was facing me. “As the wind continues to blow and travel across the ocean, the waves get bigger and bigger, until they end up on some shore.”
I glanced at the waves crashing on the rocks, sending droplets everywhere, and shook my head.
“Ridiculous, right? These things traveled so far and grew up along the way, just to meet their end here. I think it’s kind of beautiful.”
“Beautiful and tragic. A little too ephemeral for me to be comfortable with.”
“A sad, romantic death.”
Elio turned back around and we stood in silence for a few minutes, taking in the white sky and the slippery black rocks. I couldn’t shake the fact that I’d last been here with Nevaeh — I half-expected to find her, not Elio, by my side. My eyes began to sting. I clenched my fists, willing the tears away.
I blinked twice and looked at Elio.
“I’m glad you’re a co-founder.” He was still looking directly at the ocean, but I could see that he was looking at me through the corner of his eye, gauging my reaction. “You belong here. You’re one of us.”
Suddenly, I didn’t feel the cold at all. “Thanks,” I said as nonchalantly as I could. “It means a lot to me.”
“I’ve been keeping up with your Instagram page and all those articles that people have been writing about you. That feeling of being in Oliver’s shadow? It’s not accurate at all.” The wind blew Elio’s hair out of his face, making him look like a model in a shampoo ad. “Not everyone perceives you like that. I certainly don’t.”
“I sometimes get the vibe that everyone thinks I’m just a dumb bitch,” I admitted before I realized what I was saying. “You know, some girl who is all style and no substance. Just someone hot enough to be on billboards.”
Elio guffawed. The noise was so loud — and so unexpected, coming from him — that I let out a gasp, which only made him laugh harder.
“No fu … fucking …” He bent over, sucking in huge amounts of air. “Oh my — whew. Sorry.” Elio swiped his sleeve over his eyes and straightened himself. “That was gold.”
“What about that was so funny?” I asked icily. What a jerk. Why did I think that Elio was the kind, sensitive one out of all the founders? Clearly, I’d been wrong.
“I’m sorry for laughing,” he said, hints of a big, goofy smile still on his face. “I was just surprised, that’s all.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Surprised about what?”
“How you thought that others perceived you to be a stupid bitch. Man …” his smile faded. “You know something? Before you came along and started promoting NipNop, we were nearly in the gutter.”
“Yeah. We had a few beta testers for the app, and they all stopped using it within a week or so. I guess most of them didn’t really mind sending incriminating photos over text. Our metrics did a nose-dive. Erik was threatening to kick us out every other day.”
I stared at him. “And I saved you from that fate?”
He nodded. “You proved to us that users needed someone to keep up with — a reason to stay on the app. If you and Oliver hadn’t started dating when you did, we would’ve been done for within a few months.”
“Oh, wow.” Oliver had never told me these things, at least not explicitly. “Is that why you guys wanted me to come on board so badly?”
“Yeah. Even Andre was on board once he saw the numbers.” Elio looked at me intently. “Seriously, Helena. You saved us. We respect the hell out of you.”
I was at a loss for words, so I just nodded, and I felt like I’d just put on a set of pajamas straight from the drying machine. A long-reaching wave washed over my feet, but my brain barely registered the cold. This must’ve been what true peace felt like. Too bad I could never sit still enough to meditate.
We both waded further in, submerging our ankles beneath the water. The relative silence was a welcome reprise after existing for weeks in a train-office-train loop. I was glad I’d come here, glad that I was in Elio’s company. I hadn’t expected that he’d be so easy to talk to.
“What would you do if you weren’t a writer?” he asked after a while.
“You mean, besides being a co-founder at NipNop?” I teased.
“Yeah. What are your other hobbies?”
“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “Writing is kind of my reason for living.” I thought for a minute. “Or maybe photography. I could get a fancy camera and take pictures of every Victorian house that looks like a cake. Or maybe I could paint. I used to have this set of watercolors when I was little, and my mom hung up every piece of art I made.”
“Helena Holloway, photographer and painter.” Elio rubbed his chin with his non-wounded hand. “I can see it.”
“Yeah, if this whole CMO thing doesn’t work out, and my book deal falls through, I’ll, like, replicate Matisse’s The Goldfish over and over again and sell them to my fans for a thousand dollars each.”
I laughed. “What would you do if you didn’t code?”
Elio burrowed his feet into the sand. “I like to sing,” he said so quietly that I could barely hear him over the waves.
“Mm-hmm. I make music, too. I have the recording equipment and everything.”
“Wait, were you the guy who was singing “All Too Well” the week I moved in next door? I could’ve sworn I heard a Taylor Swift cover coming from Startup House, but when I opened the window, it was just Oliver blasting rap from his speakers.”
“Probably was. That’s one of my favorite songs.”
“Wow, okay.” I felt like I’d just solved a decades-old mystery — lightheaded, but in a good way. “This entire time, I thought that it was Maxim.” Maxim was the sole founder of BeatBox, an acapella app that let you duet with yourself.
“No, that was me. Maxim isn’t a Swiftie, but I’m always the first one to test out his new features.” He took one step forward and began to sing.
Oh, Marbella’s on the run
In her Eastern overcoat
Used to wear a lightbulb dressing gown,
Turn it on, then tear it down,
Before we went to sleep
There was no doubt about it — Elio was the phantom singer I’d first heard over in Startup House. His clear, unwavering tenor seemed to mix with the roaring ocean, swelling and fading at just the right moments. I had never heard the song before, but I knew that I’d like the original less than whatever Elio was doing now. His rendition was beautiful and haunting, as though he’d lost someone he loved and knew that they were never coming back.
Now Marbella’s gone astray,
Somewhere in this blackening Milky Way
I used to colour in the holes,
Now I leave them blank
Now it’s only spaces I have cause to thank
His face had scrunched up; he no longer seemed aware of me, or the cold, or the water that drenched his pant cuffs. I recognized the look — it was how I got when I was in the middle of writing something that I knew was good, where an entire afternoon could pass by in seconds. Flow state. The Zone.
Well, Marbella is my guest
I treat her just like all the rest
Whisper fairytales of Neverland,
Throw the pennies in her hand
Stroke her hair and tell her I’ve been cheating
When he finished, the air seemed stiller, more subdued. I had a distinct sense that the two of us were in a movie, that something significant was about to happen. It left me with a loss for what to say, so I clapped instead. Elio lifted up the hems of his imaginary gown and curtsied.
“You should quit NipNop and start a YouTube channel right now,” I said. “You told me yourself: Coding is overrated. You should be an artist.”
“I want to be.” Elio’s face shone, eyes alight. “I would, too, I didn’t equally enjoy building products from scratch.”
“But you said that software engineers just copy and paste code they find on Google, and there’s no sense of creativity in the profession.”
“Oh, that.” He covered his eyes with his hands, and I noticed that the cut from earlier had begun to clot. “I’m the one designing NipNop’s architecture. If I were one of the junior engineers, I could probably be persuaded.”
“So let me persuade you,” I said. “Wait until the company goes public and launch a second career as a musician.” I raised an eyebrow. “I know so many people who would kill for a voice like yours. Me included.”
“It’s not for sale,” he said with a smile. “But, um, here’s a song that reminds me of you … or, at least, your aesthetic.”
Let’s get out of this town,
Drive out of the city, away from the crowds
I thought, heaven can’t help me now
Nothing lasts forever,
But this is gonna take me down
The song, combined with the location we were at, caused a lump to form in my throat. “Not this one, please,” I said quickly, my voice shaking as I hastily banished images of sunsets and lavender fields and billowing white curtains from my mind.
Elio looked at me quizzically. “What’s wrong?”
“Bad memories,” I replied, nudging my feet deeper into the sand. “I mean, they’re good memories, but it hurts to think about them now.” Last year, my best friend and I did acid and then came here to take pictures. That song was stuck in my head the whole time.”
“Funny how a single song or smell can take us back, isn’t it?” he asked gently. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“We had this falling-out last month during spring break, and she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me now,” I confessed, even though he hadn’t pressed me for details.
“What makes you think that?”
I looked down at the waves pulling themselves back into the ocean. “It’s kind of a long story. I left her in LA, and she drove back to Stanford by herself.”
He stuck his hands back into his pockets. “You didn’t try to patch things up with her?”
“I did. I went back on campus to talk to her,” I said slowly, the scene slowly unfolding in my mind’s eye. The rental car. The long drive. Getting lost in the late-afternoon fog. “Her ex-girlfriend answered when I knocked on her door. Apparently she’d tagged along to make sure that my friend would have emotional support.”
Elio’s expression was unreadable. “Did you know this ex-girlfriend?”
“Yeah, she’s a bitch.” I grimaced. “Though I suppose that I did my part in orchestrating the mess. I just stood there in the hallway as she berated me, while my friend stood behind her with this sad look in her eyes.”
“That must’ve really fucked you up.”
“Her ex-girlfriend called me an emotional marauder.” This time, I did nothing to stop the tears from coming. I hated crying in front of anyone, but I detected no judgment from Elio, who stood with his hands in his pockets, respectfully avoiding eye contact.
“Hey,” he said once my sobs had quieted somewhat. “We’re all emotional marauders in one way or another, right? That’s a good thing in the startup world. The whole point is to build products that will steal users’ attention spans. Being an emotional marauder makes you an asset.”
I sniffled. “Oh, I know. I don’t have a problem with that, but she does. I just wish that she didn’t. I wish that she’d at least hear me out.”
“I’m sorry about your friend. It sounds like she meant a lot to you.”
More than you can imagine.
Together we stood with our feet in the water, not saying a word. The mist descended until we were both ensconced in white, invisible to even one another.