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State of the Union

State of the Union

Helena Holloway
Rabbit girl in a striped shirt and white tutu standing against a bright pink wall

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

Whenever I’m confronted with aggression, I’m as calm as can be. 

This makes the other party feel even angrier for being so openly emotional, and the angrier they get, the calmer I become. I call this tactic ‘the ice queen.’ It has won me more arguments than I can count, so it continues to be my favorite way to win a fight.

I’d be lying, however, if I didn’t mention that ice-queening has also gotten me into a few messy conundrums. One extreme example happened right after I made That Post. Not ten minutes after I’d done so, Oliver’s footsteps were back on my stairs, sounding for all the world like a herd of elephants storming through. 

THUNK. THUNK. THUNKTHUNKTHUNKTHUNK. 

I winced as I thought of his thick-soled Doc Martens on the hundred-year-old wood. I knew that he’d grown up detesting his parents’ strict no-shoes-at-home rule, but would it kill him to chill out in sock feet once in a while?

“Take. It. The. Fuck. Down.” Oliver stood red-faced in my doorway, breathing heavily — from anger or running, I couldn’t tell. Maybe both. Probably both. “I’m serious, Helena. What the fuck.”

I sat up straighter at my desk chair, crossing one leg primly over the other. “Take what the fuck down, Oliver?” I asked, sweetness dripping from my voice like golden syrup over pancakes. “The behind-the-scenes Story I posted at the Valley Girl offices? I think it’s going to expire in two hours anyway.”

“Don’t play these fucking games with me. You know which one I’m talking about.” Oliver’s biceps tensed as he clenched and unclenched his fists. “You said we’d sleep on it and talk things through tomorrow. Or were you lying when you told me that, too?”

“Do you mean the Instagram post?”

“Helena, I swear to God.”

“Oh, Oliver.” I sighed demurely, smoothing my skirt over my legs so that it covered my knees. “I post cutesy things about you all the time. Why would this one be any different? I never said we weren’t going to talk tomorrow.”

“Fuck that. Let’s talk now.” He took two large, purposeful strides towards where I was sitting, so that we were no more than a foot apart. I wrinkled my nose at the sweaty musk radiating off of him. Gross. If I ever did date a boy for real, he would be small and clean and nothing like the hulking barbarian standing over me now.

I clasped my hands together and laid them over my knee. “As you wish.”

Oliver closed his eyes and breathed slowly through his mouth. It was a calming technique he did before giving an interview or speech; I felt a twinge of satisfaction at how much I’d riled him up. Helena: 1. Oliver: 0.

His voice was calm when he spoke again. “What I have with Ben is a relationship based on a solid foundation of admiration, trust, and mutual respect. What I have with you is a contract arrangement based on shared goals. I wanted to talk to you before I made any official moves with Ben, because up until about an hour ago, I also admired, trusted, and respected you. I thought, well, Helena is my co-founder and also one of my best friends. I can’t just do her dirty like that.”

“I appreciate it,” I said evenly. Where was he going with this?

“But I no longer think those things.” He looked straight at me. There was a new steely, controlled look on his face. “About you, I mean. You responded to an earnest request of communication with threats and pettiness. You obviously have no problem doing me dirty like that, despite everything we’ve been through together for the past two years.”

“Almost two years,” I said. “It’s June. We met in September.”

He ignored me. “My mentor tells me that it’s bad to make drastic decisions when you’re pissed off, but if I had to be honest, this is something I’ve been mulling over for a while now. You don’t really give a fuck about me, or about NipNop, or about your followers even. You only care about what we can do for you, how famous and well-admired we can make you. You wouldn’t hesitate to throw me under the bus if it meant getting a million more followers.”

“Oh, come on —”

“I’m not finished.” He pursed his lips. “I invited you on as co-founder because I thought that you’d be just what we needed to launch ourselves off the ground. And, I mean, you have — I guess I’m lucky that making NipNop better was in your own self-interest — but it’s been exhausting being a non-player character in The Helena Holloway Show. I hope to God that this isn’t how you also treated Nevaeh, because I couldn’t imagine —”

“Leave Nevaeh out of it,” I snapped, feeling my heartbeat quicken for the first time since Oliver had burst back into my room. “You have no idea what you’re talking about there.”

“I think I know.” Oliver’s eyes glittered. “But okay, whatever. She’s not relevant right now. My point is, we’re done.”

Suddenly, my hands felt clammy. “What do you mean?” Surely he wasn’t telling me that he was calling the whole thing off. He couldn’t. Our relationship was integral to making everything work.

“I’ll keep going with our agreement because it’s good for user growth — and because we’re still under contract for three more months — but as far as our friendship goes, we’re done. From now on, we’re co-workers and nothing more.”

I snorted, careful not to show how relieved I was. “Stop being so dramatic.” We would sort this out, like we always did. And we always did.

“Yeah, I made the right choice,” he said quietly, almost to himself. He turned, shooting one last glance over his shoulder at me before he walked out. “See you at the 8 AM founder meeting tomorrow. Don’t be late.”

I rolled my eyes as Oliver shut the door quietly behind him, gently thunkthunkthunking back down the stairs. Both of us knew that he couldn’t stay mad at me for long. We were too similar; getting angry at one another was like getting angry at our own reflections in the mirror. I gave it until after tomorrow’s meeting for things to return to normal. Ben or no Ben, Oliver needed me, and he knew it.

I was wrong. The next morning, Oliver behaved as he usually did, joking around with Andre and laughing at my jokes. NipNop had finally grown big enough to warrant moving to a new office; Oliver, Elio, Andre and I were getting together to finalize the design plans. We’d leased an entire building down by the Embarcadero, with huge glass windows that offered a sweeping view of the Bay Bridge. It was to have a retro-futuristic vibe, with pastel tones and lots of rounded edges. Very Black Mirror meets Stepford Wives.

Oh yes, we’d made it, all right.

The meeting went so well that I almost forgot the conversation that had taken place the previous day. I caught up to Oliver as he walked back to his temporary workstation by the stairwell.

“Holy shit, dude,” I said excitedly. “This whole thing is coming together. I didn’t quite believe it until I saw the mockups on the PowerPoint.”

Oliver stopped short and turned to me, his back stick-straight. “Listen,” he said, his tone coming out haughty and clipped. “I’m keeping it cordial in front of everyone because I don’t want to drag them into something that’s happening between you and me. But you are not my friend, and I don’t want to be yours, either. Got it?”

His words cut into me one by one, causing all the giddiness that had built up during the meeting to drain away. An involuntary shiver ran down my spine as I froze with one foot at the top of the stairs. 

“Y-yes,” I forced myself to say. “Got it.”

“Good. I’m about to do some heads-down work, so if you could please message me on Slack before talking to me again, I’d appreciate it.” He didn’t wait for a response before darting down the steps.

I nodded, even though he wasn’t there to see me do so. A thorny lump had gotten lodged in my throat. I gripped the railing tight and swallowed it down, my resolve hardening. 

Fine, then. Cold war it was. If Oliver wanted to be a petty baby about things, then so be it. I didn’t need him as a friend anyway.

And so it went. We kept up our schtick at the office and in front of cameras, but as soon as we were alone, we went colder than two New England mausoleums in the dead of January. I’d finally met my match: Oliver was stubborn, and he wasn’t going to give in and apologize until I did.

Fortunately, my in-house influencer duties kept me so busy that I barely noticed Oliver’s absence. His and my hangouts had mainly consisted of work, anyway. As long as there were other people there, I could convince myself that things were normal. I helped supervise new-office logistics and posted regularly on Instagram and NipNop, trying not to think about what would happen when my contract was up.

Plus, there was Elio. After our little sojourn to Marshall’s Beach, he began inviting me to do little things — grabbing lunch at the food trucks near the office, hanging out at Golden Gate Park, singing Taylor Swift and MARINA in his room, which he’d partially converted to a recording studio. Now when I crossed the lawn to Startup House, it was Elio, not Oliver, whom I was going to see.

“Come in,” he said one Saturday morning, when I’d finished all of my social-media duties and was at a loss for what to do. I pushed open the door to find him squinting intently at his laptop, with what looked like a movie playing from a projector onto the opposite wall. There was no graffiti to be found here — just a few space- and music-themed posters and a galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling.

“What’s this?” I asked, finding a seat on the floor next to Elio’s padded gaming chair. The one time I’d tried sitting on the bed, he’d turned such a deep shade of red that I started feeling awkward myself. On the wall was a stick figure with a misshapen circle for a head, standing on an uneven line of ground. “Some sort of game?”

“I started it last week,” Elio replied. “Watch this.”

He typed something into his laptop and a box appeared in the projection. When the stick figure reached it, a purple box appeared on-screen, showing a picture of another ovular head with a bunch of springy curls atop it. New hairstyle, read the words at the top in a boy’s block handwriting. Below the drawing were two buttons, one red and one green. Elio selected the green one, and all of a sudden his stick figure had curly hair.

“Looks kind of like this computer game I played in elementary school,” I observed. “You played as a cartoon character and went from island to island completing missions. Along the way, you could copy other characters’ outfits, kind of like this.”

Elio looked almost insulted. “This is nothing like that. The graphics are shit right now because I’ve been spending all my time on the backend.”

“So what is it?” I asked, careful to keep my tone gentle. Elio wasn’t anywhere near as brusque as Oliver.

“It’s supposed to be an exploratory game. The idea is that you start off as this blank no-name person, and you just poke around opening boxes and going into rooms and stuff like that. This box had a hairstyle in it, so now my character has the beginnings of a style. The more you play the game, the more realistic everything starts to look, until you’ve built a world for yourself.”

I whistled. “So it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure sort of thing.”

“Sort of,” he said, navigating his character through a door that had appeared. “It’s supposed to be this analogy for life, that you start off knowing pretty much nothing and build up your world as you go.”

“Sounds tough to make.”

“It is. I’m not even sure if what I have in mind is possible. The idea got into my head when I was high, and I just impulsively started jumping in without thinking it through.” He narrowed his eyes at the wall. “And my drawing skills are shit, obviously.”

I looked away, hiding my smile. “How big’s the market for a game like this?”

“Pretty much nonexistent.” Elio nudged me with his foot. “It’s not designed for mass-market consumption.”

“Oh?” I gasped in mock horror. “But however will you make your next million, Mr. Successful Tech Founder?”

“By taking my next record platinum, of course.” He set his laptop down and stretched his arms above his head, like a cat. “But I mean, like, fuck that. The whole point of getting rich — at least for me — is so you never have to worry about making money ever again.”

I had to agree. While it was cool and all to own a large percentage in a company that was worth a nearly incomprehensible sum, I was more interested in impacting more people, making fans out of strangers. More money just meant more dresses, more vacations, more chances at getting what I wanted. Oliver had been right when he’d asserted that the only thing I really cared about was becoming more famous and well-admired. 

Oh, Oliver. I blinked and looked back at Elio. “Exactly.”

“The relationship between art and money is pretty messed up, in my opinion,” he continued, sliding down from his seat until he was next to me on the floor. “It’s like you can either be a starving artist or sell out and use your skills for capitalistic ends.”

I inhaled deeply — whatever Elio used as cologne or deodorant smelled fresh and woodsy, like a summer forest — and turned my eyes toward the ceiling. “Come on, don’t say that. I think some of the best art started out as advertisements.”

“Says the influencer.”

I stuck one lilac-nailed middle finger in his direction. “Shut the fuck up. I don’t even do sponsored posts on the big grid.”

He held up his  hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry for lumping you in with people who shill for Tummy Tea and hair vitamins.”

Thank you.”

“But no, really, I don’t like it. Aside from selling out, our current system forces people to conform to trends and popular fads instead of pursuing what they really want.” Elio looked at the black-and-white John Lennon poster by his bed with sad eyes. “Rock and roll is dying now because it’s just not where the money is in music. Same with jazz. Everyone who wants to make it — as in, sign with big-name labels — does some danceable EDM shit.”

“Bangers,” I said.

Bangers,” he echoed distatestfully, pronouncing the word as though he were a disapproving schoolmarm quoting an errant hooligan. He sang:

It’s not hard to make a banger⁣
Catchy hook about romance⁣
Maybe something shallow that sounds deep⁣
Then you drop the beat ⁣
And glide into a loop that makes them want to dance⁣

WOB WOB WOB WEB WEEEEEB WEEB WOOOB WOOOOB breeeeaaaaa breaaaaaaa WOBB WOBB, nehnehweeh, YOI YOI YOI WAHBWUHB

I clapped only half-ironically. “Did you come up with that on the spot?”

He nodded. “You see?” he asked, smirking. “No creativity needed. It’s algorithmic.”

“Right.” I didn’t mention that most people — myself included — found songwriting pretty hard, and here he was, belting out full choruses that did sound a lot like the tunes I’d heard recently on the Top 40. Just like with code, Elio seemingly had no idea how talented he really was.

“Even Taylor Swift is a victim of this type of thinking.” He frowned. “I was really sad when she decided to go full pop.”

“The majority of America would disagree with you.” I thought of how famous the singer had gotten recently, how many people I knew who’d become Swifties after hearing an earworm like “Style” or “Blank Space.”

He cocked his head. “Do you disagree with me?”

“That’s a complicated question,” I admitted. “I liked her old stuff, but “Wildest Dreams” is a masterpiece. Max Martin and Shellback worked on that one, too.”

“Yeah.” Elio looked down at the floor. “Don’t get me wrong, I like her newest album. I just think that she’s headed down a path that’s more shallow. Going for breadth over depth.”

“I know what you mean.” I had been disappointed, too, when I’d first heard 1989 and found it somehow lacking. Her signature narrative style was still there, just diluted, the atmospheric instrumentals swapped out for synths and manufactured beats. The storytelling had gotten more flat, too, reduced to describing a single moment rather than the entirety of a relationship. I hugged my knees to my chest. “I hope that I don’t become more basic over time as a creator.”

“Less shroom trips and more fashion hauls?” Now Elio was the one smiling.

I blushed. “My last Instagram post was about a potential Fourth of July outfit. I posed against a pink wall and everything.”

“Oh, damn.” Elio raised an eyebrow. “Stop that. You’re probably going to lose half of your audience. And I’m not the CFO or anything, but I’m pretty sure that would be bad for our business.”

I laughed. “So it’s in my best interest, both personally and financially, to keep making weird and beautiful content that no other blogger makes on the Internet?”

“You could say something like that.”

“Glad that our goals align.” I frowned suddenly, hearing Oliver in my head for a second time: I guess I’m lucky that making NipNop better was in your own self-interest. “Really, though, lately everything seems to be the same. Every influencer and popular singer is, like, a carbon copy of one another. Nordstrom sales, whites and neutrals, poppy dance music. It’s like they all had actual personalities once, but then they got put through this machine that made them conform to this arbitrary aesthetic.”

“It’s algorithmic,” Elio said again. “But really, it’s capitalism. The constant competition for profit kills diversity. We may as well all end up being cutout paper dolls.” He looked out the window sadly. “We better get used to it, I guess. I don’t think it’s going to get better.”

“You and I will still be able to make art the way we want to,” I began, trying to cheer him up.

“Sure, you and I will, but what about the smaller artists who don’t have startup money to fall back on? The busy moms who paint after work or the kids who record new tracks on the weekends?” He tugged at his nose by making a scissor-like motion with his index and middle fingers. “It’s so hard to make a living as an artist. We’re in a position to help. We have to do it, somehow.” He glanced at me. “Or at least I do.”

“You want to start a foundation or something?” I wasn’t sure if I was the charity type. “Aren’t there tons of them out there already?”

“What? I know nothing about starting those, and I don’t think I’d be good at them, anyway. There’s probably tons of loophole shit that would catch me, and I’d end up hating myself.” Elio ran a hand through his curls. “No, but I do know our codebase inside and out, and we’re planning to add a recommendation algorithm to NipNop’s Discover page, anyway.”

“Right.” I had complicated feelings about that, what with the Instagram algorithm being so detested and all, but I decided to keep that to myself for now. “And your point is …”

“I could write our algorithm to actually be useful — to promote artists to people who’d actually like them. To connect small business owners to potential buyers. With no stipulations or hangups.” His brown eyes sparkled. “I’m sure I could come up with a business justification for it one way or another.”

“Ooh!” An idea had popped into my head the minute Elio said write our algorithm. I jumped to my feet, clapping my hands together for effect. If I wasn’t mistaken, it would benefit NipNop, the users, and independent artists … all while serving my own self-interest.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured Elio with a wink. “As NipNop’s Chief Marketing Officer — and as Oliver’s girlfriend — you can leave that part all to me.”

Next chapter

Chapter 21: Precipice

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